Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub
[ocr errors]

The literary history of to-day is thus a rich and composite heritage, with a great variety of methods, examples, and fructifying ideas, to which the three chief nations of western Europe have all contributed. Of this variety of methods, the works named at the head of this article are chosen as distinguished illustrative examples. We shall confine the discussion, however, to their handling of a single period, the Elizabethan; one which may well put the greatest literary historian on his mettle, while it is at the same time admirably calculated to bring out both the strength and the weakness of methods and points of view.

M. Jusserand's 'Histoire Littéraire du Peuple Anglais,' worthily crowns the series of his earlier English studies. As in the Wayfaring Life,' in the Épopée Mystique, and even in the Elizabethan Novel,' the interest in the life and growth of a great community, reflected in its literature, rather than any purely literary attraction, is the animating motive. Taine had painted the life of the English people with extraordinary brilliance, but only as the milieu of its literature. M. Jusserand, a devoted but original disciple, lifts the milieu into the forefront of the picture and disengages it altogether from the naturalistic theories of his master. Far better read than Taine in our literature, he uses his reading with incomparable aptness to enrich, stroke by stroke and touch by touch, his great portrait of the English people. As an historian of Elizabethan poetry and drama he unites the solid learning of a Courthope with a vivacious charm altogether his own. At the same time, it is precisely in this period that the difficulties and the snares incident to his method become clearly apparent. The literature of an age so crowded with writers of robust and versatile individuality lends itself less easily to the purpose of national portraiture than that of the tenth or even the fourteenth century. However fully it may be recognised that the national life itself has grown immensely richer and more complex, that the face to be painted offers far larger scope for variety of colour and subtlety of light and shade, yet in writing of such moment and originality as that of a Spenser and a Donne, a Bacon and a Shakespeare, there must inevitably be many traits which have chiefly individual value and which only disturb the larger

likeness. The portrayer is naturally disposed to minimise these intractable irrelevancies. He will be impatient of originalities barren for his purpose, and apply an acute analysis to lay bare the disguised convention, the unconfessed compliance, the reflection, merely distorted or obscured, of the general mind.

M. Jusserand hardly withstands this bias; and against much illuminating interpretation of the social affinities of the literature he handles must be set some singular obliquities in his judgment of the literature itself. The doctrine of the audience or the public whose mind all literature that would succeed is bound to reflect-a doctrine as dangerous in criticism as it is powerfuldoes him, we will not say yeoman's service, but the service of a too zealous henchman who overacts his part. M. Jusserand forgets that literature often succeeds because it reflects not what the public is, but what it would like to be or to be thought-an ideal self, which the dramatic mirror persuades it that it has already become, or puts it in the way of becoming. This consideration is especially relevant to Spenser. On the publication of the “Faerie Queene," ' writes M. Jusserand, Spenser had realised his project, and fulfilled the expectation of instructed, powerful, and wealthy England, which was ready for a great poem and possessed none.' This is not untrue, but it is a very insufficient formula for the interpreter of the Faerie Queene.' M. Jusserand obviously does not like Spenser; and we shall not dwell upon a chapter which, though extraordinarily clever, is hardly worthy of the critical exponent of Langland's Vision, 'ten lines' of which he thinks worth more, as morality, than Spenser's whole poem.

For M. Jusserand, Spenser is a poet who flatters the aristocratic ear with an inexhaustible series of adventures rich in sensuous and sensual appeal clothed in exquisitely musical verse. He catalogues the ugly' places, enumerates the rapes, attempted and actual, finds consolation in their consequences,' and notes with amusement that all the chief figures, even the representative of chastity,' are in love. His French readers may be excused if some of them have taken the Faerie Queene' to be a sort of Elizabethan Don Juan.' The clue to critical collapses of this sort is that M. Jusserand refuses to recognise the

6

6

[ocr errors]

6

6

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

6

ethical Spenser who shared with the impassioned lover of beauty in the inspiration and conduct of the poem, who without doubt gravely damaged it, but without whom its heights of poetry would never have been reached. Plato was the master of both. The nauseous account of the slaying of Error, and the superb hymn to spiritual love (III, 4), would be equally impossible to a poet who had eyes only for sensuous beauty. The public which welcomed, in the Faerie Queene,' the great poem it was ready for, but did not possess, would probably have hailed an English • Jerusalem Delivered' with more complete satisfaction. But Spenser expressed the heroic temper of the morrow of the Armada with unequalled magnificence, and has far more vitally to do with the history of the ‘English people’ than M. Jusserand would allow us to guess.

One of the most admirable pages in this History is the penetrating analysis of the temper and tastes of the Elizabethan theatre-goer, which opens the chapters on the Drama. By no other critic has this been done so well, or with so live a sense of the rare as well as of the gross qualities of these audiences. Yet the value of this gift to Elizabethan criticism is largely neutralised by the use its author proceeds to make of it. The mind of the Elizabethan audience, quick and responsive as in many points it was, was not as rich and manifold as the Elizabethan drama; and the attempt to interpret the drama as its reflection must lead to paradoxical results. The pressure of popular taste upon the dramatist was no doubt a very real and effective force, which the older criticism too often ignored. But the formula of .compliance with the taste of the audience' is far too simple to describe the result. The greater dramatists complied, if at all, in such a way as to save what they most valued in their art; and several of them, on occasion, took their public and its favourite fashions roughly to task. Not to speak of Jonson's hectoring prologues, there was not much “compliance' in the fiery denunciation of the rhyming vein of jigging mother-wits' with which Marlowe recommended his first play to its first audience. Marlowe, with his masterful temper, his daring originality, his superb artistry, is altogether a hazardous illustration of the theory; and M. Jusserand hardly escapes the hazards.

[ocr errors]

What is the meaning of Marlowe's vehement advocacy of blank verse? It was a movement, M. Jusserand explains, towards realism and nature. . By means of blank verse dramatists can keep nearer to realities and to nature, and yet avoid platitude and vulgarity. Marlowe felt that this was the kind of poetry best suited to his public, just as parks in the English style suit England, and gardens à la française Versailles. We are, in France, for clear and straight lines,' etc. ('Lit. Hist.' iii, 139.) This might passably describe the animus of the blank verse of Cowper ; but to the temper of Marlowe's it has as little relevance as to the temper of Milton's. Marlowe's verse was the creation of a great artist, bent not upon any return to nature' or emancipation from uncomfortable restraint, but upon the capture of eternal beauty in the splendour and the music of speech. He derided his predecessors not because they were too artificial, but because they were not artists enough. And his own verse is obviously full of refined artifice, intricately interwoven alliterations, sonorous many-syllabled names, whose magnificence he seems to caress as they roll by.

Even the greatest of Elizabethans has to suffer for the excessive simplicity of M. Jusserand's formulas. His chapters on Shakespeare are full of brilliance, full too of keen and trenchant remark. He understands and explains everything; and the great enigmatic personality stands before us in the clearest of daylight, his riddle read, his inscrutable mask plucked off. 'Shakespeare is practical. Something of the skill with which he manages

his Stratford estate is seen in his management of his genius. Looking round him he notes what veins of success can be profitably worked. He chooses for his plays, accordingly, mostly subjects already popular. Why run the risk of a strange story? For the same reason he usually leaves them as he finds them, with all their improbabilities. Why touch them? His public was satisfied; why be more fastidious than they? ... For the same reason he continually repeats situations which have once pleased; jokes, characters, or else he develops them in the direction indicated by his original, dark to black, virtuous to perfection, great to colossal; all to increase the contrasts dear to the crowd' (ib. 164).

There is a vein of truth in all this; but how little way it goes towards interpreting the known facts of

6

6

Shakespeare's career! If the Elizabethan crowd was to be propitiated by repetitions of what had once amused it, he must have been a highly provocative entertainer. If they cried "encore,' it was his way to put them off with a totally different tune. They applauded Romeo and Juliet,' and he gave them, perhaps, a Taming of the

, Shrew ;'Hamlet,' and he gave them “Othello.' Was it in deference to his public that, after promising to feast them again on Falstaff, 'if you be not too much cloyed with fat meat,' in Henry V'he decided to keep him out of the action of that play?

However, it may be readily agreed that Shakespeare's art was based upon a prima facie acceptance of the public taste. He gave them what they wanted, the crowded plot, the mingled pathos and jest, the corpse-strewn stage, the romantic improbabilities. He was sometimes careless and gave them nothing more. But the most elementary Shakespeare-criticism recognises that, in all his serious work, these crude, popular devices are not merely reconciled with the harmony that all great art must achieve, but actually made to contribute to it. The caskets and the pound of flesh are pure fairy-tale. Another might have rationalised them into prose; Shakespeare, bating not a jot of their unreason, draws them up into the supreme reality of Portia and Shylock. M. Jusserand, learned and acute Shakespearean as he is, does not do justice to this side of Shakespeare's art. Missing the simple harmonies of Racine he sees merely accumulation, motley, diversity, bigarrure. The classical system and

• the system of Shakespeare,' he declares, ‘are not only different, they are opposite.' He sees instead of the continuous, limpid unfolding of a story, a crowd of persons, many of them quite outsiders to the action, porters, pedlars, nurses, grave-diggers, who insist on talking to us of their own affairs; while the principal characters themselves are often .so troubled with conflicting passions, such 'mixtures of good and evil,' that

we often no longer know where we are going, nor whom we should love.'

Let us hasten to add that M. Jusserand admits exceptions; in particular he has unbounded admiration for the artistry of Othello.' But Othello' is, in his sense, the most classical' of the great tragedies, and has always

6

« VorigeDoorgaan »