Page images
PDF
EPUB

ment of the people is not to be respected ? It is the perpetual mistake of the public The thought is most injurious; and, could for the people that has led to the belief that the charge be brought against him, he would there was a period when Shakspere was repel it with indignation. The people have neglected. He was always in the heart of already been justified, and their eulogium the people. There, in that deep rich soil, pronounced by implication, when it is said have the Sonnets rested during two cenabove—that, of good poetry, the individual, turies; and here and there in remote places as well as the species, survives. And how have the seeds put forth leaves and flowers. does it survive but through the people ? | All young imaginative minds now rejoice in what preserves it but their intellect and their hues and their fragrance. But this their wisdom

preference of the fresh and beautiful of *Past and future are the wings

poetical life to the pot-pourri of the last age On whose support, harmoniously conjoin'd,

must be a regulated love. Those who, seeing Moves the great spirit of human knowledge.? | the admiration which now prevails for these

-MS. outpourings of “exquisite feelings feli

citously expressed,” talk of the “Sonnets' The voice that issues from this spirit is that as equal, if not superior, to the greatest of vox populi which the Deity inspires. Foolish the poet's mighty dramas, compare things must he be who can mistake for this a local | that admit of no comparison. Who would acclamation, or a transitory outcry—transi- speak in the same breath of the gem of tory, though it be for years; local, though Cupid and Psyche, and of the Parthenon ? from a nation! Still more lamentable is in the 'Sonnets,' exquisite as they are, the his error who can believe that there is any- poet goes not out of himself (at least in the thing of divine infallibility in the clamour form of the composition), and he walks, of that small though loud portion of the therefore, in a narrow circle of art. In the community, ever governed by factitious in- 'Venus and Adonis,' and the 'Lucrece,' the fluence, which, under the name of the PUBLIC, circle widens. But in the Dramas, the centre passes itself, upon the unthinking, for the is the Human Soul, the circumference the PEOPLE."

Universe.

[ocr errors]

BOOK XI.

SHAKSPERE'S CRITICS.

CHAPTER I.

MILTON-EDWARD PHILLIPS.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

“SHAKSPERE was not so much esteemed, even Or that his hallow'd relics should be hid
during his life, as we commonly suppose ; Under a star-ypointing pyramid :
and after his retirement from the stage he was Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,
all but forgotten.”* So we read in an

What need’st thou such dull witness of thy

name? authority too mighty to enter upon evidence.

Thou in our wonder and astonishment The oblivion after his retirement and death

Hast built thyself a lasting monument. is the true pendant to the alleged neglect

For whilst to th’ shame of slow endeavouring during his lifet. When did the oblivion

art begin? It could scarcely have existed when,

Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart in 1623, an expensive folio volume of many

Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book hundred pages was published, without regard

Those Delphic lines with deep impression to the risk of such an undertaking-and it

took, was a risk, indeed, if the author had been

Then thou, our fancy of herself bereaving, neglected and was forgotten. But the editors

Dost make us marble with too much conof the volume do not ask timidly for support ceiving, of these neglected and forgotten works. And so sepulchred in such pomp doth lie, They say to the reader, “Though you be a That kings for such a tomb would wish to die." magistrate of wit, and sit on the stage at The author of these lines could not have Blackfriars or the Cockpit, to arraign plays known the works of the "admirable dramatic daily, know these plays have had their trial poet,” while that poet was in life ; but already, and stood out all appeals.” Did sixteen years after his death he was the dear the oblivion continue when, in 1632, a second

son of memory, the great heir of fame; his edition of this large work was brought out ? | bones were honoured, his relics were halThere was one man, certainly—a young and lowed, his works were a lasting monument, ardent scholar—who was not amongst the his book was priceless, his lines were oracular, oblivious. Joun Milton was twenty-four Delphic. Is this oblivion ? But it may be years of age when these verses were pub- said that Milton was a young enthusiast, lished :

one who saw farther than the million ; that AN EPITAPH ON THE ADMIRABLE DRAMATIC the public opinion of a writer (and we are POET, W. SHAKESPEARE.

not talking of his positive excellence, apart “ What need my Shakespeare for his honour'd from opinion) must be sought for in the bones

voice of the people, or at any rate in that of The labour of an age in piled stones,

the leaders of the people. How are we to

arrive at the knowledge of this expression ? * Life of Shakspere, in Lardner's Cyclopædia' + See Book ix. chap. iv.

We can only know, incidentally, that an

author was a favourite, either of a king or Richard the Third, speaking in as high a of a cobbler. We know that Shakspere was strain of piety and mortification as is uttered the favourite of a king, in these times of his in any passage of this book*, and sometimes oblivion. A distinguished writer says, “ The to the same sense and purpose with some Prince of Wales had learned to appreciate words in this place: ‘I intended,' saith he, Shakspere, not originally from reading him, 'not only to oblige my friends, but my but from witnessing the court representations enemies.' The like saith Richard, Act 11., of his plays at Whitehall. Afterwards we

Scene 1.know that he made Shakspere his closet

'I do not know that Englishman alive companion, for he was reproached with doing

With whom my soul is any jot at odds, so by Milton.” *

The concluding words are More than the infant that is born to-night; founded upon a mistake of the passage in thank my God for my humility.' Milton. Charles is not reproached with reading Shakspere. The great republican

The great republican Other stuff of this sort may be read throughdoes not condemn the king for having made out the whole tragedy, wherein the poet the dramatic poet the closet companion of used not much licence in departing from the his solitudes; but, speaking of the dramatic truth of history, which delivers him a deep poet as a well-known author with whom the dissembler, not of his affections only but of king was familiar, he cites out of him a religion.” It was a traditionary blunder, passage to show that pious words might be which Warton received and transmitted to found in the mouth of a tyrant. The

his successors, that Milton reproached Charles passage not only proves the familiarity of with reading Shakspere, and thus inferred Charles with Shakspere, but evidences also that Shakspere was no proper closet com-, Milton's familiarity; and, what is of more

panion. The passage has wholly the contrary, importance, the familiarity even of those tendency; and he who thinks otherwise mas stern and ascetic men to whom Milton was

just as well think that the phrase “other peculiarly addressing his opinions. The stuff of this sort” is also used disparagingly. passage of the ‘Iconoclastes’ is as follows: A few years before—that is in 1643– “ Andronicus Comnenus, the Byzantine em

Milton had offered another testimony to peror, though a most cruel tyrant, is reported Shakspere in his “L’Allegro,” then pub

lished :by Nicetas to have been a constant reader of Saint Paul's epistles; and by continual

“ Then to the well-trod stage anon, study had so incorporated the phrase and

If Jonson's learned sock be on, style of that transcendant apostle into all

Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child, his familiar letters, that the imitation seemed

Warble his native wood-notes wild." to vie with the original. Yet this availed Milton was not afraid to publish these lines, not to deceive the people of that empire, even after the suppression of the theatres by! who, notwithstanding his saint's vizard, tore his own political party. That he went along him to pieces for his tyranny. From stories with them in their extreme polemicalopinijos of this nature, both ancient and modern, it is impossible to believe; but he would which abound, the poets also, and some nevertheless be careful not to mention, in English, have been in this point so mindful connexion with the stage, names of any of decorum as to put never more pious words doubtful eminence. He was not ashamed to in the mouth of any person than of a tyrant. say that the learning of Jonson, the nature i I shall not instance an abstruse author, of Shakspere, had for him attractions, though wherein the king might be less conversant, the stage was proscribed. This contrast of but one whom we well know was the closet the distinguishing qualities of the two mea companion of these his solitudes, William is held to be one amongst the many proofs Shakespeare, who introduces the person of of Shakspere's want of learning; as if it was

* Mr.De Quincey's · Life of Shakespeare' in the 'Ency- * Milton here refers to the first section of the Eikos clopaedia Britannica.'

Basilike.'

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

not absolutely essential to the whole spirit | Ben Jonson protect them against whoever
and conception of the passage that the shall think fit to be severe in censure against
learning of Jonson, thus pointed out as his them : the truth is, his tragedies ‘Sejanus'
leading quality, should be contrasted with and ‘Catiline' seem to have in them more of
the higher quality of Shakspere—that quality an artificial and inflate than of a pathetical
which was assigned him as the greatest and naturally tragic height.”
praise by his immediate contemporaries—his Christopher Marlowe, a kind of second
nature. No one can doubt of Milton's affec- Shakespeare (whose contemporary he was),
tion for Shakspere, and of his courage in not only because like him he rose from an
avowing that affection, living as he was in actor to be a maker of plays, though inferior
the heat of party opinion which was hostile both in fame and merit; but also because,
to all such excellence. We have simply in his begun poem of ‘Hero and Leander,
“ Jonson's learned sock;" but the "native he seems to have a resemblance of that clean
wood-notes wild” of Shakspere are associated and unsophisticated wit which is natural to
with the most endearing expressions. He is that incomparable poet.”
“sweetest Shakespear,” he is “Fancy's child.” “ George Chapman, a poetical writer, flou-
In his later years, after a life of contention rishing in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and
and heavy responsibility, Milton still clung King James, in that repute both for his
to his early delights. The "Theatrum Poe- translations of 'Homer' and 'Hesiod,' and
tarum,' which bears the name of his nephew what he wrote of his own proper genius, that
Edward Phillips, is held to have received he is thought not the meanest of English
many touches from Milton's pen*. At any poets of that time, and particularly for his
rate it is natural that it should represent dramatic writings.”
Milton's opinions. It is not alone what is John Fletcher, one of the happy trium-
here said of Shakspere, but of Shakspere in virate (the other two being Jonson and
comparison with the other great dramatic Shakespear) of the chief dramatic poets of
poets of his age, that is important. Take a our nation in the last foregoing age, among
few examples

whom there might be said to be a symmetry
Benjamin Jonson, the most learned, of perfection, while each excelled in his
judicious, and correct, generally so accounted, peculiar way: Ben Jonson, in his elaborate
of our English comedians, and the more to pains and knowledge of authors; Shakespear,
be admired for being so, for that neither the in his pure vein of wit, and natural poesy
height of natural parts, for he was no Shak-height; Fletcher, in a courtly elegance and
spere, nor the cost of extraordinary education, genteel familiarity of style, and withal a wit
for he is reported but a bricklayer's son, but and . invention so overflowing, that the
his own proper industry and addiction to luxuriant branches thereof were frequently
books, advanced him to this perfection : in thought convenient to be lopped off by
three of his comedies, namely, “The Fox,' his almost incomparable companion Francis
* Alchymist,' and 'Silent Woman,' he may Beaumont.”
be compared, in the judgment of learned “ William Shakespear, the glory of the
men, for decorum, language, and well English stage ; whose nativity at Stratford-
humouring of the parts, as well with the upon-Avon is the highest honour that town
chief of the ancient Greek and Latin can boast of: from an actor of tragedies and
comedians as the prime of modern Italians, comedies, he became a maker; and such a
who have been judged the best of Europe maker, that, though some others may perhaps
for a happy vein in comedies ; nor is his pretend to a more exact decorum and
• Bartholomew Fair' much short of them ; economy, especially in tragedy, never any
as for his other comedies, 'Cynthia's Revels,' expressed a more lofty and tragic height,

Poetaster,' and the rest, let the name of never any represented nature more purely to * The Theatrum Poetarum' was published in 1675, the

the life ; and where the polishments of art year after Milton's death.

are most wanting, as probably his learning

[ocr errors]

6

was not extraordinary, he pleaseth with a there are many that have a fame deservedly certain wild and native elegance ; and in all for what they have writ, even in poetry his writings hath an unvulgar style, as weli | itself, who, if they came to the test, I quesin his “Venus and Adonis,' his ‘Rape of tion how well they would endure to hold Lucrece,' and other various poems, as in his open their eagle eyes against the sun : wit, dramatics.”

ingenuity, and learning in verse, eren eleHalf a century had elapsed, when these gancy itself, though that comes nearest, are critical opinions were published, from the one thing, true native poetry is another; in time when Ben Jonson had apostrophized which there is a certain air and spirit, which Shakspere as “soul of the age.” Whatever perhaps the most learned and judicious in qualification we may here find in the praise other arts do not perfectly apprehend, much of Shakspere, it is unquestionable that the less is it attainable by any study or industry; critic sets him above all his contemporaries. nay, though all the laws of heroic poem, Benjamin Jonson was “learned, judicious, all the laws of tragedy were exactly oband correct,” but “he was no Shakspear.” served, yet still this tour entregent, this poetic Marlowe was “a kind of a second Shak- energy, if I may so call it, would be required spear;” and his greatest praise is, that “he to give life to all the rest, which shines seems to have a resemblance of that clean through the roughest, most unpolished and and unsophisticated wit which is natural to antiquated language, and may haply be that incomparable poet." Chapman is “not wanting in the most polite and reformed. the meanest” of his time. Fletcher is “one Let us observe Spenser, with all his rusty of the happy triumvirate, the other two obsolete words, with all his rough-hewa being Jonson and Shakespear;" but the pe- clouterly verses ; yet take him throughout, culiar excellence of each is discriminated in and we shall find in him a graceful and a way which leaves no doubt as to which poetic majesty: in like manner, Shakespear, the critic meant to hold superior. But there in spite of all his unfiled expressions, his are no measured words applied to the cha- rambling and indigested fancies, the laughter racter of Shakspere. He is “the glory of of the critical, yet must be confessed a poet the English stage”—“never any expressed a above many that go beyond him in literature more lofty and tragic height, never any re- some degrees.” Taking the whole passage presented nature more purely to the life.” in connection, and looking also at the school We can understand what a pupil of Milton, of art in which the critic was bred, it is! bred up in his school of severe study and impossible to receive this opinion as regards imitation of the ancients, meant, when he Shakspere in any other light than as one of says, “Where the polishments of art are enthusiastic admiration. It is important to most wanting, as probably his learning was note the period in which this admiration Fas not extraordinary, he pleases with a certain publicly expressed. It was fifteen years wild and native elegance.” Here is no ac- after the Restoration of Charles II, when cusation that the learning was wholly we had a new school of poetry and criticism absent : and that this absence produced the in England ; when the theatres were in a common effects of want of cultivation. Shak- palmy state as far as regarded courtly and spere, “in all his writings, hath an unvulgar public encouragement. The natural assostyle.” In the preface to this valuable little ciation of these opinions with those of Milbook—which preface is a composition elo-ton's youth, has led us to leap over the quent enough to have been written by Milton interval which elapsed between the close of himself-there is a passage which is worthy the Shaksperean drama and the rise of the of special observation in connection with French school. We desired to show the what we have already quoted : “If it were continuity of opinion in Milton, and in Milonce brought to a strict scrutiny, who are ton's disciples, that had prevailed for forty the right, genuine, and true-born poets, I years ; during a large portion of which civil fear me our number would fall short, and war and polemical strife had well nigh

« PreviousContinue »