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Ch. 3 - Hero as Poet

[May 12, 1840.]

The Hero as Divinity, the Hero as Prophet, are productions of old ages; not
to be repeated in the new. They presuppose a certain rudeness of
conception, which the progress of mere scientific knowledge puts an end to.
There needs to be, as it were, a world vacant, or almost vacant of
scientific forms, if men in their loving wonder are to fancy their
fellow-man either a god or one speaking with the voice of a god. Divinity
and Prophet are past. We are now to see our Hero in the less ambitious,
but also less questionable, character of Poet; a character which does not
pass. The Poet is a heroic figure belonging to all ages; whom all ages
possess, when once he is produced, whom the newest age as the oldest may
produce;--and will produce, always when Nature pleases. Let Nature send a
Hero-soul; in no age is it other than possible that he may be shaped into a

Hero, Prophet, Poet,--many different names, in different times, and places,
do we give to Great Men; according to varieties we note in them, according
to the sphere in which they have displayed themselves! We might give many
more names, on this same principle. I will remark again, however, as a
fact not unimportant to be understood, that the different _sphere_
constitutes the grand origin of such distinction; that the Hero can be
Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will, according to the kind of
world he finds himself born into. I confess, I have no notion of a truly
great man that could not be _all_ sorts of men. The Poet who could merely
sit on a chair, and compose stanzas, would never make a stanza worth much.
He could not sing the Heroic warrior, unless he himself were at least a
Heroic warrior too. I fancy there is in him the Politician, the Thinker,
Legislator, Philosopher;--in one or the other degree, he could have been,
he is all these. So too I cannot understand how a Mirabeau, with that
great glowing heart, with the fire that was in it, with the bursting tears
that were in it, could not have written verses, tragedies, poems, and
touched all hearts in that way, had his course of life and education led
him thitherward. The grand fundamental character is that of Great Man;
that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like Austerlitz
Battles. Louis Fourteenth's Marshals are a kind of poetical men withal;
the things Turenne says are full of sagacity and geniality, like sayings of
Samuel Johnson. The great heart, the clear deep-seeing eye: there it
lies; no man whatever, in what province soever, can prosper at all without
these. Petrarch and Boccaccio did diplomatic messages, it seems, quite
well: one can easily believe it; they had done things a little harder than
these! Burns, a gifted song-writer, might have made a still better
Mirabeau. Shakspeare,--one knows not what _he_ could not have made, in the
supreme degree.

True, there are aptitudes of Nature too. Nature does not make all great
men, more than all other men, in the self-same mould. Varieties of
aptitude doubtless; but infinitely more of circumstance; and far oftenest
it is the _latter_ only that are looked to. But it is as with common men
in the learning of trades. You take any man, as yet a vague capability of
a man, who could be any kind of craftsman; and make him into a smith, a
carpenter, a mason: he is then and thenceforth that and nothing else. And
if, as Addison complains, you sometimes see a street-porter, staggering
under his load on spindle-shanks, and near at hand a tailor with the frame
of a Samson handling a bit of cloth and small Whitechapel needle,--it
cannot be considered that aptitude of Nature alone has been consulted here
either!--The Great Man also, to what shall he be bound apprentice? Given
your Hero, is he to become Conqueror, King, Philosopher, Poet? It is an
inexplicably complex controversial-calculation between the world and him!
He will read the world and its laws; the world with its laws will be there
to be read. What the world, on _this_ matter, shall permit and bid is, as
we said, the most important fact about the world.--

Poet and Prophet differ greatly in our loose modern notions of them. In
some old languages, again, the titles are synonymous; _Vates_ means both
Prophet and Poet: and indeed at all times, Prophet and Poet, well
understood, have much kindred of meaning. Fundamentally indeed they are
still the same; in this most important respect especially, That they have
penetrated both of them into the sacred mystery of the Universe; what
Goethe calls "the open secret." "Which is the great secret?" asks
one.--"The _open_ secret,"--open to all, seen by almost none! That divine
mystery, which lies everywhere in all Beings, "the Divine Idea of the
World, that which lies at the bottom of Appearance," as Fichte styles it;
of which all Appearance, from the starry sky to the grass of the field, but
especially the Appearance of Man and his work, is but the _vesture_, the
embodiment that renders it visible. This divine mystery _is_ in all times
and in all places; veritably is. In most times and places it is greatly
overlooked; and the Universe, definable always in one or the other dialect,
as the realized Thought of God, is considered a trivial, inert, commonplace
matter,--as if, says the Satirist, it were a dead thing, which some
upholsterer had put together! It could do no good, at present, to _speak_
much about this; but it is a pity for every one of us if we do not know it,
live ever in the knowledge of it. Really a most mournful pity;--a failure
to live at all, if we live otherwise!

But now, I say, whoever may forget this divine mystery, the _Vates_,
whether Prophet or Poet, has penetrated into it; is a man sent hither to
make it more impressively known to us. That always is his message; he is
to reveal that to us,--that sacred mystery which he more than others lives
ever present with. While others forget it, he knows it;--I might say, he
has been driven to know it; without consent asked of him, he finds himself
living in it, bound to live in it. Once more, here is no Hearsay, but a
direct Insight and Belief; this man too could not help being a sincere man!
Whosoever may live in the shows of things, it is for him a necessity of
nature to live in the very fact of things. A man once more, in earnest
with the Universe, though all others were but toying with it. He is a
_Vates_, first of all, in virtue of being sincere. So far Poet and
Prophet, participators in the "open secret," are one.

With respect to their distinction again: The _Vates_ Prophet, we might
say, has seized that sacred mystery rather on the moral side, as Good and
Evil, Duty and Prohibition; the _Vates_ Poet on what the Germans call the
aesthetic side, as Beautiful, and the like. The one we may call a revealer
of what we are to do, the other of what we are to love. But indeed these
two provinces run into one another, and cannot be disjoined. The Prophet
too has his eye on what we are to love: how else shall he know what it is
we are to do? The highest Voice ever heard on this earth said withal,
"Consider the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin:
yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." A glance,
that, into the deepest deep of Beauty. "The lilies of the field,"--dressed
finer than earthly princes, springing up there in the humble furrow-field;
a beautiful _eye_ looking out on you, from the great inner Sea of Beauty!
How could the rude Earth make these, if her Essence, rugged as she looks
and is, were not inwardly Beauty? In this point of view, too, a saying of
Goethe's, which has staggered several, may have meaning: "The Beautiful,"
he intimates, "is higher than the Good; the Beautiful includes in it the
Good." The _true_ Beautiful; which however, I have said somewhere,
"differs from the _false_ as Heaven does from Vauxhall!" So much for the
distinction and identity of Poet and Prophet.--

In ancient and also in modern periods we find a few Poets who are accounted
perfect; whom it were a kind of treason to find fault with. This is
noteworthy; this is right: yet in strictness it is only an illusion. At
bottom, clearly enough, there is no perfect Poet! A vein of Poetry exists
in the hearts of all men; no man is made altogether of Poetry. We are all
poets when we _read_ a poem well. The "imagination that shudders at the
Hell of Dante," is not that the same faculty, weaker in degree, as Dante's
own? No one but Shakspeare can embody, out of _Saxo Grammaticus_, the
story of _Hamlet_ as Shakspeare did: but every one models some kind of
story out of it; every one embodies it better or worse. We need not spend
time in defining. Where there is no specific difference, as between round
and square, all definition must be more or less arbitrary. A man that has
_so_ much more of the poetic element developed in him as to have become
noticeable, will be called Poet by his neighbors. World-Poets too, those
whom we are to take for perfect Poets, are settled by critics in the same
way. One who rises _so_ far above the general level of Poets will, to such
and such critics, seem a Universal Poet; as he ought to do. And yet it is,
and must be, an arbitrary distinction. All Poets, all men, have some
touches of the Universal; no man is wholly made of that. Most Poets are
very soon forgotten: but not the noblest Shakspeare or Homer of them can
be remembered _forever_;--a day comes when he too is not!

Nevertheless, you will say, there must be a difference between true Poetry
and true Speech not poetical: what is the difference? On this point many
things have been written, especially by late German Critics, some of which
are not very intelligible at first. They say, for example, that the Poet
has an _infinitude_ in him; communicates an _Unendlichkeit_, a certain
character of "infinitude," to whatsoever he delineates. This, though not
very precise, yet on so vague a matter is worth remembering: if well
meditated, some meaning will gradually be found in it. For my own part, I
find considerable meaning in the old vulgar distinction of Poetry being
_metrical_, having music in it, being a Song. Truly, if pressed to give a
definition, one might say this as soon as anything else: If your
delineation be authentically _musical_, musical not in word only, but in
heart and substance, in all the thoughts and utterances of it, in the whole
conception of it, then it will be poetical; if not, not.--Musical: how
much lies in that! A _musical_ thought is one spoken by a mind that has
penetrated into the inmost heart of the thing; detected the inmost mystery
of it, namely the _melody_ that lies hidden in it; the inward harmony of
coherence which is its soul, whereby it exists, and has a right to be, here
in this world. All inmost things, we may say, are melodious; naturally
utter themselves in Song. The meaning of Song goes deep. Who is there
that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us? A kind of
inarticulate unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the
Infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that!

Nay all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it:
not a parish in the world but has its parish-accent;--the rhythm or _tune_
to which the people there _sing_ what they have to say! Accent is a kind
of chanting; all men have accent of their own,--though they only _notice_
that of others. Observe too how all passionate language does of itself
become musical,--with a finer music than the mere accent; the speech of a
man even in zealous anger becomes a chant, a song. All deep things are
Song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the
rest were but wrappages and hulls! The primal element of us; of us, and of
all things. The Greeks fabled of Sphere-Harmonies: it was the feeling
they had of the inner structure of Nature; that the soul of all her voices
and utterances was perfect music. Poetry, therefore, we will call _musical
Thought_. The Poet is he who _thinks_ in that manner. At bottom, it turns
still on power of intellect; it is a man's sincerity and depth of vision
that makes him a Poet. See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart
of Nature _being_ everywhere music, if you can only reach it.

The _Vates_ Poet, with his melodious Apocalypse of Nature, seems to hold a
poor rank among us, in comparison with the _Vates_ Prophet; his function,
and our esteem of him for his function, alike slight. The Hero taken as
Divinity; the Hero taken as Prophet; then next the Hero taken only as Poet:
does it not look as if our estimate of the Great Man, epoch after epoch,
were continually diminishing? We take him first for a god, then for one
god-inspired; and now in the next stage of it, his most miraculous word
gains from us only the recognition that he is a Poet, beautiful
verse-maker, man of genius, or such like!--It looks so; but I persuade
myself that intrinsically it is not so. If we consider well, it will
perhaps appear that in man still there is the _same_ altogether peculiar
admiration for the Heroic Gift, by what name soever called, that there at
any time was.

I should say, if we do not now reckon a Great Man literally divine, it is
that our notions of God, of the supreme unattainable Fountain of Splendor,
Wisdom and Heroism, are ever rising _higher_; not altogether that our
reverence for these qualities, as manifested in our like, is getting lower.
This is worth taking thought of. Sceptical Dilettantism, the curse of
these ages, a curse which will not last forever, does indeed in this the
highest province of human things, as in all provinces, make sad work; and
our reverence for great men, all crippled, blinded, paralytic as it is,
comes out in poor plight, hardly recognizable. Men worship the shows of
great men; the most disbelieve that there is any reality of great men to
worship. The dreariest, fatalest faith; believing which, one would
literally despair of human things. Nevertheless look, for example, at
Napoleon! A Corsican lieutenant of artillery; that is the show of _him_:
yet is he not obeyed, worshipped after his sort, as all the Tiaraed and
Diademed of the world put together could not be? High Duchesses, and
ostlers of inns, gather round the Scottish rustic, Burns;--a strange
feeling dwelling in each that they never heard a man like this; that, on
the whole, this is the man! In the secret heart of these people it still
dimly reveals itself, though there is no accredited way of uttering it at
present, that this rustic, with his black brows and flashing sun-eyes, and
strange words moving laughter and tears, is of a dignity far beyond all
others, incommensurable with all others. Do not we feel it so? But now,
were Dilettantism, Scepticism, Triviality, and all that sorrowful brood,
cast out of us,--as, by God's blessing, they shall one day be; were faith
in the shows of things entirely swept out, replaced by clear faith in the
_things_, so that a man acted on the impulse of that only, and counted the
other non-extant; what a new livelier feeling towards this Burns were it!

Nay here in these ages, such as they are, have we not two mere Poets, if
not deified, yet we may say beatified? Shakspeare and Dante are Saints of
Poetry; really, if we will think of it, _canonized_, so that it is impiety
to meddle with them. The unguided instinct of the world, working across
all these perverse impediments, has arrived at such result. Dante and
Shakspeare are a peculiar Two. They dwell apart, in a kind of royal
solitude; none equal, none second to them: in the general feeling of the
world, a certain transcendentalism, a glory as of complete perfection,
invests these two. They _are_ canonized, though no Pope or Cardinals took
hand in doing it! Such, in spite of every perverting influence, in the
most unheroic times, is still our indestructible reverence for heroism.--We
will look a little at these Two, the Poet Dante and the Poet Shakspeare:
what little it is permitted us to say here of the Hero as Poet will most
fitly arrange itself in that fashion.

Many volumes have been written by way of commentary on Dante and his Book;
yet, on the whole, with no great result. His Biography is, as it were,
irrecoverably lost for us. An unimportant, wandering, sorrow-stricken man,
not much note was taken of him while he lived; and the most of that has
vanished, in the long space that now intervenes. It is five centuries
since he ceased writing and living here. After all commentaries, the Book
itself is mainly what we know of him. The Book;--and one might add that
Portrait commonly attributed to Giotto, which, looking on it, you cannot
help inclining to think genuine, whoever did it. To me it is a most
touching face; perhaps of all faces that I know, the most so. Lonely
there, painted as on vacancy, with the simple laurel wound round it; the
deathless sorrow and pain, the known victory which is also
deathless;--significant of the whole history of Dante! I think it is the
mournfulest face that ever was painted from reality; an altogether tragic,
heart-affecting face. There is in it, as foundation of it, the softness,
tenderness, gentle affection as of a child; but all this is as if congealed
into sharp contradiction, into abnegation, isolation, proud hopeless pain.
A soft ethereal soul looking out so stern, implacable, grim-trenchant, as
from imprisonment of thick-ribbed ice! Withal it is a silent pain too, a
silent scornful one: the lip is curled in a kind of godlike disdain of the
thing that is eating out his heart,--as if it were withal a mean
insignificant thing, as if he whom it had power to torture and strangle
were greater than it. The face of one wholly in protest, and lifelong
unsurrendering battle, against the world. Affection all converted into
indignation: an implacable indignation; slow, equable, silent, like that
of a god! The eye too, it looks out as in a kind of _surprise_, a kind of
inquiry, Why the world was of such a sort? This is Dante: so he looks,
this "voice of ten silent centuries," and sings us "his mystic unfathomable

The little that we know of Dante's Life corresponds well enough with this
Portrait and this Book. He was born at Florence, in the upper class of
society, in the year 1265. His education was the best then going; much
school-divinity, Aristotelean logic, some Latin classics,--no
inconsiderable insight into certain provinces of things: and Dante, with
his earnest intelligent nature, we need not doubt, learned better than most
all that was learnable. He has a clear cultivated understanding, and of
great subtlety; this best fruit of education he had contrived to realize
from these scholastics. He knows accurately and well what lies close to
him; but, in such a time, without printed books or free intercourse, he
could not know well what was distant: the small clear light, most luminous
for what is near, breaks itself into singular _chiaroscuro_ striking on
what is far off. This was Dante's learning from the schools. In life, he
had gone through the usual destinies; been twice out campaigning as a
soldier for the Florentine State, been on embassy; had in his thirty-fifth
year, by natural gradation of talent and service, become one of the Chief
Magistrates of Florence. He had met in boyhood a certain Beatrice
Portinari, a beautiful little girl of his own age and rank, and grown up
thenceforth in partial sight of her, in some distant intercourse with her.
All readers know his graceful affecting account of this; and then of their
being parted; of her being wedded to another, and of her death soon after.
She makes a great figure in Dante's Poem; seems to have made a great figure
in his life. Of all beings it might seem as if she, held apart from him,
far apart at last in the dim Eternity, were the only one he had ever with
his whole strength of affection loved. She died: Dante himself was
wedded; but it seems not happily, far from happily. I fancy, the rigorous
earnest man, with his keen excitabilities, was not altogether easy to make

We will not complain of Dante's miseries: had all gone right with him as
he wished it, he might have been Prior, Podesta, or whatsoever they call
it, of Florence, well accepted among neighbors,--and the world had wanted
one of the most notable words ever spoken or sung. Florence would have had
another prosperous Lord Mayor; and the ten dumb centuries continued
voiceless, and the ten other listening centuries (for there will be ten of
them and more) had no _Divina Commedia_ to hear! We will complain of
nothing. A nobler destiny was appointed for this Dante; and he, struggling
like a man led towards death and crucifixion, could not help fulfilling it.
Give _him_ the choice of his happiness! He knew not, more than we do, what
was really happy, what was really miserable.

In Dante's Priorship, the Guelf-Ghibelline, Bianchi-Neri, or some other
confused disturbances rose to such a height, that Dante, whose party had
seemed the stronger, was with his friends cast unexpectedly forth into
banishment; doomed thenceforth to a life of woe and wandering. His
property was all confiscated and more; he had the fiercest feeling that it
was entirely unjust, nefarious in the sight of God and man. He tried what
was in him to get reinstated; tried even by warlike surprisal, with arms in
his hand: but it would not do; bad only had become worse. There is a
record, I believe, still extant in the Florence Archives, dooming this
Dante, wheresoever caught, to be burnt alive. Burnt alive; so it stands,
they say: a very curious civic document. Another curious document, some
considerable number of years later, is a Letter of Dante's to the
Florentine Magistrates, written in answer to a milder proposal of theirs,
that he should return on condition of apologizing and paying a fine. He
answers, with fixed stern pride: "If I cannot return without calling
myself guilty, I will never return, _nunquam revertar_."

For Dante there was now no home in this world. He wandered from patron to
patron, from place to place; proving, in his own bitter words, "How hard is
the path, _Come e duro calle_." The wretched are not cheerful company.
Dante, poor and banished, with his proud earnest nature, with his moody
humors, was not a man to conciliate men. Petrarch reports of him that
being at Can della Scala's court, and blamed one day for his gloom and
taciturnity, he answered in no courtier-like way. Della Scala stood among
his courtiers, with mimes and buffoons (_nebulones ac histriones_) making
him heartily merry; when turning to Dante, he said: "Is it not strange,
now, that this poor fool should make himself so entertaining; while you, a
wise man, sit there day after day, and have nothing to amuse us with at
all?" Dante answered bitterly: "No, not strange; your Highness is to
recollect the Proverb, _Like to Like_;"--given the amuser, the amusee must
also be given! Such a man, with his proud silent ways, with his sarcasms
and sorrows, was not made to succeed at court. By degrees, it came to be
evident to him that he had no longer any resting-place, or hope of benefit,
in this earth. The earthly world had cast him forth, to wander, wander; no
living heart to love him now; for his sore miseries there was no solace

The deeper naturally would the Eternal World impress itself on him; that
awful reality over which, after all, this Time-world, with its Florences
and banishments, only flutters as an unreal shadow. Florence thou shalt
never see: but Hell and Purgatory and Heaven thou shalt surely see! What
is Florence, Can della Scala, and the World and Life altogether? ETERNITY:
thither, of a truth, not elsewhither, art thou and all things bound! The
great soul of Dante, homeless on earth, made its home more and more in that
awful other world. Naturally his thoughts brooded on that, as on the one
fact important for him. Bodied or bodiless, it is the one fact important
for all men:--but to Dante, in that age, it was bodied in fixed certainty
of scientific shape; he no more doubted of that _Malebolge_ Pool, that it
all lay there with its gloomy circles, with its _alti guai_, and that he
himself should see it, than we doubt that we should see Constantinople if
we went thither. Dante's heart, long filled with this, brooding over it in
speechless thought and awe, bursts forth at length into "mystic
unfathomable song; " and this his _Divine Comedy_, the most remarkable of
all modern Books, is the result.

It must have been a great solacement to Dante, and was, as we can see, a
proud thought for him at times, That he, here in exile, could do this work;
that no Florence, nor no man or men, could hinder him from doing it, or
even much help him in doing it. He knew too, partly, that it was great;
the greatest a man could do. "If thou follow thy star, _Se tu segui tua
stella_,"--so could the Hero, in his forsakenness, in his extreme need,
still say to himself: "Follow thou thy star, thou shalt not fail of a
glorious haven!" The labor of writing, we find, and indeed could know
otherwise, was great and painful for him; he says, This Book, "which has
made me lean for many years." Ah yes, it was won, all of it, with pain and
sore toil,--not in sport, but in grim earnest. His Book, as indeed most
good Books are, has been written, in many senses, with his heart's blood.
It is his whole history, this Book. He died after finishing it; not yet
very old, at the age of fifty-six;--broken-hearted rather, as is said. He
lies buried in his death-city Ravenna: _Hic claudor Dantes patriis
extorris ab oris_. The Florentines begged back his body, in a century
after; the Ravenna people would not give it. "Here am I Dante laid, shut
out from my native shores."

I said, Dante's Poem was a Song: it is Tieck who calls it "a mystic
unfathomable Song;" and such is literally the character of it. Coleridge
remarks very pertinently somewhere, that wherever you find a sentence
musically worded, of true rhythm and melody in the words, there is
something deep and good in the meaning too. For body and soul, word and
idea, go strangely together here as everywhere. Song: we said before, it
was the Heroic of Speech! All _old_ Poems, Homer's and the rest, are
authentically Songs. I would say, in strictness, that all right Poems are;
that whatsoever is not _sung_ is properly no Poem, but a piece of Prose
cramped into jingling lines,--to the great injury of the grammar, to the
great grief of the reader, for most part! What we wants to get at is the
_thought_ the man had, if he had any: why should he twist it into jingle,
if he _could_ speak it out plainly? It is only when the heart of him is
rapt into true passion of melody, and the very tones of him, according to
Coleridge's remark, become musical by the greatness, depth and music of his
thoughts, that we can give him right to rhyme and sing; that we call him a
Poet, and listen to him as the Heroic of Speakers,--whose speech is Song.
Pretenders to this are many; and to an earnest reader, I doubt, it is for
most part a very melancholy, not to say an insupportable business, that of
reading rhyme! Rhyme that had no inward necessity to be rhymed;--it ought
to have told us plainly, without any jingle, what it was aiming at. I
would advise all men who _can_ speak their thought, not to sing it; to
understand that, in a serious time, among serious men, there is no vocation
in them for singing it. Precisely as we love the true song, and are
charmed by it as by something divine, so shall we hate the false song, and
account it a mere wooden noise, a thing hollow, superfluous, altogether an
insincere and offensive thing.

I give Dante my highest praise when I say of his _Divine Comedy_ that it
is, in all senses, genuinely a Song. In the very sound of it there is a
_canto fermo_; it proceeds as by a chant. The language, his simple _terza
rima_, doubtless helped him in this. One reads along naturally with a sort
of _lilt_. But I add, that it could not be otherwise; for the essence and
material of the work are themselves rhythmic. Its depth, and rapt passion
and sincerity, makes it musical;--go _deep_ enough, there is music
everywhere. A true inward symmetry, what one calls an architectural
harmony, reigns in it, proportionates it all: architectural; which also
partakes of the character of music. The three kingdoms, _Inferno_,
_Purgatorio_, _Paradiso_, look out on one another like compartments of a
great edifice; a great supernatural world-cathedral, piled up there, stern,
solemn, awful; Dante's World of Souls! It is, at bottom, the _sincerest_
of all Poems; sincerity, here too,, we find to be the measure of worth. It
came deep out of the author's heart of hearts; and it goes deep, and
through long generations, into ours. The people of Verona, when they saw
him on the streets, used to say, "_Eccovi l' uom ch' e stato all' Inferno_,
See, there is the man that was in Hell!" Ah yes, he had been in Hell;--in
Hell enough, in long severe sorrow and struggle; as the like of him is
pretty sure to have been. Commedias that come out _divine_ are not
accomplished otherwise. Thought, true labor of any kind, highest virtue
itself, is it not the daughter of Pain? Born as out of the black
whirlwind;--true _effort_, in fact, as of a captive struggling to free
himself: that is Thought. In all ways we are "to become perfect through
_suffering_."--_But_, as I say, no work known to me is so elaborated as
this of Dante's. It has all been as if molten, in the hottest furnace of
his soul. It had made him "lean" for many years. Not the general whole
only; every compartment of it is worked out, with intense earnestness, into
truth, into clear visuality. Each answers to the other; each fits in its
place, like a marble stone accurately hewn and polished. It is the soul of
Dante, and in this the soul of the middle ages, rendered forever
rhythmically visible there. No light task; a right intense one: but a
task which is _done_.

Perhaps one would say, _intensity_, with the much that depends on it, is
the prevailing character of Dante's genius. Dante does not come before us
as a large catholic mind; rather as a narrow, and even sectarian mind: it
is partly the fruit of his age and position, but partly too of his own
nature. His greatness has, in all senses, concentred itself into fiery
emphasis and depth. He is world-great not because he is worldwide, but
because he is world-deep. Through all objects he pierces as it were down
into the heart of Being. I know nothing so intense as Dante. Consider,
for example, to begin with the outermost development of his intensity,
consider how he paints. He has a great power of vision; seizes the very
type of a thing; presents that and nothing more. You remember that first
view he gets of the Hall of Dite: _red_ pinnacle, red-hot cone of iron
glowing through the dim immensity of gloom;--so vivid, so distinct, visible
at once and forever! It is as an emblem of the whole genius of Dante.
There is a brevity, an abrupt precision in him: Tacitus is not briefer,
more condensed; and then in Dante it seems a natural condensation,
spontaneous to the man. One smiting word; and then there is silence,
nothing more said. His silence is more eloquent than words. It is strange
with what a sharp decisive grace he snatches the true likeness of a matter:
cuts into the matter as with a pen of fire. Plutus, the blustering giant,
collapses at Virgil's rebuke; it is "as the sails sink, the mast being
suddenly broken." Or that poor Brunetto Latini, with the _cotto aspetto_,
"face _baked_," parched brown and lean; and the "fiery snow" that falls on
them there, a "fiery snow without wind," slow, deliberate, never-ending!
Or the lids of those Tombs; square sarcophaguses, in that silent
dim-burning Hall, each with its Soul in torment; the lids laid open there;
they are to be shut at the Day of Judgment, through Eternity. And how
Farinata rises; and how Cavalcante falls--at hearing of his Son, and the
past tense "_fue_"! The very movements in Dante have something brief;
swift, decisive, almost military. It is of the inmost essence of his
genius this sort of painting. The fiery, swift Italian nature of the man,
so silent, passionate, with its quick abrupt movements, its silent "pale
rages," speaks itself in these things.

For though this of painting is one of the outermost developments of a man,
it comes like all else from the essential faculty of him; it is
physiognomical of the whole man. Find a man whose words paint you a
likeness, you have found a man worth something; mark his manner of doing
it, as very characteristic of him. In the first place, he could not have
discerned the object at all, or seen the vital type of it, unless he had,
what we may call, _sympathized_ with it,--had sympathy in him to bestow on
objects. He must have been _sincere_ about it too; sincere and
sympathetic: a man without worth cannot give you the likeness of any
object; he dwells in vague outwardness, fallacy and trivial hearsay, about
all objects. And indeed may we not say that intellect altogether expresses
itself in this power of discerning what an object is? Whatsoever of
faculty a man's mind may have will come out here. Is it even of business,
a matter to be done? The gifted man is he who _sees_ the essential point,
and leaves all the rest aside as surplusage: it is his faculty too, the
man of business's faculty, that he discern the true _likeness_, not the
false superficial one, of the thing he has got to work in. And how much of
_morality_ is in the kind of insight we get of anything; "the eye seeing in
all things what it brought with it the faculty of seeing"! To the mean eye
all things are trivial, as certainly as to the jaundiced they are yellow.
Raphael, the Painters tell us, is the best of all Portrait-painters withal.
No most gifted eye can exhaust the significance of any object. In the
commonest human face there lies more than Raphael will take away with him.

Dante's painting is not graphic only, brief, true, and of a vividness as of
fire in dark night; taken on the wider scale, it is every way noble, and
the outcome of a great soul. Francesca and her Lover, what qualities in
that! A thing woven as out of rainbows, on a ground of eternal black. A
small flute-voice of infinite wail speaks there, into our very heart of
hearts. A touch of womanhood in it too: _della bella persona, che mi fu
tolta_; and how, even in the Pit of woe, it is a solace that _he_ will
never part from her! Saddest tragedy in these _alti guai_. And the
racking winds, in that _aer bruno_, whirl them away again, to wail
forever!--Strange to think: Dante was the friend of this poor Francesca's
father; Francesca herself may have sat upon the Poet's knee, as a bright
innocent little child. Infinite pity, yet also infinite rigor of law: it
is so Nature is made; it is so Dante discerned that she was made. What a
paltry notion is that of his _Divine Comedy's_ being a poor splenetic
impotent terrestrial libel; putting those into Hell whom he could not be
avenged upon on earth! I suppose if ever pity, tender as a mother's, was
in the heart of any man, it was in Dante's. But a man who does not know
rigor cannot pity either. His very pity will be cowardly,
egoistic,--sentimentality, or little better. I know not in the world an
affection equal to that of Dante. It is a tenderness, a trembling,
longing, pitying love: like the wail of AEolian harps, soft, soft; like a
child's young heart;--and then that stern, sore-saddened heart! These
longings of his towards his Beatrice; their meeting together in the
_Paradiso_; his gazing in her pure transfigured eyes, her that had been
purified by death so long, separated from him so far:--one likens it to the
song of angels; it is among the purest utterances of affection, perhaps the
very purest, that ever came out of a human soul.

For the _intense_ Dante is intense in all things; he has got into the
essence of all. His intellectual insight as painter, on occasion too as
reasoner, is but the result of all other sorts of intensity. Morally
great, above all, we must call him; it is the beginning of all. His scorn,
his grief are as transcendent as his love;--as indeed, what are they but
the _inverse_ or _converse_ of his love? "_A Dio spiacenti ed a' nemici
sui_, Hateful to God and to the enemies of God: "lofty scorn, unappeasable
silent reprobation and aversion; "_Non ragionam di lor_, We will not speak
of _them_, look only and pass." Or think of this; "They have not the
_hope_ to die, _Non han speranza di morte_." One day, it had risen sternly
benign on the scathed heart of Dante, that he, wretched, never-resting,
worn as he was, would full surely _die_; "that Destiny itself could not
doom him not to die." Such words are in this man. For rigor, earnestness
and depth, he is not to be paralleled in the modern world; to seek his
parallel we must go into the Hebrew Bible, and live with the antique
Prophets there.

I do not agree with much modern criticism, in greatly preferring the
_Inferno_ to the two other parts of the Divine _Commedia_. Such preference
belongs, I imagine, to our general Byronism of taste, and is like to be a
transient feeling. Thc _Purgatorio_ and _Paradiso_, especially the former,
one would almost say, is even more excellent than it. It is a noble thing
that _Purgatorio_, "Mountain of Purification;" an emblem of the noblest
conception of that age. If sin is so fatal, and Hell is and must be so
rigorous, awful, yet in Repentance too is man purified; Repentance is the
grand Christian act. It is beautiful how Dante works it out. The
_tremolar dell' onde_, that "trembling" of the ocean-waves, under the first
pure gleam of morning, dawning afar on the wandering Two, is as the type of
an altered mood. Hope has now dawned; never-dying Hope, if in company
still with heavy sorrow. The obscure sojourn of demons and reprobate is
underfoot; a soft breathing of penitence mounts higher and higher, to the
Throne of Mercy itself. "Pray for me," the denizens of that Mount of Pain
all say to him. "Tell my Giovanna to pray for me," my daughter Giovanna;
"I think her mother loves me no more!" They toil painfully up by that
winding steep, "bent down like corbels of a building," some of
them,--crushed together so "for the sin of pride;" yet nevertheless in
years, in ages and aeons, they shall have reached the top, which is
heaven's gate, and by Mercy shall have been admitted in. The joy too of
all, when one has prevailed; the whole Mountain shakes with joy, and a
psalm of praise rises, when one soul has perfected repentance and got its
sin and misery left behind! I call all this a noble embodiment of a true
noble thought.

But indeed the Three compartments mutually support one another, are
indispensable to one another. The _Paradiso_, a kind of inarticulate music
to me, is the redeeming side of the _Inferno_; the _Inferno_ without it
were untrue. All three make up the true Unseen World, as figured in the
Christianity of the Middle Ages; a thing forever memorable, forever true in
the essence of it, to all men. It was perhaps delineated in no human soul
with such depth of veracity as in this of Dante's; a man _sent_ to sing it,
to keep it long memorable. Very notable with what brief simplicity he
passes out of the every-day reality, into the Invisible one; and in the
second or third stanza, we find ourselves in the World of Spirits; and
dwell there, as among things palpable, indubitable! To Dante they _were_
so; the real world, as it is called, and its facts, was but the threshold
to an infinitely higher Fact of a World. At bottom, the one was as
_preternatural_ as the other. Has not each man a soul? He will not only
be a spirit, but is one. To the earnest Dante it is all one visible Fact;
he believes it, sees it; is the Poet of it in virtue of that. Sincerity, I
say again, is the saving merit, now as always.

Dante's Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, are a symbol withal, an emblematic
representation of his Belief about this Universe:--some Critic in a future
age, like those Scandinavian ones the other day, who has ceased altogether
to think as Dante did, may find this too all an "Allegory," perhaps an idle
Allegory! It is a sublime embodiment, or sublimest, of the soul of

Christianity. It expresses, as in huge world-wide architectural emblems,
how the Christian Dante felt Good and Evil to be the two polar elements of
this Creation, on which it all turns; that these two differ not by
preferability of one to the other, but by incompatibility absolute and
infinite; that the one is excellent and high as light and Heaven, the other
hideous, black as Gehenna and the Pit of Hell! Everlasting Justice, yet
with Penitence, with everlasting Pity,--all Christianism, as Dante and the
Middle Ages had it, is emblemed here. Emblemed: and yet, as I urged the
other day, with what entire truth of purpose; how unconscious of any
embleming! Hell, Purgatory, Paradise: these things were not fashioned as
emblems; was there, in our Modern European Mind, any thought at all of
their being emblems! Were they not indubitable awful facts; the whole
heart of man taking them for practically true, all Nature everywhere
confirming them? So is it always in these things. Men do not believe an
Allegory. The future Critic, whatever his new thought may be, who
considers this of Dante to have been all got up as an Allegory, will commit
one sore mistake!--Paganism we recognized as a veracious expression of the
earnest awe-struck feeling of man towards the Universe; veracious, true
once, and still not without worth for us. But mark here the difference of
Paganism and Christianism; one great difference. Paganism emblemed chiefly
the Operations of Nature; the destinies, efforts, combinations,
vicissitudes of things and men in this world; Christianism emblemed the Law
of Human Duty, the Moral Law of Man. One was for the sensuous nature: a
rude helpless utterance of the first Thought of men,--the chief recognized
virtue, Courage, Superiority to Fear. The other was not for the sensuous
nature, but for the moral. What a progress is here, if in that one respect

And so in this Dante, as we said, had ten silent centuries, in a very
strange way, found a voice. The _Divina Commedia_ is of Dante's writing;
yet in truth it belongs to ten Christian centuries, only the finishing of
it is Dante's. So always. The craftsman there, the smith with that metal
of his, with these tools, with these cunning methods,--how little of all he
does is properly _his_ work! All past inventive men work there with
him;--as indeed with all of us, in all things. Dante is the spokesman of
the Middle Ages; the Thought they lived by stands here, in everlasting
music. These sublime ideas of his, terrible and beautiful, are the fruit
of the Christian Meditation of all the good men who had gone before him.
Precious they; but also is not he precious? Much, had not he spoken, would
have been dumb; not dead, yet living voiceless.

On the whole, is it not an utterance, this mystic Song, at once of one of
the greatest human souls, and of the highest thing that Europe had hitherto
realized for itself? Christianism, as Dante sings it, is another than
Paganism in the rude Norse mind; another than "Bastard Christianism" half-
articulately spoken in the Arab Desert, seven hundred years before!--The
noblest _idea_ made _real_ hitherto among men, is sung, and emblemed forth
abidingly, by one of the noblest men. In the one sense and in the other,
are we not right glad to possess it? As I calculate, it may last yet for
long thousands of years. For the thing that is uttered from the inmost
parts of a man's soul, differs altogether from what is uttered by the outer
part. The outer is of the day, under the empire of mode; the outer passes
away, in swift endless changes; the inmost is the same yesterday, to-day
and forever. True souls, in all generations of the world, who look on this
Dante, will find a brotherhood in him; the deep sincerity of his thoughts,
his woes and hopes, will speak likewise to their sincerity; they will feel
that this Dante too was a brother. Napoleon in Saint Helena is charmed
with the genial veracity of old Homer. The oldest Hebrew Prophet, under a
vesture the most diverse from ours, does yet, because he speaks from the
heart of man, speak to all men's hearts. It is the one sole secret of
continuing long memorable. Dante, for depth of sincerity, is like an
antique Prophet too; his words, like theirs, come from his very heart. One
need not wonder if it were predicted that his Poem might be the most
enduring thing our Europe has yet made; for nothing so endures as a truly
spoken word. All cathedrals, pontificalities, brass and stone, and outer
arrangement never so lasting, are brief in comparison to an unfathomable
heart-song like this: one feels as if it might survive, still of
importance to men, when these had all sunk into new irrecognizable
combinations, and had ceased individually to be. Europe has made much;
great cities, great empires, encyclopaedias, creeds, bodies of opinion and
practice: but it has made little of the class of Dante's Thought. Homer
yet _is_ veritably present face to face with every open soul of us; and
Greece, where is _it_? Desolate for thousands of years; away, vanished; a
bewildered heap of stones and rubbish, the life and existence of it all
gone. Like a dream; like the dust of King Agamemnon! Greece was; Greece,
except in the _words_ it spoke, is not.

The uses of this Dante? We will not say much about his "uses." A human
soul who has once got into that primal element of _Song_, and sung forth
fitly somewhat therefrom, has worked in the _depths_ of our existence;
feeding through long times the life-roots of all excellent human things
whatsoever,--in a way that "utilities" will not succeed well in
calculating! We will not estimate the Sun by the quantity of gaslight it
saves us; Dante shall be invaluable, or of no value. One remark I may
make: the contrast in this respect between the Hero-Poet and the
Hero-Prophet. In a hundred years, Mahomet, as we saw, had his Arabians at
Grenada and at Delhi; Dante's Italians seem to be yet very much where they
were. Shall we say, then, Dante's effect on the world was small in
comparison? Not so: his arena is far more restricted; but also it is far
nobler, clearer;--perhaps not less but more important. Mahomet speaks to
great masses of men, in the coarse dialect adapted to such; a dialect
filled with inconsistencies, crudities, follies: on the great masses alone
can he act, and there with good and with evil strangely blended. Dante
speaks to the noble, the pure and great, in all times and places. Neither
does he grow obsolete, as the other does. Dante burns as a pure star,
fixed there in the firmament, at which the great and the high of all ages
kindle themselves: he is the possession of all the chosen of the world for
uncounted time. Dante, one calculates, may long survive Mahomet. In this
way the balance may be made straight again.

But, at any rate, it is not by what is called their effect on the world, by
what _we_ can judge of their effect there, that a man and his work are
measured. Effect? Influence? Utility? Let a man _do_ his work; the
fruit of it is the care of Another than he. It will grow its own fruit;
and whether embodied in Caliph Thrones and Arabian Conquests, so that it
"fills all Morning and Evening Newspapers," and all Histories, which are a
kind of distilled Newspapers; or not embodied so at all;--what matters
that? That is not the real fruit of it! The Arabian Caliph, in so far
only as he did something, was something. If the great Cause of Man, and
Man's work in God's Earth, got no furtherance from the Arabian Caliph, then
no matter how many scimetars he drew, how many gold piasters pocketed, and
what uproar and blaring he made in this world,--_he_ was but a
loud-sounding inanity and futility; at bottom, he _was_ not at all. Let us
honor the great empire of _Silence_, once more! The boundless treasury
which we do not jingle in our pockets, or count up and present before men!
It is perhaps, of all things, the usefulest for each of us to do, in these
loud times.--

As Dante, the Italian man, was sent into our world to embody musically the
Religion of the Middle Ages, the Religion of our Modern Europe, its Inner
Life; so Shakspeare, we may say, embodies for us the Outer Life of our
Europe as developed then, its chivalries, courtesies, humors, ambitions,
what practical way of thinking, acting, looking at the world, men then had.
As in Homer we may still construe Old Greece; so in Shakspeare and Dante,
after thousands of years, what our modern Europe was, in Faith and in
Practice, will still be legible. Dante has given us the Faith or soul;
Shakspeare, in a not less noble way, has given us the Practice or body.
This latter also we were to have; a man was sent for it, the man
Shakspeare. Just when that chivalry way of life had reached its last
finish, and was on the point of breaking down into slow or swift
dissolution, as we now see it everywhere, this other sovereign Poet, with
his seeing eye, with his perennial singing voice, was sent to take note of
it, to give long-enduring record of it. Two fit men: Dante, deep, fierce
as the central fire of the world; Shakspeare, wide, placid, far-seeing, as
the Sun, the upper light of the world. Italy produced the one world-voice;
we English had the honor of producing the other.

Curious enough how, as it were by mere accident, this man came to us. I
think always, so great, quiet, complete and self-sufficing is this
Shakspeare, had the Warwickshire Squire not prosecuted him for
deer-stealing, we had perhaps never heard of him as a Poet! The woods and
skies, the rustic Life of Man in Stratford there, had been enough for this
man! But indeed that strange outbudding of our whole English Existence,
which we call the Elizabethan Era, did not it too come as of its own
accord? The "Tree Igdrasil" buds and withers by its own laws,--too deep
for our scanning. Yet it does bud and wither, and every bough and leaf of
it is there, by fixed eternal laws; not a Sir Thomas Lucy but comes at the
hour fit for him. Curious, I say, and not sufficiently considered: how
everything does co-operate with all; not a leaf rotting on the highway but
is indissoluble portion of solar and stellar systems; no thought, word or
act of man but has sprung withal out of all men, and works sooner or later,
recognizably or irrecognizable, on all men! It is all a Tree: circulation
of sap and influences, mutual communication of every minutest leaf with the
lowest talon of a root, with every other greatest and minutest portion of
the whole. The Tree Igdrasil, that has its roots down in the Kingdoms of
Hela and Death, and whose boughs overspread the highest Heaven!--

In some sense it may be said that this glorious Elizabethan Era with its
Shakspeare, as the outcome and flowerage of all which had preceded it, is
itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The Christian
Faith, which was the theme of Dante's Song, had produced this Practical
Life which Shakspeare was to sing. For Religion then, as it now and always
is, was the soul of Practice; the primary vital fact in men's life. And
remark here, as rather curious, that Middle-Age Catholicism was abolished,
so far as Acts of Parliament could abolish it, before Shakspeare, the
noblest product of it, made his appearance. He did make his appearance
nevertheless. Nature at her own time, with Catholicism or what else might
be necessary, sent him forth; taking small thought of Acts of Parliament.
King Henrys, Queen Elizabeths go their way; and Nature too goes hers. Acts
of Parliament, on the whole, are small, notwithstanding the noise they
make. What Act of Parliament, debate at St. Stephen's, on the hustings or
elsewhere, was it that brought this Shakspeare into being? No dining at
Freemason's Tavern, opening subscription-lists, selling of shares, and
infinite other jangling and true or false endeavoring! This Elizabethan
Era, and all its nobleness and blessedness, came without proclamation,
preparation of ours. Priceless Shakspeare was the free gift of Nature;
given altogether silently;--received altogether silently, as if it had been
a thing of little account. And yet, very literally, it is a priceless
thing. One should look at that side of matters too.

Of this Shakspeare of ours, perhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a
little idolatrously expressed is, in fact, the right one; I think the best
judgment not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly
pointing to the conclusion, that Shakspeare is the chief of all Poets
hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left
record of himself in the way of Literature. On the whole, I know not such
a power of vision, such a faculty of thought, if we take all the characters
of it, in any other man. Such a calmness of depth; placid joyous strength;
all things imaged in that great soul of his so true and clear, as in a
tranquil unfathomable sea! It has been said, that in the constructing of
Shakspeare's Dramas there is, apart from all other "faculties" as they are
called, an understanding manifested, equal to that in Bacon's _Novum
Organum_ That is true; and it is not a truth that strikes every one. It
would become more apparent if we tried, any of us for himself, how, out of
Shakspeare's dramatic materials, _we_ could fashion such a result! The
built house seems all so fit,--every way as it should be, as if it came
there by its own law and the nature of things,--we forget the rude
disorderly quarry it was shaped from. The very perfection of the house, as
if Nature herself had made it, hides the builder's merit. Perfect, more
perfect than any other man, we may call Shakspeare in this: he discerns,
knows as by instinct, what condition he works under, what his materials
are, what his own force and its relation to them is. It is not a
transitory glance of insight that will suffice; it is deliberate
illumination of the whole matter; it is a calmly _seeing_ eye; a great
intellect, in short. How a man, of some wide thing that he has witnessed,
will construct a narrative, what kind of picture and delineation he will
give of it,--is the best measure you could get of what intellect is in the
man. Which circumstance is vital and shall stand prominent; which
unessential, fit to be suppressed; where is the true _beginning_, the true
sequence and ending? To find out this, you task the whole force of insight
that is in the man. He must _understand_ the thing; according to the depth
of his understanding, will the fitness of his answer be. You will try him
so. Does like join itself to like; does the spirit of method stir in that
confusion, so that its embroilment becomes order? Can the man say, _Fiat
lux_, Let there be light; and out of chaos make a world? Precisely as
there is light in himself, will he accomplish this.

Or indeed we may say again, it is in what I called Portrait-painting,
delineating of men and things, especially of men, that Shakspeare is great.
All the greatness of the man comes out decisively here. It is unexampled,
I think, that calm creative perspicacity of Shakspeare. The thing he looks
at reveals not this or that face of it, but its inmost heart, and generic
secret: it dissolves itself as in light before him, so that he discerns
the perfect structure of it. Creative, we said: poetic creation, what is
this too but _seeing_ the thing sufficiently? The _word_ that will
describe the thing, follows of itself from such clear intense sight of the
thing. And is not Shakspeare's _morality_, his valor, candor, tolerance,
truthfulness; his whole victorious strength and greatness, which can
triumph over such obstructions, visible there too? Great as the world. No
_twisted_, poor convex-concave mirror, reflecting all objects with its own
convexities and concavities; a perfectly _level_ mirror;--that is to say
withal, if we will understand it, a man justly related to all things and
men, a good man. It is truly a lordly spectacle how this great soul takes
in all kinds of men and objects, a Falstaff, an Othello, a Juliet, a
Coriolanus; sets them all forth to us in their round completeness; loving,
just, the equal brother of all. _Novum Organum_, and all the intellect you
will find in Bacon, is of a quite secondary order; earthy, material, poor
in comparison with this. Among modern men, one finds, in strictness,
almost nothing of the same rank. Goethe alone, since the days of
Shakspeare, reminds me of it. Of him too you say that he _saw_ the object;
you may say what he himself says of Shakspeare: "His characters are like
watches with dial-plates of transparent crystal; they show you the hour
like others, and the inward mechanism also is all visible."

The seeing eye! It is this that discloses the inner harmony of things;
what Nature meant, what musical idea Nature has wrapped up in these often
rough embodiments. Something she did mean. To the seeing eye that
something were discernible. Are they base, miserable things? You can
laugh over them, you can weep over them; you can in some way or other
genially relate yourself to them;--you can, at lowest, hold your peace
about them, turn away your own and others' face from them, till the hour
come for practically exterminating and extinguishing them! At bottom, it
is the Poet's first gift, as it is all men's, that he have intellect
enough. He will be a Poet if he have: a Poet in word; or failing that,
perhaps still better, a Poet in act. Whether he write at all; and if so,
whether in prose or in verse, will depend on accidents: who knows on what
extremely trivial accidents,--perhaps on his having had a singing-master,
on his being taught to sing in his boyhood! But the faculty which enables
him to discern the inner heart of things, and the harmony that dwells there
(for whatsoever exists has a harmony in the heart of it, or it would not
hold together and exist), is not the result of habits or accidents, but the
gift of Nature herself; the primary outfit for a Heroic Man in what sort
soever. To the Poet, as to every other, we say first of all, _See_. If
you cannot do that, it is of no use to keep stringing rhymes together,
jingling sensibilities against each other, and _name_ yourself a Poet;
there is no hope for you. If you can, there is, in prose or verse, in
action or speculation, all manner of hope. The crabbed old Schoolmaster
used to ask, when they brought him a new pupil, "But are ye sure he's _not
a dunce_?" Why, really one might ask the same thing, in regard to every
man proposed for whatsoever function; and consider it as the one inquiry
needful: Are ye sure he's not a dunce? There is, in this world, no other
entirely fatal person.

For, in fact, I say the degree of vision that dwells in a man is a correct
measure of the man. If called to define Shakspeare's faculty, I should say
superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all under that. What
indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct,
things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, &c., as he
has hands, feet and arms. That is a capital error. Then again, we hear of
a man's "intellectual nature," and of his "moral nature," as if these again
were divisible, and existed apart. Necessities of language do perhaps
prescribe such forms of utterance; we must speak, I am aware, in that way,
if we are to speak at all. But words ought not to harden into things for
us. It seems to me, our apprehension of this matter is, for most part,
radically falsified thereby. We ought to know withal, and to keep forever
in mind, that these divisions are at bottom but _names_; that man's
spiritual nature, the vital Force which dwells in him, is essentially one
and indivisible; that what we call imagination, fancy, understanding, and
so forth, are but different figures of the same Power of Insight, all
indissolubly connected with each other, physiognomically related; that if
we knew one of them, we might know all of them. Morality itself, what we
call the moral quality of a man, what is this but another _side_ of the one
vital Force whereby he is and works? All that a man does is physiognomical
of him. You may see how a man would fight, by the way in which he sings;
his courage, or want of courage, is visible in the word he utters, in the
opinion he has formed, no less than in the stroke he strikes. He is _one_;
and preaches the same Self abroad in all these ways.

Without hands a man might have feet, and could still walk: but, consider
it,--without morality, intellect were impossible for him; a thoroughly
immoral _man_ could not know anything at all! To know a thing, what we can
call knowing, a man must first _love_ the thing, sympathize with it: that
is, be _virtuously_ related to it. If he have not the justice to put down
his own selfishness at every turn, the courage to stand by the
dangerous-true at every turn, how shall he know? His virtues, all of them,
will lie recorded in his knowledge. Nature, with her truth, remains to the
bad, to the selfish and the pusillanimous forever a sealed book: what such
can know of Nature is mean, superficial, small; for the uses of the day
merely.--But does not the very Fox know something of Nature? Exactly so:
it knows where the geese lodge! The human Reynard, very frequent
everywhere in the world, what more does he know but this and the like of
this? Nay, it should be considered too, that if the Fox had not a certain
vulpine _morality_, he could not even know where the geese were, or get at
the geese! If he spent his time in splenetic atrabiliar reflections on his
own misery, his ill usage by Nature, Fortune and other Foxes, and so forth;
and had not courage, promptitude, practicality, and other suitable vulpine
gifts and graces, he would catch no geese. We may say of the Fox too, that
his morality and insight are of the same dimensions; different faces of the
same internal unity of vulpine life!--These things are worth stating; for
the contrary of them acts with manifold very baleful perversion, in this
time: what limitations, modifications they require, your own candor will

If I say, therefore, that Shakspeare is the greatest of Intellects, I have
said all concerning him. But there is more in Shakspeare's intellect than
we have yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious intellect; there is
more virtue in it than he himself is aware of. Novalis beautifully remarks
of him, that those Dramas of his are Products of Nature too, deep as Nature
herself. I find a great truth in this saying. Shakspeare's Art is not
Artifice; the noblest worth of it is not there by plan or precontrivance.
It grows up from the deeps of Nature, through this noble sincere soul, who
is a voice of Nature. The latest generations of men will find new meanings
in Shakspeare, new elucidations of their own human being; "new harmonies
with the infinite structure of the Universe; concurrences with later ideas,
affinities with the higher powers and senses of man." This well deserves
meditating. It is Nature's highest reward to a true simple great soul,
that he get thus to be _a part of herself_. Such a man's works, whatsoever
he with utmost conscious exertion and forethought shall accomplish, grow up
withal unconsciously, from the unknown deeps in him;--as the oak-tree grows
from the Earth's bosom, as the mountains and waters shape themselves; with
a symmetry grounded on Nature's own laws, conformable to all Truth
whatsoever. How much in Shakspeare lies hid; his sorrows, his silent
struggles known to himself; much that was not known at all, not speakable
at all: like _roots_, like sap and forces working underground! Speech is
great; but Silence is greater.

Withal the joyful tranquillity of this man is notable. I will not blame
Dante for his misery: it is as battle without victory; but true
battle,--the first, indispensable thing. Yet I call Shakspeare greater
than Dante, in that he fought truly, and did conquer. Doubt it not, he had
his own sorrows: those _Sonnets_ of his will even testify expressly in
what deep waters he had waded, and swum struggling for his life;--as what
man like him ever failed to have to do? It seems to me a heedless notion,
our common one, that he sat like a bird on the bough; and sang forth, free
and off-hand, never knowing the troubles of other men. Not so; with no man
is it so. How could a man travel forward from rustic deer-poaching to such
tragedy-writing, and not fall in with sorrows by the way? Or, still
better, how could a man delineate a Hamlet, a Coriolanus, a Macbeth, so
many suffering heroic hearts, if his own heroic heart had never
suffered?--And now, in contrast with all this, observe his mirthfulness,
his genuine overflowing love of laughter! You would say, in no point does
he _exaggerate_ but only in laughter. Fiery objurgations, words that
pierce and burn, are to be found in Shakspeare; yet he is always in measure
here; never what Johnson would remark as a specially "good hater." But his
laughter seems to pour from him in floods; he heaps all manner of
ridiculous nicknames on the butt he is bantering, tumbles and tosses him in
all sorts of horse-play; you would say, with his whole heart laughs. And
then, if not always the finest, it is always a genial laughter. Not at
mere weakness, at misery or poverty; never. No man who _can_ laugh, what
we call laughing, will laugh at these things. It is some poor character
only _desiring_ to laugh, and have the credit of wit, that does so.
Laughter means sympathy; good laughter is not "the crackling of thorns
under the pot." Even at stupidity and pretension this Shakspeare does not
laugh otherwise than genially. Dogberry and Verges tickle our very hearts;
and we dismiss them covered with explosions of laughter: but we like the
poor fellows only the better for our laughing; and hope they will get on
well there, and continue Presidents of the City-watch. Such laughter, like
sunshine on the deep sea, is very beautiful to me.

We have no room to speak of Shakspeare's individual works; though perhaps
there is much still waiting to be said on that head. Had we, for instance,
all his plays reviewed as _Hamlet_, in _Wilhelm Meister_, is! A thing
which might, one day, be done. August Wilhelm Schlegel has a remark on his
Historical Plays, _Henry Fifth_ and the others, which is worth remembering.
He calls them a kind of National Epic. Marlborough, you recollect, said,
he knew no English History but what he had learned from Shakspeare. There
are really, if we look to it, few as memorable Histories. The great
salient points are admirably seized; all rounds itself off, into a kind of
rhythmic coherence; it is, as Schlegel says, epic;--as indeed all
delineation by a great thinker will be. There are right beautiful things
in those Pieces, which indeed together form one beautiful thing. That
battle of Agincourt strikes me as one of the most perfect things, in its
sort, we anywhere have of Shakspeare's. The description of the two hosts:
the worn-out, jaded English; the dread hour, big with destiny, when the
battle shall begin; and then that deathless valor: "Ye good yeomen, whose
limbs were made in England!" There is a noble Patriotism in it,--far other
than the "indifference" you sometimes hear ascribed to Shakspeare. A true
English heart breathes, calm and strong, through the whole business; not
boisterous, protrusive; all the better for that. There is a sound in it
like the ring of steel. This man too had a right stroke in him, had it
come to that!

But I will say, of Shakspeare's works generally, that we have no full
impress of him there; even as full as we have of many men. His works are
so many windows, through which we see a glimpse of the world that was in
him. All his works seem, comparatively speaking, cursory, imperfect,
written under cramping circumstances; giving only here and there a note of
the full utterance of the man. Passages there are that come upon you like
splendor out of Heaven; bursts of radiance, illuminating the very heart of
the thing: you say, "That is _true_, spoken once and forever; wheresoever
and whensoever there is an open human soul, that will be recognized as
true!" Such bursts, however, make us feel that the surrounding matter is
not radiant; that it is, in part, temporary, conventional. Alas,
Shakspeare had to write for the Globe Playhouse: his great soul had to
crush itself, as it could, into that and no other mould. It was with him,
then, as it is with us all. No man works save under conditions. The
sculptor cannot set his own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he
could translate it into the stone that was given, with the tools that were
given. _Disjecta membra_ are all that we find of any Poet, or of any man.

Whoever looks intelligently at this Shakspeare may recognize that he too
was a _Prophet_, in his way; of an insight analogous to the Prophetic,
though he took it up in another strain. Nature seemed to this man also
divine; unspeakable, deep as Tophet, high as Heaven; "We are such stuff as
Dreams are made of!" That scroll in Westminster Abbey, which few read with
understanding, is of the depth of any seer. But the man sang; did not
preach, except musically. We called Dante the melodious Priest of
Middle-Age Catholicism. May we not call Shakspeare the still more
melodious Priest of a _true_ Catholicism, the "Universal Church" of the
Future and of all times? No narrow superstition, harsh asceticism,
intolerance, fanatical fierceness or perversion: a Revelation, so far as
it goes, that such a thousand-fold hidden beauty and divineness dwells in
all Nature; which let all men worship as they can! We may say without
offence, that there rises a kind of universal Psalm out of this Shakspeare
too; not unfit to make itself heard among the still more sacred Psalms.
Not in disharmony with these, if we understood them, but in harmony!--I
cannot call this Shakspeare a "Sceptic," as some do; his indifference to
the creeds and theological quarrels of his time misleading them. No:
neither unpatriotic, though he says little about his Patriotism; nor
sceptic, though he says little about his Faith. Such "indifference" was
the fruit of his greatness withal: his whole heart was in his own grand
sphere of worship (we may call it such); these other controversies, vitally
important to other men, were not vital to him.

But call it worship, call it what you will, is it not a right glorious
thing, and set of things, this that Shakspeare has brought us? For myself,
I feel that there is actually a kind of sacredness in the fact of such a
man being sent into this Earth. Is he not an eye to us all; a blessed
heaven-sent Bringer of Light?--And, at bottom, was it not perhaps far
better that this Shakspeare, every way an unconscious man, was _conscious_
of no Heavenly message? He did not feel, like Mahomet, because he saw into
those internal Splendors, that he specially was the "Prophet of God:" and
was he not greater than Mahomet in that? Greater; and also, if we compute
strictly, as we did in Dante's case, more successful. It was intrinsically
an error that notion of Mahomet's, of his supreme Prophethood; and has come
down to us inextricably involved in error to this day; dragging along with
it such a coil of fables, impurities, intolerances, as makes it a
questionable step for me here and now to say, as I have done, that Mahomet
was a true Speaker at all, and not rather an ambitious charlatan,
perversity and simulacrum; no Speaker, but a Babbler! Even in Arabia, as I
compute, Mahomet will have exhausted himself and become obsolete, while
this Shakspeare, this Dante may still be young;--while this Shakspeare may
still pretend to be a Priest of Mankind, of Arabia as of other places, for
unlimited periods to come!

Compared with any speaker or singer one knows, even with Aeschylus or
Homer, why should he not, for veracity and universality, last like them?
He is _sincere_ as they; reaches deep down like them, to the universal and
perennial. But as for Mahomet, I think it had been better for him _not_ to
be so conscious! Alas, poor Mahomet; all that he was _conscious_ of was a
mere error; a futility and triviality,--as indeed such ever is. The truly
great in him too was the unconscious: that he was a wild Arab lion of the
desert, and did speak out with that great thunder-voice of his, not by
words which he _thought_ to be great, but by actions, by feelings, by a
history which _were_ great! His Koran has become a stupid piece of prolix
absurdity; we do not believe, like him, that God wrote that! The Great Man
here too, as always, is a Force of Nature. whatsoever is truly great in
him springs up from the _in_articulate deeps.

Well: this is our poor Warwickshire Peasant, who rose to be Manager of a
Playhouse, so that he could live without begging; whom the Earl of
Southampton cast some kind glances on; whom Sir Thomas Lucy, many thanks to
him, was for sending to the Treadmill! We did not account him a god, like
Odin, while he dwelt with us;--on which point there were much to be said.
But I will say rather, or repeat: In spite of the sad state Hero-worship
now lies in, consider what this Shakspeare has actually become among us.
Which Englishman we ever made, in this land of ours, which million of
Englishmen, would we not give up rather than the Stratford Peasant? There
is no regiment of highest Dignitaries that we would sell him for. He is
the grandest thing we have yet done. For our honor among foreign nations,
as an ornament to our English Household, what item is there that we would
not surrender rather than him? Consider now, if they asked us, Will you
give up your Indian Empire or your Shakspeare, you English; never have had
any Indian Empire, or never have had any Shakspeare? Really it were a
grave question. Official persons would answer doubtless in official
language; but we, for our part too, should not we be forced to answer:
Indian Empire, or no Indian Empire; we cannot do without Shakspeare!
Indian Empire will go, at any rate, some day; but this Shakspeare does not
go, he lasts forever with us; we cannot give up our Shakspeare!

Nay, apart from spiritualities; and considering him merely as a real,
marketable, tangibly useful possession. England, before long, this Island
of ours, will hold but a small fraction of the English: in America, in New
Holland, east and west to the very Antipodes, there will be a Saxondom
covering great spaces of the Globe. And now, what is it that can keep all
these together into virtually one Nation, so that they do not fall out and
fight, but live at peace, in brotherlike intercourse, helping one another?
This is justly regarded as the greatest practical problem, the thing all
manner of sovereignties and governments are here to accomplish: what is it
that will accomplish this? Acts of Parliament, administrative
prime-ministers cannot. America is parted from us, so far as Parliament
could part it. Call it not fantastic, for there is much reality in it:
Here, I say, is an English King, whom no time or chance, Parliament or
combination of Parliaments, can dethrone! This King Shakspeare, does not
he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest,
yet strongest of rallying-signs; indestructible; really more valuable in
that point of view than any other means or appliance whatsoever? We can
fancy him as radiant aloft over all the Nations of Englishmen, a thousand
years hence. From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever, under what sort
of Parish-Constable soever, English men and women are, they will say to one
another: "Yes, this Shakspeare is ours; we produced him, we speak and
think by him; we are of one blood and kind with him." The most
common-sense politician, too, if he pleases, may think of that.

Yes, truly, it is a great thing for a Nation that it get an articulate
voice; that it produce a man who will speak forth melodiously what the
heart of it means! Italy, for example, poor Italy lies dismembered,
scattered asunder, not appearing in any protocol or treaty as a unity at
all; yet the noble Italy is actually _one_: Italy produced its Dante;
Italy can speak! The Czar of all the Russias, he is strong with so many
bayonets, Cossacks and cannons; and does a great feat in keeping such a
tract of Earth politically together; but he cannot yet speak. Something
great in him, but it is a dumb greatness. He has had no voice of genius,
to be heard of all men and times. He must learn to speak. He is a great
dumb monster hitherto. His cannons and Cossacks will all have rusted into
nonentity, while that Dante's voice is still audible. The Nation that has
a Dante is bound together as no dumb Russia can be.--We must here end what
we had to say of the _Hero-Poet_.

Thomas Carlyle

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