The following notes on Shakespeare were written by Mr. Emerson for the celebration in Boston by the Saturday Club of the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the poet’s birth.
In Mr. Cabot’s Memoirs of Emerson, vol, ii, page 621, apropos of Mr. Emerson’s avoidance of impromptu speech on public occasions is this statement: —
“I remember his getting up at a dinner of the Saturday Club on the Shakespeare anniversary in 1864, to which some guests had been invited, looking about him tranquilly for a minute or two, and then sitting down; serene and unabashed, but unable to say a word upon a subject so familiar to his thoughts from boyhood.”
Yet on the manuscript of this address Mr. Emerson noted that it was read at the Club’s celebration on that occasion, and at the Revere House. (“Parker’s” was the usual gathering place of the Club.) The handwriting of this note shows that Mr. Emerson wrote it in his later years, so it is very possible that Mr. Cabot was right. Mr. Emerson perhaps forgot to bring his notes with him to the dinner, and so did not venture to speak. And the dinner may have been at “Parker’s.”
– Edward W. Emerson
’T is not our fault if we have not made this evening’s circle still richer than it is. We seriously endeavored, besides our brothers and our seniors, on whom the ordinary lead of literary and social action falls, — and falls because of their ability, — to draw out of their retirements a few rarer lovers of the muse—“seld-seen flamens”—whom this day seemed to elect and challenge. And it is to us a painful disappointment that Bryant and Whittier as guests, and our own Hawthorne, — with the best will to come, — should have found it impossible at last; and again, that a well-known and honored compatriot, who first in Boston wrote elegant verse, and on Shakespeare, and whose American devotion through forty or fifty years to the affairs of a bank, has not been able to bury the fires of his genius, — Mr. Charles Sprague, — pleads the infirmities of age as an absolute bar to his presence with us. We regret also the absence of our members Sumner and Motley.
We can hardly think of an occasion where so little need be said. We are all content to let Shakespeare speak for himself. His fame is settled on the foundations of the moral and intellectual world. Wherever there are men, and in the degree in which they are civil, have power of mind, sensibility to beauty, music, the secrets of passion, had the liquid expression of thought, he has risen to his place as the first poet of the world.
Genius is the consoler of our mortal condition, and Shakespeare taught us that the little world of the heart is vaster, deeper, and richer than the spaces of astronomy. What shocks of surprise and sympathetic power this battery, which he is, imparts to every fine mind that is born! We say to the young child in the cradle, “Happy, and defended against Fate! For here is Nature, and here is Shakespeare waiting for you!” ’T is our metre of culture; — he is a cultivated man, who can tell us something new of Shakespeare; all criticism is only a making of rules out of his beauties. He is as superior to his countrymen as to all other countrymen. He fulfilled the famous prophecy of Socrates, that the poet most excellent in tragedy would be most excellent in tragedy would be most excellent in comedy; and more than fulfilled it, by making tragedy also a victorious melody, which healed its own wounds. In short, Shakespeare is the one resource of our life on which no gloom gathers; the fountain of joy which honors him who tastes it; day without night; pleasure without repentance: the genius which, in unpoetic ages, keeps poetry in honor, and, in sterile periods, keeps up the credit of the human mind.
His genius has reacted on himself. Men were so astonished and occupied by his poems, that they have not been able to see his face and condition, or say who were his father and his brethren or what life he led: and, at the short distance of three hundred years, he is mythical, like Orpheus and Homer, and we have already seen the most fantastic theories plausibly urged, as that Raleigh and Bacon were the authors of the plays. Yet we pause expectant before the genius of Shakespeare, as if his biography were not yet written: until the problem of the whole English race is solved.
I see among the lovers of this catholic genius, here present, a few whose deeper knowledge invites me to hazard an article of my literary creed, that Shakespeare, by his transcendent reach of thought, so invites the extremes that, whilst he has kept the theatre now for three centuries, and, like a street bible, furnishes sayings to the market, courts of law, the senate, and common discourse, — he is yet to all wise men the companion of the closet. The student finds the solitariest place not solitary enough to read him, and so searching is his penetration, and such the charm of his speech, that he still agitates the heart in age as in youth, and will, until it ceases to beat. Young men of a contemplative turn carry his sonnets in the pocket. With that book, the shade of any tree, a room in any inn, becomes a chapel or oratory, in which to sit out their happiest hours. Later they find riper and manlier lessons in the plays.
And secondly, he is the most robust and potent thinker that ever was. I find that it was not history, courts and affairs that gave him lessons, but he that gave grandeur and prestige to them. There never was a writer who, seeming to draw every hint from outward history, the life of cities and courts, owed them so little. You shall never find in this world the barons or kings he depicted. ’T is fine for Englishmen to say they only know history by Shakespeare. The palaces they compass earth and sea to enter, the magnificence and personages of royal and imperial abodes, are shabby imitations and caricatures of his, — clumsy pupils of his instruction. There are no Warwicks, no Talbots, no Bolingbrokes, no Cardinals, no Henry Fifth, in real Europe, like his. The loyalty and royalty he drew was all his own. The real Elizabeths, Jameses, and Louises were painted sticks before this magician.
The unaffected joy of the comedy!—he lives in a gale—contrasted with the grandeur of the tragedy: where he stoops to no contrivance, no pulpiting, but flies an eagle at the heart of the problem, so here his speech is a Delphi, the great Nemesis that he is and utters. What a great heart of equity is he! How good and sound and inviolable his innocency, that is never to seek, and never wrong, but speaks the pure sense of humanity on each occasion. He dwarfs all writers without a solitary exception. No egotism. The egotism of men is immense. It concealed Shakespeare for a century. His mind has a superiority such that the universities should read lectures on him and conquer the unconquerable if they can.
There are periods fruitful of great men; others, barren, or, as the world is always equal to itself, periods when the heat is latent, — others when it is given out. They are like the great wine years, the vintage of 1847 is it? or 1835? — which are not only noted in the carte of the table d’hôte, but which, it is said, are always followed by new vivacity in the politics of Europe. His birth marked a great wine year, when wonderful grapes ripened in the Vintage of God. When Shakespeare and Galileo were born within a few months of each other, and Cervantes was his exact contemporary, and, in short space, before and after, Montaigne, Bacon, Spenser, Raleigh, and Jonson. Yet Shakespeare, not by any inferiority of theirs, but simply by his colossal proportions, dwarfs the geniuses of Elizabeth as easily as the wits of Anne, or the poor slipshod troubadours of King René.
In our ordinary experience of men, there are some men so born to live well, that, in whatever company they fall, — high or low, — they fit well, and lead it! But, being advanced to a higher class, they are just as much in their element as before, and easily command, and, being again preferred to selecter companions, find no obstacle to ruling these, as they did their earlier mates, — I suppose because they have more humanity than talent, whilst they have quite as much of the last as any of the company. It would strike you as comic, if I should give my own customary examples of this elasticity, though striking enough to me. I could name in this very company, or not going far out of it, very good types—but in order to be parliamentary, Franklin, Burns, and Walter Scott are examples of the rule; and King of men, by this grace of God also, is Shakespeare.
The Pilgrims came to Plymouth in 1620. The plays of Shakespeare were not published until three years later. Had they been published earlier, our forefathers, or the most poetical among them, might have stayed at home to read them.
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