Shakespeare’s Lyrics by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Essay

August 25, 1894. Shakespeare’s Lyrics.

In their re-issue of The Aldine Poets, Messrs. George Bell & Sons have made a number of concessions to public taste. The new binding is far more pleasing than the old; and in some cases, where the notes and introductory memoirs had fallen out of date, new editors have been set to work, with satisfactory results. It is therefore no small disappointment to find that the latest volume, “The Poems of Shakespeare,” is but a reprint from stereotyped plates of the Rev. Alexander Dyce’s text, notes and memoir.

The Rev. A. Dyce.

Now, of the Rev. Alexander Dyce it may be fearlessly asserted that his criticism is not for all time. Even had he been less prone to accept the word of John Payne Collier for gospel; even had Shakespearian criticism made no perceptible advance during the last quarter of a century, yet there is that in the Rev. Alexander Dyce’s treatment of his poet which would warn us to pause before accepting his word as final. As a test of his æsthetic judgment we may turn to the “Songs from the Plays of Shakespeare” with which this volume concludes. It had been as well, in a work of this sort, to include all the songs; but he gives us a selection only, and an uncommonly bad selection. I have tried in vain to discover a single principle of taste underlying it. On what principle, for instance, can a man include the song “Come away, come away, death” from Twelfth Night, and omit “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?”; or include Amiens’ two songs from As you Like It, and omit the incomparable “It was a lover and his lass”? Or what but stark insensibility can explain the omission of “Take, O take those lips away,” and the bridal song “Roses, their sharp spines being gone,” that opens The Two Noble Kinsmen? But stay: the Rev. Alexander Dyce may attribute this last pair to Fletcher. “Take, O take those lips away” certainly occurs (with a second and inferior stanza) in Fletcher’s The Bloody Brother, first published in 1639; but Dyce gives no hint of his belief that Fletcher wrote it. We are, therefore, left to conclude that Dyce thought it unworthy of a place in his collection. On The Two Noble Kinsmen (first published in 1634) Dyce is more explicit. In a footnote to the Memoir he says: “The title-page of the first edition of Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen attributes the play partly to Shakespeare; I do not think our poet had any share in its composition; but I must add that Mr. C. Lamb (a great authority in such matters) inclines to a different opinion.” When “Mr. C. Lamb” and the Rev. Alexander Dyce hold opposite opinions, it need not be difficult to choose. And surely, if internal evidence count for anything at all, the lines

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“Maiden pinks, of odour faint,
Daisies smell-less, yet most quaint,
And sweet thyme true.”


“Oxlips in their cradles growing”


“Not an angel of the air,
Bird melodious, or bird fair,
Be absent hence.”

–were written by Shakespeare and not by Fletcher. Nor is it any detraction from Fletcher to take this view. Shakespeare himself has left songs hardly finer than Fletcher wrote at his best–hardly finer, for instance, than that magnificent pair from Valentinian. Only the note of Shakespeare happens to be different from the note of Fletcher: and it is Shakespeare’s note–the note of

“The cowslips tall her pensioners be”

(also omitted by the inscrutable Dyce) and of

“When daisies pied, and violets blue,
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight …”

–that we hear repeated in this Bridal Song.[A] And if this be so, it is but another proof for us that Dyce was not a critic for all time.

Nor is the accent of finality conspicuous in such passages as this from the Memoir:–

“Wright had heard that Shakespeare ‘was a much better poet than player’; and Rowe tells us that soon after his admission into the company, he became distinguished, ‘if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer.’ Perhaps his execution did not equal his conception of a character, but we may rest assured that he who wrote the incomparable instructions to the player in Hamlet would never offend his audience by an injudicious performance.”

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I have no more to urge against writing of this order than that it has passed out of fashion, and that something different might reasonably have been looked for in a volume that bears the date 1894 on its title-page. The public owes Messrs. Bell & Sons a heavy debt; but at the same time the public has a peculiar interest in such a series as that of The Aldine Poets. A purchaser who finds several of these books to his mind, and is thereby induced to embark upon the purchase of the entire series, must feel a natural resentment if succeeding volumes drop below the implied standard. He cannot go back: and to omit the offending volumes is to spoil his set. And I contend that the action taken by Messrs. Bell & Sons in improving several of their more or less obsolete editions will only be entirely praiseworthy if we may take it as an earnest of their desire to place the whole series on a level with contemporary knowledge and criticism.

Nor can anyone who knows how much the industry and enthusiasm of Dyce did, in his day, for the study of Shakespeare, do more than urge that while, viewed historically, Dyce’s criticism is entirely respectable, it happens to be a trifle belated in the year 1894. The points of difference between him and Charles Lamb are perhaps too obvious to need indication; but we may sum them up by saying that whereas Lamb, being a genius, belongs to all time, Dyce, being but an industrious person, belongs to a period. It was a period of rapid development, no doubt–how rapid we may learn for ourselves by the easy process of taking down Volume V. of Chalmers’s “English Poets,” and turning to that immortal passage on Shakespeare’s poems which Chalmers put forth in the year 1810:–

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“The peremptory decision of Mr. Steevens on the merits of these poems must not be omitted. ‘We have not reprinted the Sonnets, etc., of Shakespeare, because the strongest Act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service. Had Shakespeare produced no other works than these, his name would have reached us with as little celebrity as time has conferred upon that of Thomas Watson, an older and much more elegant sonnetteer.’ Severe as this may appear, it only amounts to the general conclusion which modern critics have formed. Still, it cannot be denied that there are many scattered beauties among his Sonnets, and in the Rape of Lucrece; enough, it is hoped, to justify their admission into the present collection, especially as the Songs, etc., from his plays have been added, and a few smaller pieces selected by Mr. Ellis….”

No comment can add to, or take from, the stupendousness of this. And yet it was the criticism proper to its time. “I have only to hope,” writes Chalmers in his preface, “that my criticisms will not be found destitute of candour, or improperly interfering with the general and acknowledged principles of taste.” Indeed they are not. They were the right opinions for Chalmers; as Dyce’s were the right opinions for Dyce: and if, as we hope, ours is a larger appreciation of Shakespeare, we probably hold it by no merit of our own, but as the common possession of our generation, derived through the chastening experiences of our grandfathers. That, however, is no reason why we should not insist on having such editions of Shakespeare as fulfil our requirements, and refuse to study Dyce except as an historical figure.

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It is an unwise generation that declines to take all its inheritance. I have heard once or twice of late that English poets in the future will set themselves to express emotions more complex and subtle than have ever yet been treated in poetry. I shall be extremely glad, of course, if this happen in my time. But at present I incline to rejoice rather in an assured inheritance, and, when I hear talk of this kind, to say over to myself one particular sonnet which for mere subtlety of thought seems to me unbeaten by anything that I can select from the poetry of this century:–

Thy bosom is endeared of all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposed dead;
And there reigns Love and all Love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buried.
How many a holy and obsequious Tear
Hath dear religious love stol’n from mine eye,
As interest of the dead, which now appear
But things remov’d that hidden in thee lie!

Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is thine alone!
Their images I lov’d I view in thee,
And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.


[A] The opening lines of the second stanza of this poem have generally been printed thus:

“Primrose, firstborn child of Ver,
Merry springtime’s harbinger,
With her bells dim….”

And many have wondered how Shakespeare or Fletcher came to write of the “bells” of a primrose. Mr. W.J. Linton proposed “With harebell slim”: although if we must read “harebell” or “harebells,” “dim” would be a pretty and proper word for the color of that flower. The conjecture takes some little plausibility from Shakespeare’s elsewhere linking primrose and harebell together:

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“Thou shalt not lack
The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured harebell, like thy veins….”
Cymbeline, iv. 2.

I have always suspected, however, that there should be a semicolon after “Ver,” and that “Merry springtime’s harbinger, with her bells dim,” refers to a totally different flower–the snowdrop, to wit. And I have lately learnt from Dr. Grosart, who has carefully examined the 1634 edition (the only early one), that the text actually gives a semicolon. The snowdrop may very well come after the primrose in this song, which altogether ignores the process of the seasons.

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