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"The mellow glory of the Attic stage,
Singer of sweet Colonus and its child."
But the true ancient drama, which could not strike root in France or Italy, can still less hope to do so in England. In architecture, we have done much as the French did in poetry, -we have introduced and used freely a dwarfed and conventional classical school. We have also built occasional specimens more or less true to the real Greek types; but these latter stand, and must ever stand, as curiosities. We cannot live in Greek houses, nor worship in Greek temples. Vain is Mr. Arnold's hope to see an English literature "enriched," as he expresses it, "with the forms of the most perfectly formed literature in the world." As well might he bid us retrieve the discipline of Sparta, or replant the "groves of Academe." When we have rebuilt the Greek theatres, it will be time to reintroduce the Greek drama.
But this is no reason why Mr. Arnold should not, if he pleases, write a Greek play. Such an exercise, involving as it does a close and minute study of the details of ancient masterpieces, may be of infinite value to the poet's self, cannot be read (at least if done as well as it is here done) without interest by educated men; and it may possibly exercise a wider influence. It is professedly an attempt on the part of the author to give English readers a knowledge of what Greek tragedy was— to teach them the secret of its beauty and power. And it is not impossible that something may be thus taught. True, there is no royal road which can give us any adequate knowledge and real appreciation of ancient art; true that this process is rather beginning at the wrong end, and that instead of Merope teaching us what Greek tragedy is, we ought to know what Greek tragedy was to understand what Merope is; true that those will read it with the greatest pleasure and the highest appreciation who have got a standard with which to compare it,―gathered associations to which it can appeal,-in whose memories it stirs the half-effaced recollection of those pleasures when the intellect and imagination in their first active spring reaped the fruits of schoolboy drudgery, and first comprehended how great a thing they had gained. Yet for all this, half a loaf is better than no bread; and many men possess an instinct which enables them to gather from secondary sources alone a real insight into the subject of their inquiry; they manage to get hold of a sort of imaginative touchstone, and by means of it to pick out what is genuine, and discard what is adulterated. You can learn less perhaps of Greek literature than of any other through the medium of translations and imitations; but you had better read translations and imitations of the things themselves than be con
tent with descriptions of them, and better read descriptions of them than know absolutely nothing of them.
Still, if Mr. Arnold's object was to extend the knowledge of Greek tragedy, and increase the English appreciation of it, he ought to have written a translation, not an imitation. He has stated his reasons for not doing so; and no doubt the latter is far pleasanter to write, and affords a better field for the powers of a poet; but, for evident reasons, it is far less valuable to others to have Mr. Arnold's idea of what a Greek play was than Eschylus' or Sophocles' idea. If he approach the English reader any closer by an imitation than a translation, it is by being so far false to his model of a true Greek play. If, on the other hand, his object is the resurrection of the Attic drama, we don't see why the imitation should stop short of the language. If it be advisable we should possess Greek subject-matter, expressed according to Greek ideas in Greek poetical forms, why not put it into Greek words too, and make an exact reproduction and a sealed book of it? Is ancient subject-matter, then, excluded from modern art? No; but it is one thing to attempt to reproduce ancient art, and another to use what we know of ancient life as the subject of modern art. It is difficult, indeed, most difficult, to do even this: on the one side is the danger lest by seeking for accuracy poetry become lost in antiquarianism; on the other, lest in our ignorance we content ourselves with delineating skeleton passions, and not men. Shakespeare did the most that can be done in his Coriolanus and Cæsar he grasped ancient characters as firmly as he could; and then he delineated them, not only in English language, but in English forms of art, and through the medium of English ideas and English habits of thought. What we controvert is, the idea, openly expressed by Mr. Arnold, that there is an unworked side of English literature, in the direction of direct imitation of that of Greece.
Yet the play of Merope merits notice, if for no other reason, because the genius of its author stands very distinct among that of his contemporaries; and this work is an effort to exert and extend its most salutary influence. There is a pleasure in reading Matthew Arnold's poems which can be derived from few other poets of the day. It is not merely that his is the writing of an educated English gentleman, that barbarisms of language and puffed and gaudy metaphor are eschewed, that he scorns meretricious adornments, thinks sense of some importance, and is capable of escaping from himself;-it is that he has a nice sense of the beauty of form, and that to huddle together disjecta membra of poetry gives him no satisfaction; it is that he knows, and in all his writings proves that he knows, that finish of execution and harmony of proportion are essential to the completeness of a poem.
It is doubtless this conviction on his part which has made him profess himself a follower of the classical school. For take that term in its widest signification, as embracing all the modern forms of art more or less directly based on ancient models, and it is impossible to deny that it is distinguished from that which, for distinction's sake rather than from any innate propriety, has been called the romantic school,-by a more uniform regard for the proprieties of expression, the justnesses of proportion, and the polish of details. Why this should be so it is not difficult to discern. It is not, as has been sometimes supposed, and as even Mr. Arnold seems tacitly to assume, because there is something in the very spirit and nature of the more modernly evolved literature which disregards the beauty of form; it is because it is an infinitely more difficult task to give perfect symmetry to the far more detailed and complex subject-matter of the latter. It is like the difference between drawing Retsch's outlines and painting Titian's pictures. The modern classical school not only obtained complete models of form, but by using for the most part classical subject-matter also, it made still narrower and easier than to the ancients the conditions under which perfection-or, we should rather say, correctness of form-was to be studied: for, as we have before observed, it is the mere skeleton of Greek interests and Greek ideas which can be handled by the modern artist. And this limitation reacted on the form; for the more refined and delicate beauties of Greek art being inextricably bound up with the niceties of its subject-matter, in losing its hold of these it discarded those also, and remained in substance, and hard though exact in outline.
The highest poetry, as Coleridge has said, is an organic growth. Its forms are the natural forms into which the vital energy shoots. This is especially true of the romantic school, in which, even in the most artificial departments, as in the drama, the fixed rules within which the poet works are extremely broad and elastic. It is true also of the poetry of ancient Greece; and though, by reason of the religious and ceremonial origin of the drama, the conditions were more narrow and stringent, yet each great poet left his own impress on the forms as well as the subject-matter. It is not true of the modern classical school. A great scientific mind made some remarks as to the conditions and laws of the nature of the drama as it existed in his day; and these mere laws of the existing condition of an art have been made into laws of control, or rules, to guide the labours of future poets; and in later times they have both been narrowed and their domain extended. More or less modified, they became the basis of the modern classical school, and its followers have arrogated to themselves the claim of possessing a degree
of art which others want. The claim, as we have said, is not entirely unfounded. They gain something; but they lose more. Given a square box, to fill it, is the French problem; given a seed, to grow it, is the English. Where the conditions are already furnished, it is easier, within the limits, to study symmetry, decorum, and appropriateness of detail. A defined path to walk in is an aid and a support to a mediocre genius; and English poetry, which suffered once from too narrow a conventionalism, is now rather in danger in an opposite direction from the disorderly venting of small and often incongruous spirts of imagination, which are not the branch and bud and flower of one single organic growth of the imagination, but mere scattered motes glittering in the sunshine. But liberty is not less great because some are too feeble to use it aright. Conventionalism of form draws with it conventionalism of phrase, and even of matter. Freedom is as noble and as essential in art as in life. In neither can we entirely dispense with laws: but the tendency of advancement is to reduce their number, and to generalise their enactments; and that moral nature and that imagination are the highest, which have within themselves the truest instincts of harmony, and follow them with the simplest spontaneity. The evils of an imposed set of rules in art are like the evils of a paternal government: the helps of the weak are the fetters of the strong and aspiring; and we see a genius like that of Racine cramped up in unities, tied down to a monotonous verse, and compelled to sustain itself on the faded traditions of an extinct national life and a religion dead and powerless. It is the glory of the romantic, and especially perhaps of the English school of poetry,-a glory which raises it above ancient art itself, and immeasurably above its modern resuscitations and copies,-that it has dared to be free. That few have been found worthy of that freedom is true. Perhaps, on the whole, German art is more harmonious and conscientious than English; it has not had to control imaginations so warm and daring; but where the air is freest grow the stateliest trees, and a literature which can show the names of Shakespeare and of Milton, of Dryden and of Pope, of Wordsworth, of Burns, of Byron, and of Tennyson, may claim at least to have profited by the great gift of liberty. Great as is Greek art, infinite would be the loss to England if her poets should, in admiration of it, be led aside from the nobler and more difficult task of attempting to give perfection of form to the works of their native school. But this much is true, that in the study of Greek literature a poet may learn much of the beauty that lies in form; and that what our modern literature most wants is a sense of the value of completeness and finish in this respect. An English masterwork which should fully develop the lofty grace
and profound beauty that consummate form is capable of bestowing, would exercise, or at least has a field for exercising, the highest influence. We do not say Mr. Arnold should have attempted such a task. It is no derogation to his high poetical gifts to say that it is probably not within his power; and it is certain that his tastes and predilections lead him to occupy himself with less complex and difficult subject-matter, we say less complex and difficult, because it is undoubtedly true that, though a modern poem may be as shallow and as narrow as you please, yet one which avails itself to the full of those materials which Christianity and Western thought and civilisation have laid up, must be infinitely greater than one which is restricted to the materials at the disposal of the ancient Greeks. And moreover, Mr. Arnold's work is a service in the same direction: it exalts and exemplifies the beauty of form-indeed, is specially devoted to this object; and though that beauty be sought under conditions different from those we now require, not easily appreciable by the mass of English readers, and which necessarily and deservedly prevent it from being popular, yet even thus it is no light gain to see it warmly and conscientiously sought after by a modern poet, and not inadequately set forth.
But while we admit that the three Greek tragedians handled their subject-matter with exquisite skill, and that they evolved from the conditions under which they worked the highest beauty of which they were capable, we by no means believe that they were ever sensible of the full capacities, and attained to the highest exercise of dramatic art, or that their plays, as wholes, are the highest models of form. We have neither scope nor call here to discuss the former of these assertions-few probably would dispute it; but Mr. Arnold's preface, which has drawn us into these general observations, invites some remarks on the latter.
English tragedy differs from that of Athens, not only in its forms, but in the mode in which the poet works, and in the materials he uses. The dramas of both countries have that of course in common which belongs to all tragic dramas. Both deal with the life of man; both find the centre of their imaginative life and interest in the contemplation of those dread aspects of his mortal destiny which have actually shown themselves, which, or their like, eyes have seen and ears heard. Both set forth at once his pride and his glory, and the slipperiness of the pinnacles to which he climbs; they contrast his energy and his vast capacity for joy and sorrow with the briefness of his day; they represent him fruitful in resource, yet feeble to break the web of circumstance; and in the hearts of both echoes the dim sounding of the mysterious all-surrounding sea which surges against this "bank and shoal" of time. Yet they differ to some extent in