Horace Howard Furness

‘CONJECTURAL criticism,’ observes Dr. Johnson, ‘demands more than humanity possesses, and he that exercises it with most praise has very frequent need of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an editor.’

With these words of soberness ringing in his ears, Dr. Furness began more than forty years ago the vast labor which has placed him at the head of Shakespearean scholars, and has made the student world his debtor. He brought to bear upon his task qualities essential to its completion: patience, balance, a wide acquaintance with Elizabethan literature and phraseology, the keenness of a greyhound on the track, an incorruptible sense of proportion, and an appreciation, equally just and generous, of his predecessors’ work. Leisure and that rarest of fortune’s gifts, the command of solitude, made possible the industry of his life. Above all, a noble enthusiasm sustained him through years of incredible drudgery. ‘The dull duty of an editor’! Well may Dr. Johnson heap scorn upon the words. When one is fitted by nature to enjoy the pleasure which perfection in literary art can give, one does not find it dull to live face to face with vital conceptions of humanity, embalmed in imperishable verse.

The first volume of the new Variorum, Romeo and Juliet, was published in 1871. Dr. Furness confessed that he chose the play because he loved it, and because he thought it probable that he would never edit another, — an anticipation happily unfulfilled. As he worked, he saw more and more clearly the imperative nature of his task; and, in his preface to Romeo and Juliet, while giving ample praise to Boswell’s Variorum of 1821, he states simply and seriously the causes which make it inadequate to-day. Even the Cambridge edition of 1863, which Dr. Furness held to have created an era in Shakespearean literature, and to have put all students of Shakespearean text in debt to the learned and laborious editors, lacks one important detail. There is no word to note the adoption or rejection of contested readings by various students and commentators. This Dr. Furness considered a grave omission. ‘In disputed passages,’ he wrote, ‘it is of great interest to see at a glance on which side lies the weight of authority.’

To read the fourteen prefaces which have enriched the fourteen plays included in the new Variorum, is to follow delicately and surely the intellectual life of a great, scholar. There was an expansion of spirit as the work advanced. From being absolutely impersonal, an unseen editor, arranging and codifying the notes of others, sifting evidence and recording verdicts, Dr. Furness emerged gradually into the broad light of day. In the later volumes, every note dealing with a disputed point closes with a judgment, or dismisses the dispute as futile. A shrewd humor, held well in check, illuminates the dusty paths of learning. To distinction of style has been added the magnetic grace of personality. If we cannot say of the Preface, ‘With this key Dr. Furness unlocked his heart,’we can at least learn from it how much of his heart, he gave smilingly away to a lady of such doubtful merit (what is the worth of merit in a bad world!) as Cleopatra.

For the five first plays, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello, Dr. Furness formed his own text. The remaining nine were reprinted from the First Folio.

‘Who am I,’observes the conservative editor, in justification of this change of plan, ‘that I should thrust myself in between the student and the text, as though in me resided the power to restore Shakespeare’s own words?’ This instinct of conservatism strengthened in Dr. Furness with every year of work, until it became a guiding principle, making for vigilance and lucidity. ‘Those who know the most,’ he was wont to say, ‘venture the least’; and his own ventures are so carefully considered as to lose all chance of hazard. Upon internal evidence, ‘which is of imagination all compact,’ he looked forever askance. Hypothetical allusions to historic personages and events (we like to think that there are half-a-dozen such crowded into a score of Oberon’s lines), he dismissed as unworthy of critical consideration. Even when points of resemblance came as close as do the affectations of speech in Love’s Labour ’s Lost to the weary euphuisms of Lyly, Dr. Furness stoutly refused to trace a dim connection. An undecipherable word or phrase never presented itself to his level judgment as a species of riddle, to be guessed at frantically until the end of time. If he did not know what the word or the phrase meant, he said so, and went on his way rejoicing. Who can forget his avowal of ‘utter, invincible ignorance’ as to the mysterious ‘scamels’ which Caliban finds on the rock, and his determination to retain the word as it stands. ‘From the very beginning of the Play,’ he reminds us, ‘ we know that the scene lies in an enchanted island. Is this to be forgotten? Since the air is full of sweet sounds, why may not the rocks be inhabited by unknown birds of gay plumage, or by vague animals of a grateful and appetizing plumpness? Let the picture remain of the dashing rocks, the stealthy, freckled whelp, and, in the clutch of his long nails, a young and tender scamel.’

So, too, with Mark Antony’s ‘ Arme-gaunt Steede,’ which, since the publication of the First Folio, has supplied abundant matter for conjecture: he nodded,

And soberly did mount an Arme-gaunt Steede. Dr. Furness prints conscientiously two solid pages of notes anent this mysterious epithet, giving us every suggestion that has been proffered and discarded concerning its possible significance; at the close of which exhaustive survey he adds serenely: ‘In view of the formidable, not to say appalling combination of equine qualities and armourer’s art which has been detected in this adjective, Antony would have been more than mortal had he not approached his steed with extreme caution, and mounted it “soberly.”’

Far more remarkable is the incurious attitude preserved by Dr. Furness in regard to the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, his indifference to dates which have cost other commentators years of study and speculation. Many and stern were the reproaches hurled at him for this indifference, but he remained indifferent still. Indeed it was his most noteworthy characteristic that, while regarding his own work with a steadfast and sane humility, he was wholly unvexed and unmoved by criticism. Immaculately free from what Dr. Johnson terms ‘the acrimony of scholiasts,’ he never assumed an editor’s rôle to be an ‘intellectual eggdance’ amid a host of sensitive interests. Nor did he begrudge, even to the youngest critic, the pleasure of flaunting some innocent rags of research — the mere swaddling clothes of learning — in the face of his profound and gentle scholarship. ‘Great tranquillity of heart hath he who careth neither for praise nor blame,’ said the wise à Kempis, who knew whereof he spoke; and I have many times heard Dr. Furness quote with approval those stern and splendid lines in which Dr. Johnson, confiding his dictionary to the public, expresses his frigid insensibility as to its reception.

Indifference to dates was but one feature of that serene unconcern with which Dr. Furness regarded the hidden personality of Shakespeare. He was not merely content, he seemed glad to know no more of the poet over whom he had spent his life; and because ‘ every assertion connected with Shakespeare is accompanied, as a groundtone, by the refrain “it is not unlikely,”’ he found such assertions to be little worth his while. ‘We cannot tell whether Shakespeare was peevish or gentle,’ he wrote, ‘sedate or mercurial, generous or selfish, dignified or merry; whether he was a Protestant or a Catholic, whether he loved his home or liked to gad abroad, whether he was jocund or sombre, or whether he was all these things by turns, and nothing long.’

Even the Sonnets afforded to Dr. Furness’s mind no key to the enigma. He held that Shakespeare followed the fashion of his day, a fashion borrowed from Italy, which made of the sonnet a personal thing (no Italian would have dreamed of writing a sonnet on Venice and the Rialto as Wordsworth wrote one on London and Westminster Bridge); and that the poet’s essentially dramatic spirit gave to his own sonnets a dramatic form. They seem spoken by one human being to another, spoken in accents of grief, of doubt, of ecstasy, of despair; but in this manner do all Shakespeare’s characters speak. This is the impelling force of the dramatic spirit, peopling earth and sky; not the impelling force of the personal spirit, seeking to take the world into its confidence. Shakespeare may even be permitted to bewail his outcast state, without our beginning straightway to sniff a peccadillo.

That the dramatic spirit which baffles scrutiny should have made a powerful appeal to Dr. Furness was right and reasonable. It was the appeal of consanguinity. Like all his race, he had the actor’s gifts: not only spirit and fire in declamation, not only the flexible voice and the appropriate gesture; but the power to lose himself past finding in every character he portrayed. Those who have heard him read, know what I mean. The clarion call of Henry the Fifth before the gates of Harfleur, his prayer upon the field of Agincourt, — these things were not mere elocution, however noble and effective; they were passionate appeals to man and God, breaking from the lips of one whose head was reeling with the joy of battle, whose heart was heavy with the awful burden of authority. It was as a boy of fourteen that Dr. Furness first, heard Fanny Kemble (Mrs. Peirce Butler) read Shakespeare’s plays, and his enthusiasm awoke, never to sleep again. It was as a listener, not as a student, that he received his most powerful and durable impressions. To this early influence was due, in large measure, the preservation of the dramatic feeling through a long life of patient and laborious research.

From Fanny Kemble, too, came the gift of Shakespeare’s stage gloves, most precious and most honored of relics. Their history is a notable one. In 1746 they were presented by William Shakespeare, a poor glazier, ‘whose father and our poet were brothers’ children,’ to John Ward, when that generous actor played Othello at Stratford-onAvon, and devoted the night’s receipts to repairing Shakespeare’s monument in the church. John Ward, with a sense of fitness as pleasing as it is rare, gave these gloves in 1760 to David Garrick, who bequeathed them to his widow, who bequeathed them to Mrs. Siddons, who bequeathed them to her daughter, Cecilia, who gave them to Fanny Kemble, who gave them to Dr. Furness in 1874. It is not often, in these days of millionaire collectors, that the right things belong to the right people so consistently and persistently as have these worn gauntlets.

Dr. Furness’s power of sustained labor seemed well-nigh miraculous to a generation which stands forever in need of rest and change of scene. For forty years he worked on an average ten hours out of the twenty-four and, under pressure, thought little of adding a few hours more. For twenty years he lived in his country-seat at Wallingford, remote from the importunities of the town. Here in the uninvaded seclusion of his noble library he sat, resolute and absorbed, while the long quiet days merged into the quiet nights.

With the inspired sagacity of the scholar, he admitted to this solitude only the scholar’s natural friend and ally, the cat. Generations of cats sat blinking at him with affectionate contempt as volume after volume of the Variorum drew to its appointed close. Companionable cats accompanied him on his daily walks through sunny garden and shaded avenue, marching before him with tail erect, rubbing themselves condescendingly against his legs, or pausing, with plaintive paw upraised, to intimate that the stroll had lasted long enough. Warrior cats, to whom was granted the boon of an early and honorable death, drank delight of battle with their peers on many a moonlight night, and returned in the morning to show their scars to a master who reverenced valor. Siamese cats, their pale-blue eyes shadowed by desires that no one understood, brought their lonely, troubled little hearts to his feet for solace. And all these wise beasts knew that silence reigned in the long working hours. They lent the grace of their undisturbing presence to the scholar who loved to lift his head, ponder for a moment over the soul-satisfying nature of their idleness, and return to his books again.

‘To those who think, life is a comedy; to those who feel, a tragedy.’ Dr. Furness, thinking profoundly, feeling intensely, with a sad heart and a gay temper (that most charming and lovable combination!) replaced illusions with philosophy. His rare powers of conversation, his marvelous memory, his information, which, unlike the information of Macaulay, was never ‘more than the occasion required,’ his unfailing humor, his beautiful vocabulary, rich yet precise, his swift light sentences, conveying important conclusions, all made him the most engaging of companions. There was no talk like his, — so full of substance, so innocent of pedantry, so perfect in form, so sweetened by courtesy. Well might it have been said of him, as Johnson said of Burke: ‘If a stranger were to go by chance at the same time with him under a shed to shun a shower, he would think, “ This is an extraordinary man.”’

The serenity with which Dr. Furness submitted to encroachments on his time and strength equaled the serenity of Sir Walter Scott. The hospitality of Lindenshade, like the hospitality of Abbotsford, was boundless. The kindness of its master was invincible. Poets sent him their verses, dramatists their plays, and novelists their stories. Authors who meditated writing essays on Shakespeare’s dogs, or oaths, or firearms, and who seemed unaware of the existence of a concordance, sought from him counsel and assistance. People who were good enough to believe that Shakespeare really wrote the plays attributed to him by his contemporaries, were anxious that Dr. Furness should be made aware of the liberal nature of their views. To one and all the great scholar lent a weary and patient ear. To one and all he gave more than their utmost dues.

A man of exquisite charity, speaking evil of none; a man of indestructible courtesy, whose home was open to his friends, whose scant leisure was placed at their disposal, whose kindness enveloped them like sunshine; yet none the less a man whose reserves — unsuspected by many — were proof against all; a past master of the art of hiding his soul, ‘addicted to silent pleasures, accessible to silent pains.’ It is not the portentous gravity of the Sphinx which defies the probe, but the smiling gayety which seems so free from guile. One had to know Dr. Furness long and intimately, to understand that his dominant note was dramatic, not personal, and that his facile speech betrayed nothing it was made to hide.

That the task upon which his life had been spent, and which his death left uncompleted, should be taken up by his son, was to Dr. Furness a source of measureless content. In the preface to The Tempest, published in 1892, he recorded his indebtedness to his father, to ‘the hand whose cunning ninety years have not abated.’ In the preface to the revised edition of Macbeth, published in 1903, he recorded his indebtedness to his son, to the younger hand which had been intrusted with the work, and had accomplished it so deftly. When Dr. Furness died in August, his last volume, Cymbeline, was fast approaching completion. It will be published in mid-winter, just as he left it, the fifteenth play of his editing; and with it will appear Julius Cœsar, the third play edited by Mr. Horace Howard Furness, Jr. A monument of scholarship, a verdict, final for many years to come, a rich mine for possible successors.

For Dr. Furness always maintained that he would have many followers in the field of Shakespearean research, that, in the future, other students would do his work over again, and do it differently. He was content to be a step of the ladder, and he knew better than most men that ‘the labour we delight in physics pain.’ The beauty of his surroundings, the magnitude and perfection of his library, the honors done him by English and American universities, the close companionship of his third son, Dr. William Henry Furness, intrepid traveler and explorer, — these things lent, dignity and relish to his life. He lived it bravely and mirthfully; he stood ready to lay it down without regret.

Six weeks before his death, being then in perfect health, he wrote to me: ‘My grave yawns at my feet. I look down into it, and very snug and comfortable it seems.’ In the gallant acceptance of life and death lies all that gives worth to man.