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Fondness for death and doubt of the future are the principal traits which characterize this poet. To these general traits, we may add the particular character of Hamlet, who although he does not kill himself, has become the type of the heroes of suicide : a kind of undecided and feeble Orestes, who is uncertain of the crime which he must avenge, and who, above all, doubts if he will have the strength to fulfil the mission which he receives from Heaven, a mission which is dreadful, and revealed with a mystery which disorders the reason of Hamlet. Orestes is driven on by fatality: he does not hesitate. Hamlet, although urged on also by fatality, and admonished by the ghost of his father, preserves, nevertheless, his free will; but he preserves it only to waver in his resolutions, and to vacillate from one idea to another. He reflects more than he acts, and pushes nothing to extremes. Sometimes he is terrified at the horrible duty which he is compelled to perform he seems to deliberate with himself if he cannot avoid it by committing suicide; but he recoils before the uncertainty of the future, and discourses eloquently upon that dread which man has of the unknown. Now he wishes to kill the king, who has assassinated his father; but he stops because the king is engaged in prayer, and he does not wish to send him to Paradise; so deep is his hatred, and yet so ingenious is he in finding reasons for not acting! He wishes also to punish his mother, but is satisfied with terrifying her with his words. He is not more decided in his love than in his revenge: he loves Ophelia, but does not dare to trust to his love the secret of his feigned madness. He speaks sometimes as a lover, and at other times like a madman, and this strange mixture of contradictory words ends in deranging also the intellect of Ophelia. It is not until she has been laid in the tomb, that Hamlet is willing openly to confess the love which he had for her: for it is the peculiarity of undecided and weak minds, never to know with certainty what they want until it is no longer in their power to obtain it. This very madness which Hamlet begins by feigning, ends in disordering his own reason; and it affords a salutary lesson, which is very applicable to those proud and weak characters, who dream the more in proportion as they act the less. It is not good for man to indulge in all sorts of reveries. These singular feelings and strange thoughts which come into our minds, please us at first, because they make us believe
that we possess something original and above the vulgar; we do not resist the inclination to give expression to these odd sentiments, so that we may be regarded as distinguished from the common herd. This idea has a tendency to excite the ambition of all men, especially in times and countries where equality prevails. But this little charlatanism is not without danger for ourselves. We begin by wishing to dupe others, we end by duping ourselves; we unconsciously obtain the elevation to which we aspired, and we lose our reason in wishing like Hamlet to sport with madness.
The preponderance of thought and speech over action, together with a fatal indecision of will, constitute the basis of the character of Hamlet, such as Shakspeare has conceived it. It is this which lies at the bottom of all the heroes of suicide. If we set aside those grand sentiments of which they make parade, if we penetrate into those unquiet souls, we find nothing but indecision and feebleñess. They prefer rather to indulge in speculation than in action, until, in order to rid themselves of the burdens of existence, they seek refuge in eternal repose.
It is not our purpose to preach against suicide. Our only object is to show in what manner the idea of suicide is represented in our modern dramas and romances, and to see if, in painting this melancholy love of death, they affect us as much as the Greeks do, in expressing the love of life.
We do not censure the dramatic poets for introducing suicide on the stage. All that appertains to man, belongs to literature. But, in order to move us, this thought of death, which the man has conceived, should struggle in his soul with the love of life. He must not kill himself too easily or too quickly, and without sufficient cause; otherwise we cannot become interested in his fate. Shakspeare, who has attributed to Hamlet the idea of suicide, has taken care to arrest him in time, while yet upon the borders of the abyss, well knowing that the struggle with death is more interesting than death itself. Do not believe that in exhibiting a hero who resists this fatal idea, and, in making the denouement, inclines towards death rather than towards life, that the scene would be less interesting. In the drama, the denouement is of less consequence than the action; it is the action alone which fascinates and pleases. An author, then, if he has not given to his hero this fatal weakness which disables him from
supporting the burdens of life; if he has only rendered him. unfortunate, but not by his own fault or by his imagination; if he has given him sorrows instead of remorse and reveries; if, in a word, he has given him a conscience firm and pure, an author may easily show how the idea of suicide may cross the mind of his hero, and how he resists it. The scene will excite pity although the hero does not die, and the denouement may be happy and moral, without ceasing to be interesting. But we must not forget that this depends upon the character which the poet gives to his hero.
In making these observations, we are reminded of a scene in the romance of Pamela,* which is exceedingly touching. Pamela is a young, intelligent, and beautiful servant maid, with whom her master becomes desperately smitten, but she repels the offer of his love. After persecuting her for a long time, conquered by her virtue, he finally marries her. Pamela, who has been locked up by her master in his residence, in the north of England, and placed under the surveillance of a cruel woman, and fearing that her master would use violence in overcoming her resistance, endeavors to escape from her confinement. She descends, during the night, out of the window, and in attempting to climb over the wall of the inclosure, she falls and is wounded. She has no hope of escaping her persecutors! She is entirely at a loss to know what to do, and what is to become of her!
"God forgive me! But a sad thought came just then into my head! I tremble to think of it! Indeed my apprehensions of the usage I should meet with, had like to have made me miserable for ever! O my dear, dear parents, forgive your poor child! But being then quite desperate, I crept along till I could raise myself on my staggering feet; and
*The influence of Richardson upon the fiction and poetry of Europe was not only vast at the time, but, enduring still, it must endure for ever. In vain his language grows obsolete, in vain his minuteness has become wearisome, in vain the young race of novel readers leave him on the shelf: to those somewhat tedious pages turns every genius who aspires to rise in fiction; from them can, though with toil and study, be best learned the art of extracting from the homeliest details the noblest pathos. In "Clarissa" is beheld that true spirit of tragedy which first dispensed with kings and heroes, and the paraphernalia of the outward stage; teaching how the compass of all grandeur in fiction can be attained by him who can describe the affection, and comprehend the virtue, of one human being.-BULWER.
away limped I. What to do, but to throw myself into the pond, and so put a period to all my griefs in this world! But O! to find them infinitely aggravated (had I not by the divine grace been withheld) in a miserable eternity! As I have escaped this temptation, (blessed be God for it!) I will tell you my conflicts on this dreadful occasion, that the divine mercies may be magnified in my deliverance, that I am yet on this side the dreadful gulf from which there could have been no return."
Seated, or rather lying, on the margin of the pond, Pamela considers her misfortunes, and the impossibility of escaping from the infamous condition to which the passion of her mas. ter destined her:
"And then, thought I, (and O! that thought was surely of the devil's instigation; for it was very soothing and powerful with me,) these wicked wretches, who have no remorse, no pity on me, will then be moved to lament their misdoings; and when they see the dead corpse of the unhappy Pamela dragged out to these dewy banks, and lying breathless at their feet, they will find that remorse to soften their obdurate heart which now has no place there! And my master, my angry master, will then forget his resentments, and say, 'O, this is the unhappy Pamela, that I have so causelessly persecuted and destroyed! Now do I see she preferred her honesty to her life,' he will say, and is no hypocrite nor deceiver, but really was the innocent creature she pretended to be!' Then, thought I, perhaps he will shed a few tears over the poor corpse of his persecuted servant; and though he may give out it was love and disappointment, and that, perhaps, he will be inwardly grieved, and order me a decent funeral, and save me, or rather this part of me, from the dreadful stake and the highway interment; and the young men and maidens all around my dear father's will pity poor Pamela! But O! I hope I shall not be the subject of their ballads and elegies; but that my memory, for the sake of my dear father and mother, may quickly slide into oblivion."
We are not disposed to interrupt this narrative by any reflections. But we cannot refrain from remarking the sentiment of love which is mingled with the sorrow which Pamela feels at the idea of the tears which her master will shed over her tomb, an involuntary love, which she does not confess, but which she feels, and even unconsciously expresses,
when she thinks with a kind of tenderness of the affliction which her death will cause to her master. This love is divined rather than seen; it is modestly disclosed in the midst of those gloomy thoughts which agitate Pamela; and yet, all weak and timid as it is, the Christian soul of Pamela feels that it is guilty, for she reproaches herself. We are pleased with the modesty which makes her shrink from the lamentations which will be expressed over her fate. There are some persons who would kill themselves so as to get people to talk of them; they would hazard their lives for a moment's notoriety. She requests that she may be forgotten; she dreads publicity as others court it. But, with such good sentiments in her heart, it was impossible that Pamela should perish, and her virtues defend and save her from this thought of suicide with which her misfortunes had inspired her.
We see, then, how the thought of suicide may affect us without the emotion at all injuring us in a moral point of view. But to come, like Pamela, near to suicide, and yet to escape it, it was necessary that she should have such a character as Richardson has given her: she must have the fortitude which is derived from religion. We feel that Pamela will overcome the temptation which has assailed her, because she has already resisted the temptation of another sort, and that she will exhibit as much strength against suicide as she had against seduction; we feel that she possesses this moral vitality which will enable her to support the pains and burdens of life. There are characters, on the other hand, whom we perceive at the first glance are predestined to die. Ardent and enthusiastic, they want fortitude and patience: life is not made for them. Such is the Werter of Goëthe.*
* In fact, it is the merit of this wonderful man, that his whole nature was especially plastic and impressionable. Every influence of his time stamped itself on his intellect, to be reproduced in new forms by his genius. Does the age incline to sentiment? he sounds its abysses. To irony? the sneer of Voltaire seems venomless beside the icy smile of the fiend he calls from hell, to mock at human knowledge and desecrate human love! Does the age yearn for pastorals and family life? he turns from courts and the seventh heaven of poetry to borrow from homely Voss, and ruins him by the riches he extracts from the loan. In his "Werter" he concentrates the history of an epoch in his countrythe epoch of the Rousseau mania. But though the "Nouvelle Héloïse" is incontestably the origin of "Werter," those who regard it as a mere copy, do it miserable injustice. There is more rhetorical eloquence in one page of the "Nouvelle Héloïse" than in the whole of " Werter;"