Famous Reviews eBook

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MILL ON MACAULAY’S “LAYS”

[From The Westminster Review.  February, 1843]

It is with the two great masters of modern ballad poetry (Campbell and Scott) that Mr. Macaulay’s performances are really to be compared, and not with the real ballads or epics of an early age.  The “Lays,” in point of form, are not in the least like the genuine productions of a primitive age or people, and it is no blame to Mr. Macaulay that they are not.  He professes imitation of Homer, but we really see no resemblance, except in the nature of some of the incidents, and the animation and vigour of the narrative; and the “Iliad,” after all, is not the original ballads of the Trojan War, but these ballads moulded together, and wrought into the forms of a more civilised and cultivated age.  It is difficult to conjecture what the form of the old Roman ballad may have been, and certain, that whatever they were, they could no more satisfy the aesthetic requirements of modern culture, than an ear accustomed to the great organs of Freyburg or Harlem could relish Orpheus’s hurdy-gurdy, although the airs which Orpheus played, if they could be recovered, might perhaps be executed with great effect on the more perfect instrument.

The former of Mr. Macaulay’s ballad poetry are essentially modern:  they are those of the romantic and chivalrous, not the classical ages, and even in those they are a reproduction, not of the originals, but of the imitations of Scott.  In this we think he has done well, for Scott’s style is as near to that of the ancient ballad as we conceive to be at all compatible with real popular effect on the modern mind.  The difference between the two may be seen by the most cursory comparison of any real old ballad, “Chevy Chase,” for instance, with last canto of Marmion, or with any of these “Lays.”  Conciseness is the characteristic of the real ballad, diffuseness of the modern adaptation.  The old bard did everything by single touches; Scott and Mr. Macaulay by repetition and accumulation of particulars.  They produce all their effect by what they say; he by what he suggested; by what he stimulated the imagination to paint for itself.  But then the old ballads were not written for the light reading of tired readers.  To do the work in their way, they required to be brooded over, or had at least the aid of tune and of impassioned recitation.  Stories which are to be told to children in the age of eagerness and excitability, or sung in banquet halls to assembled warriors, whose daily ideas and feelings supply a flood of comment ready to gush forth on the slightest hint of the poet, cannot fly too swift and straight to the mark.  But Mr. Macaulay wrote to be only read, and by readers for whom it was necessary to do all.

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