THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. III.—JUNE, 1859.—NO. XX.
"Yet must I not give Nature all; thy Art, My gentle SHAKSPEARE, must enjoy a part. For though the poet's matter Nature be, His Art doth give the fashion."—Ben Jonson.
Whoever would learn to think naturally, clearly, logically, and to express himself intelligibly and earnestly, let him give his days and nights to WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE. His ear will thus accustom itself to forms of phrase whose only mannerism is occasioned by the fulness of thought and the directness of expression; and he will not easily, through the habits which either his understanding or his ear will acquire, fall into the fluent cadences of that sort of writing in which words are used without discrimination of their nice meanings,—where the sentences are only a smoothly-undulating current of common phrases, in which it takes a page to say weakly what should be said forcibly in a few periods.
These are somewhat novel arguments for the study of one whom all the world has so long reverenced as "the great poet of Nature." But they may properly serve to introduce a consideration of the sense in which that phrase should be understood,—an attempt, in short, to look into Shakspeare's modes of creation, and define his relations, as an artist, with Nature.
We shall perhaps be excused the suggestion, that a poet cannot be natural in the same sense that a fool may be; he cannot be a natural,—since, if he is, he is not a poet. For to be a poet implies the ability to use ideas and forms of speech artistically, as well as to have an eye in a fine frenzy rolling. This is a distinction which all who write on poets or poetry should forever seek to keep clear by new illustrations. The poet has poetic powers that are born with him; but he must also have a power over language, skill in arrangement, a thousand, yes, a myriad, of powers which he was born with only the ability to acquire, and to use after their acquirement. In ranking Shakspeare the great poet of Nature, it is meant that he had the purpose and the power to think what was natural, and to select and follow it,—that, among his thick-coming fancies, he could perceive what was too fine, what tinged with personal vanity, what incongruous, unsuitable, feeble, strained, in short, unnatural, and reject it. His vision was so strong that he saw his characters and identified himself with them, yet preserving his cool judgment above them, and subjecting all he felt through them to its test, and developing it through this artificial process of writing. This vision and high state of being he could assume and keep up and work out through days and weeks, foreseeing the end from the beginning, retaining himself, and determining long before how many acts his work should be, what should be its plot, what the order of its scenes, what personages he would introduce, and where the main passions of the work should be developed. His fancy, which enabled him to see the stage and all its characters,—almost to be them,—was so under the control of his imagination, that it did not, through any interruptions while he was at his labor, beguile him with caprices. The gradation or action of his work, opens and grows under his creative hand; twenty or more characters appear, (in some plays nearly forty, as in "Antony and Cleopatra" and the "First Part of Henry the Sixth,") who are all distinguished, who are all more or less necessary to the plot or the underplots, and who preserve throughout an identity that is life itself; all this is done, and the imagined state, the great power by which this evolution of characters and scene and story be carried on, is always under the control of the poet's will, and the direction of his taste or critical judgment. He chooses to set his imagination upon a piece of work, he selects his plot, conceives the action, the variety of characters, and all their doings; as he goes on reflecting upon them, his imagination warms, and excites his fancy; he sees and identifies himself with his characters, lives a secondary life in his work, as one may in a dream which he directs and yet believes in; his whole soul becomes more active under this fervor of the imagination, the fancy, and all the powers of suggestion,—yet, still, the presiding judgment remains calm above all, guiding the whole; and above or behind that, the will which elects to do all this, perchance for a very simple purpose,—namely, for filthy lucre, the purchase-money of an estate in Stratford.
To say that he "followed Nature" is to mean that he permits his thoughts to flow out in the order in which thoughts naturally come,—that he makes his characters think as we all fancy we should think under the circumstances in which he places them,—that it is the truth of his thoughts which first impresses us. It is in this respect that he is so universal; and it is by his universality that his naturalness is confirmed. Not all his finer strokes of genius, but the general scope and progress of his mind, are within the path all other minds travel; his mind answers to all other men's minds, and hence is like the voice of Nature, which, apart from particular association, addresses all alike. The cataracts, the mountains, the sea, the landscapes, the changes of season and weather have each the same general meaning to all mankind. So it is with Shakspeare, both in the conception and development of his characters, and in the play of his reflections and fancies. All the world recognizes his sanity, and the health and beauty of his genius.
Not all the world, either. Nature's poet fares no better than Nature herself. Half the world is out of the pale of knowledge; a good part of the rest are stunted by cant in its Protean shapes, or by inherited narrowness and prejudice, and innumerable soul-cankers. They neither know nor think of Nature or Poetry. Just as there are hundreds in all great cities who never leave their accustomed streets winter or summer, until finally they lose all curiosity, and cease to feel the yearnings of that love which all are born with for the sight of the land and sea,—the dear face of our common mother. Or the creatures who compose the numerical majority of the world are rather like the children of some noble lady stolen away by gypsies, and taught to steal and cheat and beg, and practised in low arts, till they utterly forget the lawns whereon they once played; and if their mother ever discovers them, their natures are so subdued that they neither recognize her nor wish to go with her.
Without fearing that Shakspeare can ever lose his empire while the language lasts, it is humiliating to be obliged to acknowledge one great cause that is operating to keep him from thousands of our young countrymen and women, namely, the wide-spread mediocrity that is created and sustained by the universal diffusion of our so-called cheap literature;—dear enough it will prove by and by!—But this is needlessly digressing.
The very act of writing implies an art not born with the poet. This process of forming letters and words with a pen is not natural, nor will the poetic frenzy inspire us with the art to go through it. In conceiving the language of passion, the natural impulse is to imitate the passion in gesture; there is something artificial in sitting quietly at a table and hollaing, "Mortimer!" through a quill. If Hotspur's language is in the highest degree natural, it is because the poet felt the character, and words suggested themselves to him which he chose and wrote down. The act of choice might have been almost spontaneous with the feeling of the character and the situation, yet it was there,—the conscious judgment was present; and if the poet wrote the first words that came, (as no doubt he usually did,) it was because he was satisfied with them at the time; there was no paroxysm of poetic inspiration,—the workings of his mind were sane. His fertility was such that he was not obliged to pause and compare every expression with all others he could think of as appropriate;—judgment may decide swiftly and without comparison, especially when it is supervising the suggestions of a vivid fancy, and still be judgment, or taste, if we choose to call it by that name. We know by the result whether it was present. The poet rapt into unconsciousness would soon betray himself. Under the power of the imagination, all his faculties waken to a higher life; his fancies are more vivid and clear; all the suggestions that come to him are more apt and congruous; and his faculties of selection, his perceptions of fitness, beauty, and appropriateness of relation are more keen and watchful. No lapse in what he writes at such times indicates aught like dreaming or madness, or any condition of mind incompatible with soundness and health,—with that perfect sanity in which all the mental powers move in order and harmony under the control of the rightful sovereign, Reason.
These observations are not intended to bear, except remotely, upon the question, Which is the true Dramatic Art, the romantic or the ancient? We shall not venture into that land of drought, where dry minds forever wander. We can admit both schools. In fact, even the countrymen of Racine have long since admitted both,—speculatively, at least,—though practically their temperament will always confine them to artificial models. We may consider the question as set at rest in these words of M. Guizot:—"Everything which men acknowledge as beautiful in Art owes its effect to certain combinations, of which our reason can always detect the secret when our emotions have attested its power. The science—or the employment of these combinations—constitutes what we call Art. Shakspeare had his own. We must detect it in his works, and examine the means he employs and the results he aims at." Although we should be far from admitting so general a definition of Art as this, yet it is sufficient as an answer to the admirers of the purely classic school.
But it has become necessary in this "spasmodic" day to vindicate our great poet from the supposition of having written in a state of somnambulism,—to show that he was even an artist, without reference to schools. The scope of our observations is to exhibit him in that light; we wish to insist that he was a man of forethought,—that, though possessing creative genius, he did not dive recklessly into the sea of his fancy without knowing its depth, and ready to grasp every pebble for a pearl-shell; we wish to show that he was not what has been called, in the cant of a class who mistake lawlessness for liberty, an "earnest creature,"—that he was not "fancy's child" in any other sense than as having in his power a beautifully suggestive fancy, and that he "warbled his native wood-notes wild" in no other meaning than as Milton warbled his organ-notes,—namely, through the exercise of conscious Art, of Art that displayed itself not only in the broad outlines of his works, but in their every character and shade of color. With this purpose we have urged that he was "natural" from taste and choice,—artistically natural. To illustrate the point, let us consider his Art alone in a few passages.
We will suppose, preliminarily, however, that we are largely interested in the Globe Theatre, and that, in order to keep it up and continue to draw good houses, we must write a new piece,—that, last salary-day, we fell short, and were obliged to borrow twenty pounds of my Lord Southampton to pay our actors. Something must be done. We look into our old books and endeavor to find a plot out of ancient story, in the same manner that Sir Hugh Evans would hunt for a text for a sermon. At length one occurs that pleases our fancy; we revolve it over and over in our mind,—and at last, after some days' thought, elaborate from it the plot of a play,—"TIMON OF ATHENS,"—which plot we make a memorandum of, lest we should forget it. Meantime, we are busy at the theatre with rehearsals, changes of performance, bill-printing, and a hundred thousand similar matters that must be each day disposed of. But we keep our newly-thought-of play in mind at odd intervals, good things occur to us as we are walking in the street, and we begin to long to be at it. The opening scenes we have quite clearly in our eye, and we almost know the whole; or it may be, vice versa, that we work out the last scenes first; at all events, we have them hewn out in the rough, so that we work the first with an intention of making them conform to a something which is to succeed; and we are so sure of our course that we have no dread of the something after,—nothing to puzzle the will, or make us think too precisely on the event. Such is the condition of mind in which we finally begin our labor. Some Wednesday afternoon in a holiday-week, when the theatres are closed, we find ourselves sitting at a desk before a sea-coal fire in a quaintly panelled rush-strewn chamber, the pen in our hand, nibbed with a "Rogers's" pen-knife, [A] and the blank page beneath it.
[Footnote A: "A Shefeld thwitel bare he in his hose."—CHAUCER. The Reve's Tale.]
We desire the reader to close his eyes for a moment and endeavor to fancy himself in the position of William Shakspeare about to write a piece,—the play abovenamed. This may be attempted without presumption. We wish to recall and make real the fact that our idol was a man, subject to the usual circumstances of men living in his time, and to those which affect all men at all times,—that he had the same round of day and night to pass through, the same common household accidents which render "no man a hero to his valet." The world was as real to him as it is to us. The dreamy past, of two hundred and fifty years since, was to him the present of one of the most stirring periods in history, when wonders were born quite as frequently as they are now.
And having persuaded the reader to place himself in Shakspeare's position, we will make one more very slight request, which is, that he will occupy another chair in the same chamber and fancy that he sees the immortal dramatist begin a work,—still keeping himself so far in his position that he can observe the workings of his mind as he writes.
Shakspeare has fixed upon a name for his piece, and he writes it,—he that the players told Ben Jonson "never blotted a line." It is the tragedy,—
TIMON OF ATHENS.
He will have it in five acts, as the best form; and he has fixed upon his dramatis personae, at least the principal of them, for he names them on the margin as he writes. He uses twelve in the first scene, some of whom he has no occasion for but to bring forward the character of his hero; but they are all individualized while he employs them. The scene he has fixed upon; this is present to his mind's eye; and as he cannot afterwards alter it without making his characters talk incongruously and being compelled to rewrite the whole, he writes it down thus:—
SCENE I.—A Hall in Timon's House.
Now he has reflected that his first object is to interest his audience in the action and passion of the piece,—at the very outset, if possible, to catch their fancies and draw them into the mimic life of the play,—to beguile and attract them without their knowing it. He has reflected upon this, we say,—for see how artfully he opens the scene, and how soon the empty stage is peopled with life! He chooses to begin by having two persons enter from opposite wings, whose qualities are known at once to the reader of the play, but not to an audience. The stage-direction informs us:—
[Enter Poet, Painter, Jeweller, Merchant, and others, at several doors.
We shall see how at the same time they introduce and unfold their own characters and awaken an interest in the main action. In writing, we are obliged to name them. They do not all enter quite at once. At first comes
Poet. Good day, Sir. Painter. I am glad to see you well. Poet. I have not seen you long; how goes the world? Painter. It wears, Sir, as it grows.
This shows them to be acquaintances.—While the next reply is made, in which the Poet begins to talk in character even before the audience know him, two others enter from the same side, as having just met, and others in the background.
Poet. Ay, that's well known:— But what particular rarity? what strange, That manifold record not matches? See,
And we fancy him waving his hand in an enthusiastic manner,—
Magic of bounty! all these spirits thy power Hath conjured to attend.
Which manner is only a high-flowing habit, for he adds in the same breath, dropping his figure suddenly,—
I know the merchant. Painter. I know them both; t'other's a jeweller.
It is certainly natural that painters should know jewellers,—and, perhaps, that poets should be able to recognize merchants, though the converse might not hold. We now know who the next speakers are, and soon distinguish them.
Merchant. Oh, 'tis a worthy lord! Jeweller. Nay, that's most fixed. Merchant. A most incomparable man; breathed as it were To an untirable and continuate goodness: He passes. Jeweller. I have a jewel here.
The Jeweller being known, the Merchant is; and, it will be noticed that the first speaks in a cautious manner.
Merchant. Oh, pray, let's see it! For the lord Timon, Sir? Jeweller. If he will touch the estimate; but, for that——
We begin to suspect who is the "magic of bounty" and the "incomparable man," and also to have an idea that all these people have come to his house to see him.—While the Merchant examines the jewel, the first who spoke, the high-flown individual, is pacing and talking to himself near the one he met:—
Poet. When we for recompense have praised the vile, It stains the glory in that happy verse Which aptly sings the good.
Perhaps he is thinking of himself. The Merchant and Jeweller do not hear him;—they stand in twos at opposite sides of the stage.
Merchant. 'Tis a good form. [Looking at the jewel.
He observes only that the stone is well cut; but the Jeweller adds,—
Jeweller. And rich: here is a water, look you.
While they are interested in this and move backward, the two others come nearer the front.
Painter. You are rapt, Sir, in some work, some dedication To the great lord.
This is said, of course, with reference to the other's recent soliloquy. And now we are going to know them.
Poet. A thing slipped idly from me. Our poesy is as a gum, which oozes From whence 'tis nourished. The fire i' the flint Shows not till it be struck; our gentle flame Provokes itself, and like the current files Each bound it chafes.—What have you there?
We perceive that he is a poet, and a rather rhetorical than sincere one. He has the art, but, as we shall see, not the heart.
Painter. A picture, Sir.—And when comes your book forth?
Poet. Upon the heels of my presentment, Sir— Let's see your piece. Painter. 'Tis a good piece.
We know that the Poet has come to make his presentment. The Painter, the more modest of the two, wishes his work to be admired, but is apprehensive, and would forestall the Poet's judgment. He means, it is a "tolerable" piece.
Poet. So 'tis: this comes off well and excellent.
Poet. Admirable. How this grace Speaks his own standing! What a mental power This eye shoots forth! How big imagination Moves in this lip! To the dumbness of the gesture One might interpret.
He, at all events, means to flatter the Painter,—or he is so habituated to ecstasies that he cannot speak without going into one. But with what Shakspearean nicety of discrimination! The "grace that speaks his own standing," the "power of the eye," the "imagination of the lip," are all true; and so is the natural impulse, in one of so fertile a brain as a poet from whom verse "oozes" to "interpret to the dumb gesture,"—to invent an appropriate speech for the figure (Timon, of course) to be uttering. And all this is but to preoccupy our minds with a conception of the lord Timon!
Painter. It is a pretty mocking of the life. Here's a touch; is't good?
Poet. I'll say of it It tutors Nature: artificial strife Lives in these touches livelier than life.
He has thought of too fine a phrase; but it is in character with all his fancies.
[Enter certain Senators, and pass over.
Painter. How this lord's followed!
Poet. The senators of Athens: happy men!
This informs us who they are that pass over. The Poet also keeps up the Ercles vein; while the Painter's eye is caught.
Painter. Look, more!
Poet. You see this confluence, this great flood of visitors.
I have, in this rough work, shaped out a man Whom this beneath world doth embrace and hug With amplest entertainment: my free drift Halts not particularly, but moves itself In a wide sea of wax: no levelled malice Infects one comma in the course I hold: But flies an eagle flight, bold, and forth on, Leaving no tract behind.
This flight of rhetoric is intended to produce a sort of musical effect, in preparing us by its lofty sound for readily apprehending the lord Timon with "amplest entertainment." The same is true of all that follows. The Poet and Painter do but sound a lordly note of preparation, and move the curtain that is to be lifted before a scene of profusion. Call it by what name we please, it surely was not accident or unconscious inspiration,—a rapture or frenzy,—which led Shakspeare to open this play in this manner. If we remember the old use of choruses, which was to lift up and excite the fancy, we may well believe that he intended this flourishing Poet to act as a chorus,—to be a "mighty whiffler," going before, elevating "the flat unraised spirits" of his auditory, and working on their "imaginary forces." He is a rhetorical character, designed to rouse the attention of the house by the pomp of his language, and to set their fancies in motion by his broad conceptions. How well he does it! No wonder the Painter is a little confused as he listens to him.
Painter. How shall I understand you?
Poet. I'll unbolt to you.
You see how all conditions, how all minds, (As well of glib and slippery creatures, as Of grave and austere quality,) tender down Their services to Lord Timon; his large fortune, Upon his good and gracious nature hanging, Subdues and properties to his love and tendance All sorts of hearts; yea, from the glass-faced flatterer To Apemantus, that few things loves better Than to abhor himself; even he drops down The knee before him, and returns in peace, Most rich in Timon's nod.
There was almost a necessity that the spectator should be made acquainted with the character of Timon before his appearance; for his profuseness could be illustrated, after being known, better than it could make itself known in dialogue and action in which he should bear a part. And of the hundreds of English plays opening with an explanation or narrative of foregone matters, there is none where the formality is concealed by a more ingenious artifice than is used in this scene. The spectator is fore-possessed with Timon's character, and (in the outline the Poet is proceeding to give) with a suspicion that he is going to see him ruined in the course of the piece; and this is accomplished in the description of a panegyric, incidentally, briefly, picturesquely, artfully, with an art that tutors Nature, and which so well conceals itself that it can scarcely be perceived except in this our microscopic analysis. Here also we have Apemantus introduced beforehand. And with all this, the Painter and Poet speak minutely and broadly in character; the one sees scenes, the other plans an action (which is just what his own creator had done) and talks in poetic language. It is no more than the text warrants to remark that the next observation, primarily intended to break the poet's speech, was also intended to be the natural thought and words of a
Painter. I saw them speak together.
Poet. Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill Feigned Fortune to be throned: the base of the mount Is ranked with all deserts, all kinds of natures That labor on the bosom of this sphere To propagate their states; amongst them all, Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fixed, One do I personate of Lord Timon's frame, Whom Fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her; Whose present grace to present slaves and servants Translates his rivals.
Painter. 'Tis conceived to scope. This throne, this Fortune, and this hill, methinks, With one man beckoned from the rest below, Bowing his head against the steepy mount To climb his happiness, would be well expressed In our condition.
Poet. Nay, Sir, but hear me on.
The artifice is to secure the attention of the spectator. The interruptions give naturalness and force to the narrative; and the questions and entreaties, though addressed to each other by the personages on the stage, have their effect in the front. The same artifice is employed in the most obvious manner where Prospero (Tempest, Act i. Sc. 2) narrates his and her previous history to Miranda. The Poet continues:—
All those which were his fellows but of late (Some better than his value) on the moment Follow his strides, his lobbies fill with tendance, Rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear, Make sacred even his stirrup, and through him Drink the free air.
Painter. Ay, marry, what of these?
The Poet has half deserted his figure, and is losing himself in a new description, from which the Painter impatiently recalls him. The text is so artificially natural that it will bear the nicest natural construction.
Poet. When Fortune, in her shift and change of mood, Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants, Which labored after him to the mountain's top, Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down, Not one accompanying his declining foot.
Painter. 'Tis common: A thousand moral paintings I can show That shall demonstrate these quick blows of Fortune More pregnantly than words. Yet you do well To show Lord Timon that mean eyes have seen The foot above the head.
[Trumpets sound. Enter Timon, attended; the servant of Ventidius talking with him.
Thus far (and it is of no consequence if we have once or twice forgotten it while pursuing our analysis) we have fancied ourselves present, seeing Shakspeare write this, and looking into his mind. But although divining his intentions, we have not made him intend any more than his words show that he did intend. Let us presently fancy, that, before introducing his principal character, he here turns back to see if he has brought in everything that is necessary. It would have been easier to plan this scene after the rest of the play had been done,—and, as already remarked, it may have been so written; but when the whole coheres, the artistic purpose is more or less evident in every part; and the order in which each was put upon paper is of as little consequence as the place or time or date or the state of the weather. Wordsworth has been particular enough to let it be known, where he composed the last verse of a poem first. With some artists the writing is a mere copying from memory of what is completely elaborated in the whole or in long passages: Milton wrote thus, through a habit made necessary by his blindness; and so Mozart, whose incessant labors trained his genius in the paths of musical learning, or brought learning to be its slave, till his first conceptions were often beyond the reach of elaboration, and remained so clear in his own mind that he could venture to perform in public concertos to which he had written only the orchestral or accessory parts. Other artists work seriatim; some can work only when the pen is in their hands; and the blotted page speaks eloquently enough of the artistic processes of mind to which their most passionate passages are subjected before they come to the reader's eye. Think of the fac-simile of Byron's handwriting in "Childe Harold"! It shows a soul rapt almost beyond the power of writing. But the blots and erasures were not made by a "fine frenzy"; they speak no less eloquently for an artistic taste and skill excited and alert, and able to guide the frenzy and give it a contagious power through the forms of verse,—this taste and this skill and control being the very elements by which his expressions become an echo of the poet's soul,—pleasing, or, in the uncultivated, helping to form, a like taste in the hearer, and exciting a like imagined condition of feeling and poetic vision.
Yet if it were made a question, to be decided from internal evidence, whether the scene here analyzed was written before or after the rest of the piece, a strong argument for its being written before might be found in the peculiar impression it leaves upon the fancy. Let us suppose we follow the author while he runs it over, which he does quite rapidly, since there are no blotted lines, but only here and there a comma to be inserted. He designed to open his tragedy. He finds he has set a scene,—in his mind's eye the entrance-hall to an Athenian house, which he thinks he has presently intimated plainly enough to be Timon's house. Here he has brought forward four actors and made them speak as just meeting; they come by twos from different ways, and the first two immediately make it known that the other two are a merchant and jeweller, and almost immediately that they themselves are, one a painter, the other a poet. They have all brought gifts or goods for the lord Timon. The Athenian Senators pass over, and, as becomes their dignity, are at once received in an inner hall,—the first four remaining on the stage. All is so far clear. He has also, by the dialogue of the Painter and Poet, made in itself taking to the attention through the picture and the flighty recitation, suggested and interested us incidentally in the character of Timon, and conveyed a vague misgiving of misfortune to come to him. And there is withal a swelling pomp, three parts rhetorical and one part genuinely poetical, in the Poet's style, which gives a tone, and prepares the fancy to enter readily into the spirit of the tragedy. This effect the author wished to produce; he felt that the piece required it; he was so preoccupied with the Timon he conceived that he sets to work with a Timon-rich hue of fancy and feeling; to this note he pitches himself, and begins his measured march "bold and forth on." What he has assumed to feel he wishes spectators to feel; and he leaves his style to be colored by his feeling, because he knows that such is the way to make them feel it. And we do feel it, and know also that we are made thus to feel through an art which we can perceive and admire. On the whole, this introduction opens upon the tragedy with just such a display of high-sounding phrases, such a fine appropriateness, such a vague presentiment, and such a rapid, yet artful, rising from indifference to interest, that it seems easiest to suppose the author to be writing while his conceptions of what is to follow are freshest and as yet unwrought out. We cannot ask him; even while we have overlooked him in his labor, his form has faded, and we are again in this dull every-day Present.
We have seen him take up his pen and begin a tragedy; or, to drop the fancy, we have made it real to ourselves in what manner Shakspeare's writing evidences that he wrought as an artist,—one who has an idea in his mind of an effect he desires to produce, and elaborates it with careful skill, not in a trance or ecstasy, but "in clear dream and solemn vision." The subtile tone of feeling to be struck is as much a matter of art as the action or argument to be opened. And it is no less proper to judge (as we have done) of the presence of art by its result in this respect than in respect to what relates to the form or story. An introduction is before us, a dramatic scene, in which characters are brought forward and a dialogue is given, apparently concerning a picture and poem that have been made, but having a more important reference to a character yet to be unfolded. Along with this there is also expressed, in the person of a professed panegyrist, a certain lofty and free opinion of his own work, in a confident declamatory style of description,—
"Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill Feigned Fortune to be throned," etc.,—
that is levelled with exquisite tact just on the verge of bombast. This is not done to make the hearer care for the thing described, which is never heard of after, but to give a hint of Timon and what is to befall him, and to create a melodic effect upon the hearer's sense which shall put him in a state to yield readily to the illusion of the piece.
It is not possible to conceive Shakspeare reviewing his lines and thinking to himself, "That is well done; my genius has not deserted me; I could not have written anything more to my liking, if I had set about it deliberately!" But it is easy to see him running it over with a sensation of "This will serve; my poet will open their eyes and ears; and now for the hall and banquet scene."
The sense of fitness and relation operates among thoughts and feelings as well as among fancies, and its results cannot be mistaken for accident. Ariel and his harpies could not interrupt a scene with a more discordant action than the phase of feeling or the poetic atmosphere pervading it would be interrupted by, if a cloud of distraction came across the poet and the faculties of his mind rioted out of his control. For he not only feels, but sees his feeling; he takes it up as an object and holds it before him,—a feeling to be conveyed. Just as a sculptor holds in his mind a form and models it out of clay, undiverted by other forms thronging into his vision, or by the accidental forms that the plastic substance takes upon itself in the course of his work, till it stands forth the image of his ideal,—so the poet works out his states of poetic feeling. He grasps and holds and sustains them amidst the multiplicity of upflying thoughts and thick-coming fancies;—no matter how subtile or how aspiring they may be, he fastens them in the chamber of his imagination until his distant purpose is accomplished, and he has found a language for them which the world will understand. And this is where Shakspeare's art is so noble,—in that he conquers the entire universe of thought, sentiment, feeling, and passion,—goes into the whole and takes up and portrays characters the most extreme and diverse, passions the most wild, sentiment the most refined, feelings the most delicate,—and does this by an art in which he must make his characters appear real and we looking on, though he cannot use, to develop his dramas, a hundred-thousandth part of the words that would be used in real life,—that is, in Nature. He also always approaches us upon the level of our common sense and experience, and never requires us to yield it,—never breaks in or jars upon our judgment, or shocks or alarms any natural sensibility. After enlarging our souls with the stir of whatever can move us through poetry, he leaves us where he found us, refreshed by new thoughts, new scenes, and new knowledge of ourselves and our kind, more capable, and, if we choose to be so, more wise. His art is so great that we almost forget its presence,—almost forget that the Macbeth and Othello we have seen and heard were Shakspeare's, and that he MADE them; we can scarce conceive how he could feign as if felt, and retain and reproduce such a play of emotions and passions from the position of spectator, his own soul remaining, with its sovereign reason, and all its powers natural and acquired, far, far above all its creations,—a spirit alone before its Maker.
The opening of "Timon" was selected on account of its artful preparation for and relation to what it precedes. It shows the forethought and skill of its author in the construction or opening out of his play, both in respect to the story and the feeling; yet even here, in this half-declamatory prologue, the poet's dramatic art is also evident. His poet and painter are living men, and not mere utterers of so many words. Was this from intuition?—or because he found it easy to make them what he conceived them, and felt that it would add to the life of his introduction, though he should scarcely bring them forward afterwards? No doubt the mind's eye helps the mind in character-drawing, and that appropriate language springs almost uncalled to the pen, especially of a practised writer for the stage. But is his scene a dream which he can direct, and which, though he knows it all proceeds from himself, yet seems to keep just in advance of him,—his fancy shooting ahead and astonishing him with novelties in dialogue and situation? There are those who have experienced this condition in sickness, and who have amused themselves with listening to a fancied conversation having reference to subjects of their own choosing, yet in which they did not seem to themselves to control the cause of the dialogue or originate the particular things said, until they could actually hear the voices rising from an indistinct whisper to plain speech. I knew an instance, (which at least is not related in the very curious work of M. Boismont on the "Natural History of Hallucinations,") where an invalid, recovering from illness, could hear for half a night the debates and doings of an imaginary association in the next chamber, the absurdity of which often made him laugh so that he could with difficulty keep quiet enough to listen; while occasionally extracts would be read from books written in a style whose precision and eloquence excited his admiration, or whose affecting solemnity moved him deeply, though he knew perfectly well that the whole came from his own brain. This he could either cause or permit, and could in an instant change the subject of the conversation or command it into silence. He would sometimes throw his pillow against the wall and say, "Be still! I'll hear no more till daybreak!" And this has taken place when he was in calm health in mind, and, except weakness, in body, and broad awake. What was singular, the voices would cease at his bidding, and in one instance (which might have startled him, had he not known how common it is for persons to wake at an hour they fix) they awoke him at the time appointed. Their language would bear the ordinary tests of sanity, and was like that we see in daily newspapers; but the various knowledge brought in, the complicated scenes gone through, made the whole resemble intricate concerted music, from the imperfect study of which possibly came the power to fabricate them. That they were owing to some physical cause was shown by their keeping a sort of cadence with the pulse, and in the fact, that, though not disagreeable, they were wearisome; especially as they always appeared to be got up with some remote reference to the private faults and virtues of that tedious individual who is always forcing his acquaintance upon us, avoid him however we may,—one's self.
Shall we suppose that Shakspeare wrote in such an opium dream as this? Did his "wood-notes wild" come from him as tunes do from a barrel-organ, where it is necessary only to set the machine and disturb the bowels of it by turning? Was it sufficient for him to fore-plan the plots of his plays, the story, acts, scenes, persons,—the general rough idea, or argument,—and then to sit at his table, and, by some process analogous to mesmeric manipulations, put himself into a condition in which his genius should elaborate and shape what he, by the aid of his poetic taste and all other faculties, had been able to rough-hew? How far did his consciousness desert him?—only partially, as in the instance just given, so that he marvelled, while he wrote, at his own fertility, power, and truth?—or wholly, as in a Pythonic inspiration, so that the frenzy filled him to his fingers' ends, and he wrote, he knew not what, until he re-read it in his ordinary state? In fine, was he the mere conduit of a divinity within him?—or was he in his very self, in the nobility and true greatness of his being and the infinitude of his faculties, a living fountain,—he, he alone, in as plain and common a sense as we mean when we say "a man," the divinity?
These are "questions not to be asked," or, at least, argued, any more than the question, Whether the blessed sun of heaven shall eat blackberries. The quality of Shakspeare's writing renders it impossible to suppose that it was produced in any other state than one where all the perceptions that make good sense, and not only good, but most excellent sense, were present and alert. Howsoever "apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes" his brain may be, it never gambols from the superintendence of his reason and understanding. In truth, it is the perfectness of the control, the conscious assurance of soundness in himself, which leaves him so free that the control is to so many eyes invisible; they perceive nothing but luxuriant ease in the midst of intricate complexities of passion and character, and they think he could have followed the path he took only by a sort of necessity which they call Nature,—that he wrote himself quite into his works, bodily, just as he was, every thought that came and went, and every expression that flew to his pen,—leaving out only a few for shortness. They are so thoroughly beguiled by the very quality they do not see, that they are like spectators who mistake the scene on the stage for reality; they cannot fancy that a man put it all there, and that it is by the artistic and poetic power of him, this man, who is now standing behind or at the wing, and counting the money in the house, that they are beguiled of their tears or thrown into such ecstasies of mirth.
It exalts, and not degrades, the memory of Shakspeare to think of him in this manner, as a man: for he was a man; he had eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, and so forth, the same that a Jew hath; a good many people saw him alive. Had we lived in London between 1580 and 1610, we might have seen him,—a man who came from his Maker's hand endowed with the noblest powers and the most godlike reason,—who had the greatest natural ability to become a great dramatic poet,—the native genius and the aptness to acquire the art, and who did acquire the highest art of his age, and went on far beyond it, exhibiting new ingenuities and resources, and a breadth that has never been equalled, and which admits at once and harmonizes the deepest tragedy and the broadest farce, and, in language, the loftiest flights of measured rhetoric along with the closest imitation of common talk;—and all this he so used, so elaborated through it the poetic creations of his mind, in such glorious union and perfection of high purpose and art and reach of soul, that he was the greatest and most universal poet the world has known.
Rowe observes, in regard to Shakspeare,—"Art had so little and Nature so large a share in what he did, that, for aught I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination in them, were the best. I would not be thought by this to mean that his fancy was so loose and extravagant as to be independent on the rule and government of judgment; but that what he thought was commonly so great, so justly and rightly conceived in itself, that it wanted little or no correction, and was immediately approved by an impartial judgment at the first sight."
The last sentence is true; but Mr. Rowe really means to say that he was as great an artist as natural poet,—that his creative and executive powers wrought in almost perfect spontaneity and harmony,—the work of the making part of him being generally at once approved by the shaping part, and each and both being admirable. When a man creates an Othello, feigns his story and his passion, assumes to be him and to observe him at the same time, figures him so exactly that all the world may realize him also, brings in Desdemona and Iago and the rest, everything kept in propriety and with the minutest perfection of detail, which does most, Art or Nature? How shall we distinguish? Where does one leave off and the other begin? The truth of the passion, that is Nature; but can we not perceive that the Art goes along with it? Do we not at once acknowledge the Art when we say, "How natural!"? In such as Iago, for example, it would seem as if the least reflective spectator must derive a little critical satisfaction,—if he can only bring himself to fancy that Iago is not alive, but that the great master painted him and wrote every word he utters. As we read his words, can we not see how boldly he is drawn, and how highly colored? There he is, right in the foreground, prominent, strong, a most miraculous villain. Did Nature put the words into his mouth, or Art? The question involves a consideration of how far natural it is for men to make Iagos, and to make them speaking naturally. Though it be natural, it is not common; and if its naturalness is what must be most insisted on, it may be conceded, and we may say, with Polixenes, "The Art itself is Nature."
There is a strong rapture that always attends the full exercise of our highest faculties. The whole spirit is raised and quickened into a secondary life. This was felt by Shakspeare,—felt, and at the same time controlled and guided with the same strictness over all thoughts, feelings, passions, fancies, that thronged his mind at such moments, as he had over those in his dull every-day hours. When we are writing, how difficult it is to avoid pleasing our own vanity! how hard not to step aside a little, now and then, for a brilliant thought or a poetic fancy, or any of the thousand illusions that throng upon us! Even for the sake of a well-sounding phrase we are often tempted to turn. The language of passion,—how hard it is to feign, to write it! how harder than all, to keep the tone, serious, or whatever it may be, with which we begin, so that no expressions occur to break it,—lapses of thought or speech, that are like sudden stumbles or uneasy jolts! And if this is so in ordinarily elevated prose, how much more must it be so in high dramatic poetry, where the poet rides on the whirlwind and tempest of passion and "directs the storm." There must go to the conception and execution of this sort of work a resolved mind, strong fancies, thoughts high and deep, in fine, a multitude of powers, all under the grand creative, sustaining imagination. When completed, the work stands forth to all time, a great work of Art, and bulwark of all that is high against all that is low. It is a great poetic work, the work of a maker who gives form and direction to the minds of men.
In a certain sense, it is not an extravagance to say that all who are now living and speak English have views of life and Nature modified by the influence of Shakspeare. We see the world through his eyes; he has taught us how to think; the freedom of soul, the strong sense, the grasp of thought,—above all, the honor, the faith, the love,—who has imparted such noble ideas of these things as he? Not any one, though there were giants in those days as well as he. Hence he has grown to seem even more "natural" than he did in his own day, his judges being mediately or immediately educated by him. The works are admired, but the nobleness of soul in him that made them is not perceived, and his genius and power are degraded into a blind faculty by unthinking minds, and by vain ones that flatter themselves they have discovered the royal road to poetry. What they seem to require for poetry is the flash of thought or fancy that starts the sympathetic thrill,—the little jots,—the striking, often-quoted lines or "gems." The rest is merely introduced to build up a piece; these are the "pure Nature," and all that.
And it is not to be denied that they are pure Nature; for they are true to Nature, and are spontaneous, beautiful, exquisite, deserving to be called gems, and even diamonds.
"The sweet South, That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odor":—
thousands of such lines we keep in our memories' choicest cells; yet they are but the exterior adornments of a great work of Art. They are the delightful finishes and lesser beauties which the great work admits, and, indeed, is never without, but which are not to be classed among its essentials. Their beauty and fitness are not those of the grand columns of the temple; they are the sculptures upon the frieze, the caryatides, or the graceful interlacings of vines. They catch the fancy of those whose field of vision is not large enough to take in the whole, and upon whom all excellences that are not little are lost. Beautiful in themselves, their own beauty is frequently all that is seen; the beauty of their propriety, the grace and charm with which they come in, are overlooked. Many people will have it that nothing is poetry or poetic but these gems of poetry; and because the apparent spontaneousness of them is what makes them so striking, these admirers are unwilling to see that it is through an art that they are brought in so beautifully in their spontaneousness and give such finish to larger effects. And we have no end of writers who are forever trying to imitate them, forgetting that the essence of their beauty is in their coming unsought and in their proper places as unexpected felicities and fine touches growing out of and contributing to some higher purpose. They are natural in this way:—when the poet is engaged upon his work, these delicate fancies and choice expressions throng into his mind; he instantly, by his Art-sense, accepts some, and rejects more; and those he accepts are such as he wants for his ulterior purpose, which will not admit the appearance of art; hence he will have none that do not grow out of his feeling and harmonize with it. All this passes in an instant, and the apt simile or the happy epithet is created,—an immortal beauty, both in itself and as it occurs in its place. It was put there by an art; the poet knew that the way to make expressions come is to assume the feeling; he knew that he
"But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit"
that his whole function would suit with expressions to his conceit. He then withdrew his judgment from within, and cheated his fancy into supposing he had given her the rein, letting the feigned state be as real to him as it could, and writing from that primarily,—humoring Nature by his art in leaving her to do what she alone could do. So that the very gems we admire as natural are the offspring of Nature creating under Art. To make streaked gillyflowers, we marry a gentler scion to the wildest stock, and Nature does the rest. So in poetry, we cannot get at the finest excellences by seeking for them directly, but we put Nature in the way to suggest them. We do not strive to think whether "the mobled queen" is good; we do not let our vanity keep such a strict look-out upon Nature; she will not desert us, if we follow her modes,—which we must do with all the art and fine tact we can acquire and command, not only in order to gain the minute beauties, but to compass the great whole.
The analogies that might be drawn from music would much assist in making all this clear, if they could be used with a chance of being understood. But, unfortunately, the ability to comprehend a great work, as a whole, is even rarer in music than in poetry. The little taking bits of melody are all that is thought of or perceived; the great epos or rhapsody, the form and meaning of the entire composition,—which is a work of Art in no other sense than a poem is one, except that it uses, instead of speech, musical forms, of greater variety and symmetry,—are not at all understood. Nor is the subtile and irresistible coherence in successions of clear sunny melody, in which Mozart so abounds, in any great degree understood, even by some who call themselves artists. They think only of the sudden flashes, the happinesses, and, if such a word may be used once only, the smartnesses,—like children who care for nothing in their cake but the frosting and the plums. But in continuing the study of the art with such notions of its expression, the relish for it soon cloys, the mind ceases to advance, the enthusiasm deadens, progress becomes hopeless, and the little gained is soon lost; whereas, if the student is familiarized with the most perfect forms of the art, and led on by them, both by committing a few of them to memory, and by fully understanding their structure, it will soon be evident that an intellectual study of music, pursued with a true love of it, can, more than any other study, strengthen the imaginative faculty.
The forms of poetry have only the rhythmic analogy, as forms, to those of music; but in their foundation in the same Nature, and in their manner of development, there is a closer resemblance. Both in music and poetry, the older artists regarded with most strictness the carrying through of the whole; they cared little for the taking tunes or the striking passages; they looked with eyes single to their ultimate purposes. Shakspeare came, and accomplished at once, for dramatic art, what the fathers of modern music began for their art nearly a century later. He made the strict form yield to and take new shape from natural feeling. This feeling, whose expression is the musical element of poetry, he brought up to its proper relation with all the other qualities. Look at the terrific bombast which preceded him,—the mighty efforts of mighty men to draw music or the power of sound into their art; Hieronymo is like some portentous convulsion of Nature,—the upheaval of a new geological era. The writers felt that there must be style suited to passion, and that they must attain it,—but how? By artificial pomp?—or by yielding with artful reserve to the natural eloquence of passion?
Shakspeare has answered the question for all time; and he uses both, each in its proper place. Nothing, even in music, ever showed an art growing out of a nicer sensibility in sound than his variety and appropriateness in style. For an art it is, and we cannot make a definition of that word which shall include other forms of art and not include it. If the passion and the feeling make the style, it is the poet's art that leaves them free to do it; he superintends; he feigns that which he leaves to make; he shares his art with "great creating Nature." All is unreal; all comes out of him; and all that has to do with the form and expression of his products is, of course, included in the manifest when his ship of fancy gets its clearance at the custom-house of his judgment. The style he assumes cannot but be present to his consciousness in the progress of a long drama. He must perceive, as he writes, if he has the common penetration of humanity, that the flow and cadence of his "Henry the Eighth" are not like those of his "Midsummer Night's Dream"; and he must preserve his tone, with, at times, direct art, not leaving everything to the feeling. That he does so is as evident as if he had chosen a form of verse more remote from the language of Nature and obliged himself to conform to its requirements. The terrible cursing of Margaret in "Richard III.," for example, is not the remorseless, hollow monotony of it, while it so heightens the passion, as evident to Shakspeare as to us; or had he no ear for verse, and just let his words sound on as they would, looking only at the meaning, and counting his iambics on his fingers,—not too carefully either? If the last supposition is to be insisted on, we must confine our notions of his perceptions and powers within very ordinary bounds, and make dramatic art as unpoetic as the art of brickmaking.
The beauty of Shakspeare's art is in its comprehensiveness. It takes in every quality of excellence. It looks at the great whole, and admits the little charms and graces. It includes constructiveness in story, character-drawing, picturesqueness, musicalness, naturalness,—in fine, whatever art may combine with poetry or the soul of poetry admit in art. To the young and unobservant, and all who are unable to consider the poet's writing, as we have in this article endeavoured to study a single passage of it, from his position, the art is not apparent; the mimic scene is reality, or some supernatural inspiration or schoolboy-like enthusiasm has produced the work. But there are others, created with different faculties, who begin to perceive the art almost as soon as they feel its power, and who love to study it and to live in the spirit of poetry that breathes through it; these come gradually to think of the man, as well as of his works,—to feel more and more the influence upon them of his greatness and beauty of soul, and, as years pass by, to find consolation and repose in the loftiness of his wisdom.
* * * * *
Young Mien-yaun had for two years been the shining centre of the aristocratic circles of Pekin. Around him revolved the social system. He was the vitalizing element in fashionable life,—the radiant sun, diffusing conventional warmth of tone and brilliancy of polish. He created modes. He regulated reputations.
His smile or his frown determined the worldly fate of thousands. His ready assurance gave him preeminence with one sex, and his beauty made him the admiration of the other. When he talked, Mandarins listened; when he walked, maidens' eyes glistened. He was, in short, the rage,—and he knew it, and meant to remain so. He was a wonderful student, and understood politics like a second Confucius. With the literature of all ages, from the Shee-king, written four thousand years ago, down to the latest achievements of the modern poets, he was intimately acquainted. His accomplishments were rich and varied, and his Tartar descent endowed him with a spirit and animation that enabled him to exhibit them to every advantage. He sang like a veritable Orpheus, and sensitive women had been known to faint under the excitement of his Moo-lee-wha, or national song. He even danced,—a most rare faculty in Pekin, as in all China,—but this was frowned upon, as immoral, by his family. Comely indeed he was, especially on state occasions, when he appeared in all the radiance of rosy health, overflowing spirits, and the richest crapes and satins,—decorated with the high order of the peacock's feather, the red button, and numberless glittering ornaments of ivory and lapis-lazuli. Beloved or envied by all the men, and with all the women dying for him, he was fully able to appreciate the comforts of existence. Considering the homage universally accorded him, he was as little of a dandy as could reasonably be expected.
His family connections were very exalted. All his relatives belonged to the Tse,—the learned and governing class. His father had been one of the Tootche-yuen, a censor of the highest board, and was still a member of the council of ministerial Mandarins. His uncle was a personal noble, a prince, higher in rank than the best of the Mandarins, and directed the deliberations of the Ping-pu, the Council of War. Thus his station gave him access to all the best society. His career was a path of roses. He never knew a sorrow. All were friendly to him, even the jealous, because it was the fashion. The doors of the mighty opened at his approach, and the smiles of the noble greeted him. He lived in an atmosphere of adulation, and yet resisted the more intoxicating influences of his dangerous elevation. Young as he was, he had penetrated the social surface, and, marking its many uncertainties, had laid out for himself a system of diplomacy which he believed best calculated to fortify him in his agreeable position of master of modes and dictator of fashionable public opinion.
The course he adopted was thoroughly effective. His sway was never disputed for a moment. He knew his personal charms, and determined to enhance their value by displaying them sparingly. Accordingly, he began by refusing forty-nine out of every fifty public invitations,—his former habit having been to refuse but one in five. He appeared on the promenade only twice in three weeks, but on these occasions he always artfully contrived to throw the community into the wildest excitement. One day, he appeared arrayed from head to foot in yellow Nankin, a color always considered a special abomination in Pekin, but which was nevertheless instantly adopted by all the gallants about town,—a proceeding which caused so much scandal that an imperial edict had to be issued, forbidding the practice in future. Another time, he came out with an unparalleled twist to his tail, the construction of which had occupied his mind for some days, and which occasioned the death by suicide of three over-ambitious youths who found themselves unable to survive the mortification of an unsuccessful attempt to imitate it. Again, to the infinite horror of the Mandarins, he paraded himself one afternoon with decacuminated finger-nails, and came very near producing a riot by his unwillingness to permit them to grow again, besides calling forth another imperial decree, threatening ignominious death to all nobles throughout the empire who should encourage the practice. All these eccentricities served only to add to the consequence of the multipotent Mien-yaun. Then again, he was gifted with a bewitching smile; but he steadily refrained from making any use of it oftener than once a month, at which times the enthusiasm of his adherents knew no bounds, and it might have been supposed that all Pekin had administered unto itself a mild preparation of laughing-gas, so universal were the grimaces. On very rare and distinguished occasions, Mien-yaun permitted himself to be persuaded to sing; but as ladies sometimes swooned under his melodious influence, the natural goodness of his heart prevented him from frequent indulgence in the exercise of this accomplishment.
It may naturally be supposed that the popular and fascinating young Chinese nobleman was the devoted object of much matrimonial speculation. Managing mammas and aspiring daughters gave the whole of their minds to him. To look forward to the possible hope of sharing through life his fortunes and his fame was the continual employment of many a high-born damsel. And they the more readily and unreservedly indulged these fancies, as nothing in the laws of China could prevent Mien-yaun from taking as many wives as he chose, provided he could support them all, and supply all their natural wants. But our hero knew his value. He was fully conscious that a member of the Tse, a son of an ex-censor of the highest board, a nephew of a personal noble and the Secretary of War, and, above all, the brightest ornament of aristocratic society, was by no means the sort of person to throw himself lightly away upon any woman or any set of women. He preferred to wait.
His family had high hopes of him. He was largely gifted with filial piety, which is everything in China. Politics, religion, literature, government, all rest upon the broad principle of filial piety. Being very filially pious, of course Mien-yaun was eminent in all these varied accomplishments. Consequently his family had a right to have high hopes of him. The great statesman, Kei-ying,—who has very recently terminated a life of devoted patriotism and heroic virtues by a sublime death on the scaffold,—undertook his instruction in Chinese politics. One lesson completed his education. "Lie, cheat, steal, and honor your parents," were the elementary principles which Kei-ying inculcated. The readiness with which Mien-yaun mastered them inspired his tutor with a lively confidence in the young man's future greatness. He was pronounced a rising character. His popularity increased. His name was in everybody's mouth. He shunned society more sedulously than ever, and assumed new and loftier airs. He was seized with fits of ambition, each of which lasted a day, and then gave place to some new aspiration. First, he would be a poet; but, after a few hours' labor, he declared the exertion of hunting up rhymes too great an exertion. Next, he would be a moral philosopher, and commenced a work, to be completed in sixty volumes, on the Whole Duty of Chinamen; but he never got beyond the elementary principles he had imbibed from Kei-ying. Again, he would become a great painter; but, having in an unguarded moment permitted the claims of perspective to be recognized, he was discouraged from this attempt by a deputation of the first artists of the empire, who waited upon him, and with great respect laid before him the appalling effects that would inevitably follow any public recognition of perspective in painting. Finally, he renounced all ambition but that of ruling his fellow-creatures with a rod more tyrannical than that of political authority, and more respected than the sceptre of government itself.
Satiated with success, Mien-yaun at length became weary of the ceaseless round of flattering triumphs, and began to lament that no higher step on the social staircase remained for him to achieve. Alas that discontent should so soon follow the realization of our brightest hopes! What, in this world, is enough? More than we have! Mien-yaun felt all the pangs of anxious aspiration, without knowing how to alleviate them. He was only conscious of a deep desolation, for which none of the elementary principles he had learned from Kei-ying afforded the slightest consolation. He now avoided publicity from inclination, rather than from any systematic plan of action. He dressed mostly in blue, a sufficient sign of a perturbed spirit. He discarded the peacock's feather, as an idle vanity, and always came forth among the world arrayed in ultramarine gowns and cerulean petticoats. His stockings, especially, were of the deepest, darkest, and most beautiful blue. The world of fashion saw, and was amazed; but in less than, a week all Pekin had the blues. Annoyed at what a few months before he would have delighted in as another convincing proof of his influential position, Mien-yaun fled the city, and sought relief in a cruise up and down the Peiho, in his private junk. As he neared the Gulf of Pe-tche-lee, the sea-breeze brought calm to his troubled spirit and imparted renewed vigor to his wearied mind. A degree of resolution, to which he had heretofore been a stranger, possessed him. His courage returned. He would go back to Pekin. He would renounce those vain pursuits in which he had passed his unworthy life. Henceforth he would strive for nobler aims. Something great and wonderful he certainly would accomplish,—the exact nature of which, however, he did not pause to consider.
As he reentered the city, he was obliged to pass through that quarter which is inhabited by the Kung,—the working and manufacturing classes. His attention was suddenly arrested by feminine cries of distress; and, turning a corner, he came upon a domestic scene so common in China that it would hardly have attracted his notice but for a peculiar circumstance. A matron, well advanced in years, was violently beating a young and beautiful girl with a bit of bamboo; and the peculiar circumstance that enforced Mien-yaun's interest was, that, as the maiden turned her fair face towards him, she smiled through her tears and telegraphed him a fragrant kiss, by means of her fair fingers. Naturally astounded, he paused, and gazed upon the pair. The younger female was the loveliest maid he had ever looked upon. She had the smallest eyes in the world, the most tempting, large, full, pouting lips, the blackest and most abundant hair, exquisitely plaited, and feet no bigger than her little finger. As these are the four characteristics of female beauty dearest to a Chinaman's heart, it is no wonder that Mien-yaun thought her a paragon. The old woman, on the contrary, was hideously ugly. Her teeth were gone, and her eyes sought the comforting assistance of an ill-fitting pair of crystal spectacles. She had no hair, and her feet might have supported an elephant. As he rested his eyes wistfully upon them, the young woman discharged a second rapturous salute. His heart beat with singular turbulence, and he approached.
"What has the child done?" he asked.
Now the law of China is, that parents shall not be restrained from beating and abusing their children as often and as soundly as is convenient. The great principle of filial piety knows no reciprocity. Should a child occasionally be killed, the payment of a small fine will satisfy the accommodating spirit of the authorities. The ill-favored mother was not, therefore, in any way bound to answer this somewhat abrupt question; but, observing the appearance of high gentility, and touched by the engaging manner of the interrogator, she answered, that her appetite had of late been uncertain, and that she was endeavoring to restore it by a little wholesome exercise.
So reasonable an explanation admitted of no reply; and Mien-yaun was about to resume his way with a sigh, when the young lady insinuated a third osculatory hint, more penetrating than either of the others, and bestowed on him, besides, a most ravishing smile. He fluttered internally, but succeeded in preserving his outward immobility. He entered into conversation with the elderly female, observing that it was a fine day, and that it promised to continue so, although destiny was impenetrable, and clouds might overshadow the radiant face of Nature at any unexpected moment. To these and other equally profound and original remarks the old woman graciously assented, and finally invited the young gentleman to partake of a cup of scau-tcheou. Now scau-tcheou, which is the most ardent of Chinese spirits, was Mien-yaun's abomination; but he concealed his disgust, and quietly observed that he should prefer a cup of tea.
The old woman was delighted, and ran off to prepare the desired refreshment, so that Mien-yaun was at length rewarded by the opportunity of a few private words with the daughter.
"Tell me, Miss," said he,—"why did the sweetest of lips perform their most delicate office when the brightest of eyes first turned upon me?"
The young lady, confused and blushing, answered, that the brilliancy of the jewel which Mien-yaun wore in his hat had dazzled her vision, and that she mistook him for an intimate friend of her youth,—that was all.
He knew this was a lie; but as lying was in exact accordance with the elementary principles laid down by the learned Kei-ying, he was rather pleased by it. Moreover, it was a very pretty lie, worthy of so pretty a girl; and Mien-yaun, whose wits were fast leaving him, removed the jewel from his hat, and begged the maiden to accept it. She, declaring that she never could think of such a thing, deposited it in her bosom. Evidently the twain were on the brink of love; a gentle push only was needed to submerge them.
Mien-yaun speedily learned that his fair friend's name was Ching-ki-pin; that she was the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, named Tching-whang, who owned extensive porcelain-factories at the North, and was besides a considerable tobacco-planter; that her father was very kind to her, but that the old woman, who was not her own mother, treated her very cruelly; that her father married this ancient virago for her wealth, and now repented the rash step, but found it impossible to retrace it, as the law of China allows no divorces excepting when the wife has parents living to receive and shelter her; and the obnoxious woman being nearly a hundred years old herself, this was out of the question. When he had learned so much, they were interrupted by the reappearance of the Antique, who brought with her the cup of tea, most carefully prepared. In deep abstraction, Mien-yaun seized it, and, instead of drinking the boiling beverage, poured it upon the old woman's back, scalding her to such a degree that her shrieks resounded through the neighborhood. Then dropping the cup upon the ground, he put his heel into it, and, with a burning glance of love at Ching-ki-pin, strode, melancholy, away.
All that night, Mien-yaun's heart was troubled. The tranquillizing finger of Sleep never touched his eyelids. At earliest dawn he arose, and devoted some hours to the consideration of his costume. Never before had he murmured at his wardrobe; now everything seemed unworthy of the magnitude of the occasion. Finally, after many doubts and inward struggles, and much bewilderment and desperation, the thing was done. He issued forth in a blaze of splendor, preceded by two servants bearing rare and costly presents. His raiment was a masterpiece of artistic effect. He wore furs from Russia, and cotton from Bombay; his breast sparkled with various orders of nobility; his slippers glistened with gems; his hat was surmounted with the waving feather of the peacock. Turning neither to the right nor to the left, he made his way to the residence of Tching-whang. At the portal he paused, and sent in before him his card,—a sheet of bright red paper,—with a list of the presents he designed to offer the family whose acquaintance he desired to cultivate.
As he had expected, his reception was most cordial. Though his person was unknown, the magic of his name was not unfelt, even in the regions of the Kung. A prince of the peacock's feather was no common visitor to the home of a plebeian manufacturer; and when that prince was found to be in addition the leader of the fashions and the idol of the aristocracy, the marvel assumed a miraculous character. The guest was ushered in with many low obeisances. How the too gay Ching-ki-pin regretted those unlucky telegraphic kisses! What would he think of her? She, too, had passed a most unquiet night, but had been able to relieve her feelings to some extent at the sewing-circle, which had met at her home, and at which she poured into the eager ears of her young companions rapturous accounts of the beauty, elegance, dignity, and tenderness of the enchanting stranger, and displayed before their dazzled eyes the lustrous jewel he had presented to her. Having excited a great deal of envy and jealousy, she was able to rest more in peace than would otherwise have been possible. But she had never dreamed of the real rank of her admirer. It came upon her like a lightning-flash, and almost reduced her to a condition of temporary distraction. As for the mother-in-law, she would infallibly have gone off into hysterics, but for the pain in her back, which the barbers—who are also the physicians in China—had not been able to allay. But the sight of a peacock's feather under her roof was better than balm to her tortured spine. Tching-whang lost his presence of mind altogether, and violated the common decencies of life by receiving his visitor with his hat off, and taking the proffered presents with one hand,—the other being occupied in pulling his ear, to assure himself he was not dreaming.
Mien-yaun spoke. His voice fell like soft music on the ears of his hosts, and went straight to the innermost core of Ching-ki-pin's heart. He had come, he said, to give utterance to his deep grief at the mishap of yesterday, the recollection of which had harrowed his soul. The thought of that venerable blistered back had taken away his repose, and seriously interfered with his appetite. At the same time he could not forget his own great loss, occasioned by the unlucky spilling of the precious cup. He was sure, that Madam, in the kindness of her heart, would overlook his fault, and consent to bestow on him another cheering, but not inebriating draught.
The Antique was overcome by so much condescension. She could not say a word. Tching-whang, too, remained paralyzed. But the beauteous Ching-ki-pin, who had recovered her composure, answered with the sweetest air imaginable, and succeeded in winding another amorous chain around the already sufficiently-enslaved heart of her lover.
Presently the ice of constraint was broken, and the Antique, having once put her foot in it, plunged off into conversation with remarkable vigor. She entertained Mien-yaun with a detailed account of her family trials, so interminable, that, with all his politeness, the young noble could not avoid gaping desperately. Tching-whang, observing his visitor's strait, interposed.
"What the women have lost in their feet, they have added to their tongues," said he, quoting a Chinese proverb of great popularity.
As the Antique persisted, her husband gently reminded her that excessive talkativeness is an allowed ground for divorce in China, and, by suggesting the idea that she might possibly become the dismembered fragment of a shattered union, at length succeeded in shaming her into silence.
This Tching-whang was a fine old fellow. He was not a bit fashionable, and Mien-yaun liked him the better for it. He had been educated by the bamboo, and not by masters in the arts of courtesy. But he was a shrewd, cunning, jolly old Chinaman, and was evidently perfectly familiar with the elementary principles according to Kei-ying. After an animated discussion of some ten minutes, it would have been difficult to determine which of the two gentlemen was most deeply imbued with a sense of the righteousness of the elementary principles.
After a proper time had elapsed, Mien-yaun was permitted the luxury of a private chat with his charmer. What sighs, what smiles, what pleasing tremors, what soft murmurings, what pressings of the hand and throbbings of the heart were there! The Antique, who watched the course of proceedings through a contiguous keyhole, subsequently declared that she had never in all her life witnessed so affecting a spectacle, and she was prevented from giving way to her excessive agitation only by the thought that the interruption might seriously endanger her daughter-in-law's prospects. The lovers, unconscious of scrutiny, made great progress. Some doubt appeared at one time to exist as to which had first experienced the budding passion which had now blossomed so profusely; but in due time it was settled that both had suffered love at precisely the same moment, and that the first gleam of the other's eye had kindled the flame in the bosom of each.
Towards evening, the Antique came in with a cup of tea worthy to excite a poet's inspiration,—and poets in China have sung the delights of tea, and written odes to teacups, too, before now. Mien-yaun sipped it with an air of high-breeding that neither Ching-ki-pin nor her respectable mother-in-law had ever seen before. Soon after, the enamored couple parted, with many fond protestations of faith, avowed and betrothed lovers.
Mien-yaun went home in an amatory ecstasy, and immediately exploded four bunches of crackers and blazed a Bengal light, as a slight token of his infinite happiness.
All Pekin was in an uproar. That is to say, the three thousand eminent individuals who composed the aristocracy had nearly lost their wits. The million and a half of common people were, of course, of no account. Mien-yaun had given out that he was about to be married; but to whom, or to how many, remained a mystery. No further intelligence passed his lips. Consequently, in less than twenty-four hours there were four hundred and fifty persons who knew the lady's name, as many more who had conversed with her upon the subject, twice as many who knew the day on which the ceremony was to take place, at least one thousand who had been invited to assist, and an infinitely greater number who simply shook their heads. In two days the names of some hundreds of young and comely damsels were popularly accepted as the chosen future partner of the glass of fashion and the mould of form. Fifty different days and hours were fixed as the appointed time. All the most noted bonzes in Pekin were in turn declared to be the fortunate sacred instrument by which the union was to be effected. In the course of a week, public feeling reached such a height that business was neglected and property declined in value. A panic was feared. Mien-yaun shut himself up, and did not stir abroad for a month, lest he should be tracked, and his secret discovered. He contrived, however, to maintain a constant correspondence with the light of his soul.
He was a little disturbed to find that his much revered father, the ex-censor of the highest board, took no notice of what was going on, and never alluded to the subject in any manner. Mien-yaun was too deeply impressed with a sense of filial obligation to intrude his humble affairs upon the old gentleman's
[Transcriber's note: Page missing in original.]
There were lanterns—without number, and of the largest size; there were the richest and most luxurious couches disposed about for the general comfort; there were consultations of cooks, headed by a professor from Ning-po, a city famed throughout China for its culinary perfection, with a view to producing an unrivalled gastronomic sensation; there were tailors who tortured their inventive brains to realize the ideal raiment which Mien-yaun desired to appear in. The panic ceased as suddenly as it had arisen. A little while ago, and there was a surplus of supply and no demand; now, the demand far exceeded the supply. Artists in apparel were driven frantic. In three days the entire fashionable world of Pekin had to be new clad, and well clad, for the great occasion. One tailor, in despair at his inability to execute more than the tenth of his commissions, went and drowned himself in the Peiho River, a proceeding which did not at all diminish the public distress. The loss of the tailor was nothing, to be sure, but his death was a fatal blow to the hopes of at least a hundred of the first families. As for the women, they were beside themselves, and knew not which way to turn. It was evident that nothing had occurred within a half-century to create anything like the excitement that existed. Mien-yaun's prospects of eternal potency never seemed so cheering.
All this time, our hero's father, the ex-censor of the highest board, preserved a profound silence.
The three days passed so rapidly, that even Mien-yaun's anxiety, great as it was, could hardly keep pace with the swift hours. The morning of the New Year came. For the first time in his life, the dictator of fashion lost his mind. His head whirled like a tee-to-tum, and his pulses beat sharp and irregular as the detonations of a bundle of crackers. He was obliged to resign himself to fate and his valet, and felt compelled to have recourse to many cups of tea to calm his fevered senses. At length it became necessary for him to descend to the gardens. Nerving himself by a powerful effort, he advanced among his guests.
What a gorgeous array of rank and beauty was there! The customary calls of the New Year had been forgotten. Curiosity had alike infected all, and the traditionary commemoration of two thousand years was for the first time neglected. Why this tremor at our hero's heart? Was he not lord of all that he surveyed? Reigned he not yet with undisputed sway? Or was it that, an undefined presentiment of dire misfortune had settled upon him? He strove to banish his melancholy, but with slight success.
His troubled air did not escape the scrutinizing eyes of the company. The women whispered; the men shook their heads. But all greeted him with enthusiasm, and asked after his bride with eagerness.
A crash of gongs was heard. The gates of a pavilion flew open, and the beauteous Ching-ki-pin stepped forth, glowing with loveliness and hope. As she stood an instant timidly on the portal, she seemed almost a divinity,—at least, Mien-yaun thought so. Her sweet face was surmounted by a heavy coronet of black hair, plaited to perfection, and glistening with gum. Her little eyes beamed lovingly on her betrothed, and a flush of expectancy overspread her countenance. Her costume was in the best Chinese taste. An embroidered tunic of silk fell from her neck almost to her ankles, and just temptingly revealed the spangled trowsers and the richly jewelled slippers. A murmur of admiration diffused itself around. Then followed many anxious inquiries. Who was she? Whence came she? To whom belonged she? Her face was strange to all that high-born throng. In a minute, however, her father appeared, bearing on his arm the Antique, who looked more hideous than ever. A flash of intelligence quivered through the multitude. Many of the nobility purchased their porcelain and tobacco of Tching-whang, and recognized him immediately. It is astonishing how like lightning unpleasant facts do fly. In less than two minutes, every soul in the gardens knew that Mien-yaun, the noble, the princely, the loftily-descended, the genteel, was going to marry a tradesman's daughter.
Now that the great secret was out, everybody had thought so. Some had been sure of it. Others had told you so. It was the most natural thing in the world. Where there was so much mystery, there must, of necessity, be some peculiar reason for it. A great many had always thought him a little crazy. In fact, the whole tide of public sentiment instantly turned. Mien-yaun, without knowing it, was dethroned. Upstarts, who that morning had trembled at his frown, and had very properly deemed themselves unworthy to braid his tail, now swept by him with swaggering insolence, as if to compensate in their new-found freedom for the years of social enslavement they had been subjected to. Leers and shrugs and spiteful whispers circulated extensively. But the enraptured Mien-yaun, blind to everything except his own overwhelming happiness, saw and heard them not.
Little time was afforded for these private expressions of amiable feeling. The grand repast was declared ready, and the importance of this announcement overweighed, for a short period, the claims of scandal and ill-nature. The company quickly found their way to the tables, which, as the "Pekin Gazette" of the next morning said, in describing the fete, "literally groaned beneath the weight of the delicacies with which they were loaded." The consultations of the Ning-po cook and his confederates had produced great results. The guests seated themselves, and delicately tasted the slices of goose and shell-fish, and the pickled berries, and prawns, and preserves, which always compose the prefatory course of a Chinese dinner of high degree. Then porcelain plates and spoons of the finest quality, and ivory chopsticks tipped with pearl, were distributed about, and the birds'-nest soup was brought on. After a sufficient indulgence in this luxury, came sea-slugs, and shark stews, and crab salad, all served with rich and gelatinous sauces, and cooked to a charm. Ducks' tongues and deers' tendons, from Tartary, succeeded, with stewed fruits and mucilaginous gravy. Every known and some unknown luxuries were lavishly provided. The Ning-po cook had invented a new dish expressly for the occasion,—"Baked ice a la Ching-ki-pin,"—which was highly esteemed. The ice was enveloped in a crust of fine pastry, and introduced into the oven; the paste being baked before the ice—thus protected from the heat—had melted, the astonished visitors had the satisfaction of biting through a burning crust, and instantly cooling their palates with the grateful contents. The Chinese never cook except on substantial principles; and it was the principle of contrast which regulated this sublime chef-d'oeuvre of the Ning-po artist.
Of course, the rarest beverages were not wanting. A good dinner without good wine is nought. Useless each without the other. Those whose fancy rested upon medicated liqueurs found them in every variety. Those who placed a higher value upon plain light wines had no reason to complain of the supply set before them. Those whose unconquerable instinct impelled them to the more invigorating sam-shu had only to make known their natural desires. As the feast progressed, and the spirits of the company rose, the charms of music were added to the delights of appetite. A band of singsong girls gently beat their tom-toms, and carolled in soft and soothing strains. As they finished, a general desire to hear Mien-yaun was expressed. Willing, indeed, he was, and, after seven protestations that he could not think upon it, each fainter than the other, he suffered himself to be prevailed over, and, casting a fond look upon his betrothed, he rose, and sang the following verses from the Shee-king,—a collection of odes four thousand years old, and, consequently, of indisputable beauty:—
"The peach-tree, how graceful! how fair! How blooming, how pleasant its leaves! Such is a bride when she enters to share The home of her bridegroom, and every care Her family from her receives."[A]
[Footnote A: The following is Sir William Jones's less literal and more poetic paraphrase of the same selection:—
"Gay child of Spring, the garden's queen, Yon peach-tree charms the roving sight; Its fragrant leaves how richly green! Its blossoms how divinely bright!
"So softly smiles the blooming bride By love and conscious virtue led O'er her new mansion to preside, And placid joys around her spread."]
The festivities were at their height, the sam-shu was spreading its benign influences over the guests, the deep delight of satiated appetite possessed their bosoms, when the entrance of a stern and fat old gentleman arrested universal attention. It was the respected father of Mien-yaun, the ex-censor of the highest board, and Councillor of the Empire. The company rose to greet him; but he, with gracious suavity, begged them not to discompose themselves. Approaching that part of the table occupied by the bridal party, he laid his hand upon his heart, and assured Tching-whang that he was unable to express the joy he felt at seeing him and his family.
Mien-yaun's father was a perfect master of the elementary principles.
Turning then to his son, he pleasantly requested him to excuse himself to the assemblage, and follow him for a few minutes to a private apartment.
As soon as they were alone, the adipose ex-censor of the highest board said:—"My son, have you thought of wedding this maiden?"
"Nothing shall divert me from that purpose, O my father," confidently answered Mien-yaun.
"Nothing but my displeasure," said the ex-censor of the highest board. "You will not marry her."
Mien-yaun was thunderstruck. When he had said that nothing should awe him from the career of his humor, he had never contemplated the appalling contingency of the interposition of paternal authority. He wept, he prayed, he raved, he gnashed his teeth, he tore out as much of his hair as was consistent with appearances. He went through all the various manifestations of despair, but without producing the slightest effect upon the inexorable ex-censor of the highest board. That worthy official briefly explained his objections to a union between his son, the pride and joy of the Tse, and a daughter of one of the Kung, and then, taking the grief-stricken lover by the hand, he led him back to the gardens.
"Good friends," said he, "my son has just conveyed to me his lively appreciation of the folly he was about to commit. He renounces all connection with the black-haired daughter of the Kung, whom he now wishes a very good evening."
And the ex-censor of the highest board gravely and gracefully bowed the family of Tching-whang out of the premises. The moment they crossed the threshold, Mien-yaun and Ching-ki-pin went into a simultaneous fit.
Mien-yaun now abandoned himself to grief. He laid away the peacock's feather on a lofty shelf, and took to cotton breeches. Mien-yaun in cotton breeches! What stronger confirmation could be needed of his utter desolation? As he kept himself strictly secluded, he knew nothing of the storm of ridicule that was sweeping his once illustrious name disgracefully through the city. He knew not that a popular but unscrupulous novelist had caught up the sad story and wrought it into three thrilling volumes,—nor that an enterprising dramatist had constructed a closely-written play in five acts, founded on the event, and called "The Judgment of Taoli, or Vanity Rebuked," which had been prepared, rehearsed, and put upon the stage by the second night after the occurrence. He would gladly have abdicated the throne of fashion; he cared nothing for that;—but it was well that he was spared the humiliation of seeing his Ching-ki-pin's name held up to public scorn; that would have destroyed the feeble remains of intellect which yet inhabited his bewildered brain.
Occasionally he would address the most piteous entreaties to his cruel parent, but always unavailingly. He had not the spirit to show resentment, even if the elementary principles would have permitted it. The reaction of his life had come. This first great sorrow had completely overwhelmed him, and, like most young persons in the agony of a primal disappointment, he believed that the world had now no charms for him, and that in future his existence would be little better than a long sad bore. He looked back upon his career of gaudy magnificence without regret, and felt like a blase butterfly, who would gladly return to the sober obscurity of the chrysalis. He found that wealth and station, though they might command the admiration of the world, could not insure him happiness; and he thought how readily he would resign all the gifts and glories which Fortune had showered on him for the joyous hope, could he dare to indulge it, of a cottage on the banks of the Grand Canal, with his darling Ching-ki-pin at his side.
Thus passed away some months. At last, one day, he ventured forth, in hope of meeting some former friend, in whose confiding ear he might whisper his many sorrows. He had not proceeded twenty paces before a group of young gallants, who in earlier days had been the humblest of his satellites, brushed rudely by him, without acknowledging his courteous salutation. Thinking that anguish might have changed his features beyond recognition, he walked on, and soon met one with whom his intimacy had been unlimited. He paused, and accosted him.
The other stared coldly upon him, said he had a faint remembrance of Mien-yaun, but Mien-yaun was passe now, since that affair with old Tching-whang's daughter, and he must really be excused from entering into conversation with any one so excessively behind the fashionable times.
Mien-yaun seized the offender by the tail, whirled him violently to the ground, and strode haughtily back to his home, whence he could not be persuaded to stir, until after the occurrence of a very remarkable event.
When Mien-yaun had pined nearly half away, and was considering within himself whether it was expedient to commence upon the other half, word was brought to him, one day, that his father, whom he had not seen for some weeks, had met with an accident. Further inquiry revealed the fact, that the worthy ex-censor of the highest board had so far forgotten himself as to sneeze in the presence of the Emperor; and as nothing in the elementary principles could be found to justify so gross a breach of etiquette, the ex-censor's head had been struck off by the public executioner, and his property, which was immense, had been confiscated to the state. Some of Mien-yaun's friends, who had sedulously shunned him for six months, lost no time in hastening to him with the agreeable intelligence that he was an orphan and a pauper. After kicking them out of doors, he sat down and pondered upon the matter.