began to see it as well as himself. There is, perhaps, no human production that does not, more or less, breathe the spirit of the times in which it is written, or at least of some considerable portion of it. Butler's ludicrous representation of Hudibras was perfectly in unison with the feelings of thousands besides himself, and if all men had been unqualified admirers of chivalry in the time of Cervantes, he could never have surmounted the prejudices of the age. So far from being able to place the heroes of chivalry in so ridiculous a point of view, he could not even have perceived any thing ludicrous or unnatural in what he had been taught to venerate from his earliest years, nor have made the Spaniards blush at their chivalric genius. They must have first felt themselves its absurdity, more or less, before they could be convinced of it.

While the spirit of chivalry, however, was at its height, the adventures of knight-errants afforded a most romantic and diversified field for the wanderings of the poet. The chivalric adventurer could not himself, at setting out, divine where chance might conduct him. He suffered his steed to follow whatever track he chose, but the poet who accompanied him in imagination, placed him in a thousand situations, and conducted him through a thousand scenes which human foot had never pressed. The most unbounded field was therefore thrown open to the creative imagination of the poet, who peopled it with shadowy shapes, magicians, giants, and all the unreal scenes and personages of ideal being. In fact, the eternal forests that then covered the greater part of Europe were, of themselves, sufficient to excite the spirit of curiosity, and, consequently, of adventure. He who wandered through these woods, and was a constant spectator of nature in all her wild disorder and horrific magnificence, would easily indulge in the most romantic conceptions. Buried in impenetrable gloom, he would imagine to himself all the possible dangers by which he might be surrounded. He would create around him, like the poet, witches, fairies, necromancers, giants, goblins, spirits, and all the idle brood of moody imagination. His fears would alter the sensible appearance of remote or indistinct objects, and make them assume those forms which he most dreaded. A mind for any

time accustomed to such feelings and apprehensions, could easily credit what would appear palpable fiction to a man who never saw a forest, and was a stranger to those nameless and indescribable feelings which are excited within us by certain appearances of nature. The spirit of romance, therefore, arose from natural causes, and a latitude of description and relation should be allowed to the writers of the time, which cannot be claimed by others. If, therefore, these circumstances, com

bined with the superstition of the age, could give credence to the wildest fictions of imagination, we must not too rigidly examine the probability of Ariosto's relations : all our objec tions to them amount to nothing, so far as they are founded on want of probability, while they are sufficiently probable for the age in which they were written.

Ariosto is more esteemed with us than in France, because, in general, we write and judge of works differently from the French. The French writer sketches out the entire plan of his work, and studies to make all the parts accord with each other; but the English writer is apt to forget his logic and metaphysics the moment he sits down to write. He studies to say a great many good things, but does not much relish to study what should be said first, and what last. In this respect, however, he seldom commits any important errors. Naturally possessed of good taste, all glaring misplacements and deviations from propriety appear intuitively to him; but he is at all times more studious of saying what is right, than of accommodating it to its time and place. Even our metaphysical writers cannot succeed so well as foreigners in the logical arrangement of their works. The Wealth of Nations was written by one of our most sensible philosophers, and yet when it came into the hands of a French translator, he found it extremely defective, in point of order, though he is a professed admirer of the work itself. The genius of the two nations is therefore_different, and accordingly Ariosto is less pleasing to the French than to the English critic. The latter determines his merit by his own feelings, the former by his judgement. The latter is pleased with a beautiful passage, without comparing it with any other; the former rejects this pleasure as a delusion, if it contain any sentiment or expression at variance either with the general design of the work, or any particular member of it. Hence, Ariosto seldom pleases the French critic, because he will not put on the yoke of servitude, and say every thing in its proper place, because he skips away unexpectedly from his subject, though it must be confessed, he abandons it when we are most desirous of pursuing it. He does so, however, not by chance, but by design; for invariably throughout the Orlando, the most interesting part is that in which he chooses to drop the subject and fly to some other. He is generally accused of subjecting himself to no rule whatever, of obeying no law, of rejecting all the canons of criticism, and of writing purely as his own fancy dictates. This appears to us evidently a mistake. There is no poet more observant of order and method, though it is an order and method peculiar to himself. In dropping one adventure and flying to another, he always leaves off where curiosity is most highly excited. This is what he is chiefly

[ocr errors]

blamed for by the critics, but though it is certain that we cannot well endure disappointment at the very moment our hopes are on the point of being gratified, it is also certain, that there is a pleasure in being held in suspense, when we have nothing to fear and something to hope for. When the lover has succeeded in gaining the heart of his fair one, and prevails on her to appoint the day that is to render him happy, he enjoys, perhaps, during the interval, a more varied and rapid succession of blissful emotions, than he ever experiences afterwards. When anticipation is gratified, the keen edge of desire is blunted, or saturated with enjoyment. Suspense or doubt is painful only when exacted either by some craving or desire which we apprehend may never be gratified, or by some impending evil from which we fear we cannot escape. In all other cases suspense is a pleasure, for it rouses all our faculties and prompts us to pursue that enjoyment which smilingly allures us in the distant vista of the imagination. This is always the case in Ariosto. Whenever he stops short, and passes abruptly to some other subject, we know that, however painful it is to be disappointed at the moment, it is still a pain mingled with pleasure, a pleasure arising from our past experience, that it is only a temporary suspension of enjoyment, and that if we have patience to read a little farther, we shall become acquainted with the issue of those adventures that have interested us so much already. Had we been gratified at the moment, the pleasure would be only of a temporary character, but from its being thus judiciously delayed, we are continually enjoying it by anticipation; and we pass over the intervening incidents and adventures with a two-fold pleasure, one arising from themselves, the other from the satisfaction of knowing that the moment we have concluded them, we shall be made acquainted with that from which we have already derived so much anticipated enjoyment. He who has his wishes eternally gratified is seldom happy, because constant and unceasing enjoyment destroys the faculty of enjoyment itself, whereas tempered and well regulated enjoyments are a perpetual feast.

That Ariosto was determined, in breaking off his adventures abruptly, by this view of the subject, appears more than probable from the following lines.

"Come raccende il gusto il mature esca
Cosi mi par, che le mia istoria, quanto,

Or quà, or là piu variata, sià

Meno, a chi l'ndirà noisa sia."

"As at the board, with plenteous viands grac'd,
Cate after cate excites the sick'ning taste,

So, while my muse repeats her varied strains,

Tale following tale the ravish'd ear detains.".

If each of the different adventures related in the Orlando were concluded before another begun, we would probably lay down the book at the end of each adventure, and take up the next at some other time. That Ariosto's manner of arranging them is therefore the most interesting, appears evident from our unwillingness to lay the book out of our hands till we have gone through the entire work. We cannot, therefore, agree with Gravina, when he says, that Ariosto" is reprehensible for the disagreeable breaks in his narrative;" nor with his translator, Mr. Hoole, that "it is likewise to be feared, that those repeated breaks, by blending the adventures with each other, must rather tend to perplex and embarrass the story." No embarrassment whatever can arise from dropping an adventure, in one place, and resuming it in another, as Ariosto, in taking it up, recals our attention to the part where he left off. In fact, though his plan of conducting his poem is perfectly original, and has a prima facie appearance of irregularity, few poets have been more observant of that order which he had planned out for himself at the commencement.

Whatever be Ariosto's faults, he has one merit that redeems them all, a merit which whoever possesses, possesses also the virtue of converting blemishes into beauties. This merit consists in the intense interest which he excites throughout the work. All his heroes are so interesting, that we imagine the present hero the most interesting of all, and we cannot endure to have him snatched from us suddenly, to hold converse with another. Our regret, however, is of a short duration, for the new hero or heroine soon becomes our principal favourite. If, then, the art of interesting be the true art of writing; if, in the absence of this art, beauty be faded, and instruction insipid; if it be the strong interest excited in the Iliad that renders it the first of all poems, Ariosto must be allowed to rank, if not in the first, at least in the second class of poets. Voltaire, in fact, does not hesitate to prefer the Orlando to the Odyssey, but with this opinion we cannot agree; for admitting Ariosto capable of excelling Homer in descriptive and pathetic powers, his subject would not permit him to equal him in either. In Homer, every thing has the appearance of reality he never "oversteps the modesty of nature," for even when he introduces his gods and goddesses supporting their respective heroes in battle, we see no inconsistency, because we believe Homer had no higher idea of the subject gods of Jupiter. Jupiter himself he never introduces into the fight,

which shews that if he had as high an opinion of them as he had of him, at whose nod

"Great heaven with trembling the dread signal took,

And all Olympus to the centre shook,

he would have been more sparing of celestial agency.

But though Ariosto's heroes are of a more ideal character, and consequently less interesting, we must, to estimate his merits fairly, become as credulous as the age in which he wrote. We must have a firm belief in magic, or at least suffer Ariosto and his contemporaries to have a firm belief in it; and we shall then find the Orlando less ideal than it would otherwise appear. But whatever allowances we make for his idealisms, we can never compare him to Homer, in point of sublimity, though, in beauty and minuteness of description, he surpasses both him and all other writers. One flash of Homer's fire, however, rouses that electric thrill which all the luxury of description can never excite. Homer seizes at once whatever is calculated to inflame and inspire, and rejects whatever is not impregnated with this living principle; but Ariosto suffers nothing to escape him that associates with our ideas of grace and beauty. His pictures are therefore most luxuriant and delicious; but we easily perceive that they are not, like those of Homer, struck out at a heat. His description of Alcina, the sorceress, for instance, is quoted by Dolce, in his dialogue on painting, as a portrait of perfect beauty: but who does not perceive the art and study which was exercised in producing it? In this description there is not, perhaps, a word that we can alter, and yet we see, at a glance, it is not like Homer's descriptions, the work of inspiration. Every epithet, simile, and allusion, is true to nature, but it wants that fire that burns in Homer, and carries the mind forcibly and impetuously beyond its ordinary limits. Homer is rapid and impetuous in his engagements, while Ariosto is particular and circumstantial. He omits in fact no circumstance whatever, and if his battles, and particularly his single combats, have not all the rage and overwhelming impetuosity of Homer, they have at least all the truth and reality of nature. He is, of all poets, the happiest in combining, selecting, and imagining all the various turns and possible chances of battle.

Having taken this retrospect of the general design of the poem, the impropriety of selecting a chief hero and a main action, in a poem composed of such materials as Ariosto had fixed upon, the degree of credibility that may be attached to his relations and extravagant scenes, and the interest excited by his frequent interruptions of the story, by the introduction of new, or the resumption of adventures already commenced, we shall

« ForrigeFortsett »