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A 37
v. 1



With these two volumes of Lectures and Essays
I complete the task laid upon me by Canon
Ainger's executors of editing his literary remains ;
and I take the opportunity afforded by this
preface to thank them for allowing me a free
hand in the choice of what seemed best to publish,
and to express the hope that I have not done my
friend's reputation a disservice by printing or
reprinting anything that he himself would have
preferred to let die.

The greater number of the Essays appeared
in the pages of Macmillarfs Magazine. One of
them, bearing the title of " Books and their Uses,"
was contributed by its author, while still an under-
graduate at Cambridge, to the first number of
that magazine (Dec. 1859), under the signature
of Doubleday (i.e. doubled A) ; and I have in-
cluded it as a curiosity of literature, because it
displays thus early not a few of the preferences,
and perhaps a few of the prejudices also, with


which a large circle of friends were presently to
become familiar. It opens with a quotation from
Charles Lamb and concludes with a paragraph
constructed in his manner ; there are a few quips,
a few praises of the past, a few stout blows struck
for Tennyson, a eulogy of Shakspeare (with a
recommendation, that sounds oddly at this date,
to read Bucknill on the Psychology of that
dramatist), and throughout there is a diffused
feeling that literature, great as it is, must subserve
higher interests. Between this first boyish essay
and the short biographical note on Mr. Alexander
Macmillan in March 1896, Ainger's final contri-
bution to the magazine, ten articles appeared
there from his pen, of which the following is a
complete list : —

Jan. 187 1. Mr. Dickens's Amateur Theatricals (un-

Feb. 1874. The late Sir George Rose (unsigned).

Jan. 1875. The New Hamlet and his Critics (signed
" A Templar ")•

Oct. 1879. Charles James Mathews (unsigned).

Jan. 1887. The Letters of Charles Lamb.

June 1887. Coleridge's Ode to Wordsworth.

Feb. 1889. Nether Stowey.

Dec. 1889. The Teaching of English Literature.

Nov. 1892. The Death of Tennyson.

Dec. 1894. Poetse Mediocres.


Of these all but the third, the last, and the merely
biographical portion of the paper upon Charles
Mathews, are here reprinted ; and they are fairly
representative of the chief directions in which
their author's more secular talent and interest
displayed themselves, for they would fall under
the three divisions of wit, poetry, and the stage.
From contributions to other periodicals I have
selected a paper on Mrs. Barbauld which appeared
in the Hampstead Annual for 1901, and four
papers from the Pilot (see vol. ii. pp. 127- 181).

The greater number of the Lectures in these
volumes were delivered at the Royal Institution.
Some were given in sets of three : the " Three
Stages of Shakspeare's Art" in February 1890 ;
the three lectures on Swift in January 1894 '■> an ^
those upon Cowper, Burns, and Scott in April
and May 1898; others were single lectures,
" Friday Evening Discourses," their subjects
being : " True and False Humour in Litera-
ture " (April 5, 1889), "Euphuism, Past and
Present" (April 24, 1891), "Children's Books
of a Hundred Years Ago" (March I, 1895),
and " The Ethical Element in Shakspeare "
(May 23, 1902). It must be confessed that
in regard to the publication of most of these
Royal Institution lectures the editor has ex-


perienced some qualms of conscience. So sensitive
a literary craftsman as Ainger could not fail to
make a great difference in style between a lecture
written to be listened to, and an essay written to be
read. The lectures which he himself sent to press,
those upon " The Letters of Charles Lamb," * and
" The Teaching of English Literature," 2 were of
the nature of essays, and were written with an
eye upon the magazine in which they subsequently
appeared ; while the altogether charming story
of his adventures in Hertfordshire in search of
memorials of Charles Lamb, although it was
originally given as a lecture, 3 and was not printed
until after his death, when it appeared in the
Comhill Magazine for May 1904, was really not a
lecture at all, but a narrative of adventures at
Widford ; and it may be said, in parenthesis, that
there is more of the true Elia flavour about it
than about many essays written more consciously
upon that inimitable model.

The popular lectures, delivered at the Royal
Institution, were creatures of another element.
They were written certainly (as the manu-
script testifies) in haste, and with little heed

1 Given at Alderley Edge, Nov. 3, 1886.

2 Given at University College, Bristol, 1889.

3 At Streatham Hill, Dec. 6, 1894.


for style, for the sake of the lessons to be taught ;
and these lessons were impressed by much repeti-
tion, and illustrated by much sympathetic reading
from the authors discussed. It was clear that an
editor, even if he allowed himself the freest use of
the blue pencil (and to that I must plead guilty),
could not convert the one type of lecture into the
other ; and so the question presented itself whether
their author, so fastidious about his own work,
would have suffered them to go to press at all.
In that form the question could not be answered.
But when I asked whether the lessons enforced in
the lectures still needed enforcing, I could not
doubt that the answer was yes. Accordingly,
with the exception of two courses, upon Tennyson
and Chaucer, given respectively in 1893 and
1900, the Royal Institution lectures have been
all printed. As some sort of reminder to the
reader that what he is reading is a lecture, I have
retained a good many of the lecturer's marks of
emphasis, in the guise of italics.

I have spoken of these lectures as enforcing
lessons, and the description will, I think, be
allowed as on the whole a true one. For with all
his sensitiveness to beauty of form and expression,
Ainger's interest in literature was in the main
ethical. He was the product of a time when our


English poets and imaginative writers were largely
concerned with ideas, and when critics were largely
occupied in discussing the ideas of their authors.
He belonged, that is to say, to the era of Tennyson
and Browning, of Thackeray and Dickens. Our
own age, being less creative, has pushed criticism
further into detail, and has confined it within
more strictly aesthetic bounds. But Ainger,
having the happiness to live in one of the
great ages of creative impulse, found his atten-
tion necessarily fixed on the larger aspects of
literature, and so naturally restricted his atten-
tion to these in discussing other great literary

Through all the lectures there runs the insist-
ence upon what Ainger was accustomed to speak
of as the genuine humanity of the great men of
letters. If he is discussing style, he notices how
true feeling and earnestness at once raise and
clarify it ; he defines euphuism as the putting of
manner above matter ; he finds the root of real
humour, and its superiority over mere wit, in its
sympathy with, and reverence for, what is human.
It is characteristic of his point of view that he
should write upon the " ethical element " in
Shakspeare (even considering that he had proved
Sir John Falstaff to be a " corrupted Lollard ' : ) ;


that he should find more in Swift to censure than
to praise, and more in Burns to praise than to
censure ; and that he should trace the secret of
the " Art of Conversation " to certain qualities of
the heart rather than of the head. For one who
was himself endowed by nature with so much wit,
this insistence upon the deeper humanity of the
moral nature loses what might else have been
reckoned its professional bias, and becomes im-

There are two things sometimes looked for in
critical essays, which the reader of these pages
must be warned at the outset that he will not find.
The first is work of research. I do not think
Ainger would have claimed to possess any special
zeal or skill for the discovery of new facts about
the great writers whom he loved and honoured.
The confessions in the essay about " Charles Lamb
in Hertfordshire " speak for themselves as to his
manner of working. He was uninterested in
points of minute historical accuracy for their
own sake, though when some question touching
character was involved, he would take a great
deal of pains in an investigation ; and I would
indicate specially the paper on Coleridge's Dejec-
tion Ode as forming an original and important
contribution to the study of that poet. The


other element, which the readers of modern critical
essays may be disappointed not to find in these
volumes, is paradox. It was Ainger's idea that
the function of criticism was not to coruscate,
but to analyse ; to get down to the truth about
any matter, not to say brilliant things for the
amusement of his audience. And if this older
fashion in criticism is allowed, the reader will find
many examples of his author's happy skill in
appreciating and discriminating what comes up
for judgment. The sort of question he liked to
put to himself was, What is true humour, and
how does it differ from what is false ? What is
true poetry, and how does it differ from what is
second-rate ? Why can I read a play of Shak-
speare again and again with renewed delight, and
never wish to return to the undoubtedly clever
scenes of this other playwright ? As examples
of his skill in analysis, it will suffice to refer to
the three lectures upon Shakspeare which open
the book ; in the first of which I would point to
the criticism of Lovers Labour's Lost, with its careful
investigation of what it is that makes the play
unpopular, and its vigorous defence of the play's
dramatic interest ; in the second, to the study of
Sensationalism ; and in the third, to the searching
discussion of Hallam's theory as to what con-


stitutes the common element in the last group of

I have ventured to append a note here and
there ; these editorial notes are distinguished from
those of the author by being enclosed in square

brackets - H. C. EEECHING.

Little Cloisters,
Westminster Abbey,
June 1905.


The Three Stages of Shakspeare's Art

Spring (1591-159S)

Summer (1 598-1605) .
Autumn (1605-16 12) .

The Ethical Element in Shakspeare

Sir John Falstaff ....

Euphuism, Past and Present .

Swift — His Life and Genius (Three Lectures)

Some Leaders in the Poetic Revival of

1760-1S20 —

Cowper .


Scott ..... .

Mrs. Barbauld ......

The Children's Books of a Hundred Years
Ago ........






-» -» i






The man who sets himself to write critically on
Shakspeare's life or works writes with a hundred
daggers at his throat ! For that life and those
works are so full of problems — unsolvable as
regards any light ever likely to be thrown upon
them — that to attempt any explanation is at once
to come into conflict with somebody. And no one
but those who have taken part in it, or watched
as interested spectators from outside, can form
an idea of the earnestness of Shakspearian con-
troversy. But the plan I have proposed to
myself stands, for the most part, outside these
thorny paths. It will not require the previous
settlement of points on which Shakspearian critics
so widely differ. It will assume scarcely anything,
VOL. I £ B


I hope, on which they are not agreed. Such
questions as the precise order in which the poet
wrote the plays that bear his name, or the
presence in certain of these plays of some other
hand than his, interesting and important questions
as they are, will hardly come under notice. I ask
nothing from my audience beyond the acquaint-
ance which every educated man and woman is
supposed to have with the greatest literary glory
of their country.

I am obliged to say " is supposed to have,"
because that general knowledge of Shakspeare
that undoubtedly prevails in society is very
various in kind. When a great writer has been
celebrated, and in vogue, as Shakspeare has been
(with a few long and dark intervals), for three
hundred years, a considerable familiarity with his
plots, characters, and language belongs to the very
air that people breathe. Without ever opening
Shakspeare's works, it would be possible for any
one of ordinary intelligence to know a great deal
of the contents of those volumes, so considerable
a part of Shakspeare's wisdom and poetry lives
about us in habitual quotation. Books and essays
deal with him ; pictures are painted of his char-
acters and incidents ; allusion to him is every-
where, and we cannot escape from it. And then
some of his masterpieces in tragedy and comedy
are acted at intervals ; and if evidence were wanted
of what I am alleging — the absence of first-hand
acquaintance with the poet — it is furnished by the


remarks that fly about among the audience during
these performances — one person expressing a sur-
prise, such as only actual novelty excites ; and
others expressing a keen desire to know how
Hamlet or the Merchant of Venice is " going
to end." And therefore, no one addressing
an audience on Shakspeare can quite take for
granted that the subject, in its length and breadth,
is familiar to his hearers.

Even among those to whom many of Shak-
speare's plays are old and loved companions
it will be found that others of his plays are much
less familiar, and in some cases all but unknown.
This is partly due, no doubt, to the circumstance
that certain plays are more often acted than
others ; that, indeed, certain plays are never acted
at all. In this country, I mean ; for in Germany
the whole range of the Shakspearian drama is
produced upon the stage, and in consequence the
average educated German has a more thorough
acquaintance with our poet than the average
educated Englishman. And quotation from, and
allusion to, Shakspeare is largely dependent on
the publicity that stage representations give to the
Shakspearian drama. But this by no means
represents the whole truth of the matter. It is
not only because Love's Labour's Lost and the Two
Gentlemen of Verona are less often performed in
public than As You Like It or Much Ado about
Nothing that they are less known to the ordinary
reader. Nor is it merely that, on the whole, the


two last-named comedies are of greater excellence,
of higher quality, than the former. It is, in
reality, that they belong to a different stage in
the development of Shakspeare's genius. There
is a manifest unlikeness between dramas written
at different periods of Shakspeare's life, which
-cannot be described by saying that one play is
better than another — more beautiful in language,
richer in wisdom, more skilful in construction,
more exquisite in humour. One play is found to
be different from certain of its companions, and
the Shakspearian lo.ver, who has known the
Merchant of Venice from a child, finds upon
attempting to thread the labyrinth of Love's
Labour's Lost that he is in almost another world
— so different, at least, is the atmosphere of the
one from that of the other. I believe that this
difference of atmosphere is, as I have said,
literary — belonging to the form of the work rather
than to its essence — but it is not the less discon-
certing for that. It is, at all events, what con-
fronts the general reader at the outset of his task,
and what in many cases repels him, or at least
long delays his further venture into that unknown
world. And my object in these lectures is mainly
to consider with you the nature and causes of some
of these differences.

But assuming that there are many among my
audience who have been less attracted to certain
plays than to others, I want to show that even the
less attractive plays possess, and ought to supply,


a peculiar and compensating interest of their own.
Without deviating into points disputed, I want to
bring all that we know about Shakspeare's life and
art to bear upon this interest. There are one or
two dates that should be known to us already,
and ready when we want them. We know when
Shakspeare was born, and when he died. He
was born in 1564, and died in 16 16, when little
past the flower of life. We know approximately
which were his early plays, which his middle
plays, and which his later, though we cannot
ascertain in what precise year any play was
written. But we know as certain that Love's
Labour's Lost was one of his earliest (if not his
very earliest) dramas, that Hamlet belongs to the
meridian of his powers, that the Tempest was one
of the very last of his plays. We learn this, not
from guesswork, not by theorising, but from con-
temporary documents and allusions. We also
know the fact, with less certainty, of course, from
internal evidence, from noticing certain changes
in versification and in sentiment — and this kind of
evidence becomes more and more convincing as
we find certain characteristics pervading all Shak-
speare's early plays, and others distinguishing all
those that are known to be late. And I am not
challenging any contradiction that I ever heard of
when I speak of certain plays as belonging to
what I have called (perhaps over -sentimentally)
the Spring, Summer, and Autumn of Shakspeare's
creative faculty.


Now the whole period within which these
plays of Shakspeare were written is one approxi-
mately of twenty-one years — from about i 59 t to
16 1 2. It is a period divisible by three, and gives
us a convenient arrangement of seven years for
our three lectures. I need not say that no space,
whether of a nation's development or an in-
dividual's, ever falls into exactly symmetrical
divisions. There is no magic in the number
seven. Geniuses arrange themselves in no lease-
holds of seven, fourteen, or twenty-one years, like
dwelling-houses. But it so happens that the
plays on which we propose to ground our obser-
vation of the changes in Shakspeare's literary
form and spirit fall within these prescribed limits,
and that is enough for us.

I have referred to the fact that the relative
popularity of Shakspeare's plays is not merely
due to some being more or less poetical than
others. It is not that the reader finds Love's
Labour's Lost a less excellent comedy than the
MercJiant of Venice ; but he finds it altogether of
another sort, and he resents the difference. Now,
our disappointments in literature mainly arise
from our approaching the work of an author
expecting something which we shall not find there.
The young and eager student, whose ear and
imagination have come to rejoice in the lyric
splendour of Shelley and Tennyson and Browning,
approaches the study of Pope, which he is told he
ought to admire, and finding it quite unlike


Tennyson and Shelley, is disappointed and even
aggrieved. For he has not yet mastered that
golden rule expressed in Pope's own couplet —

A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ —

a couplet which expresses quite perfectly the
key to all real appreciation of literary value.
This rule, then, shall be our guide. I have no
such presumptuous intention as that of telling you
what to admire most and what least in Shak-
speare's plays, but only to dwell upon the enhanced
interest that belongs to every creation of a great
master like Shakspeare, when we note its place in
his intellectual development, and the influences on
him of education or the example of his contem-
poraries, or the fashion and spirit of the hour.

Let me now, without further preface, very
briefly sum up what we know of Shakspeare's
circumstances and career before the time that he
comes to light in London as a highly successful
lyric and narrative poet. Born in 1564, in the
heart of one of the loveliest counties of England ;
the son of a well-to-do, though afterwards less
prosperous, farmer or grazier ; taught (because
there or nowhere) at the grammar-school of
Stratford-on-Avon ; accustomed as a boy to see
the wandering troupes of actors who frequently
visited Stratford ; apprenticed (at the end of his
seven years' schooling) to some craft, though we
know not what, whether the farming, the butcher-


ing, or (as Lord Campbell thought) the scrivener's
desk ; involved in a marriage, while still a boy,
with a woman some years his senior ; children
born to him in 1583 and 1585 ; and then, by
and by, a migration to London, whether or not
hastened by the traditional escapade among Sir
Thomas Lucy's deer. To assume all this, which
does not seem much (but is perhaps more than it
seems), is hardly to dogmatise, or to be wise
above that which is written.

For whatever cause, he left Stratford for
London, and alone, while a very young man.
And there, with whatever introductions (and the
Burbages were a Warwickshire family), he had
to face the eternal "bread and cheese" question
which controls the early days of all impecunious
young men. All known facts, as well as tradi-
tional anecdotes, point to a very early association
with the stage. The old story of his holding
horses at the theatre-door, though likely enough
to be widely incorrect in detail, is not valueless.
A young, and otherwise untried man, who con-
nects himself with a profession, because his
affections and his taste and his talent all draw
him thither, must needs, until he has shown
what stuff is in him, do very " general utility "
business indeed. A man cannot be made a
successful actor in a day (though many an
amateur has to be rudely awakened from that
dream !), nor a successful dramatist. There are
at least five years to account for in Shakspeare's


life before he is known to us as a coming power
in the art and literature of his clay. And though
these years are a blank to us — so far as any
authentic records of the poet are concerned — they
are not all blank if we remember that to make a
successful writer for the stage (as contrasted, I
mean, with a writer of poems in dramatic form)
requires an apprenticeship to the stage, if not as
actor, at least as one in constant touch with it
or observation of it. It was this that Shak-
speare was gaining by continual association
with the theatre — whether before or behind the
curtain. He served an apprenticeship to the
stage, as to the precise nature of which we know
nothing. And yet we know this, that his dramas
could not have been what they are to us had
their author not had this one effectual opportunity
of learning what in a play is effective dramatically,
and what is not. No writer, however en-
dowed with genius, can come into the world
possessed of this knowledge. And yet, by a sad
perversity, it is one of the last truths accepted
by the ardent and impatient genius of young
poets. Every young man of imaginative gifts
wishes to write a successful play. It is generally
his earliest ambition. It looks so easy — given
the subject, the poetic gift, the poet's own interest
in his work. But, alas ! when it comes out of the
study on to the stage it is a failure. It will not
act ; nor does it read as if it would act.

And it is this rare but all-important quality


that belongs to the Shakspearian drama as a
whole ; and far more, I believe, than many
persons are aware of, accounts for his supremacy
even with those who know him from the book,
and little, or not at all, from the stage. We have
not much opportunity in England of knowing
Shakspeare as a whole (on all sides of him)
from the theatre. Only a select few of his plays
are ever acted at all. And even when they are
thus given, it is generally because of certain
leading actors wishing to play leading parts, the
remainder of the dramatis persona; being left
to play themselves anyhow. Some educated
persons resent this state of things and abstain

Online LibraryAlfred AingerLectures and essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 25)