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Now gently winding up the fair ascent
Virgil sometimes errs against this rule: in the following passages minute circumstances are brought into full view; and, what is still worse, they are described with all the pomp of poetical diction; Æneid, L. i. l. 214 to 219. L. vi. l. 176 to 182. L. vi. l. 212 to 231 : and the last, which describes a funeral, is the less excusable, as the man whose funeral it is makes no figure in the po
The speech of Clytemnestra, descending from her chariot in the Iphigenia of Euripides,* is stuffed with a number of common and trivial circumstances.
But of all writers, Lucan, as to this article, is the most injudicious: the sea-fight between the Romans and Massilians,t is described so much in detail, without exhibiting any grand or total view, that the reader is fatigued with endless circumstances, without ever feeling any degree of elevation; and yet there are some fine incidents, those for example of the two brothers, and of the old man and his son, which, taken separately, would affect us greatly.
* Beginning of Act iji.
+ Lib. iii, beginning at line 567.
But Lucan, once engaged in a description, knows no end. See other passages of the same kind, L. xxiv. 1. 292 to 337. L. iv. l. 750 to 765. The episode of the sorceress Erictho, end of book vi. is intolerably minute and prolix.
To these I venture to oppose a passage from an old historical ballad :
Go, little page, tell Hardiknute,
That lives on hill so high,*
And haste to follow me.
The little page flew swift as dart
Flung by his master's arm.
“ And rid your king from harm.”
This rule is also applicable to other fine arts. In painting it is established, that the principal figure must be put in the strongest light; that the beauty of attitude consists in placing the nobler parts most in view, and in suppresing the smaller parts as much as possible; that the folds of the drapery must be few and large; that fore-shortenings are bad, because they make the parts appear little; and that the muscles ought to be kept as entire as possible, without being divided into small sections. Every one at present subscribes to that rule as applied to gardening, in opposition to parterres split into a thousand small parts in the stiffest regularity of figure. The most eminent architects have governed themselves by the same rule in all their works.
Another rule chiefly regards the sublime, though it is applicable to every sort of literary performance intended for amusement; and that is to avoid as much as possible abstract and general terms. Such terms, similar to mathematical signs, are contrived to express our thoughts in a concise manner; but images, which are the life of poetry, cannot be raised in any perfection but by introducing particular objects. General terms that comprehend a number of individuals, must be excepted from that rule: our kindred, our clan, our country, and words of the like import, though they scarce raise any image, have however, a wonderful power over our passions : the greatness of the complex object overbalances the obscurity of the image.
* High, in the old Scotch language, is prouounced hec.
Grandeur being an extreme vivid emotion, is not readily produced in perfection but by reiterated impressions. The effect of a single impression can be but momentary ; and if one feel suddenly somewhat like a swelling or exaltation of mind, the emotion vanisheth as soon as felt. Single thoughts or sentiments, I know, are often cited as examples of the sublime; but their effect is far inferior to that of a grand subject displayed in its capital parts. I shall give a few examples, that the reader may judge for himself. In the famous action of Thermopylæ, where Leonidas the Spartan king, with his chosen band, fighting for their country, were cut off to the last man, a saying is reported of Dieneces, one of the band, which, expressing cheerful and undisturbed bravery, is well entitled to the first place in examples of that kind. Respecting the number of their enemies, it was observed, that the arrows shot by such a multitude would intercept the light of the sun. So much the better, says he, for we shall then fight in the shade.*
Somerset. Ah! Warwick, Warwick, wert thou as we are,
Third Part, Henry VI. Act V. Sc. 3.
* Herodotus, Book vii,
Such a sentiment from a man expiring of his wounds, is truly heroic, and must elevate the mind to the greatest height that can be done by a single expression : it will not suffer in a comparison with the famous sentiment Qu'il mourut of Corneille: the latter is a sentiment of indignation merely, the former of firm and cheerful courage.
To cite in opposition many a sublime passage, enriched with the finest images, and dressed in the most nervous expressions, would scarce be fair: 1 shall produce but one instance, from Shakspeare, which sets a few ob. jects before the eye, without much pomp of language: it operates its effect by representing these objects in a climax, raising the mind higher and higher till it feel the emotion of grandeur in perfection :
The cloud-capt tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The cloud-capt tow'rs produce an elevating emotion, heightened by the gorgeous palaces; and the mind is carried still higher and higher by the images that follow. Successive images making thus deeper and deeper im. pressions, must elevate more than any single image can do.
As, on the one hand, no means directly applied have more influence to raise the mind than grandeur and sublimity; so, on the other, no means indirectly applied have more influence to sink and depress it: for in a state of elevation, the artful introduction of an humbling object, makes the fall great in proportion to the elevation. Of this observation Shakspeare gives a beautiful example, in the passage last quoted :
The cloud-capt tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Vol. I,
Yea all which it inherit, sball dissolve,
Tempest, Act IV. Sc. 4.
The elevation of the mind in the former part of this beautiful passage, makes the fall great in proportion, when the most humbling of all images is introduced, that of an utter dissolution of the earth and its inhabitants. The mind, when warmed, is more susceptible of impressions than in a cool state ; and a depressing or melancholy object listened to, makes the strongest impression when it reaches the mind in its highest state of elevation or cheerfulness.
But a humbling image is not always necessary to produce that effect: a remark is made above, that in describing superior beings, the reader's imagination, unable to support itself in a strained elevation, falls often as from a height, and sinks even below its ordinary tone. The following instance comes luckily in view ; for a better cannot be given ; “God said, Let there be light, and there was “ light.” Longinus quotes this passage from Moses as a shining example of the sublime; and it is scarce possible, in fewer words, to convey so clear an image of the infinite power of the Deity: but then it belongs to the present subject to remark that the emotion of sublimity raised by this image is but momentary; and that the mind, unable to support itself in an elevation so much above nature, immediately sinks down into humility and veneration for a being so far exalted above grovelling mortals. Every one is acquainted with a dispute about that passage between two French critics,* the one positively affirming it to be sublime, the other as positively denying. What I have remarked shows that both of them have reached the truth, but neither of them the whole truth: the primary effect of the passage is undoubtedly an emotion of gran
* Boileau and Huet.