« PreviousContinue »
beautified by the distance which idealizes it. This has delivered those works from the casualties of time and space, and has lifted them up like stars into the pure firmament of thought, so that they do not shine on one spot alone, nor fade like earthly flowers, but journey on from clime to clime, shedding the light of beauty on generation after generation. The same quality, amounting to a total extinction of his own selfish being, so that his spirit became a mighty organ through which Nature gave utterance to the full diapason of her notes, is what we wonder at in our own great dramatist, and is the groundwork of all his other powers : for it is only when purged of selfishness that the intellect becomes fitted for receiving the inspirations of genius." *
What Mr. Hare so justly considers as the great moving principle of “ classical poetry,”—what he further notes as the pre-eminent characteristic of " our own great dramatist,”—is abundantly found in that great dramatist's earliest work. Coleridge was the first to point out this pervading quality in the · Venus and Adonis ;' and he has done this so admirably, that it would be profanation were we to attempt to elucidate the point in any other than his own words :
“ It is throughout as if a superior spirit, more intuitive, more intimately conscious, even than the characters themselves, not only of every outward look and act, but of the flux and reflux of the mind in all its subtlest thoughts and feelings, were placing the whole before our view; himself meanwhile unparticipating in the passions, and actuated only by that pleasurable excitement which had resulted from the energetic fervour of his own spirit in so vividly exhibiting what it had so accurately and profoundly contemplated. I think I should have conjectured from these poems, that even then the great instinct which impelled the poet to the drama was secretly working in him, prompting him by a series and never-broken chain of imagery, always vivid, and, because unbroken, often minute,-by the highest effort of the picturesque in words of which words are capable, higher perhaps than was ever realized by any other poet, even Dante not excepted,- to provide a substitute for that visual language, that constant intervention and running comment by tone, look, and gesture, which in bis dramatic works he was entitled to expect from the players. His · Venus and Adonis' seem at once the characters themselves, and the whole repre
* «The Victory of Faith; and other Sermons.' By Julius Charles Hare, M.A. 1840. P. 277.
sentation of those characters by the most consummate actors. You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything. Hence it is, that, from the perpetual activity of attention required on the part of the reader,—from the rapid flow, the quick change, and the playful nature of the thoughts and images, -and, above all, from the alienation, and, if I may hazard such an expression, the utter aloofness of the poet's own feelings from those of which he is at once the painter and the analyst,--that though the very subject cannot but detract from the pleasure of a delicate mind, yet never was poem less dangerous on a moral account.”*
Coleridge, in the preceding chapter of his · Literary Life,' says,
During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry—the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power
of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination.” In Coleridge's Literary Remains,' the Venus and Adonis' is cited as furnishing a signal example of " that affectionate love of nature and natural objects, without which no man could have observed so steadily, or painted so truly and passionately, the very minutest beauties of the external world.” The description of the hare-hunt is there given at length as a specimen of this power. A remarkable proof of the completeness as well as accuracy of Shakspere's description lately presented itself to our mind, in running through a little volume, full of talent, published in 1825— Essays and Sketches of Character, by the late Richard Ayton, Esq.' There is a paper on hunting, and especially on hare-hunting. He says “ I am not one of the perfect fox-hunters of these realms; but having been in the way of late of seeing a good deal of various modes of hunting, I would, for the benefit of the uninitiated, set down the results of my observations.” In this matter he writes with a perfect unconsciousness that he is describing what any one has described before. But as accurate an observer had been before him :
“ She (the hare) generally returns to the seat from which she was put up, running, as all the world knows, in a circle, or something sometimes like it, we had better say, that we may keep on good terms with the mathematical. At starting, she tears away at her utmost speed for a mile or more, and distances the dogs half way: she then returns, diverging a little to the right or left, that she may not run into the mouths of her enemies—a necessity which accounts for what we call the
Biographia Literaria,' 1817, vol. ii., p. 15.
circularity of her course. Her flight from home is direct and precipitate ; but on her way back, when she has gained a little time for consideration and stratagem, she describes a curious labyrinth of short turnings and windings, as if to perplex the dogs by the intricacy of her track.” Compare this with Shakspere :
“ And when thou hast on foot the purblind hare,
Mark the poor wretch, to overshoot his troubles,
The many musits through the which he goes
Mr. Ayton thus goes on :
“The hounds, whom we left in full cry, continue their music without remission as long as they are faithful to the scent; as a summons, it should seem, like the seaman's cry, to pull together, or keep together, and it is a certain proof to themselves and their followers that they are in the right way. On the instant that they are at fault,' or lose the scent, they are silent.
The weather, in its impression on the scent, is the great father of 'faults;' but they may arise from other accidents, even when the day is in every respect favourable. The intervention of ploughed land, on which the scent soon cools or evaporates, is at least perilous; but sheep-stains, recently left by a flock, are fatal: they cut off the scent irrecoverably-making a gap, as it were, in the clue, in which the dogs have not even a hint for their guidance." Compare Shakspere again :
“ Sometime he runs among a flock of sheep,
To make the cunning hounds mistake their smell,
And sometime sorteth with a herd of deer;
Danger deviseth shifts ; wit waits on fear:
The hot scent-snuffing hounds are driven to doubt,
Then do they spend their mouths : Echo replies,
One more extract from Mr. Ayton :
“Suppose then, after the usual rounds, that you see the bare at last (a sorry mark for 80 many foes) sorely beleaguered—looking dark and draggled—and limping heavily along; then stopping to listen-again tottering on a little and again stopping; and at every step, and every pause, hearing the death-cry grow nearer and louder."
One more comparison, and we have exhausted Shakspere's description :
By this, poor Wat, far off upon a hill,
And now his grief may be compared well
To one sore sick that hears the passing-bell.
Tum and return, ivdenting with the way;
For misery is trodden on by many,
Here, then, be it observed, are not only the same objects, the same accidents, the same movement, in each description, but the very words employed to convey the scene to the mind are often the same in each. It would be easy to say that Mr. Ayton copied Shakspere. We believe he did not. There is a sturdy ingenuousness about his writings which would have led him to notice the · Venus and Adonis’ if he had had it in his mind. Shakspere and he had each looked minutely and practically upon the same scene; and the wonder is, not that Shakspere was an accurate describer, but that in him the accurate is so thoroughly fused with the poetical, that it is one and the same life.
The celebrated description of the courser in the Venus and Adonis' is another remarkable instance of the accuracy of the young Shakspere's observation. Not the most experienced dealer ever knew the points of a horse better. The whole poem indeed is full of evidence that the circumstances by which the writer was surrounded, in a country district, had entered deeply into his mind, and were reproduced in the poetical form. The bird “ tangled in a net”- the “ di-dapper peering through a wave"—the “ blueveined violets”- the
“ Red morn, that ever yet betoken'd Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field "
the fisher that forbears the “ ungrown fry”-the sheep" gone to fold”--the caterpillars feeding on “ the tender leaves”—and, not to weary with examples, that exquisite image,
“ Look how a bright star shooteth from the sky,
So glides he in the night from Venus' eye"
all these bespeak a poet who had formed himself upon nature, and not upon books. To understand the value as well as the rarity of
this quality in Shakspere, we should open any contemporary poem. Take Marlowe's ' Hero and Leander' for example. We read line after line, beautiful, gorgeous, running over with a satiating luxuriousness; but we look in vain for a single familiar image. Shakspere describes what he has seen, throwing over the real the delicious tint of his own imagination. Marlowe looks at Nature herself very rarely ; but he knows all the conventional images by which the real is supposed to be elevated into the poetical. His most beautiful things are thus but copies of copies. The mode in which each poet describes the Morning will illustrate our meaning:
“ Lo! here the gentle lark, weary of rest,
From his moist cabinet mounts up on high,
Who doth the world so gloriously behold,
The cedar-tops and hills seem burnish'd gold." We feel that this is true. Compare
“ By this Apollo's golden harp began
To sound forth music to the ocean;
We are taught that this is classical.
Coleridge has observed that “ in the • Venus and Adonis,' the first and most obvious excellence is the perfect sweetness of the versification; its adaptation to the subject; and the power displayed in varying the march of the words without passing into a loftier and more majestic rhythm than was demanded by the thoughts, or permitted by the propriety of preserving a sense of melody predominant." * This self-controlling power of “ varying the march of the words without passing into a loftier and more majestic rhythm” is perhaps one of the most signal instances of Shakspere's consummate mastery of his art, even as a very young man.
He who, at the proper season, knew how to strike the grandest music within the compass of our own powerful and sonorous language, in his early productions breathes out his thoughts
** Biographia Literaria,' vol. ij., p. 14.