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Books and Characters by Lytton Strachey

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First published May 1922


_The following papers are reprinted by kind permission of the Editors
of the Independent Review, the New Quarterly, the Athenaeum, and the
Edinburgh Review._

_The 'Dialogue' is now printed for the first time, from a manuscript,
apparently in the handwriting of Voltaire and belonging to his English




When Ingres painted his vast 'Apotheosis of Homer,' he represented,
grouped round the central throne, all the great poets of the ancient and
modern worlds, with a single exception--Shakespeare. After some
persuasion, he relented so far as to introduce into his picture a _part_
of that offensive personage; and English visitors at the Louvre can now
see, to their disgust or their amusement, the truncated image of rather
less than half of the author of _King Lear_ just appearing at the
extreme edge of the enormous canvas. French taste, let us hope, has
changed since the days of Ingres; Shakespeare would doubtless now be
advanced--though perhaps chiefly from a sense of duty--to the very steps
of the central throne. But if an English painter were to choose a
similar subject, how would he treat the master who stands acknowledged
as the most characteristic representative of the literature of France?
Would Racine find a place in the picture at all? Or, if he did, would
more of him be visible than the last curl of his full-bottomed wig,
whisking away into the outer darkness?

There is something inexplicable about the intensity of national tastes
and the violence of national differences. If, as in the good old days, I
could boldly believe a Frenchman to be an inferior creature, while he,
as simply, wrote me down a savage, there would be an easy end of the
matter. But alas! _nous avons change tout cela_. Now we are each of us
obliged to recognise that the other has a full share of intelligence,
ability, and taste; that the accident of our having been born on
different sides of the Channel is no ground for supposing either that I
am a brute or that he is a ninny. But, in that case, how does it happen
that while on one side of that 'span of waters' Racine is despised and
Shakespeare is worshipped, on the other, Shakespeare is tolerated and
Racine is adored? The perplexing question was recently emphasised and
illustrated in a singular way. Mr. John Bailey, in a volume of essays
entitled 'The Claims of French Poetry,' discussed the qualities of
Racine at some length, placed him, not without contumely, among the
second rank of writers, and drew the conclusion that, though indeed the
merits of French poetry are many and great, it is not among the pages of
Racine that they are to be found. Within a few months of the appearance
of Mr. Bailey's book, the distinguished French writer and brilliant
critic, M. Lemaitre, published a series of lectures on Racine, in which
the highest note of unqualified panegyric sounded uninterruptedly from
beginning to end. The contrast is remarkable, and the conflicting
criticisms seem to represent, on the whole, the views of the cultivated
classes in the two countries. And it is worthy of note that neither of
these critics pays any heed, either explicitly or by implication, to the
opinions of the other. They are totally at variance, but they argue
along lines so different and so remote that they never come into
collision. Mr. Bailey, with the utmost sang-froid, sweeps on one side
the whole of the literary tradition of France. It is as if a French
critic were to assert that Shakespeare, the Elizabethans, and the
romantic poets of the nineteenth century were all negligible, and that
England's really valuable contribution to the poetry of the world was to
be found among the writings of Dryden and Pope. M. Lemaitre, on the
other hand, seems sublimely unconscious that any such views as Mr.
Bailey's could possibly exist. Nothing shows more clearly Racine's
supreme dominion over his countrymen than the fact that M. Lemaitre
never questions it for a moment, and tacitly assumes on every page of
his book that his only duty is to illustrate and amplify a greatness
already recognised by all. Indeed, after reading M. Lemaitre's book, one
begins to understand more clearly why it is that English critics find it
difficult to appreciate to the full the literature of France. It is no
paradox to say that that country is as insular as our own. When we find
so eminent a critic as M. Lemaitre observing that Racine 'a vraiment
"acheve" et porte a son point supreme de perfection _la tragedie_, cette
etonnante forme d'art, et qui est bien de chez nous: car on la trouve
peu chez les Anglais,' is it surprising that we should hastily jump to
the conclusion that the canons and the principles of a criticism of this
kind will not repay, and perhaps do not deserve, any careful
consideration? Certainly they are not calculated to spare the
susceptibilities of Englishmen. And, after all, this is only natural; a
French critic addresses a French audience; like a Rabbi in a synagogue,
he has no need to argue and no wish to convert. Perhaps, too, whether he
willed or no, he could do very little to the purpose; for the
difficulties which beset an Englishman in his endeavours to appreciate a
writer such as Racine are precisely of the kind which a Frenchman is
least able either to dispel or even to understand. The object of this
essay is, first, to face these difficulties, with the aid of Mr.
Bailey's paper, which sums up in an able and interesting way the average
English view of the matter; and, in the second place, to communicate to
the English reader a sense of the true significance and the immense
value of Racine's work. Whether the attempt succeed or fail, some
important general questions of literary doctrine will have been
discussed; and, in addition, at least an effort will have been made to
vindicate a great reputation. For, to a lover of Racine, the fact that
English critics of Mr. Bailey's calibre can write of him as they do,
brings a feeling not only of entire disagreement, but of almost personal
distress. Strange as it may seem to those who have been accustomed to
think of that great artist merely as a type of the frigid pomposity of
an antiquated age, his music, to ears that are attuned to hear it, comes
fraught with a poignancy of loveliness whose peculiar quality is shared
by no other poetry in the world. To have grown familiar with the voice
of Racine, to have realised once and for all its intensity, its beauty,
and its depth, is to have learnt a new happiness, to have discovered
something exquisite and splendid, to have enlarged the glorious
boundaries of art. For such benefits as these who would not be grateful?
Who would not seek to make them known to others, that they too may
enjoy, and render thanks?

M. Lemaitre, starting out, like a native of the mountains, from a point
which can only be reached by English explorers after a long journey and
a severe climb, devotes by far the greater part of his book to a series
of brilliant psychological studies of Racine's characters. He leaves on
one side almost altogether the questions connected both with Racine's
dramatic construction, and with his style; and these are the very
questions by which English readers are most perplexed, and which they
are most anxious to discuss. His style in particular--using the word in
its widest sense--forms the subject of the principal part of Mr.
Bailey's essay; it is upon this count that the real force of Mr.
Bailey's impeachment depends; and, indeed, it is obvious that no poet
can be admired or understood by those who quarrel with the whole fabric
of his writing and condemn the very principles of his art. Before,
however, discussing this, the true crux of the question, it may be well
to consider briefly another matter which deserves attention, because the
English reader is apt to find in it a stumbling-block at the very outset
of his inquiry. Coming to Racine with Shakespeare and the rest of the
Elizabethans warm in his memory, it is only to be expected that he
should be struck with a chilling sense of emptiness and unreality. After
the colour, the moving multiplicity, the imaginative luxury of our early
tragedies, which seem to have been moulded out of the very stuff of life
and to have been built up with the varied and generous structure of
Nature herself, the Frenchman's dramas, with their rigid uniformity of
setting, their endless duologues, their immense harangues, their
spectral confidants, their strict exclusion of all visible action, give
one at first the same sort of impression as a pretentious
pseudo-classical summer-house appearing suddenly at the end of a vista,
after one has been rambling through an open forest. 'La scene est a
Buthrote, ville d'Epire, dans une salle du palais de Pyrrhus'--could
anything be more discouraging than such an announcement? Here is nothing
for the imagination to feed on, nothing to raise expectation, no
wondrous vision of 'blasted heaths,' or the 'seaboard of Bohemia'; here
is only a hypothetical drawing-room conjured out of the void for five
acts, simply in order that the persons of the drama may have a place to
meet in and make their speeches. The 'three unities' and the rest of the
'rules' are a burden which the English reader finds himself quite
unaccustomed to carry; he grows impatient of them; and, if he is a
critic, he points out the futility and the unreasonableness of those
antiquated conventions. Even Mr. Bailey, who, curiously enough, believes
that Racine 'stumbled, as it were, half by accident into great
advantages' by using them, speaks of the 'discredit' into which 'the
once famous unities' have now fallen, and declares that 'the unities of
time and place are of no importance in themselves.' So far as critics
are concerned this may be true; but critics are apt to forget that plays
can exist somewhere else than in books, and a very small acquaintance
with contemporary drama is enough to show that, upon the stage at any
rate, the unities, so far from having fallen into discredit, are now in
effect triumphant. For what is the principle which underlies and
justifies the unities of time and place? Surely it is not, as Mr. Bailey
would have us believe, that of the 'unity of action or interest,' for it
is clear that every good drama, whatever its plan of construction, must
possess a single dominating interest, and that it may happen--as in
_Antony and Cleopatra_, for instance--that the very essence of this
interest lies in the accumulation of an immense variety of local
activities and the representation of long epochs of time. The true
justification for the unities of time and place is to be found in the
conception of drama as the history of a spiritual crisis--the vision,
thrown up, as it were, by a bull's-eye lantern, of the final
catastrophic phases of a long series of events. Very different were the
views of the Elizabethan tragedians, who aimed at representing not only
the catastrophe, but the whole development of circumstances of which it
was the effect; they traced, with elaborate and abounding detail, the
rise, the growth, the decline, and the ruin of great causes and great
persons; and the result was a series of masterpieces unparalleled in the
literature of the world. But, for good or evil, these methods have
become obsolete, and to-day our drama seems to be developing along
totally different lines. It is playing the part, more and more
consistently, of the bull's-eye lantern; it is concerned with the
crisis, and nothing but the crisis; and, in proportion as its field is
narrowed and its vision intensified, the unities of time and place come
more and more completely into play. Thus, from the point of view of
form, it is true to say that it has been the drama of Racine rather than
that of Shakespeare that has survived. Plays of the type of _Macbeth_
have been superseded by plays of the type of _Britannicus_.
_Britannicus_, no less than _Macbeth_, is the tragedy of a criminal; but
it shows us, instead of the gradual history of the temptation and the
fall, followed by the fatal march of consequences, nothing but the
precise psychological moment in which the first irrevocable step is
taken, and the criminal is made. The method of _Macbeth_ has been, as it
were, absorbed by that of the modern novel; the method of _Britannicus_
still rules the stage. But Racine carried out his ideals more rigorously
and more boldly than any of his successors. He fixed the whole of his
attention upon the spiritual crisis; to him that alone was of
importance; and the conventional classicism so disheartening to the
English reader--the 'unities,' the harangues, the confidences, the
absence of local colour, and the concealment of the action--was no more
than the machinery for enhancing the effect of the inner tragedy, and
for doing away with every side issue and every chance of distraction.
His dramas must be read as one looks at an airy, delicate statue,
supported by artificial props, whose only importance lies in the fact
that without them the statue itself would break in pieces and fall to
the ground. Approached in this light, even the 'salle du palais de
Pyrrhus' begins to have a meaning. We come to realise that, if it is
nothing else, it is at least the meeting-ground of great passions, the
invisible framework for one of those noble conflicts which 'make one
little room an everywhere.' It will show us no views, no spectacles, it
will give us no sense of atmosphere or of imaginative romance; but it
will allow us to be present at the climax of a tragedy, to follow the
closing struggle of high destinies, and to witness the final agony of
human hearts.

It is remarkable that Mr. Bailey, while seeming to approve of the
classicism of Racine's dramatic form, nevertheless finds fault with him
for his lack of a quality with which, by its very nature, the classical
form is incompatible. Racine's vision, he complains, does not 'take in
the whole of life'; we do not find in his plays 'the whole pell-mell of
human existence'; and this is true, because the particular effects which
Racine wished to produce necessarily involved this limitation of the
range of his interests. His object was to depict the tragic interaction
of a small group of persons at the culminating height of its intensity;
and it is as irrational to complain of his failure to introduce into his
compositions 'the whole pell-mell of human existence' as it would be to
find fault with a Mozart quartet for not containing the orchestration of
Wagner. But it is a little difficult to make certain of the precise
nature of Mr. Bailey's criticism. When he speaks of Racine's vision not
including 'the whole of life,' when he declares that Racine cannot be
reckoned as one of the 'world-poets,' he seems to be taking somewhat
different ground and discussing a more general question. All truly great
poets, he asserts, have 'a wide view of humanity,' 'a large view of
life'--a profound sense, in short, of the relations between man and the
universe; and, since Racine is without this quality, his claim to true
poetic greatness must be denied. But, even upon the supposition that
this view of Racine's philosophical outlook is the true one--and, in its
most important sense, I believe that it is not--does Mr. Bailey's
conclusion really follow? Is it possible to test a poet's greatness by
the largeness of his 'view of life'? How wide, one would like to know,
was Milton's 'view of humanity'? And, though Wordsworth's sense of the
position of man in the universe was far more profound than Dante's, who
will venture to assert that he was the greater poet? The truth is that
we have struck here upon a principle which lies at the root, not only of
Mr. Bailey's criticism of Racine, but of an entire critical method--the
method which attempts to define the essential elements of poetry in
general, and then proceeds to ask of any particular poem whether it
possesses these elements, and to judge it accordingly. How often this
method has been employed, and how often it has proved disastrously
fallacious! For, after all, art is not a superior kind of chemistry,
amenable to the rules of scientific induction. Its component parts
cannot be classified and tested, and there is a spark within it which
defies foreknowledge. When Matthew Arnold declared that the value of a
new poem might be gauged by comparing it with the greatest passages in
the acknowledged masterpieces of literature, he was falling into this
very error; for who could tell that the poem in question was not itself
a masterpiece, living by the light of an unknown beauty, and a law unto
itself? It is the business of the poet to break rules and to baffle
expectation; and all the masterpieces in the world cannot make a
precedent. Thus Mr. Bailey's attempts to discover, by quotations from
Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Goethe, the qualities without which no poet
can be great, and his condemnation of Racine because he is without them,
is a fallacy in criticism. There is only one way to judge a poet, as
Wordsworth, with that paradoxical sobriety so characteristic of him, has
pointed out--and that is, by loving him. But Mr. Bailey, with regard to
Racine at any rate, has not followed the advice of Wordsworth. Let us
look a little more closely into the nature of his attack.

'L'epithete rare,' said the De Goncourts,'voila la marque de
l'ecrivain.' Mr. Bailey quotes the sentence with approval, observing
that if, with Sainte-Beuve, we extend the phrase to 'le mot rare,' we
have at once one of those invaluable touch-stones with which we may test
the merit of poetry. And doubtless most English readers would be
inclined to agree with Mr. Bailey, for it so happens that our own
literature is one in which rarity of style, pushed often to the verge of
extravagance, reigns supreme. Owing mainly, no doubt, to the double
origin of our language, with its strange and violent contrasts between
the highly-coloured crudity of the Saxon words and the ambiguous
splendour of the Latin vocabulary; owing partly, perhaps, to a national
taste for the intensely imaginative, and partly, too, to the vast and
penetrating influence of those grand masters of bizarrerie--the Hebrew
Prophets--our poetry, our prose, and our whole conception of the art of
writing have fallen under the dominion of the emphatic, the
extraordinary, and the bold. No one in his senses would regret this, for
it has given our literature all its most characteristic glories, and, of
course, in Shakespeare, with whom expression is stretched to the
bursting point, the national style finds at once its consummate example
and its final justification. But the result is that we have grown so
unused to other kinds of poetical beauty, that we have now come to
believe, with Mr. Bailey, that poetry apart from 'le mot rare' is an
impossibility. The beauties of restraint, of clarity, of refinement, and
of precision we pass by unheeding; we can see nothing there but coldness
and uniformity; and we go back with eagerness to the fling and the
bravado that we love so well. It is as if we had become so accustomed to
looking at boxers, wrestlers, and gladiators that the sight of an
exquisite minuet produced no effect on us; the ordered dance strikes us
as a monotony, for we are blind to the subtle delicacies of the dancers,
which are fraught with such significance to the practised eye. But let
us be patient, and let us look again.

Ariane ma soeur, de quel amour blessee,
Vous mourutes aux bords ou vous futes laissee.

Here, certainly, are no 'mots rares'; here is nothing to catch the mind
or dazzle the understanding; here is only the most ordinary vocabulary,
plainly set forth. But is there not an enchantment? Is there not a
vision? Is there not a flow of lovely sound whose beauty grows upon the
ear, and dwells exquisitely within the memory? Racine's triumph is
precisely this--that he brings about, by what are apparently the
simplest means, effects which other poets must strain every nerve to
produce. The narrowness of his vocabulary is in fact nothing but a proof
of his amazing art. In the following passage, for instance, what a sense
of dignity and melancholy and power is conveyed by the commonest words!

Enfin j'ouvre les yeux, et je me fais justice:
C'est faire a vos beautes un triste sacrifice
Que de vous presenter, madame, avec ma foi,
Tout l'age et le malheur que je traine avec moi.
Jusqu'ici la fortune et la victoire memes
Cachaient mes cheveux blancs sous trente diademes.
Mais ce temps-la n'est plus: je regnais; et je fuis:
Mes ans se sont accrus; mes honneurs sont detruits.

Is that wonderful 'trente' an 'epithete rare'? Never, surely, before or
since, was a simple numeral put to such a use--to conjure up so
triumphantly such mysterious grandeurs! But these are subtleties which
pass unnoticed by those who have been accustomed to the violent appeals
of the great romantic poets. As Sainte-Beuve says, in a fine comparison
between Racine and Shakespeare, to come to the one after the other is
like passing to a portrait by Ingres from a decoration by Rubens. At
first, 'comme on a l'oeil rempli de l'eclatante verite pittoresque du
grand maitre flamand, on ne voit dans l'artiste francais qu'un ton assez
uniforme, une teinte diffuse de pale et douce lumiere. Mais qu'on
approche de plus pres et qu'on observe avec soin: mille nuances fines
vont eclore sous le regard; mille intentions savantes vont sortir de ce
tissu profond et serre; on ne peut plus en detacher ses yeux.'

Similarly when Mr. Bailey, turning from the vocabulary to more general
questions of style, declares that there is no 'element of fine
surprise' in Racine, no trace of the 'daring metaphors and similes of
Pindar and the Greek choruses--the reply is that he would find what he
wants if he only knew where to look for it. 'Who will forget,' he says,
'the comparison of the Atreidae to the eagles wheeling over their empty
nest, of war to the money-changer whose gold dust is that of human
bodies, of Helen to the lion's whelps?... Everyone knows these. Who will
match them among the formal elegances of Racine?' And it is true that
when Racine wished to create a great effect he did not adopt the
romantic method; he did not chase his ideas through the four quarters of
the universe to catch them at last upon the verge of the inane; and
anyone who hopes to come upon 'fine surprises' of this kind in his pages
will be disappointed. His daring is of a different kind; it is not the
daring of adventure but of intensity; his fine surprises are seized out
of the very heart of his subject, and seized in a single stroke. Thus
many of his most astonishing phrases burn with an inward concentration
of energy, which, difficult at first to realise to the full, comes in
the end to impress itself ineffaceably upon the mind.

C'etait pendant l'horreur d'une profonde nuit.

The sentence is like a cavern whose mouth a careless traveller might
pass by, but which opens out, to the true explorer, into vista after
vista of strange recesses rich with inexhaustible gold. But, sometimes,
the phrase, compact as dynamite, explodes upon one with an immediate and
terrific force--

C'est Venus toute entiere a sa proie attachee!

A few 'formal elegances' of this kind are surely worth having.

But what is it that makes the English reader fail to recognise the
beauty and the power of such passages as these? Besides Racine's lack of
extravagance and bravura, besides his dislike of exaggerated emphasis
and far-fetched or fantastic imagery, there is another characteristic of
his style to which we are perhaps even more antipathetic--its
suppression of detail. The great majority of poets--and especially of
English poets--produce their most potent effects by the accumulation of
details--details which in themselves fascinate us either by their beauty
or their curiosity or their supreme appropriateness. But with details
Racine will have nothing to do; he builds up his poetry out of words
which are not only absolutely simple but extremely general, so that our
minds, failing to find in it the peculiar delights to which we have been
accustomed, fall into the error of rejecting it altogether as devoid of
significance. And the error is a grave one, for in truth nothing is more
marvellous than the magic with which Racine can conjure up out of a few
expressions of the vaguest import a sense of complete and intimate
reality. When Shakespeare wishes to describe a silent night he does so
with a single stroke of detail--'not a mouse stirring'! And Virgil adds
touch upon touch of exquisite minutiae:

Cum tacet omnis ager, pecudes, pictaeque volucres,
Quaeque lacus late liquidos, quaeque aspera dumis
Rura tenent, etc.

Racine's way is different, but is it less masterly?

Mais tout dort, et l'armee, et les vents, et Neptune.

What a flat and feeble set of expressions! is the Englishman's first
thought--with the conventional 'Neptune,' and the vague 'armee,' and the
commonplace 'vents.' And he forgets to notice the total impression which
these words produce--the atmosphere of darkness and emptiness and
vastness and ominous hush.

It is particularly in regard to Racine's treatment of nature that this
generalised style creates misunderstandings. 'Is he so much as aware,'
exclaims Mr. Bailey, 'that the sun rises and sets in a glory of colour,
that the wind plays deliciously on human cheeks, that the human ear will
never have enough of the music of the sea? He might have written every
page of his work without so much as looking out of the window of his
study.' The accusation gains support from the fact that Racine rarely
describes the processes of nature by means of pictorial detail; that, we
know, was not his plan. But he is constantly, with his subtle art,
suggesting them. In this line, for instance, he calls up, without a word
of definite description, the vision of a sudden and brilliant sunrise:

Deja le jour plus grand nous frappe et nous eclaire.

And how varied and beautiful are his impressions of the sea! He can give
us the desolation of a calm:

La rame inutile
Fatigua vainement une mer immobile;

or the agitated movements of a great fleet of galleys:

Voyez tout l'Hellespont blanchissant sous nos rames;

or he can fill his verses with the disorder and the fury of a storm:

Quoi! pour noyer les Grecs et leurs mille vaisseaux,
Mer, tu n'ouvriras pas des abymes nouveaux!
Quoi! lorsque les chassant du port qui les recele,
L'Aulide aura vomi leur flotte criminelle,
Les vents, les memes vents, si longtemps accuses,
Ne te couvriront pas de ses vaisseaux brises!

And then, in a single line, he can evoke the radiant spectacle of a
triumphant flotilla riding the dancing waves:

Prets a vous recevoir mes vaisseaux vous attendent;
Et du pied de l'autel vous y pouvez monter,
Souveraine des mers qui vous doivent porter.

The art of subtle suggestion could hardly go further than in this line,
where the alliterating v's, the mute e's, and the placing of the long
syllables combine so wonderfully to produce the required effect.

But it is not only suggestions of nature that readers like Mr. Bailey
are unable to find in Racine--they miss in him no less suggestions of
the mysterious and the infinite. No doubt this is partly due to our
English habit of associating these qualities with expressions which are
complex and unfamiliar. When we come across the mysterious accent of
fatality and remote terror in a single perfectly simple phrase--

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphae

we are apt not to hear that it is there. But there is another
reason--the craving, which has seized upon our poetry and our criticism
ever since the triumph of Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of
the last century, for metaphysical stimulants. It would be easy to
prolong the discussion of this matter far beyond the boundaries of
'sublunary debate,' but it is sufficient to point out that Mr. Bailey's
criticism of Racine affords an excellent example of the fatal effects of
this obsession. His pages are full of references to 'infinity' and 'the
unseen' and 'eternity' and 'a mystery brooding over a mystery' and 'the
key to the secret of life'; and it is only natural that he should find
in these watchwords one of those tests of poetic greatness of which he
is so fond. The fallaciousness of such views as these becomes obvious
when we remember the plain fact that there is not a trace of this kind
of mystery or of these 'feelings after the key to the secret of life,'
in _Paradise Lost_, and that _Paradise Lost_ is one of the greatest
poems in the world. But Milton is sacrosanct in England; no theory,
however mistaken, can shake that stupendous name, and the damage which
may be wrought by a vicious system of criticism only becomes evident in
its treatment of writers like Racine, whom it can attack with impunity
and apparent success. There is no 'mystery' in Racine--that is to say,
there are no metaphysical speculations in him, no suggestions of the
transcendental, no hints as to the ultimate nature of reality and the
constitution of the world; and so away with him, a creature of mere
rhetoric and ingenuities, to the outer limbo! But if, instead of asking
what a writer is without, we try to discover simply what he is, will not
our results be more worthy of our trouble? And in fact, if we once put
out of our heads our longings for the mystery of metaphysical
suggestion, the more we examine Racine, the more clearly we shall
discern in him another kind of mystery, whose presence may eventually
console us for the loss of the first--the mystery of the mind of man.
This indeed is the framework of his poetry, and to speak of it
adequately would demand a wider scope than that of an essay; for how
much might be written of that strange and moving background, dark with
the profundity of passion and glowing with the beauty of the sublime,
wherefrom the great personages of his tragedies--Hermione and
Mithridate, Roxane and Agrippine, Athalie and Phedre--seem to emerge for
a moment towards us, whereon they breathe and suffer, and among whose
depths they vanish for ever from our sight! Look where we will, we shall
find among his pages the traces of an inward mystery and the obscure
infinities of the heart.

Nous avons su toujours nous aimer et nous taire.

The line is a summary of the romance and the anguish of two lives. That
is all affection; and this all desire--

J'aimais jusqu'a ses pleurs que je faisais couler.

Or let us listen to the voice of Phedre, when she learns that Hippolyte
and Aricie love one another:

Les a-t-on vus souvent se parler, se chercher?
Dans le fond des forets alloient-ils se cacher?
Helas! ils se voyaient avec pleine licence;
Le ciel de leurs soupirs approuvait l'innocence;
Ils suivaient sans remords leur penchant amoureux;
Tous les jours se levaient clairs et sereins pour eux.

This last line--written, let us remember, by a frigidly ingenious
rhetorician, who had never looked out of his study-window--does it not
seem to mingle, in a trance of absolute simplicity, the peerless beauty
of a Claude with the misery and ruin of a great soul?

It is, perhaps, as a psychologist that Racine has achieved his most
remarkable triumphs; and the fact that so subtle and penetrating a
critic as M. Lemaitre has chosen to devote the greater part of a volume
to the discussion of his characters shows clearly enough that Racine's
portrayal of human nature has lost nothing of its freshness and vitality
with the passage of time. On the contrary, his admirers are now tending
more and more to lay stress upon the brilliance of his portraits, the
combined vigour and intimacy of his painting, his amazing knowledge, and
his unerring fidelity to truth. M. Lemaitre, in fact, goes so far as to
describe Racine as a supreme realist, while other writers have found in
him the essence of the modern spirit. These are vague phrases, no doubt,
but they imply a very definite point of view; and it is curious to
compare with it our English conception of Racine as a stiff and pompous
kind of dancing-master, utterly out of date and infinitely cold. And
there is a similar disagreement over his style. Mr. Bailey is never
tired of asserting that Racine's style is rhetorical, artificial, and
monotonous; while M. Lemaitre speaks of it as 'nu et familier,' and
Sainte-Beuve says 'il rase la prose, mais avec des ailes,' The
explanation of these contradictions is to be found in the fact that the
two critics are considering different parts of the poet's work. When
Racine is most himself, when he is seizing upon a state of mind and
depicting it with all its twistings and vibrations, he writes with a
directness which is indeed naked, and his sentences, refined to the
utmost point of significance, flash out like swords, stroke upon stroke,
swift, certain, irresistible. This is how Agrippine, in the fury of her
tottering ambition, bursts out to Burrhus, the tutor of her son:

Pretendez-vous longtemps me cacher l'empereur?
Ne le verrai-je plus qu'a titre d'importune?
Ai-je donc eleve si haut votre fortune
Pour mettre une barriere entre mon fils et moi?
Ne l'osez-vous laisser un moment sur sa foi?
Entre Seneque et vous disputez-vous la gloire
A qui m'effacera plus tot de sa memoire?
Vous l'ai-je confie pour en faire un ingrat,
Pour etre, sous son nom, les maitres de l'etat?
Certes, plus je medite, et moins je me figure
Que vous m'osiez compter pour votre creature;
Vous, dont j'ai pu laisser vieillir l'ambition
Dans les honneurs obscurs de quelque legion;
Et moi, qui sur le trone ai suivi mes ancetres,
Moi, fille, femme, soeur, et mere de vos maitres!

When we come upon a passage like this we know, so to speak, that the
hunt is up and the whole field tearing after the quarry. But Racine, on
other occasions, has another way of writing. He can be roundabout,
artificial, and vague; he can involve a simple statement in a mist of
high-sounding words and elaborate inversions.

Jamais l'aimable soeur des cruels Pallantides
Trempa-t-elle aux complots de ses freres perfides.

That is Racine's way of saying that Aricie did not join in her brothers'
conspiracy. He will describe an incriminating letter as 'De sa trahison
ce gage trop sincere.' It is obvious that this kind of expression has
within it the germs of the 'noble' style of the eighteenth-century
tragedians, one of whom, finding himself obliged to mention a dog, got
out of the difficulty by referring to--'De la fidelite le respectable
appui.' This is the side of Racine's writing that puzzles and disgusts
Mr. Bailey. But there is a meaning in it, after all. Every art is based
upon a selection, and the art of Racine selected the things of the
spirit for the material of its work. The things of sense--physical
objects and details, and all the necessary but insignificant facts that
go to make up the machinery of existence--these must be kept out of the
picture at all hazards. To have called a spade a spade would have ruined
the whole effect; spades must never be mentioned, or, at the worst, they
must be dimly referred to as agricultural implements, so that the entire
attention may be fixed upon the central and dominating features of the
composition--the spiritual states of the characters--which, laid bare
with uncompromising force and supreme precision, may thus indelibly
imprint themselves upon the mind. To condemn Racine on the score of his
ambiguities and his pomposities is to complain of the hastily dashed-in
column and curtain in the background of a portrait, and not to mention
the face. Sometimes indeed his art seems to rise superior to its own
conditions, endowing even the dross and refuse of what it works in with
a wonderful significance. Thus when the Sultana, Roxane, discovers her
lover's treachery, her mind flies immediately to thoughts of revenge and
death, and she exclaims--

Ah! je respire enfin, et ma joie est extreme
Que le traitre une fois se soit trahi lui-meme.
Libre des soins cruels ou j'allais m'engager,
Ma tranquille fureur n'a plus qu'a se venger.
Qu'il meure. Vengeons-nous. Courez. Qu'on le saisisse!
Que la main des muets s'arme pour son supplice;
Qu'ils viennent preparer ces noeuds infortunes
Par qui de ses pareils les jours sont termines.

To have called a bowstring a bowstring was out of the question; and
Racine, with triumphant art, has managed to introduce the periphrasis in
such a way that it exactly expresses the state of mind of the Sultana.
She begins with revenge and rage, until she reaches the extremity of
virulent resolution; and then her mind begins to waver, and she finally
orders the execution of the man she loves, in a contorted agony of

But, as a rule, Racine's characters speak out most clearly when they are
most moved, so that their words, at the height of passion, have an
intensity of directness unknown in actual life. In such moments, the
phrases that leap to their lips quiver and glow with the compressed
significance of character and situation; the 'Qui te l'a dit?' of
Hermione, the 'Sortez' of Roxane, the 'Je vais a Rome' of Mithridate,
the 'Dieu des Juifs, tu l'emportes!' of Athalie--who can forget these
things, these wondrous microcosms of tragedy? Very different is the
Shakespearean method. There, as passion rises, expression becomes more
and more poetical and vague. Image flows into image, thought into
thought, until at last the state of mind is revealed, inform and
molten, driving darkly through a vast storm of words. Such revelations,
no doubt, come closer to reality than the poignant epigrams of Racine.
In life, men's minds are not sharpened, they are diffused, by emotion;
and the utterance which best represents them is fluctuating and
agglomerated rather than compact and defined. But Racine's aim was less
to reflect the actual current of the human spirit than to seize upon its
inmost being and to give expression to that. One might be tempted to say
that his art represents the sublimed essence of reality, save that,
after all, reality has no degrees. Who can affirm that the wild
ambiguities of our hearts and the gross impediments of our physical
existence are less real than the most pointed of our feelings and
'thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls'?

It would be nearer the truth to rank Racine among the idealists. The
world of his creation is not a copy of our own; it is a heightened and
rarefied extension of it; moving, in triumph and in beauty, through 'an
ampler ether, a diviner air.' It is a world where the hesitations and
the pettinesses and the squalors of this earth have been fired out; a
world where ugliness is a forgotten name, and lust itself has grown
ethereal; where anguish has become a grace and death a glory, and love
the beginning and the end of all. It is, too, the world of a poet, so
that we reach it, not through melody nor through vision, but through the
poet's sweet articulation--through verse. Upon English ears the rhymed
couplets of Racine sound strangely; and how many besides Mr. Bailey have
dubbed his alexandrines 'monotonous'! But to his lovers, to those who
have found their way into the secret places of his art, his lines are
impregnated with a peculiar beauty, and the last perfection of style.
Over them, the most insignificant of his verses can throw a deep
enchantment, like the faintest wavings of a magician's wand. 'A-t-on vu
de ma part le roi de Comagene?'--How is it that words of such slight
import should hold such thrilling music? Oh! they are Racine's words.
And, as to his rhymes, they seem perhaps, to the true worshipper, the
final crown of his art. Mr. Bailey tells us that the couplet is only fit
for satire. Has he forgotten _Lamia_? And he asks, 'How is it that we
read Pope's _Satires_ and Dryden's, and Johnson's with enthusiasm still,
while we never touch _Irene_, and rarely the _Conquest of Granada_?'
Perhaps the answer is that if we cannot get rid of our _a priori_
theories, even the fiery art of Dryden's drama may remain dead to us,
and that, if we touched _Irene_ even once, we should find it was in
blank verse. But Dryden himself has spoken memorably upon rhyme.
Discussing the imputed unnaturalness of the rhymed 'repartee' he says:
'Suppose we acknowledge it: how comes this confederacy to be more
displeasing to you than in a dance which is well contrived? You see
there the united design of many persons to make up one figure; ... the
confederacy is plain amongst them, for chance could never produce
anything so beautiful; and yet there is nothing in it that shocks your
sight ... 'Tis an art which appears; but it appears only like the
shadowings of painture, which, being to cause the rounding of it, cannot
be absent; but while that is considered, they are lost: so while we
attend to the other beauties of the matter, the care and labour of the
rhyme is carried from us, or at least drowned in its own sweetness, as
bees are sometimes buried in their honey.' In this exquisite passage
Dryden seems to have come near, though not quite to have hit, the
central argument for rhyme--its power of creating a beautiful
atmosphere, in which what is expressed may be caught away from the
associations of common life and harmoniously enshrined. For Racine, with
his prepossessions of sublimity and perfection, some such barrier
between his universe and reality was involved in the very nature of his
art. His rhyme is like the still clear water of a lake, through which we
can see, mysteriously separated from us and changed and beautified, the
forms of his imagination, 'quivering within the wave's intenser day.'
And truly not seldom are they 'so sweet, the sense faints picturing

Oui, prince, je languis, je brule pour Thesee ...
Il avait votre port, vos yeux, votre langage,
Cette noble pudeur colorait son visage,
Lorsque de notre Crete il traversa les flots,
Digne sujet des voeux des filles de Minos.
Que faisiez-vous alors? Pourquoi, sans Hippolyte,
Des heros de la Grece assembla-t-il l'elite?
Pourquoi, trop jeune encor, ne putes-vous alors
Entrer dans le vaisseau qui le mit sur nos bords?
Par vous aurait peri le monstre de la Crete,
Malgre tous les detours de sa vaste retraite:
Pour en developper l'embarras incertain
Ma soeur du fil fatal eut arme votre main.
Mais non: dans ce dessein je l'aurais devancee;
L'amour m'en eut d'abord inspire la pensee;
C'est moi, prince, c'est moi dont l'utile secours
Vous eut du labyrinthe enseigne les detours.
Que de soins m'eut coutes cette tete charmante!

It is difficult to 'place' Racine among the poets. He has affinities
with many; but likenesses to few. To balance him rigorously against any
other--to ask whether he is better or worse than Shelley or than
Virgil--is to attempt impossibilities; but there is one fact which is
too often forgotten in comparing his work with that of other poets--with
Virgil's for instance--Racine wrote for the stage. Virgil's poetry is
intended to be read, Racine's to be declaimed; and it is only in the
theatre that one can experience to the full the potency of his art. In a
sense we can know him in our library, just as we can hear the music of
Mozart with silent eyes. But, when the strings begin, when the whole
volume of that divine harmony engulfs us, how differently then we
understand and feel! And so, at the theatre, before one of those high
tragedies, whose interpretation has taxed to the utmost ten generations
of the greatest actresses of France, we realise, with the shock of a new
emotion, what we had but half-felt before. To hear the words of Phedre
spoken by the mouth of Bernhardt, to watch, in the culminating horror of
crime and of remorse, of jealousy, of rage, of desire, and of despair,
all the dark forces of destiny crowd down upon that great spirit, when
the heavens and the earth reject her, and Hell opens, and the terriffic
urn of Minos thunders and crashes to the ground--that indeed is to come
close to immortality, to plunge shuddering through infinite abysses, and
to look, if only for a moment, upon eternal light.



The life of Sir Thomas Browne does not afford much scope for the
biographer. Everyone knows that Browne was a physician who lived at
Norwich in the seventeenth century; and, so far as regards what one must
call, for want of a better term, his 'life,' that is a sufficient
summary of all there is to know. It is obvious that, with such scanty
and unexciting materials, no biographer can say very much about what Sir
Thomas Browne did; it is quite easy, however, to expatiate about what he
wrote. He dug deeply into so many subjects, he touched lightly upon so
many more, that his works offer innumerable openings for those
half-conversational digressions and excursions of which perhaps the
pleasantest kind of criticism is composed.

Mr. Gosse, in his volume on Sir Thomas Browne in the 'English Men of
Letters' Series, has evidently taken this view of his subject. He has
not attempted to treat it with any great profundity or elaboration; he
has simply gone 'about it and about.' The result is a book so full of
entertainment, of discrimination, of quiet humour, and of literary tact,
that no reader could have the heart to bring up against it the
obvious--though surely irrelevant--truth, that the general impression
which it leaves upon the mind is in the nature of a composite
presentment, in which the features of Sir Thomas have become somehow
indissolubly blended with those of his biographer. It would be rash
indeed to attempt to improve upon Mr. Gosse's example; after his
luminous and suggestive chapters on Browne's life at Norwich, on the
_Vulgar Errors_, and on the self-revelations in the _Religio Medici_,
there seems to be no room for further comment. One can only admire in
silence, and hand on the volume to one's neighbour.

There is, however, one side of Browne's work upon which it may be worth
while to dwell at somewhat greater length. Mr. Gosse, who has so much to
say on such a variety of topics, has unfortunately limited to a very
small number of pages his considerations upon what is, after all, the
most important thing about the author of _Urn Burial_ and _The Garden of
Cyrus_--his style. Mr. Gosse himself confesses that it is chiefly as a
master of literary form that Browne deserves to be remembered. Why then
does he tell us so little about his literary form, and so much about his
family, and his religion, and his scientific opinions, and his porridge,
and who fished up the _murex_?

Nor is it only owing to its inadequacy that Mr. Gosse's treatment of
Browne as an artist in language is the least satisfactory part of his
book: for it is difficult not to think that upon this crucial point Mr.
Gosse has for once been deserted by his sympathy and his acumen. In
spite of what appears to be a genuine delight in Browne's most splendid
and characteristic passages, Mr. Gosse cannot help protesting somewhat
acrimoniously against that very method of writing whose effects he is so
ready to admire. In practice, he approves; in theory, he condemns. He
ranks the _Hydriotaphia_ among the gems of English literature; and the
prose style of which it is the consummate expression he denounces as
fundamentally wrong. The contradiction is obvious; but there can be
little doubt that, though Browne has, as it were, extorted a personal
homage, Mr. Gosse's real sympathies lie on the other side. His remarks
upon Browne's effect upon eighteenth-century prose show clearly enough
the true bent of his opinions; and they show, too, how completely
misleading a preconceived theory may be.

The study of Sir Thomas Browne, Mr. Gosse says, 'encouraged Johnson, and
with him a whole school of rhetorical writers in the eighteenth century,
to avoid circumlocution by the invention of superfluous words, learned
but pedantic, in which darkness was concentrated without being
dispelled.' Such is Mr. Gosse's account of the influence of Browne and
Johnson upon the later eighteenth-century writers of prose. But to
dismiss Johnson's influence as something altogether deplorable, is
surely to misunderstand the whole drift of the great revolution which he
brought about in English letters. The characteristics of the
pre-Johnsonian prose style--the style which Dryden first established and
Swift brought to perfection--are obvious enough. Its advantages are
those of clarity and force; but its faults, which, of course, are
unimportant in the work of a great master, become glaring in that of the
second-rate practitioner. The prose of Locke, for instance, or of Bishop
Butler, suffers, in spite of its clarity and vigour, from grave defects.
It is very flat and very loose; it has no formal beauty, no elegance, no
balance, no trace of the deliberation of art. Johnson, there can be no
doubt, determined to remedy these evils by giving a new mould to the
texture of English prose; and he went back for a model to Sir Thomas
Browne. Now, as Mr. Gosse himself observes, Browne stands out in a
remarkable way from among the great mass of his contemporaries and
predecessors, by virtue of his highly developed artistic consciousness.
He was, says Mr. Gosse, 'never carried away. His effects are closely
studied, they are the result of forethought and anxious contrivance';
and no one can doubt the truth or the significance of this dictum who
compares, let us say, the last paragraphs of _The Garden of Cyrus_ with
any page in _The Anatomy of Melancholy_. The peculiarities of Browne's
style--the studied pomp of its latinisms, its wealth of allusion, its
tendency towards sonorous antithesis--culminated in his last, though not
his best, work, the _Christian Morals_, which almost reads like an
elaborate and magnificent parody of the Book of Proverbs. With the
_Christian Morals_ to guide him, Dr. Johnson set about the
transformation of the prose of his time. He decorated, he pruned, he
balanced; he hung garlands, he draped robes; and he ended by converting
the Doric order of Swift into the Corinthian order of Gibbon. Is it
quite just to describe this process as one by which 'a whole school of
rhetorical writers' was encouraged 'to avoid circumlocution' by the
invention 'of superfluous words,' when it was this very process that
gave us the peculiar savour of polished ease which characterises nearly
all the important prose of the last half of the eighteenth century--that
of Johnson himself, of Hume, of Reynolds, of Horace Walpole--which can
be traced even in Burke, and which fills the pages of Gibbon? It is,
indeed, a curious reflection, but one which is amply justified by the
facts, that the _Decline and Fall_ could not have been precisely what it
is, had Sir Thomas Browne never written the _Christian Morals_.

That Johnson and his disciples had no inkling of the inner spirit of the
writer to whose outward form they owed so much, has been pointed out by
Mr. Gosse, who adds that Browne's 'genuine merits were rediscovered and
asserted by Coleridge and Lamb.' But we have already observed that Mr.
Gosse's own assertion of these merits lies a little open to question.
His view seems to be, in fact, the precise antithesis of Dr. Johnson's;
he swallows the spirit of Browne's writing, and strains at the form.
Browne, he says, was 'seduced by a certain obscure romance in the
terminology of late Latin writers,' he used 'adjectives of classical
extraction, which are neither necessary nor natural,' he forgot that it
is better for a writer 'to consult women and people who have not
studied, than those who are too learnedly oppressed by a knowledge of
Latin and Greek.' He should not have said 'oneiro-criticism,' when he
meant the interpretation of dreams, nor 'omneity' instead of 'oneness';
and he had 'no excuse for writing about the "pensile" gardens of
Babylon, when all that is required is expressed by "hanging."' Attacks
of this kind--attacks upon the elaboration and classicism of Browne's
style--are difficult to reply to, because they must seem, to anyone who
holds a contrary opinion, to betray such a total lack of sympathy with
the subject as to make argument all but impossible. To the true Browne
enthusiast, indeed, there is something almost shocking about the state
of mind which would exchange 'pensile' for 'hanging,' and 'asperous'
for 'rough,' and would do away with 'digladiation' and 'quodlibetically'
altogether. The truth is, that there is a great gulf fixed between those
who naturally dislike the ornate, and those who naturally love it. There
is no remedy; and to attempt to ignore this fact only emphasises it the
more. Anyone who is jarred by the expression 'prodigal blazes' had
better immediately shut up Sir Thomas Browne. The critic who admits the
jar, but continues to appreciate, must present, to the true enthusiast,
a spectacle of curious self-contradiction.

If once the ornate style be allowed as a legitimate form of art, no
attack such as Mr. Gosse makes on Browne's latinisms can possibly be
valid. For it is surely an error to judge and to condemn the latinisms
without reference to the whole style of which they form a necessary
part. Mr. Gosse, it is true, inclines to treat them as if they were a
mere excrescence which could be cut off without difficulty, and might
never have existed if Browne's views upon the English language had been
a little different. Browne, he says, 'had come to the conclusion that
classic words were the only legitimate ones, the only ones which
interpreted with elegance the thoughts of a sensitive and cultivated
man, and that the rest were barbarous.' We are to suppose, then, that if
he had happened to hold the opinion that Saxon words were the only
legitimate ones, the _Hydriotaphia_ would have been as free from words
of classical derivation as the sermons of Latimer. A very little
reflection and inquiry will suffice to show how completely mistaken this
view really is. In the first place, the theory that Browne considered
all unclassical words 'barbarous' and unfit to interpret his thoughts,
is clearly untenable, owing to the obvious fact that his writings are
full of instances of the deliberate use of such words. So much is this
the case, that Pater declares that a dissertation upon style might be
written to illustrate Browne's use of the words 'thin' and 'dark.' A
striking phrase from the _Christian Morals_ will suffice to show the
deliberation with which Browne sometimes employed the latter word:--'the
areopagy and dark tribunal of our hearts.' If Browne had thought the
Saxon epithet 'barbarous,' why should he have gone out of his way to use
it, when 'mysterious' or 'secret' would have expressed his meaning? The
truth is clear enough. Browne saw that 'dark' was the one word which
would give, better than any other, the precise impression of mystery and
secrecy which he intended to produce; and so he used it. He did not
choose his words according to rule, but according to the effect which he
wished them to have. Thus, when he wished to suggest an extreme contrast
between simplicity and pomp, we find him using Saxon words in direct
antithesis to classical ones. In the last sentence of _Urn Burial_, we
are told that the true believer, when he is to be buried, is 'as content
with six foot as the Moles of Adrianus.' How could Browne have produced
the remarkable sense of contrast which this short phrase conveys, if his
vocabulary had been limited, in accordance with a linguistic theory, to
words of a single stock?

There is, of course, no doubt that Browne's vocabulary is
extraordinarily classical. Why is this? The reason is not far to seek.
In his most characteristic moments he was almost entirely occupied with
thoughts and emotions which can, owing to their very nature, only be
expressed in Latinistic language. The state of mind which he wished to
produce in his readers was nearly always a complicated one: they were to
be impressed and elevated by a multiplicity of suggestions and a sense
of mystery and awe. 'Let thy thoughts,' he says himself, 'be of things
which have not entered into the hearts of beasts: think of things long
past, and long to come: acquaint thyself with the choragium of the
stars, and consider the vast expanse beyond them. Let intellectual tubes
give thee a glance of things which visive organs reach not. Have a
glimpse of incomprehensibles; and thoughts of things, which thoughts but
tenderly touch.' Browne had, in fact, as Dr. Johnson puts it, 'uncommon
sentiments'; and how was he to express them unless by a language of
pomp, of allusion, and of elaborate rhythm? Not only is the Saxon form
of speech devoid of splendour and suggestiveness; its simplicity is
still further emphasised by a spondaic rhythm which seems to produce (by
some mysterious rhythmic law) an atmosphere of ordinary life, where,
though the pathetic may be present, there is no place for the complex or
the remote. To understand how unsuitable such conditions would be for
the highly subtle and rarefied art of Sir Thomas Browne, it is only
necessary to compare one of his periods with a typical passage of Saxon

Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same
down at Doctor Ridley's feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this
manner: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We
shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as
I trust shall never be put out.'

Nothing could be better adapted to the meaning and sentiment of this
passage than the limpid, even flow of its rhythm. But who could conceive
of such a rhythm being ever applicable to the meaning and sentiment of
these sentences from the _Hydriotaphia_?

To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for,
and whose duration we cannot hope without injury to our
expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to
our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained in this setting
part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations;
and, being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity,
are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and
cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which
maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment.

Here the long, rolling, almost turgid clauses, with their enormous Latin
substantives, seem to carry the reader forward through an immense
succession of ages, until at last, with a sudden change of the rhythm,
the whole of recorded time crumbles and vanishes before his eyes. The
entire effect depends upon the employment of a rhythmical complexity and
subtlety which is utterly alien to Saxon prose. It would be foolish to
claim a superiority for either of the two styles; it would be still
more foolish to suppose that the effects of one might be produced by
means of the other.

Wealth of rhythmical elaboration was not the only benefit which a highly
Latinised vocabulary conferred on Browne. Without it, he would never
have been able to achieve those splendid strokes of stylistic _bravura_,
which were evidently so dear to his nature, and occur so constantly in
his finest passages. The precise quality cannot be easily described, but
is impossible to mistake; and the pleasure which it produces seems to be
curiously analogous to that given by a piece of magnificent brushwork in
a Rubens or a Velasquez. Browne's 'brushwork' is certainly unequalled in
English literature, except by the very greatest masters of sophisticated
art, such as Pope and Shakespeare; it is the inspiration of sheer
technique. Such expressions as: 'to subsist in bones and be but
pyramidally extant'--'sad and sepulchral pitchers which have no joyful
voices'--'predicament of chimaeras'--'the irregularities of vain glory,
and wild enormities of ancient magnanimity'--are examples of this
consummate mastery of language, examples which, with a multitude of
others, singly deserve whole hours of delicious gustation, whole days of
absorbed and exquisite worship. It is pleasant to start out for a long
walk with such a splendid phrase upon one's lips as: 'According to the
ordainer of order and mystical mathematicks of the City of Heaven,' to
go for miles and miles with the marvellous syllables still rich upon the
inward ear, and to return home with them in triumph. It is then that one
begins to understand how mistaken it was of Sir Thomas Browne not to
have written in simple, short, straightforward Saxon English.

One other function performed by Browne's latinisms must be mentioned,
because it is closely connected with the most essential and peculiar of
the qualities which distinguish his method of writing. Certain classical
words, partly owing to their allusiveness, partly owing to their sound,
possess a remarkable flavour which is totally absent from those of Saxon
derivation. Such a word, for instance, as 'pyramidally,' gives one at
once an immediate sense of something mysterious, something
extraordinary, and, at the same time, something almost grotesque. And
this subtle blending of mystery and queerness characterises not only
Browne's choice of words, but his choice of feelings and of thoughts.
The grotesque side of his art, indeed, was apparently all that was
visible to the critics of a few generations back, who admired him simply
and solely for what they called his 'quaintness'; while Mr. Gosse has
flown to the opposite extreme, and will not allow Browne any sense of
humour at all. The confusion no doubt arises merely from a difference in
the point of view. Mr. Gosse, regarding Browne's most important and
general effects, rightly fails to detect anything funny in them. The
Early Victorians, however, missed the broad outlines, and were
altogether taken up with the obvious grotesqueness of the details. When
they found Browne asserting that 'Cato seemed to dote upon Cabbage,' or
embroidering an entire paragraph upon the subject of 'Pyrrhus his Toe,'
they could not help smiling; and surely they were quite right. Browne,
like an impressionist painter, produced his pictures by means of a
multitude of details which, if one looks at them in themselves, are
discordant, and extraordinary, and even absurd.

There can be little doubt that this strongly marked taste for curious
details was one of the symptoms of the scientific bent of his mind. For
Browne was scientific just up to the point where the examination of
detail ends, and its coordination begins. He knew little or nothing of
general laws; but his interest in isolated phenomena was intense. And
the more singular the phenomena, the more he was attracted. He was
always ready to begin some strange inquiry. He cannot help wondering:
'Whether great-ear'd persons have short necks, long feet, and loose
bellies?' 'Marcus Antoninus Philosophus,' he notes in his commonplace
book, 'wanted not the advice of the best physicians; yet how warrantable
his practice was, to take his repast in the night, and scarce anything
but treacle in the day, may admit of great doubt.' To inquire thus is,
perhaps, to inquire too curiously; yet such inquiries are the stuff of
which great scientific theories are made. Browne, however, used his love
of details for another purpose: he co-ordinated them, not into a
scientific theory, but into a work of art. His method was one which, to
be successful, demanded a self-confidence, an imagination, and a
technical power, possessed by only the very greatest artists. Everyone
knows Pascal's overwhelming sentence:--'Le silence eternel de ces
espaces infinis m'effraie.' It is overwhelming, obviously and
immediately; it, so to speak, knocks one down. Browne's ultimate object
was to create some such tremendous effect as that, by no knock-down
blow, but by a multitude of delicate, subtle, and suggestive touches, by
an elaborate evocation of memories and half-hidden things, by a
mysterious combination of pompous images and odd unexpected trifles
drawn together from the ends of the earth and the four quarters of
heaven. His success gives him a place beside Webster and Blake, on one
of the very highest peaks of Parnassus. And, if not the highest of all,
Browne's peak is--or so at least it seems from the plains below--more
difficult of access than some which are no less exalted. The road skirts
the precipice the whole way. If one fails in the style of Pascal, one is
merely flat; if one fails in the style of Browne, one is ridiculous. He
who plays with the void, who dallies with eternity, who leaps from star
to star, is in danger at every moment of being swept into utter limbo,
and tossed forever in the Paradise of Fools.

Browne produced his greatest work late in life; for there is nothing in
the _Religio Medici_ which reaches the same level of excellence as the
last paragraphs of _The Garden of Cyrus_ and the last chapter of _Urn
Burial_. A long and calm experience of life seems, indeed, to be the
background from which his most amazing sentences start out into being.
His strangest phantasies are rich with the spoils of the real world. His
art matured with himself; and who but the most expert of artists could
have produced this perfect sentence in _The Garden of Cyrus_, so well
known, and yet so impossible not to quote?

Nor will the sweetest delight of gardens afford much comfort in
sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with
delectable odours; and though in the bed of Cleopatra, can hardly
with any delight raise up the ghost of a rose.

This is Browne in his most exquisite mood. For his most characteristic,
one must go to the concluding pages of _Urn Burial_, where, from the
astonishing sentence beginning--'Meanwhile Epicurus lies deep in Dante's
hell'--to the end of the book, the very quintessence of his work is to
be found. The subject--mortality in its most generalised aspect--has
brought out Browne's highest powers; and all the resources of his
art--elaboration of rhythm, brilliance of phrase, wealth and variety of
suggestion, pomp and splendour of imagination--are accumulated in every
paragraph. To crown all, he has scattered through these few pages a
multitude of proper names, most of them gorgeous in sound, and each of
them carrying its own strange freight of reminiscences and allusions
from the unknown depths of the past. As one reads, an extraordinary
procession of persons seems to pass before one's eyes--Moses,
Archimedes, Achilles, Job, Hector and Charles the Fifth, Cardan and
Alaric, Gordianus, and Pilate, and Homer, and Cambyses, and the
Canaanitish woman. Among them, one visionary figure flits with a
mysterious pre-eminence, flickering over every page, like a familiar and
ghostly flame. It is Methuselah; and, in Browne's scheme, the remote,
almost infinite, and almost ridiculous patriarch is--who can doubt?--the
only possible centre and symbol of all the rest. But it would be vain to
dwell further upon this wonderful and famous chapter, except to note the
extraordinary sublimity and serenity of its general tone. Browne never
states in so many words what his own feelings towards the universe
actually are. He speaks of everything but that; and yet, with triumphant
art, he manages to convey into our minds an indelible impression of the
vast and comprehensive grandeur of his soul.

It is interesting--or at least amusing--to consider what are the most
appropriate places in which different authors should be read. Pope is
doubtless at his best in the midst of a formal garden, Herrick in an
orchard, and Shelley in a boat at sea. Sir Thomas Browne demands,
perhaps, a more exotic atmosphere. One could read him floating down the
Euphrates, or past the shores of Arabia; and it would be pleasant to
open the _Vulgar Errors_ in Constantinople, or to get by heart a chapter
of the _Christian Morals_ between the paws of a Sphinx. In England, the
most fitting background for his strange ornament must surely be some
habitation consecrated to learning, some University which still smells
of antiquity and has learnt the habit of repose. The present writer, at
any rate, can bear witness to the splendid echo of Browne's syllables
amid learned and ancient walls; for he has known, he believes, few
happier moments than those in which he has rolled the periods of the
_Hydriotaphia_ out to the darkness and the nightingales through the
studious cloisters of Trinity.

But, after all, who can doubt that it is at Oxford that Browne himself
would choose to linger? May we not guess that he breathed in there, in
his boyhood, some part of that mysterious and charming spirit which
pervades his words? For one traces something of him, often enough, in
the old gardens, and down the hidden streets; one has heard his footstep
beside the quiet waters of Magdalen; and his smile still hovers amid
that strange company of faces which guard, with such a large passivity,
the circumference of the Sheldonian.



The whole of the modern criticism of Shakespeare has been fundamentally
affected by one important fact. The chronological order of the plays,
for so long the object of the vaguest speculation, of random guesses, or
at best of isolated 'points,' has been now discovered and reduced to a
coherent law. It is no longer possible to suppose that _The Tempest_ was
written before _Romeo and 'Juliet_; that _Henry VI._ was produced in
succession to _Henry V._; or that _Antony and Cleopatra_ followed close
upon the heels of _Julius Caesar_. Such theories were sent to limbo for
ever, when a study of those plays of whose date we have external
evidence revealed the fact that, as Shakespeare's life advanced, a
corresponding development took place in the metrical structure of his
verse. The establishment of metrical tests, by which the approximate
position and date of any play can be readily ascertained, at once
followed; chaos gave way to order; and, for the first time, critics
became able to judge, not only of the individual works, but of the whole
succession of the works of Shakespeare.

Upon this firm foundation modern writers have been only too eager to
build. It was apparent that the Plays, arranged in chronological order,
showed something more than a mere development in the technique of
verse--a development, that is to say, in the general treatment of
characters and subjects, and in the sort of feelings which those
characters and subjects were intended to arouse; and from this it was
easy to draw conclusions as to the development of the mind of
Shakespeare itself. Such conclusions have, in fact, been constantly
drawn. But it must be noted that they all rest upon the tacit
assumption, that the character of any given drama is, in fact, a true
index to the state of mind of the dramatist composing it. The validity
of this assumption has never been proved; it has never been shown, for
instance, why we should suppose a writer of farces to be habitually
merry; or whether we are really justified in concluding, from the fact
that Shakespeare wrote nothing but tragedies for six years, that, during
that period, more than at any other, he was deeply absorbed in the awful
problems of human existence. It is not, however, the purpose of this
essay to consider the question of what are the relations between the
artist and his art; for it will assume the truth of the generally
accepted view, that the character of the one can be inferred from that
of the other. What it will attempt to discuss is whether, upon this
hypothesis, the most important part of the ordinary doctrine of
Shakespeare's mental development is justifiable.

What, then, is the ordinary doctrine? Dr. Furnivall states it as

Shakespeare's course is thus shown to have run from the amorousness
and fun of youth, through the strong patriotism of early manhood,
to the wrestlings with the dark problems that beset the man of
middle age, to the gloom which weighed on Shakespeare (as on so
many men) in later life, when, though outwardly successful, the
world seemed all against him, and his mind dwelt with sympathy on
scenes of faithlessness of friends, treachery of relations and
subjects, ingratitude of children, scorn of his kind; till at last,
in his Stratford home again, peace came to him, Miranda and Perdita
in their lovely freshness and charm greeted him, and he was laid by
his quiet Avon side.

And the same writer goes on to quote with approval Professor Dowden's

likening of Shakespeare to a ship, beaten and storm-tossed, but yet
entering harbour with sails full-set, to anchor in peace.

Such, in fact, is the general opinion of modern writers upon
Shakespeare; after a happy youth and a gloomy middle age he reached at
last--it is the universal opinion--a state of quiet serenity in which he
died. Professor Dowden's book on 'Shakespeare's Mind and Art' gives the
most popular expression to this view, a view which is also held by Mr.
Ten Brink, by Sir I. Gollancz, and, to a great extent, by Dr. Brandes.
Professor Dowden, indeed, has gone so far as to label this final period
with the appellation of 'On the Heights,' in opposition to the preceding
one, which, he says, was passed 'In the Depths.' Sir Sidney Lee, too,
seems to find, in the Plays at least, if not in Shakespeare's mind, the
orthodox succession of gaiety, of tragedy, and of the serenity of
meditative romance.

Now it is clear that the most important part of this version of
Shakespeare's mental history is the end of it. That he did eventually
attain to a state of calm content, that he did, in fact, die happy--it
is this that gives colour and interest to the whole theory. For some
reason or another, the end of a man's life seems naturally to afford the
light by which the rest of it should be read; last thoughts do appear in
some strange way to be really best and truest; and this is particularly
the case when they fit in nicely with the rest of the story, and are,
perhaps, just what one likes to think oneself. If it be true that
Shakespeare, to quote Professor Dowden, 'did at last attain to the
serene self-possession which he had sought with such persistent effort';
that, in the words of Dr. Furnivall, 'forgiven and forgiving, full of
the highest wisdom and peace, at one with family and friends and foes,
in harmony with Avon's flow and Stratford's level meads, Shakespeare
closed his life on earth'--we have obtained a piece of knowledge which
is both interesting and pleasant. But if it be not true, if, on the
contrary, it can be shown that something very different was actually the
case, then will it not follow that we must not only reverse our judgment
as to this particular point, but also readjust our view of the whole
drift and bearing of Shakespeare's 'inner life'?

The group of works which has given rise to this theory of ultimate
serenity was probably entirely composed after Shakespeare's final
retirement from London, and his establishment at New Place. It consists
of three plays--_Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale_, and _The Tempest_--and
three fragments--the Shakespearean parts of _Pericles, Henry VIII._,
and _The Two Noble Kinsmen_. All these plays and portions of plays form
a distinct group; they resemble each other in a multitude of ways, and
they differ in a multitude of ways from nearly all Shakespeare's
previous work.

One other complete play, however, and one other fragment, do resemble in
some degree these works of the final period; for, immediately preceding
them in date, they show clear traces of the beginnings of the new
method, and they are themselves curiously different from the plays they
immediately succeed--that great series of tragedies which began with
_Hamlet_ in 1601 and ended in 1608 with _Antony and Cleopatra_. In the
latter year, indeed, Shakespeare's entire method underwent an
astonishing change. For six years he had been persistently occupied with
a kind of writing which he had himself not only invented but brought to
the highest point of excellence--the tragedy of character. Every one of
his masterpieces has for its theme the action of tragic situation upon
character; and, without those stupendous creations in character, his
greatest tragedies would obviously have lost the precise thing that has
made them what they are. Yet, after _Antony and Cleopatra_ Shakespeare
deliberately turned his back upon the dramatic methods of all his past
career. There seems no reason why he should not have continued, year
after year, to produce _Othellos, Hamlets_, and _Macbeths_; instead, he
turned over a new leaf, and wrote _Coriolanus_.

_Coriolanus_ is certainly a remarkable, and perhaps an intolerable play:
remarkable, because it shows the sudden first appearance of the
Shakespeare of the final period; intolerable, because it is impossible
to forget how much better it might have been. The subject is thick with
situations; the conflicts of patriotism and pride, the effects of sudden
disgrace following upon the very height of fortune, the struggles
between family affection on the one hand and every interest of revenge
and egotism on the other--these would have made a tragic and tremendous
setting for some character worthy to rank with Shakespeare's best. But
it pleased him to ignore completely all these opportunities; and, in the
play he has given us, the situations, mutilated and degraded, serve
merely as miserable props for the gorgeous clothing of his rhetoric. For
rhetoric, enormously magnificent and extraordinarily elaborate, is the
beginning and the middle and the end of _Coriolanus_. The hero is not a
human being at all; he is the statue of a demi-god cast in bronze, which
roars its perfect periods, to use a phrase of Sir Walter Raleigh's,
through a melodious megaphone. The vigour of the presentment is, it is
true, amazing; but it is a presentment of decoration, not of life. So
far and so quickly had Shakespeare already wandered from the subtleties
of _Cleopatra_. The transformation is indeed astonishing; one wonders,
as one beholds it, what will happen next.

At about the same time, some of the scenes in _Timon of Athens_ were in
all probability composed: scenes which resemble _Coriolanus_ in their
lack of characterisation and abundance of rhetoric, but differ from it
in the peculiar grossness of their tone. For sheer virulence of
foul-mouthed abuse, some of the speeches in Timon are probably
unsurpassed in any literature; an outraged drayman would speak so, if
draymen were in the habit of talking poetry. From this whirlwind of
furious ejaculation, this splendid storm of nastiness, Shakespeare, we
are confidently told, passed in a moment to tranquillity and joy, to
blue skies, to young ladies, and to general forgiveness.

From 1604 to 1610 [says Professor Dowden] a show of tragic figures,
like the kings who passed before Macbeth, filled the vision of
Shakespeare; until at last the desperate image of Timon rose before
him; when, as though unable to endure or to conceive a more
lamentable ruin of man, he turned for relief to the pastoral loves
of Prince Florizel and Perdita; and as soon as the tone of his mind
was restored, gave expression to its ultimate mood of grave
serenity in _The Tempest_, and so ended.

This is a pretty picture, but is it true? It may, indeed, be admitted at
once that Prince Florizel and Perdita are charming creatures, that
Prospero is 'grave,' and that Hermione is more or less 'serene'; but why
is it that, in our consideration of the later plays, the whole of our
attention must always be fixed upon these particular characters? Modern
critics, in their eagerness to appraise everything that is beautiful and
good at its proper value, seem to have entirely forgotten that there is
another side to the medal; and they have omitted to point out that these
plays contain a series of portraits of peculiar infamy, whose wickedness
finds expression in language of extraordinary force. Coming fresh from
their pages to the pages of _Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale_, and _The
Tempest_, one is astonished and perplexed. How is it possible to fit
into their scheme of roses and maidens that 'Italian fiend' the 'yellow
Iachimo,' or Cloten, that 'thing too bad for bad report,' or the 'crafty
devil,' his mother, or Leontes, or Caliban, or Trinculo? To omit these
figures of discord and evil from our consideration, to banish them
comfortably to the background of the stage, while Autolycus and Miranda
dance before the footlights, is surely a fallacy in proportion; for the
presentment of the one group of persons is every whit as distinct and
vigorous as that of the other. Nowhere, indeed, is Shakespeare's
violence of expression more constantly displayed than in the 'gentle
utterances' of his last period; it is here that one finds Paulina, in a
torrent of indignation as far from 'grave serenity' as it is from
'pastoral love,' exclaiming to Leontes:

What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling
In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny,
Together working with thy jealousies,
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine, O! think what they have done,
And then run mad indeed, stark mad; for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray'dst Polixenes, 'twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful; nor was't much
Thou would'st have poison'd good Camillo's honour,
To have him kill a king; poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by; whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done't.
Nor is't directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemished his gracious dam.

Nowhere are the poet's metaphors more nakedly material; nowhere does he
verge more often upon a sort of brutality of phrase, a cruel coarseness.
Iachimo tells us how:

The cloyed will,
That satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub
Both filled and running, ravening first the lamb,
Longs after for the garbage.

and talks of:

an eye
Base and unlustrous as the smoky light
That's fed with stinking tallow.

'The south fog rot him!' Cloten bursts out to Imogen, cursing her
husband in an access of hideous rage.

What traces do such passages as these show of 'serene self-possession,'
of 'the highest wisdom and peace,' or of 'meditative romance'? English
critics, overcome by the idea of Shakespeare's ultimate tranquillity,
have generally denied to him the authorship of the brothel scenes in
_Pericles_ but these scenes are entirely of a piece with the grossnesses
of _The Winter's Tale_ and _Cymbeline_.

Is there no way for men to be, but women
Must be half-workers?

says Posthumus when he hears of Imogen's guilt.

We are all bastards;
And that most venerable man, which I
Did call my father, was I know not where
When I was stamped. Some coiner with his tools
Made me a counterfeit; yet my mother seemed
The Dian of that time; so doth my wife
The nonpareil of this--O vengeance, vengeance!
Me of my lawful pleasure she restrained
And prayed me, oft, forbearance; did it with
A pudency so rosy, the sweet view on't
Might well have warmed old Saturn, that I thought her
As chaste as unsunned snow--O, all the devils!--
This yellow Iachimo, in an hour,--was't not?
Or less,--at first: perchance he spoke not; but,
Like a full-acorned boar, a German one,
Cried, oh! and mounted: found no opposition
But what he looked for should oppose, and she
Should from encounter guard.

And Leontes, in a similar situation, expresses himself in images no less
to the point.

There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
And his pond fished by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: nay, there's comfort in't,
Whiles other men have gates, and those gates opened,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for't there's none;
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where 'tis predominant; and 'tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north and south: be it concluded,
No barricade for a belly, know't;
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage: many thousand on's
Have the disease, and feel't not.

It is really a little difficult, in the face of such passages, to agree
with Professor Dowden's dictum: 'In these latest plays the beautiful
pathetic light is always present.'

But how has it happened that the judgment of so many critics has been so
completely led astray? Charm and gravity, and even serenity, are to be
found in many other plays of Shakespeare. Ophelia is charming, Brutus is
grave, Cordelia is serene; are we then to suppose that _Hamlet_, and
_Julius Caesar_, and _King Lear_ give expression to the same mood of
high tranquillity which is betrayed by _Cymbeline, The Tempest_, and
_The Winter's Tale_? 'Certainly not,' reply the orthodox writers, 'for
you must distinguish. The plays of the last period are not tragedies;
they all end happily'--'in scenes,' says Sir I. Gollancz, 'of
forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.' Virtue, in fact, is not only
virtuous, it is triumphant; what would you more?

But to this it may be retorted, that, in the case of one of
Shakespeare's plays, even the final vision of virtue and beauty
triumphant over ugliness and vice fails to dispel a total effect of
horror and of gloom. For, in _Measure for Measure_ Isabella is no whit
less pure and lovely than any Perdita or Miranda, and her success is as
complete; yet who would venture to deny that the atmosphere of _Measure
for Measure_ was more nearly one of despair than of serenity? What is
it, then, that makes the difference? Why should a happy ending seem in
one case futile, and in another satisfactory? Why does it sometimes
matter to us a great deal, and sometimes not at all, whether virtue is
rewarded or not?

The reason, in this case, is not far to seek. _Measure for Measure_ is,
like nearly every play of Shakespeare's before _Coriolanus_, essentially
realistic. The characters are real men and women; and what happens to
them upon the stage has all the effect of what happens to real men and
women in actual life. Their goodness appears to be real goodness, their
wickedness real wickedness; and, if their sufferings are terrible
enough, we regret the fact, even though in the end they triumph, just as
we regret the real sufferings of our friends. But, in the plays of the
final period, all this has changed; we are no longer in the real world,
but in a world of enchantment, of mystery, of wonder, a world of
shifting visions, a world of hopeless anachronisms, a world in which
anything may happen next. The pretences of reality are indeed usually
preserved, but only the pretences. Cymbeline is supposed to be the king
of a real Britain, and the real Augustus is supposed to demand tribute
of him; but these are the reasons which his queen, in solemn audience
with the Roman ambassador, urges to induce her husband to declare for

Remember, sir, my liege,
The Kings your ancestors, together with
The natural bravery of your isle, which stands
As Neptune's park, ribbed and paled in
With rocks unscaleable and roaring waters,
With sands that will not bear your enemies' boats,
But suck them up to the topmast. A kind of conquest
Caesar made here; but made not here his brag
Of 'Came, and saw, and overcame'; with shame--
The first that ever touched him--he was carried
From off our coast, twice beaten; and his shipping--
Poor ignorant baubles!--on our terrible seas,
Like egg-shells moved upon the surges, crack'd
As easily 'gainst our rocks; for joy whereof
The famed Cassibelan, who was once at point--
O giglot fortune!--to master Caesar's sword,
Made Lud's town with rejoicing fires bright
And Britons strut with courage.

It comes with something of a shock to remember that this medley of
poetry, bombast, and myth will eventually reach the ears of no other
person than the Octavius of _Antony and Cleopatra_; and the contrast is
the more remarkable when one recalls the brilliant scene of negotiation
and diplomacy in the latter play, which passes between Octavius,
Maecenas, and Agrippa on the one side, and Antony and Enobarbus on the
other, and results in the reconciliation of the rivals and the marriage
of Antony and Octavia.

Thus strangely remote is the world of Shakespeare's latest period; and
it is peopled, this universe of his invention, with beings equally
unreal, with creatures either more or less than human, with fortunate
princes and wicked step-mothers, with goblins and spirits, with lost
princesses and insufferable kings. And of course, in this sort of fairy
land, it is an essential condition that everything shall end well; the
prince and princess are bound to marry and live happily ever afterwards,
or the whole story is unnecessary and absurd; and the villains and the
goblins must naturally repent and be forgiven. But it is clear that such
happy endings, such conventional closes to fantastic tales, cannot be
taken as evidences of serene tranquillity on the part of their maker;
they merely show that he knew, as well as anyone else, how such stories
ought to end.

Yet there can be no doubt that it is this combination of charming
heroines and happy endings which has blinded the eyes of modern critics
to everything else. Iachimo, and Leontes, and even Caliban, are to be
left out of account, as if, because in the end they repent or are
forgiven, words need not be wasted on such reconciled and harmonious
fiends. It is true they are grotesque; it is true that such personages
never could have lived; but who, one would like to know, has ever met
Miranda, or become acquainted with Prince Florizel of Bohemia? In this
land of faery, is it right to neglect the goblins? In this world of
dreams, are we justified in ignoring the nightmares? Is it fair to say
that Shakespeare was in 'a gentle, lofty spirit, a peaceful, tranquil
mood,' when he was creating the Queen in _Cymbeline_, or writing the
first two acts of _The Winter's Tale_?

Attention has never been sufficiently drawn to one other characteristic
of these plays, though it is touched upon both by Professor Dowden and
Dr. Brandes--the singular carelessness with which great parts of them
were obviously written. Could anything drag more wretchedly than the
_denouement_ of _Cymbeline_? And with what perversity is the great
pastoral scene in _The Winter's Tale_ interspersed with long-winded
intrigues, and disguises, and homilies! For these blemishes are unlike
the blemishes which enrich rather than lessen the beauty of the earlier
plays; they are not, like them, interesting or delightful in themselves;
they are usually merely necessary to explain the action, and they are
sometimes purely irrelevant. One is, it cannot be denied, often bored,
and occasionally irritated, by Polixenes and Camillo and Sebastian and
Gonzalo and Belarius; these personages have not even the life of ghosts;
they are hardly more than speaking names, that give patient utterance to
involution upon involution. What a contrast to the minor characters of
Shakespeare's earlier works!

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that he was getting bored
himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama,
bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams. He is
no longer interested, one often feels, in what happens, or who says
what, so long as he can find place for a faultless lyric, or a new,
unimagined rhythmical effect, or a grand and mystic speech. In this mood
he must have written his share in _The Two Noble Kinsmen_, leaving the
plot and characters to Fletcher to deal with as he pleased, and
reserving to himself only the opportunities for pompous verse. In this
mood he must have broken off half-way through the tedious history of
_Henry VIII_.; and in this mood he must have completed, with all the
resources of his rhetoric, the miserable archaic fragment of _Pericles_.

Is it not thus, then, that we should imagine him in the last years of
his life? Half enchanted by visions of beauty and loveliness, and half
bored to death; on the one side inspired by a soaring fancy to the
singing of ethereal songs, and on the other urged by a general disgust
to burst occasionally through his torpor into bitter and violent speech?
If we are to learn anything of his mind from his last works, it is
surely this.

And such is the conclusion which is particularly forced upon us by a
consideration of the play which is in many ways most typical of
Shakespeare's later work, and the one which critics most consistently
point to as containing the very essence of his final benignity--_The
Tempest_. There can be no doubt that the peculiar characteristics which
distinguish _Cymbeline_ and _The Winter's Tale_ from the dramas of
Shakespeare's prime, are present here in a still greater degree. In _The
Tempest_, unreality has reached its apotheosis. Two of the principal
characters are frankly not human beings at all; and the whole action
passes, through a series of impossible occurrences, in a place which can
only by courtesy be said to exist. The Enchanted Island, indeed,
peopled, for a timeless moment, by this strange fantastic medley of
persons and of things, has been cut adrift for ever from common sense,
and floats, buoyed up by a sea, not of waters, but of poetry. Never did
Shakespeare's magnificence of diction reach more marvellous heights than
in some of the speeches of Prospero, or his lyric art a purer beauty
than in the songs of Ariel; nor is it only in these ethereal regions
that the triumph of his language asserts itself. It finds as splendid a
vent in the curses of Caliban:

All the infection that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him
By inch-meal a disease!

and in the similes of Trinculo:

Yond' same black cloud, yond' huge one, looks like a foul
bombard that would shed his liquor.

The _denouement_ itself, brought about by a preposterous piece of
machinery, and lost in a whirl of rhetoric, is hardly more than a peg
for fine writing.

O, it is monstrous, monstrous!
Methought the billows spoke and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me; and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper; it did bass my trespass.
Therefore my son i' th' ooze is bedded, and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded,
And with him there lie mudded.

And this gorgeous phantasm of a repentance from the mouth of the pale
phantom Alonzo is a fitting climax to the whole fantastic play.

A comparison naturally suggests itself, between what was perhaps the
last of Shakespeare's completed works, and that early drama which first
gave undoubted proof that his imagination had taken wings. The points of
resemblance between _The Tempest_ and _A Midsummer Night's Dream_, their
common atmosphere of romance and magic, the beautiful absurdities of
their intrigues, their studied contrasts of the grotesque with the
delicate, the ethereal with the earthly, the charm of their lyrics, the
_verve_ of their vulgar comedy--these, of course, are obvious enough;
but it is the points of difference which really make the comparison
striking. One thing, at any rate, is certain about the wood near
Athens--it is full of life. The persons that haunt it--though most of
them are hardly more than children, and some of them are fairies, and
all of them are too agreeable to be true--are nevertheless substantial
creatures, whose loves and jokes and quarrels receive our thorough
sympathy; and the air they breathe--the lords and the ladies, no less
than the mechanics and the elves--is instinct with an exquisite
good-humour, which makes us as happy as the night is long. To turn from
Theseus and Titania and Bottom to the Enchanted Island, is to step out
of a country lane into a conservatory. The roses and the dandelions have
vanished before preposterous cactuses, and fascinating orchids too
delicate for the open air; and, in the artificial atmosphere, the gaiety
of youth has been replaced by the disillusionment of middle age.
Prospero is the central figure of _The Tempest_; and it has often been
wildly asserted that he is a portrait of the author--an embodiment of
that spirit of wise benevolence which is supposed to have thrown a halo
over Shakespeare's later life. But, on closer inspection, the portrait
seems to be as imaginary as the original. To an irreverent eye, the
ex-Duke of Milan would perhaps appear as an unpleasantly crusty
personage, in whom a twelve years' monopoly of the conversation had
developed an inordinate propensity for talking. These may have been the
sentiments of Ariel, safe at the Bermoothes; but to state them is to
risk at least ten years in the knotty entrails of an oak, and it is
sufficient to point out, that if Prospero is wise, he is also
self-opinionated and sour, that his gravity is often another name for
pedantic severity, and that there is no character in the play to whom,
during some part of it, he is not studiously disagreeable. But his
Milanese countrymen are not even disagreeable; they are simply dull.
'This is the silliest stuff that e'er I heard,' remarked Hippolyta of
Bottom's amateur theatricals; and one is tempted to wonder what she
would have said to the dreary puns and interminable conspiracies of
Alonzo, and Gonzalo, and Sebastian, and Antonio, and Adrian, and
Francisco, and other shipwrecked noblemen. At all events, there can be
little doubt that they would not have had the entree at Athens.

The depth of the gulf between the two plays is, however, best measured
by a comparison of Caliban and his masters with Bottom and his
companions. The guileless group of English mechanics, whose sports are
interrupted by the mischief of Puck, offers a strange contrast to the
hideous trio of the 'jester,' the 'drunken butler,' and the 'savage and
deformed slave,' whose designs are thwarted by the magic of Ariel.
Bottom was the first of Shakespeare's masterpieces in characterisation,
Caliban was the last: and what a world of bitterness and horror lies
between them! The charming coxcomb it is easy to know and love; but the
'freckled whelp hag-born' moves us mysteriously to pity and to terror,
eluding us for ever in fearful allegories, and strange coils of
disgusted laughter and phantasmagorical tears. The physical vigour of
the presentment is often so remorseless as to shock us. 'I left them,'
says Ariel, speaking of Caliban and his crew:

I' the filthy-mantled pool beyond your cell,
There dancing up to the chins, that the foul lake
O'erstunk their feet.

But at other times the great half-human shape seems to swell like the
'Pan' of Victor Hugo, into something unimaginably vast.

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.

Is this Caliban addressing Prospero, or Job addressing God? It may be
either; but it is not serene, nor benign, nor pastoral, nor 'On the



No one needs an excuse for re-opening the _Lives of the Poets_; the book
is too delightful. It is not, of course, as delightful as Boswell; but
who re-opens Boswell? Boswell is in another category; because, as every
one knows, when he has once been opened he can never be shut. But, on
its different level, the _Lives_ will always hold a firm and comfortable
place in our affections. After Boswell, it is the book which brings us
nearer than any other to the mind of Dr. Johnson. That is its primary
import. We do not go to it for information or for instruction, or that
our tastes may be improved, or that our sympathies may be widened; we go
to it to see what Dr. Johnson thought. Doubtless, during the process, we
are informed and instructed and improved in various ways; but these
benefits are incidental, like the invigoration which comes from a
mountain walk. It is not for the sake of the exercise that we set out;
but for the sake of the view. The view from the mountain which is Samuel
Johnson is so familiar, and has been so constantly analysed and admired,
that further description would be superfluous. It is sufficient for us
to recognise that he is a mountain, and to pay all the reverence that is
due. In one of Emerson's poems a mountain and a squirrel begin to
discuss each other's merits; and the squirrel comes to the triumphant
conclusion that he is very much the better of the two, since he can
crack a nut, while the mountain can do no such thing. The parallel is
close enough between this impudence and the attitude--implied, if not
expressed--of too much modern criticism towards the sort of
qualities--the easy, indolent power, the searching sense of actuality,
the combined command of sanity and paradox, the immovable independence
of thought--which went to the making of the _Lives of the Poets_. There
is only, perhaps, one flaw in the analogy: that, in this particular
instance, the mountain was able to crack nuts a great deal better than
any squirrel that ever lived.

That the _Lives_ continue to be read, admired, and edited, is in itself
a high proof of the eminence of Johnson's intellect; because, as serious
criticism, they can hardly appear to the modern reader to be very far
removed from the futile. Johnson's aesthetic judgments are almost
invariably subtle, or solid, or bold; they have always some good quality
to recommend them--except one: they are never right. That is an
unfortunate deficiency; but no one can doubt that Johnson has made up
for it, and that his wit has saved all. He has managed to be wrong so
cleverly, that nobody minds. When Gray, for instance, points the moral
to his poem on Walpole's cat with a reminder to the fair that all that
glisters is not gold, Johnson remarks that this is 'of no relation to
the purpose; if _what glistered_ had been _gold_, the cat would not have
gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned.'
Could anything be more ingenious, or more neatly put, or more obviously
true? But then, to use Johnson's own phrase, could anything be of less
'relation to the purpose'? It is his wit--and we are speaking, of
course, of wit in its widest sense--that has sanctified Johnson's
peversities and errors, that has embalmed them for ever, and that has
put his book, with all its mass of antiquated doctrine, beyond the reach
of time.

For it is not only in particular details that Johnson's criticism fails
to convince us; his entire point of view is patently out of date. Our
judgments differ from his, not only because our tastes are different,
but because our whole method of judging has changed. Thus, to the
historian of letters, the _Lives_ have a special interest, for they
afford a standing example of a great dead tradition--a tradition whose
characteristics throw more than one curious light upon the literary
feelings and ways which have become habitual to ourselves. Perhaps the
most striking difference between the critical methods of the eighteenth
century and those of the present day, is the difference in sympathy. The
most cursory glance at Johnson's book is enough to show that he judged
authors as if they were criminals in the dock, answerable for every
infraction of the rules and regulations laid down by the laws of art,
which it was his business to administer without fear or favour. Johnson
never inquired what poets were trying to do; he merely aimed at
discovering whether what they had done complied with the canons of
poetry. Such a system of criticism was clearly unexceptionable, upon one
condition--that the critic was quite certain what the canons of poetry
were; but the moment that it became obvious that the only way of
arriving at a conclusion upon the subject was by consulting the poets
themselves, the whole situation completely changed. The judge had to bow
to the prisoner's ruling. In other words, the critic discovered that his
first duty was, not to criticise, but to understand the object of his
criticism. That is the essential distinction between the school of
Johnson and the school of Sainte-Beuve. No one can doubt the greater
width and profundity of the modern method; but it is not without its
drawbacks. An excessive sympathy with one's author brings its own set of
errors: the critic is so happy to explain everything, to show how this
was the product of the age, how that was the product of environment, and
how the other was the inevitable result of inborn qualities and
tastes--that he sometimes forgets to mention whether the work in
question has any value. It is then that one cannot help regretting the
Johnsonian black cap.

But other defects, besides lack of sympathy, mar the _Lives of the
Poets_. One cannot help feeling that no matter how anxious Johnson might
have been to enter into the spirit of some of the greatest of the
masters with whom he was concerned, he never could have succeeded.
Whatever critical method he might have adopted, he still would have
been unable to appreciate certain literary qualities, which, to our
minds at any rate, appear to be the most important of all. His opinion
of _Lycidas_ is well known: he found that poem 'easy, vulgar, and
therefore disgusting.' Of the songs in _Comus_ he remarks: 'they are
harsh in their diction, and not very musical in their numbers.' He could
see nothing in the splendour and elevation of Gray, but 'glittering
accumulations of ungraceful ornaments.' The passionate intensity of
Donne escaped him altogether; he could only wonder how so ingenious a
writer could be so absurd. Such preposterous judgments can only be
accounted for by inherent deficiencies of taste; Johnson had no ear, and
he had no imagination. These are, indeed, grievous disabilities in a
critic. What could have induced such a man, the impatient reader is
sometimes tempted to ask, to set himself up as a judge of poetry?

The answer to the question is to be found in the remarkable change which
has come over our entire conception of poetry, since the time when
Johnson wrote. It has often been stated that the essential
characteristic of that great Romantic Movement which began at the end of
the eighteenth century, was the re-introduction of Nature into the
domain of poetry. Incidentally, it is curious to observe that nearly
every literary revolution has been hailed by its supporters as a return
to Nature. No less than the school of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the
school of Denham, of Dryden, and of Pope, proclaimed itself as the
champion of Nature; and there can be little doubt that Donne
himself--the father of all the conceits and elaborations of the
seventeenth century--wrote under the impulse of a Naturalistic reaction
against the conventional classicism of the Renaissance. Precisely the
same contradictions took place in France. Nature was the watchword of
Malherbe and of Boileau; and it was equally the watchword of Victor
Hugo. To judge by the successive proclamations of poets, the development
of literature offers a singular paradox. The further it goes back, the
more sophisticated it becomes; and it grows more and more natural as it
grows distant from the State of Nature. However this may be, it is at
least certain that the Romantic revival peculiarly deserves to be called
Naturalistic, because it succeeded in bringing into vogue the operations
of the external world--'the Vegetable Universe,' as Blake called it--as
subject-matter for poetry. But it would have done very little, if it had
done nothing more than this. Thomson, in the full meridian of the
eighteenth century, wrote poems upon the subject of Nature; but it would
be foolish to suppose that Wordsworth and Coleridge merely carried on a
fashion which Thomson had begun. Nature, with them, was something more
than a peg for descriptive and didactic verse; it was the manifestation
of the vast and mysterious forces of the world. The publication of _The
Ancient Mariner_ is a landmark in the history of letters, not because of
its descriptions of natural objects, but because it swept into the
poet's vision a whole new universe of infinite and eternal things; it
was the discovery of the Unknown. We are still under the spell of _The
Ancient Mariner_; and poetry to us means, primarily, something which
suggests, by means of words, mysteries and infinitudes. Thus, music and
imagination seem to us the most essential qualities of poetry, because
they are the most potent means by which such suggestions may be invoked.
But the eighteenth century knew none of these things. To Lord
Chesterfield and to Pope, to Prior and to Horace Walpole, there was
nothing at all strange about the world; it was charming, it was
disgusting, it was ridiculous, and it was just what one might have
expected. In such a world, why should poetry, more than anything else,
be mysterious? No! Let it be sensible; that was enough.

The new edition of the _Lives_, which Dr. Birkbeck Hill prepared for
publication before his death, and which has been issued by the Clarendon
Press, with a brief Memoir of the editor, would probably have astonished
Dr. Johnson. But, though the elaborate erudition of the notes and
appendices might have surprised him, it would not have put him to
shame. One can imagine his growling scorn of the scientific
conscientiousness of the present day. And indeed, the three tomes of Dr.
Hill's edition, with all their solid wealth of information, their
voluminous scholarship, their accumulation of vast research, are a
little ponderous and a little ugly; the hand is soon wearied with the
weight, and the eye is soon distracted by the varying types, and the
compressed columns of the notes, and the paragraphic numerals in the
margins. This is the price that must be paid for increased efficiency.
The wise reader will divide his attention between the new business-like
edition and one of the charming old ones, in four comfortable volumes,
where the text is supreme upon the page, and the paragraphs follow one
another at leisurely intervals. The type may be a little faded, and the
paper a little yellow; but what of that? It is all quiet and easy; and,
as one reads, the brilliant sentences seem to come to one, out of the
Past, with the friendliness of a conversation.



[Footnote 1: _Lives of the English Poets_. By Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
Edited by George Birkbeck Hill, D.C.L. Oxford: at the Clarendon Press,


When Napoleon was starting for his campaign in Russia, he ordered the
proof-sheets of a forthcoming book, about which there had been some
disagreement among the censors of the press, to be put into his
carriage, so that he might decide for himself what suppressions it might
be necessary to make. 'Je m'ennuie en route; je lirai ces volumes, et
j'ecrirai de Mayence ce qu'il y aura a faire.' The volumes thus chosen
to beguile the imperial leisure between Paris and Mayence contained the
famous correspondence of Madame du Deffand with Horace Walpole. By the
Emperor's command a few excisions were made, and the book--reprinted
from Miss Berry's original edition which had appeared two years earlier
in England--was published almost at once. The sensation in Paris was
immense; the excitement of the Russian campaign itself was half
forgotten; and for some time the blind old inhabitant of the Convent of
Saint Joseph held her own as a subject of conversation with the burning
of Moscow and the passage of the Berezina. We cannot wonder that this
was so. In the Parisian drawing-room of those days the letters of Madame
du Deffand must have exercised a double fascination--on the one hand as
a mine of gossip about numberless persons and events still familiar to
many a living memory, and, on the other, as a detailed and brilliant
record of a state of society which had already ceased to be actual and
become historical. The letters were hardly more than thirty years old;
but the world which they depicted in all its intensity and all its
singularity--the world of the old regime--had vanished for ever into
limbo. Between it and the eager readers of the First Empire a gulf was
fixed--a narrow gulf, but a deep one, still hot and sulphurous with the
volcanic fires of the Revolution. Since then a century has passed; the
gulf has widened; and the vision which these curious letters show us
to-day seems hardly less remote--from some points of view, indeed, even
more--than that which is revealed to us in the Memoirs of Cellini or the
correspondence of Cicero. Yet the vision is not simply one of a strange
and dead antiquity: there is a personal and human element in the letters
which gives them a more poignant interest, and brings them close to
ourselves. The soul of man is not subject to the rumour of periods; and
these pages, impregnated though they be with the abolished life of the
eighteenth century, can never be out of date.

A fortunate chance enables us now, for the first time, to appreciate
them in their completeness. The late Mrs. Paget Toynbee, while preparing
her edition of Horace Walpole's letters, came upon the trace of the
original manuscripts, which had long lain hidden in obscurity in a
country house in Staffordshire. The publication of these manuscripts in
full, accompanied by notes and indexes in which Mrs. Toynbee's
well-known accuracy, industry, and tact are everywhere conspicuous, is
an event of no small importance to lovers of French literature. A great
mass of new and deeply interesting material makes its appearance. The
original edition produced by Miss Berry in 1810, from which all the
subsequent editions were reprinted with varying degrees of inaccuracy,
turns out to have contained nothing more than a comparatively small
fraction of the whole correspondence; of the 838 letters published by
Mrs. Toynbee, 485 are entirely new, and of the rest only 52 were printed
by Miss Berry in their entirety. Miss Berry's edition was, in fact,
simply a selection, and as a selection it deserves nothing but praise.
It skims the cream of the correspondence; and it faithfully preserves
the main outline of the story which the letters reveal. No doubt that
was enough for the readers of that generation; indeed, even for the more
exacting reader of to-day, there is something a little overwhelming in
the closely packed 2000 pages of Mrs. Toynbee's volumes. Enthusiasm
alone will undertake to grapple with them, but enthusiasm will be
rewarded. In place of the truthful summary of the earlier editions, we
have now the truth itself--the truth in all its subtle gradations, all
its long-drawn-out suspensions, all its intangible and irremediable
obscurities: it is the difference between a clear-cut drawing in
black-and-white and a finished painting in oils. Probably Miss Berry's
edition will still be preferred by the ordinary reader who wishes to
become acquainted with a celebrated figure in French literature; but
Mrs. Toynbee's will always be indispensable for the historical student,
and invaluable for anyone with the leisure, the patience, and the taste
for a detailed and elaborate examination of a singular adventure of the

The Marquise du Deffand was perhaps the most typical representative of
that phase of civilisation which came into existence in Western Europe
during the early years of the eighteenth century, and reached its most
concentrated and characteristic form about the year 1750 in the
drawing-rooms of Paris. She was supremely a woman of her age; but it is
important to notice that her age was the first, and not the second, half
of the eighteenth century: it was the age of the Regent Orleans,
Fontenelle, and the young Voltaire; not that of Rousseau, the
'Encyclopaedia,' and the Patriarch of Ferney. It is true that her
letters to Walpole, to which her fame is mainly due, were written
between 1766 and 1780; but they are the letters of an old woman, and

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