Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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to the invigoration of sense and metre by substitution of the right word
for the wrong, of a fuller phrase for one feebler; to the excision of
such archaic and superfluous repetitions as are signs of a cruder stage
of workmanship, relics of a ruder period of style, survivals of the
earliest form or habit of dramatic poetry. Such work as this, however
humble in our present eyes, which look before and after, would assuredly
have been worthy of the workman and his task; an office no less fruitful
of profit, and no more unbeseeming the pupil hand of the future master,
than the subordinate handiwork of the young Raffaelle or Leonardo on the
canvas of Verrocchio or Perugino.

Of the doubtful or spurious plays which have been with more or less show
of reason ascribed to this first period of Shakespeare's art, I have here
no more to say than that I purpose in the proper place to take account of
the only two among them which bear the slightest trace of any possible
touch of his hand. For these two there is not, as it happens, the least
witness of tradition or outward likelihood which might warrant us in
assigning them a place apart from the rest, and nearer the chance of
reception into the rank that has been claimed for them; while those plays
in whose favour there is some apparent evidence from without, such as the
fact of early or even original attribution to the master's hand, are,
with one possible exception, utterly beyond the pale of human
consideration as at any stage whatever the conceivable work of
Shakespeare.

Considering that his two attempts at narrative or rather semi-narrative
and semi-reflective poetry belong obviously to an early stage of his
earliest period, we may rather here than elsewhere take notice that there
are some curious points of coincidence for evil as for good between the
fortunes of Shakespeare's plays and the fortunes of his poems. In either
case we find that some part at least of his earlier and inferior work has
fared better at the blind hands of chance and the brutish hands of
printers than some part at least of his riper and more precious products.
His two early poems would seem to have had the good hap of his personal
supervision in their passage through the press. Upon them, at least
since the time of Coleridge, who as usual has said on this subject the
first and the last word that need be said, it seems to me that fully
sufficient notice and fully adequate examination have been expended; and
that nothing at once new and true can now be profitably said in praise or
in dispraise of them. Of _A Lover's Complaint_, marked as it is
throughout with every possible sign suggestive of a far later date and a
far different inspiration, I have only space or need to remark that it
contains two of the most exquisitely Shakespearean verses ever vouchsafed
to us by Shakespeare, and two of the most execrably euphuistic or
dysphuistic lines ever inflicted on us by man. Upon the Sonnets such a
preposterous pyramid of presumptuous commentary has long since been
reared by the Cimmerian speculation and Boeotian "brain-sweat" of
sciolists and scholiasts, that no modest man will hope and no wise man
will desire to add to the structure or subtract from it one single brick
of proof or disproof, theorem or theory. As yet the one contemporary
book which has ever been supposed to throw any direct or indirect light
on the mystic matter remains as inaccessible and unhelpful to students as
though it had never been published fifteen years earlier than the date of
their publication and four years before the book in which Meres notices
the circulation of Shakespeare's "sugared sonnets among his private
friends." It would be a most noble and thankworthy addition to a list of
labours beyond praise and benefits beyond price, if my honoured friend
Dr. Grosart could find the means to put a crown upon the achievements of
his learning and a seal upon the obligations of our gratitude by the one
inestimable boon long hoped for against hoping, and as yet but "a vision
in a dream" to the most learned and most loving of true Shakespearean
students; by the issue or reissue in its full and perfect likeness,
collated at last and complete, of _Willobie his Avisa_. {63}

It was long since more than time that the worthless and impudent
imposture called _The Passionate Pilgrim_ should be exposed and expelled
from its station at the far end of Shakespeare's poems. What Coleridge
said of Ben Jonson's epithet for "turtle-footed peace," we may say of the
label affixed to this rag-picker's bag of stolen goods: _The Passionate
Pilgrim_ is a pretty title, a very pretty title; pray what may it mean?
In all the larcenous little bundle of verse there is neither a poem which
bears that name nor a poem by which that name would be bearable. The
publisher of the booklet was like "one Ragozine, a most notorious
pirate"; and the method no less than the motive of his rascality in the
present instance is palpable and simple enough. Fired by the immediate
and instantly proverbial popularity of Shakespeare's _Venus and Adonis_,
he hired, we may suppose, some ready hack of unclean hand to supply him
with three doggrel sonnets on the same subject, noticeable only for their
porcine quality of prurience: he procured by some means a rough copy or
an incorrect transcript of two genuine and unpublished sonnets by
Shakespeare, which with the acute instinct of a felonious tradesman he
laid atop of his worthless wares by way of gilding to their base metal:
he stole from the two years published text of _Love's Labour's Lost_, and
reproduced with more or less mutilation or corruption, the sonnet of
Longavile, the "canzonet" of Biron, and the far lovelier love-song of
Dumaine. The rest of the ragman's gatherings, with three most notable
exceptions, is little better for the most part than dry rubbish or
disgusting refuse; unless a plea may haply be put in for the pretty
commonplaces of the lines on a "sweet rose, fair flower," and so forth;
for the couple of thin and pallid if tender and tolerable copies of verse
on "Beauty" and "Good Night," or the passably light and lively stray of
song on "crabbed age and youth." I need not say that those three
exceptions are the stolen and garbled work of Marlowe and of Barnfield,
our elder Shelley and our first-born Keats; the singer of Cynthia in
verse well worthy of Endymion, who would seem to have died as a poet in
the same fatal year of his age that Keats died as a man; the first
adequate English laureate of the nightingale, to be supplanted or
equalled by none until the advent of his mightier brother.



II.


The second period is that of perfection in comic and historic style. The
final heights and depths of tragedy, with all its reach of thought and
all its pulse of passion, are yet to be scaled and sounded; but to this
stage belongs the special quality of faultless, joyous, facile command
upon each faculty required of the presiding genius for service or for
sport. It is in the middle period of his work that the language of
Shakespeare is most limpid in its fullness, the style most pure, the
thought most transparent through the close and luminous raiment of
perfect expression. The conceits and crudities of the first stage are
outgrown and cast aside; the harshness and obscurity which at times may
strike us as among the notes of his third manner have as yet no place in
the flawless work of this second stage. That which has to be said is not
yet too great for perfection of utterance; passion has not yet grappled
with thought in so close and fierce an embrace as to strain and rend the
garment of words, though stronger and subtler than ever was woven of
human speech. Neither in his first nor in his last stage would the style
of Shakespeare, even were it possible by study to reproduce it, be of
itself a perfect and blameless model; but his middle style, that in which
the typical plays of his second period are written, would be, if it were
possible to imitate, the most absolute pattern that could be set before
man. I do not speak of mere copyist's work, the parasitic knack of
retailing cast phrases, tricks and turns of accent, cadences and
catchwords proper only to the natural manner of the man who first came by
instinct upon them, and by instinct put them to use; I speak of that
faithful and fruitful discipleship of love with which the highest among
poets and the most original among workmen have naturally been always the
first to study and the most earnest to follow the footsteps of their
greatest precursors in that kind. And this only high and profitable form
of study and discipleship can set before itself, even in the work of
Shakespeare, no pattern so perfect, no model so absolute, as is afforded
by the style or manner of his second period.

To this stage belong by spiritual right if not by material, by rule of
poetic order if not by date of actual succession, the greatest of his
English histories and four of his greatest and most perfect comedies; the
four greatest we might properly call them, reserving for another class
the last divine triad of romantic plays which it is alike inaccurate to
number among tragedies or comedies proper: the _Winter's Tale_,
_Cymbeline_, and the _Tempest_, which belong of course wholly to his last
manner, or, if accuracy must be strained even to pedantry, to the second
manner of his third or final stage. A single masterpiece which may be
classed either among histories or tragedies belongs to the middle period;
and to this also we must refer, if not the ultimate form, yet assuredly
the first sketch at least of that which is commonly regarded as the
typical and supreme work of Shakespeare. Three lesser comedies, one of
them in great part the recast or rather the transfiguration of an earlier
poet's work, complete the list of plays assignable to the second epoch of
his genius.

The ripest fruit of historic or national drama, the consummation and the
crown of Shakespeare's labours in that line, must of course be recognised
and saluted by all students in the supreme and sovereign trilogy of King
Henry IV. and King Henry V. On a lower degree only than this final and
imperial work we find the two chronicle histories which remain to be
classed. In style as in structure they bear witness of a power less
perfect, a less impeccable hand. They have less of perceptible instinct,
less of vivid and vigorous utterance; the breath of their inspiration is
less continuous and less direct, the fashion of their eloquence is more
deliberate and more prepense; there is more of study and structure
apparent in their speech, and less in their general scheme of action. Of
all Shakespeare's plays they are the most rhetorical; there is more talk
than song in them, less poetry than oratory; more finish than form, less
movement than incident. Scene is laid upon scene, and event succeeds
event, as stone might be laid on stone and story might succeed story in a
building reared by mere might of human handiwork; not as in a city or
temple whose walls had risen of themselves to the lyric breath and stroke
of a greater than Amphion; moulded out of music by no rule or line of
mortal measure, with no sound of axe or anvil, but only of smitten
strings: built by harp and not by hand.

The lordly structure of these poems is the work of a royal workman, full
of masterdom and might, sublime in the state and strength of its many
mansions, but less perfect in proportion and less aerial in build than
the very highest fabrics fashioned after their own great will by the
supreme architects of song. Of these plays, and of these alone among the
maturer works of Shakespeare, it may be said that the best parts are
discernible from the rest, divisible by analysis and separable by memory
from the scenes which precede them or follow and the characters which
surround them or succeed. Constance and Katherine rise up into
remembrance apart from their environment and above it, stand clear in our
minds of the crowded company with which the poet has begirt their central
figures. In all other of his great tragic works, - even in _Hamlet_, if
we have grace and sense to read it aright and not awry, - it is not of any
single person or separate passage that we think when we speak of it; it
is to the whole masterpiece that the mind turns at mention of its name.
The one entire and perfect chrysolite of _Othello_ is neither Othello nor
Desdemona nor Iago, but each and all; the play of _Hamlet_ is more than
Hamlet himself, the poem even here is too great to be resumed in the
person. But Constance is the jewel of _King John_, and Katherine is the
crowning blossom of _King Henry VIII_. - a funeral flower as of "marigolds
on death-beds blowing," an opal of as pure water as "tears of perfect
moan," with fitful fire at its heart, ominous of evil and sorrow, set in
a mourning band of jet on the forefront of the poem, that the brow so
circled may, "like to a title-leaf, foretell the nature of a tragic
volume." Not indeed that without these the ground would in either case
be barren; but that in either field our eye rests rather on these and
other separate ears of wheat that overtop the ranks, than on the waving
width of the whole harvest at once. In the one play our memory turns
next to the figures of Arthur and the Bastard, in the other to those of
Wolsey and his king: the residue in either case is made up of outlines
more lightly and slightly drawn. In two scenes the figure of King John
rises indeed to the highest height even of Shakespearean tragedy; for the
rest of the play the lines of his character are cut no deeper, the
features of his personality stand out in no sharper relief, than those of
Eleanor or the French king; but the scene in which he tempts Hubert to
the edge of the pit of hell sounds a deeper note and touches a subtler
string in the tragic nature of man than had been struck by any poet save
Dante alone, since the reign of the Greek tragedians. The cunning and
profound simplicity of the few last weighty words which drop like flakes
of poison that blister where they fall from the deadly lips of the king
is a new quality in our tragic verse; there was no foretaste of such a
thing in the passionate imagination which clothed itself in the mighty
music of Marlowe's burning song. The elder master might indeed have
written the magnificent speech which ushers in with gradual rhetoric and
splendid reticence the black suggestion of a deed without a name; his
hand might have woven with no less imperial skill the elaborate raiment
of words and images which wraps up in fold upon fold, as with swaddling-
bands of purple and golden embroidery, the shapeless and miscreated birth
of a murderous purpose that labours into light even while it loathes the
light and itself; but only Shakespeare could give us the first sample of
that more secret and terrible knowledge which reveals itself in the brief
heavy whispers that seal the commission and sign the warrant of the king.
Webster alone of all our tragic poets has had strength to emulate in this
darkest line of art the handiwork of his master. We find nowhere such an
echo or reflection of the spirit of this scene as in the last tremendous
dialogue of Bosola with Ferdinand in the house of murder and madness,
while their spotted souls yet flutter between conscience and distraction,
hovering for an hour as with broken wings on the confines of either
province of hell. One pupil at least could put to this awful profit the
study of so great a model; but with the single and sublime exception of
that other design from the same great hand, which bares before us the
mortal anguish of Bracciano, no copy or imitation of the scene in which
John dies by poison has ever come near enough to evade the sentence it
provokes. The shrill tremulous agony of Fletcher's Valentinian is to the
sullen and slow death-pangs of Shakespeare's tyrant as the babble of a
suckling to the accents of a man. As far beyond the reach of any but his
maker's hand is the pattern of a perfect English warrior, set once for
all before the eyes of all ages in the figure of the noble Bastard. The
national side of Shakespeare's genius, the heroic vein of patriotism that
runs like a thread of living fire through the world-wide range of his
omnipresent spirit, has never, to my thinking, found vent or expression
to such glorious purpose as here. Not even in Hotspur or Prince Hal has
he mixed with more godlike sleight of hand all the lighter and graver
good qualities of the national character, or compounded of them all so
lovable a nature as this. In those others we admire and enjoy the same
bright fiery temper of soul, the same buoyant and fearless mastery of
fate or fortune, the same gladness and glory of life made lovely with all
the labour and laughter of its full fresh days; but no quality of theirs
binds our hearts to them as they are bound to Philip - not by his loyal
valour, his keen young wit, his kindliness, constancy, readiness of
service as swift and sure in the day of his master's bitterest shame and
shamefullest trouble as in the blithest hour of battle and that first
good fight which won back his father's spoils from his father's slayer;
but more than all these, for that lightning of divine rage and pity, of
tenderness that speaks in thunder and indignation that makes fire of its
tears, in the horror of great compassion which falls on him, the tempest
and storm of a beautiful and godlike anger which shakes his strength of
spirit and bows his high heart down at sight of Arthur dead. Being thus,
as he is, the English masterwork of Shakespeare's hand, we may well
accept him as the best man known to us that England ever made; the hero
that Nelson must have been had he never come too near Naples.

I am not minded to say much of Shakespeare's Arthur; there are one or two
figures in the world of his work of which there are no words that would
be fit or good to say. Another of these is Cordelia. The place they
have in our lives and thoughts is not one for talk; the niche set apart
for them to inhabit in our secret hearts is not penetrable by the lights
and noises of common day. There are chapels in the cathedral of man's
highest art as in that of his inmost life, not made to be set open to the
eyes and feet of the world. Love and death and memory keep charge for us
in silence of some beloved names. It is the crowning glory of genius,
the final miracle and transcendent gift of poetry, that it can add to the
number of these, and engrave on the very heart of our remembrance fresh
names and memories of its own creation.

There is one younger child in this heavenly family of Shakespeare's who
sits side by side with Arthur in the secret places of our thought; there
are but two or three that I remember among the children of other poets
who may be named in the same year with them: as Fletcher's Hengo,
Webster's Giovanni, and Landor's Caesarion. Of this princely trinity of
boys the "bud of Britain" is as yet the most famous flower; yet even in
the broken words of childish heroism that falter on his dying lips there
is nothing of more poignant pathos, more "dearly sweet and bitter," than
Giovanni's talk of his dead mother and all her sleepless nights now ended
for ever in a sleep beyond tears or dreams. Perhaps the most nearly
faultless in finish and proportion of perfect nature among all the noble
three is Landor's portrait of the imperial and right Roman child of Caesar
and Cleopatra. I know not but this may be found in the judgment of men
to come wellnigh the most pathetic and heroic figure bequeathed us after
more than eighty years of a glorious life by the indomitable genius of
our own last Roman and republican poet.

We have come now to that point at the opening of the second stage in his
work where the supreme genius of all time begins first to meddle with the
mysteries and varieties of human character, to handle its finer and more
subtle qualities, to harmonise its more untuned and jarring discords;
giving here and thus the first proof of a power never shared in like
measure by the mightiest among the sons of men, a sovereign and serene
capacity to fathom the else unfathomable depths of spiritual nature, to
solve its else insoluble riddles, to reconcile its else irreconcilable
discrepancies. In his first stage Shakespeare had dropped his plummet no
deeper into the sea of the spirit of man than Marlowe had sounded before
him; and in the channel of simple emotion no poet could cast surer line
with steadier hand than he. Further down in the dark and fiery depths of
human pain and mortal passion no soul could search than his who first
rendered into speech the aspirations and the agonies of a ruined and
revolted spirit. And until Shakespeare found in himself the strength of
eyesight to read and the cunning of handiwork to render those wider
diversities of emotion and those further complexities of character which
lay outside the range of Marlowe, he certainly cannot be said to have
outrun the winged feet, outstripped the fiery flight of his forerunner.
In the heaven of our tragic song the first-born star on the forehead of
its herald god was not outshone till the full midsummer meridian of that
greater godhead before whom he was sent to prepare a pathway for the sun.
Through all the forenoon of our triumphant day, till the utter
consummation and ultimate ascension of dramatic poetry incarnate and
transfigured in the master-singer of the world, the quality of his
tragedy was as that of Marlowe's, broad, single, and intense; large of
hand, voluble of tongue, direct of purpose. With the dawn of its latter
epoch a new power comes upon it, to find clothing and expression in new
forms of speech and after a new style. The language has put off its
foreign decorations of lyric and elegiac ornament; it has found already
its infinite gain in the loss of those sweet superfluous graces which
encumbered the march and enchained the utterance of its childhood. The
figures which it invests are now no more the types of a single passion,
the incarnations of a single thought. They now demand a scrutiny which
tests the power of a mind and tries the value of a judgment; they appeal
to something more than the instant apprehension which sufficed to respond
to the immediate claim of those that went before them. Romeo and Juliet
were simply lovers, and their names bring back to us no further thought
than of their love and the lovely sorrow of its end; Antony and Cleopatra
shall be before all things lovers, but the thought of their love and its
triumphant tragedy shall recall other things beyond number - all the
forces and all the fortunes of mankind, all the chance and all the
consequence that waited on their imperial passion, all the infinite
variety of qualities and powers wrought together and welded into the
frame and composition of that love which shook from end to end all
nations and kingdoms of the earth.

The same truth holds good in lighter matters; Biron and Rosaline in
comedy are as simply lovers and no more as were their counterparts and
coevals in tragedy: there is more in Benedick and Beatrice than this
simple quality of love that clothes itself in the strife of wits; the
injury done her cousin, which by the repercussion of its shock and
refraction of its effect serves to transfigure with such adorable
indignation and ardour of furious love and pity the whole bright light
nature of Beatrice, serves likewise by a fresh reflection and
counterchange of its consequence to exalt and enlarge the stature of her
lover's spirit after a fashion beyond the reach of Shakespeare in his
first stage. Mercutio again, like Philip, is a good friend and gallant
swordsman, quick-witted and hot-blooded, of a fiery and faithful temper,
loyal and light and swift alike of speech and swordstroke; and this is
all. But the character of the Bastard, clear and simple as broad
sunlight though it be, has in it other features than this single and
beautiful likeness of frank young manhood; his love of country and
loathing of the Church that would bring it into subjection are two sides
of the same national quality that has made and will always make every
Englishman of his type such another as he was in belief and in unbelief,
patriot and priest-hater; and no part of the design bears such witness to
the full-grown perfection of his creator's power and skill as the touch
that combines and fuses into absolute unity of concord the high and
various elements of faith in England, loyalty to the wretched lord who
has made him knight and acknowledged him kinsman, contempt for his


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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 4 of 17)