Story type: Essay
I take the opportunity of referring to the work of a very eloquent Frenchman, who has brought the names of Wordsworth and Shakspeare into connection, partly for the sake of pointing out an important error in the particular criticism on Wordsworth, but still more as an occasion for expressing the gratitude due to the French author for the able, anxious, and oftentimes generous justice which he has rendered to English literature. It is most gratifying to a thoughtful Englishman–that precisely from that period when the mighty drama of the French Revolution, like the Deluge, or like the early growth of Christianity, or like the Reformation, had been in operation long enough to form a new and more thoughtful generation in France, has the English literature been first studied in France, and first appreciated. Since 1810, when the generation moulded by the Revolution was beginning to come forward on the stage of national action, a continued series of able writers amongst the French–ardent, noble, profound–have laid aside their nationality in the most generous spirit for the express purpose of investigating the great English models of intellectual power, locally so near to their own native models, and virtually in such polar remoteness. Chateaubriand’s intense enthusiasm for Milton, almost monomaniac in the opinion of some people, is notorious. This, however, was less astonishing: the pure marble grandeur of Milton, and his classical severity, naturally recommended themselves to the French taste, which can always understand the beauty of proportion and regular or teleologic tendencies. It was with regard to the anomalous, and to that sort of vaster harmonies which from moving upon a wider scale are apt at first sight to pass for discords, that a new taste needed to be created in France. Here Chateaubriand showed himself a Frenchman of the old leaven. Milton would always have been estimated in France. He needed only to be better known. Shakspeare was the natural stone of offence: and with regard to him Chateaubriand has shown himself eminently blind. His reference to Shakspeare’s female gallery, so divine as that Pantheon really is, by way of most forcibly expressing his supposed inferiority to Racine (who strictly speaking has no female pictures at all, but merely umrisse or outlines in pencil) is the very perfection of human blindness. But many years ago the writers in Le Globe, either by direct papers on the drama or indirectly by way of references to the acting of Kean, etc., showed that even as to Shakspeare a new heart was arising in France. M. Raymond de Vericour, though necessarily called off to a more special consideration of the Miltonic poetry by the very promise of his title (Milton, et la Poesie Epique: Paris et Londres, 1838), has in various places shown a far more comprehensive sense of poetic truth than Chateaubriand. His sensibility, being originally deeper and trained to move upon a larger compass, vibrates equally under the chords of the Shakspearian music. Even he, however, has made a serious mistake as to Wordsworth in his relation to Shakspeare. At p. 420 he says: ‘Wordsworth qui (de meme que Byron) sympathise pen cordialement avec Shakspeare, se prosterne cependant comme Byron devant le Paradis perdu; Milton est la grande idole de Wordsworth; il ne craint pas quelquefois de se comparer lui-meme a son geant;’ (never unless in the single accident of praying for a similar audience–‘fit audience let me find though few’); ‘et en verite ses sonnets ont souvent le meme esprit prophetique, la meme elevation sacree que ceux de l’Homere anglais.’ There cannot be graver mistakes than are here brought into one focus. Lord Byron cared little for the ‘Paradise Lost,’ and had studied it not at all. On the other hand, Lord Byron’s pretended disparagement of Shakspeare by comparison with the meagre, hungry and bloodless Alfieri was a pure stage trick, a momentary device for expressing his Apemantus misanthropy towards the English people. It happened at the time he had made himself unpopular by the circumstances of his private life: these, with a morbid appetite for engaging public attention, he had done his best to publish and to keep before the public eye; whilst at the same time he was very angry at the particular style of comments which they provoked. There was no fixed temper of anger towards him in the public mind of England: but he believed that there was. And he took his revenge through every channel by which he fancied himself to have a chance for reaching and stinging the national pride; 1st, by ridiculing the English pretensions to higher principle and national morality; but that failing, 2ndly, by disparaging Shakspeare; 3rdly, on the same principle which led Dean Swift to found the first lunatic hospital in Ireland, viz.:
‘To shew by one satiric touch
No nation wanted it so much.’
Lord Byron, without any sincere opinion or care upon the subject one way or other, directed in his will–that his daughter should not marry an Englishman: this bullet, he fancied, would take effect, even though the Shakspeare bullet had failed. Now, as to Wordsworth, he values both in the highest degree. In a philosophic poem, like the ‘Excursion,’ he is naturally led to speak more pointedly of Milton: but his own affinities are every way more numerous and striking to Shakspeare. For this reason I have myself been led to group him with Shakspeare. In those two poets alike is seen the infinite of Painting: in AEschylus and Milton alike are seen the simplicities and stern sublimiities of Sculpture.