A New and Complete Translation

Essay 59

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 24 November 1767[59.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 [†] Note that Banks’s style should not be judged from my translation.[59.2] I have had to depart completely from his mode of expression. It is at once so common and so precious, so abased and so pretentious, and not just differing from character to character but in all aspects, that it could serve as a model of this kind of muddle. I have tried to sneak between the two cliffs as well as possible, but in the process preferred to run aground against the one rather than the other.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I have been more on guard against bombast than against plainness. The majority might perhaps have done exactly the opposite, for many consider bombast and tragedy to be one and the same. Not just many readers, but also many poets themselves. Their heroes should speak like other men? What kind of heroes would those be? Ampullae & sesquipedalia verba, sentences and bluster and foot-and-a-half-long words, that is what they consider the true tone of tragedy.[59.3]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 “We have spared no effort,” Diderot says,[*] (note that he speaks primarily of his own countrymen), “to corrupt the drama. We have retained from the Ancients the emphatic versification which was so suitable for languages with strong measures and heavy stresses, for spacious theatres, for a declamation which was scored and accompanied by instruments; and we have abandoned their simplicity of plot and dialogue, and the truth of their tableaux.” [59.4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Diderot could have added one more reason why we ought not to take the mode of expression of the ancient tragedies as a model. In those plays, all of the characters speak and converse in an open public plaza, in the presence of a curious crowd of people. Thus they nearly always need to speak with caution and respect for their dignity; they cannot simply unload their thoughts and feelings with the first words that come to mind, they must measure and choose them. But we moderns who have abolished the chorus and, for the most part, keep our characters within their four walls, what grounds can we have then for such decorous, fastidious, pretentious speech? No one hears it other than those the characters allow to hear it, nobody speaks but people who are also involved in the action and who are therefore in the heat of passion themselves and have neither the inclination nor the leisure to control their expressions. That was the domain of the chorus, which, as tightly as it might have been woven into the play, nevertheless never took part in the action and always judged the active characters more than it really sympathized with their fates. In any case, it is fruitless to invoke the higher rank of the characters. Noble people have learned to express themselves better than common men, but they do not perpetually put on airs to express themselves better. Least of all in the heat of passion, for which every person has his own eloquence, an eloquence inspired only by nature and learned in no school, which the least educated man can command just as well as the most polished.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 There can never be any feeling conveyed with labored, precious, bombastic language. It produces no feeling and cannot bring forth any. Feeling does, however, go hand in hand with the simplest, commonest, plainest words and sayings.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I am fully aware that no queen on the French stage has ever spoken the way I have Banks’s Elizabeth speak. In Paris, the humble, intimate tone she uses to converse with her women would not even be seen as appropriate for a good noble countrywoman. “Are you not well? – I am quite well. Rise, I pray you. – I am only troubled, a little troubled. – Tell me then. – Was it not, Nottingham? Do so! Let me hear! – Enough, enough! – You rail yourself out of breath. – Poison and blisters on her tongue! – I have leave to use the thing I have made as I please. – Hitting a poor man on the head. – How are you? Cheer up, dear Rutland, I will find you a brave husband. – How can you speak thus? – You shall see from this. – She angered me quite a bit. I could not stand her sight any longer. – Come here, my dear, let me lean upon your breast. – I thought so! – I can tolerate no more.” – “Yes, indeed, it is intolerable!” the fine critics would say –

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Perhaps many of my readers will say this as well. – For unfortunately there are Germans who are more French than the French. I have gathered all of these bits into a heap to please them. I know their manner of criticizing. They very cleverly line up in a row all of the little negligences that insult their tender ears, that were so hard for the poet to find, and which he scattered about here and there to make the dialogue smooth and the speech more truly appear to come from the inspiration of the moment. Then they set to laughing about them. It is all followed with a pitying shrug of the shoulders: “you can hear that the good man does not know the great world, that he has not heard many queens speak; Racine understood this better, but then Racine lived at court.”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 None of this bothers me. So much the worse for queens if they do not, or are not permitted to, speak this way. I have long believed that the court is hardly the place where a poet can study nature. But when pomp and etiquette make machines out of people, then it is the job of the poet to make people out of these machines again. True queens might speak as affectedly and artificially as they want; his queens must speak naturally. He should just listen studiously to Euripides’ Hecuba and rest content even if he has not heard another queen speak.[59.5]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Nothing is more modest and decent than simple Nature. Coarseness and smut are as far removed from her as pomposity and bombast are from the sublime.[59.6] The same feeling that apprehends the boundary there, will also detect it here. The most pompous poet is therefore without fail the most vulgar. The two faults are inseparable, and no genre affords more opportunities to lapse into both than tragedy.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In the case of their Banks, the English seem to have taken offense primarily to one of the two. They were less critical of his bombast than of the vulgar speech he gives to such noble, historically dazzling people, and they long wished that his play might be rewritten by a man who had better mastery of tragic expression.[†] And indeed, this eventually happened. Jones and Brooke took it upon themselves at almost the same time.[59.7] Henry Jones, an Irishman by birth, was a mason by trade and like old Ben Jonson traded his trowel for a pen.[59.8] After he had a volume of poetry published on subscription that established his reputation as a man of great talent, he brought his Essex to the stage in 1753. When this was performed in London, the one by Henry Brooke had already played in Dublin. But Brooke did not have his published until a few years later, and so it can very well be that, as some accuse, he might just as well have used Jones’s Essex as Banks’s. There is also supposed to be an Essex by James Ralph in existence.[59.9] I confess that I have not read any of them, and know all three only from the literary journals. A French critic says of Brooke’s Essex that he combined Banks’s fire and pathos with Jones’s beautiful poetry. What he adds concerning Rutland’s role, and her despair at her husband’s execution, is remarkable;[‡] from it we also come to know a side of the Parisian parterre that does it little honor.[59.10]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 But I have read a Spanish Essex that is far too peculiar not to say something about it in passing.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [*] Second Conversation on The Natural Son.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [†] (Companion to the Theatre Vol. II p. 105.) – The Diction is every where very bad, and in some Places so low, that it even becomes unnatural. – And I think there cannot be a greater Proof of the little Encouragement this Age affords to Merit, than that no Gentleman possest of a true Genius and Spirit of Poetry, thinks it worth his Attention to adorn so celebrated a Part of History with that Dignity of Expression befitting Tragedy in general, but more particularly, where the Characters are perhaps the greatest the World ever produced.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [‡] (Journal Encycl. Mars 1761.) Il a aussi fait tomber en demence la Comtesse de Rutland au moment que cet illustre epoux est conduit à l’echafaud; ce moment ou cette Comtesse est un objet bien digne de pitié, a produit une tres grande sensation, & a été trouvé admirable à Londres: en France il eut paru ridicule, il auroit été sifflé & l’on auroit envoyé la Comtesse avec l’Auteur aux Petites-Maisons.

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [59.1] Actually published winter of 1768.
  • [59.2] In [54], Lessing begins his analysis of The Unhappy Favourite: or, The Earl of Essex (1682) by John Banks; regarding Lessing’s adaptation of Banks’s text, see translator’s note [57.4].
  • [59.3] Ampullae & sesquipedalia verba: from Horace, Ars poetica [The Art of Poetry]; translated by Fairclough as “bombast and Brobdingnagian words” (459). Diderot uses the same phrase in his “De la Poésie Dramatique [Entretiens sur le Fils naturel]” [“Conversations on The Natural Son”] (1757) just before the passage Lessing cites in the next paragraph. See Diderot, “De la Poésie Dramatique [Entretiens sur le Fils naturel]” 190; Selected Writings on Art and Literature 34. The “Entretiens” contain many of Diderot’s ideas regarding the form and function of emerging genres such as “serious drama” and bourgeois tragedy, and influenced Lessing’s own theories of drama and performance, including those outlined here. For Lessing’s translation of this text and others, see Das Theater des Herrn Diderot [The Theater of M. Diderot] (1760) in Werke und Briefe 5/1: 10–230.
  • [59.4] “De la Poésie Dramatique [Entretiens sur le Fils naturel]” 190–91; English translation taken from Geoffrey Bremner in Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature 34–5.
  • [59.5] Hecuba: Euripidean tragedy (424 BCE).
  • [59.6] Pomposity and bombast: charges frequently leveled against the language of baroque tragedy.
  • [59.7] Lessing draws this and the following information from a review of Henry Jones’s Earl of Essex in the English literary journal The Monthly Review (March 1753: 225–29). Henry Jones (1721–70): Irish-born poet and playwright. Henry Brooke (1703–83): Irish-born novelist and playwright; his Earl of Essex, published in 1761, was previously performed in Dublin in 1749.
  • [59.8] Ben Jonson (1572?–1637): English playwright, poet, and literary critic. In The Monthly Review, the anonymous author provides the epilogue (by an unknown author) to Jones’s Essex, which contains the lines, “Can he believe th’example of Old Ben, / Who chang’d (like him) the trowel for the pen, / will in his favour move your critic bowels?” (228). Jonson and Jones did indeed both begin as bricklayers.
  • [59.9] James Ralph (1705?–62): (possibly) American-born English poet, playwright, and dramatic critic of indifferent success; later a historian and political writer. Authored The Fall of the Earl of Essex (1731).
  • [59.10] For Lessing’s footnote, see the Journal encyclopédique 11: 120–21.
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