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on others of them, it lies within an editor's province to render all the positive aid that common readers need for making them intelligently and even delightedly at home with the Poet.
Of course this is to be mostly done by furnishing such and so much of comment and citation as may be required for setting the Poet's meaning out clear and free, and by translating strange or unfamiliar words, phrases, and modes of speech into the plain, current language of the day. And here it is of the first importance that an editor have the mind, or the art, not only to see things plainly, but to say a plain thing in a plain way; or, in the happy phrase of old Roger Ascham, to "think as wise men do, and speak as common people do." And the secret of right editing is, to help average readers over the author's difficulties with as little sense as possible of being helped; to lead them up his heights and through his depths with as little sense as possible of being led. To do this, the editor must have such a kind and measure of learning in the field of his labour as can come only by many years of careful study and thought; and he must keep the details and processes of his learning out of sight, putting forth only the last and highest results, the blossom and fragrance, of his learnedness: and the editor who does not know too much in his subject to be showing his knowledge is green and crude, and so far unfitted for his task. Generally speaking, it is doubtless better to withhold a needed explanation than to offer a needless one; because the latter looks as if the editor were intent on thrusting himself between the author and the reader.
Probably we all understand that the best style in writing is where average minds, on reading it, are prompted to say, "Why, almost anybody could have done that "; and a style that is continually making such readers sensible of their ig norance, or of their inferiority to the writer, is not good. For
the proper light of a truly luminous speaker is one that strikes up a kindred light in the hearer; so that the light seems to come, and indeed really does come, from the hearer's own mind. It is much the same in editing a standard author for common use. And for an editor to be all the while, or often, putting average readers in mind how ignorant and inferior. they are, is not the best way, nor the right way, to help them.
But what seems specially needful to be kept in mind is, that when common people read Shakespeare, it is not to learn etymology, or grammar, or philology, or lingual antiquities, or criticism, or the technicalities of scholarism, but to learn Shakespeare himself; to understand the things he puts before them, to take-in his thought, to taste his wisdom, to feel his beauty, to be kindled by his fire, to be refreshed with his humour, to glow with his rapture, and to be stolen from themselves and transported into his moral and intellectual whereabout; in a word, to live, breathe, think, and feel with him. I am so simple and old-fashioned as to hold that, in so reading the Poet, they are putting him to the very best and highest use of which he is capable. Even their intellects, I think, will thrive far better so, than by straining themselves to a course of mere intellectualism. All which means, to be sure, that far more real good will come, even to the mind, by foolishly enjoying Shakespeare than by learnedly parsing him. So that here I am minded to apply the saying of Wordsworth, that "he is oft the wisest man who is not wise at all."
Now I cannot choose but think that, if this were always duly borne in mind, we should see much more economy of erudition than we do. It is the instinct of a crude or conceited learning to be ever emphasizing itself, and poking its fingers into the readers' eyes: but a ripe and well-assimilated learning does not act thus: it is a fine spirit working in the mind's blood, and not a sort of foam or scum mantling its
surface, or an outgrowth bristling into notice. So that here, as in all true strength, modesty rules the transpiration. Accordingly an editor's proper art is to proceed, not by a formal and conscious use of learning, but by the silent efficacy thereof transfusing itself insensibly into and through his work, so as to accomplish its purpose without being directly seen.
Nor is Shakespeare's language so antiquated, or his idiom of thought so remote from ordinary apprehension, as to require a minute, or cumbrous, or oppressive erudition for making his thoughts intelligible to average minds. His diction, after all, is much nearer the common vernacular of the day than that of his editors: for where would these be if they did not write in a learned style? To be sure, here, as elsewhere, an editor's art, or want of art, can easily find or make ever so many difficulties, in order to magnify itself and its office by meeting them, or by seeming to meet them. And in fact it has now become, or is fast becoming, very much the fashion to treat Shakespeare in this way; an elaborate and self-conscious erudition using him as a sort of perch to flap its wings and crow from. So we have had and are having editions of his plays designed for common use, wherein the sunlight of his poetry is so muffled and strangled by a thick haze of minute, technical, and dictionary learning, that common eyes can hardly catch any fresh and clear beams of it. Small points and issues almost numberless, and many of them running clean off into distant tenth-cousin matters, are raised, as if poetry so vital and organic as his, and with its mouth so full of soul-music, were but a subject for lingual and grammatical dissection; or a thing to be studied through a microscope, and so to be "examined, ponder'd, search'd, probed, vex'd, and criticised." Is not all this very much as if the main business of readers, with Shakespeare's page before them, were to "pore, and dwindle as they pore"?
Here the ruling thought seems to be, that the chief profit
of studying Shakespeare is to come by analyzing and parsing his sentences, not by understanding and enjoying his poetry. But, assuredly, this is not the way to aid and encourage people in the study of Shakespeare. They are not to be inspired with a right love or taste for him by having his lines encumbered with such commentatorial redundances and irrelevancies. Rather say, such a course naturally renders the Poet an unmitigable bore to them, and can hardly fail to disgust and repel them; unless, perchance, it may superinduce upon them a certain dry-rot of formalistic learning. For, in a vast many cases, the explanations are far more obscure to the average reader than the things explained; and he may well despair of understanding the Poet, when he so often finds it impossible to understand his explainers. Or the effect of such a course, if it have any but a negative effect, can hardly be other than to tease and card the common sense out of people, and train them into learned and prating dunces, instead of making them intelligent, thoughtful, happy men and women in the ordinary tasks, duties, and concerns of life.
Thus Shakespeare is now in a fair way to undergo the same fate which a much greater and better book has already undergone. For even so a great many learned minds, instead of duly marking how little need be said, and how simply that little should be said, have tried, apparently, how much and how learnedly they could write upon the Bible; how many nice questions they could raise, and what elaborate comments they could weave about its contents. Take, for example, the Sermon on the Mount: left to its natural and proper working, that brief piece of writing has in it more of true culture-force or culture-inspiration than all the mere scientific books in the world put together and learned commentaries stand, or claim to stand, in the rank of scientific works. Yet even here, as experience has amply proved, a
sort of learned incontinence can easily so intricate and perplex the matter, and spin the sense out into such a curious and voluminous interpretation, as fairly to swamp plain minds, and put them quite at a loss as to what the Divine utterances mean. The thing is clear enough, until a garrulous and obtrusive learning takes it in hand; and then darkness begins to gather round it.
And so the Bible generally, as we all know, has been so worried and belaboured with erudite, or ignorant, but at all events diffusive, long-winded, and obstructive commentary; its teachings and efficacies have got so strangled by the interminable yarns of interpretation spun about them; that now at length common people have pretty much lost both their faith in it and their taste for it: reverence for it has come to be regarded as little better than an exploded superstition and indeed its light can hardly struggle or filtrate through the dense vapours of learned and elaborate verbosity exhaled from subjacent regions. The tendency now is to replace the Bible with Shakespeare as our master-code of practical wisdom and guidance. I am far, very far indeed, from regarding this as a sign of progress, either moral or intellectual: viewed merely in reference to literary taste, the Bible is incomparably beyond any other book in the world: but, if such a substitution must be made, Shakespeare is probably the best. The Poet himself tells us, "they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton." And so, to be sure, the process has set in, and is already well advanced, of smothering his proper light beneath commentatorial surplusage and rubbish.
So strong is the conceit of studying all things scientifically, that we must, forsooth, have Shakespeare used as the raw material of scientific manufacture. It seems to be presumed that people cannot rightly feed upon his poetry, unless it be first digested for them into systematic shape by passing