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THE HERO AS POET

by Thomas Carlyle

 

Lecture IIIdelivered 12th May1840.

by Thomas Carlyle

From On HeroesHero-Worshipand the Heroic in History

OF this Shakspeare of oursperhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a littleidolatrously expressed isin factthe right one; I think the best judgementnot of this country onlybut of Europe at largeis slowly pointing to theconclusionThat Shakspeare is the chief of all Poets hitherto; the greatestintellect whoin our recorded worldhas left record of himself in the way ofLiterature. On the wholeI know not such a power of visionsuch a faculty ofthoughtif we take all the characters of itin any other man. Such a calmnessof depth; placid joyous strength; all things imaged in that great soul of his sotrue and clearas in a tranquil unfathomable sea! It has been saidthat in theconstructing of Shakspeare's Dramas there isapart from all other 'faculties'as they are calledan understanding manifestedequal to that in Bacon's NovumOrganum. That is true; and it is not a truth that strikes every one. It wouldbecome more apparent if we triedany of us for himselfhowout ofShakspeare's dramatic materialswe could fashion such a result! The built houseseems all so fit- everyway as it should beas if it came there by its own lawand the nature of things- we forget the rude disorderly quarry it was shapedfrom. The very perfection of the houseas if Nature herself had made ithidesthe builder's merit. Perfectmore perfect than any other manwe may callShakspeare in this: he discernsknows as by instinctwhat condition he worksunderwhat his materials arewhat his own force and its relation to them is.It is not a transitory glance of insight that will suffice; it is deliberateillumination of the whole matter; it is a calmly seeing eye; a great intellectin short. How a manof some wide thing that he has witnessedwill construct anarrativewhat kind of picture and delineation he will give of it- is the bestmeasure you could get of what intellect is in the man. Which circumstance isvital and shall stand prominent; which unessentialfit to be suppressed; whereis the true beginningthe true sequence and ending? To find out thisyou taskthe whole force of insight that is in the man. He must understand the thing;according to the depth of his understandingwill the fitness of his answer be.You will try him so. Does like join itself to like; does the spirit of methodstir in that confusionso that its embroilment becomes order? Can the man sayFiat luxLet there be light; and out of chaos make a world? Precisely as thereis light in himselfwill he accomplish this.

Or indeed we may say againit is in what I called Portrait-paintingdelineating of men and thingsespecially of menthat Shakspeare is great. Allthe greatness of the man comes out decisively here. It is unexampledI thinkthat calm creative perspicacity of Shakspeare. The thing he looks at reveals notthis or that face of itbut its inmost heart and generic secret: it dissolvesitself as in light before himso that he discerns the perfect structure of it.Creativewe said: poetic creationwhat is this too but seeing the thingsufficiently? The word that will describe the thingfollows of itself from suchclear intense sight of the thing. And is not Shakspeare's moralityhis valourcandourtolerancetruthfulness; his whole victorious strength and greatnesswhich can triumph over such obstructionsvisible there too? Great as the world!No twistedpoor convex-concave mirrorreflecting all objects with its ownconvexities and concavities; a perfectly level mirror;- that is to say withalif we will understand ita man justly related to all things and mena goodman. It is truly a lordly spectacle how this great soul takes in all kinds ofmen and objectsa Falstaffan Othelloa Julieta Coriolanus; sets them allforth to us in their round completeness; lovingjustthe equal brother of all.Novum Organumand all the intellect you will find in Baconis of a quitesecondary order; earthymaterialpoor in comparison with this. Among modernmenone findsin strictnessalmost nothing of the same rank. Goethe alonesince the days of Shakspearereminds me of it. Of him too you say that he sawthe object; you may say what he himself says of Shakspeare: 'His characters arelike watches with dial- plates of transparent crystal; they show you the hourlike othersand the inward mechanism also is all visible.'

The seeing eye! It is this that discloses the inner harmony of things; whatNature meantwhat musical idea Nature has wrapped up in these often roughembodiments. Something she did mean. To the seeing eye that something werediscernible. Are they basemiserable things? You can laugh over themyou canweep over them; you can in some way or other genially relate yourself to them;-you canat lowesthold your peace about themturn away your own and others'face from themtill the hour come for practically exterminating andextinguishing them! At bottomit is the Poet's first giftas it is all men'sthat he have intellect enough. He will be a Poet if he have: a Poet in word; orfailing thatperhaps still bettera Poet in act. Whether he write at all; andif sowhether in prose or in versewill depend on accidents: who knows on whatextremely trivial accidents- perhaps on his having had a singing-masteron hisbeing taught to sing in his boyhood! But the faculty which enables him todiscern the inner heart of thingsand the harmony that dwells there (forwhatsoever exists has a harmony in the heart of itor it would not holdtogether and exist)is not the result of habits or accidentsbut the gift ofNature herself; the primary outfit for a Heroic Man in what sort soever. To thePoetas to every otherwe say first of allSee. If you cannot do thatit isof no use to keep stringing rhymes togetherjingling sensibilities against eachotherand name yourself a Poet; there is no hope for you. If you canthere isin prose or versein action or speculationall manner of hope. The crabbed oldSchoolmaster used to askwhen they brought him a new pupil'But are ye surehe's not a dunce?' Whyreally one might ask the same thingin regard to everyman proposed for whatsoever function; and consider it as the one inquiry needful:Are ye sure he's not a dunce?

There isin this worldno other entirely fatal person.

Forin factI say the degree of vision that dwells in a man is a correctmeasure of the man. If called to define Shakspeare's facultyI should saysuperiority of Intellectand think I had included all under that. What indeedare faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinctthings separable;as if a man had intellectimaginationfancy&c.as he has handsfeetand arms. That is a capital error. Then againwe hear of a man's 'intellectualnature'and of his 'moral nature'as if these again were divisibleandexisted apart. Necessities of language do perhaps prescribe such forms ofutterance; we must speakI am awarein that wayif we are to speak at all.But words ought not to harden into things for us. It seems to meourapprehension of this matter isfor most partradically falsified thereby. Weought to know withaland to keep forever in mindthat these divisions are atbottom but names; that man's spiritual naturethe vital Force which dwells inhimis essentially one and indivisible; that what we call imaginationfancyunderstandingand so forthare but different figures of the same Power ofInsightall indissolubly connected with each otherphysiognomically related;that if we knew one of themwe might know all of them. Morality itselfwhat wecall the moral quality of a manwhat is this but another side of the one vitalForce whereby he is and works? All that a man does is physiognomical of him. Youmay see how a man would fightby the way in which he sings; his courageorwant of courageis visible in the word he uttersin the opinion he has formedno less than in the stroke he strikes. He is one; and preaches the same Selfabroad in all these ways.

Without hands a man might have feetand could still walk: butconsider it-without moralityintellect were impossible for him; a thoroughly immoral mancould not know anything at all! To know a thingwhat we can call knowinga manmust first love the thingsympathize with it: that isbe virtuously related toit. If he have not the justice to put down his own selfishness at every turnthe courage to stand by the dangerous-true at every turnhow shall he know? Hisvirtuesall of themwill lie recorded in his knowledge. Naturewith her truthremains to the badto the selfish and the pusillanimous forever a sealed book:what such can know of Nature is meansuperficialsmall; for the uses of theday merely.- But does not the very Fox know something of Nature? Exactly so: itknows where the geese lodge! The human Reynardvery frequent everywhere in theworldwhat more does he know but this and the like of this? Nayit should beconsidered toothat if the Fox had not a certain vulpine moralityhe could noteven know where the geese wereor get at the geese! If he spent his time insplenetic atrabiliar reflections on his own miseryhis ill usage by NatureFortune and other Foxesand so forth; and had not couragepromptitudepracticalityand other suitable vulpine gifts and graceshe would catch nogeese. We may say of the Fox toothat his morality and insight are of the samedimensions; different faces of the same internal unity of vulpine life!- Thesethings are worth stating; for the contrary of them acts with manifold verybaleful perversionin this time: what limitationsmodifications they requireyour own candour will supply.

If I saythereforethat Shakspeare is the greatest of IntellectsI havesaid all concerning him. But there is more in Shakspeare's intellect than wehave yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious intellect; there is more virtuein it than he himself is aware of. Novalis beautifully remarks of himthatthose Dramas of his are Products of Nature toodeep as Nature herself. I find agreat truth in this saying. Shakspeare's Art is not Artifice; the noblest worthof it is not there by plan or precontrivance. It grows up from the deeps ofNaturethrough this noble sincere soulwho is a voice of Nature. The latestgenerations of men will find new meanings in Shakspearenew elucidations oftheir own human being; 'new harmonies with the infinite structure of theUniverse; concurrences with later ideasaffinities with the higher powers andsenses of man.' This well deserves meditating. It is Nature's highest reward toa true simple great soulthat he get thus to be a part of herself. Such a man'sworkswhatsoever he with utmost conscious exertion and forethought shallaccomplishgrow up withal un consciouslyfrom the unknown deeps in him;- asthe oak-tree grows from the Earth's bosomas the mountains and waters shapethemselves; with a symmetry grounded on Nature's own lawsconformable to allTruth whatsoever. How much in Shakspeare lies hid; his sorrowshis silentstruggles known to himself; much that was not known at allnot speakable at all:like

rootslike sap and forces working underground! Speech is great; but Silenceis greater.

Withal the joyful tranquillity of this man is notable. I will not blame Dantefor his misery: it is as battle without victory; but true battle- the firstindispensable thing. Yet I call Shakspeare greater than Dantein that he foughttrulyand did conquer. Doubt it nothe had his own sorrows: those Sonnets ofhis will even testify expressly in what deep waters he had wadedand swumstruggling for his life;- as what man like him ever failed to have to do? Itseems to me a heedless notionour common onethat he sat like a bird on thebough; and sang forthfree and offhandnever knowing the troubles of other men.Not so; with no man is it so. How could a man travel forward from rusticdeer-poaching to such tragedy-writingand not fall in with sorrows by the way?Orstill betterhow could a man delineate a Hamleta Coriolanusa Macbethso many suffering heroic heartsif his own heroic heart had never suffered?-And nowin contrast with all thisobserve his mirthfulnesshis genuineoverflowing love of laughter! You would sayin no point does he exaggerate butonly in laughter. Fiery objurgationswords that pierce and burnare to befound in Shakspeare; yet he is always in measure here; never what Johnson wouldremark as a specially 'good hater'. But his laughter seems to pour from him infloods; he heaps all manner of ridiculous nicknames on the butt he is banteringtumbles and tosses him in all sorts of horse-play; you would sayroars andlaughs. And thenif not always the finestit is always a genial laughter. Notat mere weaknessat misery or poverty; never. No man who can laughwhat wecall laughingwill laugh at these things. It is some poor character onlydesiring to laughand have the credit of witthat does so. Laughter meanssympathy; good laughter is not 'the crackling of thorns under the pot'. Even atstupidity and pretension this Shakspeare does not laugh otherwise than genially.Dogberry and Verges tickle our very hearts; and we dismiss them covered withexplosions of laughter: but we like the poor fellows only the better for ourlaughing; and hope they will get on well thereand continue Presidents of theCity-watch.- Such laughterlike sunshine on the deep seais very beautiful tome.

We have no room to speak of Shakspeare's individual works; though perhapsthere is much still waiting to be said on that head. Had wefor instanceallhis plays reviewed as Hamletin Wilhelm Meisteris! A thing which mightonedaybe done. August Wilhelm Schlegel has a remark on his Historical PlaysHenry Fifth and the otherswhich is worth remembering. He calls them a kind ofNational Epic. Marlboroughyou recollectsaidhe knew no English History but

what he had learned from Shakspeare. There are reallyif we look to itfewas memorable Histories. The great salient points are admirably seized; allrounds itself offinto a kind of rhythmic coherence; it isas Schlegel saysepic; - as indeed all delineation by a great thinker will be. There are rightbeautiful things in those Pieceswhich indeed together form one beautiful thing.That battle of Agincourt strikes me as one of the most perfect thingsin itssortwe anywhere have of Shakspeare's. The description of the two hosts: theworn-outjaded English; the dread hourbig with destinywhen the battle shallbegin; and then that deathless valour: 'Ye good yeomenwhose limbs were made inEngland!' There is a noble Patriotism in it- far other than the 'indifference'you sometimes hear ascribed to Shakspeare. A true English heart breathescalmand strongthrough the whole business; not boisterousprotrusive; all thebetter for that. There is a sound in it like the ring of steel. This man too hada right stroke in himhad it come to that!

But I will sayof Shakspeare's works generallythat we have no full impressof him there; even as full as we have of many men. His works are so manywindowsthrough which we see a glimpse of the world that was in him. All hisworks seemcomparatively speakingcursoryimperfectwritten under crampingcircumstances; giving only here and there a note of the full utterance of theman. Passages there are that come upon you like splendour out of Heaven; burstsof radianceilluminating the very heart of the thing: you say'That is truespoken once and forever; wheresoever and whensoever there is an open human soulthat will be recognized as true!' Such burstshowevermake us feel that thesurrounding matter is not radiant; that it isin parttemporaryconventional.AlasShakspeare had to write for the Globe Playhouse: his great soul had tocrush itselfas it couldinto that and no other mould. It was with himthenas it is with us all. No man works save under conditions. The sculptor cannotset his own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he could translate itinto the stone that was givenwith the tools that were given. Disjecta membraare all that we find of any Poetor of any man.

Whoever looks intelligently at this Shakspeare may recognize that he too wasa Prophetin his way; of an insight analogous to the Propheticthough he tookit up in another strain. Nature seemed to this man also divine; un speakabledeep as Tophethigh as Heaven: 'We are such stuff as Dreams are made of!' Thatscroll in Westminster Abbeywhich few read with understandingis of the depthof any Seer. But the man sang; did not preachexcept musically. We called Dantethe melodious Priest of Middle-Age Catholicism. May we not call Shakspeare thestill more melodious Priest of a true Catholicismthe 'Universal Church' of theFuture and of all times? No narrow superstitionharsh asceticismintolerancefanatical fierceness or perversion: a Revelationso far as it goesthat such athousandfold hidden beauty and divineness dwells in all Nature; which let allmen worship as they can! We may say without offencethat there rises a kind ofuniversal Psalm out of this Shakspeare too; not unfit to make itself heard amongthe still more sacred Psalms. Not in disharmony with theseif we understoodthembut in harmony!- I cannot call this Shakspeare a 'Sceptic' as some do;his indifference to the creeds and theological quarrels of his time misleadingthem. No: neither unpatrioticthough he says little about his Patriotism; norscepticthough he says little about his Faith. Such 'indifference' was thefruit of his greatness withal: his whole heart was in his own grand sphere ofworship (we may call it such); these other controversiesvitally important toother menwere not vital to him.

But call it worshipcall it what you willis it not a right glorious thingand set of thingsthis that Shakspeare has brought us? For myselfI feel thatthere is actually a kind of sacredness in the fact of such a man being sent intothis Earth. Is he not an eye to us all; a blessed heaven-sent Bringer of Light?-Andat bottomwas it not perhaps far better that this Shakspeareeveryway anunconscious manwas conscious of no Heavenly message?...

Well: this is our poor Warwickshire Peasantwho rose to be Manager of aPlayhouseso that he could live without begging; whom the Earl of Southamptoncast some kind glances on; whom Sir Thomas Lucymany thanks to himwas forsending to the Treadmill! We did not account him a godlike Odinwhile hedwelt with us;- on which point there were much to be said. But I will sayratheror repeat: In spite of the sad state Hero-worship now lies inconsiderwhat this Shakspeare has actually become among us. Which Englishman we evermadein this land of ourswhich million of Englishmenwould we not give uprather than the Stratford Peasant? There is no regiment of highest Dignitariesthat we would sell him for. He is the grandest thing we have yet done. For ourhonour among foreign nationsas an ornament to our English Householdwhat itemis there that we would not surrender rather than him? Consider nowif theyasked usWill you give up your Indian Empire or your Shakspeareyou English;never have had any Indian Empireor never have had any Shakspeare? Really itwere a grave question. Official persons would answer doubtless in officiallanguage; but wefor our part tooshould not we be forced to answer: IndianEmpireor no Indian Empire; we cannot do without Shakspeare! Indian Empire willgoat any ratesome day; but this Shakspeare does not gohe lasts foreverwith us; we cannot give up our Shakspeare!

Nayapart from spiritualities; and considering him merely as a realmarketabletangibly useful possession. Englandbefore longthis Island ofourswill hold but a small fraction of the English: in Americain New Hollandeast and west to the very Antipodesthere will be a Saxondom covering greatspaces of the Globe. And nowwhat is it that can keep all these together intovirtually one Nationso that they do not fall out and fightbut live at peacein brotherlike intercoursehelping one another? This is justly regarded as thegreatest practical problemthe thing all manner of sovereignties andgovernments are here to accomplish: what is it that will accomplish this? Actsof Parliamentadministrative prime-ministers cannot. America is parted from usso far as Parliament could part it. Call it not fantasticfor there is muchreality in it: HereI sayis an English Kingwhom no time or chanceParliament or combination of Parliamentscan dethrone! This King Shakspearedoes not he shinein crowned sovereigntyover us allas the noblestgentlestyet strongest of rallying-signs; in destructible; really more valuablein that point of viewthan any other means or appliance whatsoever? We canfancy him as radiant aloft over all the Nations of Englishmena thousand yearshence. From Paramattafrom New Yorkwheresoeverunder what sort ofParish-Constable soeverEnglish men and women arethey will say to oneanother: 'Yesthis Shakspeare is ours: we produced himwe speak and think byhim; we are of one blood and kind with him.' The most common-sense politiciantooif he pleasesmay think of that.

Yestrulyit 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 itmeans! Italyfor examplepoor Italy lies dismemberedscattered asundernotappearing in any protocol or treaty as a unity at all; yet the noble Italy isactually one: Italy produced its Dante; Italy can speak! The Czar of all theRussiashe is strongwith so many bayonetsCossacks and cannons; and does agreat feat in keeping such a tract of Earth politically together; but he cannotyet speak. Something great in himbut it is a dumb greatness. He has had novoice of geniusto be heard of all men and times. He must learn to speak. He isa great dumb monster hitherto. His cannons and Cossacks will all have rustedinto nonentitywhile that Dante's voice is still audible. The Nation that has aDante is bound together as no dumb Russia can be.- We must here end what we hadto say of the Hero-Poet.

THE END