Algernon Charles Swinburne.

A Study of Shakespeare online

. (page 12 of 17)
Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 12 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

blown softly out of our sight, with a sound and a gust of music, by the
breath of the song of Ariel.

The wild wind of the _Winter's Tale_ at its opening would seem to blow us
back into a wintrier world indeed. And to the very end I must confess
that I have in me so much of the spirit of Rachel weeping in Ramah as
will not be comforted because Mamillius is not. It is well for those
whose hearts are light enough, to take perfect comfort even in the
substitution of his sister Perdita for the boy who died of "thoughts high
for one so tender." Even the beautiful suggestion that Shakespeare as he
wrote had in mind his own dead little son still fresh and living at his
heart can hardly add more than a touch of additional tenderness to our
perfect and piteous delight in him. And even in her daughter's embrace
it seems hard if his mother should have utterly forgotten the little
voice that had only time to tell her just eight words of that ghost story
which neither she nor we were ever to hear ended. Any one but
Shakespeare would have sought to make pathetic profit out of the child by
the easy means of showing him if but once again as changed and stricken
to the death for want of his mother and fear for her and hunger and
thirst at his little high heart for the sight and touch of her:
Shakespeare only could find a better way, a subtler and a deeper chord to
strike, by giving us our last glimpse of him as he laughed and chattered
with her "past enduring," to the shameful neglect of those ladies in the
natural blueness of whose eyebrows as well as their noses he so stoutly
declined to believe. And at the very end (as aforesaid) it may be that
we remember him all the better because the father whose jealousy killed
him and the mother for love of whom he died would seem to have forgotten
the little brave sweet spirit with all its truth of love and tender sense
of shame as perfectly and unpardonably as Shakespeare himself at the
close of _King Lear_ would seem to have forgotten one who never had
forgotten Cordelia.

But yet - and here for once the phrase abhorred by Cleopatra does not
"allay the good" but only the bad "precedence" - if ever amends could be
made for such unnatural show of seeming forgetfulness ("out on the
seeming! I will write against it" - or would, had I not written enough
already), the poet most assuredly has made such amends here. At the
sunrise of Perdita beside Florizel it seems as if the snows of sixteen
winters had melted all together into the splendour of one unutterable
spring. They "smell April and May" in a sweeter sense than it could be
said of "young Master Fenton": "nay, which is more," as his friend and
champion Mistress Quickly might have added to mine host's commendatory
remark, they speak all April and May; because April is in him as
naturally as May in her, by just so many years' difference before the
Mayday of her birth as went to make up her dead brother's little lot of
living breath, which in Beaumont's most lovely and Shakespeare-worthy
phrase "was not a life; was but a piece of childhood thrown away." Nor
can I be content to find no word of old affection for Autolycus, who
lived, as we may not doubt, though but a hint or promise be vouchsafed us
for all assurance that he lived by favour of his "good masters" once more
to serve Prince Florizel and wear three-pile for as much of his time as
it might please him to put on "robes" like theirs that were "gentlemen
born," and had "been so any time these four hours." And yet another and
a graver word must be given with all reverence to the "grave and good
Paulina," whose glorious fire of godlike indignation was as warmth and
cordial to the innermost heart while yet bruised and wrung for the yet
fresh loss of Mamillius.

The time is wellnigh come now for me to consecrate in this book my good
will if not good work to the threefold and thrice happy memory of the
three who have written of Shakespeare as never man wrote, nor ever man
may write again; to the everlasting praise and honour and glory of
Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Walter Savage Landor;
"wishing," I hardly dare to say, "what I write may be read by their
light." The play of plays, which is _Cymbeline_, remains alone to
receive the last salute of all my love.

I think, as far as I can tell, I may say I have always loved this one
beyond all other children of Shakespeare. The too literal egoism of this
profession will not be attributed by any candid or even commonly honest
reader to the violence of vanity so much more than comical as to make me
suppose that such a record or assurance could in itself be matter of
interest to any man: but simply to the real and simple reason, that I
wish to show cause for my choice of this work to wind up with, beyond the
mere chance of its position at the close of the chaotically inconsequent
catalogue of contents affixed to the first edition. In this casualty - for
no good thing can reasonably be ascribed to design on the part of the
first editors - there would seem to be something more than usual of what
we may call, if it so please us, a happy providence. It is certain that
no studious arrangement could possibly have brought the book to a happier
end. Here is depth enough with height enough of tragic beauty and
passion, terror and love and pity, to approve the presence of the most
tragic Master's hand; subtlety enough of sweet and bitter truth to attest
the passage of the mightiest and wisest scholar or teacher in the school
of the human spirit; beauty with delight enough and glory of life and
grace of nature to proclaim the advent of the one omnipotent Maker among
all who bear that name. Here above all is the most heavenly triad of
human figures that ever even Shakespeare brought together; a diviner
three, as it were a living god-garland of the noblest earth-born brothers
and loveworthiest heaven-born sister, than the very givers of all grace
and happiness to their Grecian worshippers of old time over long before.
The passion of Posthumus is noble, and potent the poison of Iachimo;
Cymbeline has enough for Shakespeare's present purpose of "the
king-becoming graces"; but we think first and last of her who was "truest
speaker" and those who "called her brother, when she was but their
sister; she them brothers, when they were so indeed." The very crown and
flower of all her father's daughters, - I do not speak here of her human
father, but her divine - the woman above all Shakespeare's women is
Imogen. As in Cleopatra we found the incarnate sex, the woman
everlasting, so in Imogen we find half glorified already the immortal
godhead of womanhood. I would fain have some honey in my words at
parting - with Shakespeare never, but for ever with these notes on
Shakespeare; and I am therefore something more than fain to close my book
upon the name of the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all
the tide of time; upon the name of Shakespeare's Imogen.



The epitaph of German criticism on Shakespeare was long since written by
the unconscious hand which penned the following sentence; an inscription
worthy of perpetual record on the registers of Gotham or in the daybook
of the yet unstranded Ship of Fools.

"_Thomas Lord Cromwell: - Sir John Oldcastle: - A Yorkshire Tragedy_. - The
three last pieces are not only unquestionably Shakespeare's, but in my
opinion they deserve to be classed among his best and maturest works."

This memorable opinion is the verdict of the modest and judicious Herr
von Schlegel: who had likewise in his day the condescension to inform our
ignorance of the melancholy fact so strangely overlooked by the
contemporaries of Christopher Marlowe, that "his verses are flowing, but
without energy." Strange, but true; too strange, we may reasonably
infer, not to be true. Only to German eyes has the treasure-house of
English poetry ever disclosed a secret of this kind: to German ears alone
has such discord or default been ever perceptible in its harmonies.

Now the facts with regard to this triad of plays are briefly these.
_Thomas Lord Cromwell_ is a piece of such utterly shapeless, spiritless,
bodiless, soulless, senseless, helpless, worthless rubbish, that there is
no known writer of Shakespeare's age to whom it could be ascribed without
the infliction of an unwarrantable insult on that writer's memory. _Sir
John Oldcastle_ is the compound piecework of four minor playwrights, one
of them afterwards and otherwise eminent as a poet - Munday, Drayton,
Wilson, and Hathaway: a thin sample of poetic patchery cobbled up and
stitched together so as to serve its hour for a season without falling to
pieces at the first touch. The _Yorkshire Tragedy_ is a coarse, crude,
and vigorous impromptu, in which we possibly might almost think it
possible that Shakespeare had a hand (or at least a finger), if we had
any reason to suppose that during the last ten or twelve years of his
life {232} he was likely to have taken part in any such dramatic

The example and the exposure of Schlegel's misadventures in this line
have not sufficed to warn off minor blunderers from treading with emulous
confidence "through forthrights and meanders" in the very muddiest of
their precursor's traces. We may notice, for one example, the revival - or
at least the discussion as of something worth serious notice - of a
wellnigh still-born theory, first dropped in a modest corner of the
critical world exactly a hundred and seventeen years ago. Its parent,
notwithstanding this perhaps venial indiscretion, was apparently an
honest and modest gentleman; and the play itself, which this ingenuous
theorist was fain, with all diffidence, to try whether haply he might be
permitted to foist on the apocryphal fatherhood of Shakespeare, is not
without such minor merits as may excuse us for wasting a few minutes on
examination of the theory which seeks to confer on it the factitious and
artificial attraction of a spurious and adventitious interest.

"The Raigne of King Edward the third: As it hath bin sundrie times plaied
about the Citie of London," was published in 1596, and ran through two or
three anonymous editions before the date of the generation was out which
first produced it. Having thus run to the end of its natural tether, it
fell as naturally into the oblivion which has devoured, and has not again
disgorged, so many a more precious production of its period. In 1760 it
was reprinted in the "Prolusions" of Edward Capell, whose text is now
before me. This editor was the first mortal to suggest that his newly
unearthed treasure might possibly be a windfall from the topless tree of
Shakespeare. Being, as I have said, a duly modest and an evidently
honest man, he admits "with candour" that there is no jot or tittle of
"external evidence" whatsoever to be alleged in support of this
gratuitous attribution: but he submits, with some fair show of reason,
that there is a certain "resemblance between the style of" Shakespeare's
"earlier performances and of the work in question"; and without the
slightest show of any reason whatever he appends to this humble and
plausible plea the unspeakably unhappy assertion that at the time of its
appearance "there was no known writer equal to such a play"; whereas at a
moderate computation there were, I should say, on the authority of
Henslowe's Diary, at least a dozen - and not improbably a score. In any
case there was one then newly dead, too long before his time, whose
memory stands even higher above the possible ascription of such a work
than that of the adolescent Shakespeare's very self.

Of one point we may be sure, even where so much is unsure as we find it
here: in the curt atheological phrase of the Persian Lucretius, "one
thing is certain, and the rest is lies." The author of _King Edward
III_. was a devout student and a humble follower of Christopher Marlowe,
not yet wholly disengaged by that august and beneficent influence from
all attraction towards the "jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits"; and
fitter on the whole to follow this easier and earlier vein of writing,
half lyrical in manner and half elegiac, than to brace upon his punier
limbs the young giant's newly fashioned buskin of blank verse. The signs
of this growing struggle, the traces of this incomplete emancipation, are
perceptible throughout in the alternate prevalence of two conflicting and
irreconcilable styles; which yet affords no evidence or suggestion of a
double authorship. For the intelligence which moulds and informs the
whole work, the spirit which pervades and imbues the general design, is
of a piece, so to speak, throughout; a point imperceptible to the eye, a
touchstone intangible by the finger, alike of a scholiast and a dunce.

Another test, no less unmistakable by the student and no less
indiscernible to the sciolist, is this: that whatever may be the demerits
of this play, they are due to no voluntary or involuntary carelessness or
haste. Here is not the swift impatient journeywork of a rough and ready
hand; here is no sign of such compulsory hurry in the discharge of a task
something less than welcome, if not of an imposition something less than
tolerable, as we may rationally believe ourselves able to trace in great
part of Marlowe's work: in the latter half of _The Jew of Malta_, in the
burlesque interludes of _Doctor Faustus_, and wellnigh throughout the
whole scheme and course of _The Massacre at Paris_. Whatever in _King
Edward III_. is mediocre or worse is evidently such as it is through no
passionate or slovenly precipitation of handiwork, but through pure
incompetence to do better. The blame of the failure, the shame of the
shortcoming, cannot be laid to the account of any momentary excess or
default in emotion, of passing exhaustion or excitement, of intermittent
impulse and reaction; it is an indication of lifelong and irremediable
impotence. And it is further to be noted that by far the least
unsuccessful parts of the play are also by far the most unimportant. The
capacity of the author seems to shrink and swell alternately, to erect
its plumes and deject them, to contract and to dilate the range and orbit
of its flight in a steadily inverse degree to the proportionate interest
of the subject or worth of the topic in hand. There could be no surer
proof that it is neither the early nor the hasty work of a great or even
a remarkable poet. It is the best that could be done at any time by a
conscientious and studious workman of technically insufficient culture
and of naturally limited means.

I would not, however, be supposed to undervalue the genuine and graceful
ability of execution displayed by the author at his best. He could write
at times very much after the earliest fashion of the adolescent
Shakespeare; in other words, after the fashion of the day or hour, to
which in some degree the greatest writer of that hour or that day cannot
choose but conform at starting, and the smallest writer must needs
conform for ever. By the rule which would attribute to Shakespeare every
line written in his first manner which appeared during the first years of
his poetic progress, it is hard to say what amount of bad verse or
better, current during the rise and the reign of their several
influences, - for this kind of echo or of copywork, consciously or
unconsciously repercussive and reflective, begins with the very first
audible sound of a man's voice in song, with the very first noticeable
stroke of his hand in painting - it is hard to say what amount of
tolerable or intolerable work might not or may not be assignable by
scholiasts of the future to Byron or to Shelley, to Mr. Tennyson or to
Mr. Browning. A time by this rule might come - but I am fain to think
better of the Fates - when by comparison of detached words and collation
of dismembered phrases the memory of Mr. Tennyson would be weighted and
degraded by the ascription of whole volumes of pilfered and diluted verse
now current - if not yet submerged - under the name or the pseudonym of the
present {237} Viceroy - or Vice-empress is it? - of India. But the obvious
truth is this: the voice of Shakespeare's adolescence had as usual an
echo in it of other men's notes: I can remember the name of but one poet
whose voice from the beginning had none; who started with a style of his
own, though he may have chosen to annex - "annex the wise it call";
_convey_ is obsolete - to annex whole phrases or whole verses at need, for
the use or the ease of an idle minute; and this name of course is
Marlowe's. So starting, Shakespeare had yet (like all other and lesser
poets born) some perceptible notes in his yet half boyish voice that were
not borrowed; and these were at once caught up and re-echoed by such
fellow-pupils with Shakespeare of the young Master of them all - such
humbler and feebler disciples, or simpler sheep (shall we call them?) of
the great "dead shepherd" - as the now indistinguishable author of _King
Edward III_.

In the first scene of the first act the impotent imitation of Marlowe is
pitifully patent. Possibly there may also be an imitation of the still
imitative style of Shakespeare, and the style may be more accurately
definable as a copy of a copy - a study after the manner of Marlowe, not
at second hand, but at third. In any case, being obviously too flat and
feeble to show a touch of either godlike hand, this scene may be set
aside at once to make way for the second.

The second scene is more animated, but low in style till we come to the
outbreak of rhyme. In other words, the energetic or active part is at
best passable - fluent and decent commonplace: but where the style turns
undramatic and runs into mere elegiacs, a likeness becomes perceptible to
the first elegiac style of Shakespeare. Witness these lines spoken by
the King in contemplation of the Countess of Salisbury's beauty, while
yet struggling against the nascent motions of a base love: -

Now in the sun alone it doth not lie
With light to take light from a mortal eye:
For here two day-stars that mine eyes would see
More than the sun steal mine own light from me.
Contemplative desire! desire to be
In contemplation that may master thee!

_Decipit exemplar vitiis imitabile_: if Shakespeare ever saw or heard
these pretty lines, he should have felt the unconscious rebuke implied in
such close and facile imitation of his own early elegiacs. As a serious
mimicry of his first manner, a critical parody summing up in little space
the sweet faults of his poetic nonage, with its barren overgrowth of
unprofitable flowers, - bright point, soft metaphor, and sweet elaborate
antithesis - this is as good of its kind as anything between Aristophanes
and Horace Smith. Indeed, it may remind us of that parody on the soft,
superfluous, flowery and frothy style of Agathon, which at the opening of
the _Thesmophoriazusae_ cannot but make the youngest and most ignorant
reader laugh, though the oldest and most learned has never set eyes on a
line of the original verses which supplied the incarnate god of comic
song with matter for such exquisite burlesque.

To the speech above cited the reply of the Countess is even gracefuller,
and closer to the same general model of fanciful elegiac dialogue: -

Let not thy presence, like the April sun,
Flatter our earth, and suddenly be done:
More happy do not make our outward wall
Than thou wilt grace our inward house withal.
Our house, my liege, is like a country swain,
Whose habit rude, and manners blunt and plain.
Presageth naught; yet inly beautified
With bounty's riches, and fair hidden pride;
For where the golden ore doth buried lie,
The ground, undecked with nature's tapestry,
Seems barren, sere, unfertile, fruitless, dry;
And where the upper turf of earth doth boast
His pride, perfumes, {239} and particoloured cost,
Delve there, and find this issue and their pride
To spring from ordure and corruption's side.
But, to make up my all too long compare,
These ragged walls no testimony are
What is within; but, like a cloak, doth hide
From weather's waste the under garnished pride.
More gracious than my terms can let thee be,
Entreat thyself to stay awhile with me.

Not only the exquisite grace of this charming last couplet, but the
smooth sound strength, the fluency and clarity of the whole passage, may
serve to show that the original suggestion of Capell, if (as I think)
untenable, was not (we must admit) unpardonable. The very oversight
perceptible to any eye and painful to any ear not sealed up by stepdame
nature from all perception of pleasure or of pain derivable from good
verse or bad - the reckless reiteration of the same rhyme with but one
poor couplet intervening - suggests rather the oversight of an unfledged
poet than the obtuseness of a full-grown poeticule or poetaster.

But of how many among the servile or semi-servile throng of imitators in
every generation may not as much as this be said by tolerant or kindly
judges! Among the herd of such diminutives as swarm after the heel or
fawn upon the hand of Mr. Tennyson, more than one, more than two or
three, have come as close as his poor little viceregal or vice-imperial
parasite to the very touch and action of the master's hand which feeds
them unawares from his platter as they fawn; as close as this nameless
and short-winded satellite to the gesture and the stroke of
Shakespeare's. For this also must be noted; that the resemblance here is
but of stray words, of single lines, of separable passages. The whole
tone of the text, the whole build of the play, the whole scheme of the
poem, is far enough from any such resemblance. The structure, the
composition, is feeble, incongruous, inadequate, effete. Any student
will remark at a first glance what a short-breathed runner, what a broken-
winded athlete in the lists of tragic verse, is the indiscoverable author
of this play.

There is another point which the Neo-Shakespearean synagogue will by no
man be expected to appreciate; for to apprehend it requires some
knowledge and some understanding of the poetry of the Shakespearean
age - so surely we now should call it, rather than Elizabethan or
Jacobean, for the sake of verbal convenience, if not for the sake of
literary decency; and such knowledge or understanding no sane man will
expect to find in any such quarter. Even in the broad coarse comedy of
the period we find here and there the same sweet and simple echoes of the
very cradle-song (so to call it) of our drama: so like Shakespeare, they
might say who knew nothing of Shakespeare's fellows, that we cannot
choose but recognise his hand. Here as always first in the field - the
genuine and golden harvest-field of Shakespearean criticism, Charles Lamb
has cited a passage from _Green's Tu Quoque_ - a comedy miserably
misreprinted in Dodsley's Old Plays - on which he observes that "this is
so like Shakespeare, that we seem to remember it," being as it is a
girl's gentle lamentation over the selfish, exacting, suspicious and
trustless love of man, as contrasted with the swift simple surrender of a
woman's love at the first heartfelt appeal to her pity - "we seem to
remember it," says Lamb, as a speech of Desdemona uttered on a first
perception or suspicion of jealousy or alienation in Othello. This
lovely passage, if I dare say so in contravention to the authority of
Lamb, is indeed as like the manner of Shakespeare as it can be - to eyes
ignorant of what his fellows can do; but it is not like the manner of the
Shakespeare who wrote _Othello_. This, however, is beside the question.
It is very like the Shakespeare who wrote the _Comedy of Errors - Love's
Labour's Lost - Romeo and Juliet_. It is so like that had we fallen upon
it in any of these plays it would long since have been a household word
in all men's mouths for sweetness, truth, simplicity, perfect and
instinctive accuracy of touch. It is very much liker the first manner of
Shakespeare than any passage in _King Edward III_. And no Sham
Shakespearean critic that I know of has yet assigned to the hapless
object of his howling homage the authorship of _Green's Tu Quoque_.

Returning to our text, we find in the short speech of the King with which
the first act is wound up yet another couplet which has the very ring in
it of Shakespeare's early notes - the catch at words rather than play on
words which his tripping tongue in youth could never resist:

Countess, albeit my business urgeth me,

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 12 of 17)