Samuel Taylor
Coleridge

Biographia
Literaria
by
Samuel
Taylor
Coleridge

Chapter XXIII [of
XXIV]                                                     [To
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Quid quod praefatione praemunierim libellum, qua conor omnem
offendiculi ansam praecidere? [79] Neque quicquam addubito, quin ea
candidis omnibus faciat satis. Quid autem facias istis, qui vel ob
ingenii pertinaciam sibi satisfieri nolint, vel stupidiores sint, quam
ut satisfactionem intelligant? Nam quemadmodum Simonides dixit,
Thessalos hebetiores esse, quam ut possint a se decipi, ita quosdam
videas stupidiores, quam ut placari queant. Adhaec, non mirum est
invenire quod calumnietur, qui nihil aliud quaerit, nisi quod
calumnietur.                         ERASMUS ad Dorpium, Theologum.
In the rifacimento of THE FRIEND, I have inserted extracts from the
CONCIONES AD POPULUM, printed, though scarcely published, in the year
1795, in the very heat and height of my anti-ministerial enthusiasm:
these in proof that my principles of politics have sustained no
change.—In the present chapter, I have annexed to my Letters from
Germany, with particular reference to that, which contains a
disquisition on the modern drama, a critique on the Tragedy of
BERTRAM, written within the last twelve months: in proof, that I have
been as falsely charged with any fickleness in my principles of
taste.—The letter was written to a friend: and the apparent
abruptness with which it begins, is owing to the omission of the
introductory sentences.
You remember, my dear Sir, that Mr. Whitbread, shortly before his
death, proposed to the assembled subscribers of Drury Lane Theatre,
that the concern should be farmed to some responsible individual under
certain conditions and limitations: and that his proposal was
rejected, not without indignation, as subversive of the main object,
for the attainment of which the enlightened and patriotic assemblage
of philodramatists had been induced to risk their subscriptions. Now
this object was avowed to be no less than the redemption of the
British stage not only from horses, dogs, elephants, and the like
zoological rarities, but also from the more pernicious barbarisms and
Kotzebuisms in morals and taste. Drury Lane was to be restored to its
former classical renown; Shakespeare, Jonson, and Otway, with the
expurgated muses of Vanbrugh, Congreve, and Wycherley, were to be
reinaugurated in their rightful dominion over British audiences; and
the Herculean process was to commence, by exterminating the speaking
monsters imported from the banks of the Danube, compared with which
their mute relations, the emigrants from Exeter 'Change, and Polito
(late Pidcock's) show-carts, were tame and inoffensive. Could an
heroic project, at once so refined and so arduous, be consistently
entrusted to, could its success be rationally expected from, a
mercenary manager, at whose critical quarantine the lucri bonus odor
would conciliate a bill of health to the plague in person? No! As the
work proposed, such must be the work-masters. Rank, fortune, liberal
education, and (their natural accompaniments, or consequences)
critical discernment, delicate tact, disinterestedness, unsuspected
morals, notorious patriotism, and tried Maecenasship, these were the
recommendations that influenced the votes of the proprietary
subscribers of Drury Lane Theatre, these the motives that occasioned
the election of its Supreme Committee of Management. This circumstance
alone would have excited a strong interest in the public mind,
respecting the first production of the Tragic Muse which had been
announced under such auspices, and had passed the ordeal of such
judgments: and the tragedy, on which you have requested my judgment,
was the work on which the great expectations, justified by so many
causes, were doomed at length to settle.
But before I enter on the examination of BERTRAM, or THE CASTLE OF ST.
ALDOBRAND, I shall interpose a few words, on the phrase German Drama,
which I hold to be altogether a misnomer. At the time of Lessing, the
German stage, such as it was, appears to have been a flat and servile
copy of the French. It was Lessing who first introduced the name and
the works of Shakespeare to the admiration of the Germans; and I
should not perhaps go too far, if I add, that it was Lessing who first
proved to all thinking men, even to Shakespeare's own countrymen, the
true nature of his apparent irregularities. These, he demonstrated,
were deviations only from the accidents of the Greek tragedy; and from
such accidents as hung a heavy weight on the wings of the Greek poets,
and narrowed their flight within the limits of what we may call the
heroic opera. He proved, that, in all the essentials of art, no less
than in the truth of nature, the Plays of Shakespeare were
incomparably more coincident with the principles of Aristotle, than
the productions of Corneille and Racine, notwithstanding the boasted
regularity of the latter. Under these convictions were Lessing's own
dramatic works composed. Their deficiency is in depth and imagination:
their excellence is in the construction of the plot; the good sense of
the sentiments; the sobriety of the morals; and the high polish of the
diction and dialogue. In short, his dramas are the very antipodes of
all those which it has been the fashion of late years at once to abuse
and enjoy, under the name of the German drama. Of this latter,
Schiller's ROBBERS was the earliest specimen; the first fruits of his
youth, (I had almost said of his boyhood), and as such, the pledge,
and promise of no ordinary genius. Only as such, did the maturer
judgment of the author tolerate the Play. During his whole life he
expressed himself concerning this production with more than needful
asperity, as a monster not less offensive to good taste, than to sound
morals; and, in his latter years, his indignation at the unwonted
popularity of the ROBBERS seduced him into the contrary extremes, viz.
a studied feebleness of interest, (as far as the interest was to be
derived from incidents and the excitement of curiosity); a diction
elaborately metrical; the affectation of rhymes; and the pedantry of
the chorus.
But to understand the true character of the ROBBERS, and of the
countless imitations which were its spawn, I must inform you, or at
least call to your recollection, that, about that time, and for some
years before it, three of the most popular books in the German
language were, the translations Of YOUNG'S NIGHT THOUGHTS, HERVEY'S
MEDITATIONS, and RICHARDSON'S CLARISSA HARLOW. Now we have only to
combine the bloated style and peculiar rhythm of Hervey, which is
poetic only on account of its utter unfitness for prose, and might as
appropriately be called prosaic, from its utter unfitness for poetry;
we have only, I repeat, to combine these Herveyisms with the strained
thoughts, the figurative metaphysics and solemn epigrams of Young on
the one hand; and with the loaded sensibility, the minute detail, the
morbid consciousness of every thought and feeling in the whole flux
and reflux of the mind, in short the self-involution and dreamlike
continuity of Richardson on the other hand; and then to add the
horrific incidents, and mysterious villains, (geniuses of supernatural
intellect, if you will take the authors' words for it, but on a level
with the meanest ruffians of the condemned cells, if we are to judge
by their actions and contrivances)—to add the ruined castles, the
dungeons, the trap-doors, the skeletons, the flesh-and-blood ghosts,
and the perpetual moonshine of a modern author, (themselves the
literary brood of the CASTLE OF OTRANTO, the translations of which,
with the imitations and improvements aforesaid, were about that time
beginning to make as much noise in Germany as their originals were
making in England),—and as the compound of these ingredients duly
mixed, you will recognize the so-called German drama. The olla podrida
thus cooked up, was denounced, by the best critics in Germany, as the
mere cramps of weakness, and orgasms of a sickly imagination on the
part of the author, and the lowest provocation of torpid feeling on
that of the readers. The old blunder, however, concerning the
irregularity and wildness of Shakespeare, in which the German did but
echo the French, who again were but the echoes of our own critics, was
still in vogue, and Shakespeare was quoted as authority for the most
anti-Shakespearean drama. We have indeed two poets who wrote as one,
near the age of Shakespeare, to whom, (as the worst characteristic of
their writings), the Coryphaeus of the present drama may challenge the
honour of being a poor relation, or impoverished descendant. For if we
would charitably consent to forget the comic humour, the wit, the
felicities of style, in other words, all the poetry, and nine-tenths
of all the genius of Beaumont and Fletcher, that which would remain
becomes a Kotzebue.
The so-called German drama, therefore, is English in its origin,
English in its materials, and English by re-adoption; and till we can
prove that Kotzebue, or any of the whole breed of Kotzebues, whether
dramatists or romantic writers, or writers of romantic dramas, were
ever admitted to any other shelf in the libraries of well-educated
Germans than were occupied by their originals, and apes' apes in their
mother country, we should submit to carry our own brat on our own
shoulders; or rather consider it as a lack-grace returned from
transportation with such improvements only in growth and manners as
young transported convicts usually come home with.
I know nothing that contributes more to a clearer insight into the
true nature of any literary phaenomenon, than the comparison of it
with some elder production, the likeness of which is striking, yet
only apparent, while the difference is real. In the present case this
opportunity is furnished us, by the old Spanish play, entitled
Atheista Fulminato, formerly, and perhaps still, acted in the churches
and monasteries of Spain, and which, under various names (Don Juan,
the Libertine, etc.) has had its day of favour in every country
throughout Europe. A popularity so extensive, and of a work so
grotesque and extravagant, claims and merits philosophical attention
and investigation. The first point to be noticed is, that the play is
throughout imaginative. Nothing of it belongs to the real world, but
the names of the places and persons. The comic parts, equally with the
tragic; the living, equally with the defunct characters, are creatures
of the brain; as little amenable to the rules of ordinary probability,
as the Satan Of PARADISE LOST, or the Caliban of THE TEMPEST, and
therefore to be understood and judged of as impersonated abstractions.
Rank, fortune, wit, talent, acquired knowledge, and liberal
accomplishments, with beauty of person, vigorous health, and
constitutional hardihood,—all these advantages, elevated by the
habits and sympathies of noble birth and national character, are
supposed to have combined in Don Juan, so as to give him the means of
carrying into all its practical consequences the doctrine of a godless
nature, as the sole ground and efficient cause not only of all things,
events, and appearances, but likewise of all our thoughts, sensations,
impulses and actions. Obedience to nature is the only virtue: the
gratification of the passions and appetites her only dictate: each
individual's self-will the sole organ through which nature utters her
commands, and
"Self-contradiction is the only wrong!
For, by the laws of spirit, in the right
Is every individual character
That acts in strict consistence with itself."
That speculative opinions, however impious and daring they may be, are
not always followed by correspondent conduct, is most true, as well as
that they can scarcely in any instance be systematically realized, on
account of their unsuitableness to human nature and to the
institutions of society. It can be hell, only where it is all hell:
and a separate world of devils is necessary for the existence of any
one complete devil. But on the other hand it is no less clear, nor,
with the biography of Carrier and his fellow atheists before us, can
it be denied without wilful blindness, that the (so called) system of
nature (that is, materialism, with the utter rejection of moral
responsibility, of a present Providence, and of both present and
future retribution) may influence the characters and actions of
individuals, and even of communities, to a degree that almost does
away the distinction between men and devils, and will make the page of
the future historian resemble the narration of a madman's dreams. It
is not the wickedness of Don Juan, therefore, which constitutes the
character an abstraction, and removes it from the rules of
probability; but the rapid succession of the correspondent acts and
incidents, his intellectual superiority, and the splendid accumulation
of his gifts and desirable qualities, as co-existent with entire
wickedness in one and the same person. But this likewise is the very
circumstance which gives to this strange play its charm and universal
interest. Don Juan is, from beginning to end, an intelligible
character: as much so as the Satan of Milton. The poet asks only of
the reader, what, as a poet, he is privileged to ask: namely, that
sort of negative faith in the existence of such a being, which we
willingly give to productions professedly ideal, and a disposition to
the same state of feeling, as that with which we contemplate the
idealized figures of the Apollo Belvidere, and the Farnese Hercules.
What the Hercules is to the eye in corporeal strength, Don Juan is to
the mind in strength of character. The ideal consists in the happy
balance of the generic with the individual. The former makes the
character representative and symbolical, therefore instructive;
because, mutatis mutandis, it is applicable to whole classes of men.
The latter gives it living interest; for nothing lives or is real, but
as definite and individual. To understand this completely, the reader
need only recollect the specific state of his feelings, when in
looking at a picture of the historic (more properly of the poetic or
heroic) class, he objects to a particular figure as being too much of
a portrait; and this interruption of his complacency he feels without
the least reference to, or the least acquaintance with, any person in
real life whom he might recognise in this figure. It is enough that
such a figure is not ideal: and therefore not ideal, because one of
the two factors or elements of the ideal is in excess. A similar and
more powerful objection he would feel towards a set of figures which
were mere abstractions, like those of Cipriani, and what have been
called Greek forms and faces, that is, outlines drawn according to a
recipe. These again are not ideal; because in these the other element
is in excess. "Forma formans per formam formatam translucens," [80] is
the definition and perfection of ideal art.
This excellence is so happily achieved in the Don Juan, that it is
capable of interesting without poetry, nay, even without words, as in
our pantomime of that name. We see clearly how the character is
formed; and the very extravagance of the incidents, and the super-
human entireness of Don Juan's agency, prevents the wickedness from
shocking our minds to any painful degree. We do not believe it enough
for this effect; no, not even with that kind of temporary and negative
belief or acquiescence which I have described above. Meantime the
qualities of his character are too desirable, too flattering to our
pride and our wishes, not to make up on this side as much additional
faith as was lost on the other. There is no danger (thinks the
spectator or reader) of my becoming such a monster of iniquity as Don
Juan! I never shall be an atheist! I shall never disallow all
distinction between right and wrong! I have not the least inclination
to be so outrageous a drawcansir in my love affairs! But to possess
such a power of captivating and enchanting the affections of the other
sex!--to be capable of inspiring in a charming and even a virtuous
woman, a love so deep, and so entirely personal to me!--that even my
worst vices, (if I were vicious), even my cruelty and perfidy, (if I
were cruel and perfidious), could not eradicate the passion!--to be so
loved for my own self, that even with a distinct knowledge of my
character, she yet died to save me!--this, sir, takes hold of two
sides of our nature, the better and the worse. For the heroic
disinterestedness, to which love can transport a woman, can not be
contemplated without an honourable emotion of reverence towards
womanhood: and, on the other hand, it is among the miseries, and
abides in the dark ground-work of our nature, to crave an outward
confirmation of that something within us, which is our very self, that
something, not made up of our qualities and relations, but itself the
supporter and substantial basis of all these. Love me, and not my
qualities, may be a vicious and an insane wish, but it is not a wish
wholly without a meaning.
Without power, virtue would be insufficient and incapable of revealing
its being. It would resemble the magic transformation of Tasso's
heroine into a tree, in which she could only groan and bleed. Hence
power is necessarily an object of our desire and of our admiration.
But of all power, that of the mind is, on every account, the grand
desideratum of human ambition. We shall be as Gods in knowledge, was
and must have been the first temptation: and the coexistence of great
intellectual lordship with guilt has never been adequately represented
without exciting the strongest interest, and for this reason, that in
this bad and heterogeneous co-ordination we can contemplate the
intellect of man more exclusively as a separate self-subsistence, than
in its proper state of subordination to his own conscience, or to the
will of an infinitely superior being.
This is the sacred charm of Shakespeare's male characters in general.
They are all cast in the mould of Shakespeare's own gigantic
intellect; and this is the open attraction of his Richard, Iago,
Edmund, and others in particular. But again; of all intellectual
power, that of superiority to the fear of the invisible world is the
most dazzling. Its influence is abundantly proved by the one
circumstance, that it can bribe us into a voluntary submission of our
better knowledge, into suspension of all our judgment derived from
constant experience, and enable us to peruse with the liveliest
interest the wildest tales of ghosts, wizards, genii, and secret
talismans. On this propensity, so deeply rooted in our nature, a
specific dramatic probability may be raised by a true poet, if the
whole of his work be in harmony: a dramatic probability, sufficient
for dramatic pleasure, even when the component characters and
incidents border on impossibility. The poet does not require us to be
awake and believe; he solicits us only to yield ourselves to a dream;
and this too with our eyes open, and with our judgment perdue behind
the curtain, ready to awaken us at the first motion of our will: and
meantime, only, not to disbelieve. And in such a state of mind, who
but must be impressed with the cool intrepidity of Don john on the
appearance of his father's ghost:
"GHOST.—Monster! behold these wounds!
"D. JOHN.—I do! They were well meant and well performed, I see.
"GHOST.———Repent, repent of all thy villanies.
My clamorous blood to heaven for vengeance cries,
Heaven will pour out his judgments on you all.
Hell gapes for you, for you each fiend doth call,
And hourly waits your unrepenting fall.
You with eternal horrors they'll torment,
Except of all your crimes you suddenly repent. (Ghost sinks.)
"D. JOHN.—Farewell, thou art a foolish ghost. Repent, quoth he!
what could this mean? Our senses are all in a mist sure.
"D. ANTONIO.—(one of D. Juan's reprobate companions.) They are not!
'Twas a ghost.
"D. LOPEZ.—(another reprobate.) I ne'er believed those foolish tales
before.
"D. JOHN.—Come! 'Tis no matter. Let it be what it will, it must be
natural.
"D. ANT.—And nature is unalterable in us too.
"D. JOHN.—'Tis true! The nature of a ghost can not change our's."
Who also can deny a portion of sublimity to the tremendous consistency
with which he stands out the last fearful trial, like a second
Prometheus?
"Chorus of Devils.
"STATUE-GHOST.—Will you not relent and feel remorse?
"D. JOHN.—Could'st thou bestow another heart on me I might. But
with this heart I have, I can not.
"D. LOPEZ.—These things are prodigious.
"D. ANTON.—I have a sort of grudging to relent, but something holds
me back.
"D. LOP.—If we could, 'tis now too late. I will not.
"D. ANT.—We defy thee!
"GHOST.—Perish ye impious wretches, go and find the punishments laid
up in store for you!
(Thunder and lightning. D. Lop. and D. Ant. are swallowed up.)
"GHOST To D. JOHN.—Behold their dreadful fates, and know that thy
last moment's come!
"D. JOHN.—Think not to fright me, foolish ghost; I'll break your
marble body in pieces and pull down your horse.
(Thunder and lightning—chorus of devils, etc.)
"D. JOHN.—These things I see with wonder, but no fear.
Were all the elements to be confounded,
And shuffled all into their former chaos;
Were seas of sulphur flaming round about me,
And all mankind roaring within those fires,
I could not fear, or feel the least remorse.
To the last instant I would dare thy power.
Here I stand firm, and all thy threats contemn.
Thy murderer (to the ghost of one whom he had murdered)
Stands here! Now do thy worst!"
(He is swallowed up in a cloud of fire.)
In fine the character of Don John consists in the union of every thing
desirable to human nature, as means, and which therefore by the well
known law of association becomes at length desirable on their own
account. On their own account, and, in their own dignity, they are
here displayed, as being employed to ends so unhuman, that in the
effect, they appear almost as means without an end. The ingredients
too are mixed in the happiest proportion, so as to uphold and relieve
each other—more especially in that constant interpoise of wit,
gaiety, and social generosity, which prevents the criminal, even in
his most atrocious moments, from sinking into the mere ruffian, as far
at least, as our imagination sits in judgment. Above all, the fine
suffusion through the whole, with the characteristic manners and
feelings, of a highly bred gentleman gives life to the drama. Thus
having invited the statue-ghost of the governor, whom he had murdered,
to supper, which invitation the marble ghost accepted by a nod of the
head, Don John has prepared a banquet.
"D. JOHN.—Some wine, sirrah! Here's to Don Pedro's ghost—he should
have been welcome.
"D. LOP.—The rascal is afraid of you after death.
(One knocks hard at the door.)
"D. JOHN.—(to the servant)—Rise and do your duty.
"SERV.—Oh the devil, the devil!  (Marble ghost enters.)
"D. JOHN.—Ha! 'tis the ghost! Let's rise and receive him! Come,
Governour, you are welcome, sit there; if we had thought you would
have come, we would have staid for you.
*     *     *     *     *     *
Here, Governour, your health! Friends, put it about! Here's
excellent meat, taste of this ragout. Come, I'll help you, come
eat, and let old quarrels be forgotten.  (The ghost threatens him
with vengeance.)
"D. JOHN.—We are too much confirmed—curse on this dry discourse.
Come, here's to your mistress, you had one when you were living:
not forgetting your sweet sister.                (devils enter.)
"D. JOHN.—Are these some of your retinue? Devils, say you? I'm
sorry I have no burnt brandy to treat 'em with, that's drink fit
for devils," etc.
Nor is the scene from which we quote interesting, in dramatic
probability alone; it is susceptible likewise of a sound moral; of a
moral that has more than common claims on the notice of a too numerous
class, who are ready to receive the qualities of gentlemanly courage,
and scrupulous honour, (in all the recognised laws of honour,) as the
substitutes of virtue, instead of its ornaments. This, indeed, is the
moral value of the play at large, and that which places it at a
world's distance from the spirit of modern jacobinism. The latter
introduces to us clumsy copies of these showy instrumental qualities,
in order to reconcile us to vice and want of principle; while the
Atheista Fulminato presents an exquisite portraiture of the same
qualities, in all their gloss and glow, but presents them for the sole
purpose of displaying their hollowness, and in order to put us on our
guard by demonstrating their utter indifference to vice and virtue,
whenever these and the like accomplishments are contemplated for
themselves alone.
Eighteen years ago I observed, that the whole secret of the modern
jacobinical drama, (which, and not the German, is its appropriate
designation,) and of all its popularity, consists in the confusion and
subversion of the natural order of things in their causes and effects:
namely, in the excitement of surprise by representing the qualities of
liberality, refined feeling, and a nice sense of honour (those things
rather which pass amongst us for such) in persons and in classes where
experience teaches us least to expect them; and by rewarding with all
the sympathies which are the due of virtue, those criminals whom law,
reason, and religion have excommunicated from our esteem.
This of itself would lead me back to BERTRAM, or the CASTLE OF ST.
ALDOBRAND; but, in my own mind, this tragedy was brought into
connection with THE LIBERTINE, (Shadwell's adaptation of the Atheista
Fulminato to the English stage in the reign of Charles the Second,) by
the fact, that our modern drama is taken, in the substance of it, from
the first scene of the third act of THE LIBERTINE. But with what
palpable superiority of judgment in the original! Earth and hell, men
and spirits are up in arms against Don John; the two former acts of
the play have not only prepared us for the supernatural, but
accustomed us to the prodigious. It is, therefore, neither more nor
less than we anticipate when the Captain exclaims: "In all the dangers
I have been, such horrors I never knew. I am quite unmanned:" and when
the Hermit says, that he had "beheld the ocean in wildest rage, yet
ne'er before saw a storm so dreadful, such horrid flashes of
lightning, and such claps of thunder, were never in my remembrance."
And Don John's burst of startling impiety is equally intelligible in
its motive, as dramatic in its effect.
But what is there to account for the prodigy of the tempest at
Bertram's shipwreck? It is a mere supernatural effect, without even a
hint of any supernatural agency; a prodigy, without any circumstance
mentioned that is prodigious; and a miracle introduced without a
ground, and ending without a result. Every event and every scene of
the play might have taken place as well if Bertram and his vessel had
been driven in by a common hard gale, or from want of provisions. The
first act would have indeed lost its greatest and most sonorous
picture; a scene for the sake of a scene, without a word spoken; as
such, therefore, (a rarity without a precedent), we must take it, and
be thankful! In the opinion of not a few, it was, in every sense of
the word, the best scene in the play. I am quite certain it was the
most innocent: and the steady, quiet uprightness of the flame of the
wax-candles, which the monks held over the roaring billows amid the
storm of wind and rain, was really miraculous.
The Sicilian sea coast: a convent of monks: night: a most portentous,
unearthly storm: a vessel is wrecked contrary to all human
expectation, one man saves himself by his prodigious powers as a
swimmer, aided by the peculiarity of his destination—
"PRIOR.———All, all did perish
FIRST MONK.—Change, change those drenched weeds—
PRIOR.—I wist not of them—every soul did perish—
Enter third Monk hastily.
"THIRD MONK.—No, there was one did battle with the storm
With careless desperate force; full many times
His life was won and lost, as tho' he recked not—
No hand did aid him, and he aided none—
Alone he breasted the broad wave, alone
That man was saved."
Well! This man is led in by the monks, supposed dripping wet, and to
very natural inquiries he either remains silent, or gives most brief
and surly answers, and after three or four of these half-line
courtesies, "dashing off the monks" who had saved him, he exclaims in
the true sublimity of our modern misanthropic heroism—
"Off! ye are men—there's poison in your touch.
But I must yield, for this" (what?) "hath left me strengthless."
So end the three first scenes. In the next (the Castle of St.
Aldobrand,) we find the servants there equally frightened with this
unearthly storm, though wherein it differed from other violent storms
we are not told, except that Hugo informs us, page 9—
"PIET.—Hugo, well met. Does e'en thy age bear
Memory of so terrible a storm?
HUGO.—They have been frequent lately.
PIET.—They are ever so in Sicily.
HUGO.—So it is said. But storms when I was young
Would still pass o'er like Nature's fitful fevers,
And rendered all more wholesome. Now their rage,
Sent thus unseasonable and profitless,
Speaks like the threats of heaven."
A most perplexing theory of Sicilian storms is this of old Hugo! and
what is very remarkable, not apparently founded on any great
familiarity of his own with this troublesome article. For when Pietro
asserts the "ever more frequency" of tempests in Sicily, the old man
professes to know nothing more of the fact, but by hearsay. "So it is
said."—But why he assumed this storm to be unseasonable, and on what
he grounded his prophecy, (for the storm is still in full fury), that
it would be profitless, and without the physical powers common to all
other violent sea-winds in purifying the atmosphere, we are left in
the dark; as well concerning the particular points in which he knew
it, during its continuance, to differ from those that he had been
acquainted with in his youth. We are at length introduced to the Lady
Imogine, who, we learn, had not rested "through" the night; not on
account of the tempest, for
"Long ere the storm arose, her restless gestures
Forbade all hope to see her blest with sleep."
Sitting at a table, and looking at a portrait, she informs us—First,
that portrait-painters may make a portrait from memory,
"The limner's art may trace the absent feature."
For surely these words could never mean, that a painter may have a
person sit to him who afterwards may leave the room or perhaps the
country? Secondly, that a portrait-painter can enable a mourning lady
to possess a good likeness of her absent lover, but that the portrait-
painter cannot, and who shall—
"Restore the scenes in which they met and parted?"
The natural answer would have been—Why the scene-painter to be sure!
But this unreasonable lady requires in addition sundry things to be
painted that have neither lines nor colours—
"The thoughts, the recollections, sweet and bitter,
Or the Elysian dreams of lovers when they loved."
Which last sentence must be supposed to mean; when they were present,
and making love to each other.—Then, if this portrait could speak, it
would "acquit the faith of womankind." How? Had she remained constant?
No, she has been married to another man, whose wife she now is. How
then? Why, that, in spite of her marriage vow, she had continued to
yearn and crave for her former lover—
"This has her body, that her mind:
Which has the better bargain?"
The lover, however, was not contented with this precious arrangement,
as we shall soon find. The lady proceeds to inform us that during the
many years of their separation, there have happened in the different
parts of the world, a number of "such things;" even such, as in a
course of years always have, and till the Millennium, doubtless always
will happen somewhere or other. Yet this passage, both in language and
in metre, is perhaps amongst the best parts of the play. The lady's
love companion and most esteemed attendant, Clotilda, now enters and
explains this love and esteem by proving herself a most passive and
dispassionate listener, as well as a brief and lucky querist, who asks
by chance, questions that we should have thought made for the very
sake of the answers. In short, she very much reminds us of those
puppet-heroines, for whom the showman contrives to dialogue without
any skill in ventriloquism. This, notwithstanding, is the best scene
in the Play, and though crowded with solecisms, corrupt diction, and
offences against metre, would possess merits sufficient to out-weigh
them, if we could suspend the moral sense during the perusal. It tells
well and passionately the preliminary circumstances, and thus
overcomes the main difficulty of most first acts, to wit, that of
retrospective narration. It tells us of her having been honourably
addressed by a noble youth, of rank and fortune vastly superior to her
own: of their mutual love, heightened on her part by gratitude; of his
loss of his sovereign's favour; his disgrace; attainder; and flight;
that he (thus degraded) sank into a vile ruffian, the chieftain of a
murderous banditti; and that from the habitual indulgence of the most
reprobate habits and ferocious passions, he had become so changed,
even in appearance, and features,
"That she who bore him had recoiled from him,
Nor known the alien visage of her child,
Yet still she (Imogine) lov'd him."
She is compelled by the silent entreaties of a father, perishing with
"bitter shameful want on the cold earth," to give her hand, with a
heart thus irrecoverably pre-engaged, to Lord Aldobrand, the enemy of
her lover, even to the very man who had baffled his ambitious schemes,
and was, at the present time, entrusted with the execution of the
sentence of death which had been passed on Bertram. Now, the proof of
"woman's love," so industriously held forth for the sympathy, if not
for the esteem of the audience, consists in this, that, though Bertram
had become a robber and a murderer by trade, a ruffian in manners,
yea, with form and features at which his own mother could not but
"recoil," yet she (Lady Imogine) "the wife of a most noble, honoured
Lord," estimable as a man, exemplary and affectionate as a husband,
and the fond father of her only child—that she, notwithstanding all
this, striking her heart, dares to say to it—
"But thou art Bertram's still, and Bertram's ever."
A Monk now enters, and entreats in his Prior's name for the wonted
hospitality, and "free noble usage" of the Castle of St. Aldobrand for
some wretched shipwrecked souls, and from this we learn, for the first
time, to our infinite surprise, that notwithstanding the
supernaturalness of the storm aforesaid, not only Bertram, but the
whole of his gang, had been saved, by what means we are left to
conjecture, and can only conclude that they had all the same desperate
swimming powers, and the same saving destiny as the hero, Bertram
himself. So ends the first act, and with it the tale of the events,
both those with which the tragedy begins, and those which had occurred
previous to the date of its commencement. The second displays Bertram
in disturbed sleep, which the Prior, who hangs over him, prefers
calling a "starting trance," and with a strained voice, that would
have awakened one of the seven sleepers, observes to the audience—
"How the lip works! How the bare teeth do grind!
And beaded drops course [81] down his writhen brow!"
The dramatic effect of which passage we not only concede to the
admirers of this tragedy, but acknowledge the further advantages of
preparing the audience for the most surprising series of wry faces,
proflated mouths, and lunatic gestures that were ever "launched" on an
audience to "sear the sense." [82]
"PRIOR.—I will awake him from this horrid trance. This is no
natural sleep! Ho, wake thee, stranger!"
This is rather a whimsical application of the verb reflex we must
confess, though we remember a similar transfer of the agent to the
patient in a manuscript tragedy, in which the Bertram of the piece,
prostrating a man with a single blow of his fist, exclaims—"Knock me
thee down, then ask thee if thou liv'st." Well; the stranger obeys,
and whatever his sleep might have been, his waking was perfectly
natural; for lethargy itself could not withstand the scolding
Stentorship of Mr. Holland, the Prior. We next learn from the best
authority, his own confession, that the misanthropic hero, whose
destiny was incompatible with drowning, is Count Bertram, who not only
reveals his past fortunes, but avows with open atrocity, his Satanic
hatred of Imogine's lord, and his frantick thirst of revenge; and so
the raving character raves, and the scolding character scolds—and
what else? Does not the Prior act? Does he not send for a posse of
constables or thief-takers to handcuff the villain, or take him either
to Bedlam or Newgate? Nothing of the kind; the author preserves the
unity of character, and the scolding Prior from first to last does
nothing but scold, with the exception indeed of the last scene of the
last act, in which, with a most surprising revolution, he whines,
weeps, and kneels to the condemned blaspheming assassin out of pure
affection to the high-hearted man, the sublimity of whose angel-sin
rivals the star-bright apostate, (that is, who was as proud as
Lucifer, and as wicked as the Devil), and, "had thrilled him," (Prior
Holland aforesaid), with wild admiration.
Accordingly in the very next scene, we have this tragic Macheath, with
his whole gang, in the Castle of St. Aldobrand, without any attempt on
the Prior's part either to prevent him, or to put the mistress and
servants of the Castle on their guard against their new inmates;
though he (the Prior) knew, and confesses that he knew, that Bertram's
"fearful mates" were assassins so habituated and naturalized to guilt,
that—
"When their drenched hold forsook both gold and gear,
They griped their daggers with a murderer's instinct;"
and though he also knew, that Bertram was the leader of a band whose
trade was blood. To the Castle however he goes, thus with the holy
Prior's consent, if not with his assistance; and thither let us follow
him.
No sooner is our hero safely housed in the Castle of St. Aldobrand,
than he attracts the notice of the lady and her confidante, by his
"wild and terrible dark eyes," "muffled form," "fearful form," [83]
"darkly wild," "proudly stern," and the like common-place indefinites,
seasoned by merely verbal antitheses, and at best, copied with very
slight change, from the Conrade of Southey's JOAN OF ARC. The lady
Imogine, who has been, (as is the case, she tells us, with all soft
and solemn spirits,) worshipping the moon on a terrace or rampart
within view of the Castle, insists on having an interview with our
hero, and this too tete-a-tete. Would the reader learn why and
wherefore the confidante is excluded, who very properly remonstrates
against such "conference, alone, at night, with one who bears such
fearful form;" the reason follows—"why, therefore send him!" I say,
follows, because the next line, "all things of fear have lost their
power over me," is separated from the former by a break or pause, and
besides that it is a very poor answer to the danger, is no answer at
all to the gross indelicacy of this wilful exposure. We must therefore
regard it as a mere after-thought, that a little softens the rudeness,
but adds nothing to the weight, of that exquisite woman's reason
aforesaid. And so exit Clotilda and enter Bertram, who "stands without
looking at her," that is, with his lower limbs forked, his arms
akimbo, his side to the lady's front, the whole figure resembling an
inverted Y. He is soon however roused from the state surly to the
state frantick, and then follow raving, yelling, cursing, she
fainting, he relenting, in runs Imogine's child, squeaks "mother!" He
snatches it up, and with a "God bless thee, child! Bertram has kissed
thy child,"—the curtain drops. The third act is short, and short be
our account of it. It introduces Lord St. Aldobrand on his road
homeward, and next Imogine in the convent, confessing the foulness of
her heart to the Prior, who first indulges his old humour with a fit
of senseless scolding, then leaves her alone with her ruffian
paramour, with whom she makes at once an infamous appointment, and the
curtain drops, that it may be carried into act and consummation.
I want words to describe the mingled horror and disgust with which I
witnessed the opening of the fourth act, considering it as a
melancholy proof of the depravation of the public mind. The shocking
spirit of jacobinism seemed no longer confined to politics. The
familiarity with atrocious events and characters appeared to have
poisoned the taste, even where it had not directly disorganized the
moral principles, and left the feelings callous to all the mild
appeals, and craving alone for the grossest and most outrageous
stimulants. The very fact then present to our senses, that a British
audience could remain passive under such an insult to common decency,
nay, receive with a thunder of applause, a human being supposed to
have come reeking from the consummation of this complex foulness and
baseness, these and the like reflections so pressed as with the weight
of lead upon my heart, that actor, author, and tragedy would have been
forgotten, had it not been for a plain elderly man sitting beside me,
who, with a very serious face, that at once expressed surprise and
aversion, touched my elbow, and, pointing to the actor, said to me in
a half-whisper—"Do you see that little fellow there? he has just been
committing adultery!" Somewhat relieved by the laugh which this droll
address occasioned, I forced back my attention to the stage
sufficiently to learn, that Bertram is recovered from a transient fit
of remorse by the information, that St. Aldobrand was commissioned (to
do, what every honest man must have done without commission, if he did
his duty) to seize him and deliver him to the just vengeance of the
law; an information which, (as he had long known himself to be an
attainted traitor and proclaimed outlaw, and not only a trader in
blood himself, but notoriously the Captain of a gang of thieves,
pirates, and assassins), assuredly could not have been new to him. It
is this, however, which alone and instantly restores him to his
accustomed state of raving, blasphemy, and nonsense. Next follows
Imogine's constrained interview with her injured husband, and his
sudden departure again, all in love and kindness, in order to attend
the feast of St. Anselm at the convent. This was, it must be owned, a
very strange engagement for so tender a husband to make within a few
minutes after so long an absence. But first his lady has told him that
she has "a vow on her," and wishes "that black perdition may gulf her
perjured soul,"—(Note: she is lying at the very time)—if she ascends
his bed, till her penance is accomplished. How, therefore, is the poor
husband to amuse himself in this interval of her penance? But do not
be distressed, reader, on account of the St. Aldobrand's absence! As
the author has contrived to send him out of the house, when a husband
would be in his, and the lover's way, so he will doubtless not be at a
loss to bring him back again as soon as he is wanted. Well! the
husband gone in on the one side, out pops the lover from the other,
and for the fiendish purpose of harrowing up the soul of his wretched
accomplice in guilt, by announcing to her, with most brutal and
blasphemous execrations, his fixed and deliberate resolve to
assassinate her husband; all this too is for no discoverable purpose
on the part of the author, but that of introducing a series of super-
tragic starts, pauses, screams, struggling, dagger-throwing, falling
on the ground, starting up again wildly, swearing, outcries for help,
falling again on the ground, rising again, faintly tottering towards
the door, and, to end the scene, a most convenient fainting fit of our
lady's, just in time to give Bertram an opportunity of seeking the
object of his hatred, before she alarms the house, which indeed she
has had full time to have done before, but that the author rather
chose she should amuse herself and the audience by the above-described
ravings and startings. She recovers slowly, and to her enter,
Clotilda, the confidante and mother confessor; then commences, what in
theatrical language is called the madness, but which the author more
accurately entitles, delirium, it appearing indeed a sort of
intermittent fever with fits of lightheadedness off and on, whenever
occasion and stage effect happen to call for it. A convenient return
of the storm, (we told the reader before-hand how it would be), had
changed—
"The rivulet, that bathed the convent walls,
Into a foaming flood: upon its brink
The Lord and his small train do stand appalled.
With torch and bell from their high battlements
The monks do summon to the pass in vain;
He must return to-night."
Talk of the Devil, and his horns appear, says the proverb and sure
enough, within ten lines of the exit of the messenger, sent to stop
him, the arrival of Lord St. Aldobrand is announced. Bertram's ruffian
band now enter, and range themselves across the stage, giving fresh
cause for Imogine's screams and madness. St. Aldobrand, having
received his mortal wound behind the scenes, totters in to welter in
his blood, and to die at the feet of this double-damned adultress.
Of her, as far as she is concerned in this fourth act, we have two
additional points to notice: first, the low cunning and Jesuitical
trick with which she deludes her husband into words of forgiveness,
which he himself does not understand; and secondly, that everywhere
she is made the object of interest and sympathy, and it is not the
author's fault, if, at any moment, she excites feelings less gentle,
than those we are accustomed to associate with the self-accusations of
a sincere religious penitent. And did a British audience endure all
this?—They received it with plaudits, which, but for the rivalry of
the carts and hackney coaches, might have disturbed the evening-
prayers of the scanty week day congregation at St. Paul's cathedral.
Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.
Of the fifth act, the only thing noticeable, (for rant and nonsense,
though abundant as ever, have long before the last act become things
of course,) is the profane representation of the high altar in a
chapel, with all the vessels and other preparations for the holy
sacrament. A hymn is actually sung on the stage by the chorister boys!
For the rest, Imogine, who now and then talks deliriously, but who is
always light-headed as far as her gown and hair can make her so,
wanders about in dark woods with cavern-rocks and precipices in the
back-scene; and a number of mute dramatis personae move in and out
continually, for whose presence, there is always at least this reason,
that they afford something to be seen, by that very large part of a
Drury Lane audience who have small chance of hearing a word. She had,
it appears, taken her child with her, but what becomes of the child,
whether she murdered it or not, nobody can tell, nobody can learn; it
was a riddle at the representation, and after a most attentive perusal
of the Play, a riddle it remains.
"No more I know, I wish I did,
And I would tell it all to you;
For what became of this poor child
There's none that ever knew."
Our whole information [84] is derived from the following words—
"PRIOR.—Where is thy child?
CLOTIL.—(Pointing to the cavern into which she has looked)
Oh he lies cold within his cavern-tomb!
Why dost thou urge her with the horrid theme?
PRIOR.—(who will not, the reader may observe, be disappointed of
his dose of scolding)
It was to make (query wake) one living cord o' th' heart,
And I will try, tho' my own breaks at it.
Where is thy child?
IMOG.—(with a frantic laugh) The forest fiend hath snatched him—
He (who? the fiend or the child?) rides the night-mare thro' the
wizard woods."
Now these two lines consist in a senseless plagiarism from the
counterfeited madness of Edgar in Lear, who, in imitation of the gypsy
incantations, puns on the old word mair, a hag; and the no less
senseless adoption of Dryden's forest fiend, and the wisard stream by
which Milton, in his Lycidas, so finely characterizes the spreading
Deva, fabulosus amnis. Observe too these images stand unique in the
speeches of Imogine, without the slightest resemblance to anything she
says before or after. But we are weary. The characters in this act
frisk about, here, there, and every where, as teasingly as the Jack o'
Lantern-lights which mischievous boys, from across a narrow street,
throw with a looking-glass on the faces of their opposite neighbours.
Bertram disarmed, outheroding Charles de Moor in the Robbers, befaces
the collected knights of St. Anselm, (all in complete armour) and so,
by pure dint of black looks, he outdares them into passive poltroons.
The sudden revolution in the Prior's manners we have before noticed,
and it is indeed so outre, that a number of the audience imagined a
great secret was to come out, viz.: that the Prior was one of the many
instances of a youthful sinner metamorphosed into an old scold, and
that this Bertram would appear at last to be his son. Imogine re-
appears at the convent, and dies of her own accord. Bertram stabs
himself, and dies by her side, and that the play may conclude as it
began, to wit, in a superfetation of blasphemy upon nonsense, because
he had snatched a sword from a despicable coward, who retreats in
terror when it is pointed towards him in sport; this felo de se, and
thief-captain—this loathsome and leprous confluence of robbery,
adultery, murder, and cowardly assassination,—this monster, whose
best deed is, the having saved his betters from the degradation of
hanging him, by turning Jack Ketch to himself; first recommends the
charitable Monks and holy Prior to pray for his soul, and then has the
folly and impudence to exclaim—
"I die no felon's death,
A warriour's weapon freed a warriour's soul!"

[Here ends chapter 23.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

* * * * * * * *

Footnotes by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

[79] Praecludere calumniam, in the original.
[80] Better thus: Forma specifica per formam individualem translucens:
or better yet--Species individualisata, sive Individuum cuilibet
Speciei determinatae in omni parte correspondens et quasi versione
quadam eam interpretans et repetens.
[81] ------"The big round tears
Cours'd one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase,"
says Shakespeare of a wounded stag hanging its head over a stream:
naturally, from the position of the head, and most beautifully, from
the association of the preceding image, of the chase, in which "the
poor sequester'd stag from the hunter's aim had ta'en a hurt." In the
supposed position of Bertram, the metaphor, if not false, loses all
the propriety of the original.
[82] Among a number of other instances of words chosen without reason,
Imogine in the first act declares, that thunder-storms were not able
to intercept her prayers for "the desperate man, in desperate ways who
dealt"----
"Yea, when the launched bolt did sear her sense,
Her soul's deep orisons were breathed for him;"
that is, when a red-hot bolt, launched at her from a thunder-cloud,
had cauterized her sense, to plain English, burnt her eyes out of her
head, she kept still praying on.
"Was not this love? Yea, thus doth woman love!"
[83] This sort of repetition is one of this writers peculiarities, and
there is scarce a page which does not furnish one or more instances--
Ex. gr. in the first page or two. Act I, line 7th, "and deemed that I
might sleep."--Line 10, "Did rock and quiver in the bickering glare."
--Lines 14, 15, 16, "But by the momently gleams of sheeted blue, Did
the pale marbles dare so sternly on me, I almost deemed they lived."--
Line 37, "The glare of Hell."--Line 35, "O holy Prior, this is no
earthly storm."--Line 38, "This is no earthly storm."--Line 42,
"Dealing with us."--Line 43, "Deal thus sternly:"--Line 44, "Speak!
thou hast something seen?"--"A fearful sight!"--Line 45, "What hast
thou seen! A piteous, fearful sight."--Line 48, "quivering gleams."--
Line 50, "In the hollow pauses of the storm."--Line 61, "The pauses of
the storm, etc."
[84] The child is an important personage, for I see not by what
possible means the author could have ended the second and third acts
but for its timely appearance. How ungrateful then not further to
notice its fate!
[85] Classically too, as far as consists with the allegorizing fancy
of the modern, that still striving to project the inward,
contradistinguishes itself from the seeming ease with which the poetry
of the ancients reflects the world without. Casimir affords, perhaps,
the most striking instance of this characteristic difference.--For his
style and diction are really classical: while Cowley, who resembles
Casimir in many respects, completely barbarizes his Latinity, and even
his metre, by the heterogeneous nature of his thoughts. That Dr.
Johnson should have passed a contrary judgment, and have even
preferred Cowley's Latin Poems to Milton's, is a caprice that has, if I
mistake not, excited the surprise of all scholars. I was much amused
last summer with the laughable affright, with which an Italian poet
perused a page of Cowley's Davideis, contrasted with the enthusiasm
with which he first ran through, and then read aloud, Milton's Mansus
and Ad Patrem.
[86] Flectit, or if the metre had allowed, premit would have supported
the metaphor better.
[87] Poor unlucky Metaphysicks! and what are they? A single sentence
expresses the object and thereby the contents of this science. Gnothi
seauton:
Nosce te ipsum,
Tuque Deum, quantum licet, inque Deo omnia noscas.
Know thyself: and so shalt thou know God, as far as is permitted to a
creature, and in God all things.--Surely, there is a strange--nay,
rather too natural--aversion to many to know themselves.