Letters concerning the English Nation/Letter XVIII

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THE English as well as the Spaniards were possess'd of Theatres, at a Time when the French had no more than moving, itinerant Stages. Shakespear, who was consider'd as the Corneille of the first mention'd Nation, was pretty near Cotemporary with Lopez de Vega, and he created, as it were, the English Theatre. Shakespear boasted a strong, fruitful Genius: He was natural and sublime, but had not so much as a single Spark of good Taste, or knew one Rule of the Drama. I will now hazard a random, but, at the same Time, true Reflection, which is, that the great Merit of this Dramatic Poet has been the Ruin of the English Stage. There are such beautiful, such noble, such dreadful Scenes in this Writer's monstrous Farces, to which the Name of Tragedy is given, that they have always been exhibited with great Success. Time, which only gives Reputation to Writers, at last makes their very Faults venerable. Most of the whimsical, gigantic Images of this Poet, have, thro' Length of Time (it being an hundred and fifty Years since they were first drawn) acquir'd a Right of passing for subllme. Most of the modern dramatic Writers have copied him; but the Touches and Descriptions which are applauded in Shakespear, are hiss'd at in these Writers; and you'll easily believe that the Veneration in which this Author is held, increases in Proportion to the Contempt which is shown to the Moderns. Dramatic Writers don't consider that they should not imitate him; and the ill Success of Shakespear's Imitators, produces no other Effect, than to make him be consider'd as inimitable. You remember that in the Tragedy of Othello Moor of Venice, (a most tender Piece) a Man strangles his Wife on the Stage; and that the poor Woman, whilst she is strangling, cries aloud, that she dies very unjustly. You know that in Hamlet Prince of Denmark , two Grave-Diggers make a Grave, and are all the Time drinking, singing Ballads, and making humourous Reflexions, (natural indeed enough to Persons of their Profession) on the several Skulls they throw up with their Spades; but a Circumstance which will surprize you is, that this ridiculous Incident has been imitated. In the Reign of King Charles the Second, which was that of Politeness, and the Golden Age of the Liberal Arts; Otway, in his Venice preserv'd, introduces Antonio the Senator, and Naki his Curtezan, in the Midst of the Horrors of the Marquis of Bedemar's Conspiracy. Antonio, the superannuated Senator plays, in his Misress's Presence, all the apish Tricks of a lewd, impotent Debauchee who is quite frantic and out of his Senses. He mimicks a Bull and a Dog; and bites his Mistress's Legs, who kicks and whips him. However, the Players have struck these Buffooneries (which indeed were calculated merely for the Dregs of the People) out of Otway's Tragedy; but they have still left in Shakespear's Julius Cæsar, the Jokes of the Roman Shoemakers and Coblers, who are introduc'd in the same Scene with Brutus and Cassius. You will undoubtedly complain, that those who have hitherto discours'd with you on the English Stage, and especially on the celebrated Shakespear, have taken Notice only of his Errors; and that no one has translated any of those strong, those forcible Passages which atone for all his Faults. But to this I will answer, that nothing is easier than to exhibit in Prose all the silly Impertinencies which a Poet may have thrown out; but that 'tis a very difficult Task to translate his fine Verses. All your junior academical Sophs who set up for Censors of the eminent Writers, compile whole Volumes; but methinks two Pages which display some of the Beauties of great Genius's, are of Infinitely more Value than all the idle Rhapsodies of those Commentators; and I will join in Opinion with all Persons of good Taste in declaring, that greater Advantage may be reap'd from a Dozen Verses of Homer or Virgil than from all the Critiques put together which have been made on those two great Poets.

I have ventur'd to translate some Passages of the most celebrated English Poets, and shall now give you one from Shakespear. Pardon the Blemishes of the Translation for the Sake of the Original; and remember always that when you see a Version, you see merely a faint Print of a beautiful Picture. I have made Choice of Part of the celebrated Soliloquy in Hamlet, which you may remember is as follows.

To be, or not to be! that is the Question!
Whether 'tis nobler in the Mind to suffer
The Stings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of Troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To dye! to sleep!
No more! and by a Sleep to say we end
The Heart-ach, and the thousand natural Shocks
That Flesh is Heir to! 'Tis a Consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die! to sleep!
To sleep, perchance to dream! Oy, there's the Rub;
For in that Sleep of Deaths what Dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this, mortal Coyle,
Must give us Pause. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long Life:
For who wou'd bear the Whips and Scorns of Time,

Th' Oppressor's Wrong, the poor Man's contumely,
The Pangs of despis'd Love, the Laws Delay,
The Insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient Merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardles bear
To groan and sweat under a weary Life,
But that the Dread of something after Death,
Th' undiscover'd Country, from whose Bourn
No Traveller returns, puzzles the Will,
And makes us rather bear those Ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all;
And thus the native Hue of Resolution
Is sickled o'er with the pale Cast of Thought:
And Enterprises of great Weight and Moment

With this Regard their Currents turn away,
And lose the Name of Action——

My Version of it runs thus:

Demeure, il faut choisir & passer à l'instant
De la vie, à la mort, ou de l'Etre au neant.
Dieux cruels, s'il en est, éclairez mon courage.
Faut-il vieillir courbé sous la main qui m'outrage,
Supporter, ou finir mon malheur & mon sort?
Qui suis je? Qui m'arrete! & qu'est-ce que la Mort?
C'est la fin de nos maux, c'est mon unique Azile
Après de long transports, c'est un sommeil tranquile.
On s'endort, & tout meurt, mais un affreux reveil
Doit succeder peut etre aux douceurs du sommeil!

On nous menace, on dit que cette courte Vie,
De tourmens éternels est aussi-tôt suivie.
O Mort! moment fatal! affreuse Eternité!
Tout cœur à ton seul nom se glace épouvanté.
Eh! qui pourroit sans Toi supporter cette vie,
De nos Prêtres menteurs benir l'hypocrisie;
D'une indigne Maitresse encenser les erreurs,
Ramper sous un Ministre, adorer ses hauteurs;
Et montrer les langueurs de son ame abattüe,
A des Amis ingrats qui detournent la vüe?
La Mort seroit trop douce en ces extrémitez,
Mais le scrupule park, & nous crie, Arrêtez;
Il defend à nos mains cet heureux homicide
Et d'un Heros guerrier, fait un Chrétien timide, &c.

Don't imagine that I have translated Shakespear in a servile Manner. Woe to the Writer who gives a literal Version; who by rendring every Word of his Original, by that very means enervates the Sense, and extinguishes all the Fire of it. 'Tis on such an Occasion one may justly affirm, that the Letter kills, but the Spirit quickens.

Here follows another Passge copied from a celebrated Tragic Writer among the English. 'Tis Dryden, a Poet in the Reign of Charles the Second; a Writer whose Genius was too exuberant, and not accompanied with Judgment enough. Had he writ only a tenth Part of the Works he left behind him, his Character wou'd have been conspicuous in every Part; but his great Fault is his having endeavour'd to be universal.

The Passage in Question is as follows:

When I consider Life, 'tis all a Cheat,
Yet fool'd by Hope, Men favour the Deceit;

Trust on and think, to Morrow will repay;
To Morrow's falser than the former Day;
Lies more; and whilst it says we shall be blest
With some new Joy cuts off what we possest;
Strange Cozenage! none wou'd live past Tears again,
Yet all hope Pleasure in what yet remain,
And from the Dregs of Life think to receive
What the first sprightly Running could not give.
I'm tir'd with waiting for this chymic Gold,
Which fools us young, and beggars us when old.

I shall now give you my Translation.

De desseins en, regrets & d'erreurs en desirs
Les Mortels insensés promenent leur Folie.

Dans des malheurs presents, dans l'espoir des plaisirs
Nous ne vivons jamais, nous attendons la vie.
Demain, demain, dit-on, va combler tous nos vœux.
Demain vient, & nous laisse encore plus malheureux.
Qu'elle est l'erreur, helas! du soin qui nous dévore,
Nul de nous ne voudroit recommencer son cours.
De nos premiers momens nous maudissons l'aurore,
Et de la nuit qui vient, nous attendons encore
Ce qu'ont en vain promis les plus beaux de nos jours, &c.

'Tis in these detach'd Passages that the English have hitherto excell'd. Their dramatic Pieces, most of which are barbarous and without Decorum, Order or Verisimulitude, dart such resplendent Flashes, thro' this Gleam, as amaze and astonish. The Style is too much inflated, too unnatural, top closely copied from the Hebrew Writers, who abound so much with the Asiatic Fustian, But then it must be also confess'd, that the Stilts of the figurative Style on which the English Tongue is lifted up, raises the Genius at the same Time very far aloft, tho' with an irregular Pace. The first English Writer who compos'd a regular Tragedy and infus'd a Spirit of Elegance thro' every Part of it, was the illustrious Mr. Addison. His Cato is a Master-piece both with regard to the Diction, and to the Beauty and Harmony of the Numbers. The Character of Cato is, in my Opinion, vastly superiour to that of Cornelia in the Pompey of Corneille: For Cato is great without any Thing like Fustian, and Cornelia, who besides is not a necessary Character, tends sometimes to bombast. Mr. Addison's Cato appears to me the greatest Character that was ever brought upon any Stage, but then the rest of them don't correspond to the Dignity of it: And this dramatic Piece so excellently well writ, is disfigur'd by a dull Love-Plot, which spreads a certain Languor over the whole, that quite murders it.

The Custom of introducing Love at random and at any rate in the Drama, pass'd from Paris to London about 1660. with our Ribbons and our Peruques. The Ladies who adorn the Theatrical Circle, there, in like Manner as in this City, will suffer Love only to be the Theme of every Conversation. The judicious Mr. Addison had the effeminate Complaisance to soften the Severity of his dramatic Character so, as to adapt it to the Manners of the Age; and from an Endeavour to please, quite ruin'd a Master-Piece in its kind. Since his Time, the Drama is become more regular, the Audience more difficult to be pleas'd, and Writers more correct and less bold. I have seen some new Pieces that were written with great Regularity, but which at the same Time were very flat and insipid. One would think that the English had been hitherto form'd to produce irregular Beauties only. The shining Monsters of Shakespear, give infinite more Delight than the judicious Images of the Moderns, Hitherto the poetical Genius of the English resembles a tufted Tree planted by the Hand of Nature, that throws out a thousand Branches at random, and spreads unequally, but with great Vigour. It dies if you attempt to force its Nature, and to lop and dress it in the same Manner as the Trees of the Garden of Marli.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.