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Give examples of contradictions and absurdities, which some writers fall into? Should common and well-known reasons be expressed?
Vhat sort of style is required by an elevated subject?-a familiar subject?--a serious subject?--a description ?
What example is given of a high subject expressed in low words ?--of expression raised above the subject?
What is the common error of inferior writers?
How may an object that strikes terror in the spectator, have a fine effect in poetry and painting?
Are objects of horror proper for description ?
Epic and Dramatic Compositions.
TRAGEDY differs not from epic in substance: in both the same ends are pursued, namely, instruction and amusement; and in both the same mean is employed, namely, imitation of human actions. They differ only in the manner of imitating ; epic poetry employs narration; tragedy represents its facts as passing in our
sight; in the former, the poet introduces himself as an historian; in the latter, he presents his actors, and never himself.*
This difference, regarding form only, may be thought slight: but the effects it occasions, are by no means so; for what we see makes a deeper impression than what we learn from others. A narrative poem is a story told by another: facts and incidents passing upon the stage, come under our own observation; and are besides much enlivened by action and gesture, expressive of many sentiments beyond the reach of words.
A dramatic composition has another property independent altogether of action; which is, that it makes a deeper impression than narration : in the former, persons express their own sentiments; in the latter, sentiments are related at second-hand. For that reason Aristotle, the father of critics, lays it down as a rule, That in an epic poem the author ought to take every opportunity of introducing his actors, and of confining the narrative part within the narrowest bounds.f Homer understood perfectly the advantage of this method; and his two poems abound in dialogue. Lucan runs to the opposite expreme, even so far as to stuff his Pharsalia with cold and languid reflections; the merit of which he assumes to himself, and deigns not to share with his actors. Nothing can be more injudiciously timed than a chain of such reflections, which suspend the battle of Pharsalia after the leaders had made their speeches, and the two armies are ready to engage.*
* The dialogue in a dramatic composition distinguishes it so clearly from other compositions, that no writer has thought it necessary to search for any other distinguishing mark. But much useless labor has been bestowed, to distinguish an epic poem by some peculiar mark. Bossu defines it to be," A composition in verse, intended to form the manners by instructions disguised under the allegories of an important action;" which excludes every epic poem founded upon real facts, and perhaps includes several of Æsop's fables. Voltaire reckons verse so essential, as for that single reason to exclude the adventures of Telemachus. See his Essay upon Epic Poetry. Others, affected with substance more than with form, hesitate not to pronounce that poem to be epic. It is not a little diverting to see so many profound critics hunting for what is not; they take for granted, without the least foundation, that there must be some precise criterion to distinguish epic poetry from every other species of writing. Literary compositions run into each other precisely like colors: in their strong tints they are easily distinguished; but are susceptible of so much variety, and of so many different forms, that we never can say where one species ends and another begins. As to the general taste, there is little reason to doubt, that a work where heroic actions are related in an elevated style, will, without further requisite, be deemed an epic poem.
† Poet. cap. 25. sect. 6
Aristotle, regarding the fable only; divides tragedy into simple and complex: but it is of greater moment, with respect to dramatic as well as epic poetry, to found a distinction
upon the different ends attained by such compositions. A poem, whether dramatic or epic, that has nothing in view but to move the passions and to exhibit pictures of virtue and vice, may be distinguished by the name of pathetic: but where a story is purposely contrived to illustrate some moral truth, by showing that disorderly passions naturally lead to external misfortunes, such compositions may be denominated moral. Beside making a deeper impression than can be done by cool reasoning, a moral poem does not fall short of reasoning in affording conviction: the natural connexion of vice with misery, and of virtue with happiness, may be illustrated by stating a fact, as well as by urging an argument. Let us assume, for example, the following moral truths: that discord among the chiefs renders ineffectual all common measures; and that the consequences of a slightly-founded quarrel,
* Lib. 7, from line 385 to line 460.
+ The same distinction is applicable to that sort of fable which is said to be the invention of Æsop. A moral, it is true, is by all critics considered as essential to such a fable. But nothing is more common than to be led blindly by authority; for, of the numerous collections I have seen, the fables that clearly inculcate a, moral make a very small part. In many fables, indeed, proper pictures of virtue and vice are exhibited: but the bulk of these collections convey no instruction, nor afford any amusement, beyond what a child receives in reading an ordinary story.
Nuwy licos tenmoral & some of Tex me, in effet
fostered by pride and arrogance, are no less fatal than those of the grossest injury: these truths may be inculcated by the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, at the siege of Troy. If facts or circumstances be wanting, such as tend to rouse the turbulent passions, they must be invented; but no accidental nor unaccountable event ought to be admitted; for the necessary or probable connexion between vice and misery is not learned from any events, but what are naturally occasioned by the characters and passions of the persons represented, acting in such and such circumstances. A real event, of which we see not the cause, may afford a lesson, upon the presumption that what hath happened may happen again : but this cannot be inferred from a story that is known to be a fiction.
Many are the good effects of such compositions. A pathetic composition, whether epic or dramatic, tends to a habit of virtue, by exciting us to do what is right, and restraining us from what is wrong. Its frequent pictures of human woes produce, besides, two effects extremely salutary: they improve our sympathy, and fortify us to bear our own misfortunes. A moral composition obviously produces the same good effects, because, by being moral, it ceaseth not to be pathetic. it enjoys besides an excellence peculiar to itself; for it not only improves the heart, as above mentioned, but instructs the head by the moral it.contains. I cannot imagine any entertainment more suited to a rational being, than a work thus happily illustrating some moral truth; where a number of persons of different characters are engaged in an important action, some retarding, others promoting, the great catastrophe; and where there is dignity of style as well as of matter. A work of that kind has our sympathy at command; and can put in motion the whole train of the social affections : our curiosity in some scenes is excited, in others gratified;. and our delight is consummated at the close, upon finding, from the characters and situations exhibited
at the commencement, that every incident down to the final catastrophe is natural, and that the whole in conjunction makes a regular chain of causes and effects.
Considering that an epic and a dramatic poem are the same in substance, and have the same aim or end, one will readily imagine, that subjects proper for the one must be equally proper for the other.
But considering their difference as to form, there will be found reason to correct that conjecture, at least in some degree. Many subjects may indeed be treated with equal advantage in either form; but the subjects are still more numerous, for which they are not equally qualified; and there are subjects proper for the one, and pot for the other. To give some slight notion of the difference, as there is no room here for enlarging upon every article, I observe, that dialogue is better qualified for expressing sentiments, and 'narrative for displaying facts. Heroism, magnanimity, undaunted courage, and other elevated virtues, figure best in action : tender passions, and the whole tribe of sympathetic affections, figure best in sentiment. It clearly follows, that tender passions are more peculiarly the province of tragedy, grand and heroic actions of epic poetry.*
I have no occasion to say more upon the epic, considered as peculiarly adapted to certain subjects. But as dramatic subjects are more complex, I must take a narrower view of them; which I do the more willingly, in order to clear a point involved in great obscurity by critics.
In the chapter of Emotions and Passions, it is occasionally shown, that the subject best fitted for tragedy is where a man has himself been the cause of his misfortune: not so as to be deeply guilty, nor altogether innocent; the misfortune must be occasioned by a fault incident to human nature, and therefore in some de
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* In Racine, tender sentiments prevail; in Corneille, grand and heroic manners. Hence clearly the preference of the former before the latter, as dramatic poets. Corneille would have figured better in an heroic poem.