Imágenes de páginas

16 which opened thus: “Let the rainbow be the $6 fiddle-stick of the fiddle of heaven'."

The critic was perfectly right in relinquishing his former idea concerning the Adamus Exul of Grotius ; but, in his remark on Volataire, he fhews how dangerous it is to censure any writer for what he says concerning books, which the censurer has no opportunity of examining. Voltaire, indeed, from his predominant passion for ridicule, and from the ralh vivacity, that often led him to speak too confidently of various works from a very slight inspection of their contents, is no more to be followed implicitly in points of criticism, than he is on the more important article of religion: but his opinions in literature are generally worth examination, as hę poffefsed po common degree of taste, a perpetual thirst for universal knowledge, and, though not the most intimate, yet, perhaps, the most extensive acquaintance with literary works and literary men that was ever acquired by any individual.

When Voltaire visited England in the early part of his life, and was engaged in foliciting a subfcription for his Henriade, which first appeared under the title of “ The League,” he published, in our language, an essay on Epic Poetry, a work which, though written under such disadvantage, poffefies the peculiar vivacity of this extraordinary writer, and is indeed so curious a specimen of his verfatile talents, that although it has been superseded by a French composition of greater extent, under the fame title, it ought, I think, to have found a place

[ocr errors]


in that signal monument to the name of Voltaire, the edition of his works in ninety-two volumes. As my reader

may be gratified in seeing the English style of this celebrated foreigner, I will transcribe, without abridgment, what he says of Andreini :

" Milton, as he was travelling through Italy in “ his youth, faw at Florence a comedy called 66 Adamo, writ by one Andreini, a player, and de“ dicated to Mary de Medicis, Queen of France. “The subject of the play was the Fall of Man ; " the actors, God, the devils, the angels, Adam,

Eve, the Serpent, Death, and the seven mortal “ fins: that topic, so improper for a drama, but fo • suitable to the absurd genius of the Italian stage

it was at that time) was handled in a manner entirely comformable to the extravagance of the design. The scene


with a chorus of angels, “ and a cherubim thus speaks for the rest :- Let 66 the rainbow be the fiddle-stick of the fiddle of e the heavens! let the planets be the notes of our " music! let time beat carefully the measure, and " the winds make the sharps, &c.' Thus the play « begins, and every scene rises above the last in « profusion of impertinence!

46 Milton pierced through the absurdity of that “ performance to the hidden majesty of the subject, “ which, being altogether unfit for the stage, yet “ might be (for the genius of Milton, and for his

only) the foundation of an epic poem.

" He took from that ridiculous trifle the first « hint of the noblest work, which human imagina


[ocr errors]

* tion has ever attempted, and which he executed

more than twenty years after.

“ In the like manner, Pythagoras owed the in6 vention of Music to the noise of the hammer of

a blacksmith; and thus, in our days, Sir Isaac “ Newton walking in his garden, had the first

thought of his system of gravitation upon seeing an apple falling from a tree.”

It was thus that, in the year 1727, Voltaire, then studying in England, and collecting all possible information concerning our great epic poet, account: ed for the origin of Paradise Lost. Rolli, another foreign student in epic poetry, who resided at that time in London, and was engaged in translating Milton into Italian verse, published fome severe censures, in English, on the English essay of Voltaire, to vindicate both Taslo and Milton from certain strictures of sarcastic raillery, which the volatile Frenchman had. lavished upon both. Voltaire, indeed, has fallen himself into the very inconsistency, which he mentions as unaccountable in Dryden ; I mean the inconsistency of sometimes praising Milton with such admiration as approaches to idolatry, and sometimes reproving him with such keenness of ridicule as borders on contempt. In the course of this discussion we may find, perhaps, a mode of accounting for the inconsistency both of Dryden and Voltaire; let us attend at present to what the latter has said of Andreini !-If the Adamo of this author really gave birth to the divine poem of Milton, the Italian dramatist, whatever rank he might hold in his own country, has a singular


claim to our attention and regard. Johnson indeed calls the report of Voltaire a wild and unauthoriz. ed story; and Rolli afferts, in reply to it, that if Milton saw the Italian drama, it must have been at Milan, as the Adamo, in his opinion, was a petformance too contemptible to be endured at Florence. « Andreini (says the critic of Italy) was a stroller (un istrione) of the worst age of the Itàlian letters.” Notwithstanding these terms of contempt, which one of his countrymen has bestowed upon Andreini, he appears to me highly worthy of our notice; for (although in uniting, like Shakespeare and Moliere, the two different arts of writo ing and of acting plays, he discovered not such extraordinary powers as have justly immortalized those idols of the theatre) he was yet endowed with one quality, not only uncommon, but such as might render him, if I may hazard the expression, the poetical parent of Milton. The quality I mean is, enthusiasm in the highest degree, not only poetical but religious. Even the preface that Andreini prefixed to his Adamo may be thought sufficient to have acted like lightning on the inflammable ideas of the English poet, and to have kindled in his mind the blaze of celestial imagination.

I am aware, that in researches like the present every conjecture may abound in illusion; the petty circumstances, by which great minds are led to the first conception of great designs, are so various and volatile, that nothing can be more difficult to difcover : fancy in particular is of a nature so airy, that the traces of her step are hardly to be discern


ed; ideas are so fugitive, that if poets, in their life-time, were questioned concerning the manner in which the feeds of considerable productions first arose in their mind, they might not always be able to answer the enquiry; can it then be possible to succeed in such an enquiry concerning a mighty genius, who has been configned more than a century to the tomb, especially when, in the records of his life, we can find no positive evidence on the point in question? However trifling the chances it may afford of success, the investigation is assuredly worthy our pursuit; for, as an accomplished critic has said, in speaking of another poet, with his usual felicity of discernment and expression, “ the enquiry cannot be void of entertainment 66 whilst Milton is our constant theme : whatever

may be the fortune of the chace, we are sure it “ will lead us through pleasant prospects and a fine “ country.”

It has been frequently remarked, that accident and genius generally conspire in the origin of great performances; and the accidents that give an impulse to fancy are often such as are hardly within the reach of conjecture. Had Ellwood himself not recorded the occurrence, who would have supposed that a few words, which fell from a simple youth in conversation, were the real source of Paradise Regained? Yet the offsprings of imagination, in this point of view, have a striking analogy to the productions of nature. The noble poem just mentioned resembles a rare and valuable tree, not planted with care and forecast, but arising vigorously


« AnteriorContinuar »