A Study of Shakespeare by Algernon Charles Swinburne


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Page 1

A STUDY OF SHAKESPEARE.


I.


The greatest poet of our age has drawn a parallel of elaborate eloquence
between Shakespeare and the sea; and the likeness holds good in many
points of less significance than those which have been set down by the
master-hand. For two hundred years at least have students of every kind
put forth in every sort of boat on a longer or a shorter voyage of
research across the waters of that unsounded sea. From the paltriest
fishing-craft to such majestic galleys as were steered by Coleridge and
by Goethe, each division of the fleet has done or has essayed its turn of
work; some busied in dredging alongshore, some taking surveys of this or
that gulf or headland, some putting forth through shine and shadow into
the darkness of the great deep. Nor does it seem as if there would
sooner be an end to men's labour on this than on the other sea. But here
a difference is perceptible. The material ocean has been so far mastered
by the wisdom and the heroism of man that we may look for a time to come
when the mystery shall be manifest of its furthest north and south, and
men resolve the secret of the uttermost parts of the sea: the poles also
may find their Columbus. But the limits of that other ocean, the laws of
its tides, the motive of its forces, the mystery of its unity and the
secret of its change, no seafarer of us all may ever think thoroughly to
know. No wind-gauge will help us to the science of its storms, no lead-
line sound for us the depth of its divine and terrible serenity.

As, however, each generation for some two centuries now or more has
witnessed fresh attempts at pilotage and fresh expeditions of discovery
undertaken in the seas of Shakespeare, it may be well to study a little
the laws of navigation in such waters as these, and look well to compass
and rudder before we accept the guidance of a strange helmsman or make
proffer for trial of our own. There are shoals and quicksands on which
many a seafarer has run his craft aground in time past, and others of
more special peril to adventurers of the present day. The chances of
shipwreck vary in a certain degree with each new change of vessel and
each fresh muster of hands. At one time a main rock of offence on which
the stoutest ships of discovery were wont to split was the narrow and
slippery reef of verbal emendation; and upon this our native pilots were
too many of them prone to steer. Others fell becalmed offshore in a
German fog of philosophic theories, and would not be persuaded that the
house of words they had built in honour of Shakespeare was "dark as
hell," seeing "it had bay-windows transparent as barricadoes, and the
clear-stories towards the south-north were as lustrous as ebony." These
are not the most besetting dangers of more modern steersmen: what we have
to guard against now is neither a repetition of the pedantries of
Steevens nor a recrudescence of the moralities of Ulrici. Fresh follies
spring up in new paths of criticism, and fresh labourers in a fruitless
field are at hand to gather them and to garner. A discovery of some
importance has recently been proclaimed as with blare of vociferous
trumpets and flutter of triumphal flags; no less a discovery than
this--that a singer must be tested by his song. Well, it is something
that criticism should at length be awake to that wholly indisputable
fact; that learned and laborious men who can hear only with their fingers
should open their eyes to admit such a novelty, their minds to accept
such a paradox, as that a painter should be studied in his pictures and a
poet in his verse. To the common herd of students and lovers of either
art this may perhaps appear no great discovery; but that it should at
length have dawned even upon the race of commentators is a sign which in
itself might be taken as a presage of new light to come in an epoch of
miracle yet to be. Unhappily it is as yet but a partial revelation that
has been vouchsafed to them. To the recognition of the apocalyptic fact
that a workman can only be known by his work, and that without
examination of his method and material that work can hardly be studied to
much purpose, they have yet to add the knowledge of a further truth no
less recondite and abstruse than this; that as the technical work of a
painter appeals to the eye, so the technical work of a poet appeals to
the ear. It follows that men who have none are as likely to arrive at
any profitable end by the application of metrical tests to the work of
Shakespeare as a blind man by the application of his theory of colours to
the work of Titian.

It is certainly no news to other than professional critics that no means
of study can be more precious or more necessary to a student of
Shakespeare than this of tracing the course of his work by the growth and
development, through various modes and changes, of his metre. But the
faculty of using such means of study is not to be had for the asking; it
is not to be earned by the most assiduous toil, it is not to be secured
by the learning of years, it is not to be attained by the devotion of a
life. No proficiency in grammar and arithmetic, no science of numeration
and no scheme of prosody, will be here of the least avail. Though the
pedagogue were Briareus himself who would thus bring Shakespeare under
the rule of his rod or Shelley within the limit of his line, he would
lack fingers on which to count the syllables that make up their music,
the infinite varieties of measure that complete the changes and the
chimes of perfect verse. It is but lost labour that they rise up so
early, and so late take rest; not a Scaliger or Salmasius of them all
will sooner solve the riddle of the simplest than of the subtlest melody.
Least of all will the method of a scholiast be likely to serve him as a
clue to the hidden things of Shakespeare. For all the counting up of
numbers and casting up of figures that a whole university--nay, a whole
universe of pedants could accomplish, no teacher and no learner will ever
be a whit the nearer to the haven where they would be. In spite of all
tabulated statements and regulated summaries of research, the music which
will not be dissected or defined, the "spirit of sense" which is one and
indivisible from the body or the raiment of speech that clothes it, keeps
safe the secret of its sound. Yet it is no less a task than this that
the scholiasts have girt themselves to achieve: they will pluck out the
heart not of Hamlet's but of Shakespeare's mystery by the means of a
metrical test; and this test is to be applied by a purely arithmetical
process. It is useless to pretend or to protest that they work by any
rule but the rule of thumb and finger: that they have no ear to work by,
whatever outward show they may make of unmistakable ears, the very nature
of their project gives full and damning proof. Properly understood, this
that they call the metrical test is doubtless, as they say, the surest or
the sole sure key to one side of the secret of Shakespeare; but they will
never understand it properly who propose to secure it by the ingenious
device of numbering the syllables and tabulating the results of a
computation which shall attest in exact sequence the quantity, order, and
proportion of single and double endings, of rhyme and blank verse, of
regular lines and irregular, to be traced in each play by the horny eye
and the callous finger of a pedant. "I am ill at these numbers"; those
in which I have sought to become an expert are numbers of another sort;
but having, from wellnigh the first years I can remember, made of the
study of Shakespeare the chief intellectual business and found in it the
chief spiritual delight of my whole life, I can hardly think myself less
qualified than another to offer an opinion on the metrical points at
issue.

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