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pleasant task-work, seems to me a rather ungracious and impotent business. For it has long been a settled axiom that the proper office of poetry is to please ; of the highest poetry, to make wisdom and virtue pleasant, to crown the True and the Good with delight and joy. This is the very constituent of the poet's art; that without which it has no adequate reason for being. To clothe the austere forms of truth and wisdom with heart-taking beauty and sweetness, is its life and law. Poetry, then, ought of course to be read as poetry; and when not read with pleasure, the right grace and profit of the reading are missed. For the proper instructiveness of poetry is essentially dependant on its pleasantness; whereas in other forms of writing this order is or may be reversed. The sense or the conscience of what is morally good and right should indeed have a hand, and a prerogative hand, in shaping our pleasures; and so indeed it must be, else the pleasures will needs be transient, and even the seedtime of future pains. So right-minded people ought to desire, and do desire, to find pleasure in what is right and good; the highest pleasure in what is rightest and best : nevertheless the pleasure of the thing is what puts its healing, purifying, regenerating virtue into act; and to converse with what is in itself beautiful and good without tasting any pleasantness in it, is or may be a positive harm.
How, then, in reference to Shakespeare, is the case of common readers to be met? As before remarked, to urge reasons of duty is quite from the purpose : reading Shakespeare as duty and without pleasure is of no use, save as it may lift and draw them into a sense of his pleasantness. The question is, therefore, how to make him pleasant and attractive to them ; how to put him before them, so that his spirit may have a fair chance to breathe into them, and quicken their congenial susceptibilities; for, surely, his soul and theirs are essentially attuned to the same music. Doubtless a full sense of his pleasantness is not to be extemporized : with most of us, nay, with the best of us, this is and must be a matter of growth: none but Shakespeare himself can educate us into a love of Shakespeare ; and such education, indeed all education, is a work of time. But I must insist upon it, that his works can and should be so edited, that average readers may find enough of pleasantness in them from the first to hold them to the perusal : and when they have been so held long enough for the workmanship to steal its virtue and sweetness into them, then they will be naturally and freely carried onwards to the condition where “ love is an unerring light, and joy its own security.”
These remarks, I believe, indicate, as well as I know how to do, my idea I can hardly say, I dare not say, my ideal — of what a popular edition of Shakespeare ought to be. The editorial part should, as far as possible, be so cast and tempered and ordered as to make the Poet's pages pleasant and attractive to common minds. Generally to such minds, and often even to uncommon minds, Shakespeare's world may well seem at first a strange world, — strange not only for the spiritualized realism of it, but because it is so much more deeply and truly natural than the book-world to which they have been accustomed. The strangeness of the place, together with the difficulty they find in clearly seeing the real forms and relations of the objects before them, is apt to render the place unattractive, if not positively repulsive, to them. The place is so emphatically the native home of both the soul and the senses, that they feel lost in it; and this because they have so long travelled in literary regions where the soul and the senses have been trained into an estrangement from their proper home. It is like coming back to realities after having strayed among shadows till the shadows have come to seem realities.
Not seldom the very naturalness of Shakespeare's world frightens unaccustomed readers : they find, or feel, so to speak, a kind of estranged familiarity about it, as of a place they have once known, but have lost the memory of; so that it seems to them a land peopled with the ghosts of what had long ago been to them real living things. Thus the effect, for some time, is rather to scare and chill their interest than to kindle and heighten it. And the Poet is continually popping his thoughts upon them so pointedly, so vividly, so directly, so unceremoniously, that their sensibilities are startled, and would fain shrink back within the shell of custom ; so different is it from the pulpy, pointless, euphemistic roundaboutness and volubility which they have been used to hearing from the Pulpit, the Press, the vulgar oratory, and the popular authorship of the day. Therewithal, the Poet often springs upon them such abrupt and searching revelations of their inner selves, so stings them with his truth, so wounds them with his healing, and causes such an undreamed-of birth of thoughts and feelings within them, that they stare about them with a certain dread and shudder, and “tremble like a guilty thing surprised," as in the presence of a magician that has stolen their inmost secrets from them, and is showing them up to the world.
V But this is not all. Besides the unfamiliarity of Shakespeare's matter, so many and so great lingual changes have taken place since his time, and, still more, his manner both of thought and expression is so intensely idiomatic, his diction so suggestive and overcharged with meaning, his imagery so strong and bold, his sense so subtile and delicate, his modulation so various and of such solid and piercing sweetness, that common readers naturally have no little difficulty in coming to an easy and familiar converse with him. On some of these points, an editor can give little or no positive help: he can at the best but remove or lessen hindrances, and perhaps throw in now and then a kindling word or breath. But,
on others of them, it lies within an editor's province to render all the positive aid that common readers need for making them intelligently and even delightedly at home with the Poet.
Of course this is to be mostly done by furnishing such and so much of comment and citation as may be required for setting the Poet's meaning out clear and free, and by translating strange or unfamiliar words, phrases, and modes of speech into the plain, current language of the day. And here it is of the first importance that an editor have the mind, or the art, not only to see things plainly, but to say a plain thing in a plain way; or, in the happy phrase of old Roger Ascham, to “think as wise men do, and speak as common people do." And the secret of right editing is, to help average readers over the author's difficulties with as little sense as possible of being helped ; to lead them up his heights and through his depths with as little sense as possible of being led. To do this, the editor must have such a kind and measure of learning in the field of his labour as can come only by many years of careful study and thought; and he must keep the details and processes of his learning out of sight, putting forth only the last and highest results, the blossom and fragrance, of his learnedness : and the editor who does not know too much in his subject to be showing his knowledge is green and crude, and so far unfitted for his task. Generally speaking, it is doubtless better to withhold a needed explanation than to offer a needless one; because the latter looks as if the editor were intent on thrusting himself between the author and the reader.
Probably we all understand that the best style in writing is where average minds, on reading it, are prompted to say, “Why, almost anybody could have done that"; and a style that is continually making such readers sensible of their ignorance, or of their inferiority to the writer, is not good. For
the proper light of a truly luminous speaker is one that strikes up a kindred light in the hearer; so that the light seems to come, and indeed really does come, from the hearer's own mind. It is much the same in editing a standard author for
And for an editor to be all the while, or often, putting average readers in mind how ignorant and inferior they are, is not the best way, nor the right way, to help them.
But what seems specially needful to be kept in mind is, that when common people read Shakespeare, it is not to learn etymology, or grammar, or philology, or lingual antiquities, or criticism, or the technicalities of scholarism, but to learn Shakespeare himself; to understand the things he puts before them, to take-in his thought, to taste his wisdom, to feel his beauty, to be kindled by his fire, to be refreshed with his humour, to glow with his rapture, and to be stolen from themselves and transported into his moral and intellectual whereabout; in a word, to live, breathe, think, and feel with him. I am so simple and old-fashioned as to hold that, in so reading the Poet, they are putting him to the very best and highest use of which he is capable. Even their intellects, I think, will thrive far better so, than by straining themselves to a course of mere intellectualism. All which means, to be sure, that far more real good will come, even to the mind, by foolishly enjoying Shakespeare than by learnedly parsing him. So that here I am minded to apply the saying of Wordsworth, that “ he is oft the wisest man who is not wise at all.”
Now I cannot choose but think that, if this were always duly borne in mind, we should see much more economy of erudition than we do. It is the instinct of a crude or conceited learning to be ever emphasizing itself, and poking its fingers into the readers' eyes : but a ripe and well-assimilated learning does not act thus : it is a fine spirit working in the mind's blood, and not a sort of foam or scum mantling its