White's Shakspeare: (First Notice)
IT may be doubted whether any language be rich enough to maintain more than one truly great poet,—and whether there be more than one period, and that very short, in the life of a language, when such a phenomenon as a great poet is possible. It may be reckoned one of the rarest pieces of good-luck that ever fell to the share of a race, that (as was true of Shakspeare) its most rhythmic genius, its acutest intellect, its profoundest imagination, and its healthiest understanding should have been combined in one man, and that he should have arrived at the full development of his powers at the moment when the material in which he was to work—that wonderful composite called English, the best result of the confusion of tongues—was in its freshest perfection. The English-speaking nations should build a monument to the misguided enthusiasts of the Plain of Shinar; for, as the mixture of many bloods seems to have made them the most vigorous of modern races, so has the mingling of divers speeches given them a language which is perhaps the noblest vehicle of poetic thought that ever existed.
Had Shakspeare been born fifty years earlier, he would have been cramped by a book-language, not yet flexible enough for the demands of rhythmic emotion, not yet sufficiently popularized for the natural and familiar expression of supreme thought, not yet so rich in metaphysical phrase as to render possible that ideal representation of the great passions which is the aim and end of Art, not yet subdued by practice and general consent to a definiteness of accentuation essential to ease and eongruity of metrical arrangement. Had he been born fifty years later, his ripened manhood would have found itself in an England absorbed and angry with the solution of political and religious problems, from which his whole nature was averse, instead of in that Elizabethan social system, ordered and planetary in its functions and degrees as the angelic hierarchy of the Areopagite, where his contemplative eye could crowd itself with various and brilliant picture, and whence his impartial brain—one lobe of which seems to have been Normanly refined and the other Saxonly sagacious—could draw its morals of courtly and worldly wisdom, its lessons of prudence and magnanimity. In estimating Shakspeare, it should never be forgotten, that, like Goethe, he was essentially observer and artist, and incapable of partisanship. The passions, actions, sentiments, whose character and results he delighted to watch and to reproduce, are those of man in society as it existed; and it no more occurred to him to question the right of that society to exist than to criticize the divine ordination of the seasons. His business was with men as they were, not with man as he ought to be,—with the human soul as it is shaped or twisted into character by the complex experience of life, not in its abstract essence, as something to be saved or lost. During the first half of the seventeenth century, the centre of intellectual interest was rather in the other world than in this, rather in the region of thought and principle and conscience than in actual life. It was a generation in which the poet was, and felt himself, out of place. Sir Thomas Browne, our most imaginative mind since Shakspeare, found breathing-room, for a time, among the “O altitudines!” of religious speculation, but soon descended to occupy himself with the exactitudes of science. Jeremy Taylor, who half a century earlier would have been Fletcher’s rival, compels his clipped fancy to the conventual discipline of prose, (Maid Marian turned nun,) and waters his poetic wine with doctrinal eloquence. Milton is saved from making total shipwreck of his large-utteranced genius on the desolate Noman’s Land of a religious epic only by the lucky help of Satan and his colleagues, with whom, as foiled rebels and republicans, he cannot conceal his sympathy. As purely poet, Shakspeare would have come too late, had his lot fallen in that generation. In mind and temperament too exoteric for a mystic, his imagination could not have at once illustrated the influence of his epoch and escaped from it, like that of Browne ; the equilibrium of his judgment, essential to him as an artist, but equally removed from propagandism, whether as enthusiast or logician, would have unfitted him for the pulpit ; and his intellectual being was too sensitive to the wonder and beauty of outward life and Nature to have found satisfaction, as Milton's could, (and perhaps only by reason of his blindness,) in a world peopled by purely imaginary figures. We might fancy his becoming a great statesman, but he lacked the social position which could have opened that career to him. What we mean, when we say Shakspeare, is something inconceivable either during the reign of Henry the Eighth or the Commonwealth, and which would have been impossible after the Restoration.
All favorable stars seem to have been in conjunction at his nativity. The Reformation had passed the period of its vinous fermentation, and its clarified results remained as an element of intellectual impulse and exhilaration ; there were small signs yet of the acetous and putrefactive stages which were to follow in the victory and decline of Puritanism. Old forms of belief and worship still lingered, all the more touching to Fancy, perhaps, that they were homeless and attainted; the light of skeptic day was baffled by depths of forest where superstitious shapes still cowered, creatures of immemorial wonder, the raw material of Imagination. The invention of printing, without yet vulgarizing letters, had made the thought and history of the entire past contemporaneous ; while a crowd of translators put every man who could read in inspiring contact with the select souls of all the centuries. A new world was thus opened to intellectual adventure at the very time when the keel of Columbus had turned the first daring furrow of discovery in that unmeasured ocean which still girt the known earth with a beckoning horizon of hope and conjecture, which was still fed by rivers that flowed down out of primeval silences, and which still washed the shores of Dreamland. Under a wise, cultivated, and firm-handed monarch also, the national feeling of England grew rapidly more homogeneous and intense, the rather as the womanhool of the sovereign stimulated a more chivalric loyalty,—while the new religion, of which she was the defender, helped to make England morally, as it was geographically, insular to the continent of Europe.
If circumstances could ever make a great national poet, here were all the elements mingled at melting-heat in the alembic, and the lucky moment of projection was clearly come. If a great national poet could ever avail himself of circumstances, this was the occasion,—and, fortunately, Shakspeare was equal to it. Above all, we esteem it lucky that he found words ready to his use, original and untarnished,—types of thought WHOSE sharp edges were unworn by repeated impressions. In reading Hakluyt's Voyages, WE are almost startled now and then to find that even common sailors could not tell the story of their wanderings without rising to an almost Odyssean strain, and habitually used a diction that we should be glad to buy back from desuetude at any cost. Those who look upon language only as anatomists of its structure, or who regard it as only a means of conveying abstract truth from mind to mind, as if it were so many algebraic formulæ, are apt to overlook the fact that its being alive is all that gives it poetic value. We do not mean what is technically called a living language, — the contrivance, hollow as a speaking-trumpet, by which breathing and moving bipeds, even NOW, sailing o'er life’s solemn main, are enabled to hail each other and make known their mutual shortness of mental stores,—but one that is still hot from the hearts and brains of a people, not hardened yet, but moltenly ductile to new shapes of sharp and clear relief in the moulds of new thought. So soon as a language has become literary, so soon as there is a gap between the speech of books and that of life, the language becomes, so far as poetry is concerned, almost as dead as Latin, and (as in writing Latin verses) a mind in itself essentially original becomes in the use of such a medium of utterance unconsciously reminiscential and reflective, lunar and not solar, in expression and even in thought. For words and thoughts have a much more intimate and genetic relation, one with the other, than most men have any notion of; and it is one thing to use our mother-tongue as if it belonged to us, and another to be the puppets of an overmastering vocabulary. "Ye know not," says Asehnm, "what hurt ye do to Learning, that care not for Words, but for Matter, and so make a Divorce betwixt the Tongue and the Heart.” Lingua Toscana in boccu Ro-mana is the Italian proverb; and that of poets should be, The tongue of the people in the mouth of the scholar. We intend here no assent to the early theory, or, at any rate, practice, of Wordsworth, who confounded plebeian modes of thought with rustic forms of phrase, and then atoned for his blunder by absconding into a diction more Latinized than that of any poet of his century.
Shakspeare was doubly fortunate. Saxon by the father and Norman by the mother, he was a representative Englishman. A country-boy, he learned first the rough and ready English of his rustic mates, who knew how to make nice verbs and adjectives curtsy to their needs. Going up to London, he acquired the lingua aulica precisely at the happiest moment, just as it was becoming, in the strictest sense of the word, modern,—just its it had recruited itself, by fresh impressments from the Latin and Latinized languages, with new words to express the new ideas of an enlarging intelligence which printing and translation were fast making cosmopolitan,—words which, in proportion to their novelty, and to the fact that the mother-tongue and the foreign had not yet wholly mingled, must have been used with a more exact appreciation of their meaning.2 It was in London, and chiefly by means of the stage, that a thorough amalgamation of the Saxon, Norman, and scholarly elements of English was brought about. Already, Puttenham, in his "Arte of English Poesy," declares that the practice of the capital and the country within sixty miles of it was the standard of correct diction, the jus et norma loquendi. Already Spenser had almost recreated English poetry,—and it is interesting to observe, that, scholar as he was, the archaic words which he was at first over-fond of introducing are often provincialisms of purely English original. Already Marlowe had brought the English unrhymed pentameter (which had hitherto justified but half its name, by being always blank and never verse) to a perfection of melody, harmony, and variety which has never been surpassed. Shakspeare, then, found a language already to a certain extent established, but not yet fetlocked by dictionaryand grammarmongers, — a versification harmonized, but which had not yet exhausted all its modulations, or been set in the stocks by critics who deal judgment on refractory feet, that will dance to Orphean measures of which their judges are insensible. That the language was established is proved by its comparative uniformity as used by the dramatists, who wrote for mixed audiences, as well as by Ben Jonson’s satire upon Marston’s neologisms; that it at the same time admitted foreign words to the rights of citizenship on easier terms than now is in good measure equally true. What was of greater import, no arbitrary line had been drawn between high words and low; vulgar then meant simply what was common ; poetry had not been aliened from the people by the establishment of an Upper House of vocables, alone entitled to move in the stately ceremonials of verse, and privileged from arrest while they forever keep the promise of meaning to the ear and break it to the sense. The hot conception of the poet had no time to cool while he was debating the comparative respectability of this phrase or that; but he snatched what word his instinct prompted, and saw no indiscretion in making a king speak as his country-nurse might have taught him.3 It was Waller who first learned in France that to talk in rhyme alone comported with the state of royalty. In the time of Shakspeare, the living tongue resembled that tree which Father Hue saw in Tartary, whose leaves were languaged,— and every hidden root of thought, every subtilest fibre of feeling, was mated by new shoots and leafage of expression, fed from those unseen sources in the common earth of human nature.
"Men may securely sin, but safely never."
The Cabalists had a notion, that whoever found out the mystic word for anything attained to absolute mastery over that thing. The reverse of this is certainly true of poetic expression ; for he who is thoroughly possessed of his thought, who imaginatively conceives an idea or image, becomes master of the word that shall most amply and fitly utter it. Heminge and Condell tell us, accordingly, that there was scarce a blot in the manuscripts they received from Shakspeare; and this is the natural corollary from the fact that such an imagination as his is as unparalleled as the force, variety, and beauty of the phrase in which it embodied itself.4 We believe that Shakspeare, like all other great poets, instinctively used the dialect which he found current, and that his words are not more wrested from their ordinary meaning than followed necessarily from the unwonted weight of thought or stress of passion they were called on to support. He needed not to mask familiar thoughts in the weeds of unfamiliar phraseology; for the life that was in his mind could transfuse the language of every day with an intelligent vivacity, that makes it seem lambent with fiery purpose, and at each new reading a new creation. He could say with Dante, that “no word had ever forced him to say what he would not, though he had forced many a word to say what it would not,”— but only in the sense, that the mighty magic of his imagination had conjured out of it its uttermost secret of power or pathos. He himself says, in one of his sonnets,—
“Cæsar did never wrong but with just cause.”
The last four words do not appear in the passage as it now stands, and Professor Craik suggests that they were stricken out in consequence of Jonson’s criticism. This is very probable; but we suspect that the pen that blotted them was in the hand of Master Heminge or his colleague. The moral confusion in the idea was surely admirably characteristic of the general who had just accomplished a successful coup d'etat, the condemnation of which he would fancy that he read in the face of every honest man he met, and which he would therefore be forever indirectly palliating.
“Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from alteration and quick change?
Why, with the time, do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange ?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed
That every word doth almost tell my name? ”
When we say that Shakspeare used the current language of his day, we mean only that he habitually employed such language as was universally comprehensible,—that he was not run away with by the hobby of any theory as to the fitness of this or that component of English for expressing certain thoughts or feelings. That the artistic value of a choice and noble diction was quite as well understood in his day as in ours is evident from the praises bestowed by his contemporaries on Drayton, and by the epithet "well-languaged" applied to Daniel, whose poetic style is as modern as that of Tennyson; but the endless absurdities about the comparative merits of Saxon and Norman-French, vented by persons incapable of distinguishing one tongue from the other, were as yet unheard of. The influence of the Normans in Romanizing our language has been vastly overrated. We find a principle of caste established in certain cases by the relation of producer and consumer, — in others by the superior social standing of the conquering race. Thus, ox, sheep, calf, swine, indicate the thing produced ; beef, mutton, veal, pork, the thing consumed.5 It is the same with the names of the various grains, and the product of the cheaper kinds when ground,—as oat-meal, barley-meal,rye-meal; "while the generic term for the crop becomes grain, and the meal of the variety used by the higher classes is turned into flour. To bury remains Saxon, because both high and low must be hidden under ground at last; but as only the rich and noble could afford any pomp in that sad office, we get the word funeral from the Norman. So also the serf went into a Saxon grace, the lord into a Norman tomb. All the parts of armor are naturally named from the French ; the weapons of the people, as sword, bow, and the like, continued Saxon. So feather is Saxon; but as soon as it changes into a plume for the knight, it turns Norman,—and Latin when it is cut into a pen for the clerk. Book is Saxon ; but a number of books collected together, as could be done only by the rich, makes a library. Darling would be murmured over many a cradle in Saxon huts; but minion came, into the language down the back stairs of the Norman palace. In the same way, terms of law are Norman, and of the Church, Latin. These are familiar examples. But hasty generalizes are apt to overlook the fact, that the Saxon was never, to any great extent, a literary language. Accordingly, it held its own very well in the names of common things, but failed to answer the demands of complex ideas, derived from them. The author of “Piers Ploughman” wrote for the people,— Chaucer for the court. We open at random and count the Latin6 words in ten verses of the “Vision” and ten of Chaucer’s “Romaunt, of the Rose,” (a translation from the French,) and find the proportion to be seven in the former and five in the latter.
The organs of the Saxon have always been unwilling and stiff in learning languages. He acquired only about as many British words as we have Indian ones, and we believe that more French and Latin, was introduced through the pen and the eye than through the tongue and the ear. For obvious reasons, the question is one that must be settled by reference to prosewriters, and not poets ; and it is, we think, pretty well settled that more words of Latin original were brought into the language in the century between 1550 and 1650 than in the whole period before or since,—and for the simple reason, that they were absolutely needful to express new modes and combinations of thought.7 The language has gained immensely by the infusion, in richness of synonyme and in the power of expressing nice shades of thought and feeling, but more than all in light-footed polysyllables that trip singing to the music of verse. There are certain eases, it is true, where the vulgar Saxon word is refined, and the refined Latin vulgar, in poetry,—as in sweat and perspiration ; but there are vastly more in which the Latin bears the bell. Perhaps there might be a question between the old English again-rising and resurrection; but there can be no doubt that conscience is better than inwit, and remorse than again-bite. Should we translate the title of Wordsworth’s famous ode, “ Intimations of Immortality,” into “ Hints of Deathlessness,” it would hiss like an angry gander. If, instead of Shakspeare's.
“Age cannot wither her,
Nor custom stale her infinite variety,"
we should say, “ her boundless manifoldness,” the sentiment would suffer in exact proportion with the music. What homebred English could ape the high Roman fashion of such togated words as
“The multitudinous sea incarnadine,"—
where the huddling epithet implies the tempest-tossed soul of the speaker, and at the same time pictures the wallowing waste of ocean more vividly than the famous phrase of Æschylus does its rippling sunshine ? Again, sailor is less poetical than mariner, as Campbell felt, when he wrote,
"Ye mariners of England,"
and Coleridge, when he preferred
“ It was an ancient mariner ”
“ It was an elderly seaman";
for it is as much the charm of poetry that it suggest a certain remoteness and strangeness as familiarity; and it is essential not only that we feel at once the meaning of the words in themselves, but also their melodic meaning in relation to each other, and to the sympathetic variety of the verse. A word once vulgarized can never be rehabilitated. We might say now a buxom lass, or that a chambermaid was buxom, but we could not use the term, as Milton did, in its original sense of bowsome, — that is, lithe, gracefully bending.8
But the secret of force in writing lies not in the pedigree of nouns and adjectives and verbs, but in having something that you believe in to say, and making the parts of speech vividly conscious of it. It is when expression becomes an act of memory, instead of an unconscious necessity, that diction takes the place of warm and hearty speech. It is not safe to attribute special virtues (as Bosworth, for example, does to the Saxon) to words of whatever derivation, at least in poetry. Because Lear’s "oak-cleaving thunderbolts,” and “ the all-dreaded thunder-stone ” in “ Cymbeline ” are so fine, we would not give up Milton's Virgilian ‘“fulmined over Greece,” where the verb in English conveys at once the idea of flash and reverberation, but avoids that of riving and shattering. In the experiments made for casting the great bell for the Westminster Tower, it was found that the superstition which attributed the remarkable sweetness and purity of tone in certain old bells to the larger mixture of silver in their composition had no foundation in fact. It was the cunning proportion in which the ordinary metals were balanced against each other, the perfection of form, and the nice gradations of thickness, that wrought the miracle. And it is precisely so with the language of poetry. The genius of the poet will tell him what word to use (else what use in his being poet at all?); and even then, unless the proportion and form, whether of parts or whole, be all that Art requires and the most sensitive taste finds satisfaction in, he will have failed to make what shall vibrate through all its parts with a silvery unison,—in other words, a poem.
We think the component parts of English were in the latter years of Elizabeth thus exquisitely proportioned one to the other. Yet Bacon had no faith in his mother-tongue, translating the works on which his fame was to rest into what he called “ the universal language," and affirming that “ English would bankrupt all our books.” He was deemed a master of it, nevertheless ; and it is curious that Ben Jonson applies to him in prose the same commendation which he gave Shakspeare in verse, saying, that he “ performed that in our tongue which may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece or haughty Rome"; and he adds this pregnant sentence:—“In short, within his view and about his time were all the wits born that could honor a language or help study. Now things daily fall: wits grow downwards, eloquence grows backwards.” Ben had good reason for what he said of the wits. Not to speak of science, of Galileo and Kepler, the sixteenth century was a spendthrift of literary genius. An attack of immortality in a family might have been looked for then as scarlet-fever would be now. Montaigne, Tasso, and Cervantes were born within the same fourteen years; and in England, while Spenser was still delving over the propria quae maribus, and Baleigh launching paper navies, Shakspeare was stretching his baby hands for the moon, and the little Bacon, chewing on his coral, had discovered that impenetrability was one quality of matter. It almost takes one’s breath away to think that “Hamlet” and the “Novum Organon” were at the risk of teething and measles at the same time. But Ben was right also in thinking that eloquence had grown backwards. He lived long enough to see the language of verse become in a measure traditionary and conventional. It was becoming so, partly from the necessary order of events, partly because the most natural and intense expression of feeling had been in so many ways satisfied and exhausted,—but chiefly because there was no man left to whom, as to Shakspeare, perfect conception gave perfection of phrase. Dante, among modern poets, his only rival in condensed force, says, “Optimis conceptionibus optima loquela conveniet; sed optimæ conceptiones non possunt esse nisi ubi scientia et ingenium est;.......et sic non omnibus versificantibus optima loquela convenit, cum plerique sine scientiâ et ingenio versificantur.” 9
Shakspeare must have been quite as well aware of the provincialism of English as Bacon was ; but he knew that great poetry, being universal in its appeal to human nature, can make any language classic, and that the men whose appreciation is immortality will mine through any dialect to get at an original soul. He had as much confidence in his homebred speech as Bacon had want of it, and exclaims,—
"Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”
He must have been perfectly conscious of his genius, and of the great trust which he imposed upon his native tongue as embodier and perpetuator of it. As he has avoided obscurities in his sonnets, he would do so a fortiori in his plays, both for the purpose of immediate effect on the stage and of future appreciation. Clear thinking makes clear writing, and he who has shown himself so eminently capable of it in one case is not to be supposed to abdicate intentionally in others. The difficult passages in the plays, then, are to be regarded either as corruptions, or else as phenomena in the natural history of Imagination, whose study will enable us to arrive at a clearer theory and better understanding of it.
While we believe that our language had two periods of culmination in poetic beauty,—one of nature, simplicity, and truth, in the ballads, which deal only with narrative and feeling,—another of Art, (or Nature as it is ideally reproduced through the imagination,) of stately amplitude, of passionate intensity and elevation, in Spenser and the greater dramatists,—and that Shakspeare made use of the latter as he found it, we by no means intend to say that he did not enrich it, or that any inferior man could have dipped the same words out of the great poet’s inkstand. But he enriched it only by die natural expansion and exhilaration of which it was conscious, in yielding to the mastery of a genius that could turn and wind it like a fiery Pegasus, making it feel its life in every limb. He enriched it through that exquisite sense of music, (never approached but by Marlowe,) to which it seemed to he eagerly obedient, as if every word said to him,
“Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear,”—
as if every latent harmony revealed itself to him as the gold to Brahma, when he walked over the earth where it was hidden, crying, “ Here am I, Lord! do with me what thou wilt!” That he used language with that intimate, possession of its meaning possible only to the most vivid thought is doubtless true ; but that he wantonly strained it from its ordinary sense, that he found it too poor for his necessities, and accordingly coined new phrases, or that, from haste or carelessness, he violated any of its received proprieties, we do not believe. We have said that it was fortunate for him that he came upon an age when our language was at its best; but it was fortunate also for us, because our costliest poetic phrase is put beyond reach of decay in the gleaming precipitate in which it united itself with his thought.
We do not, therefore, agree with Mr. Matthew Arnold, that the extravagance of thought and diction which characterizes much of our modern poetry is traceable to the influence of Shakspeare. We see in it only the futile effort of misguided persons to torture out of language the secret of that inspiration which should be in themselves. We do not find the extravagances in Shakspeare himself. We never saw a line in any modern poet that reminded us of him, and will venture to assert that it is only poets of the second class that find successful imitators. And the reason seems to us a very plain one. The genius of the great poet seeks repose in the expression of itself, and finds it at last in style, which is the establishment of a perfect mutual understanding between, the worker and his material.10 The secondary intellect, on the other hand, seeks for excitement in expression, and stimulates itself into mannerism, which is the wilful obtrusion of self, as style is its unconscious abnegation. No poet of the first class has ever left a school, because his imagination is incommunicable; while, just as surely as the thermometer tells of the neighborhood of an iceberg, you may detect the presence of a genius of the second class in any generation by the influence of his mannerism, for that, being an artificial thing, is capable of reproduction. Dante, Shakspeare, Goethe, left no heirs either to the form or mode of their expression ; while Milton, Sterne, and Wordsworth left behind them whole regiments uniformed with all their external characteristics. We do not mean that great poetic geniuses may not have influenced thought, (though we think it would be difficult to show how Shakspeare had done so, directly and wilfully,) but that they have not infected contemporaries or followers with mannerism.
That the propositions we have endeavored to establish have a direct bearing in various ways upon the qualifications of whoever undertakes to edit the works of Shakspeare will, we think, be apparent to those who consider the matter. The hold which Shakspeare has acquired and maintained upon minds so many and so various, in so many vital respects utterly unsympathetic and even incapable of sympathy with his own, is one of the most noteworthy phenomena in the history of literature. That he has had the most inadequate of editors, that, as his own Falstaff was the cause of the wit, so he has been the cause of the foolishness that was in other men, (as where Malone ventured to discourse upon his metres, and Dr. Johnson on his imagination,) must be apparent to every one,—and also that his genius and its manifestations are so various, that there is no commentator but has been able to illustrate him from his own peculiar point of view or from the results of his own favorite studies. But to show that he was a good commonlawyer, that he understood the theory of colors, that he was an accurate botanist, a master of the science of medicine, especially in its relation to mental disease, a profound metaphysician, and of great experience and insight in politics, —all these, while they may very well form the staple of separate treatises, and prove, that, whatever the extent of his learning, the range and accuracy of his knowledge were beyond precedent or later parallel, are really outside the province of an editor.
That Shakspeare did not edit his own works must be attributed, we suspect, to his premature death. That he should not have intended it is inconceivable. That the “Tempest” was his latest work we have no doubt; and perhaps it is not considering too nicely to conjecture a profound personal meaning in it. Is it over-fanciful to think that in the master Prospero we have the type of Imagination ? in Ariel, of the wonder-working and winged Fantasy ? in Caliban, of the half-animal but serviceable Understanding, tormented by Fancy and the unwilling slave of imagination ? and that there is something of self-consciousness in the breaking of Prospero's wand and burying his book,—a sort of sad prophecy, based on self-knowledge of the nature of that man who, after such thaumaturgy, could go down to Stratford and live there for years, only collecting his dividends from the Globe Theatre, lending money on mortgage, and leaning over his gate to chat and bandy quips with neighbors? His thought had entered into every phase of human life and thought, had embodied all of them in living creations;—had he found all empty, and come at last to the belief that genius and its works were as phantasmagoric as the rest, and that fame was as idle as the rumor of the pit ? However this may be, his works have come down to us in a condition of manifest and admitted corruption in some portions, while in others there is an obscurity which may be attributed either to an idiosyncratic use of words and condensation of phrase, to a depth of intuition for a proper coalescence with which ordinary language is inadequate, to a concentration of passion in a focus that consumes the lighter links which bind together the clauses of a sentence or of a process of reasoning in common parlance, or to a sense of music which mingles music and meaning without essentially confounding them. We should demand for a perfect editor, then, first, a thorough glossological knowledge of the English contemporary with Shakspeare; second, enough logical acuteness of mind and metaphysical training to enable him to follow recondite processes of thought; third, such a conviction of the supremacy of his author as always to prefer his thought to any theory of his own ; fourth, a feeling for music, and so much knowledge of the practice of other poets as to understand that Shakspeare’s versification differs from theirs as often in kind as in degree; fifth, an acquaintance with the world as well as with books ; and last, what is, perhaps, of more importance than all, so great a familiarity with the working of the imaginative faculty in general, and of its peculiar operation in the mind of Shakspeare, as will prevent his thinking a passage dark with excess of light, and enable him to understand fully that the Gothic Shakspeare often superimposed upon the slender column of a single word, that seems to twist under it, but does not,—like the quaint shafts in cloisters, — a weight of meaning which the modern architects of sentences would consider wholly unjustifiable by correct principle.
It would be unreasonable to expect a union of all these qualifications in a single man, but we think that Mr. White combines them in larger proportion than any editor with whose labors we are acquainted. He has an acuteness in tracing the finer fibres of thought worthy of the keenest lawyer on the scent of a devious trail of circumstantial evidence ; he has a sincere desire to illustrate his author rather than himself; he is a man of the world, as well as a scholar; he comprehends the mastery of imagination, and that it is the essential element as well of poetry as of profound thinking; a critic of music, he appreciates the importance of rhythm as the higher mystery of versification. The sum of his qualifications is large, and his work is honorable to American letters.
Though our own studies have led us to a somewhat intimate acquaintance with Elizabethan literature, it is with some diffidence that we bring the criticism of dilettanti to bear upon the labors of five years of serious investigation. We fortify ourselves, however, with Dr. Johnson’s dictum on the subject of Criticism :—" Why, no, Sir ; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot make one. You may scold a carpenter who has made a bad table, though you cannot make a table; it is not your trade to make tables.” Not that we intend to abuse Mr. White’s edition of Shakspeare, but we shall speak of what seem to us its merits and defects with the frankness which alone justifies criticism.
We have spoken of Mr. White’s remarkable qualifications. We shall now state shortly what seem to us his faults. We think his very acumen sometimes misleads him into fancying a meaning where none exists, or at least none answerable to the clarity and precision of Shakspeare’s intellect; that he is too hasty in his conclusions as to the pronunciation of words and the accuracy of rhymes in Shakspeare's day, and that he has been seduced into them by what we cannot help thinking a mistaken theory as to certain words, as moth and nothing, for example ; that he shows, here and there, a glimpse of Americanism, especially misplaced in an edition of the poet whose works do more than anything else, perhaps, to maintain the sympathy of the English race ; and that his prejudice against the famous corrected folio of 1632 leads him to speak slightingly of Mr. Collier, to whom all lovers of our early literature are indebted, and who alone, in the controversy excited in England by the publication of his anonymous corrector's emendations, showed, under the most shameful provocation, the temper of a gentleman and the self-respect of a scholar. But after all these deductions, we remain of the opinion that Mr. White has given us the best edition hitherto published, and we do not like him the less for an occasional crotchet. For though Shakspeare himself seemed to think with regret that the dirge of the hobby-horse had boon sung, yet, as we ourselves have given evidence, it is impossible for any one to write on this subject without taking an occasional airing on one or more of those imaginary steeds that stand at livery with no risk of eating off their own heads. We shall take up the subject again in our next number, and by extracts justify both our commendation and our criticisms of Mr. White.
- The Works Of William Shakspeare. Edited, etc,, by RICHARD GRANT WHITE. Vols. II., III., IV., and V. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co. 1858.↩
- As where Ben Jonson is able to say,—↩
- “Vulgarian locutionem appellamus eam quâ infantes adsuefiunt ab adsistentibus cum primitus distinguere voces incipiunt: vel, quod brevius dici potest, vulgarem locutionem asserimus quam sine omni regulâ, nutricem imitantes,accepimus. Dantes, de Vulg. Eloquio, Lib. I. cap. i.↩
- Gray, himself a painful corrector, told Nicholls that “nothing was done so well as at the first concoction,”—adding, as a reason, “We think in words.” Ben Jenson said, it was a pity Shakspeare had not blotted more, for that he sometimes wrote nonsense,— and cited in proof of it the verse↩
- Scott, in Ivanhoe.↩
- * We use the word Latin here to express words derived either mediately or immediately from that language.↩
- The prose of Chancer (1390) and of Sir Thomas Malory (translating from the French, 1470) is less Latinized than that of Bacon, Browne, Taylor, or Milton. The glossary to Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar (1579) explains words of Teutonic and Romanic root in about equal proportions. The parallel but independent development of Scotch is not to be forgotten.↩
- * We believe that for the last two centuries the Latin radicals of English have been more familiar and homelike to those who use them than the Teutonic. Even so accomplished a person as Professor Craik, in his English of Shakspeare, derives head, through the German haupt, from the Latin caput! We, trust that its genealogy is nobler, and that it is of kin with cœlum tueri, rather than with the Greek KɛÕaλǹ, if Suidas be right in tracing the origin of that to a word meaning vacuity. Mr. Craik suggests, also, that quick and wicked may be etymologically identical, because he fancies a relationship between busy and the German böse, though wicked is evidently the participial form of A. S. wacan, (German weichen,) to bend, to yield, meaning one who has given way & temptation, while quick seems as clearly related to wegan, meaning to more a different word, even if radically the same. In the London Literary Gazette for Nov. 13, 1858, we find an extract from Miss Millington’s Heraldry in History, Poetry, and Romance, in which, speaking of the motto of the Prince of Wales,—De par Houmout ich diene,-she says, “ The precise meaning of the former word [ Houmout] has not, I think, been ascertained.” The word is plainly the German Hochmuth, and the whole would read, De par (Aus) Hochmuth ids diene,—"Out of magnanimity I serve." So entirely lost is the Saxon meaning of the word knave, (A. S. cnava, German knabe,) that the name navvie, assumed by railway-laborers, has been transmogrified into navigator. We believe that more people could tell why the month of July was so called than could explain the origin of the names for our days of the week, and that it is oftener the Saxon than the French words in Chaucer that puzzle the modern reader.↩
- * De Vulgari Eloquio, Lib. II. cap. i. aa finem. We quote this treatise as Dante's, because the thoughts seem manifestly his; though we believe that in its present form it is an abridgment by some transcriber, who sometimes copies textually, and sometimes substitutes his own language for that of the original.↩
- Pheidias said of one of his pupils that he had an inspired thumb, because the modelling-clay yielded to its careless sweep a grace of curve which it refused to the utmost pains of others.↩