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POETRY, in general, seems to have derived its origin from two causes, each of them natural.
To imitate is instinctive in man from infancy. By this he is distinguished from other animals, that he is of all the most imitative, and through this instinct receives his earliest education. This is evident from what we view in regard to the words of imitative art; for, in them, we contemplate with pleasure, and with the more pleasure the more exactly they are imitated, such objects as, if real, we could not see without pain-as the figures of the meanest and most disgusting animals. And the reason of this is, that to learn is a natural pleasure, not confined to philosophers, but common to all men; with this difference only, that the multitude partake of it in a more transient
But this poetry, following the different characters of its authors, naturally divided itself into two different kinds. They who were of a grave and lofty spirit, chose for their imitation the actions and adventures of elevated characters; while poets of a lighter turn represented those of the vicious and contemptible.
And thus these old poets were divided into two classes—those who used the heroic, and those who used the iambic verse.
And as, in the serious kind, Homer alone may be said to deserve the name of poet, not only on account of his other excellencies, but also of the dramatic spirit of his imitations; so was he likewise the first who suggested the idea of Comedy, by substituting ridicule for invective, and giving that ridicule a dramatic cast. But when Tragedy and Comedy had once made their appearance, succeeding poets, according to the turn of their genius, attached themselves to the one or the other of these new species. The lighter sort, instead of Iambic, became Comic poets; the graver, Tragic, instead of Heroic : and that on account of the superior dignity and higher estimation of these latter forms of poetry.
The Epic poem differs from Tragedy in the length of the plan, and in metre.
Among the many just claims of Homer to our praise, this is onethat he is the only poet who seems to have understood what part in
poem it was proper for him to take himself. The poet, in his own person, should speak as little as possible; for he is not then the imitator.
Tragic poetry, as it attains more effectually the end of the art itself, must deserve the preference over Epic poetry.
GREEK DRAMATIC POETRY.
In stating the conception we have of ancient Tragedy to be ideal, we are not to understand that the different characters were all morally perfect. In this case what room could there be for such an opposition or conflict as the plot of a drama requires?' Weaknesses, errors, and even crimes were portrayed in them; but the manners were always elevated above reality, and every person was invested with a dignity compatible with the share which he possessed in the action.
The ideality of the representation chiefly consisted in the elevation to a higher sphere.
The tragical poet wished wholly to separate the image of humanity, which he exhibited to us, from the ground of nature, to which man is in reality chained down.
The moral freedom of man can only be displayed in a conflict with the senses.
The moral part of our nature can only be preserved amidst struggles and difficulties; and if we were, therefore, to ascribe a distinctive aim to Tragedy, as instructive, it should be this,—that all these sufferings must be experienced, and all these difficulties overcome, to establish the claims of the mind to a divine origin, and teach us to estimate the earthly existence as vain and insignificant.
I come now to another peculiarity which distinguishes the Tragedy of the ancients from ours; I mean thé Chorus. We must consider it as the personification itself of the sentiments of the poet, as the interpreter for the whole human race.
This is the general poetical character which we must here assign to it, and that character is by no means affected by the circumstance that the Chorus had a local origin in the feasts of Bacchus, and that it always had a peculiar national signification with the Greeks. With their republican way of thinking, publicity was considered essential to every important transaction. As in their compositions they went back to the heroic ages; they gave a certain republican cast to the families of their heroes, by carrying on the action, either in presence of the elders of the people, or those persons whose characters entitled them to respect.
This publicity does not, it is true, correspond with Homer's picture of the manners of the heroic age; but both in the costume and the mythology, the dramatic poetry generally displayed a spirit of independence and conscious liberty.
The Chorus was, therefore, introduced to give the whole that appearance of reality which was most consistent with the fable. Whatever it might be in particular pieces, it represented in general, first, the national spirit, and then the general participation of mankind. In a word, the Chorus is the ideal spectator. It mitigates the impression of a heartrending or moving story, while it conveys to the actual spectator a lyrical and musical expression of his own emotions, and elevates him to the region of consideration.
The modern critics have never known what to make of the Chorus; and this is the less to be wondered at, as Aristotle affords no satisfactory solution of the difficulty. The business of the Chorus is better painted by Horace, who ascribes to it a general expression of moral participation, instruction, and admonition. The critics in question believe that the Chorus owed its continuance from the first origin of Tragedy, merely to accident; and as it is easy to perceive that in Euripides, the last tragic poet we have, the choral songs have frequently little or no connexion with the fable, and form a mere episodical ornament, they therefore conclude that the Greeks had only to take one other step in dramatic art, to explode the Chorus altogether. To refute these superficial conjectures, it is only necessary to observe, that Sophocles wrote a Treatise on the Chorus in prose, in opposition to the principles of some other poets; and that, far from following blindly the practice which he found established, like an intelligent artist, he could assign reasons for the system he adopted.
Modern poets of the very first rank, since the revival of the study of the ancients, have often attempted to introduce the Chorus in their pieces, for the most part without a correct, and always without a vivid idea of its destination : but we have no suitable singing or dancing ; neither have we, as our theatres are constructed, any place for it; and it will hardly ever succeed, therefore, in becoming naturalized
The Greek Tragedy, in its pure and unaltered state, will always, for our theatres, remain an exotic plant, which we can hardly hope to cultivate with any successs, even in the hothouse of learned art and criticism. The Grecian Mythology, which constitutes the materials of ancient Tragedy, is as foreign to the minds and imaginations of most of the spectators, as its form and mode of representation. But to endeavor to constrain another subject, an historical one, for example,
to assume that form, must always be a most unprofitable and hopeless attempt. The Greek Tragedians paint the downfall of kingly houses without any reference to the condition of the people ; they show us the man in the king, and, far from veiling their heroes from our sight in their purple mantles, they allow us to look through their vain splendor, into a bosom torn and harrowed up by passions.
That the regal pomp was not so necessary as the heroic costume is evident, not only from the practice of the ancients, but from the tragedies of the moderns having a reference to the throne, produced under different circumstances ; namely, the existence of monarchical government. They dare not. draw from existing reality; for nothing is less suitable for a Tragedy than a court and a court life. Where they do not, therefore, paint an ideal kingdom, with distant manners, they fall into stiffness and formality, which are much more destructive to freedom and boldness of character, and to deep pathos, than the narrow circle of private life.
The productiveness of mythology for the Tragic art we are principally to ascribe to the principle which we observe so powerful throughout the whole historical range of Grecian cultivation; namely, that the power which preponderated for the time assimilated every thing to itself. As the heroic fables, in all their deviations, were easily developed into the tranquil fulness and light variety of Epic poetry, they were afterwards adapted to the object which the Tragedians proposed to accomplish by earnestness, energy, and compression. And what in this change of destination appeared inapplicable to Tragedy, still afforded materials for a sort of half sportive though ideal representation, in the subordinate walk of the satirical drama.
The Homeric Epic is, in poetry, what half-raised workmanship is in sculpture ; and Tragedy the distinctly separated groupe.
The poem of Homer, sprung from the soil of the traditionary tale, is not yet purified from it; as the figures of a bas-relief are borne by a back ground which is foreign to them. These figures appear depressed: and in the Epic poem all is painted as past and remote. In the bas-relief they are generally thrown into profile; and in the Epic characterised in the most artless manner. They are, in the former, not properly grouped, but follow one another; and the Homeric heroes, in like manner, advance singly in succession before us. It has been remarked, that the Iliad is not definitely closed, but that we are left to suppose something both to precede and follow. The bas-relief is equally boundless, and may be continued, ad infinitum, either from be. forv or behind ; on which account the ancients preferred the selection of those objects for it which admitted of an indefinite extension; as