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worthy of his talents and his virtues, the eagerness with which we should contest with his daughters, or with his Quaker friend Elwood, the privilege of reading Homer to him, or of taking down the immortal accents which flowed from his lips.
These are perhaps foolish feelings. Yet we cannot be ashamed of them; nor shall we be sorry if what we have written shall in any degree excite them in other minds. We are not much in the habit of idolizing either the living or the dead. And we think that there is no more certain indication of a weak and ill-regulated intellect than that propensity which, for want of a better name, we will venture to christen Boswellism. But there are a few characters which have stood the closest scrutiny and the severest tests, which have been tried in the furnace and have proved pure, which have been weighed in the balance and have not been found wanting, which have been declared sterling by the general consent of mankind, and which are visibly stamped with the image and superscription of the Most High. These great men we trust that we know how to prize; and of these was Milton. The sight of his books, the sound of his name are pleasant to us. His thoughts resemble those celestial fruits and
. flowers which the Virgin Martyr of Massinger sent down from the gardens of Paradise to the earth, and which were distinguished from the productions of other soils, not only by superior bloom and sweetness, but by miraculous efficacy to invigorate and to heal. They are powerful, not only to delight, but to elevate and purify. Nor do we envy the man who can study either the life or the writings of the great poet and patriot without aspiring to emulate, not indeed the sublime works with which his genius has enriched our literature, but the zeal with which he labored for the public good, the fortitude with which he endured every private calamity, the lofty disdain with which he looked down on temptations and dangers, the deadly hatred which he bore to bigots and tyrants, and the faith which he so sternly kept with his country and with his fame.
Of this Shakespeare of ours, perhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a little idolatrously expressed is, in fact, the right one. I think the best judgment not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly pointing to the conclusion: That Shakespeare is the chief of all poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left record of himself in the way of literature. On the whole, I know not such a power of vision, such a faculty of thought, if we take all the characters of it, in any other man. Such a calmness of depth; placid joyous strength; all things imaged in that great soul of his so true and clear, as in a tranquil unfathomable sea! It has been said that in the constructing of Shakespeare's dramas there is, apart from all other "faculties” as they are called, an understanding manifested, equal to that in Bacon's Novum Organum. That is true; and it is not a truth that strikes every one.
It would become more apparent if we tried, any of us for himself, how, out of Shakespeare's dramatic materials, we could fashion such a result! The built house seems all so fit-everyway as it should be, as if it came there by its own law and the nature of things—we forget the rude disorderly quarry it was shaped from. The very perfection of the house, as if Nature herself had made it, hides the builder's merit. Perfect, more perfect than any other man, we may call Shakespeare in this: he discerns, knows as by instinct, what condition he works under, what his materials are, what his own force and its relation to them is. It is not a transitory glance of insight that will suffice; it is deliberate illumination of the whole matter; it is a calmly seeing eye; a great intellect, in short. How a man, of some wide thing that he has witnessed, will construct a narrative, what kind of picture and delineation he will give of it—is the best measure you could get of what intellect is in the man. Which circumstance is vital and shall stand prominent; which unessential, fit to be suppressed; where is the true beginning, the true sequence and ending? To find out this you ask the whole force of insight that is in the man. He must understand the thing; according to the depth of his understanding will the fitness of his answer be. You will try him so. Does like join itself to like; does the spirit of method stir in that confusion so that its embroilment becomes order? Can the man say, Fiat lux, Let there be light; and out of chaos make a world? Precisely as there is light in himself will he accomplish this.
1 From Lecture III, “The Hero as Poet," May 12, 1840, published in Heroes and Hero Worship, 1841.
Or indeed we may say again, it is in what I called portrait-painting, delineating of men and things, especially of men, that Shakespeare is great. All the greatness of the man comes out decisively here. It is unexampled, I think, that calm creative perspicacity of Shakespeare. The thing he looks at reveals not this or that face of it, but its inmost heart and generic secret; it dissolves itself as in light before him so that he discerns the perfect structure of it. Creative, we said-poetic creation; what is this too but seeing the thing sufficiently? The word that will describe the thing follows of itself from such clear intense sight of the thing. And is not Shakespeare's morality, his valor, candor, tolerance, truthfulness, his whole victorious strength and greatness, which can triumph over such obstructions, visible there too? Great as the world! No twisted, poor convex-concave mirror, reflecting all objects with its own convexities and concavities, a perfectly level mirror—that is to say withal, if we will understand it, a man justly related to all things and men, a good man. It is truly a lordly spectacle how this great soul takes in all kinds of men and objects, a Falstaff, an Othello, a Juliet, a Coriolanus; sets them all forth to us in their round completeness; loving, just, the equal brother of all. Novum Organum and all the intellect you will find in Bacon is of a quite secondary orderearthly, material, poor in comparison with this. Among modern men, one finds, in strictness, almost nothing of the same rank. Goethe alone, since the days of Shakespeare, reminds me of it. Of him too you say that he saw the object; you may say what he himself says of Shakespeare: "His characters are like watches with dialplates of transparent crystal; they show you the hour like others, and the inward mechanism also is all visible.”
The seeing eye! It is this that discloses the inner harmony of things, what Nature meant, what musical idea Nature has wrapped-up in these often rough embodiments. Something she did mean. To the seeing eye that something were discernible. Are they base, miserable
. things? You can laugh over them, you can weep over them; you can in some way or other genially relate yourself to them; you can, at lowest, hold your peace about them, turn away your own and others' face from them, till the hour come for practically exterminating and extinguishing them! At bottom, it is the poet's first gift, as it is all men's, that he have intellect enough. He will be a poet if he have: a poet in word; or failing that, perhaps still better, a poet in act. Whether he write at all; and