Thomas Carlyle.

Sartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history online

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Life of our Europe as developed then, its chivalries, courtesies,
humours, ambitions, what practical way of thinking, acting, looking at
the world, men then had. As in Homer we may still construe Old Greece;
so in Shakspeare and Dante, after thousands of years, what our modern
Europe was, in Faith and in Practice, will still be legible. Dante has
given us the Faith or soul; Shakspeare, in a not less noble way, has
given us the Practice or body. This latter also we were to have: a man
was sent for it, the man Shakspeare. Just when that chivalry way of
life had reached its last finish, and was on the point of breaking
down into slow or swift dissolution, as we now see it everywhere, this
other sovereign Poet, with his seeing eye, with his perennial singing
voice, was sent to take note of it, to give long-enduring record of
it. Two fit men: Dante, deep, fierce as the central fire of the world;
Shakspeare, wide, placid, far-seeing, as the Sun, the upper light of
the world. Italy produced the one world-voice; we English had the
honour of producing the other.

Curious enough how, as it were by mere accident, this man came to us.
I think always, so great, quiet, complete and self-sufficing is this
Shakspeare, had the Warwickshire Squire not prosecuted him for
deer-stealing, we had perhaps never heard of him as a Poet! The woods
and skies, the rustic Life of Man in Stratford there, had been enough
for this man! But indeed that strange outbudding of our whole English
Existence, which we call the Elizabethan Era, did not it too come as
of its own accord? The 'Tree Igdrasil' buds and withers by its own
laws, - too deep for our scanning. Yet it does bud and wither, and
every bough and leaf of it is there, by fixed eternal laws; not a Sir
Thomas Lucy but comes at the hour fit for him. Curious, I say, and not
sufficiently considered: how everything does coöperate with all; not a
leaf rotting on the highway but is indissoluble portion of solar and
stellar systems; no thought, word or act of man but has sprung withal
out of all men, and works sooner or later, recognisably or
irrecognisably, on all men! It is all a Tree: circulation of sap and
influences, mutual communication of every minutest leaf with the
lowest talon of a root, with every other greatest and minutest portion
of the whole. The Tree Igdrasil, that has its roots down in the
Kingdoms of Hela and Death, and whose boughs overspread the highest
Heaven! -

In some sense it may be said that this glorious Elizabethan Era with
its Shakspeare, as the outcome and flowerage of all which had preceded
it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The
Christian Faith, which was the theme of Dante's Song, had produced
this Practical Life which Shakspeare was to sing. For Religion then,
as it now and always is, was the soul of Practice; the primary vital
fact in men's life. And remark here, as rather curious, that
Middle-Age Catholicism was abolished, so far as Acts of Parliament
could abolish it, before Shakspeare, the noblest product of it, made
his appearance. He did make his appearance nevertheless. Nature at her
own time, with Catholicism or what else might be necessary, sent him
forth; taking small thought of Acts of Parliament. King-Henrys,
Queen-Elizabeths go their way; and Nature too goes hers. Acts of
Parliament, on the whole, are small, notwithstanding the noise they
make. What Act of Parliament, debate at St. Stephen's, on the hustings
or elsewhere, was it that brought this Shakspeare into being? No
dining at Freemasons' Tavern, opening subscription-lists, selling of
shares, and infinite other jangling and true or false endeavouring!
This Elizabethan Era, and all its nobleness and blessedness, came
without proclamation, preparation of ours. Priceless Shakspeare was
the free gift of Nature; given altogether silently; - received
altogether silently, as if it had been a thing of little account. And
yet, very literally, it is a priceless thing. One should look at that
side of matters too.

Of this Shakspeare of ours, perhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a
little idolatrously expressed is, in fact, the right one; I think the
best judgment not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is
slowly pointing to the conclusion, That Shakspeare is the chief of all
Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has
left record of himself in the way of Literature. On the whole, I know
not such a power of vision, such a faculty of thought, if we take all
the characters of it, in any other man. Such a calmness of depth;
placid joyous strength; all things imaged in that great soul of his so
true and clear, as in a tranquil unfathomable sea! It has been said,
that in the constructing of Shakspeare's Dramas there is, apart from
all other 'faculties' as they are called, an understanding manifested,
equal to that in Bacon's _Novum Organum_. That is true; and it is not
a truth that strikes every one. It would become more apparent if we
tried, any of us for himself, how, out of Shakspeare's dramatic
materials, _we_ could fashion such a result! The built house seems all
so fit, - everyway as it should be, as if it came there by its own law
and the nature of things, - we forget the rude disorderly quarry it was
shaped from. The very perfection of the house, as if Nature herself
had made it, hides the builder's merit. Perfect, more perfect than any
other man, we may call Shakspeare in this: he discerns, knows as by
instinct, what condition he works under, what his materials are, what
his own force and its relation to them is. It is not a transitory
glance of insight that will suffice; it is deliberate illumination of
the whole matter; it is a calmly _seeing_ eye; a great intellect, in
short. How a man, of some wide thing that he has witnessed, will
construct a narrative, what kind of picture and delineation he will
give of it, - is the best measure you could get of what intellect is in
the man. Which circumstance is vital and shall stand prominent; which
unessential, fit to be suppressed; where is the true _beginning_, the
true sequence and ending? To find out this, you task the whole force
of insight that is in the man. He must _understand_ the thing;
according to the depth of his understanding, will the fitness of his
answer be. You will try him so. Does like join itself to like; does
the spirit of method stir in that confusion, so that its embroilment
becomes order? Can the man say, _Fiat lux_, Let there be light; and
out of chaos make a world? Precisely as there is _light_ in himself,
will he accomplish this.

Or indeed we may say again, it is in what I called Portrait-painting,
delineating of men and things, especially of men, that Shakspeare is
great. All the greatness of the man comes out decisively here. It is
unexampled, I think, that calm creative perspicacity of Shakspeare.
The thing he looks at reveals not this or that face of it, but its
inmost heart, and generic secret: it dissolves itself as in light
before him, so that he discerns the perfect structure of it. Creative,
we said: poetic creation, what is this too but _seeing_ the thing
sufficiently? The _word_ that will describe the thing, follows of
itself from such clear intense sight of the thing. And is not
Shakspeare's _morality_, his valour, candour, tolerance, truthfulness;
his whole victorious strength and greatness, which can triumph over
such obstructions, visible there too? Great as the world! No
_twisted_, poor convex-concave mirror, reflecting all objects with its
own convexities and concavities; a perfectly _level_ mirror; - that is
to say withal, if we will understand it, a man justly related to all
things and men, a good man. It is truly a lordly spectacle how this
great soul takes-in all kinds of men and objects, a Falstaff, an
Othello, a Juliet, a Coriolanus; sets them all forth to us in their
round completeness; loving, just, the equal brother of all. _Novum
Organum_, and all the intellect you will find in Bacon, is of a quite
secondary order; earthly, material, poor in comparison with this.
Among modern men, one finds, in strictness, almost nothing of the same
rank. Goethe alone, since the days of Shakspeare, reminds me of it. Of
him too you say that he _saw_ the object; you may say what he himself
says of Shakspeare: 'His characters are like watches with dial-plates
of transparent crystal; they show you the hour like others, and the
inward mechanism also is all visible.'

The seeing eye! It is this that discloses the inner harmony of things;
what Nature meant, what musical idea Nature has wrapped-up in these
often rough embodiments. Something she did mean. To the seeing eye
that something were discernible. Are they base, miserable things? You
can laugh over them, you can weep over them; you can in some way or
other genially relate yourself to them; - you can, at lowest, hold your
peace about them, turn away your own and others' face from them, till
the hour come for practically exterminating and extinguishing them! At
bottom, it is the Poet's first gift, as it is all men's, that he have
intellect enough. He will be a Poet if he have: a Poet in word; or
failing that, perhaps still better, a Poet in act. Whether he write at
all; and if so, whether in prose or in verse, will depend on
accidents: who knows on what extremely trivial accidents, - perhaps on
his having had a singing-master, on his being taught to sing in his
boyhood! But the faculty which enables him to discern the inner heart
of things, and the harmony that dwells there (for whatsoever exists
has a harmony in the heart of it, or it would not hold together and
exist), is not the result of habits or accidents, but the gift of
Nature herself; the primary outfit for a Heroic Man in what sort
soever. To the Poet, as to every other, we say first of all, _See_. If
you cannot do that, it is of no use to keep stringing rhymes together,
jingling sensibilities against each other, and _name_ yourself a Poet;
there is no hope for you. If you can, there is, in prose or verse, in
action or speculation, all manner of hope. The crabbed old
Schoolmaster used to ask, when they brought him a new pupil, "But are
ye sure he's _not a dunce_?" Why, really one might ask the same thing
in regard to every man proposed for whatsoever function; and consider
it as the one inquiry needful: Are ye sure he's not a dunce? There is,
in this world, no other entirely fatal person.

For, in fact, I say the degree of vision that dwells in a man is a
correct measure of the man. If called to define Shakspeare's faculty,
I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all
under that. What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they
were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect,
imagination, fancy, &c, as he has hands, feet and arms. That is a
capital error. Then again, we hear of a man's 'intellectual nature,'
and of his 'moral nature,' as if these again were divisible, and
existed apart. Necessities of language do perhaps prescribe such forms
of utterance; we must speak, I am aware, in that way, if we are to
speak at all. But words ought not to harden into things for us. It
seems to me, our apprehension of this matter is, for the most part,
radically falsified thereby. We ought to know withal, and to keep for
ever in mind, that these divisions are at bottom but _names_; that
man's spiritual nature, the vital Force which dwells in him, is
essentially one and indivisible; that what we call imagination, fancy,
understanding, and so forth, are but different figures of the same
Power of Insight, all indissolubly connected with each other,
physiognomically related; that if we knew one of them, we might know
all of them. Morality itself, what we call the moral quality of a man,
what is this but another _side_ of the one vital Force whereby he is
and works? All that a man does is physiognomical of him. You may see
how a man would fight, by the way in which he sings; his courage, or
want of courage, is visible in the word he utters, in the opinion he
has formed, no less than in the stroke he strikes. He is _one_; and
preaches the same Self abroad in all these ways.

Without hands a man might have feet, and could still walk: but,
consider it, - without morality, intellect were impossible for him; a
thoroughly immoral _man_ could not know anything at all! To know a
thing, what we can call knowing, a man must first _love_ the thing,
sympathise with it: that is, be _virtuously_ related to it. If he have
not the justice to put down his own selfishness at every turn, the
courage to stand by the dangerous-true at every turn, how shall he
know? His virtues, all of them, will lie recorded in his knowledge.
Nature, with her truth, remains to the bad, to the selfish and the
pusillanimous forever a sealed book: what such can know of Nature is
mean, superficial, small; for the uses of the day merely. - But does
not the very Fox know something of Nature? Exactly so: it knows where
the geese lodge! The human Reynard, very frequent everywhere in the
world, what more does he know but this and the like of this? Nay, it
should be considered, too, that if the Fox had not a certain vulpine
_morality_, he could not even know where the geese were, or get at the
geese! If he spent his time in splenetic atrabiliar reflections on his
own misery, his ill usage by Nature, Fortune and other Foxes, and so
forth; and had not courage, promptitude, practicality, and other
suitable vulpine gifts and graces, he would catch no geese. We may say
of the Fox too, that his morality and insight are of the same
dimensions; different faces of the same internal unity of vulpine
life! - These things are worth stating; for the contrary of them acts
with manifold very baleful perversion, in this time: what limitations,
modifications they require, your own candour will supply.

If I say, therefore, that Shakspeare is the greatest of Intellects, I
have said all concerning him. But there is more in Shakspeare's
intellect than we have yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious
intellect; there is more virtue in it than he himself is aware of.
Novalis beautifully remarks of him, that those Dramas of his are
Products of Nature too, deep as Nature herself. I find a great truth
in this saying. Shakspeare's Art is not Artifice; the noblest worth of
it is not there by plan or precontrivance. It grows-up from the deeps
of Nature, through this noble sincere soul, who is a voice of Nature.
The latest generations of men will find new meanings in Shakspeare,
new elucidations of their own human being; 'new harmonies with the
infinite structure of the Universe; concurrences with later ideas,
affinities with the higher powers and senses of man.' This well
deserves meditating. It is Nature's highest reward to a true simple
great soul, that he get thus to be a _part of herself_. Such a man's
works, whatsoever he with utmost conscious exertion and forethought
shall accomplish, grow up withal unconsciously, from the unknown deeps
in him; - as the oak-tree grows from the Earth's bosom, as the
mountains and waters shape themselves; with a symmetry grounded on
Nature's own laws, conformable to all Truth whatsoever. How much in
Shakspeare lies hid; his sorrows, his silent struggles known to
himself; much that was not known at all, not speakable at all; like
_roots_, like sap and forces working underground! Speech is great; but
Silence is greater.

Withal the joyful tranquillity of this man is notable. I will not
blame Dante for his misery: it is as battle without victory; but true
battle, - the first, indispensable thing. Yet I call Shakspeare greater
than Dante, in that he fought truly, and did conquer. Doubt it not, he
had his own sorrows: those _Sonnets_ of his will even testify
expressly in what deep waters he had waded, and swum struggling for
his life; - as what man like him ever failed to have to do? It seems to
me a heedless notion, our common one, that he sat like a bird on the
bough; and sang forth, free and offhand, never knowing the troubles of
other men. Not so; with no man is it so. How could a man travel
forward from rustic deer-poaching to such tragedy-writing, and not
fall-in with sorrows by the way? Or, still better, how could a man
delineate a Hamlet, a Coriolanus, a Macbeth, so many suffering heroic
hearts, if his own heroic heart had never suffered? - And now, in
contrast with all this, observe his mirthfulness, his genuine
overflowing love of laughter! You would say, in no point does he
_exaggerate_ but only in laughter. Fiery objurgations, words that
pierce and burn, are to be found in Shakspeare; yet he is always in
measure here; never what Johnson would remark as a specially 'good
hater.' But his laughter seems to pour from him in floods; he heaps
all manner of ridiculous nicknames on the butt he is bantering,
tumbles and tosses him in all sorts of horse-play; you would say, with
his whole heart laughs. And then, if not always the finest, it is
always a genial laughter. Not at mere weakness, at misery or poverty;
never. No man who _can_ laugh, what we call laughing, will laugh at
these things. It is some poor character only _desiring_ to laugh, and
have the credit of wit, that does so. Laughter means sympathy; good
laughter is not 'the crackling of thorns under the pot.' Even at
stupidity and pretension this Shakspeare does not laugh otherwise than
genially. Dogberry and Verges tickle our very hearts; and we dismiss
them covered with explosions of laughter: but we like the poor fellows
only the better for our laughing; and hope they will get on well
there, and continue Presidents of the City-watch. Such laughter, like
sunshine on the deep sea, is very beautiful to me.

* * * * *

We have no room to speak of Shakspeare's individual works; though
perhaps there is much still waiting to be said on that head. Had we,
for instance, all his plays reviewed as _Hamlet_, in _Wilhelm
Meister_, is! A thing which might, one day, be done. August Wilhelm
Schlegel has a remark on his Historical Plays, _Henry Fifth_ and the
others, which is worth remembering. He calls them a kind of National
Epic. Marlborough, you recollect, said, he knew no English History but
what he had learned from Shakspeare. There are really, if we look to
it, few as memorable Histories. The great salient points are admirably
seized; all rounds itself off, into a kind of rhythmic coherence; it
is, as Schlegel says, _epic_; - as indeed all delineation by a great
thinker will be. There are right beautiful things in those Pieces,
which indeed together form one beautiful thing. That battle of
Agincourt strikes me as one of the most perfect things, in its sort,
we anywhere have of Shakspeare's. The description of the two hosts:
the worn-out, jaded English; the dread hour, big with destiny, when
the battle shall begin; and then that deathless valour: "Ye good
yeomen, whose limbs were made in England!" There is a noble Patriotism
in it, - far other than the 'indifference' you sometimes hear ascribed
to Shakspeare. A true English heart breathes, calm and strong, through
the whole business; not boisterous, protrusive; all the better for
that. There is a sound in it like the ring of steel. This man too had
a right stroke in him, had it come to that!

But I will say, of Shakspeare's works generally, that we have no full
impress of him there; even as full as we have of many men. His works
are so many windows, through which we see a glimpse of the world that
was in him. All his works seem, comparatively speaking, cursory,
imperfect, written under cramping circumstances; giving only here and
there a note of the full utterance of the man. Passages there are that
come upon you like splendour out of Heaven; bursts of radiance,
illuminating the very heart of the thing: you say, "That is _true_,
spoken once and forever; wheresoever and whensoever there is an open
human soul, that will be recognised as true!" Such bursts, however,
make us feel that the surrounding matter is not radiant; that it is,
in part, temporary, conventional. Alas, Shakspeare had to write for
the Globe Play-house: his great soul had to crush itself, as it could,
into that and no other mould. It was with him, then, as it is with us
all. No man works save under conditions. The sculptor cannot set his
own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he could translate it
into the stone that was given, with the tools that were given.
_Disjecta membra_ are all that we find of any Poet, or of any man.

* * * * *

Whoever looks intelligently at this Shakspeare may recognise that he
too was a _Prophet_, in his way; of an insight analogous to the
Prophetic, though he took it up in another strain. Nature seemed to
this man also divine; unspeakable, deep as Tophet, high as Heaven: 'We
are such stuff as Dreams are made of!' That scroll in Westminster
Abbey, which few read with understanding, is of the depth of any seer.
But the man sang; did not preach, except musically. We called Dante
the melodious Priest of Middle-Age Catholicism. May we not call
Shakspeare the still more melodious Priest of a _true_ Catholicism,
the 'Universal Church' of the Future and of all times? No narrow
superstition, harsh asceticism, intolerance, fanatical fierceness or
perversion: a Revelation, so far as it goes, that such a thousandfold
hidden beauty and divineness dwells in all Nature; which let all men
worship as they can! We may say without offence, that there rises a
kind of universal Psalm out of this Shakspeare too; not unfit to make
itself heard among the still more sacred Psalms. Not in disharmony
with these, if we understood them, but in harmony! - I cannot call this
Shakspeare a 'Sceptic,' as some do; his indifference to the creeds and
theological quarrels of his time misleading them. No: neither
unpatriotic, though he says little about his Patriotism; nor sceptic,
though he says little about his Faith. Such 'indifference' was the
fruit of his greatness withal: his whole heart was in his own grand
sphere of worship (we may call it such): these other controversies,
vitally important to other men, were not vital to him.

But call it worship, call it what you will, is it not a right glorious
thing, and set of things, this that Shakspeare has brought us? For
myself, I feel that there is actually a kind of sacredness in the fact
of such a man being sent into this Earth. Is he not an eye to us all;
a blessed heaven-sent Bringer of Light? - And, at bottom, was it not
perhaps far better that this Shakspeare, everyway an unconscious man,
was _conscious_ of no Heavenly message? He did not feel, like Mahomet,
because he saw into those internal Splendours, that he specially was
the 'Prophet of God:' and was he not greater than Mahomet in that?
Greater; and also, if we compute strictly, as we did in Dante's case,
more successful. It was intrinsically an error that notion of
Mahomet's, of his supreme Prophethood: and has come down to us
inextricably involved in error to this day; dragging along with it
such a coil of fables, impurities, intolerances, as makes it a
questionable step for me here and now to say, as I have done, that
Mahomet was a true Speaker at all, and not rather an ambitious
charlatan, perversity and simulacrum; no Speaker, but a Babbler! Even
in Arabia, as I compute, Mahomet will have exhausted himself and
become obsolete, while this Shakspeare, this Dante may still be
young; - while this Shakspeare may still pretend to be a Priest of
Mankind, of Arabia as of other places, for unlimited periods to come!

Compared with any speaker or singer one knows, even with Æschylus or
Homer, why should he not, for veracity and universality, last like
them? He is _sincere_ as they; reaches deep down like them, to the
universal and perennial. But as for Mahomet, I think it had been
better for him _not_ to be so conscious! Alas, poor Mahomet; all that
he was _conscious_ of was a mere error; a futility and triviality, - as
indeed such ever is. The truly great in him too was the unconscious:
that he was a wild Arab lion of the desert, and did speak-out with
that great thunder-voice of his, not by words which he _thought_ to be
great, but by actions, by feelings, by a history which _were_ great!
His Koran has become a stupid piece of prolix absurdity; we do not
believe, like him, that God wrote that! The Great Man here too, as
always, is a Force of Nature: whatsoever is truly great in him
springs-up from the inarticulate deeps.

* * * * *

Well: this is our poor Warwickshire Peasant, who rose to be Manager of
a Playhouse, so that he could live without begging; whom the Earl of

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 31 of 43)