Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By James Anthony Froude (1818–1894)
From Life of Carlyle

HISTORY is the account of the actions of men; and in “actions” are comprehended the thoughts, opinions, motives, impulses of the actors and of the circumstances in which their work was executed. The actions without the motives are nothing, for they may be interpreted in many ways, and can only be understood in their causes. If “Hamlet” or “Lear” was exact to outward fact—were they and their fellow-actors on the stage exactly such as Shakespeare describes them, and if they did the acts which he assigns to them, that was perfect history; and what we call history is only valuable as it approaches to that pattern. To say that the characters of real men cannot be thus completely known, that their inner nature is beyond our reach, that the dramatic portraiture of things is only possible to poetry, is to say that history ought not to be written, for the inner nature of the persons of whom it speaks is the essential thing about them; and, in fact, the historian assumes that he does know it, for his work without it is pointless and colourless. And yet to penetrate really into the hearts and souls of men, to give each his due, to represent him as he appeared at his best to himself, and not to his enemies, to sympathise in the collision of principles with each party in turn, to feel as they felt, to think as they thought, and to reproduce the various beliefs, the acquirements, the intellectual atmosphere of another age, is a task which requires gifts as great or greater than those of the greatest dramatists, for all is required which is required of the dramatist, with the obligation to truth of ascertained fact besides. It is for this reason that historical works of the highest order are so scanty. The faculty itself, the imaginative and reproductive insight, is among the rarest of human qualities. The moral determination to use it for purposes of truth only is rarer still—nay, it is but in particular ages of the world that such work can be produced at all. The historians of genius themselves, too, are creatures of their own time, and it is only at periods when men of intellect have “swallowed formulas,” when conventional and established ways of thinking have ceased to satisfy, that, if they are serious and conscientious, they are able “to sympathise with opposite sides.”
  It is said that history is not of individuals; that the proper concern of it is with broad masses of facts, with tendencies which can be analysed into laws, with the evolution of humanity in general. Be it so—but a science can make progress only when the facts are completely ascertained; and before any facts of human life are available for philosophy we must have those facts exactly as they were. You must have Hamlet before you can have a theory of Hamlet, and it is to be observed that the more completely we know the truth of any incident, or group of incidents, the less it lends itself to theory. We have our religious historians, our constitutional historians, our philosophical historians; and they tell their stories each in their own way, to point conclusions which they have begun by assuming—but the conclusion seems plausible only because they know their case imperfectly, or because, they state their case imperfectly. The writers of books are Protestant or Catholic, religious or atheistic, despotic or liberal; but nature is neither the one nor the other, but all in turn. Nature is not a partisan, but out of her ample treasure house she produces children in infinite variety, of which she is equally the mother, and disowns none of them; and when, as in Shakespeare, nature is represented truly, the impressions left upon the mind do not adjust themselves to any philosophical system. The story of Hamlet in Saxo Grammaticus might suggest excellent commonplace lessons on the danger of superstition, or the evils of uncertainty in the law of succession to the crown, or the absurdity of monarchical government when the crown can be the prize of murder. But reflections of this kind would suggest themselves only where the story was told imperfectly, and because it was told imperfectly. If Shakespeare’s Hamlet be the true version of that Denmark catastrophe, the mind passes from commonplace moralising to the tragedy of humanity itself. And it is certain that if the thing did not occur as it stands in the play, yet it did occur in some similar way, and that the truth, if we knew it, would be equally affecting—equally unwilling to submit to any representation except the undoctrinal and dramatic.  2
  What I mean is this, that whether the history of humanity can be treated philosophically or not; whether any evolutionary law of progress can be traced in it or not; the facts must be delineated first with the clearness and fulness which we demand in an epic poem or a tragedy. We must have the real thing before we can have a science of a thing. When that is given, those who like it may have their philosophy of history, though probably they will care less about it; just as wise men do not ask for theories of Hamlet, but are satisfied with Hamlet himself. But until the real thing is given, philosophical history is but an idle plaything to entertain grown children with.  3

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