So happy a life as Mason's, though exceedingly agreeable to think of, is neither easy to write, nor very entertaining when written. Even when such favoured mortals have chosen, like the excellent Lindley Murray, to be their own biographers, though their reflections and observations are most valuable, their actions exemplary, and their tranquillity and thankfulness truly edifying, more good people will be found to recommend their work than to peruse it. Yet Mason was not a man to be forgotten. He was the friend and biographer of Gray, and he was the most considerable Poet that Yorkshire has produced since Marvel.
As a man, as a poet, as a politician, and as a divine, he was highly respectable, and he that is thoroughly respectable, and nothing more, has the best possible chance of earthly happiness. A few squabbles with managers and critics, were all that he had to convince him that "man is born to mourn." He had the good fortune too to be born in one of those "vacant, interlunar" periods of literature, when a little poetic talent goes a great way: and in an age when a clergyman, if not negligent of his professional duties, was allowed to cultivate his talents in any innocent way he thought proper. His character was deservedly esteemed by many who were themselves estimable, and his genius is praised by some who themselves possessed more.
William Mason was born in 1725. His father, who was Vicar of St. Trinity-Hall, in the East Riding, superintended his early education himself, and instead of checking, kindly fostered his poetical tastes, for which judicious indulgence he made grateful acknowledgment in a poetical epistle, written in his 21st year. Unlike too many poets, he never had occasion to regret his early devotion to the Muses; but then,
He left no calling for the idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobey'd.
However little parents may approve of their offspring being bad poets, or however barren they may think the bays of the good ones, they will always do wisely to imitate the worthy father of Mason, and let instinct have its course. To oppose, is certain to add the curse of disobedience to the calamities of poetry.
In 1742, young Mason was entered of St. John's College, Cambridge. His tutor was Dr. Powell, a man of the same liberal sentiments as his father, who, while he directed his pupil to the classic models of antiquity, did not dissuade him from cultivating English verse. Mason's scholarship, though elegant and diffusive, was not of that accurate and technical kind, which may strictly be called academical; but he passed his time happily at Cambridge, with good books and good company, studying rather for delight and public fame, than for college honours and emoluments. It is too much the habit of tutors, and of those who should give the tone to our Universities, to consider all study which has not a direct reference to the tripos and class-paper, as mere mental dissipation: a prejudice which not only turns the young academician into a school-boy, but converts the full grown academicians, who should form the learned class, into commonplace schoolmasters. The constant routine of tuition leaves the senior neither time nor spirits for fresh acquisitions of knowledge, and in consequence many, many men of high, attainments, whose continued residence in their colleges would be highly beneficial both to themselves and to the community, are driven away from absolute want of genial society and conversation. Few now choose a college life, but such as are either tutors for subsistence, or decorous loungers and temperate bonvivants; consequently the Universities have lost a part of their salutary influence on the public mind, and are too sharply opposed to current opinion to modify and moderate it as they ought to do. Such, we fear, is the general case; but the exceptions are many, honourable, and yearly on the increase; and there is great hope that, ere long, specimens of every cast and size of intellect may grow and flourish on the peaceful borders of Cam and Isis, "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife."
The youthful character of Mason, as drawn by his early and constant friend Gray, is at once amiable and amusing. He says, that "he was one of much fancy, little judgment, and a good deal of modesty; a good well meaning creature, but in simplicity a perfect child; he reads little or nothing, writes abundance, and that with a design to make a fortune by it; a little vain, but in so harmless a way, that it does not offend; a little ambitious, but withal so ignorant of the world and its ways, that this does not hurt him in one's opinion; so sincere and undisguised, that no one with a spark of generosity would ever think of hurting him, he lies so open to injury; but so indolent, that if he cannot overcome this habit, all his good qualities will signify nothing at all." Very few of these traits outlasted Mason's youth, and perhaps some of them never existed but in Gray's good natured interpretation. To have more fancy than judgment, to be very modest, and a little (which means not a little) vain, are qualities common to every young man that is, or is to be, or sincerely wishes to be, a poet: and a stripling, who came to college direct from his father's parsonage, might well be ignorant of the world. But his simplicity and unsuspicion, like his extravagant expectations, seem to have arisen solely from his ignorance of the world, and his indolence was probably more than half affected out of vanity; for vain clever men cannot bear to be suspected of fagging.
Mason took his Batchelor's degree in 1745. Probably it was about this time that he composed, or at least began to compose, his Monody on the death of Pope, who died in the preceding year; but it did not appear before 1747, when it was published by advice of Dr. Powell. As the work of an author of two and twenty, it is greatly commendable, and contains some really fine lines. But grief, if we may judge by the practice of poets, has a privilege above all other passions, love itself not excepted; a plenary indulgence for all sins of nonsense. Elegies, Monodies, and Epicedia, have generally less meaning than any other compositions. Mr. Mason begins thus, in complicated imitation of the whole tribe of poetic mourners:—
Sorrowing I catch the reed, and call the Muse,
If yet a muse on Britain's plain abide;
Since rapt Musaeus tuned his parting strain,
With him they lived, with him perchance they died:
For who e'er since their virgin charms espied,
Or on the banks of Thames, or met their train
Where Isis sparkles to the sunny ray?
Or have they deign'd to play
Where Camus winds along his broidered vale,
Feeding each bluebell pale, and daisy pied
That fling their fragrance round his rushy side.
Yet ah, ye are not dead, Celestial Maids,
Immortal as ye are, ye may not die,
Nor is it meet ye fly these pensive glades,
E'er round his laureate herse ye heave the sigh.
Stay then awhile, O stay, ye fleeting fair,
Revisit yet, nor hallow'd Hippocrene,
Nor Thespia's grove; till with harmonious teen,
Ye sooth his shade, and slowly-dittied air.
Such tribute pour'd, again ye may repair
To what loved haunt ye whilom did elect;
Whether Lycaeus, or that mountain fair
Trim Maenalus with piny verdure deck't.
But now it boots ye not in these to stray,
Or yet Cyllene's hoary shade to choose,
Or where mild Ladon's welling waters play,
Forego each vain excuse,
And haste to Thames's shores; for Thames shall join,
Our sad society, and passing mourn,
The tears fast trickling o'er his silver urn.
And when the Poet's widow'd grot he laves,
His reed crown'd locks shall shake, his head shall bow,
His tide no more in eddies blith shall rove,
But creep soft by with long drawn murmurs slow.
For oft the mighty Master rous'd his waves
With martial notes, or lull'd with strain of love:
He must not now in brisk meanders flow
Gamesome, and kiss the sadly-silent shore,
Without the loan of some poetic woe.
Say first, Sicilian Muse,
For, with thy sisters, thou didst weeping stand
In silent circle at the solemn scene,
When Death approach'd, and wav'd his ebon wand,
Say how each laurel droopt its with'ring green?
How, in yon grot, each silver trickling spring
Wander'd the shelly channels all among;
While as the coral roof did softly ring
Responsive to their sweetly-doleful song.
Meanwhile all pale th' expiring Poet laid,
And sunk his awful head,
While vocal shadows pleasing dreams prolong;
For so, his sick'ning spirits to release,
They pour'd the balm of visionary peace.
Considered as a specimen of versification these lines have great merit, and prove that Mason had read and studied the elder English poets diligently and profitably. It was by no means so easy to compose such a copy of verses in 1744 as it would be at present, for the tunes of ancient song had "left the echo;" so completely had the Popean couplet (itself, deny it who will, an admirable measure for many and excellent purposes) taken possession of the general ear, that it was not without effort, and a certain confusion of ideas, that ordinary readers could admit any other system of syllabic arrangement to be verse at all. At present the turns and phrases of the Italian school are rather more familiar than those of the French, and a man might compose a very tolerable cento, without ever looking at a poet at all, out of magazine articles and. familiar letters.
There is some little originality in the plan of Mason's Musaeus. Instead of heathen Gods, or rivers, or abstract qualities in masquerade, Pope, or Musaeus, in the trance preceding his departure, is visited by the "vocal shadows" of Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, each of whom confesses his own inferiority to the dying Swan, with no small extravagance. Vocal shadows ought not to flatter.
It would seem that these spirits of poets past came to convince Mr. Pope that he would have as little occasion for plain speaking in the world he was going to as in that he was leaving. Spenser is not happily characterized as "the blithest lad that ever piped on plain," for the prevailing hue of his poesy is melancholy tenderness. His "Faerie Queen" is the requiem of chivalry; a cenotaph of stainless marble, into which he invokes the shades of virtues that never lived "But in the vision of intense desire." Spenser, in Mr. Mason's allegorical procession, is Colin Clout; Chaucer is Tityrus, and is masked "as a Palmer old," no very appropriate habit for a writer who satirized the religious orders with so much severity, and who had no high opinion of the moral effect of pilgrimages. The style and obsolete language of these two poets are skilfully taken off, though, after all, their speeches are more like Pope's burlesque imitations, than their own original strains. It is rather too bad to state that Una and Florimel are drooping before the superior charms of Belinda. No two poems on earth can be more unlike than the "Faerie Queen," and "The Rape of the Lock." Una with her "milk white lamb" is the most unearthly efflux of pure imagination. Compared to her, Milton's Eve is a substantial woman. Belinda, on the other hand, is the exactest transcript of a drawing-room beauty, and every image with which she is attended is drawn from double-refined high life. The "Rape of the Lock" is to St. James's, what the "Beggar's Opera" is to Newgate, with the merit of more perfect consistency; for there are certain strokes of true nature in Polly Peachum, which make you feel for her as a being out of her place. Belinda is altogether the fine lady: you find and wish for no more nature in her, than perspective in a china vase. But we are criticising Pope instead of Mason.
The most remarkable thing in the "Musaeus" is that Pope is made to disclaim all praise but that of being the poet of virtue, and Virtue appears, "propria persona," to thank him in heroic couplets for his mighty services.
We have said more perhaps than necessary about this tuneful trifle, both because it was Mason's maiden poem, and therefore a mark whereby the progress of his mind may be computed, and because it really shews how nearly a young man may come to be a poet by mere dint of loving poetry, and indefatigably striving to attain it.
Such was the fashion of celebrating departed excellence in the early part of the eighteenth century. A great spirit is just departed from among us, and when the seemly silence of a recent grief may fitly be broken, some sad and solemn strains, not unmingled with deep and joyful hope, will haply break from the poets that survive; but let there be no pastoral, no allegory, no heathenism: let us at least talk sense beside the grave. There is no man of twenty now living who could write half so well as Mason, that would not write much better on such an occasion. So much has been done in the last fifty years to reconcile poetry with reason. Mason did something himself, and even his Musaeus is an improvement on the then established models.
In 1747, Mason was chosen Fellow of Pembroke College, chiefly by the recommendation of Gray, who had removed thither from Peterhouse, whence he was driven by the noise and practical jokes of a set of young bloods, who thought his timidity and old-maidenly preciseness fair game. We wonder at such irreverend treatment of the author of the Elegy, yet it is not unlikely that Shakespeare was sometimes hissed and pelted on the stage. Mason, however, was not allowed to take possession of his fellowship without some difficulty, of which he himself spoke thus: — "I have had the honour, since I came here last, to be elected by the Fellows of Pembroke into their society; but the Master, who has the power of a negative, had made use of it on this occasion, because he will not have an 'extraneus' when they have fit persons in their own college. The Fellows say they have a power from their statutes, 'indifferenter eligere ex utraque academia,' and are going to try it with him at common law, or else get the King to appoint a visitor. If this turns out well, it will be a very lucky thing for me, and much better than a Platt, which I came hither with an intention to sit for: for they are reckoned the best Fellowships in the University." Whether the Master and Fellows of Pembroke did proceed to extremities or no, is matter of little consequence; but Mason was declared duly elected, after two years' suspense, in 1749, in which year also he took his Master's degree. It is possible that the Master of Pembroke might dislike Mason both for his poetry and for his politics. As to the former, sage gentlemen in office generally regard it as coldly as the great Lord Burleigh, and the philosophical Locke, who, in his tract on education, warns all young men against associating with poets, as being commonly found in company with gamesters. In politics, Mason was a Whig, perhaps more from a scholastic admiration of the antique republics, than from any experimental knowledge of the wants and capacities of English society. Of this he gave proof in his "Isis," a metrical attack upon the Jacobitism of Oxford, which had the honour of rousing Tom Warton to a reply, properly named the "Triumph of Isis," since Mason himself confessed it to be the better poem of the two. Neither of them won much glory in the contest; but the heart certainly goes along with Warton, who loved his Alma Mater for her venerable cloisters, her ancient trees, her shady walks, her cloudy traditions, her precious libraries, her potent loyalty, and mighty ale, and wrote in her defence with a generous anger too sincere to be thoroughly poetical.
Why do the Universities ever meddle with factious politics? In their corporate capacity they should never allude to any event later than the restoration. That was their triumph — the reward of their loyal sufferings, the resuscitation of the church. They ought to take it for granted, that all has gone on well since; as the happy couple of the fifth act, or third volume, are conceived to be still living happily — keeping their honey-moon to the end of time.
Warton and Mason never liked one another, which has been attributed by some to their poetical rivalry, and by others to the difference of their politics. But may it not more rationally and less discreditably be ascribed to the contrariety of their habits, and the antipathy of their tempers? Mason was a correct, precise, clerical gentleman, as much attached to the decorums of life, as to those of the drama! By no means incapable of quiet sarcasm, but much above the vulgarity of a joke: — the vanity which Gray could smile at in his boyhood, sobered down into a prudent self-appreciation, that taught him to furbelow a good deal of true dignity and self possession with a little of what, in the other sex, would be called prudery. Warton was a good-natured sloven, somewhat given to ale and tobacco, and not very select either as to the company he drank and smoked with, or the jests with which he set the table in a roar. It is recorded (and the tale would not have been invented if it had not been characteristic) that Tom Warton was once missing, when in his capacity of public orator, or poetry professor, we are not sure which, he had to compose a Latin speech for some public occasion. To save the trouble of going the round of his haunts, a happy thought occurred, that he never could, whatever he was engaged in, forbear following a drum and fife. A drum and fife therefore were. directed to proceed with their spirit-stirring music along the streets of Oxford, and ere long, from a low-browed hostel, distinguished by a swinging board, the Professor issued, with cutty pipe in mouth, greasy gown, and dirty band, and began strutting after the martial music, to the tune of "give the King his own again."
The anecdote is probably fabulous, but it would never have been told of Mason. The difference of the men appears in the fact, that Warton was always Tom, while Mason was never Billy. The natural consequence of this discrepancy of manners would be, that neither could feel himself at ease in the other's society. Mason would suspect that his dignity was violated by the very negligence of Warton's dress, and Warton would be annoyed with the propriety of Mason's behaviour. He used to describe him as a "buckram man."
The "Isis" appeared in 1748, and does not seem to have offended the Cantabs in general, for in the next year our author was requested to compose an ode for the installation of the Duke of Newcastle as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Gray thought the ode "uncommonly well for such an occasion," a praise not to be acceded to his own ode on the installation of the Duke of Grafton, which is a great deal too good for the occasion. But Mason was so little pleased either with his subject, or his treatment of it, that he had no pleasure in recollection of the task, and omitted it in his works.
Though so little eager to record his academical distinctions, he ever retained a grateful and affectionate remembrance of Cambridge, which he testified in an ode addressed to his liberal tutor, Dr. Powell.
The two or three years ensuing his admission to his Fellowship he spent between town and college, frequenting such society in each as were distinguished for their devotion to the fine arts and fine literature, continually exercising himself in composition, but so far from expecting to make a fortune by his poetry, that, according to his own assertion, he would have been happy if the profits of his pen procured him the purchase of an opera or concert ticket. Yet he had his ambition, — an ambition to reconcile the college and the town — to be at once the poet of the common-room and the green-room; in short, to mediate between John Bull and Aristotle; to produce an acting play on the ancient plan; such a play as Sophocles or Euripides would produce if they were now in being. The result was his Elfrida, published in 1752.
Elfrida is very, very far from a contemptible piece of workmanship: it is manifestly the production of a scholar and a gentleman, of an ardent lover of poetry, and platonic inamorato of abstract virtue: but impossible as it is to approve our conjecture by experiment, we do shrewdly suspect that it is nothing like what Sophocles or Euripides would have written had they risen from the dead in the plenitude, or, if you will, with only a tithe, of their powers, and an inspired mastery of the English language, to exhibit to the eighteenth century the marvel of a modern ancient drama. For his deviation from the exact model of the Athenian stage, he thus apologizes in a letter to a friend, prefixed to the first edition of his Elfrida. "Had I intended to give an exact copy of the ancient drama, your objections to the present poem would be unanswerable." (What objections does not appear, but may easily be guessed.) "I only meant to pursue the ancient method so far as it is probable a Greek poet, were he alive; would now do, in order to adapt himself to the genius of our times, and the character of our tragedy. According to this notion, every thing was to be allowed to the present taste which nature and Aristotle could possibly dispense with; and nothing of intrigue or refinement admitted at which ancient judgment could reasonably take offence. Good sense, as well as antiquity, prescribed an adherence to the three great unities; these, therefore, were strictly observed. But, on the other hand, to follow the modern masters in those respects in which they had not so faultily deviated from their predecessors, a story was chosen in which the tender rather than the noble passions were predominant, and in which even love had the principal share. Characters, too, were drawn as nearly approaching to private ones as tragic dignity would permit, and affections raised more from the impulse of common humanity, than the distresses of royalty and the fate of kingdoms. Besides this, for the sake of natural embellishment, and to reconcile mere modern readers to that simplicity of fable in which I thought it necessary to copy the ancients, I contrived to lay the scene in an old romantic forest. For by this means I was enabled to enliven the poem by various touches of pastoral description; not affectedly brought in from the storehouse of a picturesque imagination, but necessarily resulting from the scenery of the place itself, — a beauty so extremely striking in the 'Comus' of Milton, and the 'As you like it' of Shakespeare; and of which the Greek Muse (though fond of rural imagery) has afforded few examples besides that admirable one in the Philoctetes of Sophocles. By this idea I could wish you to regulate your criticism. I need not, I think, observe to you, that these deviations from the practice of the ancients may be reasonably defended. For we are long since agreed, that where love does not degenerate into episodical gallantry, but makes the foundation of the distress, it is, from the universality of its influence, a passion very proper for tragedy. And I have seen you too much moved at the representation of some of our best tragedies of private story, to believe you will condemn me for making the other deviation."
We cannot forbear thinking that Mason had formed his idea of the Greek stage, more from the French critics and imitators, than from the Greek originals. That his acquaintance with Aristotle was drawn through the Gallic filter, may be regarded as certain. He talks of Sophocles, but he is thinking of Racine. He refers to Aristotle, but he relies on Boileau, Bossu, and Dacier. How thoroughly his taste had been gallicised, is proved by his eagerness, in his second auto-critical epistle, to quote the censure of Voltaire upon Shakespeare, and to dwell delighted upon the sobriety and chastity of Racine's Melpomene. Speaking of the common objections to the ancient form of drama, he says: — "The universal veneration which we pay to the name of Shakespeare, at the same time that it has improved our relish for the higher beauties of poetry, has undoubtedly been the ground-work of all this false criticism. That disregard which, in compliance merely with the taste of the times, he shewed of all the necessary rules of the drama, hath since been considered as a characteristic of his vast and original genius; and consequently set up as a model for succeeding writers. Hence M. Voltaire remarks very justly, 'Que le merite de cet auteur a perdu le theatre Anglois. Le tems, qui seul fait la reputation des hommes, rend a la fin leurs defauts respectables.'
"Yet notwithstanding the absurdity of this low superstition, the notion is so popular among Englishmen, that I fear it will never be entirely discredited, till a poet rises up among us with a genius as daring and elevated as Shakespeare's, and a judgment as chastised and sober as Racine's."
If Mason had simply asserted his right to introduce a new form of Drama, occupying a middle point between Shakespeare and Euripides, and protested against the "low superstition" (if any such existed) of condemning all plays in which the Unities were observed, because Shakspeare has succeeded gloriously without them, he would have done well. The more shapes and moulds poetry is cast into, the better; and the more these moulds are varied, provided that each contain a principle of unity, a law of proportion in itself, the greater the gain. And it is certain that no dramatist will ever win a place, we say not at the side, but at the feet, either of Shakspeare or of the Athenian trio, who does not differ widely from each and all of those his great predecessors. Sweet is Shakspeare's praise to all that know and love him; but we would rather never hear his name mentioned, for good or evil, than have it muttered like a malignant spell, to stop the current of another's fame, or seal up the springs of hope and enterprise. We hate to hear Shakspeare praised by odious comparisons with Racine, or Schiller, or Goethe. Who blames the lily for not being a rose?
But Mason has fallen into an error in which far greater men than he have both preceded and followed him. Milton was not content to write blank verse, but he must decry rhyme; and Mason could not invite the public to be pleased with his endeavours, without trying to convince that unconvincible aggregate, that it ought not to have been pleased with its old favourites, and thus created an unnecessary prejudice against his own experiment. Even supposing a popular taste to be vicious, it can only be cured by calling into action a higher power, and exciting a sense of purer pleasure. This a writer may do by his works, but he will never do it by his arguments. You may argue a man or a people out of their admiration, out of their respect, out of their fear, out of their creed, but never out of their pleasure, faith, or love. "To count all former gain as loss," is a sacrifice which only Religion has a right to demand: for in poetry, if not in politics, it is easy to innovate without destroying. There is ground enough on Parnassus "to let upon a building lease," without razing either the ancient castles or the new crescents: no occasion even to disturb the temporary booths and bazaars till the fair is over.
There was nothing very new in Mason's attempt, either as regarded the unity, or more properly speaking, the unbroken continuity of action, or the introduction of the chorus. The plays of Robert Garnier, and other early French dramatists, make at least a pretence of adhering to the ancient models; and the dramas of Lord Brook, of the Earl of Stirling, and of Daniel, had moralizing choruses. Yet he speaks as if Milton's Samson Agonistes was the only English poem constructed according to antique regularity; and this, he contends, runs to an extreme of austerity, arising from the author's just contempt of his contemporaries, whom he would not condescend to amuse or instruct. (Milton would never have condescended to amuse any age, and to instruct was not his vocation: his office was to exalt and purify: but this was no rule for Mr. Mason.) "He had before given to his unworthy countrymen the noblest poem that genius, conducted by ancient art, could produce, and he had seen them receive it with disregard, perhaps with dislike. Conscious therefore of his own dignity, and of their demerit, he looked to posterity only for his reward, and to posterity only directed his future labours. Hence it was, perhaps, that he formed his SAMSON AGONISTES on a model more severe and simple than Athens herself would have demanded; and took Aeschylus for his master rather than Sophocles or Euripides; intending by this conduct to put as great a distance as possible between himself and his contemporary writers; and to make his work (as he himself said) much different from what passed amongst them for the best. The success of the poem was accordingly what one would have expected. The age it appeared in treated it with total neglect; neither hath that posterity to which he appealed, and which has done justice to most of his other writings, as yet given to this excellent piece its full measure of popular and universal fame. Perhaps in your closet, and that of a few more, who unaffectedly admire genuine nature, and ancient simplicity, the Agonistes may hold a distinguished rank. Yet surely we cannot say (in Hamlet's phrase) 'that it pleases the million: it is still caviar to the general.'
"Hence, I think, we may conclude, that unless one would be content with a very late and very learned posterity, Milton's conduct in this point should not be followed. A writer of Tragedy must certainly adapt himself more to the public taste; because the dramatic, of all poems, ought to be most generally relished and understood. The lyric Muse addresses herself to the imagination of a reader; the didactic to his judgment; but the tragic strikes directly on his passions. Few men have a strength of imagination capable of pursuing the flights of Pindar; many have not a clearness of apprehension suited to the reasonings of Lucretius and Pope. But every man has passions to be excited; and every man feels them excited by Shakspeare.
"But though Tragedy be thus chiefly directed to the heart, it must be observed that it will seldom attain its end, without the concurrent approbation of the judgment. And to procure this, the artificial construction of the Fable goes a great way. In France, the excellence of their several poets is chiefly measured by this standard. And amongst our own writers, if you except Shakspeare, (who indeed ought, for his other virtues, to be exempt from common rules,) you will find that the most regular of their compositions are generally reckoned their chef d'oeuvre, witness the All for Love of Dryden, the Venice Preserved of Otway, and the Jane Shore of Rowe."
In all this there is little more than a glimmering of Truth; but some of the remarks on Milton require examination. We are to suppose then, according to Mr. Mason, that Milton, being quite disgusted with the public for its neglect of "Paradise Lost," wrote "Samson Agonistes" to convince the said public how little he cared for it. That he made his drama as severe and unattractive as he possibly could, with an express and conscious design of differing, "toto coelo," from his contemporaries, as Jack, in the "Tale of a Tub," tears his jacket to tatters, that he may differ from Peter's laced coat. Now, though Milton must have been aware that his work did differ from those of his contemporaries, he doubtless fashioned it according to his own sense of fitness, neither following nor flying the path of the time. If Samson Agonistes be of a sterner character, and less accommodated to popular liking, than any of his earlier works, (and, indeed, its almost wintry bareness makes a singular contrast to the hill blossom of Comus and Lycidas,) the change is to be attributed to his advancing years, and to that blindness, which cutting him off from all visual beauty, would make him more and more a dweller with abstract forms. The sympathy of blindness directed him to Samson as a subject. We cannot think the choice very happy, but having made it, and determined upon the most regular mould of drama, (which Mason thoroughly approves,) what greater variety of incident, or interest, could he have admitted without gross impropriety? It is needless to say that Samson Agonistes would not have been any more popular in Greece than in England, or that it is formed on a model more simple than Athens herself would have demanded. Athens did not demand severe and simple models. The Athenians, in the infancy of their stage, were satisfied with bald and naked representations of mythological stories, which carried the weight of religious association along with them; but it was only till they were accustomed to livelier excitements, more intricate plots, more complicated and contrasted passions, and more splendid decorations.
To suppose that Milton was annoyed or disappointed at the reception of Paradise Lost, is to do him gross injustice. He never expected that it would have a "great run," or be bought up like a satire or a love song. He knew that it had to swim against the tide, against the associations of the many, and against the more inveterate prejudices of the critics. An epic in blank verse, produced at a time when the favourites of the Town were adopting heroic rhyme for tragedy; in which there was no epigram, no point, and next to no wit; which was far too solemn for the men of wit and pleasure, and as much too poetical for the severe religionists; a religious poem, which embodied the tenets of no sect; written moreover by a man abhorred by the ruling party, and little beloved by the nonconformists, at once a republican and an Arminian; was likely to attract few purchasers; the only wonder is, that it found so many.
Two large Editions, comprising at least 2,800 copies, were sold in little more than two years; no ordinary sale for a poem of such bulk at any time, and under any circumstances: but when the circumstances of that time are considered, we hesitate not to declare that it was nothing less than extraordinary. That amid so much political confusion, so much and manifold fanaticism, such general poverty of the nation, and such dissoluteness of the literary class, there should yet have remained so many strong, pure, and powerful minds to approve a Paradise Lost, is an honourable recollection for England and for human nature. There is no instance of merit of so high an order making so great a way, not only without adventitious aid, but against every conceivable obstacle. "Fit audience may I find, though few," was the aspiration of the blind bard; and can it be dreamed, that having obtained all that he asked, and more, he indulged a vain chagrin, and debased his noble thoughts with the pettish pride of mortified vanity? Impossible! Neither did he think of appealing to posterity from contemporary injustice. He wrote no more for posterity than for his own age; but for the wisest and best of all generations, present and to come: — for men whose imagination is an active power, to whom profound and prolonged thought is a "labour of love;" who can find strength and freedom in a rigid self-controul, a beauty in all truth, and a moral truth in all beauty.
From the latter part of this epistle, it is obvious that Mason, though he affects to disclaim it, did write his Elfrida with a wish, at least, that it might be represented; for there is no possible reason why a poem in dialogue, interspersed with lyrics, having a beginning, middle, and end, if written for the closet, should be more obsequious to public taste than any other species of poetic composition. A dramatist, if he has no eye to the eclat and the profits of the play-house, may form his plot according to his own fancy, and say, "Fit audience let me find, though few." Albeit, no manager would ever respond Amen. Tragedy, considered as a poem, does not strike more directly at the passions than ode, or elegy, or poetic narrative. Like all other poetry that is worthy of the name, it addresses the passions chiefly through the medium of the imagination; seldom, if ever, without calling either the imagination or the thinking faculty into play. To address the passions directly and merely, is to decline farther and worse from the just measures of ancient art, than to annihilate time and space — overleap years, mountains and seas — twist half a dozen plots together like the plies of a cable, and keep them all agoing like the Indian jugglers' balls — blend comedy, tragedy, farce, pastoral, and ballet together — fill the stage with horses, elephants, and dromedaries — kill off your dramatis personae till the scene is choked with carcases, and the living are not enough to shove aside the dead — or commit any other modern enormity against the Unities, the legitimate drama, Aristotle, and common sense.
There are three more of these letters, but we have quoted enough to shew the critical calibre of Mason's mind. The other letters are taken up with a defence of the chorus, in which he displays neither learning nor philosophy. He does not seem to remember (for he could scarcely be ignorant) that the chorus was not introduced into the drama by Greek judgment, but that the drama, i.e. the dialogue and action, was .superinduced upon the chorus, which kept its place more by prescription than reason, becoming of less and less importance in the hands of every successive dramatist, till at length the choral odes came to have little or no connection with the subject of the play, and were even transferred, like the songs of our operas, from one play to another. The idea of making the chorus a running commentary on the piece, was of late origin. In the earliest and best tragedians, the chorus is always an active character, and its presence as well accounted for as circumstances admit. To employ it simply to fill up the intervals of time, to relieve attention without withdrawing it, to afford the actors an opportunity of loosening their buskins, shifting their robes, changing their masques, and clearing their voices, was an afterthought. A noble use the great Athenians doubtless made of the chorus; yet it cannot be denied, that the drama is more completely dramatic, and so far, more simple and perfect without it. Of the difficulty of amalgamating the lyric and dramatic portions of a play, we need look for no further proof than appears in the gradual disconnection of the chorus and dialogue among the Greeks themselves. Mason's partiality for this portion of the antique arose from a secret consciousness of his own strength and his own weakness. For dramatic composition, he had neither genius nor skill: his conceptions of character were vague, he had little pathos, nor could he even distribute his speeches in such a manner as to bear the smallest resemblance to actual conversation. But he had considerable powers of description, personification, and amplification, and he delighted in moral common places, which he certainly utters with much dignity, and an air of great earnestness. The model which he would have best succeeded in imitating was "Comus." He had the good sense to perceive that no excellence of individual parts can atone for a want of unity in the whole: but he was not able to see of himself (and there was nobody then to shew him) that a perfect unity may be attained, though the technical unities (which have no use or beauty except in so far as they produce unity) be disregarded. But Mason could not have done this, and therefore he was right in preserving a simplicity of plot, and a bona-fide continuity of action. He was right, also, in adopting that appendage of the ancient stage, which gave him an opportunity of shining in his own way, without too much encumbering the dialogue with description and reflection. To exemplify his plan for reconciling the ancients and moderns, he published, at a considerable interval of time, two serious dramatic poems, of very unequal merit, and it is pleasant to remark a decided improvement in the later production. "Elfrida" appeared in 1751, "Caractacus" in 1759, and Mason's genius grew wonderfully in those eight years.
His "Elfrida" labours under the disadvantage of an ill-chosen story: a story scarcely familiar or important enough for the foundation of a tragedy of an austerely simple construction, in the treatment of which he has departed so far from what at least passes for authentic history, as to produce an unpleasant jumble of fact and fiction. Elfrida is recorded only as an adultress and a murderess. Mason, in direct opposition to a sound precept of Aristotle, makes her a pattern of conjugal love and devoted widowhood. Nor are the manners of the time better preserved. But the sentiments of the poetry are pretty, and the tale is certainly a good deal prettier than it is in the History of England. The real Elfrida would have been a tempting subject for Euripides, who delighted to contemplate woman under the influence of strong and dark passions; but we like Mason the better for his inability to pourtray such a character, and approve his judgment in not attempting it.
Among the peculiar difficulties of dramatic composition, what is called the opening of the plot is one of the most formidable, and we know very few plays in which it has been skilfully surmounted. But this difficulty is materially augmented if the unities of place and of time are to be kept inviolate; for in that case, it is impossible to represent a series of actions from their commencement: the play must begin just before the crisis, and the auditor must be put in possession of the previous occurrences as soon as possible; for if they be left in obscurity till they are naturally developed by the incidents and passions of the action itself, half the play will pass over before any one knows what is going forward, or where is the scene, or who are the dramatis personae In written or printed plays, to be sure, we may be informed of these particulars by lists of characters, stage directions, &c.; but no play can be regarded as a legitimate work of art, which would not be intelligible in representation. The ancient dramas, so long as the genuine Greek tragedy flourished, were, with few exceptions, taken from the storehouse of mythology, which was familiar to every Greek from his childhood, consequently the Athenian audiences were never at a loss to understand the subject of a new production. But this, though it was a great convenience, did not exonerate the poet from his duty: he was not to take it for granted that his story was known, but was to make his plot unfold itself. The chorus was of great use in this business, their odes consisting for the most part of references to the past, and forebodings of the future. Prophecies and oracles to be fulfilled, old crimes to be expiated, mysterious circumstances to be cleared up, a fearful future involved in a fearful past, were the main ingredients of the choral strains, in which nothing is fold; every thing is assumed or hinted at, in accordance with the religious nature of Greek tragedy. But as some more straight-forward exposition was deemed necessary in many instances, Euripides, in particular, had recourse to the very inartificial expedient of a retrospective soliloquy, sometimes spoken by a ghost, in which the history was brought down to the point at which it was convenient that the scene should open. This is but a clumsy device, but perhaps it is better than occupying the first act with tedious narrative, in which Prologue plays dialogue with Dummy; and it avoids the worst of all critical faults, that of tediousness. Such as it is, Mason has adopted it in his Elfrida, without an attempt to disguise its manifest absurdity. Orgar, the father of the heroine, appears on the lawn before Athelwold's castle in Harewood Forest; and after a few lines, very prettily descriptive of the venerable wood, the orient sun, and the flower-besprinkled lawn, which give you to understand, like the Gun in Sheridan's Critic, that the time is early morning, begins to explain his own business to himself, setting forth as how his daughter has been three months married to Earl Athelwold, who has persuaded him, for some undiscovered reasons, to let the match remain a secret for "some little space;" that Earl Athelwold has conveyed his bride by stealth to Harewood Castle, "enjoyed and left her," gone to court, and occasionally visited his wife in disguise, and in such a mysterious fashion, that the old man cannot tell what to think of it; begins to suspect that Athelwold has another wife, and intends to lurk about in disguise of a pilgrim, in order to find out the real state of the case, vowing vengeance if his suspicions should turn out to be true. His soliloquy is interrupted (just when it has said all that it has to say) by singing behind the scenes, which he rightly supposes to proceed from Elfrida's waiting maids, the companions of her solitude; whereupon, not to interrupt their harmony, he gets behind a tree, resolving to address them "with some feigned tale," as soon as they have done their song. The chorus of waiting-maids enter singing a hymn to the Morning. A hymn to the Virgin, or to St. Nicholas, or any saint, would certainly have been more appropriate, but the lines are not amiss. Mason had a fine ear, and considerable knowledge of music, which enabled him to give the true lyric air to his choral odes:
Hail to thy living light
Ambrosial Morn! all hail thy roseate ray,
That bids young Nature all her charms display
In varied beauty bright.
Away! ye goblins all
Wont the bewilder'd traveller to daunt,
Whose vagrant feet have traced your secret haunt
Beside some lonely wall,
Or shattered ruin of a moss-grown tower,
Where, at pale midnight's stillest hour,
Through each rough chink the solemn orb of night
Pours momentary gleams of trembling light.
Away, ye elves, away!
Shrink at ambrosial morning's living ray;
That living ray, whose power benign
Unfolds the scene of glory to our eye,
Where, throned in artless majesty,
The cherub Beauty sits on Nature's rustic shrine.
Sweet verses, truly, and at least one beautiful image, though even this is falsified by the epithets. Moonshine is not momentary, except in a high wind, when the clouds are driven rapidly across the "solemn orb;" nor is it trembling, except when reflected on water, or bright leaves. But what a jumble of religions! The Saxon damsels are first of all ancient Persians, then superstitious Scandinavians; but when they talk of the "cherub Beauty sitting on Nature's rustic' shrine," they are Christians, Platonists, modern Deists, and good Catholics all in a single verse. This is the consequence of a determination to bring as many pretty things together into a given space as possible. At the end of the song Orgar comes forward. The chorus are offended at him for listening. He makes a flattering apology: tells the ladies that he never passes "the night bird's favourite spray" without stopping to listen, and that they had voices as sweet as nightingales, with a great deal more science. The ladies are mollified: a long dialogue ensues, in which Orgar pretends to be a man of quality from the north, whose property has been laid waste by an invasion of the border Scots. With some difficulty he prevails on the virgins so far to deviate from their master's orders as to afford him a place of shelter and concealment. He withdraws, and Elfrida enters, bitterly complaining of her husband's want of punctuality (after all, he is not more than an hour after his time), and appears not over well pleased with her secluded state. The chorus moralizes, and gives advice in a strain which few ladies would endure in their waiting-women, and sings another ode, which begins very ornithologically about the turtle (dove), and the lark, and the linnet, and then goes on about the Goddess of Content. At the end of this ditty Athelwold enters, and the chorus, if they had any sense of delicacy or propriety, would have withdrawn. As it is, they stand still, very much in the way. So much for the rationality of a Drama on the ancient plan, founded upon the tender passions. But even if this absurdity had been avoided, matrimonial caresses and reproaches can rarely be exhibited without making both parties rather ridiculous. It is very well that such folly should exist, but the less display is made of it the better: it is peculiarly annoying to the hopeless celibate, a large and increasing class, which, if the times do not improve, or rather, if the habits of society are not reformed, and the money price of respectability is not lowered, will go near to include the whole middle class of gentry. We have long thought it rather creditable to poets, or their wives, that there are so few poetical addresses to Hymen; for the happiness of the married pair neither requires nor admits of public sympathy. There must always be something defective in the moral feelings, or very unfortunate in the circumstances of a man who makes the public his confidante.
Elfrida has a natural longing for the court, which Athelwold endeavours to flatter her out of:—
Elfrida. Blame me not, my Lord,
If prying womanhood should prompt a wish
To learn the cause of this your strange commotion,
Which ever wakes, if I but drop one thought
Of quitting Harewood.
Athel. Go to the clear surface
Of you unruffled lake, and bending o'er it,
There read my answer.
Elfrida. These are riddles, sir.
Athel. No, for its glassy and reflecting surface
Will smile with charms too tempting for a palace.
Elfrida. Does Athelwold distrust Elfrida's faith?
Athel. No, but he much distrusts Elfrida's beauty.
Elfrida. Away! you trifle.
Athel. Never more in earnest;
I would not, for the throne that Edgar sits on,
That Edgar should behold it.
Here the plot begins to open. Athelwold, commissioned to woo Elfrida for the King, has taken her himself, and represented her to Edgar as a dowdy. Now, alarmed at the idea of his treachery being discovered, he cautions her earnestly against the amorous disposition of the young Monarch, and is proceeding with his monitory harangue when a messenger arrives with the unwelcome news, that the King is on the way to Harewood. Athelwold is dumbfoundered. The ensuing scene, in which he gives way to his horror and despair, is written with more dramatic power than Mason generally displays. Naturally enough, he requests the chorus to retire; but as the rules to which the author had bound himself cannot dispense with their presence, he calls them back again, saying, that "concealment would be vain," and reminds them of their obligations to him, which they very prettily acknowledge. He then confesses the whole truth to Elfrida, and tells her that to his love she owes the loss of a crown:—
But where's the tie, Elfrida, that may bind
Thy faith and love?
Elfrida. The strongest, sure, my Lord,
The golden nuptial tie. Try but its strength.
Athel. I must, perforce, this instant know, Elfrida,
Once on a day of high festivity,
The youthful King, encircled with his nobles,
Crown'd high the sparkling bowl; and much of love,
Of beauty much, the sprightly converse ran:
When, as it well might chance, the brisk Lord Ardulph
Made gallant note of Orgar's peerless daughter,
And in such phrase as might inflame a breast
More cool than Edgar's. Early on the morrow
The impatient monarch gave me swift commission
To view those charms of which Lord Ardulph's tongue
Had given such warm description; to whose words,
If my impartial eye gave full assent,
I had his royal mandate on the instant
To hail you Queen of England.
So far the truth of history is followed. But now commences the deviation. The actual Elfrida, deeply resenting the fraud which had given her a simple Thane instead of a royal lover, put on all her charms to captivate Edgar, and rejoiced in the ruin of the too fond Athelwold. Such at least is the narrative of the Monkish historians, who were never better pleased than when villifying woman, whose society they had superstitiously forsworn. But the wickedness of Elfrida is too well authenticated to admit of rational doubt: the fame of her beauty has never raised her a vindicator, though the power of beauty oft times long outlasts its brief possession, witness the enamoured defenders of Mary Stuart, and of Anne Boleyn. But Mason avails himself of a poet's liberty, and makes her reply.
Stead of which
You came, and hail'd me wife of Athelwold.
Was this the tale I was so taught to fear?
Was this the deed that known would make me fly
Thy clasping arm, as 'twere the poisonous adder?
No, let this tender fond embrace assure thee
That thy Elfrida's love can never die;
Or if it could, this animating touch,
Would soon rewake it into life and rapture.
We are afraid that there are few, even of the best of women, who would not feel a momentary anger against the man whose passion had defrauded them of a diadem. The love of rank is the besetting temptation of womanhood. Elfrida, however, has not one misgiving, but first proposes to hide herself in bee chamber, and robe Albina, (the principal of the chorus,) in her bridal vestments, and when afraid that this stratagem would be unavailing, as Ardulph accompanied the King, she declares that she will stain her complexion with berries, hang her head,
Drawl out an idiot phrase, and do each act
With even a rude and peasant awkwardness.
Athelwold expresses a degree of shame and contrition at the prospect of meeting the King, which the occasion does not seem to warrant. Any man, King, or other, who chooses a wife by other's reports, and makes love by proxy, richly deserves to be cheated, and so Elfrida very sensibly thinks. This scene is, on the whole, very pleasing, but it is obvious how terribly the chorus hangs on, the little they say being quite superfluous. Athelwold goes off, and Elfrida, after receiving her attendants' compliments upon her virtue, which she declares is nothing but love, follows him. The chorus sing an ode to constancy, wherein, not content with turning that abstract quality into a Goddess and a heaven-born Queen, the Anglo-Saxon maidens talk of "Cynthia riding on the brow of night." But Shakspeare was never more negligent of the proprieties of time and place than Mason has shewn himself in this drama, which affects the praise of consummate art.
The concluding stanza, though sadly encumbered with epithets, contains a just and noble sentiment:—
The soul which she inspires has power to climb
To all the heights sublime
Of virtue's towering hill.
That hill at whose low foot, weak warbling strays
The scanty stream of human praise,
A shallow trickling rill.
While on the summits hov'ring Angels shed
From their blest pinions, the nectarious dews
Of pore immortal fame:
From these the Muse
Oft steals some precious drops, and skilful blends
With those the lower fountain lends:
Then showers it all on some high-favoured head.
The next scene introduces Elfrida, striving to escape the importunity of Orgar, whom she hardly recognizes through his disguise. He discovers himself, sets no limits to his indignation against Athelwold, flies into a passion with his daughter for calling him husband.
Husband — 'Sdeath what husband?
Is Athelwold thy husband? Sooner call
The impeached thief true master of the booty
He stole or murdered for. Disdain the villain
And help me to revenge thee.
The chorus moralizes on the unlawfulness of revenge in good set terms, but this grave office sits very awkwardly upon young females. Moral truths, elicited by sudden feeling or conviction, even by virtuous scorn and anger, are never more effective than when uttered by female lips; but to be watching for every occasion of giving advice, or reading a lecture, as it is an odious propensity in any age or sex, so it is an absolute outrage its a young woman. Orgar, however, is not in a humour to be schooled. He drops more than a hint that Christian ethics are not for him, a secret adherent to the creed of the Bards and Druids. And he insists upon it that Elfrida, so far from hiding or disguising her beauty, shall call forth all her attractions:—
Hear me, daughter,
You went to search for flowers, to blot your charms
With their dun hue. Yes, thou shalt search for flowers,
Yet shall they be the loveliest of the spring:
Flowers, that entangling in thine auburn hair,
Or blushing 'mid the whiteness of thy bosom,
May, to the power of every native grace,
Give double life, and lustre. Haste my child,
Array thyself in thy most gorgeous garb,
And see each jewel, which my love procured thee,
Dart its full radiance. More than all, put on
The nobler ornament of winning smiles
And kind inviting glances.
Surely no man of honour, no haughty British chieftain, however his better nature might be perverted by ambition or revenge, would or could give such advice to a daughter. It might fitly enough proceed from a Circassian merchant, anxious to sell a she-slave to the best advantage. But when Orgar, impatient at Elfrida's repugnance, charges her on her duty, and by what he calls "a father's just prerogative" to act the part of a wanton for the ruin of the man whom she has sworn to love and honour, we turn away disgusted from such a treasonable libel on paternal authority. The chorus, left alone, divide into semi-choruses, and sing some irregular lines, in imitation of the ancient monostrophes, in which the pen of fate, dipt in its deepest gall, is employed, somewhat incongruously, to write mystic characters on a wall. This shews that the young ladies had read the Pantheon and the book of Daniel. The King and Athelwold enter. The King commends his host's taste in architecture and the picturesque; the beautiful site of his castle, and its "goodly structure," its "turrets trim" "and taper spires," (is not this mention of Gothic ornaments premature?) and its "choicest masonry:"—
Doth boast a separate grace; but ornament,
Tho' here the richest, that the eye can note,
Is used, not lavish'd: Art seems generous here,
Yet not a prodigal.
And then the King pays his respects to the ladies of the chorus. Athelwold is alarmed to see them in tears, and expresses his apprehensions in an aside. Edgar too is surprised and concerned at their mournful taciturnity, and courteously hopes that no "discourteous treatment" is the cause of their sorrow. They break silence to do justice to Athelwold, "the noblest, gentlest, best of masters," and are proceeding in his praises, when Orgar bursts in to make his complaints to Edgar, calls Athelwold traitor, and at last, after several interruptions, discloses how he has been tricked of his daughter, and the King of his bride. Edgar takes all very coolly, but is prevailed on to go and judge of Elfrida with his own eyes. Athelwold, forgetting the courtier, the host, and the husband, stands still, and asks the chorus twenty questions in a breath. "What said she when I left her? How came her father hither? How did she receive him? Did she marshal him to his deed of vengeance? The chorus exculpate Elfrida from the suspicion of disclosing the secret, and confess their own disobedience in concealing the unknown stranger, who proves to be Orgar, and who from his concealment has over-heard all. There is a loftiness in Athelwold's reply, by no means unfrequent in Mason's writings, which would excuse worse faults of construction and language than he is guilty of:—
Chorus. This our disobedience
Athel. Was my perdition. Yet 'tis well.
I blame ye not; it was Heaven's justice, Virgins;
This brought him hither; this annull'd your faith;
I do not think you purpos'd my destruction,
But yet you have destroy'd me. O, Elfrida!
And art thou faithful? This my jealous eye
Thought it had mark'd some speck of change upon thee;
Thought it had found, what might have made thy loss,
Somewhat within endurance. 'Tis not so;
And this thy purity but serves t' augment
The sum of my distractions. Meet me, Edgar,
With thy raised sword; be merciful and sudden.
He departs; and the chorus recite an Ode upon Truth, which may be found in Enfield's Speaker. No one who reads it there would suppose that it ever was intended to form part of a drama, much less that it was chaunted by a company of young ladies, at a crisis of the utmost distress, when their master and mistress were in the jaws of ruin, partly too by their fault. There is no authority or precedent for such an absurdity in the works of the Greeks; nor can it be excused by that compliance with modern taste which is announced with so much ado, in the explanatory epistles. The verses must have been written for some other occasion, and were thrust in here because they were too good to be lost. They are, however, very indifferent, in a most tawdry style, and no way above the reach of any school-boy, who had read Akenside, and learned to tag verses.
After the Ode is finished Athelwold rushes in, bent upon self-murder, for Edgar has seen Elfrida, and Athelwold is banished. The chorus make a tolerable speech against suicide. Athelwold wavers. Elfrida enters, and Edgar follows. Elfrida pleads for her husband with considerable earnestness and dignity. Athelwold is all despair and contrition, talks of killing himself. Edgar is melted, and forgives him all freely, with a generosity very fine; but not at all to he expected from a despot, who, a few minutes before, thought of falling foul on a woman, a wife, whom he perceives has given the heart, upon which he never had the slightest claim, to another. He goes off to chace the "nimble roebuck," bidding Athelwold follow, who, after one farewell, obeys. The detestable Orgar, (who has been standing by all the while without opening his mouth) now breaks out into a storm of reproaches, which are deprived of all verisimilitude by being clothed in pompous dignified language. Shakspeare understood human nature far better when he made old Capulet call poor little Juliet "tallow-face" and " greensickness carrion;" nor are the vituperative passages in Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, a bit more polite. Rage is essentially vulgar, and never vulgarer, than when it proceeds from mortified pride, or disappointed ambition, or thwarted wilfulness. A baffled despot is the vulgarest of dirty wretches, no matter whether he be the despot of a nation vindicating its rights, or of a donkey sinking under its load.
Mason makes a poor attempt to dignify the villainy of Orgar. He, forsooth, is of ancient British line, and Athelwold's perfidy has prevented the British blood from being regalized. Accordingly, he resolves to wait his return, and give him "fair combat." He retires. A pretty dialogue ensues between Elfrida and the chorus, who are, however, a sort of Job's comforters, tormenting the poor lady with likelihoods of her husband dispatching himself. But he is destined to another end. Edwin, the representative of the nuntius, or messenger of the old drama, arrives to relate that Edgar, having drawn Athelwold into a retired part of the wood, and declared that, as a sovereign, he forgives his disloyalty, challenges him to combat, as man to man, and friend to friend, for Elfrida. Athelwold only makes a feint of defence, quickly falls, and dies smiling. Elfrida invokes all Heaven's vengeance upon Edgar, and gathers strength from intensity of sorrow. The dignity of her anger is true to the noblest nature. Orgar, hearing her lamentations, comes in. She falls at his feet, implores him to avenge her, and then suddenly recollects that he too was sworn against the life of Athelwold:
Alas! I had forgot: had Edgar spar'd him,
That sword to which my madness called for vengeance
Ere long was meant to do the bloody deed,
And make the murder parricide.
Orgar, not at all displeased at what has happened, tries to comfort her; but she will not be comforted, and withdraws with the principal virgin, Albina, the coryphaeus or spokeswoman of the chorus. Orgar goes to confer with the King, whom he now feels confident of getting for a son-in-law: charging the virgins, as soon as Elfrida's grief is a little quieted, to hint the King's praises till, "by practice won, she bear their fuller blazon." The semichorus resolve to say truth, and nothing but truth. Albina returns, and informs her companions that Elfrida has resolved on perpetual widowhood: and then Elfrida enters herself, and kneeling down, vows to build a convent on the spot where her husband fell, and to preserve "for aye, austerity, and single life:"
Hear next, that Athelwold's sad widow swears
Never to violate the holy vow
She to his troth first plighted; swears to bear
The sober singleness of widowhood
To her cold grave.
The chorus pray that the vow may be enrolled "mid the dread records of eternity," and so the curtain drops.
An acute and elegant critic remarks, that this conclusion reminds the reader too much of the proverbial instability of widows' vows, "Vows made in pain as violent and void." But does not this feeling arise chiefly, if not solely, from the confusion between the Elfrida of history, and the Elfrida of the play?
As an accommodation of the ancient drama to modern habits and sympathies, "Elfrida" must be pronounced a decided failure. The Unities are indeed preserved; but at the expense of probability and common sense. The chorus, instead of forming a necessary and integral part of the drama, is a mere incumbrance on the action, and at best a Divertissement between the acts. But a worse, because a moral fault, is, the unnecessary degradation of the parental character in the person of Orgar. His mock-mendicity, and lying, and skulking, and eves-dropping, and tale-telling, effect no purpose that might not have been better brought about in other ways; and after the discovery of Athelwold's treachery, he is of no use at all, but a dead weight upon the scene.
We cannot help thinking that Mason began his "Elfrida" with an eye to the theatre; but finding the lyric parts, in which his strength lay, overgrow the dramatic, he abandoned that intention, and did not even offer it to a manager. When, however, he had acquired a name, which was likely to fill the house, the elder Colman most unjustifiably produced it at Covent Garden, with his own or somebody else's alterations. Mason was angry at this, no wonder; and Colman threatened him with a chorus of Grecian washerwomen. Mason prudently let the matter drop. He had an irritable anxiety about his reputation, which made him a very unequal match for managers of iron nerve and brazen face; and though he had undoubtedly the right on his side, Colman and the chorus of washerwomen would have had the laugh on theirs. In 1776, "Elfrida" appeared at Covent Garden with the author's own alterations. It was probably heard once or twice with respectful attention, and then heard no more. "Elfrida" would have sunk in oblivion if Mason had never written Caractacus.
Nearly eight years, "not idly nor unprofitably spent," intervened between the publication of Elfrida and that of Caractacus; but it is convenient at once to finish our notices of Mason's dramatic career. His talent was of the improving kind; and as he seems to have delighted in composition, he never let it rust for want of use. Accordingly, Caractacus, compared to Elfrida, is as the well-considered work of a man, to the rash adventure of a boy. Much of its superiority depends, however, upon the choice of the scene and of the story. The last of the Britons making his final stand in the hallowed seat of the Druidical religion, is an imposing and magnificent object, accordant to the spirit of that Grecian tragedy which Mason proposed as his model. The Druids possess the sacerdotal and mysterious character which properly pertains to a chorus; and the awful scenery of Mona's Isle, affords space for landscape painting, which, though sparingly indulged by the Greek tragedians, is by no means incompatible with the nature of the Attic drama.
The opening speech has been censured as too poetical, — a very false and idle censure; for poetry cannot be too poetical. A sounder objection is, that it violates the moral probabilities of character. Aulus Didius is come on a wicked purpose, to be executed by the wickedest of means, by urging two British youths to betray, with blackest falsehood, the veteran defender of British liberty. We should be sorry for Nature, if such a man, at such a time, could have any perception of her beauties. A superstitious shuddering at her wild and awful shapes he might feel; but coward superstition suggests only mean, and ugly, and loathsome images. A poet may — indeed he must — give voice to feelings that in real life are silent: he must develope the imperfect germs of thought, and give them form and outwardness. It is a senseless cavil to say, that such and such a character would not, in the given situation, speak the words that the poet attributes to him, or any thing like them. But still the words should express some meaning of the supposed speaker's mind or heart, though it should be a meaning that in reality would not be summoned to consciousness. Tarquin must not stay his "ravishing strides" to praise the moon for her chastity. Had Aulus come to worship the old divinities of Mona, or had he been making a tour in search of the picturesque, the lines, which are quite Salvator Rosa, would have been perfectly appropriate:
Here, Romans, pause, and let the eye of wonder
Gaze on the solemn scene; behold yon oak,
How stern be frowns, and with his broad brown arms
Chills the pale plain beneath him: mark yon altar,
The dark stream brawling round its rugged base,
These cliffs, these yawning caverns, this wide circus,
Skirted with unhewn stone: they awe the soul
As if the very Genius of the place
Himself appeared, and with terrific tread
Stalk'd round his drear domain.
The following scene, between Aulus Didius and the sons of Cartismandua, Elidurus and Vellinus, supposed to be hostages, whose liberty is promised as the price of decoying Caractacus into the Roman power, is not deficient in dramatic vivacity. Ever since the Babes were led into the Wood, and perhaps long before, if ever two villains are set to one service, one of them turns out to be quite a good, honest, tender-hearted fellow; while the other is an obdurate scoffer at his scruples. So as soon as Aulus Didius quits the Druidical circle, Elidurus and Vellinus fall to an altercation, the former determining to "proceed no further in this business," while Vellinus will have it that honour, duty to their mother (who is the prime promoter of the treason), and religion, which will he undone if the Romans execute their threat of destroying the sacred groves, oblige them to fulfil their engagement. And so they go off without coming to any agreement. Then the chorus of Druids make their entrance, and divide into responsive semi-chori. There is something very antique and mystical about their opening incantation. The following lines read almost like a translation from the Welsh or Runic:
But tell me yet,
From the grot of charms and spells
Where our matron sister dwells,
Brennus! has thy holy hand
Safely brought the Druid wand,
And the potent adder-stone,
Gender'd fore the autumnal moon,
When in undulating twine
The foaming snakes prolific join;
When they hiss, and when they hear
Their wondrous egg aloof in air,
Thence, before to earth it fall,
The Druid in his hallowed pall
Receives the prize,
And instant files,
Follow'd by the envenom'd brood,
Till he cross the chrystal flood.
Gray had courteously collected for his friend whatever records of the Druidical superstitions are to be found in the Greek and Roman writers, and Mason has made a skilful use of those scanty materials, with such additions from his own invention as seemed to harmonize with what was known of Celtic theology. He is also somewhat indebted to the Edda and other relics of Scandinavian fable. With the Druidical metaphysics, commemorated in the Welsh Triads, and songs of the bards, since brought to light by the industry of Cymrodorian scholars, he does not appear to have had much acquaintance. If these metaphysical doctrines were really couched in the Druids' mysteries, the Druids were very philosophical dreamers indeed.
The presence of the Druidical bards is well accounted for, — an important circumstance in the formation of a chorus. Caractacus is about to be admitted into the order, and initiated into their mystic rites. Abandoning all hope of successful resistance to the Roman invaders, he is resolved to lay aside his royalty, and
To end his days in secrecy and peace,
A Druid among Druids.
His approach is well described. He enters accompanied by his daughter Evelina, and apostrophizes the oaks in some very spirited and well-versified lines. The whole scene is good, but it is a question whether it would not be still better without Evelina. The delineation of female characters was not in Mason's province. He tries to make them tender, but he only makes them fond; and what is worse, he throws their expressions of fondness into the form of abstract propositions, clothed in language which not only is studied, but appears so. Evelina, in good sooth, talks more like a Roman blue stocking (a character that did exist) than like a British maiden. She is too sentimental for a heroine, and too sententious for a girl. There is a speech of Caractacus's which has been highly praised, and by a high authority, for its pathetic simplicity: perhaps Evelina's reply, in the same judgment, is simple and pathetic likewise. The principal Druid bids the King bethink himself
If ought in this vain earth
Still holds too firm a union with thy soul,
Estranging it from peace?
Carac. I had a Queen,
Bear with my weakness Druid! this tough breast
Must heave a sigh, for she is unrevenged,
And can I taste true peace, she unrevenged?
So chaste, so lov'd a Queen? Ah Evelina!
Hang not thus weeping on the feeble arm
That could not save thy mother.
Evelina. To hang thus
Softens the pang of grief; and the sweet thought,
That a fond father still supports his child,
Sheds on my pensive mind such soothing balm,
As doth the blessing of these pious seers,
When most they wish our welfare. Would to heaven,
A daughter's presence could as much avail
To ease her father's woes, as his doth mine.
The meaning of these hues is indeed pathetic, and it is probable that when the author first conceived the situation, he really felt for Caractacus and his daughter. But it was his practice to write and re-write till his original conceptions were evaporated, and nothing but his own words remained upon his memory. He was like a painter who, having taken a hasty sketch of a landscape on the spot, goes into his study and touches and re-touches till the little recollection of the original, which he retains, only serves to puzzle him, and his work at last has neither the Catholic truth of art, nor the individual reality of nature.
Mason, as we have seen, was a great stickler for the Unities, yet be violated the most essential unity of all — the unity of interest. He attempted to combine interests which destroy one another. Had "Caractacus" been composed according to the ideal of the ancient drama, Caractacus would have appeared simply as the impersonation of British liberty; and the predominant feeling should have been, that the fate of an individual involved the doom of a state. And had Mason written for himself he would have preserved this singleness of purpose, and produced a single satisfactory impression. But he thought it necessary to condescend to the popular weakness: to shew Caractacus as the man, the husband, the father, and thereby, he has introduced as great an inconsistency as could have been effected by the most tragicomic alternation of mirth and tears.
There is something wild and grand in the address of the bards to Snowdon, and the spirits resident thereon. A locality has seldom been made better use of in the drama:—
Strike, ye Bards,
Strike all your strings symphonious; wake a strain
May penetrate, may purge, may purify,
His yet unhallowed bosom;
Call ye hither
The airy tribe, that on you mountain dwell
Ev'n on majestic Snowdon; they who never
Deign visit mortal men, save on some cause
Of highest import; but sublimely shrined
On its hoar top in domes of chrystalline ice,
Hold converse with those spirits that possess
The skies' pure sapphire, nearest heaven itself.
The ode which follows this invocation has been as highly praised as any thing that Mason has written. The opening lines are certainly sounding and harmonious; but like most odes of your correcting writers, far from correct. The third is absolutely ludicrous. Mona must have fretted herself to fiddle strings:—
Mona on Snowdon calls,
Hear, thou King of mountains, hear,
Hark, she speaks from all her strings,
Hark, her loudest echo rings.
King of mountains, bend thine ear,
Send thy spirits, send them soon,
Now, when midnight and the moon
Meet upon thy front of snow,
See! their gold and ebon rod,
Where the sober sisters nod,
And greet in whispers sage and slow.
Snowdon! mark, 'tis magic's hour;
Now the mutter'd spell has power;
Power to rend thy ribs of rock,
And burst thy base with thunder's shock.
But to thee no ruder spell
Shall Mona use, than those that dwell
In music's secret cells, and lie
Steep'd in the stream of harmony.
Snowdon has heard the strain,
Hark, amid the wondering grove
Other voices meet our ear,
Other harpings answer clear,
Pinions flutter, shadows move,
Busy murmurs hum around,
Rustling vestments brush the ground,
Round, and round, and round they go,
Through the twilight, through the shade,
Mount the oak's majestic head,
And gild the tufted mistleto.
This last image, pretty as it is, is far too pretty for the occasion. It would be well in a sportive fairy-tale; but the Druids, while invoking mysterious powers, in whose existence they had a real, not a poetical belief, could not be in a mood to observe such minute effects.
This choral ode, which poor as our literature then was in good lyric poetry, might well pass for a chef-d'oeuvre, is very skilfully broken off by the principal Druid announcing that "a sullen smoke involves the altar," that "the central oak doth quake," and that he hears the sound of profane steps. Vellinus and Elidurus have been detected in the "bottom of a shadowy dell holding earnest converse." They are dragged in by the attendant Druids. Their treacherous purpose of course could not be more than suspected; but the very presence of unconsecrated persons in the sacred island is a sacrilege. Elidurus is abashed, and on the point of stammering out a confession, when Vellinus snatches the words out of his mouth, and lies with tragic audacity. He pretends a commission from his mother, Cartismandua, Queen of the Brigantes, to invite Caractacus to her aid against the legions of Ostorius, the Roman general, who, though kept at bay "for three long moons," still hover round the frontiers,
They hang suspended, loth to quit their prey,
And yet afraid to seize it.
(a striking and appropriate image.) The whole speech is well written, and has skilfully adopted the sustained rhetorical style in which Shakspeare clothes the harangues of deceivers. Every period is evidently balanced and digested before hand; nothing trusted to the impulse of the moment. Caractacus, hearing his name mentioned, steps from behind the altar, and declares his readiness to shed his "last purple drop" for Britain. The chorus, not liking the bold look and nimble tongue of the young orator, censure his rashness: but Vellinus, to make sure of him, touches his tenderest point by telling him that his Queen Guideria is safe in Cartismandua's court, having been rescued by his (Vellinus's) valour. Caractacus is entrapped. The speech with which he welcomes the intelligence is really affecting, though it shews that the British hero was no physiognomist:—
Let me clasp thee, youth,
And thou shalt be my son; I had one, Stranger,
Just of thy years; he look'd, like thee, right honest,
And yet he fail'd me. Were it not for him,
Who, as thou seest, ev'n at this hour of joy,
Draws tears down mine old cheek, I were as blest
As the great Gods.
and so he calls for his spear, bow, target, &c. The chorus check his impetuosity, reminding him of the unfavourable omens. He, like Hector, despises auguries, exclaiming:—
No, by Heaven I feel,
Beyond all omens, that within my breast,
Which marshals me to conquest.
But the Druid asserts the superiority of the priesthood to the monarchy with a boldness worthy of Pope Gregory or Pope Boniface. Mador is the model of what a High-Church-man ought to be:—
Thou art a King, a Sov'reign o'er frail man,
I am a Druid, servant of the Gods,
Such service is above such Sovereignty.
At some times, and from some persons, such sentiments as these, though spoken in the character of a Druid, would have exposed an author to peril. But Mason was then a known Whig, and the violence of Whig jealousy was blown over. Yet in a note he has thought proper to prove from Dion, Chrysostom, and Helmodus de Slavis, that this supreme authority of the priesthood over the civil power was an historical fact.
After some farther conversation about patriotism, death and destiny, and the fiend oblivion, the principal Druid, resolving to seek for the counsel of the Gods in sleep, desires the uninitiated to retire, and then addressed the bards in lines which have been much and justly admired for the vivid manner in which they picture sound, and describe the powers of music. Indeed, except the description of the nightingale's song, in the Odyssee, the lines on music in Milton's L'Allegro, and Crashaw's "Music's Duel," (taken from Strada's Prolusions) we do not remember any thing of the kind equal to these verses:
Ye time-enobled seers, whose reverend brows
Full eighty winters whiten; you, ye bards,
Leoline, Cadwall, Hoel, Cantaber,
Attend upon our slumbers; wondrous men,
Ye whose skill'd fingers know how best to lead
Through all the maze of sound, the wayward step
Of Harmony, recalling oft, and oft
Permitting her unbridled course to rush
Through dissonance to concord, sweetest then,
Even when expected harshest.
The first strophe and anti-strophe of the following chorus are so beautiful, that we cannot forbear them, though we have already exceeded in quotation:
Hail, thou harp of Phrygian fame
In years of yore that Camber bore
From Troy's sepulchral flame.
With ancient Brute, to Britain's shore.
The mighty minstrel came:
Sublime upon the burnish'd prow
He bade thy manly modes to flow.
Britain heard the descant bold;
She flung her white arms o'er the Sea,
Proud in her bosom to enfold
The freight of harmony.
Mute till then was every plain,
Save where the flood o'er mountains rude
Tumbled his tide amain,
And Echo, from the impending wood,
Resounded the hoarse strain;
While from the north the sullen gale
With hollow whistlings shook the vale;
Dismal notes, and answered soon
By savage howl the heaths among,
What time the wolf doth bay the trembling moon,
And thin the bleating throng.
But Mason never long together keeps clear of personifications, which, if they were always striking, or beautiful, or singly appropriate, would be cumbersome, because there are too many of them for any but an expressly allegorical poem. But sometimes the personification is merely verbal, — a stale device to exalt the style, — and sometimes they produce an incongruity, being unsuited to the time, the speaker, or the occasion. The bard Mador talks far too like a modern poet, when he speaks of "Fancy the Fairy," and "Inspiration, bright ey'd Dame." The mention of these nonentities takes away from the credibility of the supernatural agencies, which the interest of the drama requires us pro tempore to admit to be real existences. Some verses in the sequel of this ode are exquisite, as
Lo! the sound of distant plumes
Pants through the pathless desert of the air.
Some villainous, as
Tis not the flight of "her;"
Tis sleep, her dewy harbinger.
and worse if possible
A sevenfold chime, and sweep and "swing,"
To mix thy music with the spheres
How could Gray suffer such enormities as these to pass? The description of Inspiration, when she comes, "with a pencil in her hand," is very indifferent.
While this chorus, which begins so well, is singing, the Druid seer goes to sleep, has very painful dreams, and at the end of it starts up in great terror, and utters an incoherent speech, which is timely interrupted by the entrance of Evelina, who, after pardon asked for her intrusion, declares her suspicions of the two Brigantine youths, and specially the elder, Vellinus. The Druids caution her to beware of rash judgment, with a just compliment to her sex:
Say'st then, virgin?
Heed what thon say'st. Suspicion is a guest
That, in the breast of mail, of wrathful man,
Too oft his welcome finds; yet seldom sure
In that submissive calm, that smooths the mind
Of maiden innocence.
Evelina. I know it well,
Yet must I still distrust the elder stranger;
For while he talks (and much the flatterer talks),
His brother's silent carriage gives disproof
Of all his boast; indeed, I mark'd it well;
And as my father with the elder held
Bold speech and warlike, as is still his wont
When fir'd with hope of conquest, oft I saw
A sigh unbidden heave the yonnger's breast,
Half check'd as it was rais'd, sometimes methought
His gentle eye would east a glance on me,
As if he pitied me; and then again
Would fasten on my father, gazing there
To veneration; then he'd sigh again,
Look on the ground, and hang his modest head
This is beautifully true to nature. Men are deceived in their judgments of others by a thousand causes: by their hopes, their ambition, their vanity, their antipathies, their likes and dislikes, their party feelings, their nationality, but above all, by their presumptuous reliance on the rationative understanding, their disregard of presentiments and unaccountable impressions, and their vain attempts to reduce every thing to rule and measure. Women, on the other hand, if they be very women, are seldom deceived, except by love, compassion, or religious sympathy, — by the latter too often deplorably; but then it is not because their better angel neglects to give warning, but because they are persuaded to make a merit of disregarding his admonitions. The craftiest Iago cannot win the good opinion of a true woman, unless he approach her as a lover, an unfortunate, or a religious confidante. Be it, however, remembered, that this superior discernment in character is merely a female instinct, arising from a more delicate sensibility, a finer tact, a clearer intuition, and a natural abhorrence of every appearance of evil. It is a sense which only belongs to the innocent — quite distinct from the tact of experience. If, therefore, ladies without experience attempt to judge, to draw conclusions from premises, and give a reason for their sentiments, there is nothing in their sex to preserve them from error. But we must return to Caractacus, and show how thoroughly the notions of the Druids coincide with our own, though they have their way of accounting for it:
The Gods, my brethren,
Have waked these doubts in the untainted breast
Of this mild maiden; oft to female softness,
Oft to the purity of virgin souls,
Doth Heaven its voluntary light dispense,
When victims bleed in vain.
On Evelina's intreaty, the chorus consent that she shall sift Elidurus, and, if possible, draw from him a disclosure of his brother's plots. But at this juncture Caractacus enters with the two Brigantian youths, eager to know the answer of the gods. The Druid informs him that it is unfavourable; describes his horrible though undefined visions, and hints his suspicions. Vellinus interrupts him haughtily and rudely. The Druid sternly rebukes, and Caractacus apologizes for him. Throughout the scene, indeed throughout the play, he behaves with that unfaltering boldness, and exhibits that readiness of reply, which the ignorant are so apt to mistake for an evidence of pure intent and innocence, — a mistake which has acquitted many a thief, and not seldom condemned the guiltless. At last it is decreed that one of the youths shall undergo the ordeal of the rocking stone, which will best he described in the Druid's own words:
Behold yon huge
And unhewn sphere of solid adamant,
Which poised by magic, rests its central weight
On yonder pointed rock; firm as it seems,
Such is its strange and virtuous property,
It moves obsequious to the gentlest touch
Of him whose breast is pure; but to a traitor,
Though e'en a giant's prowess nerved his arm,
It stands as fixt as Snowdon.
The brothers draw lots; the lot falls on Elidurus. He fears, yet does not shun the trial, as hardly secure of his own guilt or innocence.
Caractacus and Vellinus are commanded to retire. The chorus sing the "custom'd hymn," preparatory for the trial of the stone. It is too much out of character. Instead of invoking any real or accredited Power, it apostrophizes Truth, and gives that ideal personage some very extraordinary properties; at least if Truth is not the Spirit addressed it is by no means clear what is:—
Thou Spirit pure, that spread'st unseen,
Thy pinions o'er this ponderous sphere,
And breathing through each rigid vein,
Fill'st with stupendous life the marble mass,
(By the way, it was adamant a little while ago,)
And bid'st it bow upon its base,
When sovereign Truth is near.
altogether, this "custom'd hymn" is not equal in merit to the generality of Mason's lyric effusions, and might well have been spared. Yet Elidurus says it came over his soul as doth the thunder:—
While distant yet with unexpected burst,
It threats the trembling ear.
and desire to be led to the trial, though cautioned that Death must be the penalty of failure. Just as the Druid has pronounced "Thou must die," Evelina enters and starts at the word, for she is very much interested in the tender-conscienced stripling. He is not less agitated, but cries out "Lead to the Rock;" yet the Druid affords him what he seems to think cruel mercy — a private examination by the Princess. The scene which follows contains a good situation, and sets the characters of Elidurus and of Evelina in a very pleasing light; but Mason, in his passion for illustrations, purely Celtic, stumbles into the profoundest Bathos, when he makes the young lady tell the young man that on his brow the liberal hand of Heaven has pourtrayed truth as visible and bold as were the pictured suns that decked the brows of her brave ancestors. What a simile!
The conference is prolonged through many speeches, in which however no business is done. Elidurus, though smitten at once with love and with conscience, will not speak to betray his unworthy brother. Evelina adjures — weeps — kneels:—
Ah, see me kneel!
I am of royal blood, not wont to kneel,
Yet will I kneel to thee; O save my father,
Save a distressful maiden from the force
Of barbarous men! Be thou a brother to me,
For mine alas! ah!
As she utters these words her real brother enters. There is certainly no physical impossibility in this. It is one of those coincidences which "amid the infinite doings of the world," must some time or other have occurred, as a pack of cards, if shuffled a billion times, would, according to the doctrine of chances, sometimes produce a perfect sequence. Still we should vehemently suspect the player in whose hand it occurred. Gray calls this situation superlative, but it seems too melo-dramatic for a regular and serious drama, and in the closet, produces no effect powerful enough to atone for its improbability. It is a proof, among many others, that Mason had always a hankering after the stage. But the dialogue that follows, the surprize and indignation of Arviragus at finding his sister on her knees before a stranger youth, the severe inquiries of the Druid, the confident yet modest tone in which the son of Caractacus explains his imputed flight and absence, and at once announces the arrival of the Romans, and the treasonable design of the young Brigantes, display an energy, a precipitation, an heroic pathos, of which the later English tragedy has few instances to boast. Not less excellent is the conduct of Elidurus, who, after asking for "death, sudden death," and being threatened with "lingering, piece-meal death," still refuses to disclose his brother's infamy:—
It is not fear, Druids, it is not fear that shakes me thus,
The great Gods know it is not. Ye can never—
This is true tragic language. But when the Druids threaten him with torture, and that, too, in terms which imply that it is to be inflicted by their own sanctified hands, we cannot but think that the terrible is purchased too dear. Such a proceeding, though not perhaps at variance with the traditional character of the Druids, who were as little tender or scrupulous as other sacerdotal castes, with regard to the means by which they maintained their authority, jars painfully with the almost christian morality uttered by the bardic chorus and the coryphaeus. It, however, serves its purpose: it elicits the stubborn honour and fraternal affection of Elidurus, who interests Arviragus and Evelina so much in his favour, and gains so much upon the good graces of the chorus, that at last it is agreed that he shall be free, and his brother hostage for his fidelity. He wishes to rush forth and engage the Romans, but this the chorus will not permit till he shall he duly purified by priestly rites. The speech in which this declaration is made, is, though perhaps not meant to be, a master-piece of priestly sophistry:—
Hear us, Prince,
Mona permits not that he fight her battles
Till duly purified: For though his soul
Took up unwittingly this deed of baseness,
Yet is lustration meet. Learn that in vice
There is a noisome rankness, unperceived
By gross corporeal sense, which so offends
Heaven's pure divinities, as us the stench
Of vapour wafted from sulphureous pool,
Or pois'nous weed obscene. Hence doth the man
Who even converses with a villain, need
As much purgation as the pallid wretch
'Scap'd from the walls where frowning Pestilence
Spreads wide her livid banners. For this cause,
Ye priests, conduct the youth to yonder grove,
And do the needful rites.
These sixteen lines, though probably introduced for no other purpose than to get Elidurus out of the way, do in effect comprise the whole art and mystery of priestcraft, as far as it can be practised in a civilized society: of priestcraft, distinguished on the one hand from the mere necromancy of savages, and on the other, from the christian ministry of an enlightened church. The great arcanum of the priest is to convince his subjects of the indispensable necessity of his own order and office. He is not content, by his instructions, to point out the way to righteousness, — by his example, to lead it, — by his admonition and discipline, to restrain those that would stray from it; — but he will have it that his passport is needful to gain admission at the end. He urges great and momentous truths, even the exceeding sinfulness of sin, its deadly and infectious quality, its offensiveness to the pure Divinity, as a quack doctor describes, often with fearful eloquence, (for knavery is more eloquent than honesty) the horrors of disease, and when the vivid picture is strongly stamped on the passive imagination, then he reckons upon a ready reception for his own panacea. Quacks in medicine, however, are generally content to sell their nostrums, and suffer their patients to take them in their own way, and at their own time; but quacks in divinity make the efficacy of the catholicon depend chiefly upon the hand that administers it; — the physic, according to them, is of no use without the physician. The Druid, in the play, speaks well and wisely of the rankness, the pollution of vice, and the contagion of evil communication; only, with another Hieratical artifice, expressed in such metaphors as produces a confusion between fancy and conviction, a spiritualizing of the corporeal, and a corporealizing of the spiritual, which predisposes the mind to attribute spiritual effects to corporeal acts, — the very definition of superstition, and the condition of sacerdotal despotism. The power of rites and lustrations (whatever the Druidical lustrations consisted of) to remove the pollution spoken of, the Druid prudently leaves to be inferred.
The meeting of Caractacus and Arviragus follows. The first interview of a father with a son whom he has wrongfully suspected of flight and baseness, and of whose honour he is but now satisfied, is one of those situations in which no writer can help being pathetic. As little generally is said when such junctures take place in real life, at least till the first painful transport is passed, and as sighs, and tears suppressed, are not very easily printed, it is perhaps better, in plays meant to be read only, that these meetings should be described than represented. The speeds with which Caractacus receives his son is a great deal too long and declamatory; and it may be remarked, that the old warrior throughout is too fine a talker. Arviragus is brief, — so much the better. It transpires, that as soon as ever Evelina announced to her father the appearance of Arviragus, Vellinus fled to join the Romans. Some scenes follow, which, though well written, do not promote the catastrophe, and seem introduced only to present Evelina in the amiable light of a suppliant for Elidurus, whose life is forfeited by his brother's flight. She prevails. He is purified according to poetic rites:—
Thrice do we sprinkle thee with day-break dew,
Shook from the May-thorn blossom; twice and thrice
Touch we thy forehead with our holy wand;
Now thon art fully purged. Now rise, restored ,
To virtue and to us
Caractacus and Arviragus re-enter. The Druids pronounce their benediction, and present Caractacus with the "sword of old Bellinus," Trifingus, which sheds "portentous streams of scarlet light," and has slept for many an age within a consecrated oak. Their charge and adjuration is almost literally rendered from an old Greek writer, quoted by Selden in the Prolegomena to his treatise on the Syrian Gods. Mason has studded it with unnecessary epithets, yet it has an imposing magical effect:—
By the bright circle of the golden sun,
By the brief courses of the errant moon,
By the dread potency of every star
That studs the mystic zodiac's burning girth,
By each and all of these supernal signs,
We do adjure thee with this trusty blade
To guard yon central oak, whose holiest stem
Involves the spirit of high Taranis.
Then follow prayers and benedictions, and farewells. The scene would be capital, were there not too much of it. The words of the chorus—
Now rise all;
And Heaven, that knows what most ye ought to ask,
Grant all ye ought to have,
are worthy of a better religion than theirs. Yet they nearly resemble, if they were not suggested by, a distitch attributed to Homer.
The time, which commenced with the first glimpses of the moon, has now advanced to black midnight; "the stars are faded." At this "dreadful hour" it is resolved to attack the invaders. The bards, for the sign of onset, sound the ancientest of all their rhymes:—
The force of that high air
Did Julius feel, when fired by it, our fathers
First drove him recreant to his ships; and ill
Had fared his second landing, but that Fate
Silenced the master bard, who led the song.
The brave youths are directed to march in silence till they hear the blast of the sacred trumpet, then to make the onset — a singular piece of tactics — the moment of attack to be chosen by bards who had no opportunity of seeing how or where the enemy was posted. Evelina's adieu is affecting:—
Let us embrace. Oh! thou much-honoured stranger,
I charge thee fight by my dear brother's side,
And shield him from the foe; for he is brave,
And will, with bold and well-directed arm,
Return thy succour.
Aviragus and Elidurus set forth for battle. Mador, the principal bard, falls into a transport, snatches his harp, and strikes the famous strain:—
Hark! heard ye not you footstep dread,
That shook the earth with thundering tread?
Twas DEATH: — in haste
The warrior pass'd;
High tower'd his helmed head,
I mark'd his mail, I mark'd his shield,
I 'spy'd the sparkling of his spear,
I saw his giant arm the faulchion wield,
Wide wav'd the bick'ring blade, and fired the angry air.
The idea of making death a martial and inspiring Deity, and putting into his mouth an exulting battle-hymn, is happy, novel, and in strict keeping with the recorded character of the northern nations, both Celtic and Teutonic, who thought natural dissolution, by disease or age, the worst disgrace, or cruelest calamity:
Fear not now the fever's fire,
Fear not now the death-bed groan,
Pangs that torture, pains that tire,
Bed-rid age, with feeble moan:
These domestic terrors wait
Hourly at my palace gate:
And when o'er slothful realms my rod I wave,
These on the tyrant King and coward slave,
Rush with vindictive rage, and drag them to their grave.
But ye my son's, in this high hour,
Shall share the fulness of my power....
Where creeps the nine-fold stream profound
Her black inexorable round,
And on the bank,
To willow's dank,
The shiv'ring ghosts are bound.
Twelve thousand crescents all shall swell,
To full-orb'd pride, and fading die,
Ere they again in life's gay mansions dwell,
Nor such the meed that crown's the sons of liberty.
No my Britons! battle-slain,
Rapture gilds your parting hour:
I that all despotic reign,
Claim but there a moment's power,
Swiftly the soul of British flame,
Animates some kindred frame,
Swiftly to life and light exultant flies,
Exults again in martial extacies,
Again for freedom fights, again for freedom dies.
Caractacus, enraptured with the enthusiasm of the song, yearns after life renewed, longs to rush into the fray, that some "blessed shaft may rid him of the clog of cumbrous age." The Druid bids him observe the prosperous omen, the clear and amber-skirted clouds that rise from the altar. At the instant a Bard announces that the Romans are fled! His account of the engagement is spirited, expressed with an epic pomp and elevation borrowed from the narrative orations of the Heralds, and Messengers of the Greek Tragedy, with which Shakspeare, whether led by his own judgment, or by the custom of his contemporaries, has also coincided in adopting a diction unusually elaborate and ornate, when any thing is to be related.
There is one line of the Bard's tale which, if pronounced on the stage, would be very apt to disturb the gravity of a tragic scene, and "strain men's cheeks to idle merriment:"
No sound was heard,
Step felt, or sight descry'd: for safely hid,
Beneath the purple pall of sacrifice,
Did sleep our holy fire, nor saw the air,
Till to that pass we came, where whilom BRUTE,
Planted his five hoar altars.
This comes of the folly of clipping ancient or foreign names to make them look like English. Our language has no inflexions or analogies which require this practice, and indeed the general ruggedness of our orthoepy is agreeably relieved by the intermixture of the sounding appellatives of the southern nations. We are happy to see Dante, Petrarcha, Boccacio, Raffaello, restored to their natural proportions, and hope they will be shortly followed by Ovidius, Horatius, Livius, and others. Pray let us hear no more of Cicero's being "le meme que Marc Tulle."
The sum of the Bard's information is, that the Romans, after a sharp and brief conflict, are driven to their ships, pursued by Arviragus and Elidurus, who,
Did side by side engage.
Caractacus, like an old man, replies:—
Thus my friend Ebrancus
Ill-fated Prince! didst thou and I in youth
Unite our valours.
Six Roman captives are led in, who afford the Rev. Mr. Mason an opportunity of paying a compliment to the cloth, rather, it must be confessed, at the expense of nature and probability. But throughout the play the Druids, though sufficiently Druidical in their costume, and their allusions, are very good Protestants in their moral principles, and barring the occasional flashes of fierceness which belong to the martial crisis, utter sentiments that would do no discredit to the clergy of any archdeaconry whatsoever. Generally speaking, this is unexceptionable. The real morals of a barbarous age, above all, of a barbarous priesthood, can never be exhibited, by authors of a more advanced period, with producing loathing or shuddering; because the morals and manners of civilization cannot be wholly excluded, nor can any power of writing bring the reader's imagination to the level of the time represented. Still, some regard should be had to consistency of character. We must not make an Indian warrior talk like a Quaker, nor the priest of an idolatrous worship discourse like a Paley or a Priestley. But Mason has made his Hero disagreeable, in order to bestow upon his chorus a virtue which becomes them less than any one else. Caractacus, addressing the captives, tells them, with a bombast circumstance, about the native rights "man claims from man," that they are not to be slaves, nor to be dragged behind the "scythed cars in arrogance of triumph." Neither were they, till the Britons had learned avarice of the Romans, to be bartered for gold; but, what he concludes will be perfectly satisfactory, they are to be lifted to the Gods in the "radiant cloud" of sacrifice. He comforts them with the assurance that the Gods will either advance them to a better world or give them fresh bodies in this, and asks:—
Does there breathe,
A wretch so pall'd with the vain fear of death,
Can call this cruelty: 'tis love, 'tis mercy;
And grant, ye Gods, if e'er I'm made a captive,
I meet the like fair treatment from the foe,
Whose stronger star quells mine.
Any child may see the impossibility of this tirade about "love and mercy" taking place in a land of human sacrifices. A cruel religion must engender a cruel morality. But this is not the worst. It would be naturally supposed that the captives would be lovingly and mercifully led off, to suffer combustion in a colossus of basket-work, unless Evelina or Arviragus should interpose in their favour. But no. The Druids are made to forbid and execrate the holiest sacrament of their own religion:—
O think not King,
That Mona shall be curst by these dire rites,
Even from the youth of time yon holy altar,
Has held the place thou seest: ages on ages,
Have there one sacrifice, but never yet,
Stream'd it with human gore: nor ever shall
While we hold office here: 'tis true that Gaul,
True too that Britain, by the Gauls mistaught,
Have done such deeds of horror; deeds that shock'd
Humanity, and call'd from angry Heaven,
These curses on our country.
Carac. Can the Gods
Behold a sight more grateful, than the flame,
That blasts impiety?
Chorus. Admit they cannot:
Need they the hand of man to light that flame?
Have not those God's their lightning? Taranis,
Doth he not wield the thunder?
Carac. Holy Druid, I stand rebuked.
Will ye then pardon them?
Chor. We say not that. Vengeance shall have her course,
But vengeance in her own peculiar garb,
Not in the borrowed weeds of sage religion:
They suit not her.
This conclusion reminds one rather awkwardly of the inquisition delivering over its victims "to the secular arm."
Altogether we think this scene intrusive and improper. It does not at all further the plot; it violates the truth of history; it represents Caractacus as a pitiful and superstitious sophist, and makes a heathen priesthood the opponents of bloody superstition.
The play now draws to a close. Evelina rushes in, trembling and alarmed. She has heard hostile footsteps in the grove. Caractacus tries to laugh away her fears; but she is positive that she saw sacrilegious brands. The grove is on fire. Caractacus mistakes the flames for the rising sun. Not so the Druids. They see plainly what is the matter, call again to arms, Caractacus runs out to defend the altars. The chorus scamper to and fro in consternation. Arviragus caters, leaning on the arm of Elidurus, mortally wounded. Dying scenes, tediously protracted, are the most disagreeable of all tragic expedients. If there be one rule of the French stage, which we could wish to be adopted on ours, it is that which banishes murder from the stage. Mason, moreover, gives the agonies of death without the animation of a fight. The clash of swords always sounds well in a theatre; but dying groans and convulsions are dull to read, and either horrible or ridiculous to see acted.
It is difficult to guess our author's motive for keeping Arviragus so long in his misery; for all he has to say might be said in five lines, and just as well by Elidurus as by himself. It amounts to this; — that the flight of the Romans to the ships was a feint; — that only one half of the invaders had been discovered and repulsed by the Britons, while the other moiety, guided by Vellinus, had pursued an unobserved track, gained the pass, and were even now surrounding the sacred recess. Aviragus, having dissuaded Elidurus from suicide by recommending Evelina to his guardianship, expires, with a request that his remains may rest within the hallowed circle:—
I fought to save these groves,
And fruitless though I fought, some grateful oak,
I trust, will spread its reverential gloom
O'er my pale ashes.
Evelina first faints, and then talks wildly, in a way for which the Druids, had they resembled some clerks of the present day, would have read her a severe lecture:—
Now he is dead; I felt his spirit go
In a cold sigh, and, as it pass'd, methought
It paused awhile, and trembled on my lips!
Take me not from him: breathless as he is,
He is my brother still, and if the Gods
Do please to grace him with some happier being,
They ne'er can give to him a fonder sister.
This sounds rather like a denial of omnipotence. The chorus, however, are too much engaged to animadvert upon it. Pressed as they are on every side, — the sacred oaks crackling in irreligious flames, — their monarch slain or captive, — their brethren scattered or massacred, — the holy circle on or point of bloody desecration, they nevertheless stand firm to raise their last dirge for their dying champion. There is something grand in this stern determination to do their duty so long as there is ground free to do it in; and the lines are noble in spirit, though rather rugged in their construction:—
While yet a moment Freedom stays,
That moment which outweighs
Eternity's unmeasured hoards,
Shall Mona's grateful bards employ
To hymn their godlike hero to the sky.
Ring out, ye mortal strings!
Answer, thou heavenly harp instinct with spirit all,
That o'er the jasper arch self-warbling swings
Of blest Andraste's throne.
At this instant Aulus Didius and Romans enter. A fierce combat of words ensues between the Druids and the Roman general, who, having power and success on his side, naturally keeps his temper much the best. The Druids curse lustily and honestly, and Aulus responds in the general common-place falsehoods of civilized liberticides, that "they fight not to enslave, but humanize;" and points out in a friendly manner the great danger and impropriety of "aiding the foes of Caesar." Mason excels in this sort of dialogue: he ennobles anger, and when, as in the present case, the anger is really noble, it glows and flashes magnificently through his gorgeous diction, like thunder bursting from cloudy masses, — "Their torn skirts gilded by the sunken sun." A bard enters, and says that Caractacus is captive, but yet not basely, nor easily:—
Know, ere he yielded,
Their bravest veterans bled. He, too, the spy,
The base Brigantian prince, hath seal'd his fraud
With death. Bursting through armed ranks that hemmed
The caitiff round, the bold Caractacus
Seiz'd his false throat, and, as he gave him death,
Indignant thundered, "This is my last stroke—
The stroke of Justice!"
Then enters Caractacus, as captive, and there are some good speeches, taken from Tacitus, Suetonius, &c.; but though good, and well translated, they are as heavy as "more last thoughts" generally are. Caractacus, Evelina, and Elidurus are marched off the stage, ready and resigned for their voyage to Rome.
We are almost afraid that we have done Mason some injustice in this cursory review of his best known productions. But nothing could be further from our intention, than to reduce that just estimation which his energetic and cultivated talents have gained him. So far from it, we think Caractacus better, even as a tragedy, than any thing that was produced in Mason's time. It aims at a high mark. It addresses itself to the moral imagination: it recognizes a sympathy between the uneasy strivings of the soul of man, and the everlasting works of nature: it proves its author to have been a true poet in desire and object; and if, instead of a tragedy, he has given a serious poem in dialogue, let us not quarrel with a golden vase, if it should not exactly correspond with its description in the catalogue.
Caractacus was altered by the author, and produced at Covent Garden — with applause, as the Biographia Dramatica informs us — in 1776. We do not recollect what the alterations were, though we have seen the play, as performed, in Bell's "British Theatre," but we doubt not they were for the worse. Probably Mason would never have made them, had he not recollected the surreptitious mangling of "Elfrida." In the days of yore, when college halls were fitted up for theatres, and when the fairest ladies of the court of King Charles (the first, mind you,) did not disdain to take a part in the maques of Ben Jonson, Caractacus might have been acted as it should be; but it is either too good, or not good enough, for an acting play on our common stages.
Besides "Elfrida" and "Caractacus," Mason produced two dramatic performances, of which the world and the critics have taken little notice, and which we can only slightly mention. The first, "Argentile and Curan," a legendary drama, taken from a story in Warner's "Albion's England," to be found in Percy's Relics, and in Campbell's Selections. It is truly a Yorkshire tragedy, the scene being "in and about the castle of Whitby, afterwards in the valley of Hakeness." In this, Mason has relinquished his allegiance to the Greeks and French, and imitated pretty closely the Elizabethan writers. Of the irregularity of the composition he seems to have been fully aware by his motto, from the prologue to Beaumont and Fletcher's "Captain:" — "This is nor comedy, nor tragedy, nor history." No matter what it be if it be good of its kind, and that we really think it is. It does not contain many very fine extractable passages, but we have seldom read a play that carried us more pleasantly from beginning to end. It is interspersed with comic scenes in prose, wrought with considerable ingenuity into the texture of the piece, but too obviously imitated from Shakspeare. It is not comedy, but tragedy making herself quite at home. The story is briefly as follows: Adelbright, King of Deira, (the southern division of what was afterwards the united and heptarchic kingdom of Northumberland,) on the point of death, retires into the monastery of Whitby, leaving the regency, and the guardianship of his daughter Argentile to his brother Edel, King of Bernicia. The play commences with a dirge, sung by Monks and Nuns, and addressed to Hilda, the sainted Patroness of the Abbey and Kingdom. Adelbright, according to the fashion of early Saxon Monarchs, preparing for death, divests himself of royalty, and becomes a Monk; but ere he quits the world for ever, implores his brother to bring about the marriage already negociated between his daughter Argentile, and the young heir of Denmark. Edel professes himself willing to rule over Bernicia and Deira, jointly with his niece and her young husband; but as soon as Adelbright is out of the way, like the common uncle of tale and plays, sets about to frustrate the match, and defraud his niece of her inheritance: he plots with the Prior of Whitby (whom he gains over by promises of church preferment) to give out that Adelbright is already dead; and to cut off that aged monarch from all intelligence of what is going on without the convent. When the Danish ambassadors arrive, Edel breaks off the match abruptly, on a false pretence of Argentile's over youth and repugnance to marriage. Curan, the Danish Prince, and intended spouse of Argentile, who has accompanied the ambassadors incog, with a design to obtain a sight of the lady to whom he is to be united, and a pretty strong headed determination to break off the alliance himself, if the maiden prove homely, remains behind, in the disguise of a minstrel, gains admission to King Edel's court, attends him on a hawking party, and delighting the usurper alike with his music and his skill in field-sports, is at once advanced to the place of cup-bearer. Still farther pleased with his youthful beauty, and noble air, the tyrant resolves to make the supposed minstrel subserviant to a vile purpose he has hatched of ridding himself of his niece Argentile, by inveighling her into a low marriage. He therefore proposes to Curan that he shall act the Prince of Denmark, and be introduced to the Princess in that character. This idea of making a man play himself is very felicitous. Curan, of course, readily closes with the proposal, and assures the King that he had been the Prince's companion in childhood, that in sport they sometimes changed dresses, and that their resemblance in mien and features was so striking, that they were frequently mistaken for each other. This promising scheme is, however, disappointed by the disappearance of Argentine, who with Osward, an old faithful courtier, and her confidante Editha, has fled through the forest. This intelligence is communicated by the head Falconer (who officiates in this play as clown) to the cupbearer, who persuades him, instead of carrying his information to the King, to set off himself, accompanied by the said cup-bearer, in pursuit of the fugitives. Off they go. But happening soon to part company, the Falconer falls in with Oswald, rather inopportunely, for instead of arresting the revolted Lord, he gets his own hands tied behind his back, and so is turned loose. Caran, meanwhile, having lost his way, lies down on a bank and goes to sleep. Argentile, in search of Editha, who is disguised in male apparel, mistakes the slumbering youth for her friend, and speaks some fond words, at which he awakes, and falls in love at the instant. Argentile is not a little surprised, both at her own mistake and at his raptures. Several scenes of love-making follow, till at length Curan, yet ignorant of the quality of his flame, discovers his own; tells how he came with intent to woo the beauteous Princess Argentine, but he is now ready to relinquish her and all her dower of kingdoms for his lovely shepherdess. Argentile no doubt is in heaven, but still she tries his love, telling him that she cannot wed a Prince while she remains a humble shepherdess, and winds him to that pitch, that he consents for her sake to be a shepherd:—
I here disclaim all royalty; I'll live
In this still valley, tend thy little flock,
Sleep with thee in you cot, and with thee press
This perfumed bank.
This quite overcomes her coyness, and she consents to be his. Just at this happy moment, Oswald and Editha enter. Oswald is astonished to see Argentile "locked in a peasant's embrace;" but all his quickly cleared up, for the Danes, headed by the son of Oswald, march in victorious, having vanquished and slain Edel. The Danish Lords recognize their Prince. Argentile appears in her own character. Adelbright comes to life again, having never been dead, and all ends happily. There is an underplot of the loves of Editha and Oswald's son, who, of course, are to be married also. In point of style, we think this the best of all Mason's works; but the comic part is very dull. The play was written in the year 1766.
Of Sappho, a lyrical drama, meant to be set to music after the manner of Metastasio's operas; and Pygmalion, a dramatic scene, translated from Rousseau, no particular account is necessary. It is time, indeed, to return to the events of Mr. Mason's life, which have been too long interrupted.
Towards the end of 1753, he had the affliction to lose his father. From a letter of condolence, written by Gray on this occasion, it appears that the old gentleman had given his son reason to be dissatisfied with the arrangement of his affairs; but what the particular ground of dissatisfaction was, we have not been able to discover. At the same time, and by the same infectious fever, Mason was deprived of Dr. Marmaduke Pricket, a young physician, of his own age, with whom he had been brought up from infancy. Death of friends is a sorrow that must come to all who have any friends to love, saving that happy number who join the blessed band of innocents "ere sin can blight or sorrow fade," a sorrow which they feel most keenly whose lives are happiest. Mason, who lived long, must have had many to lament, nor was there any thing in his existence to teach him that an early death is often the truest blessing.
In 1754 he took orders. It is said that Warburton, on this occasion, advised him to give up the study of poetry, as inconsistent with his sacred profession. Such counsel did not come with any great force from a divine whose own clerical vocations had left him time to write notes to the "Dunciad," and to conjure a meaning into the "Essay on Man," which he knew well enough was not the meaning of its author. Mason sensibly took this admonition as words of course, like the common dehortation from fiddling, fox-hunting, and Pitt-dinner-frequenting, which is one of the common-places of a Bishop's charge.
The trade of authorship should never be pursued by a clergyman. One object of a church establishment is to exempt the ministers of the altar from following any trade for subsistence. But Mason never had been, and never was, an author for bread. The aim of all his writings was to dignify the poetic art: his object was noble, and if there may be some differences, with regard to the degree of success with which he accomplished it, there can be none with rational Christians, as to the perfect consistency of this design with the duties of a Christian minister.
Very soon after his entrance into the sacred profession, he was appointed chaplain to the Earl of Holderness, and by the Earl's influence, chaplain to the King. As one of the Earl's domestic chaplains, he attended that Nobleman in a foreign tour, in the course of which he met William Whitehead, then officiating as travelling tutor to Viscount Villiars, son of the Earl of Jersey, and Viscount Nureham, son of the Earl of Harcourt. They met at Hanover, in the course of the year 1755, and their friendship continued till death. Mason lived to be the biographer of Whitehead. Mason did not (why did he not?) publish an account of his travels; but soon after his return, in 1756, he received the living of Aston, in Yorkshire, in the vicarage of which he continued to reside, with short intermissions, till his death, and there he found an opportunity of realizing those speculations on landscape gardening, which he poetized in his English Garden. In the same year, 1756, he published four odes, of which we need only notice two, for as to the ode on Independency, (a mis-nomer for independence, for independency is what no parson of the Church of England ought to make an ode to,) it is generally agreed that Smollett's was better, and if so, no matter.
One of these odes "On the fate of Tyranny," is, as Mr. Mason tells us, a free paraphrase of part of the 11th chapter of Isaiah, where the Prophet, after he has foretold the destruction of Babylon, subjoins a song of triumph, which he supposes the Jews will sing when his prediction is fulfilled. "And it shall come to pass in the day that the Lord shall give thee rest from thy sorrow and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve, that thou shalt take up this parable against the Kings of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppression ceased, &c." If any one would know what the sublimest poetry is, and how immortal, nay inspired poetry, may be spoiled by mortal mixtures, let him compare the 14th chapter of Isaiah and Mason's ode. And yet that ode is one of the best, perhaps the best, paraphrase of Scripture that ever was made.
To confirm our sentence we will give a few words which certainly do prove the advantage of a few words over many:
Isaiah. " How art thou fallen from Heaven O Lucifer, son of the Morning!" 12, 13, 14.
Mason. "Oh Lucifer thou radiant star,
Son of the morn; whose rosy car
Flamed foremost in the van of day:
How art thou fall'n, &c.
"Ohe, jam satis est." Milton himself, who produced the greatest, aye, far the greatest work of the mere human mind, failed deplorably in the attempt to versify a psalm. In the ode to "Aeolus Harp," we look in vain for one line better or worse than another. It is a copy of verses and that is all.
These odes were ludicrously parodied by Colman and Lloyd, who treated with equal disrespect the Bard and other lyric compositions of Gray. Gray took this as he took most things — very quietly, but Mason seems to have been considerably annoyed. His style had certain peculiarities, which made it easy to take off, and there was a buckram solemnity, especially in his earlier works, and a degree of assumption, which always is sure to provoke ridicule. Gray's letter upon this publication of the travestied odes, and Masons remarks thereon, shew the character of the two poets in a strongly contrasted light:
"I have sent Musaeus back as you desired me, scratched here and there, and with it also a bloody satire, written against no less persons than you and I by name. I concluded at first it was Mr. * * *, because he is your friend and my humble servant, but then I thought he knew the world too well to call us the favourite minions of taste and fashion, especially as to odes. For to them his ridicule is confined, — so it is not he, but Mr. Colman, nephew to Lady Bath, author of the Connoisseur, a member of one of the Inns of Court, and a particular acquaintance of Mr. Garrick. What have you done to him? for I never heard his name before: he makes very tolerable fun with me where I understand him (which is not every where), but seems to be more angry with you. Lest people should not understand the humour of the thing (which, indeed, they must have our lyricisms at their finger, ends to do), letters come out in Lloyd's Evening Post to them who and what it was that he meant, and says it is like to produce a great combustion in the literary world. So if you have any mind to combustle about it, well and good: for me, I am neither so literary nor so combustible. The Monthly Review, I see, just now, has much stuff about us on this occasion. It says one of us, at least, has always borne his faculties meekly. I leave you to guess which of us it is."
To which Mason subjoins the following note: — "Had Mr. Pope disregarded the sarcasms of the many writers that endeavoured to eclipse his poetical fame, as Mr. Gray here appears to have done, the world would not have been possessed of a Dunciad, but it would have been impressed with a more amiable idea of its author's temper." Mason afterwards proved that he wanted not abilities to have vindicated his muse by powerful satire, which is the only way for an aggrieved author to get the public to his side.
In the year 1757, the death of Cibber left the laureateship vacant, and it was offered to Gray, who politely declined it, though it was thought he would have been allowed to hold it as a sinecure. The Ministry apologized for not offering it to Mason, on the score that he was in orders; a false excuse, which he was willing enough to admit, having no ambition for the office. His politics, not his cloth, were the true ground of his inelegibility. A clergyman was surely as fit to write the praise of "sacred majesty" as a player; and in fact, Eusden, the predecessor of Cibber, was an honest Vicar. It was well for Mason's peace that he was not invested with this, ill-paid and invidious honour. Ever since the Restoration, every successive Laureate has been the mark of scurrility. Davenant was the original hero of the Rehearsal; but when Dryden succeeded to the Bayes, he also inherited the ridicule from which death had delivered its first object. Dryden was no sooner stript of the laureate-ship himself, than he held it up to scorn in the person of Shadwell. The fatal example, shewn by King William or his ministry, of bestowing what ought to have been the highest poetical honour, upon mere party considerations, was more mischievous to the crown than superficial observers would readily conceive. It tended to bring all loyal poetry into disrepute. It stripped the kingly office of its poetic halo. Statesmen have perhaps yet to learn how much it is to have the imagination of the country on their side.
We may suppose that Mason was not displeased to see his friend Whitehead advanced to the honours of "the Butt and Bayes." In fact, the appointment was very judicious. The character of Whitehead was highly respectable, and he was at least a respectable poet.
Of the publication of Caractacus in 1759 we have already spoken. Nothing remarkable appears to have befallen our author till 1762, when he was preferred to the Canonry of York, the Prebend of Driffield, and the Precentorship of York Minster. He still, however, made Aston his principal residence, — somewhat, it seems, to the dissatisfaction of Gray, who, in a letter from which we have extracted pretty largely, says, "I do not like your improvements at Aston, it looks so like settling; when I come I will set fire to it."
In 1764, Mason published a collection of his poems, with a dedicatory sonnet to the Earl of Holderness, including most of the poems he had hitherto produced, but omitting the Isis. If, however, he was content to have that juvenile indiscretion forgotten, he did not quite forget it himself, and apprehended consequences from its in-dwelling in the memory of others, against which he might modestly have felt himself secure. It is reported that, passing through Oxford late in the evening, he observed to his travelling companion, that he was glad it was dark; and being interrogated why he was pleased at that circumstance, answered importantly, "Do not you remember my Isis?"
In 1765, he married Miss Maria Sherman, of Hull, but few indeed were his days of nuptial happiness. Consumption, the bane of the young and beautiful, was lurking in Mrs. Mason's constitution, and began to shew unequivocal symptoms almost immediately after her marriage. During the short period of their union, her husband was incessantly employed in watching the vicissitudes of a malady which mocks despair with similitudes of hope; and in less than twelve months from their nuptials, the lady expired at the Bristol hot-wells, whither she had been carried, not so much in real expectation of benefit, as that nothing for her recovery might be left undone. Mason bore his loss with the tenderness of a man and the resignation of a Christian.
Mrs. Mason lies buried in Bristol cathedral, and her husband has recorded her merits and his own loss, in an epitaph, of four elegaic stanzas. He also alludes to his bereavement, in the invocation of the first book of the "English Garden."
Nothing worthy of record took place in the few next succeeding years of Mason's existence. The death of Gray, in 1771, exhibited him in the new light of an editor and biographer. Gray had visited his friend, at Aston, in the summer of 1770, and even then his health was declined so much, that he expressed his determination to resign his professorship of modern history if he continued unable to execute its duties, — a sacrifice of income from which Mr. Mason, less scrupulous, endeavoured to dissuade him. But whatever might be his plans of exertion or retirement, they were rendered abortive by his death, which happened on the 31st of July, 1771. Mason did not receive the intelligence of this event (which, though not unexpected, was sudden at last) in time to see the remains of his friend interred. Gray died at Cambridge, yet he was buried beside his mother and aunt, in the church-yard of Stoke-Pogis, said to be the scene of his famous Elegy; but there is little in the Elegy whereby its locality can be ascertained. A monument was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, for which Mason wrote a short inscription, that does little honour either to Gray or to himself; for the praise it contains is both hacknied and inappropriate, and the turn of the verses trivial:—
No more the Grecian muse unrivall'd reigns;
To Britain let the nations homage pay,
She boasts a Homer's fire in Milton's strains,
A Pindar's rapture in the lyre of Gray.
Gray bequeathed to Mason £500, with his books, MSS., &c. In the volume entitled "Memoirs of Gray," Mason has written no more than was just necessary to connect the letters of his subject. He had little to do, but that little is done judiciously: no letter is published which ought not to have been so, nothing is elucidated which had better been left in obscurity. Yet to Gray's literary fame he is hardly just; for many of the "remains" which have since appeared, set his learning, taste, and talent in a higher point of view than either his poems or his correspondence.
The next important work of our author's was his "English Garden," of which the first book appeared in 1772; the second, 1777; the third, in 1779; the fourth and last, in 1782. As this poem was the production of a powerful mind in its maturest vigour, as it had every advantage of delay and revision, and treats of a topic apparently capable of much descriptive embellishment, and with which the author was familiarly and practically acquainted, it is hard to suppose it wholly destitute of beauties, especially as it consists of 2423 lines of blank verse. We will not, therefore, say that it is the dullest poem we ever read, but it is assuredly one of the dullest we ever attempted to read. The most interesting passages are, the tribute to the memory of his wife, in the first book, and the remembrance of Gray, in the commencement of the third.
Mr. Mason's love of landscape gardening and of simplicity appeared in 1773, in a far more sprightly production, "An heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers." Sir William Chambers, a Scot by descent, but born in Sweden, having come to England in his infancy, had risen by good fortune, enterprise, talent, and the patronage of Lord Bute, from the supercargo of a Swedish vessel (in which he visited China) to the posts of Royal Architect and Surveyor-General of the Board of Works to his Majesty. In this capacity he was engaged in laying out the royal gardens at Kew, in which he shewed a striking disregard of Mr. Mason's ideas of the picturesque. In a work published about the same time, he expatiated on the wonders of Oriental gardening, as displayed in the imperial gardens of Yven Minn Yven, near Pekin, and more than implied a contempt for the simple natural-imitating system, and no great respect for nature herself. Mason, whose temper was by no means free from suspicion and jealousy, perhaps thought that his book was reflected upon in Sir William's, or he might think that to satirize the court architect was a good method of satirizing the court, to which his politics were strongly opposed. The method he adopted to ridicule the orientalist was simple and effectual. He just versified the most glaring paragraphs, and subjoined the original prose as a running commentary. One or two specimens must suffice:—
Sir William Chambers:
"Nature affords us but few materials to work with. Plants, water, and ground are her only productions; and though both the forms and arrangements of these may be varied to an incredible degree, yet they have but few striking varieties, the rest being of the nature of changes rung upon bells, which, though in reality different, still produce the same uniform kind of gingling, the variation being too minute to be readily perceived. Art must therefore supply the scantiness of nature. Our larger works are only a repetition of the smaller ones, like the honest bachelor's feast, which consisted in nothing but a multiplication of his own dinner; three legs of mutton and turnips, three roasted geese, and three buttered apple-pies. — Preface, page 7.
For what is Nature? Ring her changes round,
Her three flat notes are water, plants, and ground:
Prolong the peel, yet spite of all your clatter,
The tedious chime is still, earth, plants, and water.
So when some John his dull invention racks
To rival Boodle's dinners, or Almacks,
Three uncouth legs of mutton shock our eyes,
Three roasted geese, three buttered apple pies.
One passage is remarkable, as displaying the antipathy of Mason to the great Tory of the age, coupled with something bordering on disrespect to royalty itself. After designating the monarch "Patron supreme of learning, taste, and wit," he proceeds—
Does Envy doubt? Witness, ye chosen train,
Who breathe the sweets of his Saturnian reign;
Witness, ye Hills, ye Johnsons, Scots, Shebbeares,
Hark to my call, for some of you have ears;
Let David Hume, from the remotest north,
In see-saw sceptic scruples hint his worth;
David, who there supinely deigns to lie,
The fattest hog of Epicurus' sty;
Though drunk with Gallic wine and Gallic praise,
David shall bless old England's halcyon days:
The mighty Home, bemired in prose so long,
Again shall stalk upon the stilts of song;
While bold Mac Ossian, wont in ghosts to deal,
Bids candid Smollett from his coffin steal;
Bids Malloch quit his sweet Elysian rest,
Sunk in his St. John's philosophic breast,
And, like old Orpheus, make some strong effort
To come from hell, and warble "Truth at court."
Surely the political prejudices of that man must have been pretty strong, who could mention Johnson along with Hill and Shebbeare.
This epistle, and several others published about the same time, appeared under the name of Malcolm Macgregor. By some they were attributed to Horace Walpole, and one writer says, "It is not improbable that Walpole furnished the venom, and that Mason spotted the snake." To Mason, however, they were confidently ascribed by his old rival Tom Warton, and his denial is a sort of Waverley confession.
Politics, in the latter part of his life, took up a very large portion of Mason's attention. He continued a staunch Whig during the whole period of the American war, defended the resistance of the revolted colonies, and inveighed boldly against the measures of government. He was a decided advocate for parliamentary reform, and a stirring member of the county reform associations. Being given to understand that his conduct was displeasing to the court, he resigned his chaplainship, and in 1788 composed a secular ode on the "glorious Revolution." But the word Revolution, almost immediately after, acquired a new and more terrible signification. Whether Mason ever looked with satisfaction on the proceedings of the French Revolution is uncertain; but he very soon followed the course of Burke, and after writing, talking, perhaps sometimes preaching, for the better part of a long life, to promote freedom and circumscribe prerogative, he discovered, all at once, that mankind had all along had quite as much liberty as was good for them, and that the so-called abuses, corruptions, and oppressions of society were so intrinsically wrought into its texture, that to attempt to pluck them out was to unravel the whole web of the community. In this now faith he composed a Palinodia, which, though written in 1794, was not printed till 1797, the last year of his life. It betrays no marks of senility. There is the same heat, earnestness, verbosity, and self-confidence that appear in his earliest compositions; the same redundancy of epithets, compound terms, and personifications; much which every poetic boy can admire, and little or nothing which any one, without getting by heart, would remember. Two stanzas will be a sufficient sample of this, the latest published work of our author:—
And art thou mute? or does the fiend that strides
You sulphurous tube, by tigers drawn,
While seas of blood roll their increasing tides
Beneath his wheels, while myriads groan,
Does be with voice of thunder make reply,
"I am the Genius of stern Liberty;
Adore me as thy genuine choice;
Know, where I hang with wreaths my sacred tree,
Power undivided, just Equality,
Are born at my creative voice!"
Avaunt, abhorr'd Democracy!
O for Ithuriel's spear!
To shew to Party's jaundiced eye
The fiend she most should fear;
To turn her from the infernal sight,
To where, array'd in robes of light,
True Liberty, on seraph wing,
Descends to shed that blessing rare,
Of equal rights, an equal share
To people, peers, and king.
In abjuring Democracy, Mason did not, like too many, become the enemy of humanity, or the advocate of men stealers, but continued, as a good citizen and a christian minister, to urge the abolition of the slave trade. The only sermon he ever published is in furtherance of this object.
Notwithstanding the disturbed state of the political world, the last days of Mason were spent in peace, and he enjoyed the reward of a life of temperance, healthful occupation, and calm piety. For some years before his death, he was in the habit of composing an anniversary sonnet on his birth-day (the 23d of February). The following, perhaps the last lines he ever wrote, commemorate the completion of his 72nd year, A.D. 1797:—
Again the year on easy wheels has roll'd,
To hear me to the term of seventy-two;
Yet still my eyes can seize the distant blue
Of yon wild Peak, and still my footsteps bold,
Unprop'd by staff, support me to behold
How Nature, to her Maker's mandate true,
Calls Spring's impartial heralds to the view,
The snow-drop pale, the crocus spik'd with gold;
And still (thank Heaven) if I not falsely deem,
My lyre, yet vocal, freely can afford
Strains not discordant to each moral theme
Fair Troth inspires, and aid me to record
(Best of poetic pains!) my faith supreme
In thee, my God, my Saviour, and my Lord!
From this sonnet it might have been expected that the venerable poet had years in store; and perhaps his life might have extended to fourscore, but for one of those accidents which shew the peculiar insecurity of the tenure of an old man's life. In stepping out of a carriage, he stumbled and occasioned a contusion on his leg, which did not appear at first to be any thing serious, but being neglected turned to a mortification, which proved fatal, in May, 1793. Previous to his death he had prepared a collection of his poems, in which the "Isis" was suffered to resume its place.
Besides his skill in poetry and in gardening, he was a considerable proficient in painting, and a respectable amateur in music. He translated Du Fresnoy's "Art of Painting" in early life, chiefly, as himself declares, for his own instruction. This version was laid aside in an unfinished state for many years, till being accidentally shown to Sir Joshua Reynolds, he was so much pleased with it, that he desired it might be completed, and enriched it with his annotations, which undoubtedly are the most valuable part of the joint performance. Mason also wrote essays, historical and critical, on English church music. As in gardening, so in music, he was the votary of simplicity; but the simplicity he demands is too severe to be generally adopted, even in congregational psalmody.
With the great poets in any department of poetry, Mason cannot be numbered, yet for many years of his life he was England greatest living Poet.