Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE SEVERAL REVOLUTIONS IN THE TRAGIC ART. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
THE SEVERAL REVOLUTIONS IN THE TRAGIC ART. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
THE SEVERAL REVOLUTIONS IN THE TRAGIC ART.
Who would think that the tragic art is partly due to Minos? If one of the infernal judges is the inventor of this species of poetry, it is no wonder it should be of a nature somewhat gloomy: a more gay origin is, generally speaking, assigned to it. Thespis and other drunkards are thought to have introduced this show among the Greeks at the time of vintage; but if we may credit what Plato says in his dialogue, entitled “Minos,” there were dramatic pieces played during the reign of this prince. Thespis carried his actors about in a cart. But in Crete and other countries, long before the age of Thespis, actors performed only in the temples. Tragedy, at its first invention, was consecrated to the gods; hence the hymns of the chorus almost always turn upon the praises of the gods in the tragedies of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. A poet was not permitted to present the public with a piece till he was forty years of age; they were called “Tragedidaskaloi”—doctors in tragedy. Their works were represented only at the time of the great festivals; the money spent by the public upon these spectacles was a sacred treasure.
Eubulus, or Eubolis, or Ebylys, made a law to punish with death whoever should propose applying this money to profane purposes. For this reason Demosthenes, in his second “Olynthiac,” uses so much caution and address in order to engage the Athenians to spend this money in the war against Philip; it is much the same thing as if an attempt should be made in Italy to pay soldiers with the treasure of our Lady of Loretto.
These public diversions were, among the Greeks, connected with their religious ceremonies. It is well known that among the Egyptians, songs, dances and representations made an essential part of the ceremonies reputed sacred. The Jews borrowed these customs from the Egyptians, as every ignorant and barbarous nation endeavors to imitate its learned and polite neighbors; hence those Jewish festivals, those dances of priests before the ark, those trumpets, those hymns, and so many other ceremonies entirely Egyptian.
This is not all; the truly great tragedies, the awful and terrible representations were sacred mysteries which were celebrated in the greatest temples of the earth in the presence of the initiated alone; there the habits, the decorations, and the machines, were adapted to the subject, and the subject related to the present life as well as to that which is to come.
At first it was a great chorus, at the head of which was the hierophant: “Prepare,” cried he, “to see with the eyes of the soul, the governor of the universe. He is single, he is alone self–existent, and all other beings owe their existence to him; he extends his power and his works everywhere; he sees all things; he cannot be seen by mortals.”
This strophe was repeated by the chorus; silence was kept for some time after; this was a true prologue. The piece began by darkness spread over the theatre; actors appeared by the feeble glimmering of a lamp; they wandered upon mountains, and descended into caves; they hit one another; they marched like wild people; their discourse and their gestures expressed the uncertainty of human conduct and all the errors of our lives. The scene changed; hell appeared in all its horror; criminals confessed their crimes, and acknowledged the justice of divine vengeance. Of this Virgil gives an admirable detail, in the sixth book of his “Æneid,” which is nothing else than a description of the mysteries; and this proves that he is not in the wrong in putting these words in the mouth of Phlegias:
Be just, ye mortals, and the gods revere.
The fool in “Scarron” makes a mistake when he says:
It was of use to the spectators. At last the Elysian fields, inhabited by the just, were seen: they sang the goodness of God, of one true God the architect of the universe; they instructed the spectators in all their duties. In this manner Stobeus speaks of these sublime exhibitions of which some faint traces are to be found in the scattered fragments of antiquity.
Among the Romans, comedy was admitted after the first Punic war, in order to accomplish a vow which was made in order to avert a plague, and to appease the gods, as Livy informs us in his seventh book. It was a very solemn act of religion. The pieces of Livius Andronicus made a part of the holy ceremony of the secular games. There never was a theatre without images of the gods and altars.
The Christians regarded the Pagan ceremonies with the same horror as the Jews, though they retained some of them. The first Fathers of the Church were desirous of separating the Christians from the Gentiles in every respect; they declaimed loudly against exhibitions. The theatre, which was the place of residence of the inferior divinities of the ancients, appeared to them the devil’s empire. Tertullian, the African, says, in his book concerning theatrical exhibitions, that “The devil raises actors upon buskins to give the lie to Jesus Christ, who has declared that no man can add a cubit to his stature.” St. Gregory of Nazianzen opened a Christian theatre, as we are told by Sozomenus; one St. Apollinarius did as much; it is Sozomenus who informs us of this in his ecclesiastical history. The subjects of these pieces were taken from the Old and New Testaments; it seems highly probable that a tradition concerning these theatrical performances gave rise to the mysteries which were for some time represented almost all over Europe.
Castelvetro assures us, in his “Treatise upon Poetry,” that the passion of Jesus Christ was played from time immemorial throughout all Italy. We imitated these representations of the Italians, from whom we derive every art; and we began to imitate them very late; as we have done in all the liberal as well as the mechanical arts.
We did not begin these exercises till about the fourteenth century: the citizens of Paris made their first essays at St. Maur. The mysteries were represented at Paris upon the entry of Charles VI., in 1380.
It is generally thought that these were scandalous exhibitions, indecent pleasantries upon the mysteries of our holy religion, upon our Saviour’s being born in a stable, upon the ox and the ass, upon the star that guided the three kings, upon those kings themselves, upon the jealousy of Joseph, etc. We may form a judgment of this from our Christian gambols, which are pleasantries as comic as blamable, and improper upon all these ineffable events. Almost everybody has heard of the verses with which one of these tragedies concerning the Passion begins:
It is said, that in the tragedy of “The Resurrection,” an angel speaks to God the Father in terms that are absolutely blasphemous.
There is not a word of this in the mysterious pieces which have reached our times; these works were, for the most part, extremely serious; there was nothing worthy of censure in them, but the uncouth language spoken in those days; they consisted of the Holy Scripture reduced to dialogues, and represented in actions; in them, choruses sang the praises of God: there was more pomp and magnificence of decoration upon the stage than was ever seen by us; the city company consisted of more than a hundred actors, exclusive of attendants, servants, and scene–drawers: accordingly the house was crowded, and a single box, for the time of Lent, was hired for twenty crowns, even before the establishment of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This appears from the register of the Parliament of Paris for the year 1541.
Preachers complained that their sermons were no longer frequented, for the monologue was always jealous of the dialogue: the sermons were very far from being as decent as the dramatic pieces of those ages: those who desire to be convinced of this need only read the sermons of Menot, and of all his contemporaries.
In 1541, however, the attorney–general, by his requisition of November 9, maintains, in Article ii, that “Sermons are much more decent than mysteries, as they are preached by divines, of learning and knowledge; whereas the acts are exhibited by illiterate persons.”
Without entering into any longer detail upon the mysteries, and the moral pieces that succeeded them, it will be sufficient to say that the Italians, who first exhibited these plays, were the first who relinquished them: Cardinal Bibiena, Pope Leo X., and Archbishop Trissino, restored the theatre of the Greeks as far as they were able; there was not then an insolent pedant to be found, who had the impudence to think he could brand the art of Sophocles, which the popes themselves had undertaken to revive in Rome.
The city of Vicenza, in 1514, was at a vast expense to represent the first tragedy that had been seen in Rome since the downfall of the empire; it was played in the town house, and spectators attended from the extremities of Italy. The piece is the work of Archbishop Trissino; it is noble, regular, and written with purity of language; it has choruses; the spirit of antiquity breathes through it; the author may, however, be reproached for his prolix declamation, his want of intrigue, and languor; these were the faults of the Greeks; he copied them too much in their faults, but he attained to some of their excellencies. Two years after, Pope Leo X. caused the “Rosamonda” of Rucellai to be represented at Florence, with a magnificence greatly surpassing that of Vicenza. Italy was divided between Rucellai and Trissino.
Comedy rose long before by the genius of Cardinal Bibiena, who gave the “Calandra” in 1482. After him came the comedies of the immortal Ariosto, then the famous “Mandragora” of Machiavelli; in fine, the taste for pastoral prevailed. The “Aminta” of Tasso had the success it deserved, and the “Pastor Fido” had still greater. A hundred passages of the “Pastor Fido” formerly were, and still are, known by heart all over Europe; they will pass to the latest posterity. Nothing is really excellent but what all nations acknowledge to be so; that people is to be pitied that is single in admiring its music, its painting, its eloquence, or its poetry.
While the “Pastor Fido” charmed all Europe, while whole scenes of it were repeated everywhere, while it was translated into all the languages of Europe, in what a state were polite literature and the theatres in other countries! They were in the same state in which we were all, that is, in a state of barbarism. The Spaniards had their autos sacramentales, that is, their sacramental acts. Lope de Vega, a genius worthy to be the reformer of that age, was subdued by his age: he says that, in order to please, he is under the necessity of locking up ancient authors of merit, lest they should reproach him with his absurdities; in one of his best pieces, entitled “Don Raymond,” this Don Raymond, son of the king of Navarre, is disguised like a clown; the Infanta of Leon, his mistress, is disguised like a faggot–maker; a prince of Leon like a pilgrim. The scene is partly laid at a public house.
With regard to the French, what were their favorite books and theatrical exhibitions? “Garagantua’s Chapter upon Bum–fodder,” the “Oracle of the Bottle,” and the pieces of “Christian and Hardy.” Seventy–two years passed from the time of Jodelle, who, in the reign of Henry II., had made a vain attempt to revive the art of the Greeks, without anything supportable being once produced by the French: at last, Mairet, gentleman to the duke of Montmorency, after having long struggled with the depraved taste of his age, composed his tragedy of “Sophonisba,” which has not the least resemblance to that of Archbishop Trissino. It is somewhat singular that the revival of the theatre, and of the rules of dramatic poetry, should begin both in Italy and France by a piece entitled “Sophonisba.” This piece of Mairet’s is the first we have in which the three unities are not violated; it served as a model to most of the tragedies which were written afterward; it was played in 1629, a little before Corneille began to cultivate tragedy; and it was so well liked, notwithstanding its faults, that the piece which Corneille afterward wrote upon the same subject had no success; therefore that of Mairet opened the true career of tragedy, into which Rotrou entered, and this poet surpassed his master: his tragedy of “Wenceslaus” is still played; it is indeed a very faulty piece, but the first scene of it, and almost all the fourth act, are masterpieces.
Corneille afterward made his appearance; his “Médée,” which is merely declamatory, had some success; but “Le Cid,” an imitation of a Spanish tragedy, was the first piece whose reputation was extended beyond France, and that obtained all suffrages, except those of Cardinal Richelieu and Scudéri. Everybody knows to what pitch of sublimity Corneille soared in the fine scenes of the “Horace” and “Cinna” in the characters of Cornelia and Severus, and in the fifth act of “Rodogune.” If “Médée,” “Pertharite,” “Théodore,” “Œdipe,” “Bérénice,” “Suréna,” “Otho,” “Sophonisbe,” “Pulchérie,” “Agésilas,” “Attila,” “Don Sanche,” and the “Golden Fleece,” were altogether unworthy of him; his fine pieces, and the admirable passages scattered up and down in the indifferent ones, will cause him to be always justly considered as the father of tragedy.
It is unnecessary to speak here of the poet who rivalled and even surpassed this great man when his genius began to decline. Authors were then no longer allowed to neglect language and the art of versification in their tragedies; and whatever was not written with the elegance of Racine was despised.
It is true, we have been reproached, and not without reason, that our theatre was an eternal school of gallantry, and of a sort of coquetry which has in it nothing of a tragic nature. Corneille has been justly censured for having made Theseus and Dirce talk of love during the time of the plague; for having put little ridiculous pieces of coquetry in the mouth of Cleopatra; and finally, for having almost always treated love in an unaffecting manner in his works, without ever making it a strong passion, except in the frenzy of Camilla, and the tender scenes of “Le Cid” which he borrowed from Guillem de Castro and embellished. The elegant Racine was not reproached with insipid courtship and low expressions; but it was soon perceived that almost all his pieces, as well as those of succeeding authors, contained a declaration of love, a quarrel, a reconciliation, and a scene of jealousy. It has been asserted that this uniformity of little unaffecting intrigues would have greatly debased the tragedies of this amiable poet, if he had not known how to conceal this defect by all the charms of poetry, the graces of diction, the sweetness of a soft eloquence, and all the resources of art.
Among the striking beauties of our theatre there was another concealed defect which was not perceived, because the public could not of itself have ideas superior to those of these great masters. This defect was first taken notice of by St. Évremond; he says that our pieces do not make an impression sufficiently strong; that what should excite compassion causes at most only tenderness; that emotion holds the place of agitation, astonishment of horror; and that our sentiments are almost always defective in the profound.
It must be acknowledged that St. Évremond has laid his finger upon the secret wound of the French theatre; critics may talk ever so much of St. Évremond’s being the author of the wretched comedy of “Sir Politic Wou’d–be,” and of that of the opera; that his little poems, written for the amusement of company, are the most insipid of any extant in our language, that he only piddled with phrases; notwithstanding all this, an author entirely destitute of genius may have considerable penetration and taste. He, doubtless, showed a very just taste when he thus discovered the cause why most of our pieces are so languishing.
We have almost always wanted a degree of warmth; every other quality we possess. The source of this languor, of this weak monotony, was partly that little spirit of gallantry then so dear to courtiers and to women, which converted tragedy into conversations in the spirit of those of Clelia. Other tragedies were sometimes long political debates; these have spoiled “Sertorius,” rendered “Othon” altogether insipid, and have made “Suréna” and “Attila” quite insupportable. But another reason prevented authors from employing much of the pathetic upon the stage, and made it impossible for an action represented to be completely tragic; this was the construction of the theatre and the narrowness of the place of exhibition. Our theatres were, in comparison with those of the Greeks and Romans, what our market–places, our Greve, and our little village fountains, to which water carriers repair to fill their pails, are in comparison with the aqueducts, the fountains of Agrippa, the Forum Trajani, the Coliseum and the Capitol.
Our theatres deserved excommunication, no doubt, when buffoons hired a tennis court to play “Cinna” upon boards, and when these ignorant creatures, dressed like mountebanks, impersonated Cæsar and Augustus in full–bottomed wigs and laced hats.
The stage was then altogether low and despicable. Comedians had a patent, they bought a tennis–court, they formed a company as merchants form a society. This was not the theatre of Pericles. What could they perform upon about a score of boards loaded with spectators? What pomp or magnificence could entertain the eye? What grand theatrical action could be carried into execution? What liberty could the imagination of the poet enjoy? There was a necessity for pieces to consist of long narratives; a dramatic piece was rather a concatenation of conversations than an action. Every performer was desirous of shining in a long soliloquy; they rejected a piece that was without such; Corneille was obliged to open his tragedy of “Cinna” with Emilia’s unnecessary soliloquy, which is now omitted.
This form excluded all theatrical action, all emphatic expressions of the passions, those striking pictures of human misery, those terrible and affecting strokes which tear the heart; it was only touched by the poet, it should have been torn. Declamation, which, till the time of Mademoiselle Le Couvreur was a measured recitative, a noted song in a manner, obstructed still more those outbursts of nature which are represented by a word, by an attitude, by silence, by a cry which escapes in the anguish of grief. These strokes were first made known to us by Mademoiselle Dumesnil, when, in “Mérope,” with distracted eyes and a broken voice, she, raising her trembling hand, prepared to sacrifice her own son; when Narbas stopped her; when, letting her dagger fall, she was seen to faint away in the arms of her women; when she started from this momentary death with the transports of a mother, and when afterward, darting forward to Poliphontes and crossing the stage in an instant, she, with tears in her eyes, a face as pale as death, thick sobs and arms extended, cried out, “Barbare, il est mon fils.” “Wretch, he is my son.” We have seen Baron; his deportment was noble and becoming, but that was his whole excellence. Mademoiselle La Couvreur had grace, just expression, simplicity, truth and dignity, combined with ease; but for the grand pathos of action, we saw the first instance of it in Mademoiselle Dumesnil.
Something still superior, if possible, we have seen in Mademoiselle Clairon, and the player who takes the part of Tancred in the third act of the piece of that name, and at the end of the fifth; souls were never agitated by such violent emotions, never were tears shed in greater abundance. The perfection of the player’s art showed itself upon those two occasions with a force, of which, till then, we had no idea; and Mademoiselle Clairon must be allowed to have surpassed all the painters in the kingdom.
If in the fourth act of “Mahomet” there had been young players who could form themselves upon this great model, a Seid who could be at once enthusiastic and tender, fierce through fanaticism, humane by nature, who knew how to shudder and to weep; a Palmira animated, compassionate, terrified, trembling at the crime she is going to commit; who could feel horror, repentance and despair at the moment the crime is committed; a father, truly so, who should appear to have the bowels, the voice, and the deportment of a father; a father, who should acknowledge his two children in his two murderers, who should embrace them, shedding tears with his blood; who should mix his tears with those of his children, who should rise to clasp them in his arms, who should fall back and throw himself upon them; in fine, if there was everything that the natural horror of death can furnish a picture with, this situation would even surpass those already mentioned.
It is but a few years since players have ventured to be what they should be, that is, living pictures; before they declaimed. We know, and the public knows it better than we do, that poets should not be too lavish of those terrible and shocking actions which make the greatest impression when they are well introduced and properly managed, but are quite impertinent when they have no relation to the subject. A piece badly written, whose plot is badly unravelled, obscure, laden with incredible incidents, which has no other merit but that which pantomime and decorations bestow upon it, is a disgusting monster.
Place a tomb in “Sémiramis,” dare to make the ghost of Ninus appear, let Ninias come out of that tomb with his arms stained with his mother’s blood; all that will be allowed you. Respect for antiquity, mythology, the majesty of the subject, the heinousness of the crime, something gloomy and terrible, which breathes through that tragedy from its very opening, carry the spectator, in imagination, far from his age and country; but do not often take such liberties, let them be rare and let them be indispensable; if they are idly lavished, they will make spectators laugh.
The abuse of theatrical action may make tragedy become barbarous. What is then to be done? We should cautiously avoid all rocks; but as it is easier to make a fine decoration than a fine scene, and to direct performers what attitudes to assume than to write well, it is probable that authors will spoil tragedy while they think they are bringing it to perfection.
PARALLEL BETWEEN HORACE, BOILEAU, AND POPE.
The Encyclopedic Journal, one of the most curious and instructive of Europe, gives us an account of a parallel between Horace, Boileau, and Pope, written in England; it mentions the verses addressed to the king of Prussia, in which Pope is preferred to the French as well as the Roman poet.
These lines are to be found at the beginning of the poem upon the “Law of Nature”; a work at once philosophical and moral, in which poetry reassumes its first intention, namely, that of teaching virtue, the love of our neighbor, and indulgence; and in which the author explains the principles of that universal law which God has implanted in all our hearts. We agree with the author that the “Essay on Man” of the celebrated Pope is an excellent work, and that neither Horace, Boileau, nor any other poet, has produced anything of the kind. Rousseau is the first who made an attempt somewhat similar, in a poem entitled “Nobody Knows Why; an Allegory”; he does his best to explain the system of Plato; but how weak and languishing is that work! It is neither poetry nor philosophy; there is neither proof nor painting in it.
It is no wonder such a poem should have lain in oblivion; it is, as appears by this quotation, a heap of fustian, consisting of improper terms, a concatenation of unmeaning epithets in dry and rugged prose, which the author has turned into rhyme.
Very different from this is Pope’s “Essay on Man”; poetry never presented so many great ideas in so few words. It is the plan of Lords Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke, carried into execution by the most consummate artist; accordingly it is translated into almost all the languages of Europe. We do not enter into the question whether this complete performance is orthodox; whether even its boldness has not in some measure contributed to its extraordinary sale; whether it does not sap the foundation of the Christian religion, by endeavoring to prove that things are exactly in the state in which they should be; and whether this system does not overturn the dogma of the fall and the Holy Scriptures. We do not profess theology; we leave it to those who do to refute Pope, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Leibnitz, and other great men; we confine ourselves entirely to philosophy and poetry. We presume, with a view of being instructed, to ask how we are to understand this line,
All partial evil universal good.
It is a strange universal good that is composed of the sufferings of each individual! Let him that is able understand this. Did Bolingbroke well understand himself when he digested this system? What is the meaning of this maxim? “Whatever is, is right.” Is it true with regard to us? Doubtless it is not. Is it true with regard to God? It is certain that God does not suffer by our ills. What, then, is at the bottom of this Platonic reverie? It is a chaos, like all other systems, but it has been adorned with diamonds.
With regard to the other epistles of Pope, which admit of comparison with those of Horace and Boileau, I would gladly ask, if these two authors, in their satires, ever had recourse to the weapons of which Pope has made use. His polite treatment of Lord Harvey, one of the most amiable men in England, is somewhat extraordinary; this is the passage word for word:
It is true, Pope is discreet enough not to name the lord that he characterizes; he good–naturedly calls him Sporus, which was the name of an infamous prostitute of Nero’s; take notice too, that most of these invectives are levelled at the person of Lord Harvey, and that Pope goes so far as to reproach him with its gracefulness. When we take into consideration that he was a little ill–shaped man, deformed both before and behind, who spoke thus, we have a striking instance of the blindness of anger and self–love.
Readers may very likely ask, whether it was Pope or one of the chairmen who carried him that wrote these lines. This bears no resemblance to the style of Boileau. May we not justly conclude that politeness and decency vary in different countries?
To render this difference, which nature and art have made between two neighboring nations, still more evident, if possible, let us cast our eyes upon a literal translation of a passage in the “Dunciad”; it is in the second book. Dulness had offered a prize for whichever of her favorites should conquer the rest at a race. Two London booksellers are competitors for the prize; one is Lintot, who is somewhat corpulent; the other was Curl, a man rather lighter than his antagonist: they run, and this was the consequence:
The picture of Indolence, in “Le Lutrin,” is of another kind; but we are told that tastes are not to be disputed.
Another conclusion which we will venture to draw from the comparison of little detached poems with great poems, such as the epic and tragedy, is that they should have their proper rank assigned them. I cannot conceive how an epistle or an ode can be compared to a dramatic piece of merit. Let an epistle, or what is still more easy to compose, a satire, or what is often insipid enough, an ode, be as well written as a tragedy, there is a hundred times more merit in the composition of the latter, and more pleasure in seeing it, than in transcribing or reading commonplace morality; I say commonplace morality; for all that can be said upon moral subjects has been said already. A good moral epistle teaches us nothing; a well–written ode still less; it may at best amuse those who have a taste for poetry about a quarter of an hour; but to create a subject, to invent an intricate intrigue, and unravel it; to give each person of the drama his proper character, and to support it; to contrive that none of them should enter or make their exits without a reason visible to all the spectators; never to leave the stage empty; to make everyone say what he should say, with elevation but without bombast, with simplicity free from meanness; to compose fine verse which does not discover the poet, but is such as the person who speaks might make if he spoke in verse; this is part of the duty which every author of a tragedy must discharge, upon pain of not succeeding among us. And when he has accomplished all this, he has hitherto done nothing. “Esther” is a piece in which all these conditions are fulfilled; but when it was acted upon the stage, the audience could not endure the representation. A poet should, as it were, hold the hearts of spectators in his hand; he should force tears from the most insensible; he should wring the most obdurate hearts: without terror and pity, tragedy has no existence; and even though you should excite both pity and terror, if with these advantages you fail in the observance of other laws, if your verse is not excellent, you are only a middling writer who have treated a well–chosen subject.
How difficult is a tragedy, and how easy is an epistle or a satire! Who then could presume to place in the same class a Racine and a Boileau? Who can esteem a portrait painter as much as a Raphael? Can a head by Rembrandt be compared to the picture of the Transfiguration, or that of the Marriage at Cana?
We are well aware that most of the epistles of Boileau are fine, and that they have truth for their foundation, without which nothing is supportable; but with regard to the epistles of Rousseau, what falsehoods are there in the subjects, what contortions in the style! how frequently do they excite disgust and indignation! What is the meaning of his epistle to Marot, in which he attempts to prove that fools only are wicked? How ridiculous is this paradox!
Were Sulla, Catiline, Cæsar, Tiberius, and even Nero, fools? Was the famous duke of Borgia a fool? Need we seek for examples in ancient history? Besides, who can bear the harsh and constrained manner in which this false notion is expressed?
The covering of wit! Good God! was it thus Boileau wrote? Who can endure the epistle to the duke de Noailles, which he has in his latter editions christened, “An Epistle to the Count of C—”
This wretched burlesque, this impertinent mixture of the jargon of the sixteenth century and of the language spoken at present, a mixture held in such contempt by persons of taste, cannot procure the prize for a subject which of itself teaches nothing, means nothing, and is neither useful nor entertaining.
The grand defect which we meet with in all the works of this author is, that we never meet with our own resemblance in his paintings; we in them see nothing which renders man dear to himself, to use the expression of Horace; nothing pleasing, nothing agreeable. This gloomy writer never once spoke to the heart. Most of his epistles turn upon himself, upon his quarrels with his enemies; the public is no way interested in his pitiful concerns; they mind his verses against La Motte no more than his “Rocks of Salisbury”; what is it to them that among those rugged rocks,
Can these shocking lines, and this wretched subject, come in competition with the worst tragedy extant? We are overstocked with poetry: a commodity too common is become a drug. The rule of “ne quid nimis”; “not too much,” takes place here. The poetry of the theatre, where the nation assembles, is almost the only sort that interests us nowadays; yet new dramatic poems should not be exhibited too often:
For moderate use gives relish to delight.
[1 ]Lord Harvey.