Massey on Shakespeare and Burns.

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Medium and Daybreak

September 10, 1886.


Mr. Gerald Massey gave the first two of a course of ten Lectures, in St. George's Hall, Langham Place, London, on Tuesday and Friday evenings of last week, on Shakespeare and Burns.


Mr. Massey said that his object was to present the human personality of the great poet.  How few of all who ever read his works or made use of his name, had any adequate or even shapeable conception of the man Shakespeare.  He who of all poets came the nearest home to us with his myriad touches of nature, seemed the most remote from men in his own personality.  Yet we know that somewhere at the centre of the glory radiating from his works, there dwells the spirit of all the brightness, however lost in light Shakespeare's own life, Shakespeare himself, not Bacon, nor another, is at the heart of it all.  He was a man, and one of the most intensely human that ever walked our world, although as a dramatist the most elusive Protean spirit that ever played bo-peep with us from behind the mask of matter.  But the known facts of his life were few.  The lecturer gave a brief and interesting sketch of the England into which Shakespeare was born; and the new spirit of national adventure which was just then beginning to get daringly afloat.  When our Shakespeare was sixteen years of age there was a William Shakespeare drowned at Stratford, in the river Avon.  This fact offered a rare chance for those purblind followers of poor Delia Bacon, who were suffering from the delusion that her namesake was the author of Shakespeare's works.  They should complete their case by boldly swearing that that was our William Shakespeare who was drowned, and there was an end of him once for all; nothing short of proving some such alibi could ever establish their theory.  Possibly his early life in London was a time of trial for Shakespeare; but, unlike Byron, who wrote most eloquently about himself, largeness of sympathy with others, rather than intensity of sympathy with self, was Shakespeare's nobler poetic motive.  This was provable by means of his poems and plays, and was not to be gainsaid by any false reading of the sonnets.  We should know still less than we do of the man Shakespeare, but for his evident ambition to make the best of this world.  He had seen quite enough of poverty in his father's home.  So he set about gaining what money he could for himself, and gripped it firmly too when he had got it.  Mr. Massey thought it was to Gabriel Harvey that we owe the first recognition of Shakespeare's genius, in the letters "especially touching parties abused by Robert Greene."  Harvey expostulates with the Greene clique on behalf of this new poet, whom he proclaims to be "the sweetest and divinest muse that ever sung in English or other language."  Mr. Massey adduced various instances of Shakespeare's retorts to the attacks make on him by his contemporaries, the most amusing of which were in reply to old John Davies, of Hereford, who wrote the epigram on "Drusus the deer-stealer."  The lecturer suggested that the character of Malvolio was intended for John Davies.  We might depend upon it, whether we accepted the particular illustrations or not, that Shakespeare was a great mimic by nature, and the mimicry was not limited to the player when on the stage.  He was a merry mocker beneath the dramatic mask.  See how he quizzed the euphuistic affectations, and other non-national and non-natural fashions; how he burlesqued the bombast of Tamburlane, and made fun of the mythical heroes of Homer, who he knew were not men of nature's making.  Mr. Massey said he dwelt on these aspects because it had been too commonly the habit to look at Shakespeare with the faculty of wonder alone.  Of all great poets he drew most from real life, and his men and women are so life-like and genuine for us to-day, because he held the mirror up to nature, and so faithfully rendered those of his own day.  It is not the subjective kind of mind, which goes ballooning aloft out of sight of the earth below, that can ever apprehend the robust reality and matter-of-fact details, political or personal, to be found in the work of Shakespeare, which is the essence of the national character made concrete.  No true representation of Shakespeare could be given with a false interpretation of the sonnets.  If we read them as wholly personal to himself we have to reverse all that we know of him—the happy soul delighting in his wealth of work and "well contented day" becomes a moody, disappointed, discontented man, envious of this one's art and that one's scope, disgusted with his work, which brought him friends and made his fortune; disgraced by writing for the stage or hearing the name of "player" as a brand; miserable in his lot; an outcast in his life; blotted and stained in his character; meanly immoral in his friendship; a hypocrite, a knave, and a fool.  And all because a sort of one-eyed folk cannot see that the greatest dramatic poet in the world could also write dramatically, or vicariously, when composing "sonnets for his private friends."  The autobiographic theory was false.  The sonnets were also dramatic.  In his life we know that he left the impress of a cheery, healthful nature, a catholic and jocund soul, on all who came near him.  Only twenty-four years after the poet's death the publisher Benson says the sonnets are of the "same purity that the author himself avouched when living."  They would find in Shakespeare an active sense of the supernatural, and the reality and nearness of the spirit-world, but he never took sides with any religious sect or system.  He was a world too wide for any or all of the theologies, and when these had passed away, said Mr. Massey, like a mist dispersed, there will be but little superseded in the work of Shakespeare.  Ben Jonson, in his tribute to Shakespeare, his "book and his fame," uttered the very one word once for all, when he said, "Thou wert not of an age but for all time."  He had nothing, merely Elizabethan or Archaic in his work; his language never gets obsolete; in spirit he is modern up to the latest minute; other writers may be outgrown by their readers as they ripen with age, or lose the glory of their youth, but not Shakespeare.  At every age he is still mature, still ahead of his readers, just as he always overtops his actors.

 The lecturer was frequently applauded, and many valuable hints were given and suggestions offered, to Shakespearean students.


    In his essay on Burns, Carlyle remarks that if the boy Robert had been sent to school, and had struggled forward to the university, he might have come forth, not a rustic wonder, but as a well-trained, intellectual workman, and changed the whole course of British literature.  This dictum, the lecturer ventured to dispute; he could not regret that books had no more to do with the intellectual making of Robert Burns.  We had altogether overrated the power of making mind out of books; we need more rapport with, and relationship to, the living source of mind in nature itself; a closer study of records, a nearer, subtler communion with her works and ways.  What could they have done with Burns at college beyond making out of him one more misleading parson or professor, or possibly have turned out another mis-trained literary man—the more literary, the less a man?  What had been and still is the great cause of mental sterility but the casting of new minds in obsolete moulds of thought?  Burns got the very best education that was not to be had for money, whereas the collegian sometimes got the very worst that money could purchase, because it was misleading.  Mr. Ruskin once wrote to him (Mr. Massey), "Your education was a terrible one, but mine was a thousand-fold worse."  "Yet," said the lecturer, "he had all that wealth could buy, and I had all that poverty could bring, and was forced to do my own thinking for myself."  The world had been suffering for centuries from a religion of anti-naturalism, and a poet like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Burns exerted a must beneficent influence in rescuing men from the pious pretenders who taught that all things natural are wrong.  The people must produce their own poetry, and Robert Burns possessed the very soul of the people.  Perhaps no poet ever existed who was so intensely national; his generous heart flowed with sympathy for the poor, who were so often compelled to creep through ways too low for the lofty spirit to walk in at full height.  His tear of pity for the wee dying daisy hangs on it an immortal dew-drop.  And how his feeling heart ached to see the little field mouse turned out of its "cosie, wee bit housie" just as it was built for shelter from the coming winter.  But in all these outgoings of the poet's sympathy there was never a taint of the sentimental.  The most cynical Saturday Reviewer even dare not snigger nor sneer when Burns sheds tears.  Burns' sympathy was large enough to include the devil in its embrace.  It was often a great difficulty for the self-educated man to fling aside the fustian in his writing long after he had ceased to wear it in his work, but Burns seemed to have begun where other writers had ended, with reliance on simplicity and perfect trust in truth.  He was Wordsworth's immediate predecessor and teacher. The revolution in poetry completed by Wordsworth was begun by Burns.  Wordsworth had said of him—

He showed my youth
How verse may build a princely throne
On humble truth.

But Burns was the more essentially and inevitably human in his love of nature.  His brother man was more to Burns than his mother earth, and he struck his deepest root in human soil.  Speaking of the drinking songs and customs, Mr. Massey said it did seem at times as if Scotch whisky were the sole relief from the dreary drizzle that had soaked and sodden the souls of men with the Calvinistic mist of misery—as if Scotch whisky were the natural and necessary antidote to Scotch theology. (Laughter.) No subject tickled the Scottish sense of humour more irresistibly than that which brought out in a broad light the droll aspects of character under the influence of drink, especially if illustrated by the lapse of some godly man who had been spirituously overcome in his unequal conflict with the tempter, the delightful incongruity of the douce, canny man becoming devil-may-care, the straight-laced letting out tuck after tuck till Nature asserted herself, large as life—the over-cautious permitting the mask of prudence to fall, or dashing it off like an old wig and going in for it neck or nothing, barefaced and bald-headed.  This, too, Burns said and celebrated. We could not possibly estimate the genius of Burns apart from the surroundings of his life.  It was, in fact, by the eclipse which his life suffered that, like astronomers dealing with the sun, we could best measure the corona of his glory and see how far it soars beyond eclipse.  It was such a strong, clear spring of life, welling fresh from the Infinite and working its way outward from the stiff soil of poverty, through all obstacles, to water and give life to many waste places of the world.  At times the poor fellow was, as he described himself, "half mad, half-fed, and half-sarkit."  All he asked of his native land when he made his little venture of publishing his first poems (the final folly he intended to commit) was just £20 to enable him to leave it for ever.  And when he was dying he was threatened with the horrors of a gaol on account of a debt (the only debt we hear of him owing) for his regimental suit, in which he had sought to serve a grateful country; whilst his petition that his full salary might be continued to his wife and children during the time he was dying was not granted; add to these things the fact that he suffered fearfully from low spirits, and had a constitutional melancholy. That dark cloud of Calvinism, under which he was begotten and born and bred, was never quite lifted from the soul of Burns; he suffered horribly from that creed which sets men all at cross purposes with themselves, and with nature within and without so soon as they begin to think.  On behalf of his fellows his whole nature rose in revolt against this theology.  His own recklessness was at times in sheerest defiance of its damnatory doctrines.  Think of these things, said Mr. Massey, and then remember that Burns in his poetry is one of the blithe powers of nature, and his art is dedicated to joy.  Personal suffering or discontent do not set him singing.  He was not one of the half-poets who are cradled into poetry by wrong, but one of those who mirror the round of human life in the range of their own experience.  He did not apotheosize sorrow as an image of the Eternal.  He was heartily opposed to the gospel of gloom, and his poems supplied an antidote to Auld Scotland's lugubrious curse of Calvinism.  The poet Goethe had characterised the history of a nation as a mighty fugue, in which the voice of the people is heard last.  In our national development we, the people, got adequate expression for the first time by the voice of Robert Burns.  In him the soul of the common people, the toilers, the peasantry, straightened the bent back, and rose up to manhood full-statured to wipe the sweat off the brow proudly, look out of his eyes, dare to be poor, and feel enfranchised through him.  As a poet he was the first, and remained the foremost, great representative of labour.  He asserted our right to join in the onward march of humanity, and share audibly in the national life. The flag of the workers, which waved out only the other day in our House of Commons, and will soon have manhood suffrage emblazoned on it, was first unfurled on its way there by our banner-bearer, Robert Burns.  He had the "glorious insufficiencies" which are often more admirable than the "narrower perfectness"; and we are drawn more directly to a nature like this, with all it flaws and failings, than to the man whose only fault might be that from lack of force he had no fault at all.  As we are humanly constituted, a far more perfect man might have called forth a lesser love than that which we feel for Robert Burns.

The numerous eloquent passages and the humorous and satirical touches in Mr. Massey's address, elicited frequent bursts of applause.


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