Hamlet (Transcription)

By: Margaret Oliphant

IT is common to say that no actor upon the English stage, who has any ambition or love for his profession, can die happy without having once at least attempted to represent Hamlet. It is the part which inspires the most imperfect, and leads on the most experienced in never-failing pursuit of an excellence to come — a laurel always there for the winning. It is, we are also told by those who know the stage well, although one of the most difficult of all the creations of poetry, the one also in which absolute failure is less common than in any other. No one, perhaps, of all its many representatives has given us a complete impersonation of the strange and wonderful being whom we never completely understand, whom we discuss and quarrel over all our lives, but whom, at least, we know, as we know few other of our lifelong friends; while at the same time, every one who has attempted the part has got some hold on humanity through those words, which the merest mouther of phrases cannot spoil, and that most touching and terrible position which, even when we do not understand it, we feel, moving us to the bottom of our hearts. Whether it is a doctrinaire who is upon the stage, grafting his own philosophies upon the poet’s creation, or an ambitious mime who attempts it only as the part which pays best when successful, our own ideal of the noble Dane, and intimate acquaintance with his real being, save his representative from entire failure. He is more to us than any actor; and it is scarcely going too far to say that,as each new attempt is made, the universal curiosity and interest it excites are drawn forth at least quite as much by the hope that now at last we may know our Hamlet better, as by the lighter and more superficial eagerness to see how the actor acquits himself in a great part. No other tragic creation, however great, has the same hold upon us. Othello is noble and terrible in his mingled strength and weakness, and Lear tears our hearts asunder with a passion of painful and tragic delight; but Hamlet stands to us in a far closer relation — he is a part of our intellectual training, of our higher being, of all the mysteries that move within us, and so often burst into unconscious expression in his very words. How it should be so we cannot tell — for it is impossible to conceive a type less like the ordinary estimate of English character; yet we feel assured the reader will agree with us when we say, that no other creation of poetry has ever seized hold upon and entered into the soul of the nation with such complete and perfect sovereignty. No hero of history — no brave and resolute Englishman — no King Hal, gay in his excesses, noble in his transformation, the very type of Anglo – Saxon manliness — comes within a thousand miles of that mystic traveller between life and death, that impersonation of all the doubts and questionings of humanity, in the heart of a people which has no turn for philosophy, a race prompt and ready, and more apt at blows than words. Rarely has there happened in the mental history of a country so rare a phenomenon. And we know no parallel to it in any other national experience, unless it were in Spain, where, however, the long lean figure of that forlorn and last knight errant has too much humour in the atmosphere that surrounds it,and too much mixture of the ludicrous, to hold the same position. The German Faust makes no such universal claim upon the sympathies, and the French Alceste is but a weakened shadow of Hamlet; while in all these great conceptions there is something which chimes in with the national temper of the race that has produced them. The Spaniard’s hyper-chivalry, the German’s wild yet carnal mysticism, the Frenchman’s bitter distinctness of perception and cynic-sentimental tendency, are all more or less embodied in these central figures of their literature. But that we, who pride ourselves upon our national energy and practical character, and whose faith it is that “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” — that we should have selected Hamlet from among all the poetical creations in which we are so rich, as the object of our unanimous interest, is one of the strangest facts in literary history. It would be incredible, were it not absolutely true.
This reign of Hamlet over the English imagination comes from time to time to a sudden climax, by means of some new or powerful actor; and we are at present in the midst of one of those high tides of popular interest. Mr Irving is doing what all his great predecessors on the stage have done, with varying power and success; and as it is now a long time since any actor has attempted perseveringly to win this crown of reputation, the effort is all the more interesting. The last attempt of the kind, and indeed the only one which comes within our own experience of the stage, was that made by Fechter more than a dozen years ago. We do not ourselves sympathise with the feeling which makes some people refuse their suffrage to an admirable and accomplished actor, because his English was somewhat defective. This is one of the criticisms which are becoming more and more general among us, and which dwell upon external and minute detail, in entire indifference to the spirit and soul of the performance. Fechter has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps he never did secure the critics so completely on his side as he did the simple multitudes who used to hang on his lips; but at all events it requires courage now to produce his name, in face of the superciliously indulgent smile with which it is received by those who are supposed to know. Fechter’s Hamlet, however, was, we are bold to say, the most interesting piece of acting which we have ever seen; and his English can hardly be said to have been more defective than that which Mr Irving has managed to make the public accept as a possible rendering of Shakespeare’s noble tongue. But few things could be more unlike than the breadth and ease of the great French actor’s treatment, and the laborious and infinitely painstaking effort of the Hamlet who is at present in possession of the stage. It is impossible, we suppose, without some touch of genius,to have attained the mastery over the public which Mr Irving undoubtedly possesses. In this age of burlesques and dramatic folly, he has gained the complete and absorbed attention, night after night, of a large and highly cultivated audience, and succeeded in moving society in London to an almost universal interest in every new attempt he makes — which is no small triumph. Our own opinion, however, is, that this remarkable actor has attained his successes more by sheer force of character than by genius. He has conquered the public by his bow and his spear — by means of the intense feeling and concentrated energy of mind with which, it is evident, he approaches his work — labouring at it like an athlete of Michael Angelo, with every muscle starting and every sinew strung to its utmost tension. He is in such deadly earnest in everything he does that we can scarcely refuse our interest to the effort which costs so much. And as difficulty overcome is universally recognised as a very high attraction to human curiosity and interest, there must always be a large section of mankind to whom the sight of the struggle by which that difficulty is overcome will always be more impressive and affecting than the success which looks easy, the calm mastery of the greater artist who fights and strains too in his time, but that not in, but out of, sight of the gazing crowd. This is not Mr Irving’s way : he takes the public into his confidence,and shows them the beads of toil upon his forehead, the quiver in his limbs of muscular and nervous as well as mental exertion. It is something like a gladiator that we have before us, “taking arms” as says our Shakespeare, with that confusion of metaphor at which we laugh tenderly, liking him the better, supreme master, for the slip that proves him human — “against a sea of troubles,” facing all the wild beasts of difficulty, and rending his way to the prize which the excited spectators accord him, almost more for the pluck and force and energy with which he has toiled for it, than for the excellence of the performance. The people who crowd the Lyceum every night have thus, if not a first-rate representation of Hamlet, yet a very interesting and even exciting spectacle set before them — the sight of an able and eccentric mind full of contortions, yet also of strength, struggling with all the power nature has given it, upward to the platform of genius, with every faculty strained, and its whole being quivering in the effort. There are those who mount to that platform lightly, by grace of nature, or seem to do so; but these, if finer and higher, are perhaps in reality less interesting than the indomitable fighter who struggles upward to it, his teeth set, his shoulders squared, his every limb in energetic action. Mr Irving in this point of view presents a spectacle to gods and men of which it is difficult to exaggerate the interest. He has almost every quality which should interest the lookers-on — a fine and generous aim, a high courage, and the most determined tenacity of purpose. If he cannot scale these heights, we may be sure he will die half-way, always fighting upwards, never giving in. He is in a hundred perils every day, and nothing daunts him, — perils of nature, perils of excessive friendship, perils of success — sometimes the worst of all. Yet every step he has made, even when we cannot admire it, we are obliged to recognise as an honest endeavour towards that which is best and highest. So far as can be judged from without, never man was more perfectly sincere or strenuous in his determination to do well. It is more than an artistic effort,it is a moral conflict with adverse powers of nature in which he is engaged; and if he fails in the end, his failure will be from no fault of his, no want of zeal or conscience or energy in the man. One does not generally use such words in respect to an actor’s study of his part; but it is the highest testimonial that can be given to Mr Irving to say that we are obliged to employ them after witnessing his evening’s work.
Notwithstanding what has been said of the unanimity of English feeling in respect to Hamlet, there is, perhaps, no dramatic creation in the world about which there has been so much difference of opinion. Naturally the great mass of readers and spectators make no attempt to analyse it at all. The greatness of the mind presented before them, the consciousness of a human being most real and tangible, though looming over them with a confused greatness which they can appreciate without being able to understand it, is enough to satisfy all their intellectual requirements; though even in this widest circle, the question whether Hamlet’s madness was assumed or real will arouse a certain intellectual interest. But above the first level of the admiring and uncritical public there are many circles of critics, each of which has its spoken or unspoken creed in regard to Shakespeare’s great creation. There is scarcely a drawing-room party among the educated classes in which, were the question mooted, there would not be found warm partisans on both sides of the question, and inquirers with ideas of their own as to the real cause of that vacillation, which is the most obvious feature in the character to the ordinary observer. We might perhaps ask, though without any possibility of reply, whether the poet himself had any intention of making this mystery clear to us; or whether, indeed, it was within the range of his genius to fathom altogether the great and mysterious being — greater and more wonderful by far than the Warwickshire yeoman’s son, the playwright of the Globe — whom he put miraculously into the world to live there for ever, outlasting a hundred generations of men. This, however, is a view which critics never, and the humble reader very rarely, consent to take. That mystic independence of its creator which belongs to a great poetical conception of character, reflecting, perhaps, more truly than anything else can, our own mortal independence (so far at least as consciousness goes) of our Maker, and power to contradict, and, as much as in us lies thwart, His purposes, is incredible to most people. To our own thinking, it is plain enough that a dramatic conception of the highest order does follow a law of its own being which is not, as we think, entirely under the control of its originator. “I did not do it; they did it themselves,” Thackeray (we think) is reported to have said of some of his heroes and heroines whose proceedings did not please the world; and the merest dabbler in fiction must be aware of a curious current of influence not originated by him which sweeps the personages of his story here and there, following some necessity of their nature which he may not even comprehend, and which does not agree with his plan for them. We do not mean to imply an opinion that Hamlet escaped from the control of the poet to whom he owes his birth; but only that so great a creation might well have, like an actual being, many doubtful and unresolved points in him, over which spectators might discuss, without any absolute certainty, even on the part of his maker, as to which party was in the right.
To ourselves Hamlet is the greatest instance of that disenchantment which is, of all the miseries in the world,the one most crushing and most general. Disenchantment — desillusionment — that opening of the eyes to see a world altogether different from the world we have observed, which is about the bitterest pang of which the soul is capable. It is the burden more or less of all the world’s worst complaints. The common mass of us encounter it in detail, and have happily managed to weave some new veil over the painful reality in one region before we are caught in another, and obliged to look on and see the veils of imagination stripped from the facts of life. And no one can bear to dwell upon this unveiling. It brings madness or it brings death; or in the case of a noble mind too great for such brief and vulgar conclusion, it evolves a Hamlet — a man standing among the wrecks of life so deeply amazed, so confounded and heart-struck, that his trouble paralyses him, and nothing seems worth doing of all that might be done. Such a one in real life, we may perhaps say, was Leopardi, though without that spring of sweeter nature in him which kept Hamlet in being. In the case of the real man, we do not know what it was which turned all the milk to gall,and brought the spirit face to face with a universe of hideous folly and falsehood, instead of that world all dressed in smiles and sweetness in which he had taken delusive delight. The worst and most dismal depth of the philosophical despair which is called pessimism, was the natural issue with the Italian of that poisoning of all happier impulse. What it was in the royal Dane we all know.
Hamlet is greater, larger than Leopardi; his nature would, we cannot doubt, have righted itself one time or other, had it not been so precipitately cut short: but there is a certain illumination in the contrast yet resemblance. The terrible gulf, unlighted by any star, into which Leopardi plunged at the moment of which all his poems are full, the point of life at which he awakened, and at which, as he tells us, the supreme delusion of his first happier impressions became apparent to him — has a profound blackness of despair in it which is less within the range of our sympathies than the confused and gloomy world, still in the throes of earthquake, amid which Hamlet stands, sick at heart, gazing with eyes of wild dismay at the sanctities which fall in succession into the dust one after another, leaving him ever more and more haggard and bereaved. His father’s death to be revenged, and all that “cursed spite” to be set right, are rather living influences than otherwise to his soul, bewildered with loss, and sick and hopeless in the downfall of everything that is sweet and fair around. These motives keep up a struggle within him, and in reality prevent the gloomy waves from closing over his head; but yet have not acquired the consistency of force necessary to drive him back into living, and into so much hope as would alone make living possible. His vacillaton is but the struggle of that wholesome and righteous passion against the inertness of despair, the cui bono of his disenchanted existence. He tries to rouse himself, but in vain. What were the good? If Claudius were slain, would that restore honour and purity to the desecrated house? Could anything remake that polluted mother into the type of holy womanhood above corruption? He tries to work himself up to the point of action, but there is no hope in him to give vigour to his arm. Something of the old energy bursts out in fits and starts, but is paralysed by this supreme sickness of heart and failure of all possibilities of restoration. What Hamlet wants is more than a vengeance: it is a re-creation. Nothing short of the undoing of all the monstrous evil which has killed his soul in him, is worth his living for. Mending is futile, the harm is too fundamental, the misery too complete. Revenge would be a momentary satisfaction, would give him ease, as when a wounded man tears off his bandages; but what more could revenge do for Hamlet? Restore to him his world of youth, his trust in those around him, his belief that one is pure and another true, his spotless mother, his innocent love, his loyal friends? — ah no ! not one of them. And therefore, now with flashes of wild scorn, now with utterances of deepest sadness, he stands —hesitating,— as we say, before the vengeance which will, he sees, be but a deception like all the rest, and make no real difference. Leopardi, the gloomy shadow of an actual Hamlet, had no possibility even of a stroke for life in the shapeof a revenge, no palpabe wrong which he could identify, nor practical blow that would help him a little, or which he could even pretend might help him. Therefore the nobility of a struggle is wanting in him. More grandly, on nobler lines,and with a more majestic modelling, the poet has worked out his fatally illuminated, disenchanted, disappointed, heroic soul. Let shallow Laertes storm for his vengeance, but in the profound depths of Hamlet’s nature there is no more room for delusion. As Macbeth murdered sleep, so has villany murdered truth,the soul of the world; but that last and awful murder is not to be made up for by the death of the villain. That is trivial, a nothing, a momentary anodyne, a little salve put to the burning of the heart-deep wound: but no remedy; for remedy is beyond possibility, beyond even hope.
This in our opinion is the interpretation of Hamlet, so far as his great and noble manhood is capable of a set interpretation. All through the darkness that has closed round him there strike flickerings of a former light, which show the real nature, instinct with grace and sweetness of his character. When he is first presented to us, his “inky cloak” is not more new to him than is the gloom that envelops his life. This gloom dates back but these two little months — not two: nay, perhaps not more than half that period: since the secret horrors that lie beneath the surface of common living first burst upon him — not in his father’s death, a natural sorrow, but in the monstrous inconstancy and wantonness of his mother. Before that unparalleled revelation of evil came, what had Prince Hamlet been?

“The glass of fashion and the mould of form:
The expectancy and rose of the fair state:”—

the very hope and flower of noble youth in Denmark. It is easy to collect the traces of that light and sweet existence after it is past. The warmth of his faith in the one last prop that remains to him, his faithful Horatio, is at the first moment scarcely less ready and genial than his salutation of the other friends who are not true: “Good lads,how do ye both?” he cries, with happy frankness, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, before he has seen the treachery in their faces; and when he has begun to suspect that treachery, with what pathos of recollection does he remind them of the time in which there was no suspicion, adjuring them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love!” This is no melancholy philosopher above the range of the young cavaliers, the soldiers and scholars of Wittenberg; but a true comrade — one whose superior rank made him only more generous in his brotherhood, more dependent upon their affection. And it is by means of the happy likings of his youth that almost all the machinery of the drama is constructed. The players are brought to him naturally, as to the source of patronage and favour. They had been of his retinue before, and he knows each one, and has a gracious word for the hobbledehoy who plays the women’s parts, as well as for the leader of the troupe, whose emotion at his own performance fills the prince with a sad yet not unamused wonder. If he had not been their constant patron, and known their capacity of old, the expedient of the play could not have come in. And the very climax of the tragedy is procured by similar means. Even in the midst of his great gloom and overthrow, Hamlet is still capable of being piqued by the brag of Laertes’ proficiency in fencing, which proves that such an accomplishment was of price with him. But for this there would have been no appropriateness in the king’s wager on his head. It is “a very riband in the cap of youth,” part of “the light and careless living” of the blooming season. Strange words to be applied to Hamlet! yet so true that the skill of a rival has still sufficient force to kindle the half-quenched fire of youthful emulation in him, notwithstanding all his burdens. Last of all, there is the trifling of early love — less love than fancy — shaped upon the fantastic models of the reigning fashion, which Hamlet had not been too serious to play with, like his contemporaries.The letter which Polonius reads to the king and queen is such a letter as Sir Percie Shafton might have written,the lightest traffic of lovemaking, half sport, half earnest, — all youthful extravagance and compliment. “To my soul’s idol, the beautified Ophelia,” — “an ill phrase, a very vile phrase,” as Polonius justly adds. This gay essay of gallantry is precisely what Laertes calls it in his early advice to his sister, “a fashion and a toy in blood;” it is nothing more than “the trifling of his favour.” “Perhaps he loves you now,” the prudent brother says; but it is the light fancy of youth, the inclination of nature in its crescent, not any guarantee for what may be when “the inward service of the mind and soul” has attained its full width and growth. Still more decided upon this point is Polonius. “For Lord Hamlet, believe so much in him that he is young,” says the wary old chamberlain. He has been a dangerous young gallant, a noble prince full of all the charms and entertainments of his age; surrounded by gay comrades, soldier and courtier and scholar; ready for every fresh amusement, to hear everything new the players have on hand, to try his skill against whoever offers, to wear a fair lady’s favour in his cap. Such has been the golden youth of the Prince of Denmark: until suddenly, all at once, as at the crack of doom, the mask has broken off the fair face of the world, and Hamlet has made the irredeemable discovery that nothing is as it seems.
It might be too long to attempt to show how the foundations of the world were more entirely broken up by the special guise in which this calamity overtook him, than they could have been to Hamlet in any other. There is indeed scarcely any way in which the whole keynote of nature could have been changed to him except this. It could be done to Othello by the supposed falsehood of the woman in whom his life had reblossomed, who was his consolation for all the labours of existence; but no falsehood of love could have struck to despair the young man only lightly stepping within the primrose path of dalliance, and capable of no tragic passion there. Where he could be struck was in the very fountain of his life — his mother. The most degraded mind finds a certain refuge there. A woman by very right of maternity is lifted out of the impurities and suspicions which may assail even those who are “as chaste as ice,as pure as snow.” She has a shield cast before her to quench all evil thoughts. If truth fails everywhere else, yet in her there is the source, the springs of unpolluted life, the fountain of honour, the one original type of faithful affection which cannot be doubted, even if heaven and earth were melting and dissolving. While that foundation stands fast, the world must still stand; it cannot fall into irremediable ruin and destruction. When Hamlet first comes before us in “the customary suit of sober black,” which is in itself a protestation against that unnatural marriage, this entire revolution of heaven and earth has happened to him. He is dragged in the train of the pageant, witnessing his mother’s re-enthronement, looking on at all the endearments of her monstrous bridehood, sick with disgust and misery, unable to turn his back upon it all, or save himself from the dishonour that invades his own veins from hers. “Fie on’t! 0 fie!” he cries, with a loathing which involves all the world, and even himself, in its sick horror. The earth is

“An unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank, and gross in nature,
Possess it merely.”

Foulness is everywhere. Oh that he could but melt and dissolve away — that it could be permitted to him to be no longer, to get done with the very consciousness of living. “Heaven and earth!” he cries, in the impatience of his wretchedness, “must I remember”—

“Within a month,—
Let me not think on’t.” Frailty,thy name is woman!
A little month ; or ere those shoes were old,
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears; why she, even she, —
0 God ! a beast,that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourned longer.”

This horrible revelation of evil in the place where it should have been least suspected, this certainty which nothing can change or excuse or atone for, is the foundation of all that follows. The murder is less, not more than this. It may be proved,it may be revenged, and in any case it gives a feverish energy to the sufferer, an escape for the moment from a deeper bitterness still; but even were it disproved or were it avenged, it would change nothing. The worst that can happen has happened; that first discovery which makes every other possible has been made. How it is gradually supplemented by other treacheries, and how the noble victim finds himself surrounded by every cheat that is most appalling to his nature, all chiming in, with one baseness after another, is in our judgment the real argument of the tragedy — ending as it does in an imbroglio of heaped falsehood upon falsehood, confusion of murderous lie on lie, which leads to the only end that is possible — an end of universal slaughter, embodying at once the utter success and failure of multiplied treachery, not capable of stopping when it would. The murder is brought into the foreground, arresting the attention of the spectator, holding the chief place for a time, then utterly disappearing during the last act as if it had not been — because it is, in fact, not the central strain of the drama at all, but only a tremendous complication giving life and temporary vigour to the hero’s terrible illumination and despair.
Let us endeavour to trace this under-swell of dark and accumulating misery through the play. Hamlet is, in fact, roused into heroic action whenever the question of his father’s murder is really before him: he vacillates about his vengeance; but in the great scenes with the ghost, the arrangements for the players, and also the interview with his mother, there is neither hesitation nor weakness about him. It is when outside the range of that inspiring excitement that the darker misery seizes possession of his soul; and this we think we shall be able to show. As for the madness which he has declared it to be his intention to simulate, we see very little of that on the stage or in the text. We are left to infer that he must have carried out his own suggestions of policy (“I perchance hereafter may think meet to put an antic disposition”), by the fact that immediately after the scene with the ghost (in which there is certainly no madness) we plunge almost at once into the talk of the court about “Lord Hamlet’s lunacy.” This appears to have developed so gradually,as to have left the king and queen time to send to Wittenberg for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; but the only evidence we have of it is the report which the frightened Ophelia brings to her father of the strange visit the prince has paid her as she was “sewing in her closet.” Ophelia, to judge by the admonitions of her relatives, had not been by any means disinclined to admit the wooing of Hamlet. “You have of your audience been most free and bounteous,”says her father ” a prudent man though an ambitious: —

“From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatment at a higher rate
Than a command to parley.”

The simple and submissive girl, most shallow of all Shakespeare’s women — who is, throughout her brief career before us, entirely unconscious, it is evident, of any claim of loyalty in love, and who thinks a great deal more of her father’s approbation than of what is due to Hamlet — gives us in reality the only thing that approaches to evidence of madness on his part. “O my lord,my lord,I have been so affrighted!” she cries,rushing with a child’s simple impulse to her father.

“Lord Hamlet, ” with his doublet all unbrac’d;
No hat upon his head ; his stockings foul’d,
Ungarter’d,and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport,
As if he had been loosed out of hell,
To speak of horrors,” he comes before me.
Pol. Mad for thy love?
Oph. My lord,I do not know;
But, truly,I do fear it.
Pol. What said he?
Oph. He took me by the wrist, and held me hard:
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face,
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so;
At last, — a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound,
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being: that done, he lets me go;
And, with his head over his shoulder turn’d,
He seem’d to find his way without his eyes;
For out o’ doors he went without their help,
And, to the last, bended their light on me.”

Curiously enough, this is the only single bit of evidence in the whole play which, we venture to say, would be received by any court as proof of Hamlet’s madness. His own light and bitter “chaff” with Polonius would take in no lawyer. Whether it might be that in the interval which takes place behind the scenes, Hamlet had perceived that the sweet, childish nature of Ophelia had been taken possession of by the old courtier, and that she was a real, if innocent, snare for him, it is hard to tell; but it is scarcely possible for the reader to imagine a delusion more absurd than that the great and princely Hamlet had gone mad for the love of Ophelia. Though her pretty simplicity and hapless fate give a factitious interest to her, it is manifest that this soft submissive creature, playing into her father’s hands as she does, is in no way a possible mate for Hamlet; neither does he say a word which would justify us in thinking that any serious passion for her increased the confusion of pain and misery in his mind. Perhaps that long perusal of her face, of which she tells her father, was the regretful, tender leave-taking of the man from whom all toys and fashions of the blood had fallen away, who could write sonnets no longer, nor rhymes to his lady’s eyebrow. Anyhow, the fact remains that during the time which elapsed between Hamlet’s resolution to “put an antic disposition on,” and the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the request of the king, the events upon which the notion of Hamlet’s madness has been built had taken place, and that all we know of them is this report of Ophelia’s. He has, it would appear, “borne himself strange and odd,” as he said he would do, and Polonius has found out the reason on his side,and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent for to do it on theirs. When Hamlet appears to us again, he is mocking Polonius with wild talk — talk so full of meaning and mischief, that even the old chamberlain with his foregone conclusion in his head, is fain to give vent to the confession, “though this be madness, yet there’s method in’t.” This transparent assumption of folly blows off the moment he sees the new-comers, whom he meets at first with the frankest pleasure. “Sure I am, there are not two men living to whom he more adheres,” the queen has said; and the reception which Hamlet gives them fully carries out his mother’s description. But either there is something in their air which prompts suspicion, or the new-born doubts in his mind make him question closely, “What make you at Elsinore?” Alas ! the generous and truthful Hamlet has now got that light of bitter illumination in his eyes which sees through all disguises. In a little keen quick play of persistent question and unwilling reply, he has got the secret of their mission. He accepts that too: his friends have fallen away from him, and turned into spies and emissaries of his foe. The rest of the interview with these false friends is wrought with the most marvelous skill: the suppressed passion in it mingled with that levity of the sick heart which is more sad than despair. At first he seems to make almost an appeal to their sympathies, when he tells them how he has “lost all my mirth,foregone all custom of exercises;” but seeing this does not move one spark of the old fellow feeling within them, Hamlet accepts the position, this time with a smile of bitter yet tranquil understanding. That which would have been so great an evil, so miserable a disaster before — what is it now but a faint echo of the downfall already accomplished? Fate having already done her worst, this bitterness the more but chimes in like an anticipated refrain. Yet the pain of it tells even in the greater anguish, and rises to a climax of indignant remonstrance when, after the hypocritical appeal his false friends make to his old affection, Hamlet, scorning to give them more distinct reply, takes the “recorder” from the hands of the player and offers it first to one, then to the other. “Will you play upon this pipe?” he says; — ’tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your ringers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music.” “Why, look you, now,” he adds, “how un worthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery… ‘Sblood,do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” Mr Irving in a fury — quite out of character, we think, with the concentrated scorn and pain, the pang yet smile of the outburst which is far too sad for passion — breaks violently across his knee the “little organ,” which appears to those shallow deceivers so much more difficult to understand than Hamlet’s great heart and nature. But passion or violence is not in the contrast between the simple pip eand the man’s soul. It leaves them confounded, poor creatures as they are — yet still not altogether sure, so great is the forbearance of his protest, notwithstanding the reluctant contempt in it — that they may not yet deceive him again, and get the better of him, and worm their way into his secret. In no part of the play is his attitude more noble — high as the heavens above the falsehood which is wringing his very heart, yet deeply, profoundly conscious of it than in those scenes. His first disenchantment has been so complete, and has cut the ground so entirely from under his feet, that this is no new revelation to him. He bears it even, standing there alone, on so much solid ground as his feet can cover, no more, with a smile — but the smile is one of utter and inexpressible pain.
There remains but one thing in which Hamlet might still find a shred of truth and faithfulness. According to our opinion Ophelia has always been too slight and small a creature to have much hold upon such a spirit — and his perpetual gibes and flouts at Polonius, specially on the subject of his daughter, would be cruel, had he not an idea that some plot or other in respect to his daughter was brewing in the old courtier’s mind; but when the deepest musings of his sadness are disturbed by the entrance of that last and cruelest spy upon him, Hamlet does not seem at first to contemplate the possibility that Ophelia too might be in the plot against him. Her evidently concerted appearance at that moment, a calculated chance to secure the prince’s attention, rouses him from thoughts so different that he perceives her with a passing impatience. And it is hard to believe that even Ophelia is conscious of the full meaning of the snare which she is made to set. Something of simplicity, something of stupidity, is in the device — which is probably all her own, and unsuggested by the other conspirators — of bringing Hamlet’s love-tokens to restore to him at such a moment and under such circumstances. Though she thinks he is mad of love for herself, and though she knows that her father and the king are lying in watch to listen, she tempts her crazed lover, as she imagines, to betray his most secret feeling, by those soft reproaches, which at another place and time would have been so affecting — appeals to his tenderest recollections, and pathetic protest against his abandonment of her. A woman forsaken could not do more in a supreme effort to reclaim the heart that has strayed from her. Her faltering reference to the “words of so sweet breath composed as made the things more rich,” the faint and plaintive indignation of her conclusion, “Rich gifts wax poor, when givers prove unkind,” would be exquisitely touching did we not know of those spies behind the arras. They are exquisitely touching, we believe, to the great part of the public, who, soft-hearted to the soft Ophelia, forget that this whole meeting is a plot, and that she has contrived, in her simplicity, a still more delicate refinement of the snare, by thus throwing upon him the sudden shadow of the past. For a moment Hamlet seems to pause. “I humbly thank you, well, well, well,” he says, in answer to her question, with something in his tone of fear, lest this softness should melt him, and his steps be tempted into a way less rude and terrible than that which lies before him. But when the meaning of the whole situation suddenly flashes upon him — when his rapid glance detects the listeners at one side, while the seeming-simple maiden falters forth her reproaches on the other — a blaze of sudden scorn and wrath suddenly illuminates the scene. A stab delivered by so soft a hand cuts to the heart. She too, suborned by his enemies, made into a trap for him, endeavouring to seduce him to a self betrayal more intimate, more sacred, than any that his false friends could hope to attain! The pang is so keen that Hamlet is cruel and terrible to the soft and shrinking creature. He rails at her as if she were a wanton, and crushes her under his contempt. “Go thy ways to a nunnery — to a nunnery — go!” he cries, with, for the first time, a shrill tone of anger in his voice. She to whose orisons he commends himself one moment, is denounced the next in terms as harsh and disdainful as were ever used to the most abandoned sinner. His words beat her down like a hailstorm on a flower. He has no pity — no mercy. That combination of the last appeal to his tenderness with the concealed and cruel plot against him betrays Hamlet to an outburst which under less provocation would be unmanly. He insults the woman who has made a snare for him out of her own very tenderness. The exquisite art which keeps up our sympathy for the bewildered and crushed Ophelia, notwithstanding what would be the baseness of her disloyalty were she sufficiently elevated in character to understand the treacherous part she is playing, is wonderful. It leaves a haze of mortal uncertainty about her character altogether, such as veils the actual being of our contemporaries, and leaves us at liberty to think better or worse of them according to the point of view from which we see them, — a licence which has secured for Ophelia a place among Shakespeare’s heroines which does not seem to be justified by anything but the prettiness and pathos of her mad scenes. Her submissive obedience to every impulse from her father scarcely balances her absolute want of perception of any truth or delicacy which she owes to Hamlet, for whose betrayal she allows herself,without apparent resistance, to be made the decoy.
Thus the last blow that Fortune can now strike at him has fallen — his friends have abandoned him; his simple love,the innocent creature in whom, if no lofty passion was possible, there still seemed every commendation to sweet domestic trust and truth, has done her best to betray him. What remains for this man to whom all the world has turned traitor, under whose feet the solid soil has crumbled, who sees nothing but yawning ruin round him, abysses of darkness, bottomless pits of falsehood, wherever he may turn?
This, it seems to us, is the deepest and chief strain in the tragedy. The murder and the vengeance he would take for it, would his sick heart leave him enough possibility of living to give the necessary standing-ground for the blow — form the sole source of energy and life which he retains. That cruel and monstrous wrong, for which he can yet get some amends, rouses him from the deadly collapse of every hope and wish which he cannot escape, which nothing in heaven or earth can remedy. The passion of the great scene with the ghost brings before us another Hamlet, a heroic figure, altogether awakened out of the sick and miserable musing, the impotent still anger and pain of his previous appearance. “Remember thee?” he cries; “ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat in this distracted globe.” And the wild humour of his excitement as he makes his companions swear to secrecy, is not more unlike the bitter satire of hopeless despondency with which in a previous scene he explains his mother’s marriage as “thrift, thrift, pure thrift” — than is the roused and passionate fervour of his action from the apathy of spectatorship in which we have seen him plunged from the first. Again, the gleam of revival which occurs when the players present themselves, and he perceives a ready means in his hand of convicting the criminal, confirming the apparition, and striking a first and subtle blow, once more restores force and life to Hamlet. There is no vacillation in his measures then. How prompt, how ready, how practical are all his combinations! Once more he is delivered from the deadly influence of that eating falsehood, and truth becomes possible.

“I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul, that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ.”

After the terrible success of this experiment, we are not left time to see any further faltering of purpose. The events follow in breathless succession. The great scene with his mother and the killing of Polonius take place the same evening — and that very night or the morning immediately succeeding, without pause or delay, he is swept away to England on the expedition from which the king hopes he may never return. The “vacillation” with which Hamlet is continually credited, and of which so much has been said, is all confined to the untold period between the appearance of the ghost and the point at which the story resumes, with the treacheries of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and of Ophelia. After he has made sure by the trial to which he subjects his uncle at the play, of the guilt of the king, Hamlet, save at the moment when he surprises the criminal on his knees, and decides not to kill him, has no further opportunity for vacillation. And here the sustained action of the tragedy may be said to end. The last act is a bewildering postscript, in which all the mysteries of the previous close and elaborate piece of tragedy are swept up. It might be almost a new play, so different is it — or the beginning of a continuation which shows us all the former occurrences thrown into distance and perspective. Of the original actors none remain except Hamlet himself,the king and queen, and the two lay figures of Horatio and Laertes. Ophelia is gone, all her simplicities and artless treachery ended in a pretty foolish madness as much unlike the “lunacy of the Lord Hamlet” as can be conceived; and old Polonius, wagging his wise old head in shallow sagacity; and the young court friends, who cannot understand their princely companion, but can betray him — all are swept away. And with them has gone Hamlet’s despair, and his plan of vengeance, and all those obstinate questionings with which he has endeavoured to blow aside the veil of human uncertainty. We tread new ground, and enter a new contracted, less impassioned world.
All this time, though we have discussed Hamlet much, we have given but little attention to Mr Irving, though it is his performance which has furnished the text of the disquisition. Notwithstanding the very serious and conscientious perfomance he gives us, it is very difficult to judge what is the conception he has formed of the character of Hamlet. He would seem rather to have studied the drama scene by scene, endeavouring with all his powers to give what seems to him an adequate representation of each, than to have addressed himself to the character as a whole. And though there are general criticisms of the superficial kind to be addressed to him, such as the very natural and reasonable objection to the language he speaks,which certainly is quite as imperfect English as that which any foreigner may have made use of — we are prevented by our inability to discriminate what his idea is, from finding any fault with that idea. He wants humour so entirely, that the wild pathetic gleams of diversion which light up the gloom are lost to his audience; and the laugh which breaks in at the most bitter moments — that laugh which is full of tears, yet is nevertheless instinct with a wildly humorous perception of things ludicrous and incongruous — loses all its distinctive character, and becomes a mere hysterical symbol of excessive emotion, no more expressive than a shriek. And he wants the flexibility, the ready change from one mood to another, the rapidity of transition which bewilders Hamlet’s commonplace companions. The broken jest, so strangely natural, yet to the vulgar eye so unsuited to the occasion, with which he hails the interruptions of the ghost — his fantastic fooling of Polonius — even the lighter touches between deadly jest and earnest with which his interview with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is full — are all beyond Mr Irving’s power. And the wild outburst of tragic gaiety into which he breaks when the assembly is broken up after the play, becomes mere mad bellowing and screaming in Mr Irving’s hands, without any suggestion of that wavering of the mind at the very summit of tragic satisfaction, consternation, and horror, frantic with meaning, yet a world apart from madness, which is perhaps the furthest step humanity can take into what is expressible and capable of being put into words: it is a step beyond the actor’s powers. To embody the vicissitudes, the extremes, the heights and depths of this most wonderful of poetical creations, who could be sufficient who did not to some degree share Hamlet’s nature, his large eyesight, his comprehension of small and great, his susceptibility to every breath that flits across the mental horizon? This last quality apparently Mr Irving does not perceive at all; for we are sure that if he perceived it he would devote himself to a study of all the ripplings of sensitive faces, all the transitions of changeable minds. His own countenance is at times finely expressive, but it has not been made for the flickerings of a mind at once spontaneous and complex. Its force is single, uni, not mingled but of one colour. Hamlet is too great to be called versatile, a word reserved by us for the use of characters of slighter mould; but there is all the gamut in him, and no difficulty in going at once from the height to the depth of the moral scale. But Mr Irving possesses no such varied power of expression; and this must always be fatally in his way when it is necessary to attempt those shades of meaning which are infinite, and which vary with every breath. As an instance, however, of what seems to us complete misconception more serious than simple failure, we may instance the scene with Ophelia, which no doubt is one of the most difficult in the play. It is hard in any case (notwithstanding that the doctrine is popular) to give a persistent tone of superiority to a man’s intercourse with a woman without offending the finer perceptions as well as the wholesome prejudices of the audience, which naturally range themselves on the woman’s side; and it is still more difficult to show the turn of sentiment, and justify Hamlet’s wild and sudden onslaught upon so soft and shrinking a nature. Mr Irving avoids this by turning the scene into one of the most impassioned and frantic love — love of gesture and attitude, since he can not change the words, which are as unlike love-making as ever were put on paper. His Hamlet can scarcely restrain himself from clasping Ophelia to his heart, his arms are all but closed around her, and when he turns himself away it is but to turn back, drawn by an attraction which it takes not only all his power of resolution but all his muscular force to resist. Those embracings of the air, those futile snatchings and withdrawals,are supposed to be proofs of a violent and passionate love, restrained or broken either by madness or by misery — Mr Irving does not clearly give us to understand which — but certainly belonging at least to a most robust sentiment, for even the sight of the half-concealed spectators, about whose presence it is impossible he can deceive himself, makes no difference to him; and he goes on with those wild half-embraces and the strangest pantomimic struggle of passion after he knows of the plot and treachery, making an exhibition of his feelings under the very noses of the watchers. From whence Mr Irving can have taken this extraordinary conception is impossible to tell. It is contradicted not only by every word Hamlet says, but by the verdict of the spies after. “Love! his affections do not that way tend,” says the king, more clear-sighted than Mr Irving; though, indeed, had Mr Irving been Hamlet (as, thank heaven! he is not), Polonius must have remained master of the field, since nothing could justify his mad behaviour but the old courtier’s theory. There are many jarring notes in the performance, but none so entirely false as this.
On the equally delicate ground where Hamlet is confronted by the other treachery in the persons of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Mr Irving is much more happy. Though he is incapableof the light banter which conceals so much tragic feeling, his intercourse with them is well done throughout, though somewhat extreme in gravity. The searching look,which is the first evidence of his doubts, follows very quickly upon his cordial recognition of his fellow-students; and the manner in which he penetrates through their shifting and paltry defences is fine in its reality and concentrated observation — a study as successful as the encounter with Ophelia is false. In the one case he has caught the true tone of the character, in the other goes wilfully against it, and against every indication of the text. The fine scene with the recorder, to which we have already referred, is somewhat spoiled by the violence with which he breaks, when he has served his purpose, the pipe which has proved so powerful an illustration of his meaning; but this is a detail which may easily be pardoned, all the rest being so satisfactory. By the way, the introduction of the recorder, not only in Mr Irving’s arrangement, but in every other we have seen, is singularly artificial. Hamlet has demanded “some music — the recorders,” in his wild exultation at the end of the play-scene, meaning evidently a performance of music to soothe or inspire his excited fancy, or to take the place of the entertainment so summarily interrupted. The recorder, however, is brought to him as if he had asked for it simply to give the courtiers their lesson, the idea of music to be performed before him failing altogether. Mr Irving’s careful zeal for all these matters might well be exerted on this point to make the introduction of the instrument more natural.
That he does not think any detail trivial is apparent from his notes in a contemporary, the last of which is occupied with a defence of his own practice in withdrawing the two portraits of traditionary use, which have hitherto figured in the queen’s chamber, and afforded a visible text for Hamlet’s speech — “Look here, upon this picture, and on this.” Mr Irving’s crotchet on this point is really unimportant; though it is somewhat confusing, we think, to the spectator, to have so distinct an allusion without any visible ground for it; and the suggestion he makes, that the stage has four walls, and that the portraits may be supposed to be hanging upon that which “is only theoretical” — which, in reality, is the theatre, with all its crowding faces — is somewhat ludicrous. The absence of the portraits, or of the miniatures which sometimes do duty for them, weakens the force of the speech, in so far as any failure of external accessories can weaken it, which is a trivial quantity. But this accessory to which the text seems to point is, on the whole, more important than the chamber candle which Hamlet, with real attention, lights and hands to his mother at the conclusion of the interview, neglecting, however, as we cannot but feel, to remind her of the night-gear, evidently airing at the fire, which gives truth and local colour to the room; though, after all, it is not the queen’s bedroom, but only some boudoir appartenant, or there would be no need for the chamber-candle at all. The scene which takes place in this room is strangely lopped and cut; something it may be necessary to omit in deference to modern modesties, but these are somewhat too much regarded in a scene of passion so intense. And the sudden vehemence of Hamlet’s action, when the voice behind the arras rouses him into wild rapidity of impulse, leaving no time for thought, loses all its force in Mr Irving’s treatment. He lifts the arras before he strikes, making any doubt about the person of the victim impossible, and taking the meaning out of his own question, “Is it the king?” It must be remembered that he has come there still breathless with the wild emotion of the play-scene; that he has passed, on his way, through the oratory where the king is praying, and has spared him ; and that the transport of sudden passion with which he rushes at the concealed spectator is a payment of long arrears to the arch-enemy, who had already used this same mean device to surprise his thoughts. We cannot tell why Mr Irving should have cut out two lines of the words addressed to the dead Polonius, which are far from unnecessary:

“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better; take thy fortune;
Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger

is what Shakespeare wrote; but Mr Irving omits the italics, leaving the victim without even so much disdainful regret as this. Altogether ludicrous, too, is the appearance of the ghost in this very important scene. The convolutions of the queen’s night-drapery, which, so far as she is concerned, occupy the most prominent place in the scene, billowing hither and thither as she is affected by Hamlet’s vituperations, had, we confess, so occupied our mind, that when, with a rush, a venerable gentleman in familiar domestic costume came on the stage, shaking it with substantial footsteps, the idea of the ghost did not present itself at all to our dull imagination; and it was impossible to avoid the natural idea that the lady’s husband, hearing an unaccountable commotion in the next room, had jumped out of bed, seized his dressing-gown, and rushed in to see what was the matter. The combination of this and the chamber-candle which Hamlet lights so carefully, and the night-gown airing at the fire, is most unfortunate. These accessories are a great deal more prosaic than the introduction of pictures would be; and we cannot but wonder that the actor who leaves so much to imagination at one moment, should leave so little to it at another. There are many omissions, too, which seem distinct faults in the representation, diminishing its effect — as, for instance, at the end of the play-scene, where the alarmed phrases exchanged by the spectators occupy the moment necessary to show us the king’s perturbation, before the whole train suddenly rushes away, and everything is over. Here is the version of Shakespeare: —

“Ham. He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.

Oph. The king rises.
Ham. What! frighted with false fire?
Queen. How fares my lord?
Pol. Give o’er the play.

King. Give me some light: — away!
All Lights,lights,lights!”

Mr Irving leaves out all that we have put in italics, thus gaining nothing in point of time, and entirely missing the confused consciousness of the spectators, which helps the effect of the scene so greatly. As it is now being represented, the king’s exclamation, and the echoing cry of the courtiers for lights, are all that is interposed between the sudden flight of the court and Hamlet’s explanation of the argument of the play. His own outcry, “What! frighted with false fire?” is transposed, and comes after the precipitate withdrawal of the royal party. Thus the effect of three independent witnesses to the king’s conviction and remorse, each breaking in spontaneously, with a rising excitement which makes the rush of the departure infinitely more telling and lifelike, is entirely lost. And no counterbalancing advantage is gained by the omission of these few but pregnant phrases, which do not delay but only elucidate the action. We cannot understand, either, why of Hamlet’s wild doggerel the verse which is universally known and full of meaning, should be omitted, while the second mad rhyme is retained:

“Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play,”

is as fit an expression of the wild feeling of the moment as could be found — whereas the jingle that is retained is a mere maddening clatter of words, expressive enough of the frantic levity of passion when taken in conjunction with the other, but far less worthy of preservation than the other. We fail also to perceive any reason for leaving out one of the best-known lines in the Ghost’s address to Hamlet, “Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d.” Perhaps there is no single line in the whole play the omission of which would so strike the most careless listener. It is like leaving out a bar in a strain of music, and withdraws our mind from the rest of the speech into involuntary investigation of the mystery of this incomprehensible “cut.” Why, except to make us stumble and distract our attention, should this have been left out? The omission of the scene in the oratory,the king’s prayer and Hamlet’s fierce and momentary self-discussion thereanent, is perhaps less to be complained of. We sincerely sympathise with Mr Irving in the grievous disappointments he must encounter in the persons of his kings. The Shakespearian monarch is a being by himself; and how to get him to look — not like a king, but — like anything better than a hobby-horse, must be a labour of Hercules such as only managers fully appreciate. It is much better to leave the scene out altogether than to associate only ludicrous ideas with it. A gentleman whose chief thought when he kneels is about the knees of his “tights,” and who goes on serenely saying his prayers while the avenger rants and waves a torch within a foot of him, is better left out when he can be left out. Indeed their majesties of Denmark at the Lyceum must be almost as great an exercise to Mr Irving’s soul as were their originals to Hamlet. The swing of their respective mantles, especially that fine wave of white silk lining from the monarch’s shoulder, is the chief point that strikes us. As for the queen, the manner in which her majesty swathes herself in her red and yellow night-gown during the exciting scene in her chamber,`making its billows and puffings do duty for the emotion she shows but little trace of otherwise, is probably due to some archaeological instructions previously administered by Hamlet, rather than to any inspiration of her own. We cannot, however, pass over the personnel of the drama without saying something of Miss Ellen Terry’s Ophelia. No Ophelia of our time has given to the character so graceful a presence. The very excellence of the actress, however, makes more apparent the insignificance of the part allotted to her. Nothing can make the submissive little daughter of Polonius a great poetical heroine. All the prejudices of the audience are in her favour, and we have grown up with the idea that she ranks among the Juliets and Rosalinds; and, unfortunately, it has been very easy on most occasions to assure ourselves that our disappointment arose solely from the incapacity of the actresses to whom (a necessity for a singing voice being in itself a limitation to the number of Ophelias possible) the part was intrusted. But now that we have a representative to whom no exception can be made, this delusion fails us. Even Miss Terry cannot give more than the mildest interest to the character. What she can do she does; though even the sweet and animated archness of her countenance, though capable of touching pathos, would be more adapted for a Rosalind full of life and action, than for the plaintive weakness of Ophelia.
The last act of “Hamlet” remains to ourselves a mystery. We cannot attempt to discuss what we so little understand. Had not Shakespeare been writing plays for an audience to which an orthodox ending was necessary — had not even the supreme creator laboured under that necessity for a third volume with which critics upbraid the smaller artists of fiction — it is likely enough that he would have left this tale unfinished, as it is at the end of the fourth act. There is no end practicable for such a hero. Death indeed cuts the thread artificially both in real life and poetry; but it is an artificial ending, however it comes about, and, so far as we are concerned, solves no problem, though we make bold to believe that it explains everything to the person chiefly concerned. In the fifth act all is changed. That former world has rolled away with all its passions and pains. Hamlet, having delivered himself by the promptest energetic action, in an emergency which is straightforward and without complications, comes back with a languor and exhaustion about him which contrasts strangely with the intensity of all his previous emotions. Contemplative as ever, there is no longer any strain of mystic anguish in his musings. Unaccountably, yet most evidently, the greatness of his suffering has dissolved away. He walks into the scene like a man recovered from an illness — like one who has been dreaming and is awake, a sadder and a wiser man than he was only yesternight. His speculations in the churchyard are all in a lower key. Instead of those sublime questionings of earth and heaven which formed the burden of all his thoughts — instead of the passion of disenchantment and cruel consciousness of treachery and falsehood — the flight of his subdued fancy goes no higher than the base uses to which the dust of humanity may return. True, he starts into spasmodic excitement when roused by the ranting of Laertes over his sister’s grave, and meets him with an outburst of responsive ranting, in which there is a gleam of his old wild humour, though subdued like himself to a lower tone. “The bravery of his grief did put me into a towering passion,” he exclaims afterwards to Horatio; and his sudden irritation and outdoing of the swagger of his natural opponent is the thing most like the Hamlet of old in the whole postscriptal episode. So also in a mild degree is the scene with the young euphuist Osric, where prince and courtier give us a dialogue in the manner of Lyly, according to the fashion of Elizabeth’s time rather than Hamlet’s, wonderfully reduced and tamed from the wild and brilliant play of the prince with Polonius in the previous acts. Throughout the growing rapidity of action with which all things tend towards the catastrophe, Hamlet bears himself with noble and unsuspicious dignity, while the last murderous network of deceit, which is compassing his death, closes round him. The hand of fate is upon him, his insight is clouded with a great weariness, his deep soul subdued. It does not occur to him apparently to ask why this wager of the king’s, or for what purpose he, of all men in the world, is backed up and set forth as his champion by his natural enemy. He walks this time calmly, with melancholy grace, into the snare. Thus Hamlet dies, as he has suffered, by fraud. Treachery has tracked him from the beginning of the great and melancholy story. It has broken his heart, it has untwisted for him all the ties of nature, it has made love and friendship into delusions, and life itself a troubled dream. What is the secret of the subdued dead hush and calm with which he comes before us in the end? Is it mere weariness, exhaustion of all possibility of action, the sense that nothing more remains worth struggling for — for even his revenge, the one object which had kept the channels of life clear, has disappeared in the last chapter? Who can tell? Only at the very end does a gleam of the old passion flash in his face, as he at last accomplishes that vengeance, and sends his enemy before him into the land of retribution. So far as our theory goes, the last act is in fact the return of the poet to his real theme. His hero has been wrecked throughout by treachery. The higher betrayals that affected his heart and soul wrung Hamlet’s being, and transformed the world to him: but the meaner tricks that assailed his life were too low for his suspicion. How was he, so noble, so unfortunate, measuring his soul against the horrible forces of falsehood, the spiritual wickedness in high places, to come down from that impassioned and despairing contest, to think of poison, or take precautions against it? Thus the traitor got the better of him, and death triumphed at the last.
There is nothing to object to in Mr Irving’s performance of this last portion of the play. It suits him better than all that has gone before. The anachronism which we believe experts find in the exhibition of a modern scientific manner of fencing, which could not have existed in the vague traditionary days of Hamlet the Dane, is but a trifling and scholarly grievance, and there is no complication of passions to carry these scenes beyond the actor’s range. If he would dispense with the ludicrous head-dress which is half like Mephistopheles and half like a gipsy woman, we should feel that Mr Irving’s churchyard scene was as satisfactory a rendering as we are likely to attain.

The Happiest Hipster

It is well known that the leftist hippies of a previous generation were directly inspired by cranky conservative writers, such as Wendell Berry and J.R.R. Tolkien. What is less well known is that the left-leaning urban hipsters of today partake of much of the unique aesthetic of another conservative writer–G.K. Chesterton. Like Berry, Chesterton eschewed cosmopolitanism and prioritized belonging to a certain place. It just so happened that the place to which Chesterton belonged was suburban London; he did not share Berry’s feeling that dwelling in the capitol was in any way inferior to dwelling in a country home. Not only did Chesterton fail to farm, as Berry does, he did not even work in his own garden, as Tolkien did. He writes of sitting in his garden and watching his gardener work:

The gardener was gardening. I was not gardening. .. It is quite certain that he would not have allowed me to touch the garden if I had gone down on my knees to him.
And it is by no means certain that I should have consented to touch the
garden if he had gone down on his knees to me…

And all the time I was thinking what a shame it was that he was not
sticking his spade into his own garden, instead of mine: he knew about the
earth and the underworld of seeds, the resurrection of Spring and the
flowers that appear in order like a procession marshalled by a herald.
He possessed the garden intellectually and spiritually, while I only
possessed it politically.

Like the hipster farm tourists of today, Chesterton firmly identified with the urban location and the relatively idle social class into which he was born; he also felt a deep ambivalence about hereditary class privilege, and wistfully admired people who work with their hands.

He even cultivated a fascination with the pleasures of local culture and cuisine. In a mock defense of Prohibition, he writes

But the private brews differ very widely; multitudes are quite harmless and some are quite excellent. I know an American university where practically every one of the professors brews his own beer; some of them experimenting in two or three different kinds. But what is especially delightful is this: that with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of that old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared. The professor of the higher metaphysics will be proud of his strong ale; the professor of the lower mathematics (otherwise known as high finance) will allege something more subtle in his milder ale; the professor of moral theology (whose ale I am sure is the strongest of all) will offer to drink all the other dons under the table without any ill effect on the health. Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.

This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all theses things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.

Chesterton wrote a few essays that elaborate more on the beauties of some of the items in his catalog of “goods which ought to be banned”–one essay is about the glories of local cheese, and another concludes with the thrill of locally sourcing chalk. He also wrote something about local wine. Twenty-first century anti-globalists can be divided into two broad camps: a camp of those who rebel against globalization by voting against international coalitions, and a camp of those who rebel against globalization by delighting in microbrews. Chesterton, who co-invented a rather locally oriented political philosophy called Distributism, carried Hipsterism to its logical conclusion.



For the Sake of God Alone

By S.Y. Agnon

(Explanatory notes are at the end)

A Chassid of the Maggid of Zlotchov used to travel to Zlotchov every year on the Saturday night that was the first night of selichot. He would go to be near his rebbe in Zlotchov, arrive in time for the recitation of selichot, and stay through Yom Kippur. His journeys there and back were generally peaceful. One year, he set off on his way just as he did every year, anticipating that he would arrive in time for selichot just as he did every year. This anticipation was, in fact, fulfilled–he did arrive in time for selichot. His journey to Zlotchov, however, was not a smooth one. When he left his village, the sky was full of stars, the earth radiated joy, and he too was joyful, with the joy of a chassid who goes to greet the rebbe from whom he has learned Torah and the fear of Heaven. On his way, he exercised his voice by repeating the stern rebukes he had heard during the days of Elul from itinerant pietists and preachers.

The Chassid sweetened the journey for himself with a mournful melody, like a preacher who stands at a podium and delivers a sermon to the congregation. Sometimes he endears himself to the members of the congregation by calling them “dear brothers,” and sometimes he frightens them by calling them “strayers and fools.” This chassid did not notice that when he stretched out his right hand imposingly, the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries slipped and fell.

Meanwhile, the sky had knotted over with thick clouds, the stars had hidden, and the road had disappeared. He found himself knocking about blindly until he ended up in a forest which he had never seen or even heard of before. While he was attempting to leave the forest, rain began to fall, and it increased in severity until it had the force of a rushing river.

A great black fear fell upon him. The rain fell, and his fear grew as he stood there in the forest being slapped in the face and hammered on the head by tree branches and rain. The rain also undermined his footing, until he couldn’t tell whether he was floating or sinking into the ground. The forest stretched on beyond measure and without end–and the night was still young. And such a night–a long, cold night at the year’s end.

There the chassid stood in the forest, in the rain and penetrating darkness. His clothes were saturated with water, and his very soul folded from grief within him. Each time he forcefully extricated himself from one entanglement, he found himself in a place that presented an even more difficult one.

A bolt of lightning illuminated the entire forest. The chassid looked around and saw a cottage with light coming out of it. He gathered his strength, extricated his legs from where they were, and made his way to the cottage. He found an open doorway and went in.

Inside, he saw creatures who looked like men. Their long ears stretched down below their feet to the floor, and even beneath it. Each one held a clerk’s quill in his hand and sat before thick notebooks. The pages of the notebooks were made of skins which had never been cured by a tanner. Strange voices rumbled and rose up from beneath the floor and came to sit on the tips of the quills, from whence the voices would shriek, while the crying, agitated quills would hasten all over the notebooks.

The chassid understood that he had come to a place that was not good. He stood with failing knees and silently prayed that that which could happen would not happen. When he reached out to touch the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries, he couldn’t find it, and he realized that it had been lost on the road. He reflected to himself that when a man’s way is destroyed by sin, he has nothing left to hold onto in his time of need. For what sin he was being punished he did not know.

One of the strange creatures lifted his head from his notebook and flailed his arms about, like a person who is trying not to drown. If the chassid’s eyes did not deceive him, both of this creature’s hands–like both hands of each of his companions–were left hands, but they worked so quickly it was as if they were each seventy seven hands. As they worked, the creatures cursed and imprecated, saying “The souls of preachers should blow out. I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” To what words they were referring the chassid could not guess. The chassid shrank away so that the demons would not notice him. He continued to shrink himself until there was nothing left of him but terror.

The chassid realized that it would do him no good just to stand there, immobilized by fear, so he gathered what strength he had and transmuted it into words: “I was walking on the road when it began to rain, and I came to your house to shelter from the downpour. Now that the rain has stopped I shall go on my way.” When he turned around to leave, he saw that all of the walls were completely opaque–there was no door. How had he come in, then? He was too disoriented to remember. Though he continued to look around, he could not find the doorway.

The chassid forced himself to tell them that it was his custom to travel to Zlotchov on the first night of selichot every year to stay near his rebbe for the Days of Awe. He also told them about what had happened to him after he set out on that night’s journey. But those long ears which heard what was underground were deaf to words of truth.

After the chassid had banged on all of the walls without finding the opening, the chief demon said to his minions, “Open up for him.” When the chassid was about to go, the chief demon said to him, “We are allowing you to go on the condition that you come back to us after thirty-one days. If you do not return, we will come and take you ourselves, even if we have to drag you from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe.”

What could the wretch say in reply? He nodded his head. The chief demon responded, “You think that it is a nod of your head that we want; it is you that we want. If you swear that you will return to us, we will show you to the doorway so that you can leave.” The poor man thought that if they didn’t show him the way out, he was destined to run around in circles until the breath of the enemies of Israel should expire. He swore that he would return to them after thirty-one days. They opened the door for him and he left. Outside, he found himself in the place in which he had been standing before he entered the forest that was not a forest. He found his prayer shawl and phylacteries waiting for him there. He wondered at his own failure to get out of that cottage himself–if only he had tried harder, he would have found the doorway. True, the walls had seemed opaque, but surely he could have opened whichever part of the wall the demons had opened, and he would have avoided the necessity of acquiescing to their demand that he return to them. The chassid sighed in his heart, hugged his prayer shawl and phylacteries, and began to walk. After about an hour he arrived in time for the recitation of “O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee” in the Maggid’s house of prayer.

After morning prayers, the chassid went to get the “shalom” greeting from his rebbe–but his rebbe did not give him shalom. The chassid stood behind the door of the maggid. Men were going in and out–some of them were wealthy householders, some of them were chassidim, and some of them were regular Jews who happened to live in that city. The Maggid greeted and spoke with everyone. To him alone the Maggid would not give a greeting or even a look. The chassid stood with a broken and contrite heart, and wondered, “What is my sin and what is my transgression: why does the Maggid shun me like this?” He still expected that the Maggid would tell him to enter after everyone else had left. However, when they were all gone, the Maggid closed the door. The chassid dragged himself away, went to the Maggid’s study hall, sat down in a corner, and made an accounting of his actions in order to determine what was the cause of the Maggid’s refusal to return his shalom. The chassid fasted that day and the following night. When it was time to recite selichot again, he roused himself from his place and stood with the rest of the congregation, swimming in tears, and it need not be said that he remained in this state for the prayer of “Answer Us.” Although this chassid was not the only one who recited selichot in this manner, all of the others found some resting place within their hearts, while his heart was torn and boiled. His manner while praying the morning prayer was the same as it had been during selichot.

After he had removed his phylacteries and taken off his prayer shawl, he gathered his strength and went to his rebbe. The Rebbe saw him and locked the door in his face. As it was that day, so it was on the morrow, and the day after that, and so on the eve of Rosh Hashanah–when all are blessed by their rebbes–and so on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Even on the day before Yom Kippur, when the Maggid’s hand was extended to all and sundry, he did not return shalom to this chassid.

The Sacred Day passed and the holiday of Sukkot arrived. All were elated as defendants who had been absolved by the court. The followers of the Maggid, who had prayed with their rebbe and seen his service–which resembled the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, when he stood in the Holy of Holies to plead for mercy for his people, Israel– were especially joyful. Everyone was joyful–but our chassid was heartsick. Then too, his rebbe had locked the door in his face and had not allowed him to pour out what he had to say.

Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret passed, and Simchat Torah came. We rejoice on all other days of the year in the commandment of Torah study; on Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the Torah itself. There was joy on every face, but our chassid mourned in his heart, for the day on which he must return to that cottage drew nigh, and his rebbe, who had the power to help him, would not allow him to approach. The chassid threw all of his hopes upon the Almighty.

Thirty days after the chassid’s encounter with the demons, the Maggid called him to his chamber. The chassid came and stood with a broken and contrite heart. The Maggid rested his head upon the column which was in front of him, and stood that way for an hour or so. Afterwards, he raised his head and said

“Do you know what kind of a place that is? It is not a good place. It is a house where impurity dwells, for the demons sit there and write down each and every sermon that the preachers preach for the sake of advertising their cleverness and erudition, to preen before the crowd, and become great in the eyes of God’s creatures. Similarly, the demons write there all of the words of those who rebuke others without rebuking themselves first. What brought you to that place are the sermons of which you are so enamored. Even on the very first night of selichot–when a Jew must prepare his heart for repentance–you enjoyed them. You promised those creatures that you would return, and a Jew must keep whatever commitment passes his lips: you must return to them as you told them you would. But do not be afraid of them; tell them that you are one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov. They will certainly mock both you and me, but do not be troubled by their laughter–say to them, ‘if you can find one word that has come from the mouth of the Maggid of Zlotchov that was not for the sake of the Almighty, you have a right to do with me what you will. If not, you must leave me alone and let me go on my way.'”

And the Maggid of Zlotchov said,

“I am certain that–thanks to the Blessed One’s kindness–they will not find in their notebooks a word that has left my mouth that was not for the sake of Heaven, for every sermon that I give and every word that I speak is uttered for the sake of God alone. Go to life and peace, and may God help us to serve Him with whole hearts, and without any alien intentions.”

The chassid took leave of his rebbe and went on his way, and God helped him–for no inappropriate thoughts came into his head, and he thought only of the ways of divine service and fear which he had witnessed by observing his holy rebbe, whose study, prayer, speech, and even necessary actions–without which no one born of woman can endure–were all for the sake of Heaven.

At midnight, the chassid returned to the spot. He entered and saw the creatures sitting in their places, with their ears inserted into the ground, holding their quills in their left hands, while unsavory voices floated up from the ground and latched on to the tips of the quills, and the agitated quills rushed over the foul-smelling notebooks. Not a single one of the creatures looked up at the chassid or asked him anything.

The chassid did not want to stay any longer than was necessary in that house of impurity. He said to them, “I am the man who was here on the first night of selichot.”

The chassid had assumed that as soon as he had spoken they would put down their work, he would tell them what his rebbe had commanded him to say, and they would let him go in peace. But they paid him no heed since–due to the sins of that generation–the sermons had proliferated, and still continued to multiply. Because no person who entered their cottage ever left, it wasn’t worthwhile for them to lose a minute of work on his behalf.

The chassid hardened his face and said, “I promised to come; I did not promise to waste my time here. If you do not release me immediately, I shall show myself out.” They raised their ears from the ground and gazed at him in wonderment. Never before had they encountered a man who was not afraid of them, let alone one who would address them with such impudence. They grabbed him with their ears and pushed him about the room. The chassid pushed back and said, “I am one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov.”

The room erupted in laughter. The creatures ridiculed him and his rebbe among themselves: some posed mocking questions, others answered, all laughed. The chassid did not care for them or for their laughter. He stood gazing at them coldly. They began to wonder: the souls of great preachers, whose bellies were equal in size to a prayer quorum of Jews, had expired here from fear, while this dried out man who looked like a schoolteacher’s shovel said that he belonged to the Maggid of Zlotchov, and betrayed no sign of fear.

The chief of these creatures asked his fellows, “Have any of you heard of this Maggid of Zlotchov–the one this dried out fig of a man says he belongs to?” They responded, “We have not heard his name, nor have we seen his sermons.” “Let us look into the notebooks,” he said.

To explain what the notebooks were: men’s actions and thoughts are all written down in notebooks, as are their words. If men’s words are for the sake of Heaven, they are brought up before the Throne of Glory in order to give pleasure to their Creator; if they are for their own sakes–for their own good and pleasure, to increase their own glory and honor–they are sent down to the nether worlds, and demons come and grab them, possess them, and take responsibility for them. The demons charge a labor fee from each man whose words are written in their notebooks.

And why was this chassid punished by being forced into such a place on the first night of selichot? There were many preachers in that generation who would go to the synagogues and study halls, and who would preach sermons consisting of homilies and rebukes so that people would repent. Despite the fact that their words were reproofs of instruction and fear of Heaven, the intention of the preachers’ inner hearts was to show off their homiletic abilities, and because this chassid enjoyed their words he was punished–for enjoyment of something which is not all for Above merits punishment.

They brought their notebooks and searched through them, and did not find the name of the Maggid of Zlotchov–nor did they find any word of his. They checked a second time, and they still could not find his name, nor a word he had said, nor, it goes without saying, could they find any of his sermons. They wondered greatly at this: even those whose actions are all for the sake of Heaven occasionally allow a word that is not entirely for the sake of His blessed name to escape their lips–that is to say, they mix into the utterance of that word a bit of an intention for self-profit.

But we, chassidim the sons of chassidim, who have been taught by our fathers that the words of true tzaddikim are completely for the sake of Heaven, are not surprised that they could not find in their notebooks a single speech of the Maggid of Zlotchov, since it is known that each and every word which came out of his mouth was for the sake of God alone. That is why there was no mention of him in the notebooks.

The chassid went on his way happy and heart-content. He was happy because he had taken leave of the demons, and he was heart-content because he had merited to cleave to a rebbe who was holy and pure, and whose every word was for the sake of God alone.

And we, if we have not merited to know the early tzaddikim, have merited to tell stories of their deeds, stories of truth and faith, that ye may know the way in which ye must go.


Explanatory Notes

Elul – the Hebrew month of repentance in the Autumn which precedes Rosh Hashanah

Maggid – preacher

selichot – penitential prayers that are recited daily (excluding Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur) before sunrise, starting from four days to ten days before Rosh Hashanah (depending on the year) and throughout the Ten Days of Repentance which follow Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur.

“souls…blow out”-  cf. Job 31:39

“I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” – humorous juxtaposition of Psalm 119:96 and Job 16:3

from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe – the image evoked is of a father who covers his small children with his prayer shawl in the synagogue while the priests recite their blessing.

if you swear – here and elsewhere, literally “swear on your righteous affirmation.” “Righteous affirmation” is a (once) popular expression derived from a Talmudic play on Leviticus 19:36. Even a commitment without an oath must be treated as binding.

Israel’s enemies – Talmudic euphemism for the people of Israel, used when discussing a negative action or eventuality.

O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee – Daniel 9:7 is the first line of the selichot liturgy.

Jews who happened to live in that city – literally, “the people who were in the city,” evocative of several verses in the Bible, cf. Jeremiah 29:16

broken and contrite heart – Psalm 51:17

Answer Us – part of the selichot liturgy

Sukkot – the Feast of Booths, a holiday which begins four days after Yom Kippur and lasts for seven days.

Shemini Atzeret – a one day holiday immediately following Sukkot

Simchat Torah – a one day holiday immediately following Shemini Atzeret

prayer quorum of Jews – ten men

reproofs of instruction – Proverbs 6:23

tzaddikim – perfectly righteous people

that ye may know the way etc. – Joshua 3:4


Lament for Zion

This famous elegy was written in the sixth century by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir.

For Zion and her towns complain

Like woman in her birthing pain

Or like a sackcloth girded maid

Whose husband in the ground’s been laid.

For devastation of her hall

By wretched flock’s most sinful fall;

For blasphemers who boldly came

Into the room that housed His name.

For holy priests in exile grim,

And singers of her faithful hymn;

For rivers of their kindred blood

Which coursed through courtyards in a flood.

For cities cloaked in silence thick–

Sans joyful calls from dances quick;

For meeting room that’s barren of

Men’s learned words and wars of love.

And for her daily sacrifice,

Redemption of her firstborns’ price,

For sacred bowls defilers broke,

For ceasing of her incense smoke.

For sons of kings without their swords,

Good David’s children, Zion’s lords,

Whose faces fair were darkened when

Her shining crowns were reft from them.

For Glory which, at that time, fled

Her ruined home amidst the dead.

For foeman fell, oppression cruel,

For sackcloth worn instead of wool.

For painful wounds and lashes strong

Her patient princes suffered long.

For bodies of her babes and youth

–smashed on stones without all ruth.

For gaiety of hateful foes

Who laughed to see her shames and woes.

And for free men reduced to scorn —

The pure of heart and noble born.

For crooked paths towards which she turned

From happy road in childhood learned.

And for her sad and swarthy throngs

All burnt by sins and scorched by wrongs.

For imprecating voices shrill

When rife she was with corpses still;

And for the shrieks and echoed call

Of stranger’s curse within her Hall.

O for Thy name that’s been profaned

By those who with her blood are stained.

When Exile’s prayer they cry to Thee

Incline and hear and set her free!

The Heiress of Dickens

There are few pieces of criticism written on the books of JK. Rowling which neglect to mention the supposed influences of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the Harry Potter novels. Nothing could be neater than tying popular, literary, twentieth century writers of fantasy fiction into one bundle. This pretty packaging, however, must seem forced to those who, like myself, are fans of all three writers. How can one seriously claim that the vibrant primary colors of Harry Potter are substantially derived from the golds, grays, muted blues, and greens of Narnia and Middle Earth?

Furthermore, the works of the two Oxbridge professors are permeated with ineffable nostalgia, a feeling that is rarely encountered in Rowling’s work. The magical world that Harry enters is not older or essentially better than ours; it is just more fascinating. If J.K. Rowling is ever really guilty of nostalgia, it is the nostalgia for the future commonly known as progressivism. Hogwarts, which, as Mr. Filch is fond of reminding the students, used to use interesting methods of corporal punishment, was not always as nice a place as it now is. Dumbledore is kinder and wiser than previous headmasters, — one of whom unjustly expelled Hagrid. In the larger wizarding world, the abuse of house elves used to go unquestioned, but Hermione Granger is determined to end this practice and liberate the downtrodden house elves from their bonds. We are always made to feel that Middle Earth and Narnia, on the other hand, were once much better places than they now are. The spiritual decline of those lands has come to such a point, in fact, that The Lord of the Rings must conclude with the departure of the Elves — with all their magic and wisdom — from Middle Earth, while the Chronicles of Narnia end with total moral decay and an apocalypse.

With the exception of Lewis’ lamp post, inanimate objects belonging to the post-industrial world are, in the eyes of Lewis and Tolkien, symbolic of evil and ugliness. Rowling, on the other hand, embraces such objects and gives them a magical twist: while the victorious hobbits get rid of Saruman’s utilitarian, modern buildings, and the children entering Narnia are thankful to shed their ugly clothes for beautiful ones, in Rowling’s world, train stations are enchanted, modern canvas tents are larger on the inside than on the outside, and old newspapers and rubber tires are given the ability to magically transport groups of people from one place to another.

There are two schools of romance. One, which can be traced back in a straight line to the Romans (hence, we suppose, the word romance), is the refined, discontented school: its members are always impatient with their actual surroundings and yearning for goodness that can only be found somewhere “far, far away,” whether in a pastoral idyll or a mythical past. A representative work from this group is Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet tells his child that

                                          I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

The other school sees lovely things everywhere, and hears the eternal language of God even in a cloistered city. Its doctrine is encapsulated in Chesterton’s poem about a mailbox:

“In mine own city” thus he said—
“There stands a little man in red
Who in the steep street standeth still
And morn and even eats his fill
Of tales untold, wild truths and lies
Small wars and secret chivalries
You may walk round him as may be
He guards his secrets soldierly—
A quaint red tower not three feet wide
And thousands of mens’ souls inside.”

Lewis and Tolkien mainly belong to the first school (although they both incorporate some elements of the second school into their stories); Rowling belongs solidly to the second school.  While the history and origins of the everyday sort of romantic poetry are not as obvious as those of the classical kind, one earlier author who stands out for seeing magic in the mundane is Charles Dickens.

While Dickens is most regarded for his deeply humorous characters and biting social commentary (both of which qualities can be found in Rowling’s books as well), it is less often remarked that he is a pioneering writer of fantasy fiction as well. Several of Dickens’ works contain magical elements, and it is to these, and not to any twentieth century book, that Rowling owes her greatest debt. The device of Dumbledore’s “Pensieve,” which carries its user back into memories in which he can observe without being observed, is a pretty obvious homage to A Christmas Carol. The general kind of magic that can be found in Harry Potter — the all-embracing, humorous kind — is similar to the magic in some of  the random anecdotes found scattered throughout The Pickwick Papers. We hear in the cheeky banter of Hogwarts students with the school’s resident ghosts echoes of the young lawyer in Pickwick cleverly advising the tortured ghost-of-a-lawyer he encounters to leave his stuffy rooms in London and seek out fresher climes. Rowling’s image of an overstuffed couch that is revealed to be, in fact, a cowardly, obese man, is reminiscent of a chair in Pickwick with an old man’s features which coarsely boasts about all of the women who have “sat on its lap for hours together.”

Although we are certainly very lucky that Rowling picked up where Dickens left off, we suspect that even if Dickens hadn’t left any explicitly magical thread at all, it is possible that Rowling could still have been inspired by him (and similar authors) to create the wizarding universe. When Harry Potter first rides the Hogwarts Express, he discovers that wizard candy is more interesting than Muggle candy: Bertie Bott really does include all flavors in his jelly beans, including pepper, ear wax, and grass. There is nothing specifically “magical” about this; it is just amusing and different. Chesterton defines humor as “a rather deep and delicate appreciation of the absurdities of others.” It is in Pickwick, which is the work of Dickens at his funniest and most incorrigible, that Dickens’ enthusiasm boils over: he cannot confine himself to appreciating the absurdities of other people, but must also explore the eccentricities and exaggerations of inanimate objects and imaginary beings. Given the long and rich tradition of English comedy — and the benefit of hindsight — we may even feel that the creation of a world in which everything is perceived through humor’s exuberant lens and in which many objects undergo a supernatural transformation (or transfiguration), was inevitable.

Rowling shares a few other stylistic similarities with Dickens, the most notable of which is a penchant for gloriously improbable plots (although hers are much more tightly constructed than his). Something else the two authors have in common is that the books of both have been received with wild popularity. Of course, it would not have been possible for them to be so popular if they weren’t good. We all know, however, that there are many excellent, literary books that will never be so widely read. What makes our two authors popular is the fact that, morally outraged and satirical as they may occasionally be, they are, essentially, unabashedly joyful. And it is this very joy which enables them to see everything transformed by a magical light. If the somber moods of Lewis and Tolkien can be traced back to Virgil (as well as, in Tolkien’s case, Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets), who was a typically pensive pagan, the joyous moods of Dickens and Rowling may be traced to Isaiah, who proclaimed that “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

The Forgotten Poetry of Streetlamps

The sense that everything is poetical is a thing solid and absolute; it is not a mere matter of phraseology or persuasion. It is not merely true, it is ascertainable. — Chesterton

The Lamplighter

Robert Louis Stevenson

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

The Lamplighter

Walter De la Mare
When the light of day declineth,
     And a swift angel through the sky
Kindleth God’s tapers clear,
With ashen staff the lamplighter
Passeth along the darkling streets
To light our earthly lamps;
Lest, prowling in the darkness,
The thief should haunt with quiet tread,
Or men on evil errands set;
Or wayfarers be benighted;
Or neighbours bent from house to house
Should need a guiding torch.He is like a needlewoman
Who deftly on a sable hem
Stitches in gleaming jewels;
Or, haply, he is like a hero,
Whose bright deeds on the long journey
Are beacons on our way.

And when in the East cometh morning,
And the broad splendour of the sun,
Then, with the tune of little birds
Ringing on high, the lamplighter
Passeth by each quiet house,
And putteth out the lamps.

The Lamplighter

As Told by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch (from chabad.org)

In 1907, Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch was staying in Würzburg, Germany, and a group of chassidim came to spend a Shabbat with the rebbe. Among them were Reb Yosef Yuzik Horowitz, his son-in-law Reb Feivel Zalmanov, and Reb Elimelech Stoptzer.

The rebbe prayed for many hours that Shabbat morning, as was his manner. In the meantime, the chassidim recited kiddush and consumed a quantity ofl’chaims. Later, when the rebbe had finished and they sat with him to the Shabbat meal, Reb Yosef Yuzik asked:

“Rebbe, what is a chassid?”

Replied the rebbe: “A chassid is a lamplighter. The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. He knows that the flame is not his. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.”

Asked Reb Yosef Yuzik: “What if the lamp is in a desert?”

“Then one must go and light it,” said the rebbe. “And when one lights a lamp in a desert, the desolation of the desert becomes visible. The barren wilderness will then be ashamed before the burning lamp.”

Continued the chassid: “What if the lamp is at sea?”

“Then one must undress, dive into the sea, and go light the lamp.”

“And this is a chassid?” Reb Yosef Yuzik asked.

For a long while the rebbe thought. Then he said: “Yes, this is a chassid.”

“But Rebbe, I do not see the lamps!”

Answered the rebbe: “That is because you are not a lamplighter.”

“How does one become a lamplighter?”

“First, you must reject the evil within yourself. Start with yourself: cleanse yourself, refine yourself, and you will see the lamp within your fellow. When a person is himself coarse, G-d forbid, he sees coarseness; when a person is himself refined, he sees the refinement in others.”

Reb Yosef Yuzik then asked: “Is one to grab the other by the throat?”

Replied the rebbe: “By the throat, no; by the lapels, yes.”

The Feminine Logic of Libertarianism

Rand Paul’s approval ratings among Republican women lag far behind his approval ratings among Republican men. An explanation for this phenonomeon is offered by Katherine Mangu-Ward and quoted in Jeet Heer’s The New Republic article on this topic: Libertarianism,” she says, “has historically been a fringe movement. And fringes tend to be populated by men. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, if you investigate the long tails of any bell curve you’re going to discover a sausage fest, and libertarianism is no exception.” Although this theory resonates strongly with me, I disagree with Mangu-Wards’s characterization of Libertarianism as something that has “historically been a fringe movement.” Libertarianism is now a fringe movement and was a fringe movement for the better part of the twentieth century, and that is enough to explain why there are not many female libertarians today. But Libertarianism has not always been on the fringes. Classical Liberalism, the political philosophy from which Libertarianism derives, was actually quite popular in both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, in an essay about Suffragettes entitled ‘The Modern Surrender of Woman,” G.K. Chesterton argues that a radical form of Libertarianism has actually been the preferred political doctrine of approximately half of the population in almost every historical era:

By the beginning of the twentieth century, within the last few years, the woman has in public surrendered to the man. She has seriously and officially owned that the man has been right all along; that the public house (or Parliament) is really more important than the private house; that politics are not (as woman had always maintained) an excuse for pots of beer, but are a sacred solemnity to which new female worshipers may kneel; that the talkative patriots in the tavern are not only admirable but enviable; that talk is not a waste of time, and therefore (as a consequence, surely) that taverns are not a waste of money.

This is an interesting and timely idea for us. Perhaps, if Rand Paul can convince women that, far from being a fruitless and fantastical habit for male nerds, Libertarianism – the political doctrine which states that the government should be as unobtrusive as possible – is an essentially feminine idea, he would gain more female supporters.

We can test Chesterton’s theory about the political inclinations of women by contrasting the political views of male and female writers from a time when Liberalism was popular. In the nineteenth century, before there was much talk about extending suffrage to members of the gentler sex, not a few women took a share in the political discourse of the day by writing political novels and poems. These literary ladies can generally be relied upon to protest against intrusive and inefficient central planning, to maintain that the government cannot be relied upon to solve problems, to rail against the inhumanity of collectivist force, and even to propose private sector solutions to large-scale dilemmas.

While most nineteenth century male writers do not promote Socialist, big government policies any more than their female counterparts do, they are much less emotionally incensed by injustices perpetrated by the government than the women writers are. Something else that sets the men apart is that, regardless of whether they are Conservative or Liberal, they tend to revere and honor the idea of government and the calling of the men who work for it (Dickens is a notable exception to both of these rules). Lord Macaulay, a Victorian historian who was also a politician himself, regulary heaps scorn upon men in his histories who –he thinks – should have become involved in the political struggles of their day, but instead chose to live at home and lead “Epicurean” lifestyles. Thackeray wrote a thrilling historical political novel – Henry Esmond – which is inspired by Macaulay’s account of the Stuarts’ struggle to maintain power. Any political thriller grants implicit significance to the question of “who will be in power?” Although the novels of Anthony Tollope gently satirize politicians and the political system, there is in all of them, and especially in the Palliser novels, an underlying reverence and love for the business of politicans. Trollope states in his Autobiography that

I have always thought that to sit in the British Parliament should be the highest object of ambition to every educated Englishman….that to serve one’s country without pay is the grandest work that a man can do,—that of all studies the study of politics is the one in which a man may make himself most useful to his fellow-creatures,—and that of all lives, public political lives are capable of the highest efforts.

This statement typifies what Chesterton characterizes as the masculine attitude towards politics. A brief survey of the political writings of four nineteenth century women will reveal a feminine scorn directed towards those who seek power which surpasses the scorn of Macaulay for those who do not. Nineteenth century women are not certain, as the Classical Liberals Macaulay, Thackeray, and Trollope are, that it is our politicians who “are capable of the highest efforts.”

The novels of Jane Austen are not, of course, explicity political. Chesterton, in his essay, ‘The Evolution of Emma,’ was the first critic to recognize the deep political ramifications of Jane Austen’s fifth novel. It is the story of an energetic and domineering young lady whose attempts to make her lower-class friends happier by arranging their lives for them end up causing misery. Jane Austen’s satire of the hubris of a certain kind of upper-class busybody foreshadows the dismay of contemporary libertarians when a nanny state punishes its least fortunate citizens with measures that are intended to help them. The modern government behaves like Emma when it sickens the children of the poor with its nutritional guidelines, prevents their mothers from working with its minimum wage, and puts their fathers in jail with its wars on drugs -– all with the most charitable of intentions.

Elizabeth Gaskell was a minister’s wife who lived in the manufacturing town of Manchester and who, unlike Jane Austen, was on familiar terms with many of her poorer neighbors, and wrote novels in which working class people and their problems are central. In Mrs. Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, a Manchester workers’ union sends a delegation to Parliament, hoping to convince the lawmakers there to prevail upon the factory owners to cede to the union’s requests. The spirits of the delegates are shattered when they discover that the men who are supposed to govern their country have no interest in even hearing them speak of their problems. When asked about his experience at the Parliament house, one of the delegates says

If yo please, neighbour, I’d rather say nought about that. It’s not to be forgotten or forgiven either by me or many another; but I canna tell of our down-casting just as a piece of London news. As long as I live, our rejection that day will bide in my heart; and as long as I live I shall curse them as so cruelly refused to hear us; but I’ll not speak of it no more.

Although her sympathy for the poverty and difficulties of members of the labor unions is real, Mrs. Gaskell also sympathizes strongly with the dilemma of the factory owners: throughout her novels, she demonstrates a keen understanding of economics and the market forces which may constrain “the masters” to offer their hands low wages. Mr. Thornton, the factory owner who is the hero of North and South says, “We will hardly submit to the decision of an umpire, much less to the interference of a meddler with only a smattering of the knowledge of the real facts of the case, even though that meddler be called the High Court of Parliament.”

Mrs. Gaskell’s strongest charitable feelings, however, are reserved for the “knobsticks” or would-be knobsticks – those factory hands who work while the union is striking. One of the most dramatic scenes in North and South occurs against the backdrop of an angry mob physically threatening the Irish knobsticks who have been brought in to replace the usual factory workers because of a strike. Later in the book, one of the strikers, whose wife is ill and who has many hungry children pleading for food, kills himself out of despair. He was forced to strike by the union and is not able to deal with the consequent privations and stress. Despising the national government and detesting the coercive union, Mrs. Gaskell proposes a cooperative, free market solution to the conflict between masters and hands: Mr. Thornton anticipates Silicon Valley by over a century when he offers the benefit of free communal lunches to the workers in his factory. Unlike Silicon Valley CEOs, who are fiercely competing with each other for highly skilled workers, Mr. Thornton implements this measure because it is a cost-effective way of ensuring that his employees and their families will not be in danger of starving or of striking.

In Felix Holt, the Radical, George Eliot is witheringly skeptical of the inherent value of male political posturing. Felix Holt, an educated middle-class young man who gives up his patrimony and devotes his life to teaching the children of the poor, is contrasted with the comfortable and callous upper-class Harold Transome, who wants to become a Radical member of Parliament, but never does or says anything particularly radical. The point of the novel is given away by its title: it is conscientious private citizens, and not ambitious politicians, who accomplish real change in society. Another George Eliot novel with a similar message is Middlemarch, which features a brilliant and intense young woman whose dreams of implementing Christian Socialist policies for the poor in her rural area are frustrated. In the beginning and middle of the novel she is constatly chafing at the fact that, as a woman, she cannot find an outlet for her rather masculine ambitions and talents (she is also interested in scholarship). By the very end of the novel she is happily married and has found peace, despite the fact that

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s long narrative poem, Aurora Leigh, is the most ambitious and explicit piece of feminine libertarianism from the nineteenth century. Just before Romney Leigh, a Christian Socialist, proposes to his cousin Aurora, who is an aspiring poet, he semi-playfully rebukes her for her lack of interest in projects to alleviate the suffering of the multitude. He maintains that women think only of individuals and never of the big picture, that Aurora fails to sympathize with his Socialist ideals because of her sex, and that a woman, because she cannot think in general terms, can never be a poet.

…does one woman of you all,
(You who weep easily) grow pale to see
This tiger shake his cage?–does one of you
Stand still from dancing, stop from stringing pearls
And pine and die, because of the great sum
Of universal anguish?–Show me a tear
Wet as Cordelia’s, in eyes bright as yours,
Because the world is mad? You cannot count,
That you should weep for this account, not you!
You weep for what you know. A red-haired child
Sick in a fever, if you touch him once,
Though but so little as with a finger-tip,
Will set you weeping! but a million sick…
You could as soon weep for the rule of three,
Or compound fractions. Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you.

Aurora rejects Romney’s proposal that they should get married and work together to make a Socialist utopia, because her individualist, artistic aims and aspirations differ so much from his general, material ones, – and because she despises his aims:

I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet’s individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul,
To move a body: it takes a high-souled man,
To move the masses . . even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair’s breadth off
The dust of the actual.–ah, your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within.

Aurora’s cousin, motivated by altruistic guilt and despair, becomes engaged to marry a working class woman he does not love; his plan backfires when a jealous female friend has his intended bride kidnapped and sold into prostitution. He transforms his stately home into a charity commune, but this project also goes awry; some of the communards set fire to it (Romney Leigh can be thought of as a humorless version of Emma Woodhouse, — on steroids). He is blinded by the blaze. This blindness is, of course, symbolic of the spiritual blindness that has been plaguing him all along. When Aurora tells him that she loves him and regrets her rejection of him in the last book of the poem, he tells her that he repents of his old philosophy and agrees with hers.

‘Fewer programmes; we who have no prescience.
Fewer systems; we who are held and do not hold.
Less mapping out of masses, to be saved,
By nations or by sexes. Fourier’s void,
And Comte is dwarfed,–and Cabet, puerile.
Subsists no law of life outside of life;
No perfect manners, without Christian souls.

Many books have been written about the eternal struggle between the ideals of men and the ambitions of women (for examples, Virgil’s Aeneid and Tennyson’s The Princess). Aurora Leigh is wonderful and unique because it is the first book (that I am aware of) in which the feminine ends up totally vanquishing the masculine. It is a story of generality and power bowing to individualism and influence.

In the twenty-first century, the majority of educated women are, for better or for worse, wedded to the essentially masculine idea that government matters. In a time when the State has achieved Orwellian levels of intrusion into citizens’ private lives, this shift in feminine attitudes is no longer to be wondered at or thought of as some kind of pitiable surrender. The power of a State which drops bombs on children, which incarcerates more than one sixth of its black male population, which complicates healthcare with bureaucracy and inefficiency, which sprays toxic pesticides on public land, and which ushers younger and younger children into crowded, centrally controlled preschools, reaches into the traditionally feminine province of the home. Once women do take an interest in politics, they are most genuine and, therefore, most impactful when they hew to the power-averse values of their great-grandmothers. It is no accident that the most brilliant and powerful female politician of all time and that the most dynamic and effective crusader against the intrusive, big-government policies of the twentieth century were one and the same person: Margaret Thatcher. Rand Paul will be able to win the female vote when he convinces women that his message is not inherently masculine, strange or nerdy (although it has unquestionably been adopted by many masculine, strange, and nerdy people). The political ideals he is advocating are as ancient, as familiar, and as common as the idea of the inviolate home itself. And they are, like that idea, very feminine.

Failure of the Feminine in the Aeneid

Man is associated with a driving, pushing force, seeking after honor and glory. Woman is associated with the preservation of the status quo. Men value honor in battle above life. Women value home, marriage, and children. Because for the man what is important is his immortal soul, he promotes death. Women, who are the guardians of the body, champion life. In the Aeneid there is a cosmic war between these two forces – the masculine and the feminine, the spiritual and the physical. The champion of the masculine is Aeneas, the protagonist of the poem. He is constantly faced by various feminine obstacles, many of which are planted in his path by none other than Juno, the goddess of marriage, the hearth, and childbirth. In the first scene of the poem, Juno is mobilizing all of the force she can to stop Aeneas from reaching his goal. She, the most feminine deity, is Aeneas’ greatest enemy. She constantly causes delays and troubles to Aeneas, but, ultimately, all of her efforts are in vain. Opposed to Juno is her husband Jove, who wishes for his grandson Aeneas to win power and glory in Italy, and supports and encourages him on his journey. In the end of the poem Juno capitulates to Jove, and Aeneas triumphs over her champion, Turnus, in combat. The Aeneid teaches that the physical feminine force will always be subject to the spiritual masculine force. Although it may momentarily gain the upper hand, it will never gain a real victory, because it is inherently weaker. The Aeneid is essentially a song celebrating the victory of the masculine over the feminine, of reason over passion, of the spiritual over the physical.

The poem begins with Aeneas meeting Dido after his shipwreck. Of course, this eventually leads to their romantic involvement. The way that Rumor describes their situation is striking; “in lust, forgetful of their kingdom, they take long pleasure (IV, 255-256).” Their relationship is clearly perceived as unbecoming for a king and a queen. Jove is opposed to the continuation of this romantic involvement because “His lovely mother did not promise such/ a son to us; she did not save him twice/from Grecian arms for this – but to be master of Italy, a land that teems with empire/and seethes with war (IV, 303-307).” It is obvious to Jove that when the values of love and glory come into conflict, the masculine value of glory is to be preferred. While love may be a nice thing, when bought at the expense of glory it is ignoble and disgraceful. Since the Fates have determined that Aeneas is to gain glory in Italy, it is his duty to conquer his passion for Dido and to leave. When Mercury rebukes Aeneas and urges him to leave Carthage and travel on to Italy, he uses even stronger and more explicit language than Jove; “Are you now…servant to a woman…? Are you forgetful of what is your own kingdom, your own fate (IV, 353-357)?” Aeneas heeds their rebukes without delay, and his men “all are glad (IV, 394)” when he gives them orders to make the ships ready for further sailing. They, like Rumor, Jove, and Mercury, had also perceived the behavior of their leader as unbecoming. Aeneas’ forgetfulness of his destiny and his submission to love are inglorious and effeminate. However, he rectifies his shortcomings very quickly when he is made aware of them.

Dido’s reaction to Aeneas’ declaration that he is going to leave is emotional, hysterical, and supremely irrational. She is “a woman driven wild (V, 8).” She upbraids Aeneas for his reticence and lack of emotion – “For did Aeneas groan while I was weeping (IV, 535)?” She then curses Aeneas and threatens revenge, saying “I shall hunt you down with blackened firebrands (IV, 528).” Finally, she commits suicide. She values only family life, claiming to Aeneas that “Had I at least before you left conceived…if there were but a tiny Aeneas playing by me in the hall…then indeed I should not seem so totally abandoned, beaten (IV, 440-445).” To the feminine Dido, being a glorious queen is no consolation to compensate for her frustrated desire for a husband and children. It is Juno, the goddess of mothers and wives and Aeneas’ enemy, who has pity on Dido and eases her death. Aeneas’ calmness and determination in the face of Dido’s love and hysteria can almost be seen as the passing of a test. He proves that his piety and values are real, and cannot be compromised by feminine tricks. Additionally, Aeneas’ voyage from Carthage can be seen as a declaration of identity. He declares by leaving Dido that he values piety and honor above love.

The next feminine event in the Aeneid occurs in book V. While the men are involved in the funeral games for Anchises, the women are by the ships, wishing that they could settle down in Sicily. “They pray to have a city;/they are tired of their trials at sea (V, 812-813).” As women, they are not excited by the prospect of war and glory in Italy. They would rather assimilate into the kingdom of Acestes and build peaceful homes. Juno takes this opportunity to set an obstacle in Aeneas’ way, and sends Iris in disguise to convince the Trojan women to burn the Trojan ships (which is actually something that, in book IV, Mercury warns Aeneas that Dido is planning to do). Iris urges “we chase fleeing Italy…shall never see the Samois and Xanthus, Hector’s rivers? No! Come now and burn these damned ships with me!…Look here for Troy; here is your home (V, 829-842)!” The reasoning that Iris offers is that since the women cannot have their Trojan homes, any hospitable land to which they come is equally good. Iris ignores the idea which Aeneas explains to Dido; “If fate had granted me to guide my life by my own auspices then I should cherish first the town of Troy…but now Grynean Apollo’s oracles would have me seize great Italy…it is right that we…seek out a foreign kingdom (IV, 463-476).” His masculine ideals of power and honor will not allow Aeneas to settle anywhere other than Italy. According to some, the lines in which the matrons pause between the ideals of adventure and glory for their countrymen that are opposed to their ideals of home and comfort are the most poignant in the poem: “Torn between the present land and those that call by fates’ command (translation taken from Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, corresponding to V, 864-5).” The matrons give in to their feminine sides and set fire to the Trojan ships.

Aeneas is more affected by the burning of the ships than by all of Dido’s crying and pleading. Even after Jove has performed a miracle and all but four of the ships have been saved by rain, he sits by the ships and actually considers “whether to settle in the fields of Sicily,/forgetful of the fates, or else to try/ for the Italian coast (V, 925-8).” Perhaps Aeneas’ uncharacteristic despondence and lack of piety result from a feeling of betrayal. Even his own fellow Trojans are unwilling to continue! However, this despondence is only temporary. Anchises appears to him in a vision and encourages him to continue. Armed with new strength, Aeneas continues his journey to Italy.

Once the Trojans do arrive in Italy, the Italian women, animated by another messenger of Juno, Allecto, behave in a manner similar to that of the Trojan women animated by Iris. The Italian queen, Amata, is “kindled by a woman’s anxieties and anger (VII, 445-6)” regarding the prospect of her daughter being given in marriage to a foreigner – Aeneas – instead of Turnus, her Italian betrothed. Amata entertains the feminine values of stability and familiarity, and is annoyed by the fact that her husband is going to upset the status quo. She is also worried that Aeneas is not trustworthy and will take Lavinia away from her. Allecto is apparently more powerful than Iris. The Trojan women hesitate before setting fire to the ships, and are then instantly ashamed of their deed. The Italian women are totally carried away by the madness inspired by Allecto.

The wretched queen rages through the city…all of the matrons feel the same zeal, kindled by Furies in their breasts, to seek new homes…Amata lifts a blazing firebrand…her cry is savage, sudden: “O Latin mothers, listen now, wherever you are: if any love still lives within your pious hearts for sad Amata, if care for a mother’s rights still gnaws at you, then loose the headbands on your hair, take to these orgies with me.”

This is explicit rebellion of women against men. Fired by Juno, they protest against their husbands’ domination and ignoring of the feminine values, and then run off into the woods to celebrate the traditionally all-female Bacchanalian rites. They do not want progress, danger, honor, and change. They want their home to remain as it was. It is Aeneas who is threatening them, and they oppose him with all of their might.

The account of Camilla in Book XI is almost a story within a story. It is significant that the famous female warrior in this battle is fighting for the general feminine cause – for the preservation of the status quo. She is fighting on the side of Turnus, Lavinia’s Italian betrothed. Fierce and deadly, Camilla has been trained in the arts of war by her father from a young age. In the descriptions of her battle scenes, she seems just like a man. But she is only like a man. Her underlying womanhood is her undoing. Arruns, who is trying to kill her, cannot find an opening until she charges towards Chloreus. She picks out Chloreus because of his elaborate dress combined with her “female’s love of plunder and of spoils (XI, 1038-40)” – that is, with her female love of the material. This female inclination is a weakness, and it betrays her to Arruns’ shaft. So, although in some ways Camilla’s exploits form a story within a story, in other ways they serve to encapsulate the entire theme of the Aeneid into a smaller space. The feminine threat, although it may be menacing for a while, will inevitably disappear, because it is inherently weaker. It will bring about its own destruction.

All of this action occurs against the backdrop of Juno, the goddess of womanhood, desperately trying to stop Aeneas from succeeding. The poem begins with her complaint, “Am I, defeated, simply to stop trying, unable to turn back the Trojan king from Italy. No doubt, the Fates won’t have it…For after this, will anyone adore the majesty of Juno or, before her altar, pray to her (I, 55-74)?” Juno really knows that her efforts will be in vain, but she cannot prevent herself from trying to stop Aeneas. It is she who gives the signal for Aeneas and Dido to meet in a cave during a thunderstorm, she who incites both the Dardan and the Latin women. The goddess of womanhood, she takes advantage of women’s natural inclinations and emotions to further her greater plan of stopping the Trojans from settling from Troy. She tries to appear to be strong, but she knows that she is really weaker. When she sees that Turnus is about to die, she asks Jove to allow her to intervene. He allows only “respite from impending death for the doomed youth (X, 855).” She takes even that, continuing to hope against hope that he – the masculine god -will change his mind, and that she, his wife, will be able to save face. Finally grown impatient, Jove demands of his wife, “What is your plan? What is the hope that keeps you lingering in these chill clouds (XII, 1055-57)?” She, the weaker, finally realizes that she must succumb. There must be honor and glory for the Trojans. Still wanting to save face, she requests that Jove will at least destroy the name of the Trojans, if not their race. Like a parent smiling on an inconsequential child, Jove smiles and yields to her request. Weak, defeated, but not honest enough to admit that she is defeated, Juno agrees and “with gladness…quit(s) the skies, her cloud (XII, 1118-19).” Jove and his champion Aeneas have won. Masculinity has triumphed over femininity.

Mrs. Gaskell

The Victorian writer Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell wrote six full-length novels. Of these, three — Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters — have plots that are borrowed from other ninenteenth century novelists. It is interesting to consider that Mrs. Gaskell was one of the latest of the literary artists who thought nothing of casually lifting plots from the works of others. Nowadays, of course, this antiquated custom is tabboo, and the moderns insist that while, in the newest of new genres, characters may be borrowed from the classics, stories are the unique properties of their creators.

Whatever method of borrowing we may ultimately decide to prefer, Mrs. Gaskell accomplished her best work when she used the old-fashioned one. Not only does the design — plot, in this case, would be too strong of a word — for Cranford comes from Dickens’ Pickwick; the former novel is an homage to the latter. Just as The Pickwick Papers  chronicles the adventures of a group of wandering bachelors, Cranford records the doings of a town full of widows and spinsters (who, of course, since they have no gentlemen to accompany them, tend not to travel). Neither book tells a story; both consist of a series of loosely connected humorous episodes. Mrs. Gaskell intentionally draws our attention to her muse by placing a volume of Pickwick in the hands of one of the few daring gentlemen who venture into the town of Cranford.

Cranford also functions as a mild rebuke to one of The Pickwick Papers‘ many subplots, in which Dickens mercilessly indulges in the sport of old maid mocking, with a caricature of a foolish, shrewish, and selfish single older woman, and scathing  aspersions on the modesty of her kind. Mrs. Gaskell’s book-length response is a beautiful vindication of the dignity of elderly virginal women. Her humorous female characters are not, of course, without foibles, but by the end of the book we acknowledge that just as Pickwick is “a great man,” the ladies of Cranford are great women.

The other two of the borrowing books derive their plots from Jane Austen: North and South comes from Pride and Prejudice, while Wives and Daughters, Mrs. Gaskell’s last novel, has much in common with Mansfield park. Unlike Cranford, the later novels do not dialogue with their sources. The similarities between the stories are quiet and unobtrusive: it seems that Jane Austen’s plots were used less to make a point and more because they were convenient. Mrs. Gaskell is often passed over in discussions of nineteenth century women writers: everyone is in a hurry to go from Jane Austen to Charlotte Bronte to George Eliot. Mrs. Gaskell’s borrowing habit might be supposed to justify this haste, — those who have heard of her, without having read her work, are apt to dismiss her as a cheap imitator of Jane Austen. Once we have read the novels of Mrs. Gaskell, however, there is no going back to the comfortable supposition that, since she is now relatively unpopular, she must be unimportant. George Eliot, in an essay entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” names her (together with Charlotte Bronte) as a female novelist who has not only escaped writing silly novels, but has “reached excellence.” Since two of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels bear such a distinct similarity to two of Jane Austen’s, comparing the tones and philosphies of the two authors may lead us to a clearer underestanding of what Mrs. Gaskell’s unique contribution was.

Towards the middle of North and South, an infatuated bachelor called Mr. Thornton proposes to a young woman who dislikes him. Margaret Hale, the Lizzy Bennett of Mrs. Gaskell’s novel, rejects the proposal rather rudely, but as the novel progresses, falls in love with Mr. Thornton, and bitterly regrets her quick rejection. Just at the end of the book, she is able to signal to him that she has changed her mind, and the couple becomes engaged to be married. This outline is, of course, identical to that of Pride and Prejudice. Even the sins of Lizzie Bennett and Margaret Hale are similar: both ladies entertain unfair prejudices against their eventual husbands.

The causes of prejudice for the two heroines, however, are different. Lizzie Bennett dislikes Mr. Darcy partly because she (correctly) thinks that he is proud and rude and partly because she (incorrectly) thinks that he has been unjust in the past. Although her belief in the unsubstantiated slander she has heard against Mr. Darcy is imprudent and uncharitable, she can hardly be blamed by the reader for her rejection of a discourteous suitor. Margaret, on the other hand, has never heard anyone speaking about Mr. Thornton in any tone that fell short of respect, nor has she suffered anything but kindness and thoughtfulness at his hands. The reason for her prejudice against him is simply that he, as a factory owner, is a member of the middle-class, while she has been raised as a member of the upper-middle-class. Towards the beginning of the novel, she explains to her parents that she does not

like shoppy people. I think we are far better off, knowing only cottagers and labourers, and people without pretence… I call mine a very comprehensive taste; I like all people whose occupations have to do with land; I like soldiers and sailors, and the three learned professions, as they call them. I’m sure you don’t want me to admire butchers and bakers, and candlestick-makers.

It is tempting to equate Margaret’s rejection of Mr. Thornton’s proposal with the reluctance of the upper-class Mr. Darcy to ally himself with the upper-middle-class Elizabeth, but the two cases are not really similar. We find that when we compare Mr. Darcy to his friend Mr. Bingley, who is also a member of the upper-class, the former gentleman is revealed to be an unusually proud snob. By contrast, Margaret is merely an unthinking believer in the almost universal social dogma of her time. The romance of Elizabeth and Darcy falls well within the orthodoxy of ninteenth century social mores: the literature of that time-period is positively brimming over with member of the upper-class falling in love with members of the upper-middle-class, people who, like themselves, would be considered by their “inferiors” to be “ladies and gentlemen.”

Mr. Thornton thinks nothing of the line in the sand between the genteel and the ungenteel, and does not aspire to use his wealth to buy a ticket to acceptance among the higher classes. When Margaret asks him whether he considers another person to be a “gentleman,” the following exchange ensues:

‘I am not quite the person to decide on another’s gentlemanliness, Miss Hale. I mean, I don’t quite understand your application of the word. But I should say that this Morison is no true man.”…

‘I suspect my “gentleman” includes your “true man.”‘

‘And a great deal more, you would imply. I differ from you. A man is to me a higher and a completer being than a gentleman.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Margaret. ‘We must understand the words differently.’

‘I take it that “gentleman” is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others; but when we speak of him as “a man,” we consider him not merely with regard to his fellow-men, but in relation to himself,—to life—to time—to eternity. A cast-away lonely as Robinson Crusoe—a prisoner immured in a dungeon for life—nay, even a saint in Patmos, has his endurance, his strength, his faith, best described by being spoken of as “a man.” I am rather weary of this word “gentlemanly,” which seems to me to be often inappropriately used, and often, too, with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the noun “man,” and the adjective “manly” are unacknowledged—that I am induced to class it with the cant of the day.’

In order to conquer her prejudice and love Mr. Thornton, Margaret does not have to do what Elizabeth Bennet does, and repent of a personal fault — a lack of prudence. She must convert to a different social faith.

Mr. Darcy and Mr. Thornton both must also change in order to win over the women they love. Mr. Darcy’s job is simple: he has to become less proud and snobby. This he does. Mr Thornton’s transformation is more complex. He is a mill owner whose method of dealing wih his employees, though just, is uncompromising and unempathic. One millworker explains that, let

John Thornton get hold on a notion, and he’ll stick to it like a bulldog; yo’ might pull him away wi’ a pitch-fork ere he’d leave go. He’s worth fighting wi’, is John Thornton…Thornton’s as dour as a door-nail; an obstinate chap, every inch on him,—th’ oud bulldog!’

He is fair, but not merciful, to his employess. He also uncharitably thinks that Margaret is immodest when he sees her walking after dark with a strange man, not realizing that the man is her brother. Just as Mr. Thornton teaches Margaret that virtue transcends artifical social classes, Margaret teaches Mr. Thornton about the specific virtue of Charity. He ends up cultivating friendships with his employees and attempting to dialogue with them, instead of just pitting his strength against theirs.

Putting the personal virtues of the heroes and the heroines aside, the most obvious difference between Pride and Prejudice on the one hand and North and South on the other is that, while the former novel takes place in the drawing rooms, ballrooms, and parks of the comfortable classes, the latter novel is set in a factory town, and involves many supporting characters who are members of the working class. One of the main subplots in North and South is about the decision of Margaret’s father, an Anglican clergyman, to renounce his living and choosing to live in poverty, due to theological scruples. Another chronicles the friendship between Margaret and a consumptive factory worker who is eagerly anticipating death and looking forward to Heaven. It is impossible to imagine Jane Austen writing about such people. Her characters may be carried away by Gothic interests and idealized human love, but it would never occur to them either to torture themselves with or to be comforted by Divine love.

The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was, like Mrs. Gaskell, very concerned with social problems and the plight of the poor. She is dismissive of Jane Austen’s goals, but not her of talents, as an artist:

She is perfect in what she attempts…but the excellence lies, I do hold, rather in the excecution than in the aspiration. It is a narrow, earthly and essentially unpoetical view of life: it is only half a true view. Her human creatures never look up; and when they look within it is not deeply…Conventional Life is not the Inward Life…and a writer who is not one-sided must comprehend both in his view of Humanity. Jane Austen is one-sided, and her side is the inferior and darkest side. God, Nature, the Soul, what does she say or suggest of these?

This does seem a bit harsh. Before we start thinking of Jane Austen as an important philosophical predecessor to Oscar Wilde, let us remember what her messages are  (if, indeed, she has any): Darcy’s pride is bad. Elizabeth’s imprudence and vanity are bad. Lydia’s giddiness and unchastity are bad. Mr. Wickham’s lying, cheating, and stealing are bad. These are not, perhaps, the deeply poetical sentiments that Mrs Browning is looking for in a work of art; but they are not, after all, so very far removed from what most people associate with “God, Nature, and the Soul.”

We cannot help but feel, however, that there is some substance to the complaint that Jane Austen’s characters “never look up.” It may be enlightening to categorize writers according to which of the seven “Christian virtues” are important to them. Jane Austen writes about the four “secular,” or common sense, virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. Mrs. Gaskell (like Mrs. Browning) tends to be more interested in the three “theological” virtues, which are not supposed to be knowable or achievable without God’s grace: Hope, Faith, and Charity. In other words, Jane Austen’s outlook is moral in a general sense, while Mrs. Gaskell’s is specifically religious.

The fact that Mrs. Gaskell’s writing is overtly Christian is in itself a sufficient explanation as to why her work is relatively unpopular in our secular age. The credit for the stirring up of what little interest there has been in Mrs. Gaskell in modern times goes, of course, to the feminist theorists and academics who are constantly combing through old and neglected books, looking for female literary stars who have not received their just dues. Much of the feminists’ attention has, understandably, been bestowed upon the last and the best of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels. In Wives and Daughters, Molly, the Fanny Price character, falls in love with Roger, a sweet and steadfast family friend who regards her as a sister. Like Jane Austen’s Edmund, Roger does not notice the regard of our heroine, and falls in love with a shallow but beautiful woman instead. When he finally realizes his error, he asks for Molly’s father’s permission to propose to her. We never do get to read about Roger’s proposal, however, since Mrs. Gaskell died suddenly, and never wrote the last chapter.

Before embarking upon our own analysis of her final work, let us stop a moment to consider the feminist reading of Mrs. Gaskell, as represented by Pam Morris’s introduction to Wives and Daughters. Ms. Morris concedes that Mrs. Gaskell does not protest against the male dominated status quo quite so clearly and passionately as her sister novelists, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, do. However, Ms. Morris, contends, Mrs. Gaskell does observe the male suppression of women, albeit in a quieter and subtler way:

…while the self-denials of…Molly, as advocated in Roger’s moral parable of Harriet, the dutiful daughter, are represented without comment in the text, the cost of such repression is clearly indicated…The story of Molly is set upon [a] trajectory of self-extinction. Molly tells her father after her unhappy visit to the Towers “I felt like a lighted candle when they’re putting the extinguisher on it!”…In a Darwinian world, the imposition of such self-repression upon women fits them only for extinction.

Let us now examine the moral parable to which Ms. Morris refers, and Molly’s consequent self-denial. The context is that Molly has just learned that her widower father is about to remarry, and she is insulted and angry, not least because her father is engaged to a woman whom she does not like. After some preliminary understanding words, Roger comforts Molly in this way:

I want to tell you of a girl I know. Her mother died when she was about sixteen — the eldest of a large family. From that time — all through the bloom of her youth — she gave herself up to her father, first as his comforter, afterwards as his companion, friend, secretary — anything you like. He was a man with a great deal of business on hand, and often came home only to set afresh to preparations for the next day’s work. Harriet was always there, ready to help, to talk, or to be silent. It went on for eight or ten years in this way; and then her father married again,—a woman not many years older than Harriet herself.. Well—they are just the happiest set of people I know—you wouldn’t have thought it likely, would you?…Harriet thought of her father’s happiness before she thought of her own.

The feminist contention, that this parable is intended by the author — a Victorian minister’s wife — to be ironic, is so ludicruous, that we could not have believed it had been made if we had not seen it with our own eyes. The “proof-text,” Molly’s complaint about feeling like a candle that is being put out, is literally a non-sequitur, —  it occurs at the beginning of the novel, and is the expression of a child’s loneliness when she find herself uncared for in a strange house, not an adult woman’s feelings upon suppressing her irrational anger towards her father.

The Harriet parable is actually an informal paraphrase of the commonplace that virtuous behavior, and not the possession of any superficial trait or external object, can be the only true source of happiness. “Virtue is its own reward.”

In the last few chapters of North and South, both Margaret and Mr. Thornton seem to be in a metaphysical prison of sorts. Margaret appears to be cut off from love — both of her parents have died, and she does not believe that she will ever marry, since she does not expect that Mr. Thornton will propose to her again. Mr. Thornton is cut off not only from Margaret, but also from his business, which he has lost because of the vicissitudes in the demand for his products and his stubborn refusal to invest money — that he requires for paying debts — on the unreliable stock market. Both Mr. Thornton — who, incidentally, studied philosophy with Mr. Hale while that gentleman was alive — and Margaret courageously face their fates and resolve to be happy by behaving as well as they can. Margaret devotes herself to helping the London poor, while Mr. Thornton resolves to get a position as a manager in someone else’s factory, and try to work there for the betterment of relations between masters and hands. When they finally do get engaged, they joke about how Mr. Thornton’s mother will respond to the news by saying, “that woman,” and that Margaret’s aunt will respond by saying, “that man.” This is a reference, of course, to their previous conversation about class, but also to the old idea that “man” is an appellation deserved only by philosophers who remember their free and rational nature, and are not subservient to vice.

The main character of Cranford, one Miss Matty, an elderly lady, also suffers from a bad turn of fortune’s wheel. She was convinced by her domineering older sister to reject a good suitor in her youth, and never married. After the death of her sister — who was also her housemate and the manager of her finances — Miss Matty loses the principal source of her income when the bank where it was invested declares bankruptcy. When she hears of this event, her first instinct is that she is responsible for making reparations to the working class holders of bank-notes of the institution in which she was partially a proprietor. She is not of course, completely stoic, — she struggles with feelings of destitution and helplessness — but puts her bravest face on and is willing to do whatever she must to support herself. Instead of railing against fate, she behaves philosophically and well. In the end, her servant, friends, and neighbors all band together to help lighten her load, and she adjusts her manner of living, behaving as well in her adversity as she had when things were easier for her. One of the characters, speaking about Miss Matty, observes, “See…how a good, innocent life makes friends all around.  Confound it!  I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a parson.”

Henry James claims that Mrs. Gaskell’s writing is “the offspring of her affections, her feelings,” and contain little “intellectual matter.” “We should say,” wrote James, “that in her literary career, she displayed, considering her success, a minimum of head.” We should say, rather, that the novels of Mrs. Gaskell are, if anything, a bit top-heavy and didactic. Two of her three novels not mentioned here are concerned, like North and South, with social problems of the Victorian age, and in both of them Mrs Gaskell makes forceful arguments insisting upon the need for charity and understanding towards the destitutes and outcasts of her society. What clouded James’s judgment? One factor is Mrs. Gaskell’s skill as a literary artist, which makes the reader feel pure pleasure in her narrative, and discourages him from stopping to think whether she has a “message.” James himself also writes  that

…in Wives and Daughters the late Mrs. Gaskell has added to the number of those works of fiction — of which we can not perhaps count more than a score as having having been produced in our time — which will outlast the duration of their novelty and continue for years to come to be read and relished for a higher order of merits…So delicately, so elaborately, so artistically, so truthfully, and heartily is the story wrought out.

The greater obstacle which prevented James from seeing Mrs. Gaskell for what she was, is that the kind of thinker she was was not the kind of thinker he was looking for. The sort of person who would be able to earn the respect of Henry James would have to be an original: someone who would blow a horn and declare a new era. Mrs. Gaskell, although she was a capable woman who felt confident in her own abilities, was not particularly interested in the typical Feminist cant of self-assertion. She was even less moved by Progressivism, Utilitarianism, Socialism, Aestheticism, or any the other isms of the Victorians, so many of which are still with us. She lived too early to be ones of those conservative reactionaries who are so notable for their insistence on ideas which they feel are being unjustly disregarded; she was not, like Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, a warrior taking up arms to defend a dying civilization. Because Mrs. Gaskell did not set up to prophesy in favor of any brand-new ideas, or even to defiantly assert the legitimacy of old ones, James concluded that her books were barren of thought. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as Mrs. Gaskell was the last of the casual literary borrowers, she was also the last of the unself-conscious philosophical religious believers.

John Donne

John Donne, relatively neglected for centuries, regained some measure of popularity in the early twentieth century, which he has not now lost. Much of the twentieth century criticism written about him is focused on his “metaphysical” style:  critics generally just throw out the observation that he has both “love poems” and “religious poems” before moving on to discuss the origins, merits, and flaws of his form.

The substance of his work is, in its own way, quite as shocking and novel as his style. At least, some of his comtemporaries thought so. Henry Vaughan dismisses the love poems of Donne as “lust in robes of love.” It is hard to imagine that any American of my generation has read “The Indifferent,” a lamentation on the inconstancy of woman, in which the poet draws attention to his ability to enjoy and appreciate all different kinds of women, without being forcibly reminded of a certain not particularly sentimental popular song entitled “Mumbo Number 5.” Donne’s most famous poem, “The Flea,” is of course, a plea to a woman to “yield to him,” using a cleverly absurd a fortiori argument. Nowhere in the poem does he describe any emotions other than desire and frustration.

Actually, it is difficult to find in any of Donne’s amatory poems those sentiments normally associated with “love”: they are curiously bereft of humility, concern for the well-being of the beloved, or admiration, even of a physical kind. He has written no “sonnets to his lady’s eyebrow.” Instead, the poems are expressions of physical desire, exultation in satisfied desire, recriminations for the inconstancy of women, or musings on his own inconstancy.

Donne’s religious poems are even more unique in matter than his love poems. He is neither the first nor the last poet of lust, but the specific kind of religious feeling he expresses is very hard to find in poetic form anywhere else. If the love poems express an appetite that may be felt by a wild animal, the religious poems primarily express anxiety (and conclude with the soothing of that anxiety), feelings that may also be experienced by an animal:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,

Which was my sin, though it was done before?

Wilt though forgive that sin through which I run,

And do run still, though still I do deplore?

When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;

For I have more.

Throughout the religious poems, there is indeed some humility and a bit of admiration, together with much bargaining and pleading, — all of which elements are common enough in the religious experience. But nowhere does Donne round out his religion by doing what is done so beautifully by some of his contemporaries, and more fully echo the genuine love of the songs directed by David towards his Heavenly Beloved. For true love involves not only recognition, but also striving for genuine attachment and connection, in the strain of “my soul thirsts for You,” or “Oh, that my ways were correct, to keep Your laws!” As we may rebrand Donne’s love poems, and call them lust poems instead, it would also be appropriate to rename the poems directed towards God, and call them “superstition poems.” For John Donne suffered from the same unfortunate diagnosis which was given by Chesterton to another man of

artistic temperament: that fear of the mere strength of destiny and of unknown spirits, of their strength as apart from their virtue, which is the only proper siginificance of the word superstition. No man can be superstitious who loves his God, even if the God be Mumbo-Jumbo.

John Donne, unique among poets, moved through life concerned with his own pleasure and pain, loving neither God nor woman. Although he was full of information and employed a clever, “metaphysical” style, his poetry is barren of real ethical or metaphysical thought. No wonder that the moderns find the content of his poetry unremarkable.