Page images
PDF
EPUB

sition period, or he could not have been quite what he was. His intellect was not the dwarfish and precocious growth of the hot-bed of change, and still less of convulsion. His whole soul was permeated with the ancient vitalities—the things which the changes of institutions could not touch ; but it could bourgeon under the new influences, and blend the past and the present, as the “giant oak” of five | hundred winters is covered with the foliage of one spring. But there was one blessing which Catholicism would have withheld from him. When in the year 1537 the Bible in English was first printed by authority, Richard Grafton, the printer, sent six copies to Cranmer, beseeching the archbishop to accept them as his simple gift, adding, “For your lordship, moving our most gracious prince to the allowance and licensing of such a work, hath wrought such an act worthy of praise as never was mentioned in any chronicle in this realm.” From that time, with the exception of the short interval of the reign of Mary, the presses of London were for the most part employed in printing Bibles. That book, to whose wonderful heartstirring narratives the child listens with awe and love, was now and ever after to be the solace of the English home. With the Great Bible” open before her, the mother would read aloud to her little ones that beautiful story of Joseph sold into slavery, and then advanced to honour—and how his brethren knew him not when, suppressing his tears, he said, “Is your father well, the old man of whom ye spake ?" -or, how, when the child Samuel was laid down to sleep, the Lord called to him three times, and he grew, and God was with him ;-or, how the three holy men who would not worship the golden image walked about in the midst of the burning fiery furnace ;-or how the prophet that was unjustly cast into the den of lions was found unhurt, because the true God had sent his angels and shut the lions' mouths. These were the solemn and affecting narratives, wonderfully preserved for our instruction from a long antiquity, that in the middle of the sixteenth century became unclosed to the people of England. But more especially was that other Testament opened which most imported them to know; and thus, when the child repeated in lisping accents the Christian's prayer to his Father in heaven, the mother could expound to him that, when the Divine Author of that prayer first gave it to us, He taught us that the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, were the happy and the beloved of God; and laid down that comprehesive law of justice, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." We believe that the education of William Shakspere was grounded upon this Book ; and that, if this Book had been sealed to his childhood, he might have been the poet of nature, of passion,his humour might have been as rich as we find it, and his wit as pointed, but that he would not have been the poet of the most profound as well as the most tolerant philosophy ; bis insight into the nature of man, his meanness and his grandeur, his weakness and his strength, would not have been what it is.

[graphic][subsumed][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]

LET us pass over for a time the young Shakspere at his school-desk, inquiring not when he went from “ The Short Dictionary” forward to the use of “ Cooper's Lexicon," or whether he was most drilled in the “ Eclogues” of Virgil, or those of the * good old Mantuan." Of one thing we may be well assured,—that the instruction of the grammar-school was the right instruction for the most vivacious mind, as for him of slower capacity. To spend a considerable portion of the years of boyhood in the acquirement of Latin and Greek was not to waste them, as modern illumination would instruct us. Something was to be acquired, accurately and completely, that was of universal application, and within the boy's power of acquirement. The particular knowledge that would fit him for a chosen course of life would be an after acquirement; and, having attained the habit of patient study, and established in his own mind a standard to apply to all branches of knowledge by knowing one branch well, he would enter upon the race of life without being over-weighted with the elements of many arts and sciences, which it belongs only to the mature intellect to bear easily and gracefully, and to employ to lasting profit. Our grammar-schools were wise institutions. They opened the road to usefulness and honour to the humblest in the land ; they bestowed upon the son of the peasant the same advantages of education as the son of the noble could receive from the most accomplished teacher in his father's halls. Long may they be preserved amongst us in their integrity; not converted by the meddlings of innovation into lecture-rooms for cramming children with the nomenclature of every science; presenting little idea

even of the physical world beyond that of its being a vast aggregation of objects that may be classified and catalogued ; and leaving the spiritual world utterly uncared for, as a region whose products cannot be readily estimated by a money value.

Every schoolboy's dwelling-place is a microcosm ; but the little world lying around William Shakspere was something larger than that in which boys of our own time for the most part live. The division of employments had not so completely separated a town life from a country life as with us ; and even the town occupations, the town amusements, and the town wonders, had more variety in them than our own days of systematic arrangement can present. Much of the education of Shakspere was unquestionably in the fields. A thousand incidental allusions manifest his familiarity with all the external aspects of nature. He is very rarely a descriptive poet, distinctively so called ; but images of mead and grove, of dale and upland, of forest depths, of quiet walks by gentle rivers,—reflections of his own native scenery,_spread themselves without an effort over all his writings. All the occupations of a rural life are glanced at or embodied in his characters. The sports, the festivals, of the lone farm or the secluded hamlet are presented by him with all the charms of an Arcadian age, but with a truthfulness that is not found in Arcadia. The nicest peculiarities in the habits of the lower creation are given at a touch : we see the rook wing his evening flight to the wood; we hear the drowsy hum of the sharded beetle. He wreathes all the flowers of the field in his delicate chaplets ; and even the nicest mysteries of the gardener's art can be expounded by him. All this he appears to do as if from an instinctive power. His poetry in this, as in all other great essentials, is like the operations of nature itself; we see not its workings. But we may be assured, from the very circumstance of its appearing so accidental, so spontaneous in its relations to all external nature and to the country life, that it had its foundation in very early and very accurate observation. Stratford was especially fitted to have been the “green lap" in which the boy-poet was “ laid.” The whole face of creation here wore an aspect of quiet loveliness. Looking on its placid stream, its gently swelling hills, its rich pastures, its sleeping woodlands, the external world would to him be full of images of repose : it was in the heart of man that he was to seek for the sublime. Nature has thus ever with him something genial and exhilarating. There are storms in his great dramas, but they are the accompaniments of the more terrible storms of human passions : they are raised by the poet's art to make the agony of Lear more intense, and the murder of Duncan more awful. But his love of a smiling creation seems ever present. We must image Stratford as it was, to see how the young Shakspere walked “in glory and in joy” amongst his native fields. Upon the bank of the Avon, having a very slight rise, is placed a scattered town; a town whose dwellings have orchards and gardens, with lofty trees growing in its pathways. Its splendid collegiate church, in the time of Henry VIII., was described to lie half a mile from the town. Its eastern window is reflected in the river which flows beneath : its gray tower is embowered amidst lofty elm-rows. At the opposite end of the town is a fine old bridge, with a causeway whose“ wearisome but needful length" tells of inundations in the low pastures that lie all around it. - We look upon Dugdale's Map of Barichway Hundred, in which Stratford is situated, published in 1656, and we see four roads issuing from the town. The one to Henley in Arden, which lies through the street in which Shak. spere may be supposed to have passed his boyhood, continues over a valley of some breadth and extent, unenclosed fields undoubtedly in the sixteenth century, with. hamlets of Shottery and Bishopton amidst them. The road leads into the then woody district of Arden. At a short distance from it is the hamlet of Wilmecote, where Mary Arden dwelt ; and some two miles aside, more in the heart of the woodland district, and hard by the river Alne, is the village of Aston Cantlow. Another road indicated on this old map is that to Warwick. The wooded hills of Welcombe overhang it, and a little aside, some mile and a half from Stratford, is the meadow of Ingon which John Shakspere rented in 1570. Very beautiful, even now, is this part of the neighbourhood, with its rapid undulations, little dells which shut in the scattered sheep, and sudden hills opening upon a wide landscape. Ancient crab-trees and hawthorns tell of uncultivated downs which have rung to the call of the falconer or the horn of the huntsman ; and then, having crossed the ridge, we are amongst rich corn-lands, with farm-houses of no modern date scattered about ; and deep in the hollow, so as to be hidden till we are upon it, the old village of Snitterfield, with its ancient church and its yew-tree as ancient. Here the poet's mother had property; and here, it is reasonably conjectured, his father's family lived On the opposite side of Stratford, the third road runs in the direction of the Avon to the village of Bidford, with a nearer pathway along the river-bank. We cross the ancient bridge by the fourth road (which also diverges to Shipston), and we are on our way to the celebrated house and estate of Charlcote, the ancient seat of the Lucys, the Shaksperian locality with which most persons are familiar through traditions of deer-stealing. A pleasant ramble indeed is this to Charlcote and Hampton Lucy, even with glimpses of the Avon from a turnpike-road. But let the road run through meadows without hedgerows, with pathways following the river's bank, now diverging when the mill is close upon the stream, now crossing a leafy elevation, and then suddenly dropping under a precipitous wooded rock, and we have a walk such as poet might covet, and such as Shakspere did enjoy in his early rambles.

Through these pleasant places would the boy William Shakspere walk hand in hand with his father, or wander at his own free will with his school companions. All the simple processes of farming life would be familiar to him. The profitable mysteries of modern agriculture would not embarrass his youthful experience. He would witness none of that anxious diligence which compels the earth to yield double crops, and places little reliance upon the unassisted operations of nature. The seed-time and the harvest in the corn-fields, the gathering-in of the thin grass on the uplands and of the ranker produce of the flooded meadows, the folding of the flocks on the hills, the sheep-shearing, would seem to him like the humble and patient waiting of man upon a bounteous Providence. There would be no systematic rotation of crops to make him marvel at the skill of the cultivator. Implements most skilfully adapted for the saving of animal labour would be unknown to him. The rude plough of his Saxon ancestors would be dragged along by a powerful team of sturdy oxen; the sound of the flail alone would be heard in the barn. Around him would, however, be the glad indications of plenty. The farmer would have abundant stacks, and beeves, and kine, though the supply would fail in precarious seasons, when price did not regulate consumption ; he would brew his beer and bake his rye-bread ; his swine would be fattening on the beech-mast and the acorns of the free wood; his skeps of bees would be numerous in his garden ; the colewort would sprout from spring to winter for his homely meal, and in the fruitful season the strawberry would present its much coveted luxury. The old orchard would be rich with the choicest apples, grafts from the curious monastic varieties; the rarer fruits from southern climates would be almost wholly unknown. There would be no niggard economy defeating itself; the stock, such as it was would be of the best, although no Bakewell had arisen to preside over its improvement :

“Let carren and barren be shifted away,
For best is the best, whatsoever ye pay.”*

* Tusser, chapter xvi.

William Shakspere would go out with his father on a Michaelmas morning, and the fields would be busy with the sowing of rye and white wheat and barley. The apples and the walnuts would be then gathered ; honey and wax taken from the hives ; timber would be felled, sawn, and stacked for seasoning. In the solitary fields, then, would stand the birdkeeper with his bow. As winter approached would come what Tusser calls “ the slaughter-time," the killing of sheep and bullocks for home consumption ; the thresher would be busy now and then for the farmer's family, but the wheat for the baker would lie in sheaf. No hurrying then to market for fear of a fall in price ; there is abundance around, and the time of stint is far off. The simple routine was this :

“In spring-time we rear, we do sow, and we plant;

In summer get victuals, lest after we want.
In harvest we carry in corn, and the fruit,

In winter to spend, as we need of each suit.” * The joyous hospitality of Christmas had little fears that the stock would be prematurely spent; and whilst the mighty wood-fire blazed in the hall to the mirth of song and carol, neighbours went from house to house to partake of the abundance, and the poor were fed at the same board with the opulent. As the frost breaks, the labourer is again in the fields ; hedging and ditching are somewhat understood, but the whole system of drainage is very rude. With such agriculture man seems to have his winter sleep as well as the earth. But nature is again alive ; spring corn is to be sown; the ewes and lambs are to be carefully tended ; the sheep, now again in the fields, are to be watched, for there are hungry “ mastiffs and mongrels" about; the crow and pie are to be destroyed in their nests ere they are yet feathered ; trees are to be barked before timber is fallen. Then comes the active business of the dairy, and, what to us would be a strange sight, the lambs have been taken from their mothers, and the ewes are milked in the folds. May demands the labour of the weed-hook ; no horse-hoeing in those simple days. There are the flax and hemp too to be sown to supply the ceaseless labour of the spinner's wheel ; bees are to be swarmed ; and herbs are to be stored for the housewife's still. June brings its sheep-washing and shearing ; with its haymaking, where the farmer is captain in the field, presiding over the bottles and the wallets, from the hour when the dew is dry to set of sun. Bustle is there now to get "grist to the mill,” for the streams are drying, and if the meal be wanting how shall the household be fed ? The harvesttime comes ; the reapers cry “largess" for their gloves ; the tithe is set out for “ Sir Parson ;” and then, after the poor have gleaned, and the cattle have been turned in “to mouth up" what is left,

“ In harvest-time, harvest folk, servants and all,
Should make, all together, good cheer in the hall;
And fill out the black bowl of blythe to their song,

And let them be merry all harvest-time long." † Such was the ancient farmer's year, which Tusser has described with wonderful spirit even to the minutest detail ; and such were the operations of husbandry that the boy Shakspere would have beheld with interest amidst his native corn-fields and pastures. When the boy became deep-thoughted he would perceive that many things were ill undertood, and most operations indifferently carried through. He would hear of dearth and sickness, and he would seek to know the causes. But that time was not as yet.

The poet who has delineated human life and character under every variety of passion and humour, must have had some early experience of mankind. The * Tusser, chapter xxiv.

† Ibid. chapter xlvii.

« PreviousContinue »