Page images
PDF
EPUB
[graphic][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]

The poet who has described a man of savage wildness, cherishing “unshaped, halfhuman thoughts” in his wanderings among vales and streams, green wood and hollow dell, has said that nature ne'er could find the way into his heart :

A primrose by a river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more."

These are lines at which some of the worldly-wise and clever have been wont to laugh ; but they contain a deep and universal truth. Without some association, the most beautiful objects in nature have no charm ; with association, the commonest acquire a value. The very humblest power of observation is necessarily dependent upon some higher power of the mind. Those who observe differ from those who do not observe, in the possession of acquired knowledge, or original reflection, which is to guide the observation. The observer who sees accurately, who knows what others have observed, and who applies this knowledge only to the humble purpose of adding a new flower or insect to his collection, we call a naturalist. But there are naturalists, worthy of the name, who, without bringing any very high powers of mind to their observation of nature, still show, not only by the minuteness and accuracy of their eye, but by their genial love and admiration of the works of the Creator, that with them nature has found the way into the heart. Such was White of Selborne. We delight to hear him describe the mouse's nest which he found suspended in the head of a thistle ; or how a gentleman had two milk-white rooks in one nest : we partake in his happiness when he writes of what was to him an event : “ This morning I saw the golden-crowned wren whose crown glitters like burnished gold ;" and we half suspect that the good old gentleman had the spirit of poetry in him when he says of the goat-sucker, “This bird is most punctual in beginning its song exactly at the close of day ; so exactly that I have known it strike up more than once or twice just at the report of the Portsmouth evening gun." He wrote verses ; but they are not so poetical as his prose. A naturalist endowed with higher powers of association has taught us how philosophy looks upon the common aspects of the outer world. Davy was a scientific observer. He shows us the reason of the familiar prognostications of the weather—the coppery sunset, the halo round the moon, the rainbow at night, the flight of the swallow. Even omens have a touch of science in them; and there is a philosophical difference in the luck of seeing one magpie or two. But there is an observer of nature who looks upon all animate and inanimate existence with a higher power of association even than these. It is the poetical naturalist. Of this rare class our Shakspere is decidedly the head. Let us endeavour to understand what his knowledge of external nature was, how it was applied, and how it was acquired.

Some one is reported to have said that he could affirm from the evidence of his “ Seasons” that Thomson was an early riser. Thomson, it is well known, duly slept till noon. Bearing in mind this practical rebuke of what is held to be internal evidence, we still shall not hesitate to affirm our strong conviction that the Shakspere of the country was an early riser. Thomson, professedly a descriptive poet, assuredly described many things that he never saw. He looked at nature very often with the eyes of others. To our mind his celebrated description of morning offers not the slightest proof that he ever saw the sun rise.* In this description we have the meek-eyed morn, the dappled east, brown night, young day, the dripping rock, the misty mountain : the hare limps from the field ; the wild deer trip from the glade ; music awakes in woodland hymns; the shepherd drives his flock from the fold; the sluggard sleeps :

“But yonder comes the powerful king of day,
Rejoicing in the east ! The lessening cloud,
The kindling azure, and the mountain's brow,
Illum'd with fluid gold, his near approach
Betoken glad. Lo, now apparent all,
Aslant the dew-bright earth and colour'd air,
He looks in boundless majesty abroad,
And sheds the shining day, that burnish'd plays
On rocks, and hills, and towers, and wandering streams,
High-gleaming from afar."

This is conventional poetry, the reflection of books ;-excellent of its kind, but still not the production of a poet-naturalist. Compare it with Chaucer :

“ The besy larke, the messanger of day,

Saleweth in hire song the morwe gray;
And firy Phebus riseth up so bright,
That all the orient laugheth of the sight,
And with his stremes drieth in the greves
The silver dropes, hanging on the leves." +

3 to 96.

† " The Knight's Tale.” Line 1493.

The sun drying the dewdrops on the leaves is not a book image. The brilliancy, the freshness, are as true as they are beautiful. Of such stuff are the natural descriptions of Shakspere always made. He is as minute and accurate as White ; he is more philosophical than Davy. The carrier in the inn-yard at Rochester exclaims, “ An't be not four by the day, I'll be hanged : Charles' wain is over the new chimney."* Here is the very commonest remark of a common man ; and yet the principle of ascertaining the time of the night by the position of a star in relation to a fixed object must have been the result of observation in him who dramatized the scene. The variation of the quarter in which the sun rises according to the time of the year may be a trite problem to scientific readers ; but it must have been a familiar fact to him who, with marvellous art, threw in a dialogue upon the incident, to diversify and give repose to the pause in a scene of overwhelming interest :

Decius. Here lies the east : doth not the day break here?
Casca. No.

Cinna. 0, pardon, sir, it doth; and yon gray lines,
That fret the clouds, are messengers of day.

Casca. You shall confess that you are both deceived.
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises ;
Which is a great way growing on the south,
Weighing the youthful season of the year.
Some two months hence up higher toward the north
He first presents his fire; and the high east
Stands, as the Capitol, directly here." +

It was in his native fields that Shakspere had seen morning under every aspect ;now, “ in russet mantle clad ;” now, opening her“ golden gates.” A mighty battle is compared to the morning's war :

“When dying clouds contend with growing light."

Perhaps this might have been copied, or imagined ; but the poet throws in a reality, which leaves no doubt that it had been seen :

“What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,

Can neither call it perfect day, nor night." I

What but actual observation could have told the poet that the thin flakes of ice which he calls “flaws” are suddenly produced by the coldness of the morning just before sunrise ? The fact abided in his mind till it shaped itself into a comparison with the peculiarities in the character of his Prince Henry :

As humorous as winter, and as sudden

As flaws congealed in the spring of day."

He has painted his own Romeo, when under the influence of a fleeting first love, stealing “into the covert of the wood,"

“An hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east.” §

A melancholy and a joyous spirit would equally have tempted the young poet to

* “ Henry IV.," Part I., Act 11., Scene 1.
† “Julius Cæsar," Act. II., Scene 1. “Henry VI.,” Part III., Act 11., Scene v.

$ “Romeo and Juliet,” Act I., Scene 1.

court the solitudes that were around him. Whether his “affections” were to be “most busied when most alone ;'* or, objectless,

" Chewing the food of sweet and bitter fancy;"|

or intent upon a favourite book ; or yielding to the imagination which“ bodies forth the forms of things unknown,”—many of the vacant hours of the young man would be solitary hours in his own fields. Yet, whatever was the pervading train of thought, he would still be an observer. In the vast storehouse of his mind would all that he observed be laid up; not labelled and classified after the fashion of some poetical manufacturers, but to be called into use at a near or a distant day, by that wonderful power of assimilation which perceives all the subtile and delicate relations between the moral and the physical worlds, and thus raises the objects of sense into a companionship with the loftiest things that belong to the fancy and the reason. Who ever painted with such marvellous power-we use the word advisedly—the changing forms of an evening sky, “ black vesper's pageants?”—

Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish;

A vapour, sometime, like a bear, or lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon 't, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air.” I

This is noble painting, but it is something higher. When Antony goes on to compare himself to the cloud which“ even with a thought the rack dislimns,” we learn how the great poet uses his observation of nature. Not only do such magnificent objects as these receive an elevation from the poet's moral application of them, but the commonest things, even the vulgarest things, ludicrous but for their management, become in the highest degree poetical. Many a time in the low meadows of the Avon would Shakspere have seen the irritation of the herd under the torments of the gad-fly. The poet takes this common thing to describe an event which changed the destinies of the world :

“Yon ribald nag of Egypt,
Whom leprosy o'ertake! i' the midst o' the fight,-
When vantage like a pair of twins appear'd,
Both as the same, or rather ours the elder,
The brize upon her, like a cow in June,
Hoists sails, and flies," $

When Hector is in the field,

“The strawy Greeks, ripe for his edge,
Fall down before him, like the mower's swath." ||

Brutus, speculating upon the probable consequences of Cæsar becoming king, exclaims

“ It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,

And that craves wary walking.”

* “Romeo and Juliet," Act I., Scene 1. † “As You Like It," Act IV., Scene III.

† “ Antony and Cleopatra," Act iv., Scene xn. $ Ibid., Act I., Scene VIII. 11 “Triolus and Cressida,” Act v., Scene v.

" Julius Cæsar," Act 11., Scene I.

[graphic][ocr errors][merged small]

The same object had been seen and described in an earlier play, without its grand association :

“The snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun.”* The snake seems a liege subject of the domain of poetry. Her enamel skin is a weed for a fairy ;t the green and gilded snake wreathed around the sleeping man I is a picture. But what ordinary writer would not shrink from the poetical handling of a snail ? It is the surpassing accuracy of the naturalist that has introduced the snail into one of the noblest passages of the poet, in juxta-position with the Hesperides and Apollo's lute :

“Love's feeling is more soft and sensible

Than are the tender horns of cockled snails.” S

One of the grandest scenes of a tragedy of the mature poet is full of the most familiar images derived from an accurate observation of the natural world. The images seem to rise up spontaneously out of the minute recollections of a life spent in watching the movements of the lower creation. “A deed of dreadful note" is to be done before nightfall. The bat, the beetle, and the crow, are the common, and therefore the most appropriate, instruments which are used to mark the approach of night. The simplest thing of life is thus raised into sublimity at a touch :

“Ere the bat hath flown

His cloister'd flight;" ere

“ The shard-borne beetle, with his drowsy hums,

Hath rung night's yawning peal ;" * " Titus Andronicus,” Act II., Scene III. † "A Midsummer's-Night's Dream,” Act 11., Sc. II.

I "As You Like It," Act iv., Scene 111. '$ “Love's Labour's Lost,” Act. 1v. Scene I.

« PreviousContinue »