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beyond an allegorical representation of vices and virtues as they appear in
the abstract, rather than in the concrete form of living individuals.
Compare Una, who is his most distinct and lovable character, with
Imogen, and you feel at once that Shakespeare gives you a living woman,
in contact with an actual world ; while Spenser's embodiment of nearly


the same ideal is shadowy and mystic, half woman and half allegory,
living in a world of impossible giants and monsters.

Chaucer, on the other hand, stands on solid earth, and deals with real
characters. In the dramatic faculty of depicting actual living men and
women he has no rival except Shakespeare, and is inferior to him rather
in the narrower width of his canvas, and in the complexity and variety of
the characters depicted, than in the truth and vividness of the portraits
themselves. In his Canterbury Tales we have the real England of the
reign of Edward III. brought before us as distinctly as if we had been one
of the company assembled at the Tabard, and had ridden on the Dover
road to the shrine of St Thomas, with the worthy knight, the dainty and
soft-hearted abbess, the jolly wife of Bath, and the other typical represen-
tatives of the various classes who made up what was the framework of
English society in the fourteenth century. How like they are to us, how
completely we feel that they are our own flesh and blood, and that five
centuries have made but little change either in human nature itself, or in
the special form of it which may be called English nature.

In reading Chaucer I am also struck by the wonderful anticipations of
the most advanced modern thought, which occasionally crop up in the
most unlikely places, and which only require to be translated into
modern language to be at once recognized. For instance, I came across
a passage the other day which, if expressed in the terminology which
would now be used to convey the same ideas, would read as follows

" The inscrutable First Cause of the universe knew well what he was
about when He established the fair chain of love or of mutual attraction.
For with this chain He bound the elements, fire, air, water and land
together in definite forms so as not to fly asunder into primeval chaos.

" In like manner He established certain periods and durations for all
creation beyond which nothing could pass. This needs no authority to
confirm it, for it is proved by universal experience. Men, therefore, by
this order of the universe may easily discern that the laws of nature are
fixed and eternal. And any one who is not a fool can understand that as
every part is derived from a whole, nature cannot have originated from
any part or parcel of a thing, but from something that is perfect and
stable, passing by evolution from the homogeneous into the heteroge-
neous, until it becomes subject to change and corruption. The Creator of
the universe has therefore in His wise Providence so established its order,
that definite pieces and progressions of things shall not be eternal, but
come into existence and pass away in due succession.

' Thus the oak which grows so slowly and has so long a life, at last
wastes away and dies. Even the hard rock in time wasteth away; broad
rivers run dry; great cities decay and disappear; and all things have an
end. So also of the human race. All die; some in youth, others in old
age; kings as well as commoners; some in their beds, some in the deep
sea, some in battle-fields.


"There is no help; all go the same way; all die. What causes this but
the Ruler and First Cause of all things, who draws back into His own
essence all that was derived from it, against which decree it availeth no
living creature to strive. Therefore it seems to me to be wise to make a
virtue of necessity and make the best of that which we cannot prevent;
and that a man is a fool who grumbles at that which is the universal
fate, and rebels against the law to which he is indebted for his own

If any one came across this passage without knowing its origin, he
would be apt to attribute it to some writer who was conversant with the
works of Herbert Spencer, Darwin, and Lyell, and about the last guess he
would make would be, that it came from the father of English poetry
writing in the fourteenth century. And yet if he would turn to the speech
of Duke Theseus in the Knight 's Tale, he would find that it is a literal
though modernized version of what Chaucer puts into the mouth of his
representative of perfect manhood and mature wisdom. Religions and
philosophies have changed, knowledge has increased, but these lines of
Chaucer remain as a summary of the best and truest attitude in which a
man can face the insoluble mysteries of the universe.

This passage alone should be sufficient to justify Chaucer's claim to
rank among the great poets.

My object, however, is not so much to review poetry generally, or to
assign to each poet his proper place in the hierarchy of Art, as to ascertain
what have been the real creeds, or inmost convictions, of those who, by
universal consent, are ranked among the highest. And when I talk of
creeds, I do not mean the outward professions, which, with poets as with
other men, may be mainly affairs of time and circumstance; but the deeper
insight with which they "see into the life of things," and find with


" The anchor of the purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of the heart, and soul
Of all the moral being."

In Wordsworth's case the answer is easy; he gives it himself. He finds it
in nature. Not in a dead or mechanical nature, or one limited to seas
and skies, mountains and rivers; but one which includes

" The still sad music of humanity."
And which lives with

" A presence which disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Ot something far more deeply interfuse
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."


This is very nearly pure Pantheism, and it is remarkable how closely
he approximates in other respects to the Oriental philosophy which finds
its expression in the religions of Brahma and of Buddha, and which
tinged the speculations of Plato. In the Intimations of Immortality, he
adopts, to a considerable extent, the doctrine of the transmigration of
souls, or to express it in modern language, the "Conservation of Energy,"
applied to the immaterial soul as a distinct and indestructible essence.

The problem of immortality hinges on two questions ; life before birth,
life after death. They hang very much together, for if from nothing we
came *. e. nothing in the sense of no conscious personal identity, it is
more than probable that to nothing we shall return. Wordsworth, in
common with Brahmins, Buddhists, and Platonists, solves this problem
by postulating pre-existence.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar."

It is remarkable that this pantheistic view of the universe is essentially
that of other great modern poets, who in other respects, differ most
widely from the calm and self-contained character and serene wisdom of
Wordsworth. Byron, in his moments of best and truest inspiration,
expresses in still more passionate and vigorous language, the same feel-
ing for one great living whole, comprising nature, humanity, and himself.

" All heaven and earth are still though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep-
All heaven and earth are still; from the high host
Of stars to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentred in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But hath a part of being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and defence.
Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
In solitude when we are least alone: "

And again in the rash of the midnight m he wishes to be

A sharer in thy fierce and far delight
A portion of the tempest and of thee ! "

Shelley, again, was essentially the poet of Pantheism, and derived all
his best inspiration from

" Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood ! "
The song of the skylark, the fleeting cloud, the forest at noonday, the


Waste and solitary places, where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be,"

spoke to him and he to them as living beings, vibrating in unison
with the most delicate harmonies.
Of Death he speaks as

" The boundless realm of unending change,"


" All that we feel, and know, and see
Shall pass like an unreal mystery."

In other words, his glance of insight into the mysteries of the universe is
essentially Pantheistic and Agnostic.

In sharp contrast with the ethereal poetry of Shelley, Burns, while
equal to him or any other poet in the exquisite delicacy of his lyrics,
stands on solid earth, and teaches what may be called a gospel of practi-
cal life. He may not always have acted up to it, but his poetry is pre-
eminent in laying down sound and sensible maxims of conduct, and in-
vesting common things and ordinary life with a halo of tenderness and
dignity drawn from the inspiration of the highest feelings of human na-
ture. Thus, when he says

" To make a happy household clime
For weans and wife
Is the true pathos and sublime
Of human life,"

he presents an ideal universal in its application, within reach of all,
common to all sorts and conditions of men; and he presents it in a way
which lifts the fundamental fact of the family tie from the region of prose
into that of poetry. The poorest man who lives even approximately, up
to these lines, may feel that he has not lived in vain. By industry, pru-
dence, self-restraint, good temper and kindness, he has made his humble
home a shrine of affection and happiness, and has made good his title to
rank as one of Nature's gentlemen. Goethe means much the same thing
when he says that ' ' no man carries it farther than to perpetuate the
species, beget children, and nourish them as well as he can." But how
cold and ironical does this sound when contrasted with Burns. One is
prose, the other poetry; one a criticism on life, the other an incentive to
purify and exalt it

No one equals Burns in the keenness of insight with which he looks
through the outer husks and habiliments of things to their real essence.
Carlyle's clothes philosophy in Sartor Resartus is but a sermon on the


" The rank is but the guinea stamp,
The man's the gold for a' that."

A manly independence, based on the qualities which Tennyson attributes
to the Goddess of Wisdom,

" Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,"

is to Burns, as it is to every one, the solid basis of all the manly virtues.
It is a basis which is more readily provided to those who live by work,
whether of the hand or head, than to those who are born with a silver
spoon in their mouths, and are cradled in comfort and luxury. A man
never knows what is really in him until he has measured himself with his
fellows in real honest work. I have known many a man who fancied
himself one of the creme de la crtme, and looked down on the rest of the
world as "cads" and "outsiders" who was not honestly worth twenty
shillings a week of any man's money. He could ride, but not well
enough to be a whipper-in; shoot, but did not know enough of wood-
craft or rearing pheasants to be a gamekeeper; dance, sing, or draw per-
haps, but nothing well enough to earn a penny by it. Strip him of his
cotton-wool wrappings of wealth and rank, and land him at Sydney or
Melbourne without a sixpence in his pocket, and what could he do to
earn a living ? Possibly drive a cab, or be a waiter at an eating house.
How can such a man feel the same manly independence as one who
knows that, wherever he goes, he has muscles or brains to sell which are
honestly worth their price in the world's market.

No one sets forth so forcibly as Burns the dignity of labor, and the
compensations which go so far to equalize the lot of the rich and poor.
If I wanted to convert to sounder views some narrow-minded social dem-
ocrat, whose one idea was envy of the rich, I would make him read
Burns' Two. Dogs, where the relative advantages and disadvantages of
different stations of life are set forth with so much force and humor.
Against the hardships and privations of the working masses, alternating
with the enjoyments of the evening rest, the healthy appetite, and the sound
sleep, he would read of the non-working classes, how

and learn

" Gentlemen, and ladies worst,
With even-down want of work are curst,"

" It's no in riches orjin rank,
It's no in wealth like London Bank,
To bring content and rest.

If happiness has no its seat
And centre in the breast,

We may be rich, or wise, or great,
But never can be blest."


He may learn also from the Cotter's Saturday Night how peasant life
may rise to the level of patriarchal dignity ; and from Highland Mary or
Bonnie Jean how the romance of love may be as true and tender by the
' ' banks and braes o' bonnie Doon " as in Belgravian drawing-rooms.
Nor will the lesson be wanting from Willie brewed a peck o' maut zndAuld
Lang Syne, that frank joviality and hearty friendship are not the exclu-
sive appanage of any class or condition of mortal men.

From Burns to Shakespeare is a long stretch, but any attempt to ascer-
tain the creeds of great poets would be incomplete without some analy-
sis of what seems to be the inmost and truest attitude of the greatest of
all poets towards the deepest problems of life. In the case of Shakes-
peare this is not easy to discover, for his genius is so essentially dramatic
that his characters speak and act their own lives, and are not mere masks
behind which the author discourses to the public. Thus Childe Harold,
Conrad, Lara, and Manfred are only Byron himself posing in different
attitudes, while Othello and Macbeth, Falstaff and Dogberry, are types
of themselves reflecting Nature, and not Shakespeare. All we can say
from them of Shakespeare's individuality is, that it must have been wide
enough and rich enough to realize, with a certain amount of sympathy,
all the varied range of human passions and emotions, strength and weak-
ness, wisdom and folly. Even the humorous drolleries, and rogueries,
and sheer imbecilities of human nature are noted and reproduced with a
genial smile.

We cannot say that Shakespeare had any resemblance to Falstaff, but
we may be sure that he had noted some one like him ; some humorous
ton of flesh, unblushing compound of braggart, coward, liar, and glutton,
yet who half redeemed these evil qualities by his ready wit and unfailing
good-humor, and left us almost sorry for him when he died babbling of
green fields in Mistress Quickly's hostelry.

It is only in one or two of his characters that we can discover something
of the real Shakespeare himself, projected from within outwards, and
fashioned in some mood of his own image. This is the case mainly with
Hamlet and Prospero. Of Hamlet I think we may say with some cer-
tainity, that no one could have conceived such a character who had not
a Hamlet in him. He must have felt the irresolution, the despondency,
the metaphysical thought sicklying over the "native hue of resolution,"
the burden of life almost too heavy to be borne, which made a noble
nature and high intelligence drift the sport of circumstances, rather than
"take arms against a sea of troubles," and incur the pain of coming to a
definite decision.

The Sonnets, in which Shakespeare speaks in his own person, reveal a
good deal of this frame of mind. The general tone is that of thought
rather than of action, with an under-current of despondency and gentle
melancholy. Thus, if the 291*1 Sonnet be really Shakespeare's, what a
sermon is it on the vanity of human things, to find the supreme artist of the


world, the man who had apparently led the most prosperous life, who
had risen from a poor country lad to be the admired friend of the highest
nobles and best intellects of his day, and who had in a few years achieved
fame and competence, writing such lines as these

" When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate. 1 *

Or think of such a man, when recalling his past life to the " sessions of
sweet silent thought," thus summing it uj

" I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste}
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long-since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan."

No one can mistake the analogy between these Sonnets and the mel-
ancholy musings of the Prince of Denmark.

Again, the 66th Sonnet is almost identical with the enumeration of
the ills of life which make death desirable in Hamlet's famous soliloquy

" Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honor shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:

Tired with all these, from these would I be gone."

The evidence of this identity between Shakespeare and Hamlet is
Strengthened if we examine in detail the enumeration of the "whips and
scorns of time " which might almost compel a man to suicide. As a
general rule Shakespeare's characters speak with an admirable dramatic
propriety of place and circumstance. They say nothing but what such
characters in such conditions might have said. But in this soliloquy
there are things which Hamlet hardly could have said, and which must be
Shakespeare speaking of his own experiences Thus, the "law's delay"


would hardly be included among the serious ills of life justifying suicide by
any one who had not known it by personal experience. We can hardly
suppose the high born and accomplished heir to the Danish throne to have
been a party to a Chancery suit, or to have trod for years, like Peter
Peebles, the corridors of a Copenhagen Court of Session. Nor was he
likely to have suffered from

" The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes."

If then Hamlet's soliloquy expresses the real sentiments of Shakespeare,
we have his judgment on the great questions of death and immortality
summed up almost in the identical words of Tennyson

" Behind the veil, behind the veil."

To die is "to sleep to sleep! perchance to dream." Death is " the
undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns." There is
no assurance, absolutely none ! He cannot say with the Materialist, we
shall certainly perish, or with the Christian, we shall certainly live.

The character of Prospero affords even a better test than that of
Hamlet for ascertaining what were Shakespeare's mature views on these
subjects. There can be little doubt that in Prospero Shakespeare has an
eye to himself, retiring in the plentitude of his powers from London and
the stage, to spend the autumn of his days in a round of domestic duties
in his native town. The magic which Prospero abjures can hardly be
other than the poet's imagination, and the staff which he breaks and
book which he drowns,

" Deeper than did ever plummet sound,"

the poet's pen, which had bodied forth so many of these airy nothings,

and given them

" A local habitation and a name."

It is well worthy of remark how nearly this practical solution of the
problem of life coincides with that of another of the world's greatest
geniuses, Goethe.

The drama of Faust concludes by showing how the hero is delivered
from the power of evil, and how the sins and miseries of his career while
commanding the powers of magic are condoned, by devoting himself to
the practical work of real life reclaiming a waste tract from the sea, col-
onizing it, and making it the abode of healthy human industry.

The moral is precisely the same in the two cases, that man's true life is
the natural and not in the supernatural, or, as Goethe expresses it else-
where, that "here is your America," not in visionary continents across
unmeasured oceans, but in doing, as Carlyle phrases it, "the duty that lies
nearest to your hand, as the best guide to further duties."


But Shakespeare, speaking through Prospero, in his farewell address
to the world goes beyond the sphere of practical life, and gives us his
views of the highest problems of the universe in the well-known lines

" And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this unsubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

If in the case of Wordsworth, I had to remark on the singular approx-
imation of modern poetry to the Panthesitic views of Oriental religions
and philosophies, this passage of Shakespeare carries the comparison still
closer. It is the pure doctrine of Maya or illusion, which plays such a
great part in the systems of Brahma and Buddha. There is no reality
but the great Unknowable ; all the manifestations of the universe are
illusive dreams, rising and falling like mists from the Ocean of the
Infinite. Individual existence is but one of these illusions, destined to
disappear like others when its "little life is rounded with a sleep."

Observe that in this latest utterance Shakespeare has gone beyond the
phase of thought which dictated the soliloquy of Hamlet There, death
was a sleep indeed, but a sleep in which there might be dreams, an undis-
covered bourne where there might be anything. But here there is not
merely Agnosticism, but the positive assertion that sleep is all, and that
the individual life is absorbed, like everything else, in the great Ocean
from which it came, of the Infinite and Absolute.

Goethe's theory of the universe is very similar to that of Shakespeare,
but he approximates to the Oriental philosophy rather on its positive or
Pantheistic side than on the metaphysical side of Illusion. Thus, in the
famous reply of Faust to the simple inquiry of Margaret whether he be-
lieves in God, " Wer darf ihn nennen ? " he says

" Who dares to name Him ?
Who to say of Him, I believe ?
Who is there ever
With a soul to dear,

To utter, I believe Him not?
The All-encompasser, the All-upholder,

Enfolds, sustains He not
Thee, me, Himself? "

And he goes on to say how the over-arching sky, the solid earth, the ever
lasting stars, the depths of human emotion, are but manifestations of the
eternal essence, call it what name you will.


" Words are but mist and smoke
Obscuring Heaven's glow."

This is almost identical with Wordsworth's

" Sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused."

In a word it is pure Pantheism. So also is the hymn of the Earth Spirit,
who sits weaving the varied shows of the universe

" And at Time's humming loom prepares
The garment which the Eternal Spirit wears."

It has often been observed to what a little extent religion, that is, the
formal religion of theological creeds, appears in Shakespeare's plays. Love,
ambition, jealousy, all the various motives which practically influence
human conduct and character, are depicted to the life; but religious be-
lief is as completely ignored as if it had no existence. One would have
thought that in an age which had witnessed the martyrdoms of Latimer
and Cranmer, the destruction of the Spanish Armada, and the innumera-
ble wars and conspiracies of the reign of Elizabeth, almost every one
must have been a keen partisan either of the Protestant or of the Catholic

Online LibraryIsreal Smith ClareLibrary of Universal history and popular science ... (Volume 20) → online text (page 23 of 60)