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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Oration on Shakespeare
By Joseph Howe (1804–1873)
 
Delivered before St. George’s Society, Halifax, April 23rd, 1864

NOT quite two thousand years ago, in a small village of Judea, a poor carpenter’s wife was blessed with a son, who grew to manhood beneath his reputed father’s roof, who wrote nothing which has been preserved, who died young, and who but for four or five years appeared conspicuously on the stage of public life.  1
  This divine man so lived, for that short space of time, that by the dignity of his person—the grace and fascination of his manner—the purity and simplicity of his life—the splendor of his eloquence—the novelty of his doctrines—the miraculous power which he displayed, he so alarmed the hierarchs and bigots of his day, that they put him to death, to extirpate what they conceived to be a pestilent heresy dangerous to existing institutions.  2
  A few short discourses—one new commandment—some exquisite parables—a few noble bursts of righteous indignation—a fervent prayer here and there—two or three touching lamentations—some simple reproofs—and a few beautiful illustrations of his courtesy to women and children, and of his sympathetic consideration, for the wants and weaknesses of his fellow-men, are all that remain to us of the biography and recorded speech of this poor youth.  3
  Yet every Sabbath, all over the Christian world, millions of people assemble to do honor to this person, to repeat his words, to ponder upon his life, and to endeavor to mold the growing generations by his example. We, in view of the miracles he wrought and of the wisdom of his teaching, acknowledge his divine origin and attributes; but millions, who regard him as a man, are yet won to daily and weekly recognition of the holiness of his life, the wisdom of his words, and of the self-sacrificing spirit in which he died for the redemption and security of his fellow-men.  4
  How many emperors, kings, conquerors, tyrants, have lived and died within these two thousand years, for whom no festivals are kept, whose example no man quotes, whose wisdom no man ponders. Their mailed figures, as they appear in history, seem to shake the earth, their pride to flout the skies, their policy to cover the globe. Yet there they lie, the best of them with their marble or bronze hands folded on their stone sarcophagi, looking up to the heaven they outraged, and challenging from the earth which they devastated but scanty notice or recognition. From all which we gather, shutting divinity out of the question, that the world knows and will ever know its benefactors from its oppressors—that the beauty of holiness outlasts mere earthly splendor—that the still small voice of wisdom will go echoing through the hearts of successive generations, whom the hoarse command of authority cannot stir.  5
  A little more than a century ago, a child was born in the cottage of a poor Scotch peasant in Ayrshire, and but a few years have passed since the centennial anniversary of that boy’s birth was kept throughout the civilized world.  6
  How did it happen that the noble and high-born, the scholar, the novelist, the historian, the statesman, the poet, all mingling with the joyous acclamations of those wider classes that come more nearly down to his own worldly station, gave point and significance to festivals got up to honor the memory of a poor ploughman. The man was no saint—sharp of speech and loose of life, at times he had tried the patience of many friends and made many enemies. He had lived and died in poverty; his errors, whatever they were, being veiled by no drapery of convention, nor refined away by the ordinary accessories of elegant self-indulgence. How was it then that all the world, by a simultaneous impulse, moved as one man to do honor, on the same day, to the memory of this poor Scotch ploughman?  7
  It was because, long after he was dead, and his faults and follies were forgotten, it was discovered (as it had been before by a few keen-sighted and appreciative friends who knew and loved him) that in this man’s soul there had been genuine inspiration—that he was a patriot—an artist—that by his genius and independent spirit he had given dignity to the pursuits by which the mass of mankind live, and quickened our love of nature by exquisite delineation. It was found that hypocrisy stood rebuked in presence of his broad humor—that he had put one lyric invocation into the mouth of a dead warrior that would be worth to his country, in any emergency, an army of 10,000 men—that he had painted one picture of his country’s rural life so touching and so true that it challenged for her the respect of millions who knew her not, and gave character and refinement to the thoughts of those who knew her best.  8
  What has become of the wrangling race of bloody chieftains, whose mutual slaughter and mutual perfidy Tytler so well describes? With the exception of Wallace and Bruce, we would not give the Ayrshire ploughman for a legion of them. What has become of the drowsy Holy Willies, whose interminable homilies made the Sabbath wearisome in Burns’s time, and the gospel past finding out? They are dozing in the churchyards, as their congregations dozed in the churches, and no one asks to have them waked up by a festival; yet the man whom they denounced, and would have burnt if they could, shows his ‘Cottar’s Saturday Night’ to the admiring world and puts them all to shame.  9
  Three hundred years ago (1564) William Shakespeare, whose birthday we have met to celebrate, was born of comparatively obscure parentage, at Stratford-upon-Avon, a small English village. His father, John Shakespeare, dealt in wool, and, though at one period of his life he had been better off, was before the poet’s death so poor as to be exempted from the payment of local assessments. His mother, Mary Arden, was descended from a family some members of which had served in the office of sheriff, and brought to her husband, as dower, sixty-five acres of land and £6, 13s. 4d. in money. Our poet was the eldest of ten children. Before he was three months old the plague ravaged his native village, carrying off a seventh part of its population, but seems to have spared his family. He was educated at the Free School of Stratford, till withdrawn to assist his father, whose circumstances were becoming straitened. At eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, and commenced business for himself, but, being arrested with some other youngsters for deer-stalking in Sir Thomas Lucy’s park, to escape the law he fled to London, and joined a company of players. He became an actor, a dramatist, a poet, a theatrical manager; won the favor of the Earl of Southampton and of Queen Elizabeth. He earned a competence, and after the death of the Virgin Queen returned to his native village, where he purchased a handsome house and enjoyed an income of £300 a year. He had three children. He died on his birthday, the 23rd of April, at the early age of fifty-three.  10
  This is nearly all that is known, with certainty, of the marvelous man whose tricentenary we have met to celebrate. The very acute editor of the latest and finest collection of his works thus mourns over the paucity of material for any authentic and enlarged biography: “That William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon; that he married, and had three children; that he wrote a certain number of dramas; that he died before he had attained to old age, and was buried in his native town, are positively the only facts in the personal history of this extraordinary man of which we are certainly possessed; and if we should be solicitous to fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline, we must have recourse to the vague reports of unsubstantial tradition, or to the still more shadowy inferences of lawless and unsatisfactory conjecture.”  11
  Whether Shakespeare actually held gentlemen’s horses at the door of the theatre before he became an actor; how much or how little he knew of Latin or Greek, or of any foreign language; to what books he was indebted for his plots, his conceits, or his imagery, are questions which we linger not to-day to ask or to answer. Have not these, and other kindred themes of speculation and conjecture, for more than a century furnished employment for ingenious critics and commentators? We must brush them aside. If we stood by the grave of Richard Cœur de Lion, we should not pause to inquire who taught him tricks of fence, or of what nutriment his muscle had been formed; and, standing beside the grave of this great Englishman, it is enough for us to know that he lived, and died, and made the universe his heirs.  12
  This man founded no sect, sat on no throne, conducted no government, led no army, upheaved no ancient dominion. How is it, then, that three hundred years after he has been dead and buried, in a province of which he never heard—which was a wilderness for two hundred years after he was born—how happens it, that in a city not founded for a century and a half after he was in his grave, we are assembled to hold high festival on this man’s natal day? How does it occur that the highest in military rank and civic station comes here at the head of all that is distinguished by culture and refinement, to do honor to the memory of Shakespeare? That the Parliament adjourns—that the courts are closed—that business is suspended—that the place where “merchants most do congregate” is deserted, and that all ranks and classes, by a common impulse, have gathered here to do honor to this man’s memory?  13
  But after all, what is our poor festival, rich in sincerity and enthusiasm though it be, compared with what we know will elsewhere make this day memorable? All over the British Islands, all over the British Empire, it will be kept as a holiday, and enlivened with all that intellect of the highest order can contribute, or art the most chastened, yet elaborate, combine.  14
  In the great metropolis of the world, whose financial pulsations are marked by millions—where war or peace, for half the universe, trembles in the hourly vibrations of human thought—where men battle for wealth and distinctions and worldly power with an intensity proportioned to the value of the prizes to be won; even there, on this day, the great heart of the empire will be stilled for a time, that all the world may witness how profound is the impression which the genius of Shakespeare has made in that imperial city, where for centuries his dramas have nightly contributed to the intellectual life of the population.  15
  At Stratford, the birthplace of the poet, a pavilion has been erected which will hold 5,000 people—550 musicians have been engaged; and concerts, oratorios, balls, and theatrical performances will gather together for a week’s unmixed enjoyment an assemblage not more distinguished by wealth and station than remarkable for intellectual culture and shrewd knowledge of books and men.  16
  But not only in England will this day be kept. In Ireland, where the memories of her poets and dramatists and orators are treasured as the richest elements of national life, the great Englishman, who was loved and honored by them all, will be this day crowned with the deepest verdure and hailed by universal acclamation. Scotland will put aside her theology and metaphysics, and the fiery cross, with Shakespeare’s name upon it, will be sped from city to city, and from mountain to mountain, rousing the clans to rivalry with all the world. Bonfires will blaze upon Ben Nevis and Ben Venue; and the bones of her great poets will stir beneath the marble monuments that national gratitude has reared above them, in recognition of the merits of this great master of our tongue.  17
  All over the empire—in the great provinces of the East—in the Australian colonies—at the Cape—in the West Indies—in the neighboring provinces of Canada and New Brunswick, no less than in the Summer Isles, where, if Prospero’s wand no longer waves, we have Moore’s warrant and our own experience to assure us that Miranda’s fascinations may yet be found, wherever British communities have been formed, and British civilization has been fostered, will this day be honored, and the memory of this great man be “in their flowing cups freshly remembered.”  18
  If our American cousins, North and South, do not keep this festival as they kept that in honor of Burns, it will not be from want of inclination, or from ignorance of the merits of the great dramatist whose works they read, appreciate, act, and quote with an admiration as intense and with a familiarity as ready as our own. Engaged in these “great wars,” which, from their magnitude of proportion, ought “to make ambition virtue,” and which another Shakespeare, half a century hence, will be required to illustrate, they may not have leisure for any but military celebrations; but of this we may be assured, that Shakespeare has gone with the camp furniture of every regiment into the field, whether north or south of the Potomac; and that his glorious pages have cheered the bivouac and the hospital, whenever the tedious hours of inaction were to be wiled away, or the “ills that flesh is heir to,” and which combats surely bring, have had to be endured.  19
  Nor will these manifestations be confined to the lands which the British races inhabit. All over the Continent, where Shakespeare is known as we know Goethe or Voltaire—where his works have been translated and illustrated by men the most discriminating and profound, this day will be honored, and his name, making the circuit of “the globe itself,” will not only awake the “drum beat” which indicates the waving lines of British power and dominion, but the echoes of warm hearts and sympathetic natures in every quarter of the earth.  20
 
 
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