The Devil on Two Sticks - CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XIV
THE SQUABBLE BETWEEN THE TRAGIC POET AND THE COMIC AUTHOR

LEANDRO PEREZ, at this point of the narrative, could not help again interrupting the Devil: Signor Asmodeus, said he, I really cannot control my curiosity to know the meaning of something which attracts my attention, in spite of the pleasure I receive in listening to you. I see, in a room near us, two men fighting in their shirts, and several others in their dressing-gowns who are hastening to part them: tell me, I pray you, what it is all about. The Demon, ever ready to please the Student, without further pressing replied as follows:

The persons whom you behold in their shirts, or so much of them as is left in the struggle, are two French authors; and the mediators in the strife are two Germans, a Fleming, and an Italian. They all lodge in that same house, which is a sort of lodging-house devoted exclusively to foreigners. One of these authors writes tragedies, and the other comedies. The former, disgusted for some reason or other with his own country, has come to Spain; and the latter also, discontented with his prospects in Paris, has performed the same journey, in the hope of finding in Madrid a better fortune.

The tragic poet is vain and presumptuous, having obtained, despite the opinions of those whose breath should be fame, a tolerable reputation in his own country. To keep his Pegasus in wind, he rides it daily; and not being able to sleep this night, he commenced a piece, the subject of which is taken from the Iliad. He has finished one scene; and as his smallest fault is that, so common to his brethren, of cramming into other people's throats the trash which he has ejected, he rose from his table, where he was writing in his shirt, took a candle, and, as he was, went to rouse the comic author, who, making a better use of his time, was sleeping profoundly.

The latter, awakened by the noise made at his door, went to open it to the other, who, with the air of one possessed, entered the room exclaiming: Down on your knees, my friend; down and worship a genius whom Melpomene inspires. I have given birth to poetry—but, what do I say?—I have done it! Apollo himself dictated the verses to me. Were I at Paris, I should go from house to house to read the precious lines; I only wait for day that I may charm with them our talented ambassador, and every other Frenchman who has the luck to be within Madrid; but, before I shew them to a soul, I come to recite them to you.

I am much obliged by the preference, replied the comic author, yawning with all his might; it is rather unlucky though, that you did not choose a better time. I went to bed extremely late,—can hardly keep my eyes unclosed,—and I will not answer for hearing all the verses you have to read to me, without tumbling to sleep again. Oh! I will answer for that myself, interrupted the tragic poet. Were you dead, the scene that I have just composed would recal you to life again. In my writings, there are none of your namby-pamby sentiments,—none of your commonplace expressions, sustained alone by rhyme: masculine thoughts, and easy versification, move the heart and strike upon the mind. I am none of those wretched poetasters, whose pitiable creations glide upon the stage like shadows, and like them depart;—which go to Utica to amuse the Africans. My compositions, worthy to be consecrated with my statue in the library of Apollo Palatinus, draw crowds after thirty representations. But come, added this modest poet, you shall hear the verses of which I wish to offer you the first incense.

This is my tragedy, THE DEATH OF PATROCLUS. Scene the first, Briseis and the other captives of Achilles appear. They tear their hair and beat their breasts, to express the grief with which they are filled by the death of Patroclus. Unable even to support themselves, utterly prostrated by despair, they fall upon the stage. This, you will say, is a little daring; but that is exactly what I aim at. Let the small fry who swim in the waters of Helicon keep within the narrow bounds of imitation, without daring to o'erleap them; it is well, there is prudence in their timidity: but for me, I love invention; and I hold that, to move and overcome your spectators, you must present to their minds images which they could never have expected.

The captives, then, are lying on the earth. Phoenix, governor of Achilles, is with them. He assists them to rise, one after another; and, having placed them on their feet, he commences the argument of the drama in these lines:—

 

Hector shall fall; and Troy itself be spread
In ruins, to avenge Patroclus dead.
Proud Agamemnon, Camelus the grave,
Nestor the wise, and Eumelus the brave,
Leontes, skilled to hurl the spear along,
Smooth-tongued Ulysses, Diomed the strong,
Arm with Achilles. Lo! that hero drives
Tow'rds Ilium's gates—appalling Ilium's wives—
His steeds immortal, urged across the plain
So swift, the eye toils after them with pain.
But still he cries: Dear Xanthus, Balius, fly!
And when around ten thousand corses lie,
When pallid Trojans scamper off like fillies,
Regain your camp, but not without Achilles.
Xanthus replies, bowing his head: You may
Be sure, Achilles, we'll your will obey;
But, while our pace with your impatience strives,
Know that to you the fatal hour arrives—
The ox—eyed Juno thus the steed enlightening,—
And now the car moves with a speed quite frightening
The Greeks, beholding, utter cries of joy,
So loud, they shake the very walls of Troy.
Achilles, armed by Vulcan for the war,
Appears more brilliant than the morning star;
Or like the sun, when, in its bright career,
It bursts on earth, dispelling night and fear;
Or brilliant as the fires on mountains lighted,
To guide poor swains, bewilder'd or benighted.

[Priam va perdre Hector et sa superbe ville;
Les Grecs veulent venger le compagnon d'Achille,
Le fier Agamemnon, le divin Camelus,
Nestor, pareil aux dieux, le vaillant Eumelus,
Leonte, de la pique adroit a l'exercice,
Le nerveux Diomede, et l'eloquent Ulysse.
Achille s'y prepare, et déjà ce heros
Pousse vers Ilium ses immortels chevaux;
Pour arriver plus tot où sa fureur l'entraîne,
Quoique l'œil qui les voit ne les suive qu'à peine,
Il leur dit: Chers Xanthus, Balius, avancez
Et lorsque vous serez du carnage lassés,
Quand les Troyens fuyant rentreront dans leur ville,
Regagnez notre camp, mais non pas sans Achille.
Xanthus baisse la tote, et repond par ces mots;
Achille, vous serez content de vos chevaux,
Its vont aller au gré de votre impatience;
Mais de votre trepas l'instant fatal s'avance.
Junon aux yeux de bœuf ainsi le fait parler,
Et d'Achllle aussitôt le char semble voler.
Les Grecs, en le voyant, de mille cris de joie
Soudain font retentir le rivage de Troie.
Ce prince, revêtu des armes de Vulcain,
Paraît plus éclatant que l'astre du matin,
Ou tel que le soleil, commençant sa carrière,
S'élève pour donner an monde la lumière;
Ou brillant comme un feu que les villageois font
Pendant l'obscure nuit sur le sommet du mont.]

I stop, continued the tragic poet, to let you breathe a moment; for if I were to recite to you the whole of my scene at once, the beauty of my versification, and the great number of brilliant passages and sublime ideas that it contains, would smother you to a certainty. But remark the aptness of this comparison,—

 

Or brilliant as the fires on mountains lighted,
To guide poor swains bewilder'd or benighted.

It is not all the world who could appreciate that; but you, who have mind and a clearness of perception,—you must be enchanted with it. I am so, doubtless, replied the comic author, smiling contemptuously; nothing can be more beautiful; and I am persuaded you will not fail to describe, in your tragedy, the care taken by Thetis to drive away the Trojan flies which approach the body of Patroclus. You may spare your jests as to that, replied the tragic poet;—an author who has talent may venture everything. The very incident you mention is perhaps the one most capable of being rendered into heroic verse; and I shall not lose the opportunity, you may depend upon it.

All my works, he continued complacently, bear the impress of genius; so that when I read them it would delight you to witness the applause they elicit: I am compelled to stop after every verse, to receive its laudatory tribute. I remember that one day, at Paris,

I was reading a tragedy in the house of a wealthy patron of literature, in which all the wits of the capital generally assemble about dinnertime, and in which I may say, without vanity, that I do not pass for a Pradon. The dowager countess of Vieille-Brune was there, a lady of exquisite taste—I am her favourite poet. Well, at the first scene, the hot tears ran down her cheeks; during the reading of my second act, she was obliged to change her handkerchief; her sobs were beyond her control in the third; at the end of the fourth she was nearly in hysterics; and I expected, at the catastrophe, that she would have absolutely died with the hero of my piece.

At these words, although the comic author endeavoured strenuously to preserve his gravity, a burst of laughter escaped him. Ah! he exclaimed, how well do I recognize her ladyship by your description! The good countess is one who cannot endure comedy: so strong is her aversion for the merry muse, that she hurries from her box after the dagger or the bowl has done its work, that she may not lose an atom of her mimic grief. Tragedy is her pet passion; and be it good or bad, so long as it presents unhappy love, so surely may you bid her tears to flow. Honestly, did I pretend to the heroics, I should wish for other admirers than the countess.

Oh! as to that, I have others too, replied the tragic poet. I am the approved of thousands, male and female, of the highest rank—I should also mistrust the suffrages of the quality, interrupted the comic author; I should have no great confidence in their judgment: I will tell you why. Auditors of this description are, for the most part, too much occupied with themselves to pay great attention to the reading of a poem; or are caught for the moment by high-sounding verse, or the feeble delicacy of some sickly sentiment. Either is sufficient to induce their praise of an author's labours, whatever else of better they may lack. On the contrary, let but a line rustle their gentle ears too harshly, and it is enough that they exclaim against the piece, however good.

Well! resumed the lachrymose inditer, since you would have me suspicious of this tribunal, I rely on the applauses of the pit. Bah! talk not to me of your pit, replied the other; its judgment is guided by caprice. Stupidity won by the novelty of a first representation, it will be for months enraptured by a wretched piece. It is true that in the end it discovers its folly; and, then, it never forgives an author for having received from it an undeserved renown, or cheated it into mercy.

That is a misfortune for which I have nothing to fear, said the tragic poet; my pieces are reprinted as often as they are played. This, now, never occurs with comedies; printing exhibits their feebleness. Comedies being but trifles,—the lighter productions of mind . . . Softly! my tragic friend; softly! interrupted the other: you are getting somewhat warm. Speak, I beg of you, of comedy with less irreverence to me. Do you think, now, a comic piece less difficult to write than tragedy! Undeceive yourself! It is far less easy to make good men laugh, than it is to make them weep. Learn that a subject drawn from ordinary life requires talent of as high an order as do the stilted heroes of antiquity.

I'faith, cried the tragic poet with an air of raillery, I am delighted to hear you so express yourself. Well! monsieur Calidas, to avoid disputation, I agree henceforth to as greatly admire your productions as I have heretofore despised them. I care little for your contempt, monsieur Giblet, hastily replied the comic author; and in return for your insolence, I will plainly tell you my opinion of the rubbish you have just been inflicting on me: your verse is a mixture of bombast and absurdity, and the ideas, although borrowed from Homer, have, in passing through your brain, become tinctured with its vulgarity. Achilles talks to his horses, and his horses reply to him; what nonsense! It is a pity they were not asses, for then you could have put into their mouths with propriety your splendid comparison of the village bonfire on the top of a mountain. It is doing no honour to the ancients to pillage them after this fashion: their works are undoubtedly filled with beauties; but it requires greater taste than you possess to make of them a fitting use, or to enable you to borrow from them to advantage.

Since you have not sufficient elevation of soul, retorted Giblet, to appreciate the merits of my poetry, and to punish you for having dared to criticise my scene, I will not read to you the remainder. What, I wonder, have I done, that I should have been punished by being compelled to listen to the beginning? replied Calidas. It well becomes you indeed to despise my comedies! Learn that the very worst that I could write will be clever compared with any thing that you can compose, and that it is much easier to inflate the cheeks with hollow sentiments and sounding words, than it is to enlighten the mind by pointed wit or a delicate irony.

Thank Heaven! exclaimed the tragic poet, with an awful expression of disdain, if in its rigour it denies me your esteem, I may easily console myself for my misfortune. The court, however, thinks more favourably of my tragedies; and the pension with which in its grace it has been pleased—Pshaw! think not to dazzle me with your pensions, interrupted Calidas; I know too well how they may be obtained to esteem your works the more for that. And to prove to you your folly, in thinking more highly of yourself than of comic authors, and that it is easier to compose serious dramas than comic pieces, I am resolved if I return to France, and do not succeed in my own line, that I will descend to making tragedies.

For a scribbler of farces, said the tragic poet, you are not over modest. For a versifier who only owes his reputation to borrowed plumes, replied the comic author, you would fain have one think rather too highly of you. You are an insolent scoundrel, exclaimed the sombre genius. If I were not in your room, little monsieur Calidas, the catastrophe of this adventure should teach you to respect the buskin. Let not that consideration restrain you, I entreat, lanky monsieur Giblet, replied Calidas; if you wish to receive a thrashing, I would as soon give it you in my own room as elsewhere.

Immediately, they seized each other by the throat and hair; and kicks and cuffs were exchanged with generous ardour. An Italian, who lay in a neighbouring chamber, having listened to the overture of this drama, and hearing the noise of the incidental combat, judged that it was quite time for the spectators to assemble when the play had begun. He rose therefore, and out of compassion for the French authors, although Italian, he filled the house with his cries. On this the Fleming and the two Germans hastened with himself in their dressing-gowns to the theatre of strife, and the piece is, as you see, just terminating by the separation of the combatants.

This squabble is amusing enough, said Don Cleophas. But, it would appear from what you tell me that tragic writers in France imagine themselves to be much more important personages than those who devote themselves to comedy. Certainly! replied Asmodeus. The former think themselves as much exalted over the latter, as are the stately heroes of tragedies above the intriguing servants of comic pieces. Indeed! and on what do they found this opinion of themselves? inquired the Student. Is it then really so much more difficult to write the one than the other? The question you put to me, replied the Devil, is one which has been a hundred times debated, and is so to this day. For myself, this is my decision, with all deference to those who differ from me in opinion. I say that it is not more easy to compose a comic than a tragic piece for if it were so, we must conclude that a tragic poet would be more capable of writing a comedy, than the best comic author; the which is not borne out by experience. According to me then, each of these two descriptions of poem requires a genius of a different character, but of an equal capability.

It is time, however, to end this digression. I will therefore resume the thread of the history, which you so unceremoniously interrupted.

 

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