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nation. But to this it may be answered that we are sure, in general, there are many intellectual beings in the world besides ourselves, and several species of spirits, who are subject to different laws and economies from those of mankind. When we see, therefore, any of these represented naturally, we cannot look upon the representation as altogether impossible; nay, many are prepossessed with such false opinions as dispose them to believe these particular delusions; at least we have all heard so many pleasing relations in favor of them, that we do not care for seeing through the falsehood, and willingly give ourselves up to so agreeable an imposture.
The ancients have not much of this poetry among them; for, indeed, almost the whole substance of it owes its original to the darkness and superstition of later ages, when pious frauds were made use of to amuse mankind, and frighten them into a sense of their duty. Our forefathers looked upon nature with more reverence and horror, before the world was enlightened by learning and philosophy, and loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, charms, and enchantments. There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it; the churchyards were all haunted; every large common had a circle of fairies belonging to it; and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit.
Among all the poets of this kind our English are much the best, by what I have yet seen; whether it be that we abound with more stories of this nature, or that the genius of our country is fitter for this sort of poetry. For the English are naturally fanciful, and very often disposed, by that gloominess and melancholy of temper which is so frequent in our nation, to many wild notions and visions to which others are not so liable. Among the English, Shakespeare has incomparably excelled all others. That noble extravagance of fancy, which he had in so great perfection, thoroughly qualified him to touch this weak superstitious part of his reader's imagination, and made him capable of succeeding where he had nothing to support him besides the strength of his own genius. There is something so wild, and yet so solemn, in the speeches of his ghosts, fairies, witches, and the like imaginary persons, that we cannot forbear thinking them natural, though we have no rule by which to judge of them, and must confess, if there are such beings in
the world, it looks highly probable they should talk and act as he has represented them.
There is another sort of imaginary beings that we sometimes meet with among the poets, when the author represents any passion, appetite, virtue, or vice under a visible shape, and makes it a person or an actor in his poem. Of this nature are the descriptions of Hunger and Envy in Ovid, of Fame in Virgil, and of Sin and Death in Milton. We find a whole creation of the like shadowy persons in Spenser, who had an admirable talent in representations of this kind. I have discoursed of these emblematical persons in former papers, and shall therefore only mention them in this place.
Thus we see how many ways poetry addresses itself to the imagination, as it has not only the whole circle of nature for its province, but makes new worlds of its own, shows us persons who are not to be found in being, and represents even the faculties of the soul, with the several virtues and vices, in a sensible shape and character.
ON THE GENIUS AND WRITINGS OF
[The following is from the first of three letters written by Dennis in February, 1711, in connection with a new version he had made of Shakespeare's Coriolanus (called The Invader of his Country). The letters were published in 1712, under the title An Essay on the Genius, etc., together with two other letters attacking some of Addison's papers in the Spectator. The main theme of the letters on Shakespeare is his want of learning; to the modern student a matter of especial interest is Dennis's discussion of the doctrine of poetic justice. Addison attacked this doctrine in No. 40 of the Spectator; see the passage on p. 174 above.]
. . . SHAKESPEARE was one of the greatest geniuses that the world e'er saw for the tragic stage. Though he lay under greater disadvantages than any of his successors, yet had he greater and more genuine beauties than the best and greatest of them. And what makes the brightest glory of his character, those beauties were entirely his own, and owing to the force of his own nature; whereas his faults were owing to his education, and to the age that he lived in. One may say of him as they did of Homer, that he had none to imitate, and is himself inimitable. His imaginations were often as just as they were bold and strong. He had a natural discretion which never could have been taught him, and his judgment was strong and penetrating. He seems to have wanted nothing but time and leisure for thought, to have found out those rules of which he appears so ignorant. His characters are always drawn justly, exactly, graphically, except where he failed by not knowing history or the poetical art. He has for the most part more fairly distinguished them than any of his successors have done, who have falsified them or confounded them by making love the predominant quality in all. He had so fine a talent for touching the passions, and they are so lively in him, and so truly in nature, that they often touch us more without their due preparations than those of other tragic poets who have all
the beauty of design and all the advantage of incidents. His master passion was terror, which he has often moved so powerfully and so wonderfully that we may justly conclude that, if he had had the advantage of art and learning, he would have surpassed the very best and strongest of the ancients. His paintings are often so beautiful and so lively, so graceful and so powerful, especially where he uses them in order to move terror, that there is nothing perhaps more accomplished in our English poetry. His sentiments for the most part, in his best tragedies, are noble, generous, easy, and natural, and adapted to the persons who use them. His expression is in many places good and pure after a hundred years; simple though elevated, graceful though bold, and easy though strong. He seems to have been the very original of our English tragical harmony, - that is, the harmony of blank verse, diversified often by dissyllable and trisyllable terminations. For that diversity distinguishes it from heroic harmony, and, bringing it nearer to common use, makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such verse we make when we are writing prose; we make such verse in common conversation.
If Shakespeare had these great qualities by nature, what would he not have been if he had joined to so happy a genius learning and the poetical art? For want of the latter, our author has sometimes made gross mistakes in the characters which he has drawn from history, against the equality and conveniency of manners of his dramatical persons. Witness Menenius in the following tragedy, whom he has made an errant buffoon, which is a great absurdity. For he might as well have imagined a grave majestic jack-pudding, as a buffoon in a Roman senator. Aufidius, the general of the Volscians, is shown a base and a profligate villain. He has offended against the equality of the manners even in his hero himself. For Coriolanus, who in the first part of the tragedy is shown so open, so frank, so violent, and so magnanimous, is represented in the latter part by Aufidius - which is contradicted by no one a flattering, fawning, cringing, insinuating traitor.
For want of this poetical art, Shakespeare has introduced things into his tragedies which are against the dignity of that noble poem, as the rabble in Julius Cæsar and that in Corio
lanus; though that in Coriolanus offends not only against the dignity of tragedy, but against the truth of history likewise, and the customs of ancient Rome, and the majesty of the Roman people, as we shall have occasion to show anon.
For want of this art, he has made his incidents less moving, less surprising, and less wonderful. He has been so far from seeking those fine occasions to move with which an action furnished according to art would have furnished him, that he seems rather to have industriously avoided them. He makes Coriolanus, upon his sentence of banishment, take his leave of his wife and his mother out of sight of the audience, and so has purposely, as it were, avoided a great occasion to move.
If we are willing to allow that Shakespeare, by sticking to the bare events of history, has moved more than any of his successors, yet his just admirers must confess that if he had had the poetical art he would have moved ten times more. For 't is impossible that by a bare historical play he could move so much as he would have done by a fable.
We find that a romance entertains the generality of mankind with more satisfaction than history, if they read only to be entertained; but if they read history through pride or ambition, they bring their passions along with them, and that alters the case. Nothing is more plain than that even in an historical relation some parts of it, and some events, please more than others. And therefore a man of judgment, who sees why they do so, may, in forming a fable and disposing an action, please more than an historian can do. For the just fiction of a fable moves us more than an historical relation can do, for the two following reasons. First, by reason of the communication and mutual dependence of its parts. For if passion springs from motion, then the obstruction of that motion or a counter motion must obstruct and check the passion; and therefore an historian, and a writer of historical plays, passing from events of one nature to events of another nature without a due preparation, must of necessity stifle and confound one passion by another. The second reason why the fiction of a fable pleases us more than an historical relation can do, is, because in an historical relation we seldom are acquainted with the true causes of events, whereas in a feigned action which is duly constituted — that is, which has a just beginning