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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Of Romance: Spenser and Shakespeare
By Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829)
 
From ‘Lectures on the History of Literature’

THE ROMANCE of Cervantes has been, notwithstanding its high internal excellence, a dangerous and unfortunate model for the imitation of other nations. The ‘Don Quixote,’ a work in its kind of unexampled invention, has been the origin of the whole of modern romance; and of a crowd of unsuccessful attempts among French, English, and Germans, the object of which was to elevate into a species of poetry the prosaic representations of the actual and the present. To say nothing of the genius of Cervantes,—which stands entirely by itself, and was sufficient to secure him from many of the faults of his successors,—the situation in which he cultivated prose fiction was fortunately far above what has fallen to the lot of any of them. The actual life of Spain in his day was much more chivalric and romantic than it has ever since been in any country of Europe. Even the want of a very exact civil subordination, and the free or rather lawless life of the provinces, might be of use to his imagination.  1
  In all these attempts to raise the realities of Spanish life, by wit and adventure or by the extraordinary excitements of thought and feeling, to a species of poetic fiction, we can perceive that the authors are always anxious to create for themselves, in some way or other, the advantages of a poetic distance; if it were only in the life of Italian artists, a subject frequently treated in German romances, or in that of American woods and wildernesses, one very common among those of foreigners. Even when the scene of the fable is laid entirely at home, and within the sphere of the common citizen life, the narrative—so long as it continues to be narrative, and does not lose itself altogether in wit, humor, or sentiment—is ever anxious to extend in some degree the limit of that reality by which it is confined, and to procure somewhere an opening into the region where fancy is more at liberty in her operations: when no other method can be found, traveling adventures, duels, elopements, a band of robbers, or the intrigues and anxieties of a troop of strollers, are introduced pretty evidently more for the sake of the author than of his hero.  2
  The idea of the Romantic in these romances—even in some of the best and most celebrated of them—appears to coincide very closely with that of unregulated and dissolute conduct. I remember it was the observation of a great philosopher, that the moment the world should see a perfect police, the moment there should be no contraband trade and the traveler’s pass should contain an exact portrait and biography of its bearer, that moment it would become quite impossible to write a good romance; for that then nothing could occur in real life which might, with any moderate degree of ornament, be formed into the groundwork of such fiction. The expression seems quaint, but I suspect the opinion is founded very nearly upon the truth.  3
  To determine the true and proper relation between poetry and the past or the present, involves the investigation of the whole depth and essence of the art. In general, in our theories,—with the exception of some very general, meaningless, and most commonly false definitions of the art itself, and of the beautiful,—the chief subjects of attention are the mere forms of poetry; things without doubt necessary to be known, but by no means sufficient. As yet there has scarcely been any theory with regard to the proper subject of poetry, although such a theory would evidently be far the most useful of any in regard to the effect which poetry is to have upon life. In the preceding discourse I have endeavored to supply this defect, and to give some glimpses of such a theory, wherever the nature of my topics has furnished me with an opportunity.  4
  With regard to the representation of actual life in poetry, we must above all things remember that it is by no means certain that the actual and the present are intractable or unworthy subjects of poetical representation, merely because in themselves they appear less noble and uncommon than the past. It is true that in what is near and present, the common and unpoetical come at all times more strongly and more conspicuously into view; while in the remote and the past, they occupy the distance and leave the foreground to be filled with forms of greatness and sublimity alone. But this difficulty is one which the true poet can easily conquer: his art has no more favorite mode of displaying itself than in lending to things of commonplace and every-day occurrence the brilliancy of a poetic illumination, by extracting from them higher signification and deeper purpose and more refined feeling than we had before suspected them of concealing, or dreamed them to be capable of exciting. Still, the precision of the present is at all times binding and confining for the fancy; and when by our subject we impose so many fetters upon her, there is always reason to fear that she will be inclined to make up for this restraint by an excess of liberty in regard to language and description.  5
  To make my views upon this point intelligible to you in the shortest way, I need only recall to your recollection what I said some time ago with regard to subjects of a religious or Christian import. The invisible world, the Deity, and pure intellect, can never upon the whole be with propriety represented by us; nature and human beings are the proper and immediate subjects of poetry. But the higher and spiritual world can be everywhere embodied and shadowed forth in our terrestrial materials. In like manner, the indirect representation of the actual and the present is the best and most appropriate. The bloom of young life, and the high ecstasies of passion, as well as the maturity of wise reflection, may all be combined with the old traditions of our nation: they will there have more room for exertion, and be displayed in a purer light, than the present can command. The oldest poet of the past, Homer, is at the same time to us a describer of the present in its utmost liveliness and freshness. Every true poet carries into the past his own age, and in a certain sense himself. The following appears to me to be a true account of the proper relation between poetry and time: The proper business of poetry is to represent only the eternal,—that which is at all places and in all times significant and beautiful; but this cannot be accomplished without the intervention of a veil. Poetry requires to have a corporeal habitation; and this she finds in her best sphere,—the traditions of a nation, the recollections and the past of a people. In her representations of these, however, she introduces the whole wealth of the present, so far as that is susceptible of poetical ornament; she plunges also into the future, because she explains the apparent mysteries of earthly existence, accompanies individual life through all its development down to its period of termination, and sheds from her magic mirror the light of a higher interpretation upon all things; she embraces all the tenses—the past, the present, and the future—in order to make a truly sensible representation of the eternal or the perfect time. Even in a philosophical sense, eternity is no nonentity, no mere negation of time; but rather its entire and undivided fullness, wherein all its elements are united, where the past becomes again new and present, and with the present itself is mingled the abundance of hope and all the richness of futurity.  6
  Although, upon the whole, I consider the indirect representation of the present as the one most suitable for poetry, I would by no means be understood to be passing a judgment of condemnation upon all poetical works which follow the opposite path. We must leave the artist to be the judge of his own work. The true poet can show his power even though he takes a wrong way, and composes works which are far from perfection in regard to their original foundation. Milton and Klopstock must at all times be honored as poets of the first class, although no one will deny that they have both done themselves the injustice to choose subjects which they never could adequately describe.  7
  In like manner, to Richardson, who erred in a very opposite way, by trying to imitate Cervantes in elevating to poetry the realities of modern life, we cannot refuse the praise of a great talent for description, and of having at least manifested great vigor in his course, although the goal which he wished to reach was one entirely beyond his power….  8
  The chivalrous poem of Spenser, the ‘Fairy Queen,’ presents us with a complete view of the spirit of romance which yet lingered in England among the subjects of Elizabeth; that maiden queen who saw herself, with no ordinary delight, deified while yet alive by such playful fancies of mythology and the Muse. Spenser is a perfect master of the picturesque: in his lyrical pieces there breathes all the tenderness of the idyl, the very spirit of the Troubadours. Not only in the species and manner of his poetry, but even in his language, he bears the most striking resemblance to our old German poets of love and chivalry. The history of the English literature was indeed quite the reverse of ours. Chaucer is not unlike our poets of the sixteenth century; but Spenser is the near kinsman of the tender and melodious poets of our older time. In every language which is, like the English, the product of the blending of two different dialects, there must always be two ideals, according as the poet shall lean more to the one or the other of the elements whereof his language is composed. Of all the English poets the most Teutonic is Spenser; while Milton, on the contrary, has an evident partiality to the Latin part of the English tongue. The only unfortunate part of Spenser’s poetry is its form. The allegory which he has selected and made the groundwork of his chief poem is not one of that lively kind which prevails in the elder chivalrous fictions, wherein the idea of a spiritual hero, and the mysteries of his higher vocation, are concealed under the likeness of external adventures and tangible events. It is only a dead allegory, a mere classification of all the virtues of an ethical system; in short, such a one that but for the proper names of the personages, we should never suspect any part of their history to contain “more than meets the ear.”  9
  The admiration with which Shakespeare regarded Spenser, and the care with which he imitated him in his lyrical and idyllic poems, are circumstances of themselves sufficient to make us study, with the liveliest interest, the poem of the ‘Fairy Queen.’ It is in these minor pieces of Shakespeare that we are first introduced to a personal knowledge of the great poet and his feelings. When he wrote sonnets, it seems as if he had considered himself as more a poet than when he wrote plays: he was the manager of a theatre, and he viewed the drama as his business; on it he exerted all his intellect and power: but when he had feelings intense and secret to express, he had recourse to a form of writing with which his habits had rendered him less familiar. It is strange but delightful to scrutinize, in his short effusions, the character of Shakespeare. In them we see that he who stood like a magician above the world, penetrating with one glance into all the depths and mysteries and perplexities of human character, and having power to call up into open day the darkest workings of human passions,—that this great being was not deprived of any portion of his human sympathies by the elevation to which he was raised, but preserved amidst all his stern functions a heart overflowing with tenderness, purity, and love. His feelings are intense, profound, acute, almost to selfishness; but he expresses them so briefly and modestly as to form a strange contrast with most of those poets who write concerning themselves. For the right understanding of his dramatic works, these lyrics are of the greatest importance. They show us that in his dramas he very seldom speaks according to his own feelings or his own thoughts, but according to his knowledge. The world lay clear and distinct before his eyes, but between him and it there was a deep gulf fixed. He gives us a portrait of what he saw, without flattery or ornament, having the charm of unrivaled accuracy and truth. Were understanding, acuteness, and profoundness of thought (in so far as these are necessary for the characterizing of human life), to be considered as the first qualities of a poet, there is none worthy to be compared with Shakespeare. Other poets have endeavored to transport us, at least for a few moments, into another and an ideal condition of mankind. But Shakespeare is the master of reality; he sets before us, with a truth that is often painful, man in his degraded state, in this corruption which penetrates and contaminates all his being, all that he does and suffers, all the thoughts and aspirations of his fallen spirit. In this respect he may not unfrequently be said to be a satirical poet; and well indeed may the picture which he presents of human debasement, and the enigma of our being, be calculated to produce an effect far more deep and abiding than the whole body of splenetic and passionate revilers whom we commonly call by the name of satiric poets. In the midst of all the bitterness of Shakespeare we perceive continual glimpses of thoughts and recollections more pure than satirists partake in: meditation on the original height and elevation of man; the peculiar tenderness and noble-minded sentiment of a poet. The dark world of his representation is illuminated with the most beautiful rays of patriotic inspiration, serene philanthropy, and glowing love.  10
  But even the youthful glow of love appears in his Romeo as the mere inspiration of death; and is mingled with the same skeptical and melancholy views of life which in Hamlet give to all our being an appearance of more than natural discord and perplexity, and which in Lear carry sorrow and passion into the utmost misery of madness. This poet, who externally seems to be most calm and temperate, clear and lively; with whom intellect seems everywhere to preponderate; who as we at first imagine, regards and represents everything almost with coldness,—is found, if we examine into the internal feelings of his spirit, to be above all others the most deeply sorrowful and tragic.  11
  Shakespeare regarded the drama as entirely a thing for the people, and at first treated it throughout as such. He took the popular comedy as he found it; and whatever enlargements and improvements he introduced into the stage were all calculated and conceived according to the peculiar spirit of his predecessors and of the audience in London. Even in the earliest of his tragic attempts, he takes possession of the whole superstitions of the vulgar; and mingles in his poetry not only the gigantic greatness of their rude traditions, but also the fearful, the horrible, and the revolting. All these, again, are blended with such representations and views of human debasement as passed, or still pass, with common spectators for wit; but were connected in the depths of his reflective and penetrating spirit with the very different feelings of bitter contempt or sorrowful sympathy. He was not in knowledge, far less in art, such as since the time of Milton it has been usual to represent him. But I believe that the inmost feelings of his heart, the depths of his peculiar, concentrated, and solitary spirit, could be agitated only by the mournful voice of nature. The feeling by which he seems to have been most connected with ordinary men is that of nationality. He has represented the heroic and glorious period of English history, during the conquests in France, in a series of dramatic pieces which possess all the simplicity and liveliness of the ancient chronicles, but approach in their ruling spirit of patriotism and glory to the most dignified and effective productions of the epic Muse.  12
  In the works of Shakespeare a whole world is unfolded. He who has once comprehended this, and been penetrated with its spirit, will not easily allow the effect to be diminished by the form, or listen to the cavils of those who are incapable of understanding the import of what they would criticize. The form of Shakespeare’s writings will rather appear to him good and excellent because in it his spirit is expressed and clothed, as it were, in a convenient garment. The poetry of Shakespeare is near of kin to the spirit of the Germans; and he is more felt and beloved by them than any other foreign—I had almost said than any vernacular—poet. Even in England, the understanding of Shakespeare is rendered considerably more difficult in consequence of the resemblance which many very inferior writers bear to him in those points which come most immediately before the eye. In Germany, we admire Shakespeare and are free from this disadvantage; but we should beware of adopting either the form or the sentiment of this great poet’s writings as the exclusive model of our own. They are indeed, in themselves, most highly poetical; but they are far from being the only poetical ones, and the dramatic art may attain perfection in many other ways besides the Shakespearean.  13
 
 
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