Archive for the ‘Jacques Barzun’ Category


How the Romantics Invented Shakespeare 2 – Jacques Barzun

April 12, 2013
The-Taj-Mahal-Agra. Like Shakespeare, a discovery of the Romantics who were infatuated by its sheer exotic appeal. So when we speak of the Romantics' "morbid introspection” or of their "love of the exotic," what we are actually referring to is their desire to know what different individuals and different cultures can tell us about the diversity of mankind. Similarly, one should stop talking about the Romantic “revolt against reason" and say "revolt against abstraction." The reason of the eighteenth century had its merits; it accomplished great things, but it was incomplete and concealed realities under general propositions; it needed the concreteness of experience, history, and psychology.

The-Taj-Mahal-Agra. Like Shakespeare, a discovery of the Romantics who were infatuated by its sheer exotic appeal. So when we speak of the Romantics’ “morbid introspection” or of their “love of the exotic,” what we are actually referring to is their desire to know what different individuals and different cultures can tell us about the diversity of mankind. Similarly, one should stop talking about the Romantic “revolt against reason” and say “revolt against abstraction.” The reason of the eighteenth century had its merits; it accomplished great things, but it was incomplete and concealed realities under general propositions; it needed the concreteness of experience, history, and psychology.

A continuation of our last post Barzun wrote in 1987 this fascinating look at how the reputation of Shakespeare was reconstituted by the Romantics of the 1810-1840s and some of the considerations that went into the new awareness of Shakespeare’s works as it encountered different cultures. It really was a group effort and makes me wonder how Scripture has passed down to us after 2000 years with probably many of the very same processes and influences.


In the Romantic period, a still wider public attended the e great plays, and after a time the name Shakespeare became in the popular mind a synonym for great drama. But it was clear from the box office returns that the public went primarily to see a great actor in a big part John Kemble or Mrs Siddons in Shakespeare, rather than Shakespeare played by Kemble or Siddons.

With readers, as against spectators, Shakespeare’s popularity in the Romantic period was further extended by Thomas Bowdler’s special edition The Family Shakespeare. It took out all the obscene passages and low jokes; it even replaced the word “body” by a suitable substitute such as “figure,” depending on the context.

That this was needed at the very time when Shakespeare came to be considered perfect may seem yet another paradox but an anecdote will make the point. Mrs. Trollope, the mother of the future novelist, came to this country in 1827 to make her fortune by opening a general store in Cincinnati. She failed, but recouped her losses by publishing a lively book called Domestic Manners of the Americans. In it she satirizes the people of Cincinnati, including a gentleman with whom she had an argument about English literature, which he did not appreciate. “And Shakespeare, sir?” asked Mrs. Trollope. “Shakespeare, madam, is obscene, and thank God, we are sufficiently advanced to have found it out!”

Of course, the gentleman was right, and Mrs. Trollope exemplified the indiscriminate fervor for the new poetic star. The dialogue in Cincinnati makes it clear that in the nineteenth century Shakespeare could not be swallowed whole, except by writers and artists of large views. But what were these missing elements newly found in Shakespeare’s works? Variety of scene, violent contrasts, striking events, psychological insight, and character development. Compared with tle Neo-Classical tragedy, which had dominated playwriting for 150 years, Shakespearean drama was chaos.

That is why Voltaire had called Shakespeare “a savage,” a man who wrote “like a drunken brute.” There was no order, symmetry, or conventional restraint in those would-be tragedies and comedies. Only the English mob could stand them. Why, even the two dramatic genres were mixed together: there were jokes to Hamlet and Macbeth, and as mentioned earlier, one English critic found Othello mostly “burlesk.” In short, the stateliness and decorum of tragedy was shattered, while the systematic working out of one great human passion in conflict with another was neglected in favor of a tangle of motley figures, strange events, and disparate purposes. In Shakespeare, restless movement and vulgar emotions distracted the mind from the contemplation of pure feeling and strict form.

It was these very faults, these horrors that were now wanted by people who called themselves artists, who were artists and critics too. What had happened to pervert their taste? Why did Stendhal write two pamphlets contrasting Racine and Shakespeare to the former’s disadvantage? For one thing, boredom with the old tragedy had set in. Every great genre or form wears out, and a new generation comes along that says, like Othello, “no more of that.”

But boredom is negative; it tells us we want something new but not what the novelty shall be. By the time Coleridge lectured in London, all Europe had suffered twenty-five years of almost incessant war and revolution. The eighteenth century seemed terribly far away. Danger, death, destruction had become familiar and seemed permanent. Nothing stayed put for more than a few or months. The minds educated in this school of violence were attuned to a different kind of art from that which had reigned in the days of absolute monarchy and hierarchy. Shakespeare’s “chaos” thus looked like human experience itself.

The notion of experience as a literary element is complex and cannot he made clear because of its very scope: experience covers anything and everything, including error, illusion, and (as shown in Faust) superstition. But one thing about it is clear and that is its progression, its movement. Experience is what takes you from one state of mind or body to another, not predictable by logic.

Consider the feature of Shakespearean drama that is called character development. It is achieved by choosing a set of situations such that the persons in the drama are changed by successive events. We come to know them through and through, because they are not “types” who repeat their response, but individuals whose inner workings are complex, even mysterious, yet plausible and surprising.

The reason they develop is that the play covers a long series of events, it is a history of those people in an extended spectacle. Such a play defies the classical rules of tragedy which called for unity of time, place, and action. It depicted the working out of a problem: Will the hero obey the call of love or of duty? Will the heroine give up her love or her religion?

The conflict does reveal character through behavior in a clear-cut situation, but the change is from doubt to decision on that one point. In Shakespeare — for instance in Hamlet – the changes are from doubt to murder to rejection of love to pangs of conscience about killing, to disgust with one’s mother to swift action at sea to meditation on death to fencing with friends and to death by treachery; all this, followed by posthumous praise from a soldier who has taken no part in the action.

Now, these two linked elements – psychological explanation and narrative history — were Romanticist concerns par excellence. From small beginnings, the taste for history grew apace in the early 1800s. Walter Scott’s novels fed this new interest, which became universal and lasted until the early years of the twentieth century. As for psychology, the Romantics made a specialty of it, precisely because they felt that the Neo-Classic abstraction Man-with-a-capital-M-did not exist.

So when we speak of the Romantics’ “morbid introspection” or of their “love of the exotic,” what we are actually referring to is their desire to know what different individuals and different cultures can tell us about the diversity of mankind. Similarly, one should stop talking about the Romantic “revolt against reason” and say “revolt against abstraction.” The reason of the eighteenth century had its merits; it accomplished great things, but it was incomplete and concealed realities under general propositions; it needed the concreteness of experience, history, and psychology.

In the course of time, the admiration for Shakespeare became conventional rather than the expression of individual judgment. By then, it had created an industry. Innumerable books explained large meanings and difficult passages; there Were “keys” to Shakespeare: editions of the complete works with illustrations, single plays with notes for school use; scholarship upon the early folios and quartos of the plays; attempts at biographies based on the meager evidence; speculation about the woman mentioned in the Sonnets and “Mr. W. H.” who shares the honor with her; comparisons with the other Elizabethan playwrights; finally, rival theories about the true authorship of the plays and the solving of the “ciphers” supposedly hidden in the text.

The latest subject of analysis is the personality of Shakespeare’s typesetters. They have been identified by their errors and whims in composing the quartos and folios. And the computer has been used to count words and phrases, so as to determine how much of Henry VIII Shakespeare wrote and whether Two Noble Kinsmen is by him or someone else. Add to all this the applications of critical methods” — myth, symbol, theme analysis, psychoanalysis, deconstruction — and it is clear that the fuss and fret around Shakespeare is of far greater economic and cultural importance than the works themselves.

The plays are indeed produced, often and in many places; actors still want the big well-known parts. But the productions rarely last long or make money. The several Stratfords all need subsidies, and when the English Shakespeare Theater decided to cobble together a two-day show out of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, it was because they had gone broke playing Shakespeare. When he is put on, his work is cut, rearranged, and these days almost invariably altered in some essentials to make it “attractive.”

For example, in The Winter’s Tale Mamilius is shown frolicking around the stage on a bicycle, which reappears later as “a symbol” by being walked slowly across the stage. In Measure for Measure, Isabella’s great scene with her brother is played virtually as slapstick, because she is proud of her chastity — today a ludicrous idea. Richard III, the King is shown not only as deformed but as creeping on all fours in imitation of various insects — spider, cockroach, and so on. In another production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in an American high school — the main characters are dropouts. As for The Comedy of Errors, it is turned into a circus that shows Shakespeare on stage balancing an electric guitar on his chin while other members of the Karamazov troupe of jugglers and acrobats clown it up.

After such things, one can take Professor A. L. Rowse’ rewriting of the plays in modern English as the completion of the effort by which Shakespeare’s drama and poetry are cured of their many defects. Left as he is, he is too dull for a sophisticated audience.

Thus the “greatest of poets hitherto” stands between two worlds: unlimited praise and fame and study on the one hand, and on the other the works on the stage. The true position of Shakespeare that the Romantics discovered and worshipped is hard to characterize. The regression is striking — at least for the public Shakespeare. To find who really appreciates his plays as written, one must fall back on the small group which read and enjoy him in private — poets, artists, playwrights, or critics, and unassuming lovers of literature. It is a special coterie, as it was in the days of Coleridge, Goethe, Hazlitt, Lamb, Delacroix, and Berlioz. For although the Romantics managed to get their cult of Shakespeare accepted very widely in principle, it was an active faith only for a time. We have Hazlitt’s testimony on this point. Writing in 1829, he says: “With us Shakespeare forms a sect, and if the truth were to be spoken, not a very numerous one.”

Over the years, the best readers have reservations. T. S. Eliot declares Hamlet “an artistic failure.” A. C. Bradley tells us that “something of the confusion which bewilders the reader’s mind in King Lear recurs in Antony and Cleopatra, the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies.” Also about King Lear, Wolcott Gibbs, long the drama critic for The New Yorker, says that the motives of everybody in that play “arouse in me no emotion more exalted than hilarity.” Andre Gide, who was fluent in English, thinks The Tempest strange and unsatisfying, Richard II badly constructed, Henry V mediocre, and King Lear execrable. John Crowe Ransom, the American poet, found Shakespeare’s poetry poorly composed: the “‘Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth is “possibly effective dramatically,” but as poetry it “did not work out.”

Current drama reviewers are even more severe: one says that The Tempest is rarely played because of its inherent difficulty; another thinks that the transformation of The Taming of the Shrew into a good play is a modern miracle; a third, after seeing All’s Well That Ends Well, complains of the “slow exposition, crabby poetry, and infelicities of structure and characterization.” As for Love’s Labour’s Lost, the preciosity is hard to bear and the plot “certainly demands patience.” George Moore objected to Macbeth: “I cannot endure a play with thirty-two curtains.” It was left to Logan Pearsall Smith to draw up a catalogue of faults in the essay “On Not Reading Shakespeare.” To Smith, Shakespeare is “the most inaccurate of all the poets, the most completely devoid of all artistic conscience.”

As is well known, the greatest onslaught on Shakespeare’s reputation was mounted by Tolstoy, himself a playwright and a reader of literature in five languages. It is true that he made his repeated attacks in the name of a theory of art which condemns subtlety and complexity. But part of Shakespeare’s merit has traditionally been that he is a popular author who, given a chance, appeals instantly to everybody as he did in his own day. How far this is from the truth, we have seen in the extravagant efforts to jazz him up and make him likable. One can agree with Tolstoy that Shakespeare is difficult, not simple, without sharing Tolstoy’s desire and purpose to cure the world of its “insane delusion, its collective hallucination” about Shakespeare.

How do we sum up? Where does the Romantics’ Shakespeare stand? The answer depends on temperament, education, and geographical situation. The French and the Italians have relapsed into rather classical attitudes toward Shakespeare, now that the Romanticist fervor is past. The English- speaking and the German publics do not support their conventional attitude with cash at the box office, though actors and stage directors keep soliciting their patronage. The travesties of the plays that producers found necessary would be unthinkable for Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, Chekhov, Pirandello, or, for the rare performances of such classics as Moliere and Congreve.

Meanwhile, the Shakespeare academic industry goes on full tilt and gives no sign of weakening. The final surprise is, the Romantics did not gloss over the objections to Shakespeare’s playwriting and poetry. Lamb developed the thesis that the tragedies should be read and not seen on the stage because Shakespeare addresses not the senses but the imagination. Hazlitt agreed in part and went on to say that “if Shakespeare had been only half what he was, he would perhaps have appeared greater.” Carlyle himself adds to his encomium: “All his works seem, comparatively speaking, cursory, imperfect, written under cramping conditions.”

So the Romantics did not labor under an illusion; but they accepted the faults first for the “elements” they wanted at the time, and later because they saw that in works of art faults change their aspect. What seems a weakness in one cultural setting becomes a strength in another: what is “irrelevant” according to the classical rule becomes “a realistic touch” later and what is unreal now may eventually be called surrealism for instance, the stage direction in The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

These perceptions and nuances within the Romantics’ view of Shakespeare explain for us the last category of judges of his work: those whose conception of the work of art is — Shakespearean. Such was Victor Hugo, who said he “admired like a brute.” Berlioz and Flaubert likewise found Shakespeare “not a man, but a continent.” As Flaubert puts it: “There were great men in him, whole crowds, whole countries. In such men, there is no point in attending to style, they are powerful in spite of all their faults, and because of them.”

At this point, take your choice: the Romantics’ estimate or its contradictory — Flaubert or Tolstoy. What is not allowable for a serious literary mind is to ignore the pros and the cons and remain in the conventional rut, saying out loud: Shakespeare — oh, wonderful, sublime!” and thinking: “what a bore!


How the Romantics Invented Shakespeare 1 – Jacques Barzun

April 11, 2013
Francois Henri Mulard (1769–1850) was a neoclassical French painter of the Romantic period. The Romantic discovery and invention of Shakespeare, the all-wise poet and dramatist, founded in one generation the cult, the hero-worship of the bard of Avon. This is not a figure of speech. In 1840, Thomas Carlyle, writing about the hero as poet, defined Shakespeare's place in contemporary opinion: "the best judgment, not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly pointing to the conclusion that Shakespeare is chief of all poets hitherto."

Francois Henri Mulard (1769–1850) was a neoclassical French painter of the Romantic period. The Romantic discovery and invention of Shakespeare, the all-wise poet and dramatist, founded in one generation the cult, the hero-worship of the bard of Avon. This is not a figure of speech. In 1840, Thomas Carlyle, writing about the hero as poet, defined Shakespeare’s place in contemporary opinion: “the best judgment, not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly pointing to the conclusion that Shakespeare is chief of all poets hitherto.”

Barzun wrote in 1987 this fascinating look at how the reputation of Shakespeare was reconstituted by the Romantics of the 1810-1840s and some of the considerations that went into the new awareness of Shakespeare’s works as it encountered different cultures. It really was a group effort and makes me wonder about all the influences and how Scripture has passed down to us after 2000 years.


People who take an interest in literature and the arts usually develop a neighboring interest in the lives and personal ties of their favorite artists and authors. They read biographies and critical essays, and these lead naturally into the history of styles and movements. Such readers learn about the rise and fall of classicism, romanticism, naturalism, and other isms They enjoy discovering, for example, how Virginia Woolf. used her practiced bow and arrow against the realistic novel and helped to shoot it dead. But these connoisseurs of criticism seldom go on to look into the history of reputations. It of course more difficult to get at, being rarely written up in full. Yet if they did, they would learn things no less surprising and valuable.

The history of Shakespeare’s reputation is a good illustration of this generality. That history is interesting and valuable on two main counts — one, because it concerns Shakespeare, and two, because it tells us a great deal about the Romantic movement. Along the way, this backward look at Shakespeare’s position in successive periods and places shows how literary fame is made, obscured, and sometimes restored.

To understand what the Romantic poets, artists, and critics did for Shakespeare, one must review the earlier estimates about his merit. We may take it for granted that in his lifetime he was a popular author, admired by some of his fellow poets and resented for his success by others. This is normal. But one should recall the remark made by his friend and rival dramatist Ben Jonson, that he wished Shakespeare had “blotted a thousand lines from his plays. This casual comment is central to the story of what follows.

After his death, in 1623, Shakespeare’s works were performed less and less frequently, and the favorable mentions of his name also grew fewer. The reason for this is clear and was made explicit at the time: by the mid-seventeenth century, the of most Elizabethans was considered crude, barbaric, ignorant — with the single exception of Ben Jonson’s output, had been constructed on the so-called classical models and showed classical learning. In a word, Neo-Classicism had set in. A writer of the period sums up the point of view: “Nor was much of Comedy known before the learned Ben Jonson, for no Man can allow any of Shakespeare’s, except The Merry of Windsor.”

When Samuel Pepys went to one of the rare performances Shakespeare, he had no good word for it. Of Romeo and Juliet he says: “a play of itself the worst that I ever heard.” Of Midsummer Night’s Dream: “the most insipid, ridiculous ever saw in my life.” As for Twelfth Night, it was “well acted though it be but a silly play.”

True, during this same second half of the seventeenth century great poets Milton and Dryden professed admiration for Shakespeare’s poetry. Milton speaks of Shakespeare’s “native woodnotes wild”– that is to say, not classically trained; and Dryden expresses similar reservations in the of his praise. As a dramatist, Shakespeare was thought uncouth. In short, he was a good poet here and there but no artist. A critic writing in about 1730 has this to say of Othello: “There is in this play some burlesk, some humour, and amble of comical Wit, some shew and some Mimickry to divert the spectators; but the tragical part is plainly none other than a Bloody Farce without salt or savor.”

So general was this type of opinion that Nahum Tate and a dozen or more Neo-Classical authors of high or low degree took on the task of improving, of rescuing some of Shakespeare’s plays from their clumsiness and imperfection. One James Howard, believing as he did that “there was no popular love for Shakespeare… arranged Romeo and Juliet for the stage with a double denouement — one serious, the other hilarious. If your heart were too sensitive to bear the deaths of the loving pair, you had only to go on the succeeding afternoon see them wedded and set upon the way of a well-assured domestic felicity.”

But again, a true poet of the time, Alexander Pope, was shrewd enough to value the poetry and he produced an edition of Shakespeare that pointed out the “beauties” in it; that is, the passages that stood out from the remainder, felt to be bombast, vulgarity, and unintelligible nonsense. In other words, the Shakespeare of — let us say-1750 is considered a gifted poet who in his own day catered to an audience as lacking as himself in judgment and education.

But in the next generation, the first faint signs appear of a weariness with Neo-Classical standards. A young man — the future Bishop Percy — becomes interested in folk poetry and collects border ballads, which are the poetry of the uneducated. Next, a poet named Macpherson writes a large composition and palms it off as the work of an ancient Irish bard named Ossian.

The point is that poetry from barbarian sources can be great. Accepting these novelties implies a change of taste that softens the objections to Shakespeare. When Dr. Johnson in his turn edits Shakespeare in 1765, he does not stint his praise — though he continues to think that “you cannot find six lines without a fault” and that, as plays, only Shakespeare’s comedies come up to standard. To him, Macbeth seemed a work that was the worse for being acted.

But the slow shift toward a new cultural outlook gathers strength. A new view of wild nature, of human emotion, of genius, of the Middle Ages, of places outside Europe gradually enlarges the horizons of cultivated people. This loosening of the limits of the beautiful and the rules of art is often called pre-Romanticism. And right then comes the first call for a radical reversal of Shakespeare’s position.

A man named Maurice Morgann, not otherwise distinguished, published in 1777 an Essay on the Dramatic Character of Falstaff, in which he sets down his conviction that “Whatever may be the neglect of some or the censure of others, there are those who firmly believe that this wild, this uncultivated Barbarian has not yet ,obtained half of his fame.” And he follows this with a prophecy: “When the name of Voltaire and even the memory of the language in which he has written shall be no more, the .Appalachian Mountains, the banks of the Ohio … shall resound with the name of this Barbarian.”

But it takes more than one critic, no matter how determined and argumentative, to revolutionize opinion and make a great artist or poet out of a figure which for 150 years has been thought demonstrably incomplete and imperfect. After Morgann it took half a century more to achieve this uprooting of old ideas and effecting a reversal of common judgment. Not until the Romantic poets had themselves begun to be accepted were they able to impose their view of Shakespeare — a Shakespeare whom they may be said to have “invented.”

The high point of Romanticism — the period 1800-1840 – was a time of unparalleled creativity, a time marked by the appearance all over Europe of a galaxy of geniuses, a time of cultural revolution if ever there was one. The change in Shakespeare’s status was part of that revolution; his new repute was part of that creativeness. Listen to Coleridge, the creator with Wordsworth of English Romantic poetry — listen to his lecturing various London audiences between 1802 and 1818 and turning upside down the stereotype about Shakespeare: “Let me proceed to destroy … the popular notion that he was dramatist by mere instinct … a delightful monster – wild indeed, and without taste or judgment…. I have said and I say it again, that great as was the genius of Shakespeare his judgment was at least equal to it.”

This bold claim seemed to many a pure paradox, but it soon converted many critical minds; it was in fact a judgment independently arrived at by other writers in England and on the Continent. How did this come about? For one the ground had been laid — as we saw — by a scattering of new interests in the late eighteenth century. And Coleridge himself tells us in another connection how cultural shifts occur. He speaks of “elements that are wanted” at a particular time. These elements are ideas, attitudes, visions, moods, forms, hopes which poets and other writers supply or fail to supply in their works. Wanted elements are sought for in the past or in another country. If they are not found, they are created.

But the yearning for new artistic forms and subjects was not the only force tending to redirect contemporary culture. There was also a political feeling at work. It can be best observed in Germany, where as early as 1768 the great critic and playwright Lessing, who wrote reviews of the current drama in Hamburg, steadily attacked the plays of Voltaire and promoted those of Shakespeare.

As a reader of English literature, knew the plays and began to use them as a battering ram against the long-established authority of the French drama. A pair of German writers translated the complete works and among these avant-garde spirits he became Unser [German for Our] Shakespeare.

Earlier, when Frederick the Great had wanted to urge his people to speak and write in German, he had to write his pamphlet in French to get the attention of the educated classes. The French language, French plays and poems and criticism. French manners, and French ideas had been for a century more the only fashionable ones in Europe, as far as Russia. And at long last, this intellectual slavery was being resented. To overthrow it, another language, another literature was needed. The Germans, led by Lessing, started the revolt in the English literature, with Shakespeare as their champion.

In England, something like the same conditions had existed since the return of Charles II and his court from their exile in France. French models in manners, dress and literature were followed, less slavishly than in Germany, but still without any resistance from national, patriotic feeling. But when Morgann made his plea for Shakespeare, it was against Voltaire and against the French language. The two together must be put down and forgotten.

A significant fact in the English Romantics’ advocacy of Shakespeare, fifty years after Morgann and Lessing, is that for the first time English writers paid serious attention to German literature and philosophy. Coleridge visited Germany; Carlyle translated Goethe, Schiller, and Richter and gave an account of modern German thought.

Much of this new curiosity about a people which had formerly been held culturally negligible was due to a best-seller of the year 1807 called On Germany. It was by a Swiss woman traveler, Mme. de Stael. She had Interviewed the notables of the emerging country, and her book was a resume of the anti-French, anti-classicist point of view. She was not yet a full-fledged Romanticist; that name itself was still a subject of misunderstanding and confusion. But her description of an outlook at odds with the French orthodoxy was so vivid that Napoleon took it as politically harmful, banned the book, and exiled the author.

Politics helps to explain why the Romantic movement proper became established at different times in different countries of Europe, even though the urge toward the wanted elements arose about the same time everywhere. France was the last to give up Neo-Classicism, because it had largely created it and more especially because the Revolution and Napoleon were at war with the nations where Romanticism was bred and developed.

But by the time of Coleridge’s pronouncement about Shakespeare, the Continent as a whole had come to know and admire a particular work by a contemporary German — Goethe’s Faust; and although Faust is not a Shakespearean play, it is in form and philosophy the antithesis of any of Voltaire’s. Faust created enthusiasm by its freedom from rules and its use of the elements that were wanted — variety, contrasts, realism, passion, superstition. Its implied message was congenial too: it was the story of a search; it was man in motion and valuing experience above book knowledge.

It showed that the universe was far bigger than the social world and the social world itself bigger than the court at Versailles or the literary coterie of any town. These propositions might be called the working principles of Romanticism. And their relation to Shakespeare is visible in the small fact that when a series of Shakespeare’s plays was given in Paris in 1827 it was a raging success, whereas five years earlier a similar attempt had been a failure.

I have been using Coleridge’s phrase about elements newly desired to suggest how and why Romanticism came into being. As to the contents of the phrase, the elements themselves, it must be added that most often they are partly discovered in the past — in a writer or a school of writers — and partly created by the eager minds of the discoverers.

It is a group affair in which each participant contributes something to the new view of the past. That is what happened, for instance, in the Renaissance, when all the lively minds found in the remains of ancient Greece and Rome the “elements that were wanted” in the thirteenth century and later. And it happened again in the nineteenth century with Shakespeare at the heart of that particular Renaissance. He was soon flanked by the other Elizabethan dramatists and poets, and by Chaucer and Lang land.

The Romantic discovery and invention of Shakespeare, the all-wise poet and dramatist, founded in one generation the cult, the hero-worship of the bard of Avon. This is not a figure of speech. In 1840, Thomas Carlyle, writing about the hero as poet, defined Shakespeare’s place in contemporary opinion: “the best judgment, not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly pointing to the conclusion that Shakespeare is chief of all poets hitherto.”

This transformation of the crude, classically ignorant, and fault-ridden writer, who could not turn out six good lines in a row and who should have blotted a thousand, into “the chief of poets, a veritable hero and demigod” is one of the most extraordinary spectacles in the history of reputations. But the story is not over at this point, and it continues to be extraordinary.

Carlyle was right in saying that his conclusion held good for the centers of culture throughout Europe. The evidence for it can be found in the writings of critics, the translations of Shakespeare’s plays, their influence on young poets and playwrights and — most convincing — in the flood of paintings and engravings, of songs, symphonies, ballets, and operas based on Shakespeare’s themes and characters. To take just two instances from the nation formerly most Neo-Classical, the French painter Delacroix, on discovering Shakespeare, produced at once a series of lithographs based on Hamlet; and the French composer Berlioz produced throughout his life score after score on Shakespearean motifs, from The Tempest to Romeo and Juliet, and death music for Ophelia and Hamlet.

What strikes one in this great surge of enthusiasm for Shakespeare is that it occurred mainly in the breasts of poets, Lists, painters, and musicians — and I should add actors and actresses. It was already evident in the eighteenth century that the zest for Shakespeare was strong in those who saw in him a vehicle, beginning with David Garrick, who nevertheless felt free to change the ending of Romeo and Juliet.


Dorothy Sayers – Jacques Barzun

August 16, 2012

Dorothy Leigh Sayers, 1928

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey that remain popular to this day. It has been said that with her creation of Lord Peter Wimsey that Dorothy Sayers, in the first half of the 20th century, rightly occupies a place of honor alongside Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as one of the finest detectives in the murder mystery genre, in the traditional British mould. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays.


Dorothy Sayers manifested early a gift and a passion for words. Born in Oxford, she was the only child of a clergyman and musician and of a woman of modest education but energetic, highly intelligent, and proud of an ancestress who was a cousin of Hazlitt’s. Unfortunately for mother and daughter; four years after the child’s birth the family moved to a vicarage in Cambridgeshire, remote but handsomely endowed.

There the wife grew increasingly bored with her husband, and the child was reared with hardly any young friends or other society. Dorothy amused herself by voracious reading, writing stories and poems, imagining what the outer world was like, and pondering the details of the Christian faith, which she read as a story. At the same time, she was a tomboy, full of life like mother and practical in everyday matters. These traits shaped her subsequent career: innocence, energy, a down-to-earth attitude that did not limit imagination, and a peculiarly intimate feeling for what has been called the Christian epic.

She went to Somerville College at Oxford, where she became a fine scholar (read her next-to-last tale, ‘Gaudy Night), and was one of the first batch of women to receive a full Oxford degree instead of a certificate — or rather, two degrees in one ceremony: Bachelor and Master of Arts. So far, her life had been smooth and pleasant; now she must earn a living. She served as secretary to a man who ran a service associated with a school in France. They had a sort of love affair  — in words — that was the first of her misfortunes in that domain. After two more episodes, which left her with an illegitimate son who turned out handsome and intelligent, she found late in life a congenial husband, though his latter days darkened hers by his becoming ill, alcoholic, and of uncharacteristic bad temper.

So much for the unedifying yet anguishing odyssey that Sayers had to endure while developing her literary gifts. A job as copywriter in the largest London advertising agency proved useful (read Murder Must Advertise) and enjoyable too: there was good writing even in ads. In all that she wrote she aimed at the simple and direct.

Like Henry James, who gave a full-blown theory of the novel, Sayers laid down that of the detective tale, using her; scholarship by turns seriously and with humor. Interviewed on the subject, she manifested her forthright ways of speech: “Imbeciles and magazine editors” would ask her to discuss crime fiction “from the woman’s point of view.” To such demands one can only say ‘Go away and don’t be silly.’ You might as well ask what is the female angle on the equilateral triangle.”

On aesthetics at large she wrote an extraordinary little book, The Mind of the Maker. Its thesis is that the ordinary experience of making anything — creating art or applying workmanship to any object — corresponds to the meaning symbolized by the Trinity.

  1. First comes the creative Idea which, foresees the whole work as finished; this is the Father.
  2. Next comes the creative Energy, which engages in a vigorous struggle with matter and overcomes one obstacle after another; this is the Son.
  3. Third is the creative Power of the work, its influence on the world through its effect on the soul of the user-beholder; this is the Holy Spirit.

All three are indispensable to completeness as they unite in the work. The demonstration had a double purpose, critical and religious. While analyzing human creation it showed that God’s work as revealed in Christian theology followed the same pattern and man is indeed made in God’s image.

Before writing this highly original book, Sayers had lectured and written plays on religious themes for festivals held in Canterbury cathedral and other churches. For these she did’ research in medieval history, literature, and language and her activity brought her national attention as an intellectual evangelist. When the BBC commissioned her to present in dramatic form six programs depicting the life, and death of Jesus, she wrote a script that combined simplicity in word and idea with emotion free of sentimentality.

And like naturally religious persons in the Catholic tradition, she enjoyed being humorous about the objects of her faith. In Pantheon Papers for instance: “St. Supercilia’s unworthy father brutally cornmanded her to accept the hand of a man who, though virtuous, sensible, and of good estate, knew only six languages and was, weak in mathematics. At this the outraged saint raised her eyebrows so high that they lifted her off her feet and out through a top-storey window, whence she was seen floating away in a northerly direction.”

Sayers continued without letup what .she considered her missionn to show the role and validity of belief, using reason and example in the manner that makes The Mind of the Maker a work of permanent interest, comparable to C. S. Lewis’s works. But Sayers was not an absolutist. Belief in God she thought indispensable to answering unavoidable cosmic questions and as a fixed point by which to settle earthly ones, but to demand or enforce a particular conception of the Deity would ensure only division and oppression. She was explicitly a pragmatic relativist. More than once, in various contexts, she writes: “The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody.”

The research she had done in the history and literature of the Middle Ages had persuaded her that she could translate Dante. Competent in Greek, Latin, and French, she now learned Italian and rendered Dante in the terza rima verse scheme of the original. Her youthful scribblings had trained her to think metrically and she chose the simplest, briefest language to give due place to Dante’s wit, sarcasm, and humor — little or none of which had appeared in previous efforts; all were solemn in deference to the theme.

She died suddenly at the age of sixty-four before quite finishing. But a friend supplied the lack and the translation appeared in the Penguin Classics, to mixed reviews, some enthusiastic. Much praise came from C. S. Lewis. Her version has two merits: it makes for an easily readable and dramatically effective work, like Samuel Butler’s prose translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey; and her interpretation of Dante is tenable if one remembers that he wrote a pamphleteering poem in which, as a wandering exile, he damned his political and personal enemies, extolled friends, and put forth dogmas by no means all orthodox.

What will remain of her work as a whole is a matter for conjecture. The attitudes and prose style of crime fiction have changed, though several of her tales keep being reprinted. The Mind of the Maker [a payingattentiontothesky reading selection here] has the survival value of an original idea perfectly developed and expressed. In the rest of her writings Sayers was ahead of time. The present preoccupation with the Bible, Jesus, and Creation should lead back to her views. If the colloquial Dante finds no lasting favor, the scholarly introduction and notes must remain important for students.

Sayers’s conclusion that principle kills had been borne in upon her by the onset and the conduct of the Great War. National honor, naval supremacy, colonies for show rather than benefit, regions that must be conquered to redeem “people of our race,” and “No peace, no surrender” had been goals pursued so stubbornly that Europe had turned itself into a vast burnt offering without seeing that the two sides were cooperating to that end on identical principles.


William James: The Mind as Artist – Jacques Barzun

March 23, 2012

Barzun at age 40. At 84 years of age, he began writing his swan song, to which he devoted the better part of the 1990s. The resulting book of more than 800 pages, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, reveals a vast erudition and brilliance undimmed by advanced age. Historians, literary critics, and popular reviewers all lauded From Dawn to Decadence as a sweeping and powerful survey of modern Western history, and it became a New York Times bestseller. The book introduces several novel typographic devices that aid an unusually rich system of cross-referencing and help keep many strands of thought in the book under organized control. Most pages feature a sidebar containing a pithy quotation, usually little known, and often surprising or humorous, from some author or historical figure. In 2007, Barzun commented that "Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing."

An essay from the master in 1985. I have returned to the practice of mindfulness as my prayer life has been wanting of late. The lecturer I am following early on made the point that one should not confuse mindfulness with meditation (although the two almost always proceed together). The error that arises is that one confuses failures in anger, depression or addiction as somehow being a failure of the mindfulness practice, when, in fact, is nothing of the sort. So I feel good about my umpteenth attempt at developing the practice, convinced that a solid mindfulness practice is also the foundation of a vital prayer life of the heart. Your mind is a road to the heart and for some of us that road is neither wide nor smooth.

Anytime you consider mindfulness you become completely aware of its cousin, mindlessness, the bottle of muddy water which you wish to let sediment settle to the bottom and clear. How much of that is James’ stream-of-consciousness, endless chatter of a mind seems almost nonsensical in some ways. You don’t think at all, René, m’en souvient.  Read a bit further


The part that conventional knowledge plays in the history of culture has never been properly assessed. Conventional knowledge is usually based on some evident truth, above which is reared a superstructure of misunderstanding and fallacy. Conventional knowledge about William James starts with the truth that he expounded the doctrine known as Pragmatism. Next, by verbal and historical association, James is linked with John Dewey, also a Pragmatist. General opinion then assumes that James’s view of the human mind is identical with Dewey’s. Now, Dewey’s being the better known, thanks in his extensive writings on education, the linkage leads directly to the conclusion that James’s Pragmatic psychology finds the pattern of thought in the mental operations of science: the mind of man is a scientist in posse. [vocab: In potential but not in actuality]

In How We Think, Dewey gives the outline of this act of mind, which he calls the reflective. It consists of five steps:

(1)     the occurrence of a difficulty;
(2)     the definition of it;
(3)     the occurrence of suggestions to explain or resolve it;
(4)     the rational elaboration of each suggestion—its bearing and implications; and
(5)     the corroboration of one of them by experiment or other kinds of testing.

Dewey concludes that “thinking comes between observations at the beginning and at the end of a problem.”

This “model” is perfectly good as far as it goes, but the first thing to say about it is that it does not begin at the beginning. It takes for granted a mind already full of objects, ideas, abstractions, generalities, concepts, and rules. If we concede that this is how we think, there appears to be a play on words hidden in the thought-cliche that unites James and Dewey and their Pragmatisms.

For what Dewey describes is either deliberate cogitation or well-established habits for meeting difficulty; he is concerned with reasoning, formal and informal. James begins much earlier, biographically speaking. He begins with consciousness and examines how it behaves in its rawest possible state, before it has acquired enough experience to define problems and canvass clear-cut suggestions.

What does James find? The complex answer is in The Principles of Psychology under the title “The Stream of Thought,” a title which in the Briefer Course published the following year became the influential phrase “the stream of consciousness.” In the first place, according to James, consciousness is not an entity, but a function. The usual notions of a receptacle for ideas, a mirror of external objects, a sensitive plate recording impressions, a subject-spectator watching the “real world” must he given up if we are to understand what goes on not in but as consciousness. Consciousness is clearly involuntary: not I think but it thinks, whether I want it to or not. Languages record an awareness of the fact in expressions like methinks, it m’en souvient, es dunkt mich, and again in “it occurs to me,” “the idea crossed my mind,” and so on. I think is not parallel to I walk. That we have the sensation of owning this self-propelling stream is also true, but making it do our bidding is difficult — and rare. And that is why it is important for education to follow Dewey’s analysis and make out of the five steps a conscious method of organized and sequential thought.

But it is equally important (and for much more than education) to understand the working of the mind in its native, original course. It can be shown, for instance, that a great deal of criticism in the arts is vitiated by ignorance of the way the mind perceives and pre-perceives objects. Thus all theories of “pure” art assume impossibilities in both the making and the witnessing of art. And even in science and mathematics, as more than one great discoverer has testified, the deliberate march of mind in five steps is not so much actual as ideal: it helps to verify rather than to create — the reason being that the mind is natively not a scientist but an artist.

James does not use that figurative way of telling how consciousness works, but the metaphor is not far-fetched, nor is it meant here to bestow an honorific quality, let alone take sides in the foolish, profitless rivalry between art and science. The term is used only as a catchword that may help to remove the conventional error caused by Dewey’s pedagogic intention.

The mind according to James is a stream composed of waves flowing endlessly without gaps. Each wave (or pulse) prresents a crest or focus of intensity surrounded by a fringe. The focus is clear, the fringe dimmer, and what is in the fringe surges forward to become the next clear focus as the previous one fades out. We record this phenomenon in many of our ways of speech. We refer to what is “uppermost” in our minds; we know and speak of what “interests” us and can name what “holds our attention”: all these words imply the focus.

Compared with it, the fringe, aura, or margin is vague and thus not readily namable. It takes the power of a poet to evoke the fringe by offering a series of images to focus on. In life, we have intimations or presentiments of what may come next to mind, but these escape the net of words because the stream has a way of pressing forward as if driven by a purpose, looking toward an end not yet known — quite as in a story full of suspense. The “interest” at the focus wants each following pulse to be equally interesting or attention wanders off to something more promising.

This rough summary of James’s description of the stream shows to begin with that there is a form to thought as it is given to us natively. Thought is not the scattered bits of a kaleidoscope that Dewey dismissed as of no use to him. On the contrary, there is no disconnection at any point, and the sense of making toward a goal on the crest of interest, with troughs of lesser intensity, but true connection, is a fundamental form. We find it embodied in every kind of human discourse, from the sentence to the symphony.

To be sure, the products of art or communication are trimmed and compressed by other operations of the mind. Even the so-called stream-of-consciousness novel is a simplified artifact and not a transcript of the luxuriant shoots of ideas and feelings in the author’s consciousness. The fact remains that the works of the artistic intelligence are not made by imposing on absolute chaos an order from outside, but rather by effecting a distillation of the stream and ultimately respecting its inherent form.

What remains to be said is that in the mode of inquiry Dewey propounds, “purpose” bears the workaday meaning of setting out for results. In the portion of James’s work I have discussed, purpose is an intrinsic quality: the stream moves forward from crest to crest and toward an end without effort and without a defined goal. The mind’s interests, says James, are practical and aesthetic, and these root tendencies must also, I think, be distinguished from deliberate worldly practicality and aesthetic aims. It then becomes clear that James’ Pragmatism differs from Dewey’s in being, as it were, innate — not exclusively a logic and a method, but simply the way consciousness pursues and makes the most of its interests.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 274 other followers