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Art. I.—Hadad, a Dramatic Poem. By JAMES A. HILLHOUSE,
author of " Percy's Masque,” and “ The Judgment.” NewYork. Bliss & White. 1825. pp. 208.
Though the author of Hadad has chosen to give his work the more general denomination of a dramatic poem, it has all the incidents and characteristics of a tragedy. It is continued through the proper number of acts, is written with a sufficient regard to dramatic unities, and is furnished with a reasonable number and variety of characters. It has a regular plot and catastrophe, and the personages are all finally disposed of according to the fairest rules of poetical justice. Perhaps, however, the author was prevented from calling it a tragedy, by supposing that the nature of the subject, and the introduction of supernatural agents into the plot, would exclude it from the stage. Let it be a dramatic poem, then, since the author chooses to call it so—at all events, we are ready to acknowledge that it is a very good one.
The story of this drama is founded on the rebellion of Absalom. This is a very interesting event in the annals of the Jewish nation, and the actors in it were some of the most important personages of scripture history. How far subjects drawn from the sacred writings are proper for narrative or dramatic poetry, is a question about which there has been much discussion. It has been urged, among other objections to this use of such subjects, that it is a sort of unhallowed mingling of fiction with the pure truth of the sacred records, the tendency of which is to impair our reverence for the history of our religion, and our respect for the lessons which that history was intended to inculcate. We must say, however, that, with all proper deference for these scruples, we cannot help thinking them entirely unnecessary.
The human personages mentioned in sacred history must be considered as actual human beings, subject to the common passions and infirmities of our race, and, for the most part, to the ordinary influences of good and ill fortune. It cannot surely be VOL. I.
impious to suppose that what we are told of them in scripture is not the whole of this history. We are not forbidden to dwell upon what we may conceive to be their emotions, in the various passages
of their lives which are recorded, nor to fancy the particulars of those events which are related only in general terms, nor even to imagine them engaged in adventures of which no account has come down to us. So long as this is done in such a manner as to correspond with what is related of their characters and actions in holy writ, we cannot see that any thing is done to offend the most delicate conscience. We cannot see that it has the least tendency to weaken the impression produced upon us by the narratives of scripture; on the contrary, it seems to us, that by leading the mind to dwell upon them more intently, it will naturally deepen and confirm it. This field ought at least to be as free to the poet as to the pulpit orator. Nobody thinks of passing a censure upon the latter, when, suffering his imagination to kindle, and his heart to become warm with his subject, he expatiates upon the fraternal affection of Joseph, or amplifies the filial devotion of Ruth.
It is obvious, that the form in which the poem is cast can make no difference with the principle in this case.
It is immaterial whether it be dramatic or narrative, as long as it is not made the subject of scenic representation; for no greater liberty is taken with scripture history in the one case than in the other.
We are aware, however, that it may be further said, that the natural effect of these subjects upon the mind of the writer is not such as to ensure the free and happy exertion of his powers. The habitual reverence with which we regard them, awes and represses the imagination. The dread of taking improper liberties with his subject, and the fear of offending the scruples of others, act as shackles upon the invention of the writer; and, amidst all these influences, there is danger that he will rest in common-places, and that his work will be tame and spiritless. There is great difficulty, also, in awakening, in the mind of the reader, a strong interest in the characters and fortunes of the personages upon whom the action of the piece depends. This is a consequence of the extraordinary dispensation of which they were the subjects. There is something in the idea of mortals taken into so intimate a relation with the Divine Being, which rebukes and repels earthly sympathy. These are diffi- . culties--serious difficulties; but they are not insurmountable. They render the work of the poet arduous—not impossible. The imagination may still soar high, and the invention act vigorously, in the permitted direction; and that sympathy which we are slow to yield, may still be wrung from us by the truth and force with which his scenes and situations are brought home to our hearts. The great epic of Milton was written in defiance of the highest degree of these difficulties, yet it is the noblest poem in our language; nor is his Paradise Regained unworthy to be the last work of so great a man.
His Samson Agonistes, full of grand sentiments and strains of high philosophy, seems to owe its want of dramatic interest, not to any inherent defect in the subject, but to the cold model of the Grecian tragedy after which it was composed. Cowley appears to have discontinued the writing of his Davideis because it was not worth finishing ; but neither would it have been, had the subject been taken from profane history. In our time, Byron, in his dramatic poems, founded on subjects taken from the scriptures, has emancipated himself, as might be expected, even from the most salutary of those restraints which their sacredness imposes on the mind. Along with many interesting situations, and much impassioned sentiment, they contain no small proportion of indecency and blasphemy. His impiety, however, is by no means the consequence
of his choice of subjects; his choice of subjects only renders his impiety the more palpable and revolting. Moore, in his Loves of the Angels, is apparently too little in earnest to be deeply interesting; he dallies too idly with his subject, and his pretty amatory language has an unnatural sound in the mouths of celestials. In the instance of Montgomery, however, it should seem that a sacred subject has imparted, to a genius of no great original power, an unwonted spring and vigour, a deeper pathos, and a finer play of imagination. His World before the Flood we think altogether the best of his larger poems. The Sacred Dramas of Milman are admitted to be superior to any thing else which he has written. They certainly possess great tragic effect, and though composed with little skill in the delineation of character, and overloaded with ambitious ornament, are yet much sought after, and read with interest and pleasure. It is owing, we suspect, to some other cause than the chilling influence of such subjects upon the powers of the writers, or their want of attraction over the minds of readers, that the Exodiad of Cumberland is forgotten, that the Conquest of Canaan reposes in the dust of the bookseller's shelves, and that the Sacred Dramas of Miss Hannah More have found little favor in the eyes of the light age for which they were written.
In looking over the names of those English poets who have made use of the materials furnished by the sacred writings, it will appear that, generally speaking, wherever great powers of mind have been brought to the work, their exertion has been
attended with success; and that those who have written bad poems, owe their failure quite as much to the want of talent as to the unfortunate choice of a subject. Thus we have something better than mere theory to guide us in this discussion. The very history of our literature proves that these materials may be converted to the purposes of poetry, and that although perhaps not the most attractive in their nature, nor the best adapted to the favorable exertion of ordinary talents, they are yet capable of being turned to good account in the hands of a master.
If we look at Hadad with a view of seeing in what manner the author has surmounted the difficulties arising from his choice of a subject, we shall be apt to form a high estimate of his
powers. Whatever constraint these difficulties may have put upon his invention, he has certainly contrived with great art to remove all appearance of embarrassment from the conduct of the fable, and has constructed his plot, and sketched his characters, with all the felicity and apparent freedom of one who was dealing with a subject, which he was at liberty to mould into any shape that might suit his fancy. Indeed, if we compare this work with Percy's Masque, his earlier dramatic effort, we shall perceive an essential degree of superiority in many of the important qualities of dramatic writing. Every thing about it is better calculated to command and fix the attention, the incidents are more varied and striking, and where there is declamation, it is at least spirited declamation. The characters are more forcibly drawn, and more skilfully distinguished, and there is a deeper infusion of passion-the soul of the drama. The diction, also, though preserving throughout the same character of manliness and vigor, which characterizes the former work, is yet pruned from its defects, and rendered more unaffected, flexible, and idiomatic.
Hadad, a principal actor in the fable of this drama, is a son of the king of Syria, detained as an hostage at the court of David. At least, it is in this character that he is first introduced to us, though he afterwards turns out to be a very different sort of personage. He becomes the friend and bosom counsellor of Absalom, and, -as in every tragedy, love is of course an important, if not essential ingredient,—the lover of his daughter. He incites Absalom to rebel against his father, corrupts the loyalty of Mephibosheth, and endeavours to shake the faith of Támar, (for such is the name of the daughter of Absalom,) in the religion of her country. There is great beauty in the following dialogue, which is made to introduce