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judgment, and directing your choice. The first thing then you are to observe is the language, where the sound should not exceed the sense, which is called bombast; nor yet run into the opposite extreme, and talk in a low vulgar phrase. When the sentence is burdened with particles, such as of, for, and, so, &c. it tires the ear, and grows nauseous, and therefore wherever you see these sown with too liberal a hand, you may safely condemn the performance in this particular. Tragedy is a serious thing, and intended to reform men's manners, and spur them to virtue, and therefore whatever borders upon smut, ribaldry, or double entendre, is not to be endured. The ancients are particularly modest in that respect; but the moderns have taken greater licence, and in their love interviews intermixed what they call the luscious; but this is scarcely excusable. To this head belong comparisons; the intention of which is to relieve the mind when it has been long engaged in attending the progress of a narration, or else to paint something in more lively colours to the imagination than could be done by plain description only. The first of these is mostly in use in beroic poetry, such as Dryden's Virgil, and Pope's translation of Homer; but the latter belongs likewise to that kind of poetry I am now speaking of. Beautiful examples of this you will find in Addison's Cato,
“ So the pure limpid stream,” &c. And in Rowe's Tamerlane,
“ So cheers some pious saint a dying sinner," &c. I instance in these because they first occur to my memory. You will find others scattered throughout both those pieces, equally admirable in their kind.
I cannot dismiss this part of my subject without observing to you, that when these similes are too frequent in any com: position, they unbend the mind too much, and draw it off too far from the main subject. And yet this is a fault that some of our English writers have fallen into. A person in grief, or in anger, should never make any comparison, for that coolness of thought which is requisite for this is entirely inconsistent with the hurry and agitation of the blood upon such occasions. A person that is sent upon any important design, or has determined with himself upon the execution of it, should never stay to make barangues, much less to make similes, which are the business of leisure and the sports of the imagination.
And now I am engaged in treating of the language of
tragedy, I must add, that rhyme is very improper. Dryden did this in his Indian Emperor, but if I mistake not he has somewhere else in his works condemned it. It is a thing so contrary to reason and sense, that nothing but a condescension to please the rabble could have induced him to it; but the absurdity of it will appear from any one's using it in ordinary life, and if there is a person of your and my acquaintance that is guilty of this practice in common conversation, when you see him next, think of this and own the justness of the remark. How or when rhyme came first into English poetry is difficult to say, the oldest that I have seen in our language is Chaucer, in 1358; but I am sure he was not the author. It is generally ascribed to the monks; but I am apt to think they were only borrowers of the art. I have by me several Arabic pieces written in the same manner; which makes me inclined to think that the Moors brought it with them into Spain, whence they propagated it over these Western parts. But I am vastly deceived if it is not more ancient still, and have some reason to think that a few of the Psalms at least are written in this manner. But of this perhaps more than enough.
The next thing you will observe is the characters and sentiments. I join them together, because we can scarcely speak of one without considering the other too. When a king makes his appearance, he must discover himself in every word and every sentence. Guards and attendants are but the trappings of royalty, the language and the thoughts must bespeak the monarch. The parlour must never be brought into the kitchen, and it never can be supposed that servants can have notions equally enlarged with their masters and mistresses. Tales of fairies and people led away by will-o'-whisp, or spirited through the air, may suit well enough with Doll, the dairy-maid, but can hardly be thought to be credited by Mrs. Abigail
, my lady's woman. When a person famous for chastity and mildness of temper is made to talk loosely or in rants (the faults of Lee's Scipio in his Sophonisba,) it is an unpardonable crime. The formality of an old steward, and the simplicity of country servants, is well observed in the Drummer. I mention this play because I know you have read it, and because it fully expresses my meaning. Nor need its being a comedy be any objection, for in this both tragedy and comedy agree. Shakespeare bas hit upon low humour in his Hamlet, under the persons of his grave-diggers. But in a tragedy such witticisms draw off the mind from that solemnity and com. posure which should be maintained throughout the whole
of such representations, and therefore should never be ad. mitted. When a libertine is introduced (though I think it should be with great caution) be may be allowed to speak a little injuriously of a Providence, as not being supposed to have considered its mysterious and intricate, yet regular, proceedings. And if he uses the fair sex in general with the saine freedom, it is no more than what may be expected from his intercourse with none but the corrupt part of the sex; for that such there are. I know you will readily grant
But when such reflections are put in the mouth of a person of piety and virtue, it is an open insult upon good sense, and contrary to all the laws of religion and poetry. It is said of an ancient philosopher, that being in the theatre one day, and hearing in the drama a person of eminent probity and worth say something reflecting upon heaven, he immediately went out, lest by his stay he should seem in the least to countenance or approve his words. And this was the more remarkable because the poet was his intimate friend.
Again: a heathen can never with any propriety be made to talk like a christian, or a barbarian like a philosopher; and yet Dryden has been guilty of both these errors,
As tragedy is designed to raise the passions and affections, great care is to be used by the poet that they be placed upon proper objects; and where he has failed in this, his auditors ought to condemn him. Venice Preserved is an example of this kind, for there we are made to pity a pack of abandoned villains whose intention was the ruin and de. struction of their country. And this is what is meant when it is said that a play is founded upon a wrong moral.
The mind of a rational being can never be satisfied with any thing void of probability, and therefore the representation must take in only a proper quantity of time, just so much as we can suppose such a number of facts, could be performed in, And the same may be said with regard to place. We can never possibly imagine, for instance, that within the space of two or three hours the transaction of a year, much less eight or nine, can be included. Nor can we allow so small a space of time for a journey from France to England, and back again from thence to France; and yet Shakespeare has offended in both these cases.
It is time now to consider the conduct of a play. . Those of the Spaniards consist but of three acts, and that form has been introduced within this year or two upon the English stage; but, as the best in our language consist of five, my veflections shall regard these. How the number of five
came to be pitched upon I cannot tell, but it is certain that this was a rule 1700 years ago, as you will see in Roscommon's translation of Horace's Art of Poetry. In the first act, the principal characters only just make their appearance upon the stage, and shew themselves to the audience. In the second, the design of the piece just unfolds itself; and in the third, it seems near a conclusion; but in the fourth, an unlucky train of accidents conspire to embroil the action and throw every thing into confusion. This is called the plot, and is the principal thing to be regarded in a play, and is the better the deeper it is laid. In the last act, the clouds are again dispelled, and the intricacies of the plot unfolded, and the whole brought to a conclusion, which is all that is meant by that hard word catastrophe. And now it might be expected that I should say something relating to that question, whether a tragedy should end bappily or not? But I think it modester to suspend my judgment upon so nice a case. We have both sorts in our language, and both beld in esteem. But, I must confess, I am rather inclined to think it should not. There is another thing which is much talked of, and that is poetical justice; they think the good man should always be rewarded at last, and the wicked profligate be disappointed and punished. But this the Ancients were utterly unacquainted with, who, I believe I may say, always leave him overborne by the waves of fortune. Could we frame to ourselves the notion of a perfectly good man, there might be some pretence for this; but since the best of us are but weak and frail beings, continually subject to transgress, there is nothing that we can suffer here but what our sins may justly deserve. But I must force myself to break off here, lest from writing of plays I should insensibly begin to preach; but this I must adil, that I hope that whenever the comedy of courtship is over, you will observe this piece of poetical justice, and yield your hand to the most deserving it, under penalty of making your whole life after a continued tragedy.
What I have here sent you are only a few loose suggestions, just as they occurred to my mind, without consulting any one author upon the subject. You stand in so near a relation to me that I cannot but be affected with every wrong choice
It is a misfortune that we have not more of these things purposely adapted to women's use, but at present their education and instruction are monstrously neg. lected. And if they prefer to their beds fops, fools, and madmen, it is owing to mothers, nurses, and dancingschools. Of this I am satisfied, that, were their younger
years but more taken care of, we should not have so many complaints of their baseness, levity, and indiscretion. I believe I may by this time grow sufficiently tiresome, and shall only add, that however I may be in my remarks I am sure I am not mistaken when I say, I am, with the tenderest concern for your good, your most obliged, most affectionate brother, 1783, Oct.
XXXIV. Two Letters from the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Lancaster,
Mr. URBAN, I SEND you abstracts of two letters written about thirty years since, by the late Doctor Nathaniel Lancaster, a clergyman and Justice of the Peace, who resided at Stamford Rivers, near Chipping Ongar, in Esses. He was author of several valuable Tracts, but I believe never put his name to any, except an “Essay on Delicacy*,” which was much admired, and has been reprinted in Dodsley's “ Fugitive Pieces."
These letters were addressed to Mr. Jacob Robinson, a bookseller in London; the publisher and sole editor of a periodical work, called “ The Works of the Learned,” which has since his death been continued under the title of “ The Monthly Review."
Mr. Robinson, in consequence of editing the above work, was honoured with the correspondence of Pope, Warburton, Watts, Middleton, Lord Orrery, and several other eminent literary characters of that time.
June 11, 1753. “YOU say that you will write often to your friend at Stamford Rivers. It is indeed a kind declaration : perform your promise, and you will give me genuine satisfaction. What an admirable invention was that of painting our thoughts upon paper! Tell me, if you can, to whom this honour is ascribed, that I, may pay due reverence to the manes of him, who is the cause of that noble pleasure I
* And to a single sernion,
See the Anecdotes of Bowyer, p. 335.