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ment of the people is not to be respected? The thought is most injurious; and, could the charge be brought against him, he would repel it with indignation. The people have already been justified, and their eulogium pronounced by implication, when it is said above-that, of good poetry, the individual, as well as the species, survives. And how does it survive but through the people? what preserves it but their intellect and their wisdom ?
'Past and future are the wings On whose support, harmoniously conjoin'd, Moves the great spirit of human knowledge.' -MS.
The voice that issues from this spirit is that vox populi which the Deity inspires. Foolish must he be who can mistake for this a local acclamation, or a transitory outcry-transitory, though it be for years; local, though from a nation! Still more lamentable is his error who can believe that there is anything of divine infallibility in the clamour of that small though loud portion of the community, ever governed by factitious influence, which, under the name of the PUBLIC, passes itself, upon the unthinking, for the PEOPLE."
It is the perpetual mistake of the public for the people that has led to the belief that there was a period when Shakspere was neglected. He was always in the heart of the people. There, in that deep rich soil, have the Sonnets rested during two centuries; and here and there in remote places have the seeds put forth leaves and flowers. All young imaginative minds now rejoice in their hues and their fragrance. But this preference of the fresh and beautiful of poetical life to the pot-pourri of the last age must be a regulated love. Those who, seeing the admiration which now prevails for these outpourings of "exquisite feelings felicitously expressed," talk of the 'Sonnets' as equal, if not superior, to the greatest of the poet's mighty dramas, compare things that admit of no comparison. Who would speak in the same breath of the gem of Cupid and Psyche, and of the Parthenon ? In the 'Sonnets,' exquisite as they are, the poet goes not out of himself (at least in the form of the composition), and he walks, therefore, in a narrow circle of art. In the 'Venus and Adonis,' and the 'Lucrece,' the circle widens. But in the Dramas, the centre is the Human Soul, the circumference the Universe.
"SHAKSPERE was not so much esteemed, even during his life, as we commonly suppose; and after his retirement from the stage he was all but forgotten." ""* So we read in an authority too mighty to enter upon evidence. The oblivion after his retirement and death is the true pendant to the alleged neglect during his life †. When did the oblivion begin? It could scarcely have existed when, in 1623, an expensive folio volume of many hundred pages was published, without regard to the risk of such an undertaking—and it was a risk, indeed, if the author had been neglected and was forgotten. But the editors of the volume do not ask timidly for support of these neglected and forgotten works. They say to the reader, "Though you be a magistrate of wit, and sit on the stage at Blackfriars or the Cockpit, to arraign plays daily, know these plays have had their trial already, and stood out all appeals." Did the oblivion continue when, in 1632, a second edition of this large work was brought out? There was one man, certainly-a young and ardent scholar-who was not amongst the oblivious. JOHN MILTON was twenty-four years of age when these verses were pub
"AN EPITAPH ON THE ADMIRABLE DRAMATIC POET, W. SHAKESPEARE.
Or that his hallow'd relics should be hid
Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Then thou, our fancy of herself bereaving, Dost make us marble with too much conceiving,
And so sepulchred in such pomp doth lie, That kings for such a tomb would wish to die." The author of these lines could not have known the works of the "admirable dramatic poet," while that poet was in life; but sixteen years after his death he was the dear son of memory, the great heir of fame; his bones were honoured, his relics were hallowed, his works were a lasting monument, his book was priceless, his lines were oracular, Delphic. Is this oblivion? But it may be said that Milton was a young enthusiast, one who saw farther than the million; that the public opinion of a writer (and we are not talking of his positive excellence, apart
"What need my Shakespeare for his honour'd from opinion) must be sought for in the
The labour of an age in piled stones,
*Life of Shakspere, in Lardner's Cyclopædia' + See Book ix. chap. iv.
voice of the people, or at any rate in that of the leaders of the people. How are we to arrive at the knowledge of this expression? We can only know, incidentally, that an
author was a favourite, either of a king or of a cobbler. We know that Shakspere was the favourite of a king, in these times of his oblivion. A distinguished writer says, "The Prince of Wales had learned to appreciate Shakspere, not originally from reading him, but from witnessing the court representations of his plays at Whitehall. Afterwards we know that he made Shakspere his closet companion, for he was reproached with doing so by Milton."* The concluding words are founded upon a mistake of the passage in Milton. Charles is not reproached with reading Shakspere. The great republican does not condemn the king for having made the dramatic poet the closet companion of his solitudes; but, speaking of the dramatic poet as a well-known author with whom the king was familiar, he cites out of him a passage to show that pious words might be found in the mouth of a tyrant. The passage not only proves the familiarity of Charles with Shakspere, but evidences also Milton's familiarity; and, what is of more importance, the familiarity even of those
stern and ascetic men to whom Milton was
peculiarly addressing his opinions. The passage of the 'Iconoclastes' is as follows: "Andronicus Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor, though a most cruel tyrant, is reported by Nicetas to have been a constant reader of Saint Paul's epistles; and by continual study had so incorporated the phrase and style of that transcendant apostle into all his familiar letters, that the imitation seemed to vie with the original. Yet this availed not to deceive the people of that empire, who, notwithstanding his saint's vizard, tore him to pieces for his tyranny. From stories of this nature, both ancient and modern, which abound, the poets also, and some English, have been in this point so mindful of decorum as to put never more pious words in the mouth of any person than of a tyrant. I shall not instance an abstruse author, wherein the king might be less conversant, but one whom we well know was the closet companion of these his solitudes, William Shakespeare, who introduces the person of
Richard the Third, speaking in as high a strain of piety and mortification as is uttered in any passage of this book*, and sometimes to the same sense and purpose with some words in this place: ‘I intended,' saith he, |‘not only to oblige my friends, but my enemies. The like saith Richard, Act II, Scene 1.
'I do not know that Englishman alive
Other stuff of this sort may be read throughout the whole tragedy, wherein the poet used not much licence in departing from the truth of history, which delivers him a deep dissembler, not of his affections only but of religion." It was a traditionary blunder. which Warton received and transmitted to
successors, that Milton reproached Charles with reading Shakspere, and thus inferred that Shakspere was no proper closet com-, panion. The passage has wholly the contrary tendency; and he who thinks otherwise may just as well think that the phrase "other stuff of this sort" is also used disparagingly.
A few years before-that is in 1645Milton had offered another testimony to Shakspere in his "L'Allegro," then pub
"Then to the well-trod stage anon, If Jonson's learned sock be on, Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child, Warble his native wood-notes wild." Milton was not afraid to publish these lines,! even after the suppression of the theatres by ! his own political party. That he went along with them in their extreme polemical opinions it is impossible to believe; but he would nevertheless be careful not to mention, in connexion with the stage, names of any doubtful eminence. He was not ashamed to say that the learning of Jonson, the nature of Shakspere, had for him attractions, though the stage was proscribed. This contrast of the distinguishing qualities of the two men is held to be one amongst the many proofs of Shakspere's want of learning; as if it was '
*Milton here refers to the first section of the Eikon Basilike.'
"Christopher Marlowe, a kind of second Shakespeare (whose contemporary he was), not only because like him he rose from an actor to be a maker of plays, though inferior both in fame and merit; but also because, in his begun poem of 'Hero and Leander,' he seems to have a resemblance of that clean and unsophisticated wit which is natural to that incomparable poet."
not absolutely essential to the whole spirit | Ben Jonson protect them against whoever and conception of the passage that the shall think fit to be severe in censure against learning of Jonson, thus pointed out as his them: the truth is, his tragedies 'Sejanus' leading quality, should be contrasted with and 'Catiline' seem to have in them more of the higher quality of Shakspere-that quality an artificial and inflate than of a pathetical which was assigned him as the greatest and naturally tragic height." praise by his immediate contemporaries—his nature. No one can doubt of Milton's affection for Shakspere, and of his courage in avowing that affection, living as he was in the heat of party opinion which was hostile to all such excellence. We have simply "Jonson's learned sock;" but the "native wood-notes wild" of Shakspere are associated with the most endearing expressions. He is "sweetest Shakespear," he is "Fancy's child." In his later years, after a life of contention and heavy responsibility, Milton still clung to his early delights. The 'Theatrum Poetarum,' which bears the name of his nephew Edward Phillips, is held to have received many touches from Milton's pen*. At any rate it is natural that it should represent Milton's opinions. It is not alone what is here said of Shakspere, but of Shakspere in comparison with the other great dramatic poets of his age, that is important. Take a few examples:
George Chapman, a poetical writer, flourishing in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James, in that repute both for his translations of 'Homer' and 'Hesiod,' and what he wrote of his own proper genius, that he is thought not the meanest of English poets of that time, and particularly for his dramatic writings."
“John Fletcher, one of the happy triumvirate (the other two being Jonson and Shakespear) of the chief dramatic poets of our nation in the last foregoing age, among whom there might be said to be a symmetry of perfection, while each excelled in his peculiar way: Ben Jonson, in his elaborate pains and knowledge of authors; Shakespear, in his pure vein of wit, and natural poesy
genteel familiarity of style, and withal a wit and invention so overflowing, that the luxuriant branches thereof were frequently thought convenient to be lopped off by his almost incomparable companion Francis Beaumont."
"Benjamin Jonson, the most learned, judicious, and correct, generally so accounted, of our English comedians, and the more to be admired for being so, for that neither the height of natural parts, for he was no Shak-height; Fletcher, in a courtly elegance and spere, nor the cost of extraordinary education, for he is reported but a bricklayer's son, but his own proper industry and addiction to books, advanced him to this perfection: in three of his comedies, namely, 'The Fox,' 'Alchymist,' and 'Silent Woman,' he may be compared, in the judgment of learned men, for decorum, language, and well humouring of the parts, as well with the chief of the ancient Greek and Latin comedians as the prime of modern Italians, who have been judged the best of Europe for a happy vein in comedies; nor is his 'Bartholomew Fair' much short of them; as for his other comedies, 'Cynthia's Revels,' Poetaster,' and the rest, let the name of
The Theatrum Poetarum' was published in 1675, the year after Milton's death.
"William Shakespear, the glory of the English stage; whose nativity at Stratfordupon-Avon is the highest honour that town can boast of: from an actor of tragedies and comedies, he became a maker; and such a maker, that, though some others may perhaps pretend to a more exact decorum and economy, especially in tragedy, never any expressed a more lofty and tragic height, never any represented nature more purely to the life; and where the polishments of art are most wanting, as probably his learning
was not extraordinary, he pleaseth with a certain wild and native elegance; and in all his writings hath an unvulgar style, as weli in his 'Venus and Adonis,' his 'Rape of Lucrece,' and other various poems, as in his dramatics."
Half a century had elapsed, when these critical opinions were published, from the time when Ben Jonson had apostrophized Shakspere as soul of the age." Whatever qualification we may here find in the praise of Shakspere, it is unquestionable that the critic sets him above all his contemporaries. Benjamin Jonson was "learned, judicious, and correct," but "he was no Shakspear." Marlowe was "a kind of a second Shakspear;" and his greatest praise is, that "he seems to have a resemblance of that clean and unsophisticated wit which is natural to that incomparable poet." Chapman is "not the meanest" of his time. Fletcher is "one of the happy triumvirate, the other two being Jonson and Shakespear;" but the peculiar excellence of each is discriminated in a way which leaves no doubt as to which the critic meant to hold superior. But there are no measured words applied to the character of Shakspere. He is "the glory of the English stage"-"never any expressed a more lofty and tragic height, never any represented nature more purely to the life." We can understand what a pupil of Milton, bred up in his school of severe study and imitation of the ancients, meant, when he says, “Where the polishments of art are most wanting, as probably his learning was not extraordinary, he pleases with a certain wild and native elegance." Here is no accusation that the learning was wholly absent and that this absence produced the common effects of want of cultivation. Shakspere, “in all his writings, hath an unvulgar style." In the preface to this valuable little book-which preface is a composition eloquent enough to have been written by Milton himself there is a passage which is worthy of special observation in connection with what we have already quoted: "If it were once brought to a strict scrutiny, who are the right, genuine, and true-born poets, I fear me our number would fall short, and
there are many that have a fame deservedly for what they have writ, even in poetry itself, who, if they came to the test, I question how well they would endure to hold open their eagle eyes against the sun: wit, ingenuity, and learning in verse, even elegancy itself, though that comes nearest, are one thing, true native poetry is another; in which there is a certain air and spirit, which perhaps the most learned and judicious in other arts do not perfectly apprehend, much less is it attainable by any study or industry; nay, though all the laws of heroic poem, all the laws of tragedy were exactly observed, yet still this tour entregent, this poetic energy, if I may so call it, would be required to give life to all the rest, which shines through the roughest, most unpolished and antiquated language, and may haply be wanting in the most polite and reformed. Let us observe Spenser, with all his rusty obsolete words, with all his rough-hewn clouterly verses; yet take him throughout, and we shall find in him a graceful and poetic majesty in like manner, Shakespear, in spite of all his unfiled expressions, his rambling and indigested fancies, the laughter of the critical, yet must be confessed a poet above many that go beyond him in literature some degrees." Taking the whole passage in connection, and looking also at the school of art in which the critic was bred, it is impossible to receive this opinion as regards Shakspere in any other light than as one of enthusiastic admiration. It is important to note the period in which this admiration was publicly expressed. It was fifteen years after the Restoration of Charles II., when we had a new school of poetry and criticism in England; when the theatres were in a palmy state as far as regarded courtly and public encouragement. The natural association of these opinions with those of Milton's youth, has led us to leap over the interval which elapsed between the close of the Shaksperean drama and the rise of the French school. We desired to show the continuity of opinion in Milton, and in Milton's disciples, that had prevailed for forty years; during a large portion of which civil war and polemical strife had well nigh