Algernon Charles Swinburne.

A Study of Shakespeare online

. (page 11 of 17)
Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 11 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

It is true, if that be any little compensation, that Hector and
Andromache fare here hardly better than he: while of the momentary
presentation of Helen on the dirtier boards of a stage more miry than the
tub of Diogenes I would not if I could and I must not though I would say
so much as one single proper word. The hysterics of the eponymous hero
and the harlotries of the eponymous heroine remove both alike beyond the
outer pale of all rational and manly sympathy; though Shakespeare's self
may never have exceeded or equalled for subtle and accurate and bitter
fidelity the study here given of an utterly light woman, shallow and
loose and dissolute in the most literal sense, rather than perverse or
unkindly or unclean; and though Keats alone in his most perfect mood of
lyric passion and burning vision as full of fragrance as of flame could
have matched and all but overmatched those passages in which the rapture
of Troilus makes pale and humble by comparison the keenest raptures of

The relative disfavour in which the play of _Measure for Measure_ has
doubtless been at all times generally held is not in my opinion simply
explicable on the theory which of late years has been so powerfully and
plausibly advanced and advocated on the highest poetic or judicial
authority in France or in the world, that in the land of many-coloured
cant and many-coated hypocrisy the type of Angelo is something too much a
prototype or an autotype of the huge national vice of England. This
comment is in itself as surely just and true as it is incisive and
direct: but it will not cover by any manner of means the whole question.
The strong and radical objection distinctly brought forward against this
play, and strenuously supported by the wisest and the warmest devotee
among all the worshippers of Shakespeare, is not exactly this, that the
Puritan Angelo is exposed: it is that the Puritan Angelo is unpunished.
In the very words of Coleridge, it is that by his pardon and his marriage
"the strong indignant claim of justice" is "baffled." The expression is
absolutely correct and apt: justice is not merely evaded or ignored or
even defied: she is both in the older and the newer sense of the word
directly and deliberately baffled; buffeted, outraged, insulted, struck
in the face. We are left hungry and thirsty after having been made to
thirst and hunger for some wholesome single grain at least of righteous
and too long retarded retribution: we are tricked out of our dole,
defeated of our due, lured and led on to look for some equitable and
satisfying upshot, defrauded and derided and sent empty away.

That this play is in its very inmost essence a tragedy, and that no
sleight of hand or force of hand could give it even a tolerable show of
coherence or consistency when clipped and docked of its proper and
rightful end, the mere tone of style prevalent throughout all its better
parts to the absolute exclusion of any other would of itself most amply
suffice to show. Almost all that is here worthy of Shakespeare at any
time is worthy of Shakespeare at his highest: and of this every touch,
every line, every incident, every syllable, belongs to pure and simple
tragedy. The evasion of a tragic end by the invention and intromission
of Mariana has deserved and received high praise for its ingenuity but
ingenious evasion of a natural and proper end is usually the distinctive
quality which denotes a workman of a very much lower school than the
school of Shakespeare. In short and in fact, the whole elaborate
machinery by which the complete and completely unsatisfactory result of
the whole plot is attained is so thoroughly worthy of such a contriver as
"the old fantastical duke of dark corners" as to be in a moral sense, if
I dare say what I think, very far from thoroughly worthy of the wisest
and mightiest mind that ever was informed with the spirit or genius of
creative poetry.

I have one more note to add in passing which touches simply on a musical
point in lyric verse; and from which I would therefore give any biped who
believes that ears "should be long to measure Shakespeare" all timely
warning to avert the length of his own. A very singular question, and
one to me unaccountable except by a supposition which on charitable
grounds I should be loth to entertain for a moment - namely, that such
ears are commoner than I would fain believe on heads externally or
ostensibly human, - has been raised with regard to the first immortal song
of Mariana in the moated grange. This question is whether the second
verse appended by Fletcher to that divine Shakespearean fragment may not
haply have been written by the author of the first. The visible and
audible evidence that it cannot is of a kind which must at once leap into
sight of all human eyes and conviction of all human ears. The metre of
Shakespeare's verse, as written by Shakespeare, is not the metre of
Fletcher's. It can only seem the same to those who hear by finger and
not by ear: a class now at all events but too evidently numerous enough
to refute Sir Hugh's antiquated objection to the once apparently
tautologous phrase of Pistol. {205}

It is of course inexplicable, but it is equally of course undeniable,
that the mention of Shakespeare's _Pericles_ would seem immediately and
invariably to recall to a virtuous critical public of nice and nasty mind
the prose portions of the fourth act, the whole of the prose portions of
the fourth act, and nothing but the prose portions of the fourth act. To
readers and writers of books who readily admit their ineligibility as
members of a Society for the Suppression of Shakespeare or Rabelais, of
Homer or the Bible, it will seem that the third and fifth acts of this
ill-fated and ill-famed play, and with them the poetical parts of the
fourth act, are composed of metal incomparably more attractive. But the
virtuous critic, after the alleged nature of the vulturine kind, would
appear to have eyes and ears and nose for nothing else. It is true that
somewhat more of humour, touched once and again with subtler hints of
deeper truth, is woven into the too realistic weft of these too lifelike
scenes than into any of the corresponding parts in _Measure for Measure_
or in _Troilus and Cressida_; true also that in the hands of imitators,
in hands so much weaker than Shakespeare's as were Heywood's or
Davenport's (who transplanted this unlovely episode from _Pericles_ into
a play of his own), these very scenes or such as they reappear unredeemed
by any such relief in all the rank and rampant ugliness of their raw
repulsive realism: true, again, that Fletcher has once equalled them in
audacity, while stripping off the nakedness of his subject the last
ragged and rude pretence at a moral purpose, and investing it instead
with his very brightest robe of gay parti-coloured humour: but after all
it remains equally true that to senses less susceptible of attraction by
carrion than belong to the vultures of critical and professional virtue
they must always remain as they have always been, something very
considerably more than unattractive. I at least for one must confess
myself insufficiently virtuous to have ever at any time for any moment
felt towards them the very slightest touch of any feeling more attractive
than repulsion. And herewith I hasten to wash my hands of the only
unattractive matter in the only three of Shakespeare's plays which offer
any such matter to the perceptions of any healthy-minded and reasonable
human creature.

But what now shall I say that may not be too pitifully unworthy of the
glories and the beauties, the unsurpassable pathos and sublimity inwoven
with the imperial texture of this very play? the blood-red Tyrian purple
of tragic maternal jealousy which might seem to array it in a worthy
attire of its Tyrian name; the flower-soft loveliness of maiden
lamentation over the flower-strewn seaside grave of Marina's old
sea-tossed nurse, where I am unvirtuous enough (as virtue goes among
moralists) to feel more at home and better at ease than in the atmosphere
of her later lodging in Mitylene? What, above all, shall be said of that
storm above all storms ever raised in poetry, which ushered into a world
of such wonders and strange chances the daughter of the wave-worn and
world-wandering prince of Tyre? Nothing but this perhaps, that it
stands - or rather let me say that it blows and sounds and shines and
rings and thunders and lightens as far ahead of all others as the
burlesque sea-storm of Rabelais beyond all possible storms of comedy. The
recent compiler of a most admirably skilful and most delicately
invaluable compendium of Pantagruel or manual by way of guidebook to
Rabelais has but too justly taken note of the irrefragable evidence there
given that the one prose humourist who is to Aristophanes as the human
twin-star Castor to Pollux the divine can never have practically
weathered an actual gale; but if I may speak from a single experience of
one which a witness long inured to Indian storm as well as Indian battle
had never seen matched out of the tropics if ever overmatched within
them, I should venture to say, were the poet in question any other mortal
man than Shakespeare, to whom all things were better known by instinct
than ever they can be to others by experience, that the painter of the
storm in _Pericles_ must have shared the adventure and relished the
rapture of such an hour. None other most assuredly than himself alone
could have mingled with the material passion of the elements such human
passion of pathos as thrills in such tenderly sublime undertone of an
agony so nobly subdued through the lament of Pericles over Thaisa. As in
his opening speech of this scene we heard all the clangour and resonance
of warring wind and sea, so now we hear a sound of sacred and spiritual
music as solemn as the central monochord of the inner main itself.

That the three last acts of _Pericles_, with the possible if not over
probable exception of the so-called Chorus, {210} are wholly the work of
Shakespeare in the ripest fullness of his latter genius, is a position
which needs exactly as much proof as does his single-handed authorship of
_Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth_, and _Othello_. In the fifth act is a remarkable
instance of a thing remarkably rare with him; the recast or repetition in
an improved and reinvigorated form of a beautiful image or passage
occurring in a previous play. The now only too famous metaphor of
"patience on a monument smiling at grief" - too famous we might call it
for its own fame - is transfigured as from human beauty to divine, in its
transformation to the comparison of Marina's look with that of "Patience
gazing on kings' graves, and smiling Extremity out of act." A precisely
similar parallel is one to which I have referred elsewhere; that between
the two passages respectively setting forth the reciprocal love of Helena
and Hermia, of Emilia and Flavina. The change of style and spirit in
either case of reiteration is the change from a simpler to a sublimer
form of beauty.

In the two first acts of _Pericles_ there are faint and rare but evident
and positive traces of a passing touch from the hasty hand of
Shakespeare: even here too we may say after Dido: -

Nec tam aversus equos Tyria sol jungit ab urbe.

It has been said that those most unmistakable verses on "the blind mole"
are not such as any man could insert into another man's work, or slip in
between the lines of an inferior poet: and that they occur naturally
enough in a speech of no particular excellence. I take leave decisively
to question the former assertion, and flatly to contradict the latter.
The pathetic and magnificent lines in dispute do not occur naturally
enough, or at all naturally, among the very poor, flat, creeping verses
between which they have been thrust with such over freehanded
recklessness. No purple patch was ever more pitifully out of place.
There is indeed no second example of such wanton and wayward liberality;
but the generally lean and barren style of these opening acts does not
crawl throughout on exactly the same low level.

The last of the only three plays with which I venture to find any fault
on the score of moral taste is the first on my list of the only three
plays belonging to this last period on which, as they now stand, I trace
the indisputable track of another touch than Shakespeare's. But in the
two cases remaining our general task of distinction should on the whole
be simple and easy enough for the veriest babes and sucklings in the
lower school of Shakespeare.

That the two great posthumous fragments we possess of Shakespeare's
uncompleted work are incomplete simply because the labour spent on either
was cut short by his timeless death is the first natural assumption of
any student with an eye quick enough to catch the point where the traces
of his hand break off; but I should now be inclined to guess rather that
on reconsideration of the subjects chosen he had rejected or dismissed
them for a time at least as unfit for dramatic handling. It could have
needed no great expenditure of reasoning or reflection to convince a man
of lesser mind and less experience than Shakespeare's that no subject
could possibly be more unmanageable, more indomitably improper for such a
purpose, than he had selected in _Timon of Athens_. How he came ever to
fall across such a subject, to hit upon such a choice, we can spend no
profitable time or pains in trying to conjecture. It is clear, however,
that at all events there was a season when the inexplicable attraction of
it was too strong for him to resist the singular temptation to embody in
palpable form, to array in dramatic raiment, to invest with imaginative
magnificence, the godless ascetic passion of misanthropy, the martyrdom
of an atheistic Stylites. Timon is doubtless a man of far nobler type
than any monomaniac of the tribe of Macarius: but his immeasurable
superiority in spiritual rank to the hermit fathers of the desert serves
merely to make him a thought madder and a grain more miserable than the
whole Thebaid of Christomaniacs rolled into one. Foolish and fruitless
as it has ever been to hunt through Shakespeare's plays and sonnets on
the false scent of a fantastic trail, to put thaumaturgic trust in a dark
dream of tracking his untraceable personality through labyrinthine byways
of life and visionary crossroads of character, it is yet surely no blind
assumption to accept the plain evidence in both so patent before us, that
he too like other men had his dark seasons of outer or of inner life, and
like other poets found them or made them fruitful as well as bitter,
though it might be but of bitter fruit. And of such there is here enough
to glut the gorge of all the monks in monkery, or strengthen for a forty
days' fast any brutallest unwashed theomaniac of the Thebaid. The most
unconscionably unclean of all foul-minded fanatics might have been
satisfied with the application to all women from his mother upwards of
the monstrous and magnificent obloquy found by Timon as insufficient to
overwhelm as his gold was inadequate to satisfy one insatiable and
indomitable "brace of harlots." In _Troilus and Cressida_ we found too
much that Swift might have written when half inspired by the genius of
Shakespeare; in the great and terrible fourth act of _Timon_ we find such
tragedy as Juvenal might have written when half deified by the spirit of

There is a noticeable difference between the case of _Timon_ and the two
other cases (diverse enough between themselves) of late or mature work
but partially assignable to the hand of Shakespeare. In _Pericles_ we
may know exactly how much was added by Shakespeare to the work of we know
not whom; in _The Two Noble Kinsmen_ we can tell sometimes to a hair's
breadth in a hemistich by whom how much was added to the posthumous text
of Shakespeare; in _Timon_ we cannot assert with the same confidence in
the same accuracy that just so many scenes and no more, just so many
speeches and none other, were the work of Shakespeare's or of some other
hand. Throughout the first act his presence lightens on us by flashes,
as his voice peals out by fits, from behind or above the too meanly
decorated altar of tragic or satiric song: in the second it is more
sensibly continuous; in the third it is all but utterly eclipsed; in the
fourth it is but very rarely intercepted for a very brief interval in the
dark divine service of a darker Commination Day: in the fifth it
predominates generally over the sullen and brooding atmosphere with the
fierce imperious glare of a "bloody sun" like that which the wasting
shipmen watched at noon "in a hot and copper sky." There is here no more
to say of a poem inspired at once by the triune Furies of Ezekiel, of
Juvenal, and of Dante.

I can imagine no reason but that already suggested why Shakespeare should
in a double sense have taken Chaucer for his model or example in leaving
half told a story which he had borrowed from the father and master of our
narrative poetry. Among all competent scholars and all rational students
of Shakespeare there can have been, except possibly with regard to three
of the shorter scenes, no room for doubt or perplexity on any detail of
the subject since the perfect summary and the masterly decision of Mr.
Dyce. These three scenes, as no such reader will need to be told or
reminded, are the two first soliloquies of the Gaoler's Daughter after
the release of Palamon, and the scene of the portraits, as we may in a
double sense call it, in which Emilia, after weighing against each other
in solitude the likenesses of the cousins, receives from her own kinsfolk
a full and laboured description of their leading champions on either
side. Even setting apart for once and for a moment the sovereign
evidence of mere style, we must recognise in this last instance a
beautiful and significant example of that loyal and loving fidelity to
the minor passing suggestions of Chaucer's text which on all possible
occasions of such comparison so markedly and vividly distinguishes the
work of Shakespeare's from the work of Fletcher's hand. Of the pestilent
abuse and perversion to which Fletcher has put the perhaps already
superfluous hints or sketches by Shakespeare for an episodical underplot,
in his transmutation of Palamon's love-stricken and luckless deliverer
into the disgusting burlesque of a mock Ophelia, I have happily no need
as I should certainly have no patience to speak. {217}

After the always immitigable gloom of _Timon_ and the sometimes
malodorous exhalations of the three preceding plays, it is nothing less
than "very heaven" to find and feel ourselves again in the midmost
Paradise, the central Eden, of Shakespeare's divine discovery - of his
last sweet living invention. Here again is air as pure blowing over
fields as fragrant as where Dante saw Matilda or Milton saw Proserpine
gathering each as deathless flowers. We still have here to disentwine or
disentangle his own from the weeds of glorious and of other than glorious
feature with which Fletcher has thought fit to interweave them; even in
the close of the last scene of all we can say to a line, to a letter,
where Shakespeare ends and Fletcher begins. That scene is opened by
Shakespeare in his most majestic vein of meditative or moral verse,
pointed and coloured as usual with him alone by direct and absolute
aptitude to the immediate sentiment and situation of the speaker and of
no man else: then either Fletcher strikes in for a moment with a touch of
somewhat more Shakespearean tone than usual, or possibly we have a
survival of some lines' length, not unretouched by Fletcher, from
Shakespeare's first sketch for a conclusion of the somewhat calamitous
and cumbrous underplot, which in any case was ultimately left for
Fletcher to expand into such a shape and bring by such means to such an
end as we may safely swear that Shakespeare would never have admitted:
then with the entrance and ensuing narrative of Pirithous we have none
but Shakespeare before us again, though it be Shakespeare undoubtedly in
the rough, and not as he might have chosen to present himself after due
revision, with rejection (we may well suppose) of this point and
readjustment of that: then upon the arrival of the dying Arcite with his
escort there follows a grievous little gap, a flaw but pitifully patched
by Fletcher, whom we recognise at wellnigh his worst and weakest in
Palamon's appeal to his kinsman for a last word, "if his heart, _his
worthy, manly heart_" (an exact and typical example of Fletcher's
tragically prosaic and prosaically tragic dash of incurable commonplace),
"be yet unbroken," and in the flaccid and futile answer which fails so
signally to supply the place of the most famous and pathetic passage in
all the masterpiece of Chaucer; a passage to which even Shakespeare could
have added but some depth and grandeur of his own giving, since neither
he nor Dante's very self nor any other among the divinest of men could
have done more or better than match it for tender and pure simplicity of
words more "dearly sweet and bitter" than the bitterest or the sweetest
of men's tears. Then, after the duly and properly conventional
engagement on the parts of Palamon and Emilia respectively to devote the
anniversary "to tears" and "to honour," the deeper note returns for one
grand last time, grave at once and sudden and sweet as the full choral
opening of an anthem: the note which none could ever catch of
Shakespeare's very voice gives out the peculiar cadence that it alone can
give in the modulated instinct of a solemn change or shifting of the
metrical emphasis or _ictus_ from one to the other of two repeated
words: -

That nought could buy
Dear love; but loss of dear love!

That is a touch beyond the ear or the hand of Fletcher: a chord sounded
from Apollo's own harp after a somewhat hoarse and reedy wheeze from the
scrannel-pipe of a lesser player than Pan. Last of all, in words worthy
to be the latest left of Shakespeare's, his great and gentle Theseus
winds up the heavenly harmonies of his last beloved great poem.

And now, coming at length within the very circle of Shakespeare's
culminant and crowning constellation, bathing my whole soul and spirit
for the last and (if I live long enough) as surely for the first of many
thousand times in the splendours of the planet whose glory is the light
of his very love itself, standing even as Dante

in the clear
Amorous silence of the Swooning-sphere,

what shall I say of thanksgiving before the final feast of Shakespeare?

The grace must surely be short enough if it would at all be gracious.
Even were Shakespeare's self alive again, or he now but fifteen years
since gone home to Shakespeare, {220} of whom Charles Lamb said well that
none could have written his book about Shakespeare but either himself
alone or else he of whom the book was written, yet could we not hope that
either would have any new thing to tell us of the _Tempest_, the
_Winter's Tale_, and _Cymbeline_. And for ourselves, what else could we
do but only ring changes on the word beautiful as Celia on the word
wonderful in her laughing litany of love? or what better or what more can
we do than in the deepest and most heartfelt sense of an old conventional
phrase, thank God and Shakespeare? for how to praise either for such a
gift of gifts we know not, knowing only and surely that none will know
for ever.

True or false, and it would now seem something less than likely to be
true, the fancy which assumed the last lines spoken by Prospero to be
likewise the last words of the last completed work of Shakespeare was
equally in either case at once natural and graceful. There is but one
figure sweeter than Miranda's and sublimer than Prospero's in all the
range of heaven on which the passion of our eyes could rest at parting.
And from one point of view there is even a more heavenly quality
perceptible in the light of this than of its two twin stars. In no nook
or corner of the island as we leave it is any savour left or any memory
lingering of any inexpiable evil. Alonzo is absolved; even Antonio and
Sebastian have made no such ineffaceable mark on it by the presence of
their pardoned crimes as is made by those which cost the life of
Mamillius and the labours of Imogen. Poor Caliban is left in such
comfort as may be allowed him by divine grace in the favourable aspect of
Setebos; and his comrades go by us "reeling ripe" and "gilded" not by
"grand liquor" only but also by the summer lightning of men's laughter:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 11 of 17)