Abbildungen der Seite

world to the "tiring-house" or dressing-room of the grave, the flood of panegyrical lamentation was not checked by the sense of literary inferiority which in all sincerity oppressed the spirits of surviving companions.

One of the earliest of the elegies was a sonnet by William Basse, who gave picturesque expression to the conviction that Shakespeare would enjoy for all time an unique reverence on the part of his countrymen. In the opening lines of his poem Basse apostrophised Chaucer, Spenser, and the dramatist Francis Beaumont, three poets who had already received the recognition of burial in Westminster Abbey-Beaumont, the youngest of them, only five weeks before Shakespeare died. To this honoured trio Basse made appeal to "lie a thought more nigh" one another, so as to make room for the newly-dead Shakespeare within their "sacred sepulchre." Then, in the second half of his sonnet, the poet, developing a new thought, argued that Shakespeare, in right of his pre-eminence, merited a burial-place apart from all his fellows. With a glance at Shakespeare's distant grave in the chancel of Stratford-on-Avon Church, the writer exclaimed: Under this carved marble of thine own

Sleep, brave tragedian, Shakespeare, sleep alone.

The fine sentiment found many a splendid echo. It resounded in Ben Jonson's lines of 1623:

My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie

little further to make thee a room.
Thou art a monument without a tomb,

And art alive still, while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.



Milton wrote a few years later, in 1630, how Shakespeare, "sepulchred" in "the monument" of his writings,

in such pomp doth lie,

That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

Never was a glorious immortality foretold for any man with more solemn confidence than it was foretold for Shakespeare at his death by his circle of adorers. When Time, one elegist said, should dissolve his "Stratford monument," the laurel about Shakespeare's brow would wear its greenest hue. Shakespeare's critical friend, Ben Jonson, was but one of a numerous band who imagined the "sweet swan of Avon," "the star of poets," shining for ever as a constellation in the firmament. Such was the invariable temper in which literary men gave vent to their grief on learning the death of the "beloved author," "the famous scenicke poet," "the admirable dramaticke poet," "that famous writer and actor," "worthy master William Shakespeare" of Stratford-on-Avon.


Unqualified and sincere was the eulogy awarded to Shakespeare, alike in his lifetime and immediately after his death. But the spirit and custom of the age confided to future generations the duty of first offering him the more formal honour of prosaic and critical biography. The biographic memoir, which consists of precise and duly authenticated dates and records of domestic and professional experiences and achievements, was in England a comparatively late growth. It had no existence

when Shakespeare died. It began to blossom in the eighteenth century, and did not flourish luxuriantly till a far more recent period. Meagre seeds of the modern art of biography were, indeed, sown within a few years of Shakespeare's death; but outside the unique little field of Izaak Walton's tillage, the first sproutings were plants so different from the fully developed tree, that they can with difficulty be identified with the genus. Apart from Izaak Walton's exceptional efforts, the biographical spirit first betrayed itself in England in slender, occasional pamphlets of rhapsodical froth, after the model of the funeral sermon. There quickly followed more substantial volumes of collective biography which mainly supplied arbitrarily compiled, if extended, catalogues of names. To each name were attached brief annotations, which occasionally offered a fact or a date, but commonly consisted of a few sentences of grotesque, uncritical eulogy.

Fuller's Worthies of England, which was begun about 1643 and was published posthumously in 1662, was the first English compendium of biography of this aboriginal pattern. Shakespeare naturally found place in Fuller's merry pages, for the author loved in his eccentric fashion his country's literature, and he had sought the society of those who had come to close quarters with literary heroes of the past generation. Of that generation his own life just touched the fringe, he being eight years old when Shakespeare died. Fuller described the dramatist as a native of Stratford-on-Avon, who "was in some sort a compound of three eminent poets"-Martial, "in the warlike sound of his



name"; Ovid, for the naturalness and wit of his poetry; and Plautus, alike for the extent of his comic power and his lack of scholarly training. He was, Fuller continued, an eminent instance of the rule that a poet is born not made. "Though his genius," he warns us, "generally was jocular and inclining him to festivity, yet he could, when so disposed, be solemn and serious." His comedies, Fuller adds, would rouse laughter even in the weeping philosopher Heraclitus, while his tragedies would bring tears even to the eyes of the laughing philosopher Democritus.

Of positive statements respecting Shakespeare's career Fuller is economical. He commits himself to nothing more than may be gleaned from the following sentences:

Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson; which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war; master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention. He died Anno Domini 1616, and was buried at Stratford-uponAvon, the town of his nativity.

Fuller's successors did their work better in some regards, because they laboured in narrower fields. Many of them showed a welcome appreciation of a main source of their country's permanent reputation by confining their energies to the production of biographical catalogues, not of all manners of heroes, but solely of those who had distinguished

themselves in poetry and the drama.1 In 1675 a biographical catalogue of poets was issued for the first time in England, and the example once set was quickly followed. No less than three more efforts of the like kind came to fruition before the end of the century.

In all four biographical manuals Shakespeare was accorded more or less imposing space. Although Fuller's eccentric compliments were usually repeated, they were mingled with far more extended and discriminating tributes. Two of the compilers designated Shakespeare "the glory of the English stage"; a third wrote, "I esteem his plays beyond any that have ever been published in our language"; while the fourth quoted with approval Dryden's fine phrase: "Shakespeare was the Man who of all Modern and perhaps Ancient Poets had the largest and most comprehensive Soul." But the avowed principles of these tantalising volumes justify no expectation of finding in them solid information. The biographical cataloguers of the seventeenth century did little more than proclaim Shakespeare and the other great poets of the country to be fit subjects for formal biography as soon as the type should be matured. That was the message of greatest virtue which these halting chroniclers delivered.

In Shakespeare's case their message was not long neglected. In 1709 Nicholas Rowe, after

1 Such a compilation had been contemplated in 1614, two years before the dramatist died, by one of Shakespeare's own associates, Thomas Heywood. Twenty-one years later, in 1635, Heywood spoke of "committing to the public view" his summary Lives of the Poets, but nothing more was heard of that project.

« ZurückWeiter »