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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 94

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 25 March 1768[94.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 So much for Hurd’s ideas about the universality of comic characters and the limits of this universality.[94.2] – Yet it will be necessary to quote the second passage, where he claims to have explained how tragic characters, although they are only particular, nevertheless obtain a universality, before we can draw a general conclusion whether and how Hurd agrees with Diderot, and both with Aristotle.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0Truth in poetry,” he says,[94.3] “means such an expression, as conforms to the general nature of things; falsehood, that, which however suitable to the particular instance in view, doth yet not correspond to such general nature. To attain to this truth of expression in dramatic poetry two things are prescribed:[*] [94.4] 1. A diligent study of the Socratic philosophy; and 2. A masterly knowledge and comprehension of human life. The first, because it is the peculiar distinction of this school ad veritatem vitae propius accedere.[†] [94.5] And the latter, as rendering the imitation more universally striking. This will be understood by reflecting that truth may be followed too closely in works of imitation, as is evident in two respects. For, 1. the artist, when he would give a Copy of nature, may confine himself too scrupulously to the exhibition of particulars, and so fail of representing the general idea of the kind. Or, 2. in applying himself to give the general idea, he may collect it from an enlarged view of real life, whereas it were still better taken from the nobler conception of it as subsisting only in the mind. This last is the kind of censure we pass upon the Flemish school of painting, which takes its model from real nature, and not, as the Italian, from the contemplative idea of beauty.[‡][94.6] The former corresponds to that other fault objected also to the Flemish masters, which consists in their copying from particular odd and grotesque nature in contradistinction to general and graceful nature.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 We see then that in deviating from particular and partial, the poet more faithfully imitates universal, truth. And thus an answer occurs to that refined argument, which Plato invented and urged, with much seeming complacency, against poetry. It is, that poetical imitation is at a great distance from truth. ‘Poetical expression, says the Philosopher, is the copy of the poet’s own conceptions; the poet’s conception, of things; and things, of the standing archetype, as existing in the divine mind. Thus the poet’s expression is a copy at third hand, from the primary, original truth.’[§] [94.7] Now the diligent study of this rule of the poet obviates this reasoning at once. For, by abstracting from existences all that peculiarly respects and discriminates the individual, the poet’s conception, as it were neglecting the intermediate particular objects, catches, as far as may be, and reflects the divine archetypal idea, and so becomes itself the copy or image of truth. Hence too we are taught the force of that unusual encomium on poetry by the great critic, that it is something more severe and philosophical than history, φιλοσοφωτερον καὶ σπονδαιοτερόν ποιησις ἐςιν.[94.8] The reason follows, which is now very intelligible: ἡ μὲν γὰρ ποίησις μᾶλλον τὰ καθόλου, ἡ δ᾽ ἱστορία τὰ καθ᾽ ἕκαστον λέγει.[**] [94.9] And this will further explain an essential difference, as we are told, between the two great rivals of the Greek stage. Sophocles, in return to such as objected a want of truth in his characters, used to plead, that he drew men such as they ought to be, Euripides such as they were. Σοφοκλῆς ἔφη αὐτὸς μὲν οἵους δεῖ ποιεῖν, Εὐριπίδην δὲ οἷοι εἰσίν.[††] [94.10] The meaning of which is, Sophocles, from his more extended commerce with mankind, had enlarged and widened the narrow, partial conception, arising from the contemplation of particular characters, into a complete comprehension of the kind. Whereas the philosophic Euripides, having been mostly conversant in the academy, when he came to look into life, keeping his eye too intent on single, really existing personages, sunk the kind in the individual; and so painted his characters naturally indeed, and truly, with regard to the objects in view, but sometimes without that general and universally striking likeness, which is demanded to the full exhibition of poetical truth.[‡‡][94.11]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 But here an objection meets us, which must not be overlooked. It will be said, ‘that philosophic speculations are more likely to render men’s views abstract and general than to confine them to individuals. This latter is a fault arising from the small number of objects men happen to contemplate: and may be removed not only by taking a view of many particulars, which is knowledge of the world; but also by reflecting on the general nature of men, as it appears in good books of morality. For the writers of such books form their general notion of human nature from an extensive experience (either their own, or that of others) without which their writings are of no value.’ The answer, I think, is this. By reflecting on the general nature of man the philosopher learns, what is the tenor of action arising from the predominancy of certain qualities or properties: i.e. in general, what that conduct is, which the imputed character requires. But to perceive clearly and certainly, how far, and with what degree of strength this or that character will, on particular occasions, most probably shew itself, this is the fruit only of a knowledge of the world. Instances of a want of this knowledge cannot be supposed frequent in such a writer, as Euripides; nor, when they occur, so glaring as to strike a common reader. They are niceties, which can only be discerned by the true critic; and even to him, at this distance of time, from an ignorance of the Greek manners, that may possibly appear a fault, which is a real beauty. It would be therefore dangerous to think of pointing out the places, which Aristotle might believe liable to this censure in Euripides. I will however presume to mention one, which, if not justly criticized, will, at least, serve to illustrate my meaning.”


6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [*] De arte poet. v. 310, 317, 318.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [†] Cic. de Orat. I. 51.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [‡] In conformity with the Antique. “Nec enim Phidias, cum faceret Jovis formam aut Minervae, contemplabatur aliquem e quo similitudinem duceret: sed ipsius in mente incidebat species pulchritudinis eximia quaedam, quam intuens in eaque defixus ad illius similitudinem artem et manum dirigebat” (Cic. Orat. 2).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [§] Plato, de Rep. L. x.]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [**] Poetics Ch. 9.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [††] Ibid., Ch. 25.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [‡‡] This explanation is far preferable to the one Dacier gives on this passage in Aristotle. According to the words of the translation, Dacier seems indeed to say just what Hurd says: “que Sophocle faisoit ses Heros, comme ils devoient être, & qu’Euripide les faisoit comme ils étoient” [Dacier 41 – Ed.]. But in fact he connects a completely different idea with it. Hurd understands the “as they should be” to mean the general and abstract idea of kind according to which the poet ought to depict his characters, rather than according to their individual differences. Dacier, however, understands it to mean a higher moral perfection that a human being is capable of achieving, even though he only rarely does; and this, he says, is what Sophocles usually attributed to his characters: “Sophocle tâchoit de rendre ses imitations parfaites, en suivant toûjours bien plus ce qu’une belle Nature étoit capable de faire, que ce qu’elle faisoit” [Dacier 433 – Ed.]. Except this higher moral perfection does not belong to that general concept; it pertains to the individual, but not the species, and the poet who attributes it to his characters is depicting the exact opposite, more in the manner of Euripides than Sophocles. The further explanation of this deserves more than a note.

  • 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
  • [94.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [94.2] Lessing has brought Hurd into his discussion of Aristotle’s views on dramatic character, begun in [89], which was triggered by Diderot’s statement, in [83], that tragic characters are individualized and comic characters are types. The entirety of [92] is a passage from Richard Hurd’s “Dissertation on the Provinces of the Drama” (252–7); for Hurd, see [90.17].
  • [94.3] The long quotation that follows is drawn from Hurd’s “Notes on the Art of Poetry.” Tr. note – we provide Hurd’s original English; see “Notes” 252–7.
  • [94.4] The two points that follow are from Horace’s Ars Poetica (De Arte Poetica) [The Art of Poetry] (for the full quotation, in Latin and English, see Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica 476–7).
  • [94.5] ad veritatem vitae propius accedere: “to accommodate themselves more to the reality of life.” Hurd is citing Horace who in turn cites Cicero; see M. Tulli Cicero, De Oratore [On the Orator] I (Liber Primus); for English, see Cicero “De Oratore” 204. Horace’s citation of Cicero is not exact; our translation is from this English source.
  • [94.6] For the text in Lessing’s footnote, see M. Tulli Cicero, De Oratore [On the Orator] II (Liber Secundus); for English, see Cicero “De Oratore” 240. Horace’s citation of Cicero is not exact.
  • [94.7] The Philosopher: Plato. This argument is outlined in Book X of his Republic. For this particular statement, see Plato, The Republic 329.
  • [94.8] The great critic: Aristotle. Butcher’s translation is: “Poetry…is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history”; see Poetics (Part IX).
  • [94.9] Butcher’s translation is: “for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular,” Ibid.
  • [94.10] Butcher’s translation is practically identical to Hurd’s; see Aristotle, Poetics (Part XXV).
  • [94.11] In his footnote, Lessing quotes from André Dacier’s translation of Aristotle, La poëtique d’Aristote [The Poetics of Aristotle] (1692).
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