Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

no passage which illustrates more forcibly the method of the Grand Style in its greatest moments, and I know none more fit to be the last word of an attempt to study it. For it is, after all, the thing itself which explains itself ; no labour of defining words can give the secret of that which unites the cloudy majesty of Milton with the open sunlight of Homer, the magic strokes of Shakespeare with the consummate art of Pindar, the severe simplicity of Dante, clear-cut as a precious stone, unyielding and immutable, with that so different simplicity, clear too, but with the clearness of a stream in the sunshine, a thing infinitely mobile and winning and gracious, the liquid and human simplicity of Catullus. The study of the kinds of literary style is in part a study of affinities, and none can be more fascinating, or more difficult, than that of the unifying links, and especially that central one of overwhelming power combined with restraint and reserve in its use, which hold together poets so diverse as these in the common glory of the Grand Style. It is ground on which we all should be able to meet. For men, all men as Wordsworth thought, thirst for power and majesty'. Not always, no doubt, but at the moments when they feel themselves at their highest. And nothing in literature satisfies those supreme moments like the Grand Style, which is itself, in the famous phrase of Longinus, μεγαλοφροσύνης απήχημα, the echo of a great soul.

SHAKESPEARE'S HISTORIES

)

SHAKESPEARE was born in 1564 and died in 1616, on the 23rd April which was probably his birthday. We know comparatively little of his life. What we do know has been admirably put together and told by Sir Sidney Lee, who is inclined, however, to exaggerate what there is to tell. After all it does not come to very much. Indeed it comes to almost nothing compared with what we know of Milton. We have the dates of Shakespeare's birth, marriage, and death, we can name some houses he lived in, one of which survives, we possess some fragments of writing which include his signature, and some documents or entries which speak of him. But they all deal with the external man, and rather with his affairs than with himself. One would gladly give them all for a single letter to wife or child, or even a single plain-speaking personal utterance in prose or verse of the sort that abounds in the case of Milton. We know most of what we want to know about Milton's relations to his father, his three wives, and some of his friends : and more than we want to know about his relations to his daughters. For in all these cases he has told us himself what they were : or if not he, then they or some authoritative witness from close at hand like his nephew Phillips. Of his opinions in most matters of Church and State we have abundant, almost too abundant, evidence out of his own mouth. Of all this in the case of Shakespeare there is nothing. We can conjecture and argue, if we choose, from indirect evidence, but of his feelings about father or wife or children, or of his religious or political opinions, we have absolutely no direct knowledge. Even in the Sonnets, where for once he speaks directly, he certainly does not speak plainly.

[ocr errors]

The facts behind them are still an unsolved enigma. On the whole it must be said that we do not know him as son or husband or father at all; and as citizen or patriot, as the holder of this rather than that view in the religious or political discussions of his day, we only know him through such indications as we believe ourselves able to extract from his plays. Even as poet he remains, as far as it is possible for any man who has written so much to remain, behind the curtain of impersonality. All that we see clearly is the man of business, passing by various stages which we can still trace from poverty to something like riches, as Milton was to travel the opposite road from riches to comparative poverty. Just as a great man's monument on a church wall tells, or used to tell, the names of his father and his wife, his offices and honours and estates, while of the man himself it tells and can tell nothing, so with Shakespeare. Of bis loves, faiths, hopes, fears he only allows us to guess ; of the heights which made the plays possible we only catch glimpses through the plays themselves ; like that mountain to which Matthew Arnold compares him he 'spares but the cloudy border of his base To the foil'd searching of mortality'. All that we can be said really to know of Shakespeare himself is a pleasant companion who left the impression of a man of genius on competent judges, an impression which they have rather recorded than explained ; a lovable man

of an open and free nature', as Ben Jonson said ; and a prosperous man of affairs who like so many other Englishmen, then and since, made a fortune rather quickly in London and then retired to his native place to enjoy his wealth and importance among the acquaintances of his youth.

His life, as we have seen, extended over just fifty-two years, a half-century big with fateful events in the political and intellectual history of England. In public affairs, so far as we know, Shakespeare played no part. For doing so

he had neither the opportunities nor, we may be almost sure, the inclination of Milton. In the reign of Elizabeth the country was governed by the queen and her Council ; and few others, even members of Parliament, had any chance of becoming actors on the political stage. Certainly an actor on the common theatrical stage had none. And, if the guesses of those who are most likely to guess right may be trusted, Shakespeare was probably quite content to attend to his own business and leave Church and State to those to whom God and the queen had entrusted them.

Yet, if he had no share in making history in his own day, he may almost be said to have been making it ever since. Was it not Marlborough who said that he had learnt all the English history he knew out of Shakespeare's plays ? And 1 one may be sure that in his case as in others the learning Shakespeare provides was of the sort which is not content with informing the mind but stirs the blood and inspires the will. The author of Richard II, Henry V, and King John certainly has his place among the builders of the British Empire. It is a place absolutely unsought and undreamt of: we can imagine him, after the fashion of Scott in similar circumstances, laughing away such talk as mere nonsense when applied to a player who acted and wrote to get his living and amuse the idle part of the public. But it is true, nevertheless. 'We must be free or die, who speak the tongue That Shakespeare spake.' And we must be great, too, with no ignoble greatness of mere prosperity, but with one of another order, one that quickens the imagination and uplifts the spirit. England was still just England in 'Shakespeare's day, not the heart of a world of allied Commonwealths; and Shakespeare was no political visionary in this field or any other. Here as elsewhere, what he saw was what actually existed :

This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea

Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry

Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son. When he wrote those words he may have thought of Richard of the Lion Heart, but in any case he was not prophesying Lord Allenby; and he could never have dreamt that his great words would prove far truer of the England that was to be three hundred years after his death than they were of the England of that brother of the Black Prince in whose mouth he puts the words, or even of the England of Richard I whose name was for so long, and perhaps still is, a legendary one in the East. Still less would he have believed that he himself could ever be counted to have had any part, however remote, in the miracle of the final delivery of the Holy Land by troops many of whom came, and all of whom were commanded by one who came from this little island which he had known and loved and praised so well. Yet it is no fanciful exaggeration to say that he had. The ultimate victory in war is to the spirit. It is true that great contributions were made to the spirit of England by some of those who built up the body of her military and political strength, and, in counting up its makers, we must always remember among the greatest Drake and Elizabeth, Cromwell and Marlborough, Wolfe and Chatham, Pitt and Wellington, and the supreme and heroic genius of Nelson. But the thought of them must not make us forget the part played by the poets who have all along moved the minds that have moved the nation, whose words are deeds which directly, and not merely indirectly like those of the soldiers and statesmen, influence the lives of men born centuries

« НазадПродовжити »