Descriptas servare vices, operumque colores,
Cur ego, si nequeo ignoroque, pota salutor? HOR. De Ar. Poet. 86.
But if, through weakness, or my want of art,
I can’t to every different style impart
The proper strokes and colours it may claim,
Why am I honour’d with a poet’s name? FRANCIS.
It is one of the maxims of the civil law, that definitions are hazardous. Things modified by human understandings, subject to varieties of complication, and changeable as experience advances knowledge, or accident influences caprice, are scarcely to be included in any standing form of expression, because they are always suffering some alteration of their state. Definition is, indeed, not the province of man; every thing is set above or below our faculties. The works and operations of nature are too great in their extent, or too much diffused in their relations, and the performances of art too inconstant and uncertain, to be reduced to any determinate idea. It is impossible to impress upon our minds an adequate and just representation of an object so great that we can never take it into our view, or so mutable that it is always changing under our eye, and has already lost its form while we are labouring to conceive it.
Definitions have been no less difficult or uncertain in criticisms than in law. Imagination, a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations, and impatient of restraint, has always endeavoured to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction, and burst the inclosures of regularity. There is therefore scarcely any species of writing, of which we can tell what is its essence, and what are its constituents; every new genius produces some innovation, which, when invented and approved, subverts the rules which the practice of foregoing authors had established.
Comedy has been particularly unpropitious to definers; for though perhaps they might properly have contented themselves, with declaring it to be such a dramatick representation of human life, as may excite mirth, they have embarrassed their definition with the means by which the comick writers attain their end, without considering that the various methods of exhilarating their audience, not being limited by nature, cannot be comprised in precept. Thus, some make comedy a representation of mean and others of bad men; some think that its essence consists in the unimportance, others in the fictitiousness of the transaction. But any man’s reflections will inform him, that every dramatick composition which raises mirth, is comick; and that, to raise mirth, it is by no means universally necessary, that the personages should be either mean or corrupt, nor always requisite, that the action should be trivial, nor ever, that it should be fictitious.
If the two kinds of dramatick poetry had been defined only by their effects upon the mind, some absurdities might have been prevented, with which the compositions of our greatest poets are disgraced, who, for want of some settled ideas and accurate distinctions, have unhappily confounded tragick with comick sentiments. They seem to have thought, that as the meanest of personages constituted comedy, their greatness was sufficient to form a tragedy; and that nothing was necessary but that they should crowd the scene with monarchs, and generals, and guards; and make them talk, at certain intervals, of the downfall of kingdoms, and the rout of armies. They have not considered, that thoughts or incidents, in themselves ridiculous, grow still more grotesque by the solemnity of such characters; that reason and nature are uniform and inflexible: and that what is despicable and absurd, will not, by any association with splendid titles, become rational or great; that the most important affairs, by an intermixture of an unseasonable levity, may be made contemptible; and that the robes of royalty can give no dignity to nonsense or to folly.
“Comedy,” says Horace, “sometimes raises her voice;” and Tragedy may likewise on proper occasions abate her dignity; but as the comick personages can only depart from their familiarity of style, when the more violent passions are put in motion, the heroes and queens of tragedy should never descend to trifle, but in the hours of ease, and intermissions of danger. Yet in the tragedy of Don Sebastian, when the king of Portugal is in the hands of his enemy, and having just drawn the lot, by which he is condemned to die, breaks out into a wild boast that his dust shall take possession of Africk, the dialogue proceeds thus between the captive and his conqueror:
Muley Moluch. What shall I do to conquer thee?
Seb. Impossible! Souls know no conquerors.
M. Mol. I’ll shew thee for a monster thro’ my Afric.
Seb. No, thou canst only shew me for a man: Afric is stored with monsters; man’s a prodigy Thy subjects have not seen.
M. Mol. Thou talk’st as if
Still at the head of battle.
Seb. Thou mistak’st,
For there I would not talk.
Benducar, the Minister. Sure he would sleep. This conversation, with the sly remark of the minister, can only be found not to be comick, because it wants the probability necessary to representations of common life, and degenerates too much towards buffoonery and farce.
The same play affords a smart return of the general to to the emperor, who, enforcing his orders for the death of Sebastian, vents his impatience in this abrupt threat:
”No more replies,
But see thou dost it: Or”
To which Dorax answers,
Choak in that threat: I can say Or as loud.
A thousand instances of such impropriety might be produced, were not one scene in Aureng-Zebe sufficient to exemplify it. Indamora, a captive queen, having Aureng-Zebe for her lover, employs Arimant, to whose charge she had been entrusted, and whom she had made sensible of her charms, to carry her message to his rival.
ARIMANT, with a letter in his hand: INDAMORA.
Arim. And I the messenger to him from you?
Your empire you to tyranny pursue:
You lay commands both cruel and unjust,
To serve my rival, and betray my trust.
Ind. You first betray’d your trust in loving me:
And should not I my own advantage see?
Serving my love, you may my friendship gain;
You know the rest of your pretences vain.
You must, my Arimant, you must be kind:
‘Tis in your nature, and your noble mind.
Arim. I’ll to the king, and straight my trust resign.
Ind. His trust you may, but you shall never mine.
Heaven made you love me for no other end,
But to become my confidant and friend:
As such, I keep no secret from your sight,
And therefore make you judge how ill I write:
Read it, and tell me freely then your mind,
If ’tis indited, as I meant it, kind.
Arim. I ask not heaven my freedom to restore-Reading.
But only for your sake-I’ll read no more.
And yet I must-
Less for my own, than for your sorrow sad-Reading.
Another line like this, would make me mad-
Heav’n! she goes on-yet more-and yet more kind!
Each sentence is a dagger to my mind.
See me this night-Reading.
Thank fortune who did such a friend provide;
For faithful Arimant shall be your guide.
Not only to be made an instrument,
But pre-engaged without my own consent!
Ind. Unknown to engage you still augments my score,
And gives you scope of meriting the more.
Arim. The best of men
Some int’rest in their actions must confess;
None merit, but in hope they may possess:
The fatal paper rather let me tear,
Than, like Bellerophon, my own sentence hear.
Ind. You may; but ’twill not be your best advice:
‘Twill only give me pains of writing twice.
You know you must obey me, soon or late:
Why should you vainly struggle with your fate?
Arim. I thank thee, heav’n! thou hast been wondrous kind!
Why am I thus to slavery design’d,
And yet am cheated with a free-born mind!
Or make thy orders with my reason suit,
Or let me live by sense, a glorious brute-She frowns.
You frown, and I obey with speed, before
That dreadful sentence comes, See me no more.
In this scene, every circumstance concurs to turn tragedy to farce. The wild absurdity of the expedient; the contemptible subjection of the lover; the folly of obliging him to read the letter, only because it ought to have been concealed from him; the frequent interruptions of amorous impatience; the faint expostulations of a voluntary slave; the imperious haughtiness of a tyrant without power; the deep reflection of the yielding rebel upon fate and free-will; and his wise wish to lose his reason as soon as he finds himself about to do what he cannot persuade his reason to approve, are sufficient to awaken the most torpid risibility.
There is scarce a tragedy of the last century which has not debased its most important incidents, and polluted its most serious interlocutions, with buffoonery and meanness; but though, perhaps, it cannot be pretended that the present age has added much to the force and efficacy of the drama, it has at least been able to escape many faults, which either ignorance had overlooked, or indulgence had licensed. The later tragedies, indeed, have faults of another kind, perhaps more destructive to delight, though less open to censure. That perpetual tumour of phrase with which every thought is now expressed by every personage, the paucity of adventures which regularity admits, and the unvaried equality of flowing dialogue, has taken away from our present writers almost all that dominion over the passions which was the boast of their predecessors. Yet they may at least claim this commendation, that they avoid gross faults, and that if they cannot often move terrour or pity, they are always careful not to provoke laughter.