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CHAPTER XXII: Epic and Dramatic Composition - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 2 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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Epic and Dramatic Composition
Tragedy differs not from the 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.* <371>
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 beside 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 nar-<372> rative part within the narrowest bounds.* Homer understood perfectly the advantage of this method; and his two poems abound in dialogue. Lucan runs to the opposite extreme, 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.†
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 composition may be denominated moral.‡ Beside making a deeper<373> impression than can be done by cool reasoning, a moral poem does not fall short of reasoning in affording conviction: the natural connection 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, 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 connection 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<374> cause, may afford a lesson, upon the presumption that what hath happened may again happen: but this cannot be inserted 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, beside, two effects extremely salutary: they improve our sympathy, and fortify us to bear our own misfortunes. Amoral composition obviously produces the same good effects, because by being moral it ceaseth not to be pathetic: it enjoys beside 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<375> 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 make 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 not 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.* <376>
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 degree venial. Such misfortunes call forth the social affections, and warmly interest the spectator. An accidental misfortune, if not extremely singular, doth not greatly move our pity: the person who suffers, being innocent, is freed from the greatest of all torments, that anguish of mind which is occasioned by remorse:
An atrocious criminal, on the other hand, who brings misfortunes upon himself, excites little pity, for a different reason: his remorse, it is true, aggravates his distress, and swells the first emotions of pity; but these are immediately blunted by our hatred of him as a criminal. Misfortunes that are not innocent, nor highly criminal, partake the advantages of each extreme: they are attended with remorse to embitter the distress, which raises our pity to a height; and the slight indignation we have at a venial fault, detracts not sensibly from our pity. The happiest of all subjects accordingly for raising pity, is where a man of integrity falls into a great misfortune by doing an action that is innocent, but which, by some singular means, is conceived by him to be criminal: his remorse aggravates his distress; and our compassion, unrestrained by indignation, knows no bounds. Pity comes thus to be the ruling passion of a pathetic tragedy; and, by proper representation, may be raised to a height scarce exceeded by any thing felt in real life. A moral tragedy takes in a larger field; as it not only exercises our pity, but raises another passion, which, though selfish, deserves to be cherished equally with the social affection. The passion I have in view is fear or terror; for when a misfortune is the natural consequence of some wrong bias in the temper, every spectator who is conscious of such a bias in himself, takes the alarm, and dreads his falling in-<378>to the same misfortune: and by the emotion of fear or terror, frequently reiterated in a variety of moral tragedies, the spectators are put upon their guard against the disorders of passion.
The commentators upon Aristotle, and other critics, have been much gravelled about the account given of tragedy by that author: “That by means of pity and terror, it refines or purifies in us all sorts of passion.” But no one who has a clear conception of the end and effects of a good tragedy, can have any difficulty about Aristotle’s meaning: our pity is engaged for the persons represented; and our terror is upon our own account. Pity indeed is here made to stand for all the sympathetic emotions, because of these it is the capital. There can be no doubt, that our sympathetic emotions are refined or improved by daily exercise; and in what manner our other passions are refined by terror, I have just now said. One thing is certain, that no other meaning can justly be given to the foregoing doctrine than that now mentioned; and that it was really Aristotle’s meaning, appears from his 13th chapter, where he delivers several propositions conformable to the doctrine as here explained. These, at the same time, I take liberty to mention; because, as far as authority can go, they confirm the foregoing reasoning about subjects proper for tragedy. The first proposition is, That it being the province of tragedy to excite pity and terror, an<379> innocent person falling into adversity ought never to be the subject. This proposition is a necessary consequence of his doctrine as explained: a subject of that nature may indeed excite pity and terror; but the former in an inferior degree, and the latter in no degree for moral instruction. The second proposition is, That the history of a wicked person in a change from misery to happiness, ought not to be represented. It excites neither terror nor compassion, nor is agreeable in any respect. The third is, That the misfortunes of a wicked person ought not to be represented. Such representation may be agreeable in some measure upon a principle of justice: but it will not move our pity; nor any degree of terror, except in those of the same vicious disposition with the person represented. The last proposition is, That the only character fit for representation lies in the middle, neither eminently good nor eminently bad; where the misfortune is not the effect of deliberate vice, but of some involuntary fault, as our author expresses it.* The only objection I find to Aristotle’s account of tragedy, is, that he confines it within too narrow bounds, by refusing admittance to the pathetic kind: for if terror be es-<380>sential to tragedy, no representation deserves that name but the moral kind, where the misfortunes exhibited are caused by a wrong balance of mind, or some disorder in the internal constitution: such misfortunes always suggest moral instruction; and by such misfortunes only, can terror be excited for our improvement.
Thus Aristotle’s four propositions above mentioned, relate solely to tragedies of the moral kind. Those of the pathetic kind, are not confined within so narrow limits: subjects fitted for the theatre, are not in such plenty as to make us reject innocent misfortunes which rouse our sympathy, tho’ they inculcate no moral. With respect indeed to subjects of that kind, it may be doubted, whether the conclusion ought not always to be fortunate. Where a person of integrity is represented as suffering to the end under misfortunes purely accidental, we depart discontented, and with some obscure sense of injustice: for seldom is man so submissive to Providence, as not to revolt against the tyranny and vexations of blind chance; he will be tempted to say, This ought not to be. Chance, giving an impression of anarchy and misrule, produces always a damp upon the mind. I give for an example the Romeo and Juliet of Shakespear, where the fatal catastrophe is occasioned by Friar Laurence’s coming to the monument a minute too late: we are vexed at the unlucky chance, and go away dissatisfied. Such impres-<381>sions, which ought not to be cherished, are a sufficient reason for excluding stories of that kind from the theatre. The misfortunes of a virtuous person, arising from necessary causes or from a chain of unavoidable circumstances, are considered in a different light. A regular chain of causes and effects directed by the general laws of nature, never fails to suggest the hand of Providence; to which we submit without resentment, being conscious that submission is our duty.* For that reason, we are not disgusted with the distresses of Voltaire’s Mariamne, though redoubled on her till her death, without the least fault or failing on her part: her misfortunes are owing to a cause extremely natural, and not unfrequent, the jealousy of a barbarous husband. The fate of Desdemona, in the Moor of Venice, affects us in the same manner. We are not so easily reconciled to the fate of Cordelia in King Lear: the causes of her misfortune are by no means so evident, as to exclude the gloomy notion of chance. In short, a perfect character suffering under misfortunes, is qualified for being the subject of a pathetic tragedy, provided chance be excluded. Nor is a perfect character altogether inconsistent with a moral tragedy: it may successfully be introduced in an under-part, if the chief<382> place be occupied by an imperfect character, from which a moral can be drawn. This is the case of Desdemona and Mariamne just mentioned; and it is the case of Monimia and Belvidera, in Otway’s two tragedies, The Orphan, and Venice Preserv’d.
I had an early opportunity to unfold a curious doctrine, That fable operates on our passions, by representing its events as passing in our sight, and by deluding us into a conviction of reality.* Hence, in epic and dramatic compositions, every circumstance ought to be employ’d that may promote the delusion; such as the borrowing from history some noted event, with the addition of circumstances that may answer the author’s purpose: the principal facts are known to be true; and we are disposed to extend our belief to every circumstance. But in choosing a subject that makes a figure in history, greater precaution is necessary than where the whole is a fiction. In the latter case there is full scope for invention: the author is under no restraint other than that the characters and incidents be just copies of nature. But where the story is founded on truth, no circumstances must be added, but such as connect naturally with what are known to be true; history may be supplied, but must not be contradicted: further, the subject chosen must be distant in time, or at<383> least in place; for the familiarity of recent persons and events ought to be avoided. Familiarity ought more especially to be avoided in an epic poem, the peculiar character of which is dignity and elevation: modern manners make no figure in such a poem.†
After Voltaire, no writer, it is probable, will think of rearing an epic poem upon a recent event in the history of his own country. But an event of that kind is perhaps not altogether unqualified for tragedy: it was admitted in Greece; and Shakespear has employ’d it successfully in several of his pieces. One advantage it possesses above fiction, that of more readily engaging our belief, which tends above any other circumstance to raise our sympathy. The scene of comedy is generally laid at home: familiarity is no objection; and we are peculiarly sensible of the ridicule of our own manners.
After a proper subject is chosen, the dividing it into parts requires some art. The conclusion of a book in an epic poem, or of an act in a play, can-<384>not be altogether arbitrary; nor be intended for so slight a purpose as to make the parts of equal length. The supposed pause at the end of every book, and the real pause at the end of every act, ought always to coincide with some pause in the action. In this respect, a dramatic or epic poem ought to resemble a sentence or period in language, divided into members that are distinguished from each other by proper pauses; or it ought to resemble a piece of music, having a full close at the end, preceded by imperfect closes that contribute to the melody. Every act in a dramatic poem ought therefore to close with some incident that makes a pause in the action; for otherwise there can be no pretext for interrupting the representation: it would be absurd to break off in the very heat of action; against which every one would exclaim: the absurdity still remains where the action relents, if it be not actually suspended for some time. This rule is also applicable to an epic poem: though in it a deviation from the rule is less remarkable; because it is in the reader’s power to hide the absurdity, by proceeding instantly to another book. The first book of Paradise Lost ends without any close, perfect or imperfect: it breaks off abruptly, where Satan, seated on his throne, is prepared to harangue the convocated host of the fallen angels; and the second book begins with the speech. Milton seems to have copied the Aeneid, of which the two first<385> books are divided much in the same manner. Neither is there any proper pause at the end of the fifth book of the Aeneid. There is no proper pause at the end of the seventh book of Paradise Lost, nor at the end of the eleventh. In the Iliad little attention is given to this rule.
This branch of the subject shall be closed with a general rule, That action being the fundamental part of every composition whether epic or dramatic, the sentiments and tone of language ought to be subservient to the action, so as to appear natural, and proper for the occasion. The application of this rule to our modern plays, would reduce the bulk of them to a skeleton.* <386>
After carrying on together epic and dramatic compositions, I shall mention circumstances peculiar to each; beginning with the epic kind. In a theatrical entertainment, which employs both the eye and the ear, it would be a gross absurdity, to introduce upon the stage superior beings in a visible shape. There is no place for such objection in an epic poem; and Boileau,* with many other critics, declares strongly for that sort of machinery in an epic poem. But waving authority, which is apt to impose upon the judgement, let us draw what light we can from reason. I begin with a preliminary remark, That this matter is but indistinctly handled by critics: the poetical privilege of animating insensible objects for enlivening a de-<387>scription, is very different from what is termed machinery, where deities, angels, devils, or other supernatural powers, are introduced as real personages, mixing in the action, and contributing to the catastrophe; and yet these are constantly jumbled together in the reasoning. The former is founded on a natural principle;† but can the latter claim the same authority? far from it; nothingis more unnatural. Its effects, at the same time, are deplorable. First, it gives an air of fiction to the whole; and prevents that impression of reality, which is requisite to interest our affections, and to move our passions.‡ This of itself is sufficient to explode machinery, whatever entertainment it may afford to readers of a fantastic taste or irregular imagination. And, next, were it possible, by disguising the fiction, to delude us into a notion of reality, which I think can hardly be; an insuperable objection would still remain, that the aim or end of an epic poem can never be attained in any perfection, where machinery is introduced; for an evident reason, that virtuous emotions cannot be raised successfully, but by the actions of those who are endued with passions and affections like our own, that is, by human actions: and as for moral instruction, it is clear, that none can be drawn from<388> beings who act not upon the same principles with us. A fable in Aesop’s manner is no objection to this reasoning: his lions, bulls, and goats, are truly men in disguise: they act and feel in every respect as human beings; and the moral we draw is founded on that supposition. Homer, it is true, introduces the gods into his fable: but the religion of his country authorised that liberty; it being an article in the Grecian creed, that the gods often interpose visibly and bodily in human affairs. I must however observe, that Homer’s deities do no honour to his poems: fictions that transgress the bounds of nature, seldom have a good effect; they may inflame the imagination for a moment, but will not be relished by any person of a correct taste. They may be of some use to the lower rank of writers; but an author of genius has much finer materials of Nature’s production, for elevating his subject, and making it interesting.
One would be apt to think, that Boileau, declaring for the Heathen deities as above, intended them only for embellishing the diction: but unluckily he banishes angels and devils, who undoubtedly make a figure in poetic language, equal to the Heathen deities. Boileau, therefore, by pleading for the latter in opposition to the former, certainly meant, if he had any distinct meaning, that the Heathen deities may be introduced as actors. And, in fact, he himself is guilty of that<389> glaring absurdity, where it is not so pardonable as in an epic poem. In his ode upon the taking of Namur he demands with a most serious countenance, whether the walls were built by Apollo or Neptune? and in relating the passage of the Rhine, anno 1672, he describes the god of that river as fighting with all his might to oppose the French monarch; which is confounding fiction with reality at a strange rate. The French writers in general run into this error: wonderful the effect of custom, to hide from them how ridiculous such fictions are!
That this is a capital error in the Gierusalemme liberata, Tasso’s greatest admirers must acknowledge: a situation can never be intricate, nor the reader ever in pain about the catastrophe, as long as there is an angel, devil, or magician, to lend a helping hand. Voltaire, in his essay upon epic poetry, talking of the Pharsalia, observes judiciously, “That the proximity of time, the notoriety of events, the character of the age, enlightened and political, joined with the solidity of Lucan’s subject, deprived him of poetical fiction.” Is it not amazing, that a critic who reasons so justly with respect to others, can be so blind with respect to himself? Voltaire, not satisfied to enrich his language with images drawn from invisible and superior beings, introduces them into the action: in the sixth canto of the Henriade, St. Louis appears in person, and terri-<390>fies the soldiers; in the seventh canto, St. Louis sends the god of Sleep to Henry; and, in the tenth, the demons of Discord, Fanaticism, War, &c. assist Aumale in a single combat with Turenne, and are driven away by a good angel brandishing the sword of God. To blend such fictitious personages in the same action with mortals, makes a bad figure at any rate; and is intolerable in a history so recent as that of Henry IV. But perfection is not the lot of man.*
I have tried serious reasonings upon this subject; but ridicule, I suppose, will be found a more successful weapon, which Addison has applied in an elegant manner:
Whereas the time of a gene-<391>ral peace is, in all appearance, drawing near; being informed that there are several ingenious persons who intend to show their talents on so happy an occasion, and being willing, as much as in me lies, to prevent that effusion of nonsense, which we have good cause to apprehend; I do hereby strictly require every person who shall write on this subject, to remember that he is a Christian, and not to sacrifice his catechism to his poetry. In order to it, I do expect of him, in the first place, to make his own poem, without depending upon Phoebus for any part of it, or calling out for aid upon any of the muses by name. I do likewise positively forbid the sending of Mercury with any particular message or dispatch relating to the peace; and shall by no means suffer Minerva to take upon her the shape of any plenipotentiary concerned in this great work. I do farther declare, that I shall not allow the destinies to have had an hand in the deaths of the several thousands who have been slain in the late war; being of opinion that all such deaths may be well accounted for by the Christian system of powder and ball. I do therefore strictly forbid the fates to cut the thread of man’s life upon any pretence whatsoever, unless it be for the sake of the rhyme. And whereas I have good reason to fear, that Neptune will have a great deal of business on his hands in several poems which we<392> may now suppose are upon the anvil, I do also prohibit his appearance, unless it be done in metaphor, simile, or any very short allusion; and that even here he may not be permitted to enter, but with great caution and circumspection. I desire that the same rule may be extended to his whole fraternity of Heathen gods; it being my design, to condemn every poem to the flames in which Jupiter thunders, or exercises any other act of authority which does not belong to him. In short, I expect that no Pagan agent shall be introduced, or any fact related which a man cannot give credit to with a good conscience. Provided always, that nothing herein contained shall extend, or be construed to extend, to several of the female poets in this nation, who shall still be left in full possession of their gods and goddesses, in the same manner as if this paper had never been written.*
The marvellous is indeed so much promoted by machinery, that it is not wonderful to find it embraced by the plurality of writers, and perhaps of readers. If indulged at all, it is generally indulged to excess. Homer introduceth his deities with no greater ceremony than his mortals; and Virgil has still less moderation: a pilot spent with watching cannot fall asleep, and drop into the sea by na-<393>tural means: one bed cannot receive the two lovers, Aeneas and Dido, without the immediate interposition of superior powers. The ridiculous in such fictions, must appear even through the thickest vail of gravity and solemnity.
Angels and devils serve equally with Heathen deities as materials for figurative language; perhaps better among Christians, because we believe in them, and not in Heathen deities. But every one is sensible, as well as Boileau, that the invisible powers in our creed make a much worse figure as actors in a modern poem, than the invisible powers in the Heathen creed did in ancient poems; the cause of which is not far to seek. The Heathen deities, in the opinion of their votaries, were beings elevated one step only above mankind, subject to the same passions, and directed by the same motives; therefore not altogether improper to mix with men in an important action. In our creed, superior beings are placed at such a mighty distance from us, and are of a nature so different, that with no propriety can we appear with them upon the same stage: man, a creature much inferior, loses all dignity in the comparison.
There can be no doubt, that an historical poem admits the embellishment of allegory, as well as of metaphor, simile, or other figure. Moral truth, in particular, is finely illustrated in the allegorical manner: it amuses the fancy to find abstract terms, by a sort of magic, metamorphos’d into active be-<394>ings; and it is highly pleasing to discover a general proposition in a pictured event. But allegorical beings should be confined with in their own sphere, and never be admitted to mix in the principal action, nor to cooperate in retarding or advancing the catastrophe. This would have a still worse effect than invisible powers; and I am ready to assign the reason. The impression of real existence, essential to an epic poem, is inconsistent with that figurative existence which is essential to an allegory;* and therefore no means can more effectually prevent the impression of reality, than to introduce allegorical beings co-operating with those whom we conceive to be really existing. The love-episode, in the Henriade,† insufferable by the discordant mixture of allegory with real life, is copied from that of Rinaldo and Armida, in the Gierusalemme liberata, which hath no merit to intitle it to be copied. An allegorical object, such as Fame in the Aeneid, and the Temple of Love in the Henriade, may find place in a description: but to introduce Discord as a real personage, imploring the assistance of Love, as another real personage, to enervate the courage of the hero, is making these figurative beings act beyond their sphere, and creating a strange jumble of truth and fiction. The allegory of Sin and Death in the Paradise Lost, is, I presume, not generally relish-<395>ed, though it is not entirely of the same nature with what I have been condemning: in a work comprehending the atchievements of superior beings, there is more room for fancy than where it is confined to human actions.
What is the true notion of an episode? or how is it to be distinguished from the principal action? Every incident that promotes or retards the catastrophe, must be part of the principal action. This clears the nature of an episode; which may be defined, “An incident connected with the principal action, but contributing neither to advance nor to retard it.” The descent of Aeneas into hell doth not advance nor retard the catastrophe, and therefore is an episode. The story of Nisus and Euryalus, producing an alteration in the affairs of the contending parties, is a part of the principal action. The family-scene in the sixth book of the Iliad is of the same nature; for by Hector’s retiring from the field of battle to visit his wife, the Grecians had opportunity to breathe, and even to turn upon the Trojans. The unavoidable effect of an episode, according to this definition, must be, to break the unity of action; and therefore it ought never to be indulged, unless to unbend the mind after the fatigue of a long narration. An episode, when such is its purpose, requires the following conditions: It ought to be well connected with the principal action: it ought to be lively and interesting: it ought to be short:<396> and a time ought to be chosen when the principal action relents.*
In the following beautiful episode, which closes the second book of Fingal, all these conditions are united.
Comal was a son of Albion; the chief of an hundred hills. His deer drunk of a thousand streams; and a thousand rocks replied to the voice of his dogs. His face was the mildness of youth; but his hand the death of heroes. One was his love, and fair was she; the daughter of mighty Conloch. She appeared like a sun-beam among women, and her hair was like the wing of the raven. Her soul was fixed on Comal, and she was his companion in the chace. Often met their eyes of love, and happy were their words in secret. But Gormal loved the maid, the chief of gloomy Ardven. He watched her lone steps on the heath, the foe of unhappy Comal.
One day tired of the chace, when the mist had concealed their friends, Comal and the daughter of Conloch met in the cave of Ronan. It was the wonted haunt of Comal. Its sides were hung with his arms; a hundred shields of thongs were there, a hundred helms of sounding steel. Rest here, said he, my love Galvina, thou light of the cave of Ronan: a deer appears on Mora’s brow; I go, but soon will return. I<397> fear, said she, dark Gormal my foe: I will rest here; but soon return, my love.
He went to the deer of Mora. The daughter of Conloch, to try his love, cloathed her white side with his armour, and strode from the cave of Ronan. Thinking her his foe, his heart beat high, and his colour changed. He drew the bow: the arrow flew: Galvina fell in blood. He ran to the cave with hasty steps, and called the daughter of Conloch. Where art thou, my love? but no answer.—He marked, at length, her heaving heart beating against the mortal arrow. O Conlach’s daughter, is it thou! he sunk upon her breast.
The hunters found the hapless pair. Many and silent were his steps round the dark dwelling of his love. The fleet of the ocean came: he fought, and the strangers fell: he searched for death over the field; but who could kill the mighty Comal? Throwing away his shield, an arrow found his manly breast. He sleeps with his Galvina: their green tombs are seen by the mariner, when he bounds on the waves of the north.
Next, upon the peculiarities of a dramatic poem. And the first I shall mention is a double plot; one of which must resemble an episode in an epic poem; for it would distract the spectator, instead of entertaining him, if he were forc’d to attend, at the same time, to two capital plots equally interesting. And even supposing it an under-plot like an episode, it seldom hath a good effect in tragedy, of which simplicity is a chief property; for an<398> interesting subject that engages our affections, occupies our whole attention, and leaves no room for any separate concern.* Variety is more tolerable in comedy, which pretends only to amuse, without totally occupying the mind. But even<399> there, to make a double plot agreeable, is no slight effort of art: the under-plot ought not to vary greatly in its tone from the principal; for discordant emotions are unpleasant when jumbled together; which, by the way, is an insuperable objection to tragi-comedy. Upon that account, the Provok’d Husband deserves censure: all the scenes that bring the family of the Wrongheads into action, being ludicrous and farcical, are in a very different tone from the principal scenes, displaying severe and bitter expostulations between Lord Townley and his lady. The same objection touches not the double plot of the Careless Husband; the different subjects being sweetly connected, and having only so much variety as to resemble shades of colours harmoniously mixed. But this is not all. The under-plot ought to be connected with that which is principal, so much at least as to employ the same persons: the under-plot ought to occupy the intervals or pauses of the principal action; and both ought to be concluded together. This is the case of the Merry Wives of Windsor.
Violent action ought never to be represented on the stage. While the dialogue goes on, a thousand particulars concur to delude us into an impression of reality; genuine sentiments, passionate language, and persuasive gesture: the spectator once engaged, is willing to be deceived, loses sight of himself, and without scruple enjoys the<400> spectacle as a reality. From this absent state, he is roused by violent action: he wakes as from a pleasing dream, and gathering his senses about him, finds all to be a fiction. Horace delivers the same rule, and founds it upon the same reason:
The French critics join with Horace in excluding blood from the stage; but overlooking the most substantial objection, they urge only, that it is barbarous, and shocking to a polite audience. The Greeks had no notion of such delicacy, or rather effeminacy; witness the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes, passing behind the scene as represented by Sophocles: her voice is heard calling out for mercy, bitter expostulations on his part, loud shrieks upon her being stabb’d, and then a deep silence. I appeal to every person of feeling, whether this scene be not more horrible than if the deed had been committed in sight of the spectators upon a sudden gust of passion. If Corneille, in representing the affair between Horatius and his sister, upon which murder ensues behind the scene, had no other view but to remove from the spectators a shocking action, he was guilty of a capital mistake: for murder in cold<401> blood, which in some measure was the case as represented, is more shocking to a polite audience, even where the conclusive stab is not seen, than the same act performed in their presence by violent and unpremeditated passion, as suddenly repented of as committed. I heartily agree with Addison,* that no part of this incident ought to have been represented, but reserved for a narrative, with every alleviating circumstance in favour of the hero.
A few words upon the dialogue; which ought to be so conducted as to be a true representation of nature. I talk not here of the sentiments, nor of the language; for these come under different heads: I talk of what properly belongs to dialogue-writing; where every single speech, short or long, ought to arise from what is said by the former speaker, and furnish matter for what comes after, till the end of the scene. In this view, all the speeches, from first to last, represent so many links of one continued chain. No author, ancient or modern, possesses the art of dialogue equal to Shakespear. Dryden, in that particular, may justly be placed as his opposite: he frequently introduces three or four persons speaking upon the same subject, each throwing out his own notions separately, without regarding what is said by the<402> rest: take for an example the first scene of Aurenzebe. Sometimes he makes a number club in relating an event, not to a stranger, supposed ignorant of it; but to one another, for the sake merely of speaking: of which notable sort of dialogue, we have a specimen in the first scene of the first part of the Conquest of Granada. In the second part of the same tragedy, scene second, the King, Abenamar, and Zulema, make their separate observations, like so many soliloquies, upon the fluctuating temper of the mob. A dialogue so uncouth, puts one in mind of two shepherds in a pastoral, excited by a prize to pronounce verses alternately, each in praise of his own mistress.
This manner of dialogue-writing, beside an unnatural air, has another bad effect: it stays the course of the action, because it is not productive of any consequence. In Congreve’s comedies, the action is often suspended to make way for a play of wit. But of this more particularly in the chapter immediately following.
No fault is more common among writers, than to prolong a speech after the impatience of the person to whom it is addressed ought to prompt him or her to break in. Consider only how the impatient actor is to behave in the mean time. To express his impatience in violent action without interrupting, would be unnatural; and yet to dissemble his impatience, by appearing cool where<403> he ought to be highly inflamed, would be no less so.
Rhyme being unnatural and disgustful in dialogue, is happily banished from our theatre: the only wonder is that it ever found admittance, especially among a people accustomed to the more manly freedom of Shakespear’s dialogue. By banishing rhyme, we have gained so much, as never once to dream of any further improvement. And yet, however suitable blank verse may be to elevated characters and warm passions, it must appear improper and affected in the mouths of the lower sort. Why then should it be a rule, That every scene in tragedy must be in blank verse? Shakespear, with great judgement, has followed a different rule; which is, to intermix prose with verse, and only to employ the latter where it is required by the importance or dignity of the subject. Familiar thoughts and ordinary facts ought to be expressed in plain language: to hear, for example, a footman deliver a simple message in blank verse, must appear ridiculous to everyone who is not biassed by custom. In short, that variety of characters and of situations, which is the life of a play, requires not only a suitable variety in the sentiments, but also in the diction.<404>
[* ]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 labour 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 Aesop’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 colours: 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. chap. 25. sect. 6.
[† ]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 Aesop. 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.
[* ]See chap. 2. part 1. sect. 4.
[* ]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.
[† ]Part 4.
[1. ]Metastasio: “when there is no reason for repentance or blushing, another man’s fortune is not fatal.”
[* ]If any one can be amused with a grave discourse which promiseth much and performs nothing, I refer to Brumoy in his Theatre Grec, Preliminary discourse on the origin of tragedy. [Pierre Brumoy, Le théâtre des Grecs, 1730, trans. English 1759.]
[* ]See Essays on the Principles of Morality, edit. 2. p. 291.
[* ]Chap. 2. part 1. sect. 7.
[† ]I would not from this observation be thought to under-value modern manners. The roughness and impetuosity of ancient manners, may be better fitted for an epic poem, without being better fitted for society. But without regard to that circumstance, it is the familiarity of modern manners that unqualifies them for a lofty subject. The dignity of our present manners, will be better understood in future ages, when they are no longer familiar.
[* ]Engénéral il y a beaucoup de discours et peu d’action sur la scene Françoise. Quelqu’un disoit en sortant d’une piece de Denis le Tiran, Je n’ai rien vu, mais j’ai entendu force paroles. Voila ce qu’on peut dire en sortant des pieces Françoises. Racine et Corneille avec tout leur génie ne sont eux-mémes que des parleurs; et leur successeur est le premier qui, à l’imitation des Anglois, ait osé mettre quelquefois la scene en représentation. Communément tout se passe en beaux dialogues bien agencés, bien ronflans, où l’on voit d’abord que le premier soin de chaque interlocuteur est tonjours celui de briller. Presque tout s’enonce en maximes générales. Quelque agités qu’ils puissent être, ils son- gent toujours plus au public qu’à eux mêmes; une sentence leur coute moins qu’un sentiment; les pieces de Racine et de Moliere exceptées, le je est presque aussi scrupuleusement banni de la scene Françoise que des écrits de Port-Royal; et les passions humaines, aussi modestes que l’humilité Chrétienne, n’y parlent jamais que par on. Il y a encore une certaine dignité manierée dans le geste et dans le propos, qui ne permet jamais àla passion de parler exactement son language, ni à l’auteur de revetir son personage, et de se transporter au lieu de la scene; mais le tient toujours enchainé sur le théatre, et sous les yeux des spectateurs. Aussi les situations les plus vives ne lui font-elles jamais oublier un bel arrangement de phrases, ni des attitudes élégantes; et si le desespoir lui plonge un poignard dans le cœur, non content d’observer la décence en tombant comme Polixene, il ne tombe point; la décence le maintient debout après sa mort, et tous ceux quiviennent d’expirer s’en retournent l’instant d’après sur leurs jambes.
[* ]Third part of his art of poetry.
[† ]Chap. 20. sect. 1.
[‡ ]See chap. 2. part 1. sect. 7.
[* ]When I commenced author, my aim was to amuse, and perhaps to instruct, but never to give pain. I accordingly avoided every living author, till the Henriade occurred to me as the best instance I could find for illustrating the doctrine in the text; and I yielded to the temptation, judging that my slight criticisms would never reach M. de Voltaire. They have however reached him; and have, as I am informed, stirred up some resentment. I am afflicted at this information; for what title have I to wound the mind more than the body? It would beside show ingratitude to a celebrated writer, who is highly entertaining, and who has bestow’d on me many a delicious morsel. My only excuse for giving offence is, that it was undesigned; for to plead that the censure is just, is no excuse. As the offence was public, I take this opportunity to make the apology equally so. I hope it will be satisfactory: perhaps not.—I owe it however to my own character.
[* ]Spectator, No. 523.
[* ]See chap. 20. sect. 6.
[† ]Canto 9.
[* ]Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles is properly introduced at a time when the action relents, and the reader can bear an interruption. But the author of Telemachus describes the shield of that young hero in the heat of battle: a very improper time for an interruption.
[* ]Racine, in his preface to the tragedy of Berenice, is sensible that simplicity is a great beauty in tragedy, but mistakes the cause. “Nothing (says he) but verisimilitude pleases in tragedy: but where is the verisimilitude, that within the compass of a day, events should be crowded which commonly are extended through months?” This is mistaking the accuracy of imitation for the probability or improbability of future events. I explain myself. The verisimilitude required in tragedy is, that the actions correspond to the manners, and the manners to nature. When this resemblance is preserved, the imitation is just, because it is a true copy of nature. But I deny that the verisimilitude of future events, meaning the probability of future events, is any rule in tragedy. A number of extraordinary events, are, it is true, seldom crowded within the compass of a day: but what seldom happens may happen; and when such events fall out, they appear no less natural than the most ordinary accidents. To make verisimilitude in the sense of probability a governing rule in tragedy, would annihilate that sort of writing altogether; for it would exclude all extraordinary events, in which the life of tragedy consists. It is very improbable or unlikely, pitching upon any man at random, that he will sacrifice his life and fortune for his mistress or for his country: yet when that event happens, supposing it comformable to the character, we recognise the verisimilitude as to nature, whatever want of verisimilitude or of probability there was a priori that such would be the event.
[2. ]“So that Medea is not to butcher her boys before the people, nor impious Atreus cook human flesh upon the stage, nor Procne be turned into a bird, Cadmus into a snake” (Ars poetica 185).
[* ]Spectator, No. 44.