Lanier's Lectures on Shakespeare

ON the whole one is inclined to think it a cruel judgment that forced out into the world of books, in all the ironical dignity and pomp of two noble octavo volumes embellished with rare illustration, Sidney Lanier’s casual and sketchy lectures upon Shakespeare and his Forerunners.1 Doubtless these amiable discourses upon Lanier’s best beloved poets from Cynewulf to Habington, and upon his pet theories of verse, stirred the sympathetic enthusiasm of the ladies and gentlemen of Baltimore two decades ago; but in ripe scholarship and criticism they are all to seek. It is ungracious, but only honest, to say frankly that from the point of view of scholarship they are discredited at the outset by an inaccuracy which is not altogether the genial disregard of facts which we sometimes excuse in a mind preoccupied with truth. The placing of Dunbar and Douglas in the fourteenth century and the description of a page of savory Latin manuscript as Anglo-Saxon are probably printer’s indiscretions, but for the sake of Lanier’s reputation we can but wish that his lectures, instead of being printed apparently verbatim as he delivered them, had been rigorously edited. To discuss the quality of Chaucer’s art on the basis of The Flower and the Leaf was a misfortune even in 1880 ; to print Sir Philip Sidney’s best known sonnet with two most poetic lines missing from its octette, and no indication of the loss, is a disaster; and an allusion to the “ twelve long books ” of the Faërie Queene suggests too vividly Macaulay’s lamentable essay at the Blatant Beast. Moreover in the account of Shakespeare’s forerunners, which occupies nearly all the first volume and a considerable portion of the second, there is no real grasp and coördination of the intellectual forces at play in English literature before the emergence of Shakespeare. Rather the lecturer’s method was to dwell upon the poets of his own predilection, not indeed with very firm critical handling, but with ardent admiration, reading copiously, and doubtless charmingly, from their works. This, too, was his procedure when he came at last to the great dramatist himself. It is quite obvious that such lectures could never appear to the best advantage in octavo state.

But if these volumes do not tend to advance Lanier’s repute as a scholar and critic they do at least show in many passages the working of a truly poetic imagination ; here, if anywhere, their justification is to be sought. The romantic form of the chapters on The Domestic Life of Shakespeare’s Time makes them pleasant and suggestive reading, and shows a considerable skill at weaving quasi-fictitious narrative, while throughout the chapters upon the relations of man and nature in Shakespeare’s plays runs that analogical, or rather mystical, sense of the “ correspondence ” of music and meaning, matter and spirit, which is so largely the source of impressiveness in Lanier’s poetry. It assumes particular form in many quaint yet convincing comparisons, and it inspires a train of somewhat dreamful philosophizing which culminates in a cosmic formula like that of Poe’s Eureka, — a formula not calculated to do more than warm momentarily the imaginations of most of us prosaic folk, but the very blood and bone of a young poet’s genius : “ As modern science has generalized the whole universe into a great congeries of modes of motion, so rhythm pervades all these modes : everything not only moves, but moves rhythmically, from the etherization in light to the great space globes; and so we get back by the most modern scientific path to the old dream of Pythagoras which blindly guessed out the music of the spheres.”

Still one wonders if, after all, the fresh exemplification of this quality of poetic imagination is a sufficient excuse for the being of two such tall tomes. One turns the last page with no uncertain wish that life might have been kinder to Lanier; that instead of going the ways of the lecturer, he might have kept for poetry alone the imaginations, which he wove in melody with such ravishing division. F. G.

  1. Shakespeare and his Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and its Development from Early English. By SIDNEY LANIER. Illustrated. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1902.