Francis Jeffrey

 

 

[Rezension]

 

Thalaba, the Destroyer: A Metrical Romance. By Robert Southey. 2 vols. 12mo. London.

 

POETRY has this much, at least, in common with religion, that its standards were fixed long ago, by certain inspired writers whose authority it is no longer lawful to call in question; and that many profess to be entirely devoted to it, who have no good works to produce in support of their pretensions. The catholic poetical church, too, has worked but few miracles since the first ages of its establishment; and has been more prolific, for a long time, of doctors than of saints: it has had its corruptions, and reformation also, and has given birth to an infinite variety of heresies and errors, the followers of which have hated and persecuted each other as cordially as other bigots.

The author who is now before us, belongs to a sect of poets, that has established itself in this country within these ten or twelve years, and is looked upon, we believe, as one of its chief champions and apostles. The peculiar doctrines of this sect, it would not, perhaps, be very easy to explain; but, that they are dissenters from the established systems in poetry and criticism, is admitted, and proved indeed, by the whole tenor of their compositions. Though they lay claim, we believe, to a creed and a revelation of their own, there can be little doubt, that their doctrines are of German origin, and have been derived from some of the great modern reformers in that country. Some of their leading principles, indeed, are probably of an earlier date, and seem to have been borrowed from the great apostle of Geneva. As Mr. Southey is the first author of this persuasion, that has yet been brought before us for judgement, we cannot discharge our inquisitorial office conscientiously, without premising a few words upon the nature and tendency of the tenets he has helped to promulgate.

The disciples of this school boast much of its originality, and seem to value themselves very highly, for having broken loose from the bondage of ancient authority, and re-asserted the in[64]dependence of genius. Originality, however, we are persuaded, is rarer than mere alteration; and a man may change a good master for a bad one, without finding himself at all nearer to independence. That our new poets have abandoned the old models, may certainly be admitted; but we have not been able to discover that they have yet created any models of their own; and are very much inclined to call in question the worthiness of those to which they have transferred their admiration. The productions of this school, we conceive, are so far from being entitled to the praise of originality, that they cannot be better charaterised, than by an enumeration of the sources from which their materials have been derived. The greatest part of them, we apprehend, will be found to be composed of the following elements: 1. The antisocial principles, and distempered sensibility of Rousseau – his discontent with the present constitution of society – his paradoxical morality, and his perpetual hankerings after some unattainable state of voluptuous virtue and perfection. 2. The simplicity and energy (horresco referens) of Kotzebue and Schiller. 3. The homeliness and harshness of some of Cowper's language and versification, interchanged occasionally with the innocence of Ambrose Philips, or the quaintness of Quarles and Dr. Donne. From the diligent study of these few originals, we have no doubt that an entire art of poetry may be collected, by the assistance of which the very gentlest of our readers may soon be qualified to compose a poem as correctly versified as Thalaba, and to deal out sentiment and description, with all the sweetness of Lambe, and all the magnificence of Coleridge.

The authors of whom we are now speaking, have, among them, unquestionably, a very considerable portion of poetical talent, and have, consequently, been enabled to seduce many into an admiration of the false taste (as it appears to us) in which most of these productions are composed. They constitute, at present, the most formidable conspiracy that has lately been formed against sound judgment in matters poetical; and are entitled to a larger share of our censorial notice, than could be spared for an individual delinquent. We shall hope for the indulgence of our readers, therefore, in taking this opportunity to inquire a little more particularly into their merits, and to make a few remarks upon those peculiarities which seem to be regarded by their admirers as the surest proofs of their excellence.

Their most distinguishing symbol, is undoubtedly an affectation of great simplicity and familiarity of language. They disdain to make use of the common poetical phraseology, or to ennoble their diction by a selection of fine or dignified expressions. There would be too much art in this, for that great love of nature with which they are all of them inspired; and their [65] sentiments, they are determined shall be indebted, for their effect, to nothing but their intrinsic tenderness or elevation. There is something very noble and conscientious, we will confess, in this plan of composition; but the misfortune is, that there are passages in all poems that can neither be pathetic nor sublime; and that, on these occasions, a neglect of the establishments of language is very apt to produce absolute meanness and insipidity. The language of passion, indeed, can scarcely be deficient in elevation; and when an author is wanting in that particular, he may commonly be presumed to have failed in the truth, as well as in the dignity of his expression. The case, however, is extremely different with the subordinate parts of a composition; with the narrative and description, that are necessary to preserve its connexion; and the explanation, that must frequently prepare us for the great scenes and splendid passages. In these, all the requisite ideas may be conveyed, with sufficient clearness, by the meanest and most negligent expressions; and, if magnificence or beauty is ever to be observed in them, it must have been introduced from some other motive than that of adapting the style to the subject. It is in such passages, accordingly, that we are most frequently offended with low and inelegant expressions; and that the language, which was intended to be simple and natural, is found oftenest to degenerate into mere slovenliness and vulgarity. It is in vain, too, to expect that the meanness of those parts may be redeemed by the excellence of others. A poet who aims at all at sublimity or pathos, is like an actor in a high tragic character, and must sustain his dignity throughout, or become altogether ridiculous. We are apt enough to laugh at the mock-majesty of those whom we know to be but common mortals in private; and cannot permit Hamlet to make use of a single provincial intonation, although it should only be in his conversation with the grave-diggers.

The followers of simplicity are, therefore, at all times in danger of occasional degradation; but the simplicity of this new school seems intended to ensure it. Their simplicity does nor consist, by any means, in the rejection of glaring or superfluous ornament, – in the substitution of elegance to splendour, – or in that refinement of art which seeks concealment in its own perfection. It consists, on the contrary, in a very great degree, in the positive and bona fidê rejection of art altogether, and in the bold use of those rude and negligent expressions, which would be banished by a little discrimination. One of their own authors, indeed, has very ingeniously set forth, (in a kind of manifesto, that preceded one of their most flagrant acts of hostility), that it was their capital object to 'adapt to the uses of poetry, the ordinary language of [66] conversation among the middling and lower orders of the people.' What advantages are to be gained by the success of this project, we confess ourselves unable to conjecture. The language of the higher and more cultivated orders may fairly be presumed to be better than that of their inferiors: at any rate, it has all those associations in its favour, by means of which a style can ever appear beautiful or exalted, and is adapted to the purposes of poetry, by having been long consecrated to its use. The language of the vulgar, on the other hand, has all the opposite associations to contend with; and must seem unfit for poetry, (if there were no other reason), merely because it has scarcely ever been employed in it. A great genius may indeed overcome these disadvantages; but we scarcely conceive that he should court them. We may excuse a certain homeliness of language in the productions of a ploughman or a milkwoman; but we cannot bring ourselves to admire it in an author, who has had occasion to indite odes to his college-bell, and inscribe hymns to the Penates.

But the mischief of this new system is not confined to the depravation of language only; it extends to the sentiments and emotions, and leads to the debasement of all those feelings which poetry is designed to communicate. It is absurd to suppose, that an author should make use of the language of the vulgar to express the sentiments of the refined. His professed object, in employing that language, is to bring his compositions nearer to the true standard of nature; and his intention to copy the sentiments of the lower orders, is implied in his resolution to make use of their style. Now, the different classes of society have each of them a distinct character, as well as a separate idiom; and the names of the various passions to which they are subject respectively, have a signification that varies essentially, according to the condition of the persons to whom they are applied. The love, or grief, or indignation of an enlightened and refined character, is not only expressed in a different language, but is in itself a different emotion from the love, or grief, or anger of a clown, a tradesman, or a market-wench. The things themselves are radically and obviously distinct; and the representation of them is calculated to convey a very different train of sympathies and sensations to the mind. The question, therefore, comes simply to be – Which of them is the most proper object for poetical imitation? It is needless for us to answer a question, which the practice of all the world has long ago decided irrevocably. The poor and vulgar may interest us, in poetry, by their situation; but never, we apprehend, by any sentiments that are peculiar to their condition, and still less by any language that is characteristic of it. The truth is, that it is impossible to copy their diction or their sentiments correctly, in a serious composition; and this, not [67] merely because poverty makes men ridiculous, but because just taste and refined sentiment are rarely to be met with among the uncultivated part of mankind; and a language fitted for their expression, can still more rarely form any part of their 'ordinary conversation.'

The low-bred heroes, and interesting rustics of poetry, have no sort of affinity to the real vulgar of this world; they are imaginary beings, whose characters and language are in contrast with their situation; and please those who can be pleased with them, by the marvellous, and not by the nature of such a combination. In serious poetry, a man of the middling or lower order must necessarily lay aside a great deal of his ordinary language; he must avoid errors in grammar and orthography; and steer clear of the cant of particular professions, and of every impropriety that is ludicrous or disgusting: nay, he must speak in good verse, and observe all the graces in prosody and collocation. After all this, it may not be very easy to say how we are to find him out to be a low man, or what marks can remain of the ordinary language of conversation in the inferior orders of society. If there be any phrases that are not used in good society, they will appear as blemishes in the composition, no less palpably than errors in syntax or quantity; and if there be no such phrases, the style cannot be characteristic of that condition of life, the language of which it professes to have adopted. All approximation to that language, in the same manner, implies a deviation from that purity and precision, which no one, we believe, ever violated spontaneously.

It has been argued, indeed, (for men will argue in support of what they do not venture to practice), that, as the middling and lower orders of society constitute by far the greater part of mankind, so, their feelings and expressions should interest more extensively, and may be taken, more fairly than any other, for the standards of what is natural and true. To this, it seems obvious to answer, that the arts that aim at exciting admiration and delight, do not take their models from what is ordinary, but from what is excellent; and that our interest in the representation of any event, does not depend upon our familiarity with the original, but on its intrinsic importance, and the celebrity of the parties it concerns. The sculptor employs his art in delineating the graces of Antinous or Apollo, and not in the representation of those ordinary forms that belong to the crowd of his admirers. When a chieftain perishes in battle, his followers mourn more for him than for thousands of their equals that may have fallen around him.

After all, it must be admitted, that there is a class of persons (we are afraid they cannot be called readers), to whom the representation of vulgar manners, in vulgar language, will afford [68] much entertainment. We are afraid, however, that the ingenious writers who supply the hawkers and ballad-singers, have very nearly monopolized that department, and are probably better qualified to hit the taste of their customers, than Mr. Southey, or any of his brethren, can yet pretend to be. To fit them for the higher task of original composition, it would not be amiss if they were to undertake a translation of Pope or Milton into the vulgar tongue, for the benefit of those children of nature.

There is another disagreeable effect of this affected simplicity, which, though of less importance than those which have been already noticed, it may yet be worth while to mention: This is, the extreme difficulty of supporting the same low tone of expression throughout, and the inequality that is consequently introduced into the texture of the composition. To an author of reading and education, it is a style that must always be assumed and unnatural, and one from which he will be perpetually tempted to deviate. He will rise, therefore, every now and then, above the level to which he has professedly degraded himself; and make amends for that transgression by a fresh effort of descension. His composition, in short, will be like that of a person who is attempting to speak in an obsolete or provincial dialect; he will betray himself by expressions of occasional purity and elegance, and exert himself to efface that impression, by passages of unnatural meanness or absurdity.

In making these strictures on the perverted taste for simplicity, that seems to distinguish our modern school of poetry, we have no particular allusion to Mr. Southey, or the production now before us: On the contrary, he appears to us to be less addicted to this fault than most of his fraternity; and if we were in want of examples to illustrate the preceding observations, we should certainly look for them in the effusions of that poet who commemorates, with so much effect, the chattering of Harry Gill's teeth, tells the tale of the one-eyed huntsman 'who had a cheek like a cherry,' and beautifully warns his studious friend of the risk he ran of 'growing double.'

At the same time, it is impossible to deny that the author of the 'English Eclogues' is liable to a similar censure; and few persons, we believe, will peruse the following verses (taken, almost at random, from the Thalaba) without acknowledging that he still continues to deserve it.

      'At midnight Thalaba started up,
For he felt that the ring on his finger was moved.
      He called on Allah aloud,
      And he called on the Prophet's name.
      Moath arose in alarm:
      "What ails thee, Thalaba?" he cried,
      "Is the robber of night at hand?"
      [69] "Dost thou not see," the youth exclaimed.
      "A Spirit in the Tent?"
      Moath looked round, and said,
      "The moon-beam shines in the Tent,
      'I see thee stand in the light,
      'And thy shadow is black on the ground."
      Thalaba answered not.
      "Spirit!" he cried, "what brings thee here?" &c.
                                                   
                  'WOMAN.
      Go not among the tombs, Old Man!
      There is a madman there.
                  OLD MAN.
      Will he harm me if I go?
                  WOMAN.
      Not he, poor miserable man!
      But 'tis a wretched sight to see
      His utter wretchedness.
      For all day long he lies on a grave,
      And never is he seen to weep,
      And never is he heard to groan,
      Nor ever at the hour of prayer
      Bends his knee, nor moves his lips.
      I have taken him food for charity,
      And never a word he spake;
      But yet, so ghastly he looked,
      That I have awakened at night,' &c.

Now, this style, we conceive, possesses no one character of excellence; it is feeble, low, and disjointed; without elegance, and without dignity; the offspring, we should imagine, of mere indolence and neglect, or the unhappy fruit of a system that would teach us to undervalue that vigilance and labour which sustained the loftiness of Milton, and gave energy and direction to the pointed and fine propriety of Pope.

The style of our modern poets, is that, no doubt, by which they are most easily distinguished; but their genius has also an internal character; and the peculiarities of their taste may be discovered, without the assistance of their diction. Next after great familiarity of language, there is nothing that appears to them so meritorious as perpetual exaggeration of thought. There must be nothing moderate, natural, or easy, about their sentiments. There must be a 'qu'il mourut,' and a 'let there be light,' in every line; and all their characters must be in agonies and ecstasies, from their entrance to their exit. To those who are acquainted with their productions, it is needless to speak of the fatigue that is produced by this unceasing summons to admiration, or of the compassion which is excited by the spectacle of these [70] eternal strainings and distortions. Those authors appear to forget, that a whole poem cannot be made up of striking passages; and that the sensations produced by sublimity, are never so powerful and entire, as when they are allowed to subside and revive, in a slow and spontaneous succession. It is delightful, now and then, to meet with a rugged mountain, or a roaring stream; but where there is no sunny slope, nor shaded plain, to relieve them – where all is beetling cliff and yawning abyss, and the landscape presents nothing on every side but prodigies and terrors – the head is apt to grow giddy, and the heart to languish for the repose and security of a less elevated region.

The effect even of genuine sublimity, therefore, is impaired by the injudicious frequency of its exhibition, and the omission of those intervals and breathing-places, at which the mind should be permitted to recover from its perturbation or astonishment: but, where it has been summoned upon a false alarm, and disturbed in the orderly course of its attention, by an impotent attempt at elevation, the consequences are still more disastrous. There is nothing so ridiculous (at least for a poet) as to fail in great attempts. If the reader foresaw the failure, he may receive some degree of mischievous satisfaction from its punctual occurrence; if he did not, he will be vexed and disappointed; and, in both cases, he will very speedily be disgusted and fatigued. It would be going too far, certainly, to maintain, that our modern poets have never succeeded in their persevering endeavours at elevation and emphasis; but it is a melancholy fact, that their successes bear but a small proportion to their miscarriages; and that the reader who has been promised an energetic sentiment, or sublime allusion, must often be contented with a very miserable substitute. Of the many contrivances they employ to give the appearance of uncommon force and animation to a very ordinary conception, the most usual is, to warp it up in a veil of mysterious and unintelligible language, which flows past with so much solemnity, that it is difficult to believe it conveys nothing of any value. Another device for improving the effect of a cold idea, is to embody it in a verse of unusual harshness and asperity. Compound words, too, of a portentous sound and conformation, are very useful in giving an air of energy and originality; and a few lines of scripture, written out into verse from the original prose, have been found to have a very happy effect upon those readers to whom they have the recommendation of novelty.

The qualities of style and imagery, however, form but a small part of the characteristics by which a literary faction is to be distinguished. The subject and object of their compositions, and the principles and opinions they are calculated to support, constitute a far more important criterion, and one to which it is usu[71]ally altogether as easy to refer. Some poets are sufficiently described as the flatterers of greatness and power, and others as the champions of independence. One set of writers is known by its antipathy to decency and religion; another, by its methodistical cant and intolerance. Our new school of poetry has a moral character also; though it may not be possible, perhaps, to delineate it quite so concisely.

A splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society, seems to be at the bottom of all their serious and peculiar sentiments. Instead of contemplating the wonders and the pleasures which civilization has created for mankind, they are perpetually brooding over the disorders by which its progress has been attended. They are filled with horror and compassion at the sight of poor men spending their blood in the quarrels of princes, and brutifying their sublime capabilities in the drudgery of unremitting labour. For all sorts of vice and profligacy in the lower orders of society, they have the same virtuous horror, and the same tender compassion. While the existence of these offences overpowers them with grief and confusion, they never permit themselves to feel the smallest indignation or dislike towards the offenders. The present vicious constitution of society alone is responsible for all these enormities: the poor sinners are but the helpless victims or instruments of its disorders, and could not possibly have avoided the errors into which they have been betrayed. Though they can bear with crimes, therefore, they cannot reconcile themselves to punishments; and have an unconquerable antipathy to prisons, gibbets, and houses of correction, as engines of oppression, and instruments of atrocious injustice. While the plea of moral necessity is thus artfully brought forward to convert all the excesses of the poor into innocent misfortunes, no sort of indulgence is shewn to the offences of the powerful and rich. Their oppressions and seductions, and debaucheries, are the theme of many an angry verse; and the indignation and abhorrence of the reader is relentlessly conjured up against those perturbators of society, and scourges of mankind.

It is not easy to say whether the fundamental absurdity of doctrine, or the partiality of its application, be entitled to the severest reprehension. If men are driven to commit crimes, through a certain moral necessity; other men are compelled, by a similar necessity, to hate and despise them for their commission. The indignation of the sufferer is at least as natural as the guilt of him who makes him suffer; and the good order of society would probably be as well preserved, if our sympathies were sometimes called forth in behalf of the former. At all events, the same apology ought certainly to be admitted for the wealthy, as for the needy offender. They are subject alike to the over-running influ[72]ence of necessity, and equally affected by the miserable condition of society. If it be natural for a poor man to murder and rob, in order to make himself comfortable, it is no less natural for a rich man to gormandize and domineer, in order to have the full use of his riches. Wealth is just as valid an excuse for the one class of vices, as indigence is for the other. There are many other peculiarities of false sentiment in the productions of this class of writers, that are sufficiently deserving of commemoration; but we have already exceeded our limits in giving these general indications of their character, and must now hasten back to the consideration of the singular performance which has given occasion to all this discussion.

The first thing that strikes the reader of Thalaba, is the singular structure of the versification, which is a jumble of all the measures that are known in English poetry, (and a few more), without rhyme, and without any sort of regularity in their arrangement. Blank odes have been known in this country about as long as English sapphics and dactylics; and both have been considered, we believe, as a species of monsters, or exotics, that were not very likely to propagate, or thrive, in so unpropitious a climate. Mr. Southey, however, has made a vigorous effort for their naturalization, and generously endangered his own reputation in their behalf. The melancholy fate of his English sapphics, we believe, is but too generally known; and we can scarcely predict a more favourable issue to the present experiment. Every combination of different measures is apt to perplex and disturb the reader who is not familiar with it; and we are never reconciled to a stanza of a new structure, till we have accustomed our ear to it by two or three repetitions. This is the case, even where we have the assistance of rhyme to direct us in our search after regularity, and where the definite form and appearance of a stanza assures us that regularity is to be found. Where both of these are wanting, it may be imagined that our condition will be still more deplorable; and a compassionate author might even excuse us, if we were unable to distinguish this kind of verse from prose. In reading verse, in general, we are guided to the discovery of its melody, by a sort of preconception of its cadence and compass; without which, it might often fail to be suggested by the mere articulation of the syllables. If there be any one, whose recollection does not furnish him with evidence of this fact, he may put it to the test of experiment, by desiring any of his illiterate acquaintances to read off some of Mr. Southey's dactylics or Sir Philip Sydney's hexameters. It is the same thing with the more unusual measures of the ancient authors. We have never known any one who fell in, at the first trial, with the proper rythm and cadence of the pervigilium [73] Veneris, or the choral lyrics of the Greek dramatists. The difficulty, however, is virtually the same, as to every new combination; and it is an unsurmountable difficulty, where such new combinations are not repeated with any degree of uniformity, but are multiplied, through the whole composition, with an unbounded licence of variation. Such, however, is confessedly the case with the work before us; and it really seems unnecessary to make any other remark on its versification.

The author, however, entertains a different opinion of it. So far from apprehending that it may cost his readers some trouble to convince themselves that the greater part of the book is not mere prose, written out into the form of verse, he is persuaded, that its melody is more obvious and perceptible than that of our vulgar measures. 'One advantage,' says Mr. Southey, 'this metre assuredly possesses; the dullest reader cannot distort it into discord: he may read it with a prose mouth, but its flow and fall will still be perceptible.' We are afraid, there are duller readers in the world than Mr. Southey is aware of. We recommend the following passages for experiment.

      "The Day of the Trial will come,
'When I shall understand how profitable
      'It is to suffer now."

      'Hodeirah groaned and closed his eyes,
As if in the night and the blindness of death
            He would have hid himself.'

      "Blessed art thou, young man,
'Blessed art thou, O Aswad, for the deed!
      'In the day of visitation,
      'In the fearful hour of judgment,
            'God will remember thee!"

     "It is the hour of prayer, . .
   'My children, let us purify ourselves,
        'And praise the Lord our God!"
        The boy the water brought;
   After the law they purified themselves,
   And bent their faces to the earth in prayer.'

   'Azure, and yellow, like the beautiful fields
   Of England, when amid the growing grass
   The blue-bell bends, the golden king-cup shines,
        In the merry month of May!'

          'But Thalaba took not the draught,
   'For rightly he knew had the prophet forbidden
          That beverage the mother of sins.'

            [74] 'The blinded multitude
            Adored the Sorcerer,
      And bent knee before him,
            And shouted out his praise,
      "Mighty art thou, the Bestower of joy,
          'The Lord of Paradise!"

      'Dizzy with the deafening strokes,
      In blind and interrupted course,
      Poor beast, he struggles on;
      And now the dogs are nigh!
      How his heart pants! you see
      The panting of his heart;
      And tears like human tears
Roll down, along the big veins      '

                              'they perished all,
All in that dreadful hour: but I was saved,
          To remember and revenge.'

'Like the flowing of a summer-gale, he felt
      Its ineffectual force;
      His countenance was not changed,
      Nor a hair of his head was singed.'

"Aye! look and triumph!" he exclaimed,
      'This is the justice of thy God!
      'A righteous God is he, to let
'His vengeance fall upon the innocent head!
      'Curse thee, curse thee, Thalaba!"

      'With what a thirst of joy
He should breathe in the open gales of heaven!'

    'Vain are all spells! the Destroyer
         Treads the Domdaniel floor.'

         "Thou hast done well, my Servant!
         'Ask and receive thy reward!"

Mr. Southey must excuse us for doubting, whether even a poet's mouth could turn these passages into good verse; and we are afraid, the greater part of his readers will participate in our scepticism.

The subject of this poem is almost as ill chosen as the diction; and the conduct of the fable as disorderly as the versification. The corporation of magicians, that inhabit 'the Domdaniel caverns, under the roots of the ocean,' had discovered, that a terrible destroyer was likely to rise up against them from the seed of Hodeirah, a worthy Arab, with eight fine children. Immediately the murder of all those innocents is resolved on; and a sturdy assassin sent with instructions to destroy the whole family [75] (as Mr. Southey has it) 'root and branch.' The good man, accordingly, and seven of his children, are dispatched; but a cloud comes over the mother and the remaining child; and the poem opens with the picture of the widow and her orphan wandering, by night, over the deserts of Arabia. The old lady, indeed, might is well have fallen under the dagger of the Domdanielite; for she dies, without doing any thing for her child, in the end of the first book; and little Thalaba is left crying in the wilderness. Here he is picked up by a good old Arab, who takes him home, and educates him like a pious Mussulman; and he and the old man's daughter fall in love with each other, according to the invariable custom in all such cases. The magicians, in the mean time, are hunting him over the face of the whole earth; and one of them gets near enough to draw his dagger to stab him, when a providential simoom lays him dead on the sand. From the dead sorcerer's finger, Thalaba takes a ring, inscribed with some unintelligible characters, which he is enabled to interpret by the help of some other unintelligible characters that he finds on the forehead of a locust; and soon after takes advantage of an eclipse of the sun, to set out on his expedition against his father's murderers, whom he understands (we do not very well know how) he has been commissioned to exterminate. Though they are thus seeking him, and he seeking them, it is amazing what difficulty they find in meeting: they do meet, however, every now and then, and many sore evils does the Destroyer suffer at their hands. By faith and fortitude, however, and the occasional assistance of the magic implements he strips them of, he is enabled to baffle and elude their malice, till he is conducted, at last, to the Domdaniel cavern, where he finds them assembled, and pulls down the roof of it upon their heads and his own; perishing, like Sampson, in the final destruction of his enemies.

From this little sketch of the story, our readers will easily perceive that it consists altogether of the most wild and extravagant fictions, and openly sets nature and probability at defiance. In its action, it is not an imitation of any thing; and excludes all rational criticism, as to the choice and succession of its incidents. Tales of this sort may amuse children, and interest, for a moment, by the prodigies they exhibit, and the multitude of events they bring together: but the interest expires with the novelty; and attention is frequently exhausted, even before curiosity has been gratified. The pleasure afforded by performances of this sort, is very much akin to that which may be derived from the exhibition of a harlequin farce; where, instead of just imitations of nature and human character, we are entertained with the transformation of cauliflowers and beer-barrels, the ap[76]parition of ghosts and devils, and all the other magic of the wooden sword. Those who can prefer this eternal sorcery, to the just and modest representation of human actions and passions. will probably take more delight in walking among the holly griffins, and yew sphinxes of the city-gardener, than in ranging among the groves and lawns which have been laid out by a hand that feared to violate nature, as much as it aspired to embellish her; and disdained the easy art of startling by novelties, and surprising by impropriety.

Supernatural beings, though easily enough raised, are known to be very troublesome in the management, and have frequently occasioned much perplexity to poets and other persons who have been rash enough to call for their assistance. It is no very easy matter to preserve consistency in the disposal of powers, with the limits of which we are so far from being familiar; and when it is necessary to represent our spiritual persons as ignorant, or suffering, we are very apt to forget the knowledge and the powers with which we had formerly invested them. The ancient poets had several unlucky rencounters of this sort with Destiny and the other deities; and Milton himself is not a little hampered with the material and immaterial qualities of his angels. Enchanters and witches may, at first sight, appear more manageable; but Mr. Southey has had difficulty enough with them; and cannot be said, after all, to have kept his fable quite clear and intelligible. The stars had said, that the Destroyer might be cut off in that hour when his father and brethren were assassinated; yet he is saved by a special interposition of Heaven. Heaven itself, however, had destined him to extirpate the votaries of Eblis; and yet, long before this work is done, a special message is sent to him, declaring, that, if he chooses, the death-angel is ready to take him away instead of the sorcerer's daughter. In the beginning of the story, too, the magicians are quite at a loss where to look for him; and Abdalbar only discovers him by accident, after a long search; yet, no sooner does he leave the old Arab's tent, than Lobaba comes up to him, disguised, and prepared for his destruction. The witches have also a decoy ready for him in the desert; yet he sups with Okba's daughter, without any of the sorcerers being aware of it; and afterwards proceeds to consult the simorg, without meeting with any obstacle or molestation. The simoom kills Abdalda, too, in spite of that ring which afterwards protects Thalaba from lightning, and violence, and magic. The Destroyer's arrow then falls blunted from Lobaba's breast, who is knocked down, however, by a shower of sand of his own raising; and this same arrow, which could make no impression on the sorcerer, kills the magic bird of Alodain, and pierces the rebel[77]lious spirit that guarded the Domdaniel door. The whole infernal band, indeed, is very feebly and heavily pourtrayed. They are a set of stupid, undignified, miserable wretches, quarrelling with each other, and trembling in the prospect of inevitable destruction. None of them even appears to have obtained the price of their self-sacrifice in worldly honours and advancement, except Mohareb; and he, though assured by destiny that there was one death-blow appointed for him and Thalaba, is yet represented, in the concluding scene, as engaged with him in furious combat, and aiming many a deadly blow at that life on which his own was dependent. If the innocent characters in this poem were not delineated with more truth and feeling, the notoriety of the author would scarcely have induced us to bestow so much time on its examination.

Though the tissue of adventures through which Thalaba is conducted in the course of this production, be sufficiently various and extraordinary, we must not set down any part of the incidents to the credit of the author's invention. He has taken great pains, indeed, to guard against such a supposition; and has been as scrupulously correct in the citation of his authorities, as if he were the compiler of a true history, and thought his reputation would be ruined by the imputation of a single fiction. There is not a prodigy, accordingly, or a description, for which he does not fairly produce his vouchers, and generally lays before his readers the whole original passage from which his imitation has been taken. In this way it turns out, that the book is entirely composed of scraps, borrowed from the oriental tale-books, and travels into the Mahometan countries, seasoned up for the English reader with some fragments of our own ballads, and shreds of our elder sermons. The composition and harmony of the work, accordingly, is much like the pattern of that patch-work drapery that is sometimes to be met with in the mansions of the industrious, where a blue tree overshadows a shell-fish, and a gigantic butterfly seems ready to swallow up Palemon and Lavinia. The author has the merit merely of cutting out each of his figures from the piece where its inventor had placed it, and stitching them down together in these judicious combinations.

It is impossible to peruse this poem, with the notes, without feeling that it is the fruit of much reading, undertaken for the express purpose of fabricating some such performance. The author has set out with a resolution to make an oriental story, and a determination to find the materials of it in the books to which he had access. Every incident, therefore, and description, – every superstitious usage, or singular tradition, that appeared to him susceptible of poetical embellishment, or capable of picturesque representation, he has set down for this purpose, and adopted such [78] a fable and plan of composition, as might enable him to work up all his materials, and interweave every one of his quotations, without any extraordinary violation of unity or order. When he had filled his common-place book, he began to write; and his poem is little else than his common-place book versified.

It may easily be imagined, that a poem constructed upon such a plan, must be full of cumbrous and misplaced description, and overloaded with a crowd of incidents, equally unmeaning and ill assorted. The tedious account of the palace of Shedad, in the first book – the description of the Summer and Winter occupations of the Arabs, in the third — the ill-told story of Haruth and Maruth — the greater part of the occurrences in the island of Mohareb – the paradise of Aloadin, &c. &c. – are all instances of disproportioned and injudicious ornaments, which never could have presented themselves to an author who wrote from the suggestions of his own fancy; and have evidently been introduced, from the author's unwillingness to relinquish the corresponding passages in D'Herbelot, Sale, Volney, &c. which appeared to him to have great capabilities for poetry.

This imitation, or admiration of Oriental imagery, however, does not bring so much suspicion on his taste, as the affection he betrays for some of his domestic models. The former has, for the most part, the recommendation of novelty; and there is always a certain pleasure in contemplating the costume of a distant nation, and the luxuriant landscape of an Asiatic climate. We cannot find the same apology, however, for Mr. Southey's partiality to the drawling vulgarity of some of our old English ditties. Here is what he has been pleased to present to his readers (in a note), as 'one of the most beautiful of our old ballads, so full of beauty.' The heroine is an old mare belonging to John Poulter.

'At length old age came on her
    And she grew faint and poor,
Her master he fell out with her,
    And turned her out of door,
Saying, 'If thou wilt not labour,
    I prithee go thy way –
And never let me see thy face
    Until thy dying day.'

These words she took unkind,
    And on her way the went,
For to fulfil her master's will
    Always was her intent.
The hills were very high,
    The vallies very bare.
The summer it was hot and dry, –
    It starved Old Poulter's mare.'

[79] There are three stanzas more; but we shall only add the last. Old Poulter repents, and sends his man, Will, to bring the mare back. Will, at first, cannot find her; but, as he is thinking of giving up the search,

'He went a little farther
    And turned his head aside,
And just by goodman Whitfield's gate,
    Oh there the mare he spied.
He asked her how she did. –
    She stared him in the face,
Then down she laid her head again,
    She was in wretched case
.'

These three last lines, Mr. Southey seriously considers as the ne plus ultra of purity and pathos.

The text certainly is not, by any means, so bad as might have been expected from such a note; though there are some passages, in which a patriotic zeal for neglected English authors has made him copy their style a little too faithfully. Could the great master of Namby Pamby have lisped out his repetitions in blank verse, with more amiable simplicity than in the following passage? The author is describing a certain spring, that, he says, 'tossed and heaved strangely up and down.

    'And yet the depths were clear,
And yet no ripple wrinkled o'er
    The face of that fair Well.

And on that Well to strange and fair
    A little boat there lay,
Without an oar, without a sail;
One only seat it had, one seat
As if for only Thalaba.
And at the helm a Damsel stood
A Damsel bright and bold of eye,
Yet did a maiden-modesty
    Adorn her fearless brow.
She seemed sorrowful, but sure
    More beautiful for sorrow.'

From the extracts and observations which we have hitherto presented to our readers, it will be natural for them to conclude, that our opinion of this poem is very decidedly unfavourable; and that we are not disposed to allow it any sort of merit. This, however, is by no means the case. We think it written, indeed, in a very vicious taste, and liable, upon the whole, to very formidable objections: But it would not be doing justice to the genius of the author, if we were not to add, that it contains passages of very singular beauty and force, and displays a richness of [80] poetical conception, that would do honour to more faultless compositions. There is little of human character in the poem, indeed; because Thalaba is a solitary wanderer from the solitary tent of his protector: But the home-group, in which his infancy was spent, is pleasingly delineated; and there is something irresistibly interesting in the innocent love, and misfortunes, and fate of his Oneiza. The catastrophe of her story is given, it appears to us, with great spirit and effect, though the beauties are of that questionable kind, that trespass on the border of impropriety, and partake more of the character of dramatic, than of narrative poetry. After delivering her from the polluted paradise of Aloadin, he prevails on her to marry him before his mission is accomplished. She consents with great reluctance; and the marriage-feast, with its processions, songs, and ceremonies, is described in some joyous stanzas. The book ends with these verses:

'And now the marriage feast is spread,
And from the finished banquet now
    The wedding guests are gone.
                                   
Who comes from the bridal chamber?
It is Azrael, the Angel of Death.'

The next book opens with Thalaba lying distracted upon her grave, in the neighbourhood of which he had wandered, till 'the sun, and the wind, and the rain, had rusted his raven locks; and there he is found by the father of his bride, and visited by her ghost, and soothed and encouraged to proceed upon his holy enterprize. He sets out on his lonely way, and is entertained the first night by a venerable dervise: As they are sitting at meal, a bridal procession passes by, with dance, and song, and merriment. The old dervise blesses them as they pass; but Thalaba looked on, 'and breathed a low deep groan, and hid his face.' These incidents are skilfully imagined, and are narrated in a very impressive manner.

Though the witchery scenes are in general but poorly executed, and possess little novelty to those who have read the Arabian Nights Entertainments, there is, occasionally, some fine description, and striking combination. We do not remember any poem, indeed, that presents, throughout, a greater number of lively images, or would afford so many subjects for the pencil.

The introductory lines have a certain solemn and composed beauty:

            'How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air;
    No mist obscures, no little cloud
    Breaks the whole serene of heaven:
[81] In full-orbed glory the majestic moon
                  Rolls thro' the dark blue depths.
                  Beneath her steady ray
                  The desert circle spreads,
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.
                  How beautiful is night!'

There are many fine sketches of tropical scenery in the description of Aloadin's paradise. The following verses breathe the true spirit of Oriental poetry:

'And Oh! what odours the voluptuous vale
         Scatters from jasmine bowers,
         From yon rose wilderness,
From clustered henna, and from orange groves
         That with such perfumes fill the breeze,
         As Peris to their Sister bear,
When from the summit of some lofty tree
She hangs, encaged, the captive of the Dives.
         They from their pinions shake
      The sweetness of celestial flowers;
      And as her enemies impure
From that impervious poison far away
Fly groaning with the torment, she the while
         Inhales her fragrant food.
    Such odours flowed upon the world,
    When at Mohammed's nuptials, word
    Went forth in heaven to roll
The everlasting gates of Paradise
Back on their living hinges, that its gales
Might visit all below: the general bliss
Thrilled every bosom, and the family
Of man, for once, partook one common joy.'

The picture of Maimuna sitting by a fire in a solitary cavern, and singing 'a low, sweet, unintelligible song,' as she spun, reminds us of the appearance of Calypso in the Odyssey.

          την δ' ενδοθι τετμεν εγσαν
Πῦρ μεν επ' εσχαροφιν μεγα καιετο, τηλοθι δ' οδμη
Κεδργ τ' ευκεατοιο, θυγ τ' ανα νησον οδωδει,
Δαιομενων' η δ' ενδον ἀοιδιαυο' οπι καλη,
'Ιστον εκοι χομενη, χρυσειν κερκιδ' υφαινεν.

Maimuna's figure is very striking, too, when she goes up to read the stars.

'Lo! on the terrace of the topmost tower
         She stands; her darkening eyes,
         Her fine face raised to heaven,
Her white hair flowing like the silver streams
         That streak the northern night.'

[82] The little episode of Laila is one of the most pleasing passages in the whole poem; though it is quite in the style of a fairy tale, and borders on silliness throughout. In the midst of a desert of snow, Thalaba descries a distant light, and finds on his approach, that it proceeds from

'              a little lowly dwelling-place,
Amid a garden, whose delightful air
Felt mild and fragrant, as the evening wind
Passing in Summer o'er the coffee-groves
Of Yemen, and its blessed bowers of balm.
A Fount of Fire that in the centre played,
Rolled all around its wondrous rivulets,
And fed the garden with the heat of life.'

He enters, and finds a damsel sleeping, who afterwards informs him that she was placed there by her father, who 'saw a danger in her horoscope,' and hid her in that solitude.

'              he made this dwelling, and the grove,
And yonder fountain-fire; and every morn
He visits me, and takes the snow, and moulds
Women and men, like thee; and breathes into them
Motion, and life, and sense, . . but to the touch
They are chilling cold, and ever when night closes
They melt away again, and leave me here
Alone and sad.'

She then tells him, that her father had also constructed a guardian of the garden; which, when he asks to see,

         'She took him by the hand.
         And through the porch they past.
     Over the garden and the grove
         The fountain streams of fire
         Poured a broad light like noon;
     A broad unnatural light,
That made the Rose's blush of beauty pale,
And dimmed the rich Geranium's scarlet blaze.
     The various verdure of the grove
Now wore one undistinguishable grey,
     Chequered with blacker shade.'

The Guardian was a brazen figure, grasping a thunder bolt. As soon as Thalaba appeared,

'The charmed image knew Hodeirah's son,
And hurled the lightning at the dreaded foe.'

[83] His ring saves him; but the Old Magician comes and tells the Destroyer, that he must either kill that innocent maid, or die himself.

         'Around her father's neck
         Still Laila's hands were clasped.
      Her face was turned to Thalaba,
A broad light floated o'er its marble paleness,
      As the wind waved the fountain fire.
Her large dilated eye, in horror raised,
            Watched his every movement.'

Thalaba refuses to stain his hands in the blood of innocence. The Magician, exulting, draws his dagger.

'All was accomplished.   Laila rushed between
            To save the saviour Youth.
She met the blow and sunk into his arms,
And Azrael from the hands of Thalaba
            Received her parting soul.'

There is some very fine poetry in the two concluding books, from which we would willingly make some extracts, if we had not already extended this article to an unusual length, and given such a specimen of the merits and defects of this performance, as will probably be sufficient to determine the judgment of our readers.

All the productions of this author, it appears to us, bear very distinctly the impression of an amiable mind, a cultivated fancy, and a perverted taste. His genius seems naturally to delight in the representation of domestic virtues and pleasures, and the brilliant delineation of external nature. In both these departments, he is frequently very successful, but he seems to want vigour for the loftier flights of poetry. He is often puerile, diffuse, and artificial, and seems to have but little acquaintance with those chaster and severer graces, by whom the epic muse would be most suitably attended. His faults are always aggravated, and often created, by his partiality for the peculiar manner of that new school of poetry, of which he is a faithful disciple, and to the glory of which he has sacrificed greater talents and acquisitions, than can be boasted of by any of his associates.

 

 

 

 

Druckvorlage

The Edinburgh Review.
1802, Oktober, S. 63-83.

Ungezeichnet.

URL: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000530182

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

 

 

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Literatur

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer