Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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though, more properly speaking, it is never estab-
lished at all, biit consists in this very fluctuation of
the mind between opinions Avhich are always partly
true and partly false.

Shakespeare-worship is an example of this. Un-
doubtedly the religion had become a superstition,
and the very fanaticism of the believers was sure
to end in arousing the objections of sceptics. At
the very least independent spirits were sure to
claim the right of free examination : and this is
what has actually happened. Some two years ago
there appeared in Germany a little book which
dares to discuss Shakespeare, to distinguish the
strong from the weak points in him, to bring him
back under the common law of criticism. It is
clear that a new error announces itself in the his-
tory of the poet's destiny.^

The ground-idea of Herr E-iimelin's book is the
necessity, if we wish to understand Shakespeare, of
transporting ourselves into the circumstances in
the midst of which he lived and wrote. We make,
he thinks, a false estimate of the rank which
Shakespeare enjoyed in the esteem of his contem-
poraries — of the reputation in which his works
were held by court and public ; and we thus sur-
round his image with a halo by which we proceed
1 Shakespeai-estndien. Von Gustav Riimelin. Stuttgart. 1866.


to let ourselves be dazzled. He would have the
truth to be that the theatre was in very evil odor
during those Puritanic times ; that it was attended
only by the populace on the one hand, and by a few
young men of fashion on the other ; that the voca-
tion of an actor was universally despised ; that
Shakespeare does not seem to have enjoyed any
extraordinary vogue during his own life ; that, in
short, the unequalled glory with which his name
is now for ever surrounded dates no further back
than some hundred years ago.

We shall see in a moment the consequences which
Herr Eiimelin thinks he can deduce from these
facts. But I must begin by requesting the reader
not to accept the facts themselves too hastily.
The verses in which Ben Jonson equals Shake-
speare to the greatest tragedians of antiquity suffice
to show what the contemporaries of the poet thought
of him. The epitaph in which Milton not merely
expresses his admiration for the dead poet, but calls


Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,

proves that the succeeding generation were no more
insensible than we are to the beauties of Shake-
speare. But Herr Eiimelin has been unlucky
throughout this part of his book. He has sum-
moned to support his thesis certain sixteenth-
century documents, and it so happens that these
documents are part of a pretty considerable collec-
tion of forged autographs. The English are not


less active than we are in this kind of fabrication ;
it may be added that they are not more skilful, and
that the most cursory reading ought to have been
enough to put M. Riimelin on his guard.

Our author's starting point is indeed in itself
incontestable. It is certain that we appreciate the
work of a writer much better when we strip him
of the halo with which fate has surrounded him
and restore him to the company of the circum-
stances in which he lived. And it is good, in order
to understand Shakespeare, to remember that he
was an actor and the manager of a theatre. His
plays were not merely pieces of literature, but also,
and first of all, things forced upon him by his busi-
ness. He did not write for posterity, but for a
special public which he had to please. This is all
true ; but it is not less true at the same time that
it is possible to abuse such considerations, and Herr
Riimelin gives an example of it when he hints that
Shakespeare portrayed his friend the Earl of
Southampton under the features of young Harry
the Fifth. When he guesses that the plays taken
from Roman history were meant to serve as a warn-
ing to the same Southampton — ''Coriolanus" exhib-
iting to him the dangers of aristocratic insolence,
"Antony and Cleopatra " those of amorous intrigue,
" Julius Caesar " those of ambition — when, in
short, criticism plunges thus headlong into conjec-
ture, we can only remember that things like these
are pure hypotheses, as incapable of proof as of


disproof. It is the same with this whole class of
historical considerations. We may grant that
Shakespeare, working according to the needs of the
theatre, did not always subject his work to very
severe discipline. He wrote scene after scene,
developing first one situation, then another, and
ending by losing sight of the unity of the whole
work. It is certain that there are two distinct
dramas in " King Lear," and that most of the pieces
drawn from English history are mere chronicles
thrown into dialogue. But Herr Riimelin goes
much farther. We know in what a questionable
shape the part of Hamlet presents itself, in how
many ways commentators have sought to explain
this mysterious mixture of irresolution and enter-
prise, of hidden designs and capricious sallies.
For Herr Eiimelin there is no mystery at all. The
character of Hamlet is simply incoherent ; and it is
incoherent because the poet worked in bits and
scraps ; because he did not know how to bind the
scenes together, to run the shades into one. In a
word, we are to see no problem here, but the actual
imperfection of the work. Perhaps so ; but it will
be granted that this is to cut the knot rather than
to untie it.

Herr Eiimelin explains the great features of
Shakespeare's genius in the same way as the de-
fects of his dramas, by the circumstances of his
life. We must, he holds, always come back to the
on« point: the poet was a manager. Everything


follows from this. Shakespeare's profession has
its inconveniences as well as its advantages. If it
assists the knowledge of mankind, it is not favorable
to experience of the world. Hence, Shakespeare
is distinguished for the creation of a multitude of
characters, all living and individual; his theatre
is a gallery of portraits which, once seen, can never
be forgotten. No writer has ever shown such a
faculty of creation. On the other hand (still ac-
cording to Herr Riimelin), the action in the Eng-
lish dramatist's works is weak. You see that he is
ignorant of society and of the secret springs of
events ; in particular he errs by making situations
too much the result of personal character. Expe-
rience tells us that things do not happen thiis in
real life. We must remember, too, that a manager's
career is full of agitations. It allows of no rest.
And so, assuming that the manager be an actor as
well, it makes the most feverish existence that can
be imagined. Herr Riimelin has no hesitation in
thus explaining the touch of excess and morbidity
which he finds in most of Shakespeare's creations.

On the whole, and in spite of many just and strik-
ing observations in detail, it is impossible to say
that Herr Riimelin has succeeded in his attempt.
He has done a service to criticism in protesting
against an enthusiasm which refused to argue under
pretext of admiring better without argument, but
he has not produced any considerable result from
the new method which he professed to apply to the


works of Shakespeare. The reason is that history
never explains a man; that circumstances modify
but do not create a living personality. They can
at most help us to understand the turn which his
genius took, the obstacles which he had to surmount,
the limits which were imposed upon him. And so
Herr Riimelin's criticism, doubtless altogether unin-
tentionally, has become almost entirely negative ;
he has principally told us what Shakespeare was

And then, since humanity can never do without
superstitions, he hurries, in the very process of
upsetting one idol, to set up another in its place.
What hurts Herr Eiimelin most in German Shake-
speare-worship is, it seems, its preference of Shake-
speare to German poets, Goethe in particular. The
last chapter of the book draws a parallel between
the two writers in which the German is naturally
allowed to have the best of it. I do not care to
follow M. Riimelin in this kind of comparison,
neither the use nor the interest of which have I
ever understood : not to mention that here the
terms of juxtaposition are almost wholly points of
contrast. What can there be in common between
two authors of whom one lived fifty, the other
eighty -four years ; of whom the first gave himself up
almost wholly to drama, while the second attempted
every style, busied himself with all science, exer-
cised himself in every path ; of whom, finally, the
latter carried into art every resource of erudition.


while the former still belongs to art which is simply
creative ?

Strange to say, Herr Eiimelin has no sooner
arrived at Goethe, than he loses all the faculties of
measure and discretion which he had shown in
speaking of the English poet. This is the way of
the Grermans ; they will end by spoiling Goethe for
us by mere dint of exaggeration. I, for my part,
know few writers for whom I feel a greater admira-
tion, to whom I owe deeper and more lasting de-
light ; but I am bound to say that neither do I know
one in whose case I am more convinced of the ne-
cessity of allowances and reserves. The day of rea-
soned criticism must surely come for Goethe, as it
seems to have come for Shakespeare at last; and
then men will wonder at the complaisance with
which we now shut our eyes to his faults. We are
too prone to forget how much littleness is compati-
ble with greatness, and how many parts of weak-
ness and dulness the highest genius may contain.
Goethe is one of the most striking examples of this
truth. He is the aiithor of some of the most perfect
work that any literature has produced, and of some
of the most tiresome books that have been written
in any language. Side by side with profound and'
admirably expressed thoughts, there are to be found
in his books a multitude of pompously enunciated
commonplaces. He is wanting both in critical pre-
cision and in creative power. Exquisite, accom-
plished, and extensive as was his culture, he lacked


more than one of the principal elements of thought.
History was a stranger to his meditations. He was
acquainted neither with the society of great cities,
nor with the policy of great states. His genius at
first showed an admirable combination of sentiment
and reflection ; but in the long run reflection got
the better and cast a chill over the whole. His
finest works belong to that period of his life when
the consummate science of the artist was balanced
by passionate ardor. But afterwards the intention
of teaching and the calculation of effect got the
upper hand so much that he revelled more and
more in symbols, in ideas, in dissertation. Let us
say it boldly, the second part of " Faust " is insup-
portable, the second part of " Wilhelm Meister " is
painful, and the last half of the " Memoirs " simply
presents us with the portfolio of an old man who
wishes to make the very utmost of his former stud-
ies. Goethe, who is assuredly not so mighty a
genius as Shakespeare, is a genius of greater extent
and universality : but Shakespeare at least did not
outlive himself.



Who knows not the visit which Candide and
Martin paid to Signor Pococurante, a noble Vene-
tian ? ^ When they had talked of painting and
music they went into the library, and Candide, per-
ceiving a Milton, could not prevent himself from
asking his host whether he did not look upon this
writer as a great man. " What ? " said Pococurante,
"the barbarian who constructed a long commentary
on the first chapter of Genesis in ten books of harsh
verse ? The clumsy imitator of the Greeks who
caricatures creation and who, while Moses repre-
sents the Eternal Being as creating the world by
his word, makes the Messiah take a big compass
out of a cupboard in heaven to trace out the work ?
What ? I admire the man who has spoilt Tasso's
hell and Tasso's devil ; who makes Lucifer mas-
querade, now as a toad, now as a pigmy ; who puts
the same speech in his mouth a hundred times
over ; who represents him as arguing on divinity ;
who, in attempting a serious imitation of Ariosto's
comic invention of fire-arms, makes the devils fire

1 {Candide, Chao. xxv.— Trans^



cannon in heaven ? Neither I, nor anybody in
Italy, has ever been able to take pleasure in all
these dismal extravagances. His marriage of Sin
and Death, and the snakes of which Sin is deliv-
ered, make any man of tolerably delicate taste sick,
and his long description of a hospital is only gooa
for a grave-digger. This obscure, eccentric, and
disgusting poem was despised at its birth : and I
treat it to-day as it was treated in its own country
by its own contemporaries. Anyhow, I say what I
think, and I really care very little whether others
agree with me or not."

A mere fling, you will say, and not of any conse-
quence. Wait : here is another bright spirit of the
eighteenth century, who takes the fling quite seri-
ously and eagerly indorses it. " I hate devils mor-
tally," writes Mme. du Deffand to Voltaire, "I
cannot tell you the pleasure I have had in finding
in ' Candide ' all the evil you have spoken of Mil-
ton. It seemed to me that the whole was my own
thought : for I always detested him." Thus we
see that once upon a time French taste found itself
face to face with " Paradise Lost " and straightfor-
wardly expressed its repugnance for a poem which
is, it must be frankly confessed, very foreign to the
habits and traditions of our literature. It is the
way of taste to deliver judgments like these —
judgments which are all the more positive from the
very fact that they merely render an impression.
Admiration, when things are regarded in this way,


is not more reasonable than aversion ; or, if either
reasons, it starts equally from a personal sentiment.
But let us go from France to England, from the
detractors of Milton to his panegyrists. Addison
does not deign to ask whether ^'Paradise Lost"
merits the name of a heroic poem. " Let us call it
a divine one," he says, '' and say no more about it."
It lacks none of the beauties of the highest poetry,
and if there are also spots in it we must remember
that there are spots in the sun. But perhaps it
will be said that Addison is obsolete. With all my
heart. Let us, then, open our Macaulay, a modern
surely, and one who has read and compared every-
thing. One of his essays — indeed, the first that
he wrote for the "Edinburgh Review" — has Mil-
ton for its subject. Good heavens, what enthusi-
asm ! The whole English language is ransacked to
supply the Whig critic with admiring epithets.
Even "Paradise Regained" receives his homage.
The superiority of " Paradise Lost " over " Paradise
Regained " is not more certain than the superiority
of "Paradise Regained" over any poem that has
appeared since. Well done ! that is something like
having an opinion. One recognizes in this dogmatic
judgment the writer of whom Lord Lansdowne ^
said once, " I wish I was as cocksure of anything
as Tom Macaulay is of everything." Still the
writer's assurance is here reasonable enough : he is

1 [It was Lord Melbourne, was it not ? It is certainly more
in his way. — Trans.]


expressing his tastes, translating his impressions,
and, so long as we keep to this region of personal
literary sentiment, Macaulay has as much right to
admire as Pococurante to depreciate.

Of this, criticism has now convinced itself. It has
perceived the barrenness of these positive tastes,
of these contradictory judgments. It has felt that
there is a method at once more decisive and fairer :
the method which sets to work to comprehend
rather than to class, to explain rather than to judge.
Such criticism seeks to give account of the work
by means of the genius of the workman and of the
form which this genius has taken under pressure of
the circumstances among which it has been devel-
oped. Yet, therewithal, it denies not the eternal
poetic substance, the creative power in face of
which we find ourselves, when all is said, in the
case of any masterpiece. But, by the side of this
element, which is, so to speak, irreducible, it makes
allowance for date, for country, for education, for
dominant ideas, for the general course of events.
From these two things — the analysis of the writer's
character and the study of his age — there arises
spontaneously an understanding of his work, in-
stead of a personal and arbitrary estimate made by
the first comer. We see that work, after a fashion,
pronouncing judgment on itself, and taking the
rank which belongs to it among the productions of
the human mind. This rank it occupies — I repeat
the fact and shall take good care not to forget it —


thanks to poetical beauties appreciated by the
reader's emotion. But that very emotion, it must
equally be remembered, depends on the point of
view at which we place ourselves, on the allow-
ances which we make for the author and his epoch,
on the secret transposition by which we adjust his
music to our own voices. All this is the business
of the historic intelligence. The " Iliad" has gained
more than it has lost by being regarded as a national
saga, and the representation of a still barbarous
society. The exquisite poetry of the " iEneid " is
enjoyed better when we have given up demanding
originality of epic conception in it; and Kacine
exercises his power over our emotions more cer-
tainly when we have once allowed for the artificial
a?'s poetica, the conventional language of the period,
in "Andromaque" and in "Phedre."


Milton was born in 1608, ten years after the death
of Spenser and eight years before that of Shake-
speare. He died in 1674, fourteen years after the
Restoration. He thus went back nearly to the
reign of Elizabeth, and he saw the beginning, the
triumph, and the fall of the Commonwealth. Thus,
also, he belongs at once to the Renaissance and to
Puritanism. The whole character of his genius
and of his work is explained by this double filia-
tion. He is a poet, not of the great creative age,


but of that age's morrow, a morrow still possessed
of spontaneity and conviction. Yet he is a didactic
and theological poet, that is to say, the only kind
of poet which it was possible for an English repub-
lican of the seventeenth century to be.

The Renaissance and Puritanism were two power-
ful movements, at once in alliance and in opposition
— two epochs diversely memorable. I can hardly
understand why the history of the Renaissance has
not yet emj)loyed some eminent writer. There is
no greater theme, no more varied subject. There
comes a day when humanity re-discovers its patents
of nobility. It finds antiquity in the dust of libra-
ries as Pompeii has since been found under the
ashes. A whole new world issues from these tat-
tered parchments, a new ideal arises in the soul of
man. Forms of marvellous beauty rise like an
apparition. There had been no idea earlier of such
clear wisdom, of such fascinating speculations, of
such a consummate art of poetry. Men came little
short of adoring as divine immortal writers like the
great Plato, like the sweet Virgil. But the wor-
ship of beauty is contagious. These masterpieces
naturally became models ; or, rather, in this com-
merce with the ancients there was kindled an in-
spiration which in turn produced its own poets,
and gave new examples for the succeeding cen-
turies. Nor was this all. To the enchantments
of taste were promptly added the satisfactions of
reason and the conquests of science. Scholarship


was born from the use of ancient tongues and the
familiarity with texts. Men taught tliemselves to
compare opinions, to distinguish epochs, to subject
traditions to doubt. The historic sense of things
was aroused. A breach was made in authority.
Finally, and as though the rediscovery of this old
world were not enough, a new world disclosed itself.
Sailors transformed the prevalent idea of the terres-
trial globe, and astronomers the prevalent idea of
the universe. Add to all this the great industrial
inventions, with, at their head, that of printing,
which stands to writing as writing does to speech,
which gives the means of fixing the acquisitions of
the human mind, which thus constitutes the instru-
ment of instruments for what is called progress.
And now put on the crown and, as it were, the
aureole of this marvellous time, in the shape of the
produce of its own special art, of the masterpieces
of its architects, its sculptors, its painters most of
all. Picture in this way all the restorations, all
the conquests, all the glories of the time, and say
if there was ever in the history of humanity a
stranger spectacle or a more exciting surprise.
Mankind made a backward leap of fifteen cen-
turies to recover its true traditions. It freed itself
at last from the Semitic spirit. It said good by
to scholasticism and asceticism, it cast off the
monkish gown in which its limbs had been prisoned.
It left the cloister — long and damp and sombre —
to bask once more in God's sunlight. Weary of


striving and struggling, of tragical repentance, of
funereal meditation, men opened their breasts to
the breath of the spring. After long being in
leading-strings to priests, they tried to walk alone
and bathed deliciously in truth, in beauty, in nature
and its simplicity. Oh, period truly incomparable !
Lasting enchantment! Excusable intoxication!
Second and unspeakable youth of the world !

But also what a transition was that from the
Eenaissance to Puritanism ! And yet the one
sprang from the other, for Puritanism is but Prot-
estantism in an acute form, and Protestantism itself
is but the Eenaissance carried into the sphere of
religion and theology.

Yet again, what a difference ! The Puritans are
men to whom the curtains of the heavens are
opened, and to whose eyes the realities of the invis-
ible world have been revealed. They have seen
Jehovah on His throne, the Son on His right hand,
and the angels prostrate before them. Thencefor-
ward, they live as if in the presence of this terrible
God and in the expectation of judgment. They
have but one care, the salvation of their immortal
souls. Life for them is but the service of the Lord,
who has predestinated them to destroy idols, to
establish the true faith, to bring a rebellious world
into conformity with the Divine Will. Such is the
mission of the faithful here below. He is equally
ready to suffer pillory or prison, and to gird on the
sword like Gideon to slay the impious. Like all


men who are the slaves of a single idea he is
at once heroic and ridiculous. Observe these long
faces, these mourning garments, these shaven heads.
Listen to this Biblical jargon, these hymns droned
through the nose, these endless prayers, wiredrawn
discussions, carses of the world and its amuse-
ments. You will turn away your head with a smile
of pity or of disgust. Agreed : but these same men
are stout soldiers and zealous citizens. There are
generals and statesmen among the fanatics who
kneel there smiting their breasts and seeking the
Lord. It is impossible not to admire their sagacity
in counsel, their constancy in undertakings, their
valor and their discipline in the field. It would
seem that, certain of the reward which awaits them,
they carry into mundane affairs all the freer spirit
and all the more entire devotion.

The Puritans are the Jacobins of Protestantism.
In both there is the same abstract conception of
things, the same tyranny of the idea, the same
craving to re?,lize half-seen visions. In both you
find the twin tendencies, radicalism and idealism.
In both there is an equal faith in the Absolute,
the source of all fanaticism. Both invoke the
name of Liberty, but both also invoke her rather
as a means than as an end, and truth is set by both
above her. Nay, the very Hebrew names with
which the Puritans deck themselves recall our
Brutuses and our Aristides. The two Utopias,
classical democracy and the theocracy of the Bible,

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 9 of 21)