THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. III.-JUNE, 1859.-NO. XX.
“ Yet must I not give Nature all; thy Art,
My gentle SHAKSPEARE, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter Nature be,
His Art doth give the Fashion.”-BEN JONSON.
WHOEVER would learn to think naturally, clearly, logically, and to express himself intelligibly and earnestly, let him give his days and nights to WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE. His ear will thus accustom itself to forms of phrase whose only mannerism is occasioned by the fulness of thought and the directness of expression ; and he will not easily, through the habits which either his understanding or his ear will acquire, fall into the fluent cadences of that sort of writing in which words are used without discrimination of their nice meanings,-where the sentences are only a smoothly-undulating current of common phrases, in which it takes a page to say weakly what should be said forcibly in a few periods.
These are somewhat novel arguments for the study of one whom all the world has so long reverenced as “the great poet of Nature." But they may properly serve to introduce a consideration of the sense in which that phrase should be understood,-an attempt, in short, to look into Shakspeare’s modes of creation, and define his relations, as an artist, with Nature.
We shall perhaps be excused the suggestion, that a poet cannot be natural in the same sense that a fool may be ; he cannot be a natural,-since, if he is, he is not a poet. For to be a poet implies the ability to use ideas and forms of speech artistically, as well as to have an eye in a fine frenzy rolling. This is a distinction which all who write on poets or poetry should forever seek to keep clear by new illustrations. The poet has poetic powers that are born with him; but he must also have a power over language, skill in arrangement, a thousand, yes, a myriad, of powers which he was born with only the ability to acquire, and to use after their acquirement. In ranking Shakspeare the great poet of Nature, it is meant that he had the purpose and the power to think what was natural, and to select and follow it,-that, among his thick-coming fancies, he could perceive what was too fine, what tinged with personal vanity, what incongruous, unsuitable, feeble, strained, in short, unnatural, and reject it. His vision was so strong that he saw his characters and identified himself with them, yet preserving his cool judgment above them, and subjecting all he felt through them to its test, and developing it through this artificial process of writing. This vision and high state of being he could assume and keep up and work out through days and weeks, foreseeing the end from the beginning, retaining himself, and determining long before how many acts his work should be, what should be its plot, what the order of its scenes, what personages he would introduce, and where the main passions of the work should he developed. His fancy, which enabled him to see the stage and all its characters,-almost to be them,-was so under the control of his imagination, that it did not, through any interruptions while he was at his labor, beguile him with caprices. The gradation, or action of his work, opens and grows under his creative hand; twenty or more characters appear, (in some plays nearly forty, as in “ Antony and Cleopatra” and the “ First Part of Henry the Sixth,”) who are all distinguished, who are all more or less necessary to the plot or the underplots, and who preserve throughout an identity that is life itself; all this is done, and the imagined state, the great power by which this evolution of characters and scene and story is carried on, is always under the control of the poet’s will, and the direction of his taste or critical judgment. He chooses to set his imagination upon a piece of work, he selects his plot, conceives the action, the variety of characters, and all their doings; as he goes on reflecting upon them, his imagination warms, and excites his fancy; he sees and identifies himself with his characters, lives a secondary life in his work, as one may in a dream which he directs and yet believes in ; his whole soul becomes more active under this fervor of the imagination, the fancy, and all the powers of suggestion,- yet, still, the presiding judgment remains calm above all, guiding the whole ; and above or behind that, the will which elects to do all this, perchance for a very simple purpose,-namely, for filthy lucre, the purchase-money of an estate in Stratford.
To say that he “ followed Nature ” is to mean that he permits his thoughts to flow out in the order in which thoughts naturally come,-that he makes his characters think as we all fancy we should think under the circumstances in which he places them,-that it is the truth of his thoughts which first impresses us. It is in this respect that he is so universal; and it is by his universality that his naturalness is confirmed. Not all his finer strokes of genius, but the general scope and progress of his mind, are within the path all other minds travel; his mind answers to all other men’s minds, and hence is like the voice of Nature, which, apart from particular associations, addresses all alike. The cataracts, the mountains, the sea, the landscapes, the changes of season and weather have each the same general meaning to all mankind. So it is with Shakspeare, both in the conception and development of his characters, and in the play of his reflections and fancies. All the world recognizes his sanity, and the health and beauty of his genius.
Not all the world, either. Nature’s poet fares no better than Nature herself. Half the world is out of the pale of knowledge ; a good part of the rest are stunted by cant in its Protean shapes, or by inherited narrowness and prejudice, and innumerable soul-cankers. They neither know nor think of Nature or Poetry. Just as there are hundreds in all great cities who never leave their accustomed streets winter or summer, until finally they lose all curiosity, and cease to feel the yearnings of that love which all are born with for the sight of the land and sea,-the dear face of our common mother. Or the creatures who compose the numerical majority of the world are rather like the children of some noble lady stolen away by gypsies, and taught to steal and cheat and beg, and practised in low arts, till they utterly forget the lawns whereon they once played ; and if their mother ever discovers them, their natures are so subdued that they neither recognize her nor wish to go with her.
Without fearing that Shakspeare can ever lose his empire while the language lasts, it is humiliating to be obliged to acknowledge one great cause that is operating to keep him from thousands of our young countrymen and women, namely, the wide-spread mediocrity that is created and sustained by the universal diffusion of our so-called cheap literature ;—dear enough it will prove by and by! — But this is needlessly digressing.
The very act of writing implies an art not born with the poet. This process of forming letters and words with a pen is not natural, nor will the poetic frenzy inspire us with the art to go through it. In conceiving the language of passion, the natural impulse is to imitate the passion in gesture; there is something artificial in sitting quietly at a table and hollaing, “ Mortimer ! ” through a quill. If Hotspur’s language is in the highest degree natural, it is because the poet felt the character, and words suggested themselves to him which he chose and wrote down. The act of choice might have been almost spontaneous with the feeling of the character and the situation, yet it was there,—the conscious judgment was present; and if the poet wrote the first words that came, (as no doubt he usually did,) it was because he was satisfied with them at the time ; there was no paroxysm of poetic inspiration,-the workings of his mind were sane. His fertility was such that he was not obliged to pause and compare every expression with all others he could think of as appropriate;—judgment may decide swiftly and without comparison, especially when it is supervising the suggestions of a vivid fancy, and still be judgment, or taste, if we choose to call it by that name. We know by the result whether it was present. The poet rapt into unconsciousness would soon betray himself. Under the power of the imagination, all his faculties waken to a higher life; his fancies are more vivid and clear; all the suggestions that come to him are more apt and congruous ; and his faculties of selection, his perceptions of fitness, beauty, and appropriateness of relation are more keen and watchful. No lapse in what he writes at such times indicates aught like dreaming or madness, or any condition of mind incompatible with soundness and health,— with that perfect sanity in which all the mental powers move in order and harmony under the control of the rightful sovereign, Reason.
These observations are not intended to bear, except remotely, upon the question, Which is the true Dramatic Art, the romantic or the ancient ? We shall not venture into that land of drought, where dry minds forever wander. We can admit both schools. In fact, even the countrymen of Racine have long since admitted both, — speculatively, at least, — though practically their temperament will always confine them to artificial models. We may consider the question as set at rest in these words of M. Guizot: —“ Everything which men acknowledge as beautiful in Art owes its effect to certain combinations, of which our reason can always detect the secret when our emotions have attested its power. The science — or the employment of these combinations—constitutes what we call Art. Shakspeare had his own. We must detect it in his works, and examine the means he employs and the results he aims at.” Although we should be far from admitting so general a definition of Art as this, yet it is sufficient as an answer to the admirers of the purely classic school.
But it has become necessary in this “ spasmodic ” day to vindicate our great poet from the supposition of having written in a state of somnambulism,—to show that he was even an artist, without reference to schools. The scope of our observations is to exhibit him in that light; we wish to insist that he was a man of forethought-that, though possessing creative genius, he did not dive recklessly into the sea of his fancy without knowing its depth, and ready to grasp every pebble for a pearl-shell; we wish to show that he was not what has been called, in the cant of a class who mistake lawlessness for liberty, an “ earnest creature,”— that he was not “fancy’s child” in any other sense than as having in his power a beautifully suggestive fancy, and that he “ warbled his native wood-notes wild” in no other meaning than as Milton warbled his organ-notes, — namely, through the exercise of conscious Art, of Art that displayed itself not only in the broad outlines of his works, but in their every character and shade of color. With this purpose we have urged that he was “ natural ” from taste and choice,—artistically natural. To illustrate the point, let us consider his Art alone in a few passages.
We will suppose, preliminarily, however, that we are largely interested in the Globe Theatre, and that, in order to keep it up and continue to draw good houses, we must write a new piece,—that, last salary-day, we fell short, and were obliged to borrow twenty pounds of my Lord Southampton to pay our actors. Something must be done. We look into our old books and endeavor to find a plot out of ancient story, in the same manner that Sir Hugh Evans would hunt for a text for a sermon. At length one occurs that pleases our fancy ; we revolve it over and over in our mind, and at last, after some days’ thought, elaborate from it the plot of a play,—“ TIMON OF ATHENS ,” —which plot we make a memorandum of, lest we should forget it. Meantime, we are busy at the theatre with rehearsals, changes of performance, bill-printing, and a hundred thousand similar matters that must be each day disposed of. But we keep our newly-thought-of play in mind at odd intervals, good things occur to us as we are walking in the street, and we begin to long to be at it. The opening scenes we have quite clearly in our eye, and we almost know the whole ; or it may be, vice versâ, that we work out the last scenes first; at all events, we have them hewn out in the rough, so that we work the first with an intention of making them conform to a something which is to succeed; and we are so sure of our course that we have no dread of the something after,- nothing to puzzle the will, or make us think too precisely on the event. Such is the condition of mind in which we finally begin our labor. Some Wednesday afternoon in a holiday-week, when the theatres are closed, we find ourselves sitting at a desk before a sea-coal fire in a quaintly panelled rush-strewn chamber, the pen in our hand, nibbed with a “ Rogers’s ” penknife,1 and the blank page beneath it.
We desire the reader to close his eyes for a moment and endeavor to fancy himself in the position of William Shakspeare about to write a piece,—the play abovenamed. This may be attempted without presumption. We wish to recall and make real the fact that our idol was a man, subject to the usual circumstances of men living in his time, and to those which affect all men at all times,—that he had the same round of day and night to pass through, the same common household accidents which render “ no man a hero to his valet,” The world was as real to him as it is to us. The dreamy past, of two hundred and fifty years since, was to him the present of one of the most stirring periods in history, when wonders were born quite as frequently as they are now.
And having persuaded the reader to place himself in Shakspeare’s position, we will make one more very slight request, which is, that he will occupy another chair in the same chamber and fancy that he sees the immortal dramatist begin a work,—still keeping himself so far in his position that he can observe the workings of his mind as he writes.
Shakspeare has fixed upon a name for his piece, and he writes it,-he that the players told Ben Jonson “ never blotted a line.” It is the tragedy,—
TIMON OF ATHENS.
He will have it in five acts, as the best form ; and he has fixed upon his dramatis personœ, at least the principal of them, for he names them on the margin as he writes. He uses twelve in the first scene, some of whom he has no occasion for bat to bring forward the character of his boro ; but they are all individualized while he employs them. The scene he has fixed upon ; this is present to his mind’s eye; and as he cannot afterwards alter it without making his characters talk incongruously and being compelled to rewrite the whole, he writes it down thus:—
SCENE I.—A Hall in Timon's House.
Now he has reflected that his first object is to interest bis audience in the action and passion of the piece,—at the very outset, if possible, to catch their fancies and draw them into the mimic life of the play,—to beguile and attract them without their knowing it. He has reflected upon this, we say,—for see how artfully he opens the scene, and how soon the empty stage is peopled with life! He chooses to begin by having two persons enter from opposite wings, whose qualities are known at once to the reader of the play, but not to an audience. The stage-direction informs us :—
[Enter Poet, Painter, Jeweller, Merchant, and others, at several doors.
We shall see how at the same time they introduce and unfold their own characters and awaken an interest in the main action. In writing, we are obliged to name them. They do not all enter quite at once. At first comes
Poet. Good day, Sir.
Painter. I am glad to see you well.
Poet. I have not seen you long; how goes the world ?
Painter. It wears, Sir, as it grows.
This shows them to be acquaintances.— While the next reply is made, in which the Poet begins to talk in character even before the audience know him, two others enter from the same side, as having just met, and others in the background.
Poet. Ay, that's well known:—
But what particular rarity? what strange, That manifold record not matches? See,
And wo fancy him waving bis hand in an enthusiastic manner,—
Magic of bounty! all these spirits thy power Hath conjured to attend.
Which manner is only a high-flowing habit, for he adds in the same breath, dropping his figure suddenly,—
I know the merchant. Painter. I know them both; t'other’s a jeweller.
It is certainly natural that painters should know jewellers,—and, perhaps, that poets should be able to recognize merchants, though the converse might not hold. We now know who the next speakers are, and soon distinguish them.
Merchant. Oh, ’tis a worthy lord !
Jeweller. Nay, that’s most fixed.
Merchant. A most incomparable man ; breathed as it were
To an untirable and contimjate goodness: He passes.
Jeweller. I have a jewel here.
The Jeweller being known, the Merchant is; and, it will he noticed that the first speaks in a cautious manner.
Merchant. Oh, pray, let’s see it! For the lord Timon, Sir?
Jeweller. If he will touch tlie estimate; but, for that—
We begin to suspect who is the “magic of bounty” and the “incomparable man,” and also to have an idea that all these people have come to his house to see him.-While the Merchant examines the jewel, the first who spoke, the highflown individual, is pacing and talking to himself near the one he met :-
Poet. When we for recompense have praised the vile,
It stains the glory in that happy verse Which aptly sings the good.
Perhaps he is thinking of himself. The Merchant and Jeweller do not hear him ; -they stand in twos at opposite sides of the stage.
Merchant, ’Tis a good form.
[Looking at the jewel.
He observes only that the stone is well cut ; but the Jeweller adds,—
Jeweller. And rich: here is a water, look you.
While they are interested in this and move backward, the two others come nearer the front.
Painter. You are rapt, Sir, in some work, some dedication To the great lord.
This is said, of course, with reference to the other’s recent soliloquy. And now we are going to know them.
Poet. A thing slipped idly from me.
Our poesy is as a gum, which oozes
From whence ’tis nourished. The fire i’ the flint
Shows not till it be struck; our gentle flame
Provokes itself, and like the current flies
Each bound it chafes.—What have you there?
We perceive that he is a poet, and a rather rhetorical than sincere one. He has the art, but, as we shall see, not the heart.
Painter. A picture, Sir.—And when comes your book forth ?
Poet. Upon the heels of my presentment, Sir.—
Let’s see your piece.
Painter. ’Tis a good piece.
We know that the Poet has come to make his presentment. The Painter, the more modest of the two, wishes his work to be admired, but is apprehensive, and would forestall the Poet's judgment. He means, it is a “tolerable” piece.
Poet. So ’tis: this comes off well and excellent.
Poet. Admirable. How this grace
Speaks his own standing! What a mental power
This eye shoots forth ! How big imagination
Moves in this lip! To the dumbness of the gesture
One might interpret.
He, at all events, means to flatter the Painter,—or he is so habituated to ecstasies that he cannot speak without going into one. But with what Shakspearean nicety of discrimination ! The “ grace that speaks his own standing,” the “ power of the eye,” the “ imagination of the lip,” are all true ; and so is the natural impulse, in one of so fertile a brain as a poet from whom verse “ oozes,” to “ interpret to the dumb gesture,”—to invent an appropriate speech for the figure (Timon, of course) to be uttering. And all this is but to preoccupy our minds with a conception of the lord Timon !
Painter. It is a pretty mocking of the life. Here’s a touch; is’t good?
Poet. I’ll say of it
It tutors Nature: artificial strife
Lives in these touches livelier than life.
He has thought of too fine a phrase ; but
it is in character with all his fancies.
[Enter certain Senators, and pass over.
Painter. How this lord’s followed!
Poet. The senators of Athens: happy men !
This informs us who they are that pass over. The Poet also keeps up the Ercles vein ; while the Painter’s eye is caught.
Painter. Look, more!
Poet. You see this confluence, this great flood of visitors.
I have, in this rough work, shaped out a man
Whom this beneath world doth embrace and bug
With amplest entertainment : my free drift
Halts not particularly, but moves itself
In a wide sea of wax: no levelled malice
Infects one comma in the course I hold:
But flies an eagle flight, bold, and forth on,
Leaving no tract behind.
This flight of rhetoric is intended to produce a sort of musical eflect, in preparing us by its lofty sound for readily apprehending the lord Timon with “ amplest entertainment.” The same is true of all that follows. The Poet and Painter do but sound a lordly note of preparation, and move the curtain that is to be lifted before a scene of profusion. Call it by what name we please, it surely was not accident or unconscious inspiration,—a rapture or frenzy,—which led Shakspeare to open this play in this manner. It we remember the old use of choruses, which was to lift up and excite the fancy, we may well believe that he intended this flourishing Poet to act as a chorus,- to be a “mighty whiffler,” going before, elevating “ the flat unraised spirits " of his auditory, and working on their “imaginary forces.” He is a rhetorical character, designed to rouse the attention of the house by the pomp of his language, and to set their fancies in motion by his broad conceptions. How well he does it ! No wonder the Painter is a little confused as he listens to him.
Painter. How shall I understand you?
Poet. I’ll unbolt to you.
You seo how all conditions, how all minds,
(As well of glib and slippery creatures, as
Of grave and austere quality,) tender down
Their sendees to Lord Timon; his large fortune,
Upon his good and gracious nature hanging,
Subdues and properties to his love and tendance
All sorts or hearts; yea, from the glass-faced flatterer
To Apemantus, that few things loves better
Than to abhor himself; even he drops down
The knee before him, and returns in peace,
Most rich in Timon’s nod.
There was almost a necessity that the spectator should be made acquainted with the character of Timon before his appearance ; for his profuseness could be illustrated, after being known, better than it could make itself known in dialogue and action in which he should bear a part. And of the hundreds of English plays opening with an explanation or narrative of foregone matters, there is none where the formality is concealed by a more ingenious artifice than is used in this scene. The spectator is fore-possessed with Timon’s character, and (in the outline the Poet is proceeding to give) with a suspicion that he is going to see him ruined in the course of the piece; and this is accomplished in the description of a panegyric, incidentally, briefly, picturesquely, artfully, with an art that tutors Nature, and which so well conceals itself that it can scarcely be perceived except in this our microscopic analysis. Here also we have Apemantus introduced beforehand. And with all this, the Painter and Poet speak minutely and broadly in character; the one sees scenes, the other plans an action (which is just what his own creator had done) and talks in poetic language. It is no more than the text warrants to remark that the next observation, primarily intended to break the poet’s speech, was also Intended to be the natural thought and words of a
Painter. I saw them speak together.
Puet. Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill
Feigned Fortune to be throned: the base o’ the mount
Is ranked with all deserts, all kinds of natures,
That labor on the bosom of this sphere
To propagate tlieir states; amongst them all,
Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fixed,
One do I personate of Lord Timon’s frame,
Whom Fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her ;
Whose present grace to present slaves and servants
Translates his rivals.
Painter. 'Tis conceived to scope.
This throne, this Fortune, and this hill, methinks,
With one man beckoned from the rest below,
Bowing his head against the sleepy mount
To climb his happiness, would be well expressed
In our condition.
Poet. Nay, Sir, but hear me on.
The artifice is to secure the attention of the spectator. The interruptions give naturalness and force to the narrative ; and the questions and entreaties, though addressed to each other by the personages on the stags, have their effect in the front. The same artifice is employed in the most obvious manner where Prospero (Tempest, Act i. Sc. 2) narrates his and her previous history to Miranda. The Poet continues:—
All those which were his fellows but of late
(Some better than his value) on the moment
Follow his strides, his lobbies fill with tendance,
Rain sacrificia whisperings in his ear,
Make sacred even his stirrup, and through him
Drink the free air.
Painter. Ay, marry, what of these ?
The Poet has half deserted his figure, and is losing himself in a new description, from which the Painter impatiently recalls him. The text is so artificially natural that it will bear the nicest natural construction.
Poet. When Fortune, in her shift and change of mood,
Spurns down her late beloved, all his depenclants,
Which labored after him to the mountain’s top,
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
Painter. ’Tis common:
A thousand moral paintings I can show
That shall demonstrate these quick blows of Fortune
More pregnantly than words, d et you do well
To show Lord Timon that mean eyes have seen
The foot above the head.
[Trumpets sound. Enter Timon, attended ; the servant of Ventidius talking with him.
Thus far (and it is of no consequence if we have once or twice forgotten it while pursuing our analysis) we have fancied ourselves present, seeing Shakspcare write this, and looking into his mind. But although divining his intentions, we have not made him intend any more than his words show that he did intend. Let us presently fancy, that, before introducing his principal character, he here turns back to see if he has brought in everything that is necessary. It would have been easier to plan this scene after the rest of the play had been done,—and, as already remarked, it may have been so written ; but when the whole coheres, the artistic purpose is more or less evident in every part ; and the order in which each was put upon paper is of as little consequence as the place or time of date or the State of the weather. Wordsworth has been particular enough to let it be known, where he composed the last verse of a poem first. With some artists the writing is a mere copying from memory of what is completely elaborated in the whole or in long passages : Milton wrote thus, through a habit made necessary by his blindness ; and so Mozart, whose incessant labors trained his genius in the paths of musical learning, or brought learning to be its slave, till his first conceptions were often beyond the reach of elaboration, and remained so clear in his own mind that he could venture to perform in public concertos to which he bad written only the orchestral or accessory parts. Other artists work seriatim ; some can work only when the pen is in their hands; and the blotted page speaks eloquently enough of the artistic processes of mind to which their most passionate passages are subjected before they come to the reader’s eye. Think of the facsimile of Byron’s handwriting in “ Childo Harold”! It shows a soul rapt almost beyond the power of writing. But the blots and erasures were not made by a " line frenzy”; they speak no less eloquently for an artistic taste and skill excited and alert, and able to guide the frenzy and give it a contagious power through the forms of verse,-this taste and this skill and control being the very elements by which his expressions become an echo of the poet’s soul,-pleasing, or, in the uncultivated, helping to form, a like taste in the hearer, and exciting a like imagined condition of feeling and poetic vision.
Yet if it were made a question, to be decided from internal evidence, whether the scene here analyzed was written before or after the rest of the piece, a strong argument for its being written before might be found in the peculiar impression it leaves upon the fancy. Let us suppose we follow the author while he runs it over, which he does quite rapidly, since there are no blotted lines, but only here and there a comma to be inserted. He designed to open his tragedy. He finds he has set a scene,- in bis mind’s eye the entrance-hall to an Athenian house, which he thinks he has presently intimated plainly enough to be Timon’s house. Here he has brought forward four actors and made them speak as just meeting; they come by twos irom different ways, and the first two immediately make it known that the other two are a merchant and jeweller, and almost immediately that they themselves are, one a painter, the other a poet. They have all brought gifts or goods for the lord Timon. The Athenian Senators pass over, and, as becomes their dignity, are at once received in an inner hall,-the first four remaining on the stage. All is so far clear. lie has also, by the dialogue of the Painter and Poet, made in itself taking to the attention through the picture and the Highly recitation, suggested and interested us incidentally in the character of Timon, and conveyed a vague misgiving of misfortune to come to him. And there is withal a swelling pomp, three parts rhetorical and one part genuinely poetical, in the Poet’s style, which gives a tone, and prepares the fancy to enter readily into the spirit of the tragedy. This effect the author wished to produce ; he felt that the piece required it; he was so preoccupied with the Timon he conceived that he sets to work with a Timonrich hue of fancy and feeling ; to this note he pitches himself, and begins his measured march “ bold and forth on.” What he has assumed to feel he wishes spectators to feel; and he leaves his style to be colored by his feeling, because he knows that such is the way to make them feel it. And we do feel it, and know also that we are made thus to feel through an art which we can perceive and admire, On the whole, this introduction opens upon the tragedy with just such a display of high-sounding phrases, such a fine appropriateness, such a vague presentiment, and such a rapid, yet artful, rising from indifference to interest, that it seems easiest to suppose the author to be writing while his conceptions of what is to follow are freshest and as yet unwrought out. We cannot ask him ; even while we have overlooked him in his labor, bis form has faded, and we are again in this dull every-day Present.
We have seen him take up his pen and begin a tragedy ; or, to drop the fancy, we have made it real to ourselves in what manner Shakspeare's writing evidences that he wrought as an artist,— one who has an idea in his mind of an effect he desires to produce, and elaborates it with careful skill, not in a trance or ecstasy, but “in clear dream and solemn vision.” The subtile tone of feeling to be struck is as much a matter of art as the action or argument to be opened. And it is uo less proper to judge (as we have done) of the presence of art by its result in this respect than in respect to what relates to the form or story. An introduction is before us, a dramatic scene, in which characters are brought forward and a dialogue is given, apparently concerning a picture and poem that have been made, but having a more important reference to a character yet to be unfolded. Along with this there is also expressed, in the person of a professed panegyrist, a certain lofty and free opinion of his own work, in a confident declamatory style of description,-
“ Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill Feigned Fortune to be throned," etc.,— that is levelled with exquisite tact just on the verge of bombast. This is not done to make the hearer care for the thing described, which is never heard of alter, but to give a hint of Timon and what is to befall him, and to create a melodic effect upon the hearer’s sense which shall put him in a state to yield readily to the illusion of the piece.
It is not possible to conceive Shakspeare reviewing his lines and thinking to himself, “ That is well done ; my genius has not deserted me ; I could not have written anything more to my liking, if I had set about it deliberately !” But it is easy to see him running it over with a sensation of “ This will serve ; my poet will open their eyes and ears ; and now for the hall and banquet scene.”
The sense of fitness and relation operates among thoughts and feelings as well as among fancies, and its results cannot be mistaken for accident. Ariel and his harpies could not interrupt a scene with a more discordant action than the phase of feeling or the poetic atmosphere pervading it would be interrupted by, if a cloud of distraction came across the poet and the faculties of his mind rioted out of his control. For he not only feels, but sees his feeling; he takes it up as an object and holds it before him,—a feeling to be conveyed. Just as a sculptor holds in his mind a form and models it out of day, undiverted, by other forms thronging into his vision, or by the accidental forms that the plastic substance takes upon itself in the course of his work, till it stands forth the image of his ideal,—so the poet works out his states of poetic feeling. He grasps and holds and sustains them amidst the multiplicity of Upflying thoughts and thick-coming fancies ; -no matter how subtile or bow aspiring they may be, he fastens them in the chamber of his imagination until his distant purpose is accomplished, and he has found a language for them which the world will understand. And this is where Shakspeare’s art is so noble,—in that he conquers the entire universe of thought, sentiment, feeding, and passion, — goes into the whole and takes up and portrays characters the most extreme and diverse, passions the most wild, sentiment the most refined, feelings the most delicate,-and does this by an art in which he must make his characters appear real and we looking on, though he cannot use, to develop his dramas, a hundred-thousandth part of the words that would be used in real life,—that is, in Nature, He also always approaches us upon the level of our common sense and experience, and never requires us to yield it, -never breaks in or jars upon our judgment, or shocks or alarms any natural sensibility. After enlarging our souls with the stir of whatever can move us through poetry, he leaves us where he found us, refreshed by new thoughts, new scenes, and new knowledge of ourselves and our kind, more capable, and, if we choose to be so, more wise. His art is so great that we almost forget its presence,-almost forget that the Macbeth and Othello we have seen and heard were Shakspeare’s, and that he MADE them ; we can scarce conceive how he could feign as if felt, and retain and reproduce such a play of emotions and passions from the position of spectator, his own soul remaining, with its sovereign reason, and all its powers natural and acquired, far, far above all its creations,-a spirit alone before its Maker.
The opening of “ Timon ” was selected on account of its artful preparation for and relation to what it precedes. It shows the forethought and skill of its author in the construction or opening out of his play, both in respect to the story and the feeling; yet even here, in this half-declamatory prologue, the poet’s dramatic art is also evident. His poet and painter are living men, and not mere utterers of so many words. Was this from intuition ?-or because he found it easy to make them what he conceived them, and felt that it would add to the life of his introduction, though he should scarcely bring them forward afterwards? No doubt the mind’s eye helps the mind in character-drawing, and that appropriate language springs almost uncalled to the pen, especially of a practised writer for the stage. But is his scene a dream which he can direct, and which, though he knows it all proceeds from himself, yet seems to keep just in advance of him,-his fancy shooting ahead and astonishing him with novelties in dialogue and situation ? There are those who have experienced this condition in sickness, and who have amused themselves with listening to a fancied conversation having reference to subjects of their own choosing, yet in which they did not seem to themselves to control the cause of the dialogue or originate the particular things said, until they could actually hear the voices rising from an indistinct whisper to plain speech. I knew an instance, (which at least is not related in the very curious work of M. Boismont on the “ Natural History of Hallucinations,”) where an invalid, recovering from illness, could hear for half a night the debates and doings of an imaginary association in the next chamber, the absurdity of which often made him laugh so that he could with difficulty keep quiet enough to listen; while occasionally extracts would be read from books written in a style whose precision and eloquence excited his admiration, or whose affecting solemnity moved him deeply, though he knew perfectly well that the whole came from his own brain. This he could either cause or permit, and could in an instant change the subject of the conversation or command it into silence. He would sometimes throw his pillow against the wall and say, “ Be still ! I’ll hear no more till daybreak ! ” And this has taken place when he was in calm health in mind, and, except weakness, in body, and broad awake. What was singular, the voices would cease at his bidding, and in one instance (which might have startled him, had he not known how common it is for persons to wake at an hour they fix) they awoke him at the time appointed. Their language would bear the ordinary tests of sanity, and was like that we see in daily newspapers ; but the various knowledge brought in, the complicated scenes gone through, made the whole resemble intricate concerted music, from the imperfect study of which possibly came the power to fabricate them. That they were owing to some physical cause was shown by their keeping a sort of cadence with the pulse, and in the fact, that, though not disagreeable, they were wearisome ; especially as they always appeared to be got. up with some remote reference to the private faults and virtues of that tedious individual who is always forcing his acquaintance upon us, avoid him however we may,—one’s self.
Shall we suppose that Shakspeare wrote in such an opium dream as this ? Did his “ wood-notes wild ” come from him as tunes do from a barrel-organ, where it is necessary only to set the machine and disturb the bowels of it by turning? Was it sufficient for him to fore-plan the plots of his plays, the story, acts, scenes, persons,—the general rough idea, or argument, — and then to sit at his table, and, by some process analogous to mesmeric manipulations, put himself into a condition in which his genius should elaborate and shape what he, by the aid of his poetic taste and all other faculties, had been able to roughhew? How far did his consciousness desert him ?—only partially, as in the instance just given, so that he marvelled, while he wrote, at his own fertility, power, and truth ?-or wholly, as in a Pythonio inspiration, so that the frenzy filled him to his fingers’ ends, and he wrote, he knew not what, until he re-read it in his ordinary state ? In fine, was he the mere conduit of a divinity within him ?—or was he in his very self, in the nobility and true greatness of his being and the infinitude of his faculties, a living fountain,—he, he alone, in as plain and common a sense as we mean when we say “ a man,” the divinity ?
These are “ questions not to be asked,” or, at least, argued, any more than the question, Whether the blessed sun of heaven shall eat blackberries. The quality of Shakspeare’s writing renders it impossible to suppose that it was produced in any other state than one where all the perceptions that make good sense, and not only good, but most excellent sense, were present and alert. Howsoever “ apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes ” his brain may be, it never gambols from the superintendence of his reason and understanding. In truth, it is the perfectness of the control, the conscious assurance of soundness in himself, which leaves him so free that the control is to so many eyes invisible ; they perceive nothing but luxuriant ease in the midst of intricate complexities of passion and character, and they think he could have followed the path he took only by a sort of necessity which they call Nature,-that he wrote himself quite into his works, bodily, just as he was, every thought that came and went, and every expression that flew to his pen,-leaving out only a few for shortness. They are so thoroughly beguiled by the very quality they do not see, that they are like spectators who mistake the scene On the stage for reality ; they cannot fancy that a man put it all there, and that it is by the artistic and poetic power of him, this man, who is now standing behind or at the wing, and counting the money in the house, that they are beguiled of their tears or thrown into such ecstasies of mirth.
It exalts, and not degrades, the memory of Shakspeare to think of him in this manner, as a man: for he teas a man ; he had eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, and so forth, the same that a Jew hath ; a good many people saw him alive. Had we lived in London between 1580 and 1610, we might have seen him,-a man who came from Ills Maker’s hand endowed with the noblest powers and the most godlike reason,-who had the greatest natural ability to become a great dramatic poet,-the native genius and the aptness to acquire the art, and who did acquire the highest art of his age, and went on far beyond it, exhibiting new ingenuities and resources, and a breadth that has never been equalled, and which admits at once and harmonizes the deepest tragedy and the broadest farce, and, in language, the loftiest flights of measured rhetoric along with the closest, imitation of common talk ; — and all this he so used, so elaborated through it the poetic creations of his mind, in such glorious union and perfection of high purpose and art and reach of soul, that he was the greatest and most universal poet the world has known.
Rowe observes, in regard to Shakspeare,—“ Art had so little and Nature so large a share in what he did, that, ibr aught I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination in them, were the best. I would not be thought by this to mean that his fancy was so loose and extravagant as to be independent on the rule and government of judgment ; but that what lie thought was commonly so great, so justly and rightly conceived in itself, that it wanted little or no correction, and was immediately approved by an impartial judgment at the first sight."
The last sentence is true; but Mr. Rowe really means to say that he was as great an artist as natural poet,—that his creative and executive powers wrought in almost perfect spontaneity and harmony, —the work of the making part of him being generally at once approved by the shaping part, and each and both being admirable. When a man creates an Othello, feigns Ins story and his passion, assumes to be him and to observe him at the same time, figures him so exactly that all the world may realize him also, brings iu Desdemona and Iago and the rest, everything kept in propriety and with the minutest perfection of detail, which does most, Art or Nature ? How shall we distinguish ? Where does one leave off and the other begin ? The truth of the passion, that is Nature ; but can we not perceive that the Art goes along with it? Do we not at once acknowledge the Art when we say, “ How natural ! ” ? In such as Iago, for example, it would seem as if the least reflective spectator must derive a little critical satisfaction,—if he can only bring himself to fancy that Iago is not alive, but that the great master painted him and wrote every word he utters. As we read his words, can we not see how boldly he is drawn, and how highly colored ? There he is, right in the foreground, prominent, strong, a most miraculous villain. Did Nature put the words into his mouth, or Art? The question involves a consideration of how far natural it is for men to make Iagos, and to make them speaking naturally. Though it be natural, it is not common ; and if its naturalness is what must be most insisted on, it may be conceded, and we may say, with Polixenes, “ The Art itself is Nature.”
There is a strong rapture that always attends the full exercise of our highest faculties. The whole spirit is raised and quickened into a secondary life. This was felt, by Shakspeare,—felt, and at the same time controlled and guided with the same strictness over all thoughts, feelings, passions, fancies, that thronged his mind at such moments, as he had over those in his dull every-day hours. When we are writing, how difficult it is to avoid pleasing our own vanity ! how hard not to step aside a little, now and then, for a brilliant thought or a poetic fancy, or any of the thousand illusions that throng upon us! Even for the sake of a well-sounding phrase we are often tempted to turn. The language of passion,—how hard it is to feign to write it! how harder than all, to keep the tone, serious, or whatever it may be, with which we begin, so that no expressions occur to break it, — lapses of thought or speech, that are like sudden stumbles or uneasy jolts! And if this is so in ordinarily elevated prose, how much more must it be so in high dramatic poetry, where the poet rides on the whirlwind and tempest of passion and “ directs the storm.” There must go to the conception and execution of this sort of work a resolved mind, strong fancies, thoughts high and deep, in fine, a multitude of powers, all under the grand creative, sustaining imagination. When completed, the work stands forth to all time, a great work of Art, and bulwark of all that is high against all that is low. It is a great poetic work, the work of a maker who gives form and direction to the minds of men.
In a certain sense, it is not an extravagance to say that all who are now living and speak English have views of life and Nature modified by the influence of Shakspeare. We see the world through his eyes; he has taught us how to think; the freedom of soul, the strong sense, the grasp of thought, — above all, the honor, the faith, the love, — who has imparted sneh noble ideas of these things as he ? Not any one, though there were giants in those days as well as he. Hence he has grown to seem even more “ natural ” than he did in his own day, his judges being mediately or immediately educated by him. The works are admired, but the nobleness of soul in him that made them is not perceived, and his genius and power are degraded into a blind faculty by unthinking minds, and by vain ones that flatter themselves they have discovered the royal road to poetry. What they seem to require for poetry is the flash of thought or fancy that starts the sympathetic thrill,—the little jets,— the striking, often-quoted lines or “ gems.” The rest is merely introduced to build up a piece; these are the “pure Nature,” and all that.
And it is not to be denied that they are pure Nature; for they are true to Nature, and are spontaneous, beautiful, exquisite, deserving to be called gems, and even diamonds.
“ The sweet South,
That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odor ” : -
thousands of such lines we keep in our memories’ choicest cells; yet they are but the exterior adornments of a great work of Art. They are the delightful finishes and lesser beauties which the great work admits, and, indeed, is never without, but which are not to be classed among its essentials. Their beauty and fitness are not those of the grand columns of the temple; they are the sculptures upon the frieze, the caryatides, or the graceful interlacings of vines. They catch the fancy of those whose field of vision is not large enough to take in the whole, and upon whom all excellences that are not little are lost. Beautiful in themselves, their own beauty is frequently all that is seen; the beauty of their propriety, the grace and charm with which they come in, are overlooked. Many people will have it that nothing is poetry or poetic but these gems of poetry; and because the apparent spontaneonsness of them is what makes them so striking, these admirers are unwilling to see that it is through an art that they are brought in so beautifully in their spontaneonsness and give such finish to larger effects. And we have no end of writers who are forever trying to imitate them, forgetting that the essence of their beauty is in their coining unsought and in their proper places as unexpected felicities and fine touches growing out of and contributing to some, higher purpose. They are natural in this way:-when the poet is engaged upon his work, these delicate fancies and choice expressions throng into his mind ; he instantly, by his Art-sense, accepts some, and rejects more ; and those he accepts are such as he wants for his ulterior purpose, which will not admit the appearance of art; hence he will have none that do not grow out of his feeling and harmonize with it. All this passes in an instant, and the apt simile or the happy epithet is created,-an immortal beauty, both in itself and as it occurs in its place. It was put there by an art; the poet knew that the way to make expressions come is to assume the feeling; he knew that he
“ But in n fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit ” that his whole function would suit with expressions to his conceit. He then withdrew his judgment from within, and cheated his fancy into supposing he had given her the rein, letting the feigned state be as real to him as it could, and writing from that primarily,- humoring Nature by his art in leaving her to do what she alone could do. So that the very gems we admire as natural are the offspring of Nature creating under Art. To make streaked gillyflowers, we marry a gentler scion to the wildest stock, and Nature does the rest. So in poetry, we cannot get at the finest excellences by seeking for them directly, but we put Nature in the way to suggest them. We do not strive to think whether “ the molded queen ” is good ; we do not. let our vanity keep such a strict look-out upon Nature ; she will not desert us, if we follow her modes,-which we must do with all the art and fine tact we can acquire and command, not only in order to gain the minute beauties, but to compass the great whole.
The analogies that might be drawn from music would much assist in making all this dear, if they could be used with a chance of being understood. But, unfortunately, the ability to comprehend a great work, as a whole, is even rarer in music than in poetry. The little taking bits of melody are all that is thought of or perceived ; the great epos or rhapsody, the form and meaning of the entire composition,-which is a work of Art in no other sense than a poem is one, except that it uses, instead of speech, musical forms, of greater variety and symmetry, -are not at all understood. Nor is the subtile and irresistible coherence in successions of clear sunny melody, in which Mozart so abounds, in any great degree understood, even by some who call themselves artists. They think only of the sudden flashes, the happinesses, and, if such a word may be used once only, the smartnesses,-like children who care for nothing in their cake but the frosting and the plums. But in continuing the study of the art with such notions of its expression, the relish for it soon cloys, the mind ceases to advance, the enthusiasm deadens, progress becomes hopeless, and the little gained is soon lost ; whereas, if the student is familiarized with the most perfect forms of the art, and led on by them, both by committing a few of them to memory, and by fully understanding their structure, it will soon be evident that an intellectual study of music, pursued with a true love of it, can, more than any other study, strengthen the imaginative faculty.
The forms of poetry have only the rhythmic analogy, as forms, to those of music; but in their foundation in the same Nature, and in their manner of development, there is a closer resemblance. Both in music and poetry, the older artists regarded with most strictness the carrying through of the whole; they cared little for the taking tunes or the striking passages; they looked with eyes single to their ultimate purposes. Shakspeare came, and accomplished at once, for dramatic art, what the fathers of modern music began for their art nearly a century later. He made the strict form yield to and take new shape from natural feeling. This feeling, whose expression is the musical element of poetry, he brought up to its proper relation with all the other qualities. Look at the terrific bombast which preceded him,-the mighty efforts of mighty men to draw music or the power of sound into their art; Hieronymo is like some portentous convulsion of Nature,-the upheaval of a new geological era. The writers felt, that there must be style suited to passion, and that they must attain it,-but how ? By artificial pomp ?-or by yielding with artful reserve to the natural eloquence of passion ?
Shakspeare has answered the question for all time; and he uses both, each in its proper place. Nothing, even in music, ever showed an art growing out of a nicer sensibility in sound than his variety and appropriateness in style. For an art it is, and we cannot make a definition of that word which shall include other forms of art and not include it. If the passion and the feeling make the style, it is the poet’s art that leaves them free to do it; he superintends ; he feigns that which he leaves to make ; he shares his art with “ great creating Nature.” All is unreal; all comes out of him; and all that has to do with the form and expression of his products is, of course, included in the manifest when his ship of fancy gets its clearance at the custom-house of his judgment. The style he assumes cannot but be present to his consciousness in the progress of a long drama. He must perceive, as be writes, if he has the common penetration of humanity, that the flow and cadence of his “ Henry the Eighth” are not like those of his “Mid-summer Night’s Dream ”; and ho must preserve his tone, with, at times, direct art, not leaving everything to the feeling. That he does so is as evident as if he had chosen a form of verse more remote from the language of Nature and obliged himself to conform to its requirements. The terrible cursing of Margaret in “Richard III.,” for example, is not the remorseless, hollow monotony of it, while it so heightens the passion, as evident to Shakspeare as to us; or had he no ear for verse, and just let his words sound on as they would, looking only at the meaning, and counting his iambics on his fingers, - not too carefully cither? If the last supposition is to be insisted on, we must confine our notions of his perceptions and powers within very ordinary bounds, and make dramatic art as unpoetic as tbe art of brick making.
The beauty of Shakspeare’s art is in its comprehensiveness. It takes in every quality iof excellence. It looks at the great whole, and admits the little charms and graces. It includes constructiveness in story, character-drawing, picturesqueness, musicalness, naturalness,-in fine, whatever art may combine with poetry or the soul of poetry admit in art. To the young and unobservant, and all who are unable to consider the poet’s writing, as we have in this article endeavored to study a single passage of it, from his position the art is not apparent; the mimic scene is reality, or some supernatural inspiration or schoolboy-like enthusiasm has produced the work. But there are others, created with different faculties, who begin to perceive the art almost as soon as they feel its power, and who love to study it and to live in the spirit of poetry that breathes through it ; these come gradually to think of the man, as well as of his works,-to feel more and more the influence upon them of his greatness and beauty of soul, and, as years pass by, to find consolation and repose in the loftiness of his wisdom.
- “A Shefeld thwitel bare he in his hose.”- CHAUCER. The Reve's Tale.↩