pare himself to the cloud which " even with a thought the rack dislimns," we learn
how the great poet uses his observation of nature. Not only do such magnificent
objects as these receive an elevation from the poet's moral application of them, but
the commonest things, even the vulgarest things, ludicrous but for their manage-
ment, become in the highest degree poetical.
Many a time in the low meadows of
the Avon would Shakspere have seen the irritation of the herd under the torments
of the gad-fly. The poet takes this common thing to describe an event which
changed the destinies of the world :
" Yon ribald nag of Egypt,
Whom leprosy o'ertake ! i' the midst o' the fight,
When vantage like a pair of twins appear'd,
Both as the same, or rather ours the elder,
The brize upon her, like a cow in June,
Hoists sails, and flies,"
When Hector is in the field,
" The strawy Greeks, ripe for his edge,
Fall down before him, like the mower's swath." ||
Brutus, speculating upon the probable consequences of Csesar becoming king,
" It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking." ^1
* " Romeo and Juliet," Act I., Scene I. f " As You Like It," Act iv., Scene in.
J " Antony and Cleopatra," Act iv., Scene XH. Ibid., Act in., Scene vin.
|| " Triolus and Cressida," Act v., Scene v. \ "Julius Caesar," Act n., Scene r.
[Meadows near Welford.]
The same object had been seen and described in an earlier play, without its grand
" The snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun." *
The snake seems a liege subject of the domain of poetry. Her enamel skin is a
weed for a fairy ;t the green and gilded snake wreathed around the sleeping manj
is a picture. But what ordinary writer would not shrink from the poetical handling
of a snail ? It is the surpassing accuracy of the naturalist that has introduced the
snail into one of the noblest passages of the poet, in juxta-position with the Hespe-
rides and Apollo's lute :
" Love's feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails."
One of the grandest scenes of a tragedy of the mature poet is full of the most
familiar images derived from an accurate observation of the natural world. The
images seem to rise up spontaneously out of the minute recollections of a life spent
in watching the movements of the lower creation. " A deed of dreadful note*" is
to be done before nightfall. The bat, the beetle, and the crow, are the common,
and therefore the most appropriate, instruments which are used to mark the
approach of night. The simplest thing of life is thus raised into sublimity at a
" Ere the bat hath flown
His cloister'd flight ;"
The shard-borne beetle, with his drowsy hums,
Hath rung night's yawning peal ;"
* " Titus Andronicus," Act u., Scene Hi. f " A Midsummer's-Night's Dream," Act n., Sc. n.
J " As You Like It," Act iv., Scene in. "Love's Labour's Lost," Act. iv. Scene I.
140 WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY. , [BOOK II.
the murder of Banquo is to be done. The very time is at hand :
" Light thickens ; and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood." *
The naturalist has not only heard the " drowsy hums" of the beetle as he wandered
in the evening twilight, but he has traced the insect to its hiding-place. The poet
associates the fact with a great lesson, to be content in obscure safety :
" Often, to our comfort, shall we find
The sharded beetle in a safer hold
Than is the full-wing'd eagle." f
Let it not be forgotten that the young Shakspere had to make himself a naturalist.
Books of accurate observation there were none to guide him ; for the popular works
of natural history, of which there were very few, were full of extravagant fables and
vague descriptions. Mr. Douce has told us that Shakspere was extremely well
acquainted with one of these works " Batman uppon Bartholome his booke De
proprietatibus rerum, 1582 ;" and he has ascertained that the original price of this
volume was eight shillings. But Shakspere did not go to Bartholomeus or to Bat-
man (who made large additions to the original work from Gesner), for his truths in
natural history. Mr. Douce has cited many passages in his " Illustrations," in which
he traces Shakspere to Bartholomeus. We have gone carefully through the volumes
where these are scattered up and down, and we find a remarkable circumstance
unnoticed by Mr. Douce, that these passages, with scarcely an exception, refer to the
vulgar errors of natural history which Shakspere has transmuted into never-dying
poetry. It is here that we find the origin of the toad which wears " a precious jewel
in his head ;" J of the phoenix of Arabia ; of the basilisk that kills the innocent
gazer ;|| of the unlicked bear-whelp.il But the truths of natural history which we
constantly light upon in Shakspere were all essentially derived from his own obser-
vation. There is a remarkable instance in his discrimination between the popular
belief and the scientific truth in his notice of the habits of the cuckoo. The Fool
in Lear expresses the popular belief in a proverbial sentence :
" For you trow, nuncle,
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long .
That it had its head bit off by its young."
Worcester, in his address to Henry IV., expresses the scientific fact without the
vulgar exaggeration, a fact unnoticed till the time of Dr. Jenner by any writer but
the naturalist William Shakspere :
" Being fed by us, you used us so
As that ungentle gull the cuckoo's bird
Useth the sparrow : did oppress our nest;
Grew by our feeding to so great a bulk,
That even our love durst not come near your sight."
The noble description of the commonwealth of bees in Henry V. was suggested, in
all probability, by a similar description in Lyly's "Euphues." But Shakspere's
description not only displays the wonderful accuracy of his observation, in subser-
* " Macbeth," Act in., Scene n. f " Cymbeline," Act in. Scene in.
% " As You Like It," Act n., Scene I. " Tempest," Act in., Scene n.
|| "Henry VL," Part II., Act in., Scene n. ^f Ibid. Part III., Act in., Scene n.
CHAP. IX.] SOLITARY HOURS. 141
vience to the poetical art, but the unerring discrimination of his philosophy. Lyly
makes his bees exercise the reasoning faculty choose a king, call a parliament, con-
sult for laws, elect officers ; Shakspere says " they have a king and officers ; " and he
refers their operations to " a rule in nature." The same accuracy that he brought
to the observation of the workings of nature in the fields, he bestows upon the
assistant labours of art in the garden. The fine dialogue between the old gardener
at Laugley and the servants, is full of technical information. The great principles
of horticultural economy, pruning and weeding, are there as clearly displayed as in
the most anti-poetical of treatises. We have the crab-tree slip grafted upon noble
stock (the reverse of the gardener's practice) in one play : * in another we have the
luxurious " scions put in wild and savage stock." t A writer in a technical periodical
work seriously maintains that Shakspere was a professional gardener.^ This is
better evidence of the poet's horticultural acquirements than Steevens's pert remark,
" Shakspeare seems to have had little knowledge in gardening." Shakspere's
philosophy of the gardener's art is true of all art. It is the great Platonic belief
which raises art into something much higher than a thing of mere imitation, showing
the great informing spirit of the universe working through man, as through any
other agency of his will :
" Per. Sir, the year growing ancient,
Nor yet on summer's death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest flowers o' the season
Are our carnations, and streak'd gilly 'vors,
Which some call nature's bastards : of that kind
Our rustic garden 's barren ; and I care not
To get slips of them.
Pol. Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them ]
Per. For I have heard it said,
There is an art which, in their piedness, shares
With great creating nature.
Pol. Say, there be ;
Yet nature is made better by no mean,
But nature make that mean : so, over that art,
Which, you say, adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock ;
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race : This is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather : but
The art itself is nature." ||
Perdita's flowers ! who can mention them, and not think of the wonderful union of
the accuracy of the naturalist with the loveliest images of the poet 1 It has been
well remarked that in Milton's " Lycidas" we have "among vernal flowers many of
those which are the offspring of Midsummer ;" but Shakspere distinguishes his
groups, assorting those of the several seasons.!" Perhaps in the whole compass of
poetry there is no such perfect combination of elegance and truth as the passage in
which Perdita bestows her gifts parts of which are of such surpassing loveliness,
that the sense aches at them :
" 0, Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that, frighted, thou lett'st fall
* " Henry VI.," Part II., Act in., Scene II.
t "Henry V.," Act in., Scene v .J " The Gardener's Chronicle," May 29, 1841.
Note on " As You Like It," Act ill., Scene n. || " Winter's Tale," Act iv., Scene ill.
^f Patterson's " Natural History of the Insects mentioned in Shakspeare's Plays."
142 WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY. [BOOK II.
From Dis's waggon ! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty ; violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath."*
Of all the objects of creation it is in flowers that Shakspere's genius appears most
to revel and luxuriate ; but the precision with which he seizes upon their charac-
teristics distinguishes him from all other poets. A word is a description. The
" pale primrose," the " azur'd harebell," are the flowers to be strewn upon Fidele's
grave ; but how is their beauty elevated when the one is compared to her face, and
the other to her veins ! Shakspere perhaps caught the sweetest image of his
sweetest song from the lines of Chaucer which we have recently quoted ; where we
have the lark, and the fiery Pho3bus drying the silver drops on the leaves. But it
was impossible to have translated this fine passage, as Shakspere has done, without
the minute observation of the naturalist working with the invention of the poet :
" Hark ! hark ! the lark at heaven's gate sings,
And Phoebus 'gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chalic'd flowers that lies."f
The rosebud shrivels and dies, and the cause is disregarded by a common observer'
The poetical naturalist points out " the bud bit by an envious worm." J Again, the
microscope of the poet sees " the crimson drops i' the bottom of a cowslip," and the
observation lies in the cells of his memory till it becomes a comparison of exquisite
delicacy in reference to the " cinque-spotted " mark of the sleeping Imogen. But
the eye which observes everything is not 'only an eye for beauty, as it looks upon
the produce of the fields ; it has the sense of utility as strong as that which exists
in the calculations of the most anti-poetical. The mad Lear's garland is a catalogue
of the husbandman's too luxuriant enemies :
" Crown'd with rank fumiter, and furrow weeds,
With harlocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn."
Who could have conceived the noble picture in Henry V. of a country wasted by
war, but one who from his youth upward had been familiar, even to the minutest
practice, with all that is achieved by cultivation, and all that is lost by neglect ;
who had seen the wild powers of nature held in subjection to the same producing
power under the guidance of art ; who had himself assisted in this best conquest
of man ?
" Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies : her hedges even-pleach'd,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair
Put forth disorder'd twigs : her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank fumitory,
Doth root upon ; while that the coulter rusts,
That should deracinate such savagery :
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all unconnected, rank,
Conceives by idleness ; and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility." ||
* " Winter's Tale," Act tv., Scene m.
t " Cymbeline," Act Ji., Scene in. J " Romeo and Juliet," Act I., Scene I.
" King Lear," Act iv., Scene iv. || " Henry V.," Act v. Scene n.
CHAP. IX.] SOLITARY HOURS. 143
Even the technical words of agriculture find their place in his language of poetry :
" Like to the summer's corn by tempest lody'd" *
He goes into the woods of his own Arden, and he associates her oaks with the
sublimest imagery ; but still the oak loses nothing of its characteristics. " The thing
of courage, as roused with rage, with rage doth sympathise,"
" When splitting winds
Make flexible the knees of knotted oaks." f
" Merciful Heaven !
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splitt'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle. " J
Kvrn the woodman's economy, who is careful not to exhaust the tree that furnishes
him fuel, becomes an image to show, by contrast, the impolicy of excessive
" Why, we take
From every tree, lop, bark, and part o' the timber ;
And, though we leave it with a root, thus hack'd
The air will drink the sap."
It is in these woods that he has studied the habits of the "joiner squirrel," who
makes Malt's ehariot out of an "empty hazel-nut."|| Here the active boy was no
doubt the "venturous fairy" that would seek the "squirrel's hoard, and fetch new
nuts. "IT Here he has watched the stock-dove sitting upon her nest, and has
stored the fact in his mind till it becomes one of the loveliest of poetical com-
" Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclos'd,
His silence will sit drooping." **
What book-fed poet could have chosen a homely incident of country life as the
aptest illustration of an assembly suddenly scattered by their fears ?
" Russet-painted choughs, many in sort,
Rising and cawing at the gun's report,
Sever themselves, and madly sweep the sky. "ft
The poet tells us and we believe him as much as if a Pliny or a Gesner had written
" The poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl." JJ
The boy has climbed to the kite's nest, and there perchance has found some of the
gear that " maidens bleach ; " the discovery becomes a saying for Autolycus :
" When the kite builds, look to lesser linen." In all this practical part of Shak-
spere's education it is emphatically true that the boy " is father of the man." || ||
* " Henry VI.," Part II., Act in., Scene i. f " Troilus snd Cressida," Act i., Scene HI.
t " Measure for Measure," Act n., Scene n. " Henry VIII.," Act i., Scene n.
II " Romeo and Juliet," Act i., Scene iv. 1 " A Midsummer-Night's Dream," Act iv., Scene i.
: * " Hamlet," Act v., Scene I. ft " A Midsummer-Night's Dream," Act Hi., Scene n.
tt " Macbeth," Act iv., Scene n. " Winter's Tale," Act iv., Scene n.
WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY.
Shakspere, in an early play, has described his native river :
" The current that with gentle murmur glides,
Thou know'st, being stopp'd, impatiently doth rage ;
But, when his fair course is not hindered,
He makes sweet music with the cnamell'd stones,
Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge
He overtaketh in his pilgrimage ;
And so by many winding nooks he strays,
With willing sport, to the wild ocean." *
The solitary boat of the young poet may be fancied floating down this " current."
There is not a sound to disturb his quiet, but the gentle murmur when " the waving
sedges play with wind." t As the boat glides unsteered into some winding nook,
the swan ruffles his proud crest ; and the quick eye of the naturalist sees his mate
deep hidden in the reeds and osiers :
" So doth the swan her downy cygnets save,
Keeping them prisoner underneath her wings." J
Very lovely is this Avon for some miles above Stratford ; a poet's river in its
beauty and its peacefulness. It is disturbed with no sound of traffic ; it holds its
course unvexed by man through broad meadows and wooded acclivities, which for
generations seem to have been dedicated to solitude. All the great natural features
of the river must have suffered little change since the time of Shakspere. Inunda-
tions in some places may have widened the channel ; osier islands may have grown
up where there was once a broad stream. But we here look upon the same scenery
upon which he looked, as truly as we gaze upon the same blue sky, and see its
image in the same glassy water. As we unmoor our boat from the fields near
Bishop's Hampton, we look back upon the church embosomed in lofty trees. The
Two Gentlemen of Verona," Act ii., Scene vn.
J " Henry VI.," Part I., Act v., Scene in.
f Induction to " Taming of the Shrew.
The old name for Hampton Lucy.
present church is new ; but it stands upon the same spot as the ancient church :
its associations are the same. W glide by Charlcote. The house has been
[Old Church of Hampton Lucy.]
enlarged ; its antique features somewhat improved : but it is essentially the same
as the Charlcote of Shakspere. We pass its sunny lawns, and are soon amidst the
unchanging features of nature. We are between deep wooded banks. Even the
deer, who swim from shore to shore where the river is wide and open, are prevented
invading these quiet deeps. The old turrets rising amidst the trees alone tell us
that human habitation is at hand. A little onward, and we lose all trace of that
culture which is ever changing the face of nature. There is a high bank called Old
Town, where perhaps men and women, with their joys and sorrows, once abided.
It is colonized by rabbits. The elder-tree drops its white blossoms luxuriantly over
their brown burrows. The golden cups of the yellow water-lilies lie brilliantly
beneath on their green couches. The reed -sparrow and the willow-wren sing their
small songs around us : a stately heron flaps his heavy wing above. The tran-
quillity of the place is almost solemn ; and a broad cloud deepens the solemnity, by
throwing for a while the whole scene into shadow. We drop down the current.
Nothing can be more interesting than the constant variety which this beautiful
river here exhibits. Now it passes under a high bank clothed with wood ; now a
hill waving with corn gently rises from the water's edge. Sometimes a flat meadow
presents its grassy margin to the current which threatens to inundate it upon the
slightest rise ; sometimes long lines of willow or alder shut out the land, and throw
4G WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY. [BOOK II.
heir deep shadows over the placid stream. Islands of sedge here and there render
ic channel unnavigable, except to the smallest boat. A willow thrusting its trunk
ver the stream reminds us of Ophelia :
" There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream."*
j_A Peep at Charlcote.j
A gust of wind raises the underside of the leaves to view, and we then perceiv
the exquisite correctness of the epithet " hoar." Hawthorns, here and there, grow
upon the water's edge ; and the dog-rose spots the green bank with its faint red
That deformity, the pollard-willow, is not so frequent as in most rivers ; but th
unlopped trees wear their feathery branches, as graceful as ostrich-plumes. The
gust which sings through that long colonnade of willows is blowing up a rain-storm
The wood-pigeons, who have been feeding on the banks, wing their way homewards
The old fisherman is hurrying down the current to the shelter of his cottage. H
invites us to partake that shelter. His family are busy at their trade of basket
making ; and the humble roof, with its cheerful fire, is a welcome retreat out of th
driving rain. It is a long as well as furious rain. We open the volume of Shak
spere's own poems ; and we bethink us what of these he may have composed, o
partly shadowed out, wandering on this river-side, or drifting under its green banks
when his happy and genial nature instinctively shaped itself into song, as the expres
sion of his sympathy with the beautiful world around him.
" The first heir of my invention." This may be literally true of the "Venus an
Adonis," but it does not imply that the young poet had not been a diligent cultivate
of fragmentary verse long before he had attempted so sustained a composition as thi
most original and remarkable poem. We must carry back our minds to the pub
lished poetry of 1593, when the "Venus and Adonis" appeared, fully to understaiK
the originality of this production. Spenser had indeed then arisen to claim th
highest rank in his own proper walk. Six books of "The Faery Queen" had been
* " Hamlet," Act iv., Scene vii.
published two or three years. But, rejoicing as Shakspere must have done in " The
Faery Queen," in his own poems we cannot trace the slightest imitation of that
wonderful performance ; and it is especially remarkable how steadily he resists the
temptation to imitate the archaisms which Spenser's popularity must have rendered
fashionable. If we go back eight or ten years, and suppose, which we have fairly a
right to do, that Shakspere was a writer of verse before he was twenty, the absence
of any recent models upon which he could found a style will be almost as remark-
able, in the case of his narrative compositions, as in that of his dramas. In William
Webbe's "Discourse of English Poetrie," published in 1586, Chaucer, Gower,
Lydgate, and Skelton are the old poets whom he commends. His immediate pre-
decessors, or contemporaries, are " Master George Gascoigne, a witty gentleman,
and the very chief of our late rhymers," Surrey, Vaux, Norton, Bristow, Edwards,
Tusser, Churchyard, Hunnis, Heywood, Hill, the Earl of Oxford (who " may challenge
to himself the title of the most excellent" among "noble lords and gentlemen in
her Majesty's court, which in the rare devices of poetry have been and yet are most
excellent skilful") ; Phaer, Twyue, Golding, Googe, and Fleming, the translators ;
Whetstone, Munday. The eminence of Spenser, even before the publication of " The
Faery Queen," is thus acknowledged : " This place have I purposely reserved for
one, who, if not only, yet in my judgment principally, deserveth the title of the
Tightest English poet that ever I read : that is, the author of ' The Shepherd's
Calendar.' " George Puttenham, whose " Arte of English Poesie" was published in
1589, though probably written somewhat earlier, mentions with commendation among
the later sort " For eclogue and pastoral poesy, Sir Philip Sidney and Master
Challenner, and that other gentleman who wrate the late ' Shepherd's Calendar.'
For ditty and amorous ode I find Sir Walter Raleigh's vein most lofty, insolent, and
148 WILLIAM SHAKSPERE : A BIOGRAPHY. [BOOK II.
passionate. Master Edward Dyer for elegy most sweet, solemn, and of high conceit.
Gascoigne for a good metre and for a plentiful vein." The expression " that other
gentleman who wrate the late 'Shepherd's Calendar'" would fix the date of this
passage of Puttenham almost immediately subsequent to the publication of Spenser's
poem in 1579, the author being still unknown. Shakspere, then, had very few
examples amongst his contemporaries, even of the first and most obvious excellence
of the "Venus and Adonis" "the perfect sweetness of the versification."* To con-
tinue the thought of the same critic, this power of versification was " evidently
original, and not the result of an easily imitable mechanism." But at the same time, he
could not have attained the perfection displayed in the " Venus and Adonis" without
a long and habitual practice, which could alone have bestowed the mechanical facility.
It is not difficult to trace in that poem itself portions which might have been written
as the desultory exercises of a young poet, and afterwards worked up so as to be
imbedded in the narrative. Such is the description of the steed ; such of the hare-
hunt. Upon the principle upon which we regard the Sonnets, that they are frag-