Essays and studies: by members of the English Association/Shakespeare and the grand style


SHAKESPEARE AND THE GRAND STYLE[1]


The adventure of this paper may appear extravagant, but it has seemed to me perhaps not unfitting, if not for myself, yet for the person whom the English Association has thought fit to choose for its president in the third centenary year of the publication of the Sonnets. Nor is the adventurer, however moderate his prowess, quite untried in the kind, at any rate, of the quest. Some years ago, at the request of the Dante Society, I wrote and read a paper, as yet unpublished, on the relation of that great poet to the mysterious entity called the Grand Style; and last year I ventured to deal with Milton in the same way, before the Royal Society of Literature. The opportunity of completing the trio was tempting, and I can only hope that I have not been tempted to too great a failure.

It is always in such a case as a ceremony desirable, though except as a ceremony it can hardly be necessary, to disclaim any intention of direct controversy. Such controversy would be, in this case, with the founder or re-founder of all recent discussion on the present subject, Mr. Matthew Arnold.[2] I do not share his views: but controversy in detail would be quite out of place in such a paper as this, and, in reference to a dead antagonist, it would lack even the piquancy which, when carried on between the living, it seems to possess for many, I cannot say I think to the best, tastes. It is sufficient to remind you that Mr. Arnold could only accord to Shakespeare what I have elsewhere called a sort of 'uncovenanted'—Grand Style an occasional magnificence, chequered if not checkmated by styles the reverse of grand. It appears to me on the contrary that Shakespeare held the Grand Style in the hollow of his hand, letting it loose or withholding it as good seemed to him: and further, that the seeming almost always was good.

It has been often said in various forms, but hardly ever without truth, that all dispute turns upon difference of definition—and that, if people were only clear-witted enough and even-tempered enough, the arrival at definition would be the conclusion of the whole matter. For their differences of opinion would either disappear in the process, or they would be seen to be irreconcilable, and to possess no common ground on which argument is possible. My definition of the Grand Style is certainly wider than Mr. Arnold's, whose own seems to have been framed to insist upon that 'high seriousness' of his which is no doubt a grand thing. Mine would, I think, come nearer to the Longinian 'Sublime'—the perfection of expression in every direction and kind, the commonly called great and the commonly called small, the tragic and the comic, the serious, the ironic, and even to some extent the trivial (not in the worst sense, of course). Whenever this perfection of expression acquires such force that it transmutes the subject and transports the hearer or reader, then and there the Grand Style exists, for so long, and in such a degree, as the transmutation of the one and the transportation of the other lasts. It may persist, or cease, or disappear and re-appear, like a fixed or a revolving light, but there it is in essentia or in potentia. If, on the other hand, you limit the definition to the continual exertion of some such a transforming force, it seems to me that, in the first place, you are making an excessive and unnatural restriction, forgetful of neque semper arcum and other sayings of the wise, while, in the second place, as a consequence of the first error, you are preparing for yourself endless pitfalls. It is a question whether any writer, except perhaps Milton, will answer to the definition completely. Dante and Homer certainly will not as, to give one example in each case out of a hundred, the comparison of Adam in the Paradiso to an animal struggling under a cloth, which has shocked so many commentators, and that passage in the Odyssey which shocked Longinus, will show. Further, the perpetual Grand Style of the definition which is not mine, can only be maintained—is only maintained by Milton himself at the cost of an enormous tour de force of mannerism, which is at least questionably justifiable or artistic—which in fact itself sometimes becomes the reverse of grand. The vast region of the lighter vein must be abandoned, or clumsily handled—as it actually is by Milton when his Grand Style is once 'set'. Even in serious subjects, there must be a kind of 'second sifting' of seriousness. And, above all, there is the certainty of the arising of a spurious Grand Style—a style of mere grandiosity—a plaster imitation of the real thing, than which there has been nothing in the past, and there is likely to be nothing in the future, more detestable.

Of this there is no danger, essentially at least, under the application of that definition of the Grand Style which I prefer. It makes its appearance when it is wanted, and when the hour is come; at other times it abides apart, and possesses its strength in quietness and in confidence, not frittering it away. Of its display in this fashion I cannot remember any one in literature—not Homer, not Dante himself, not Milton certainly—who can produce such constant, such varied, such magnificent instances as Shakespeare. Even in his novitiate, when he was making his experiments, and indeed making the tools with which to make these, this Adamastor, this King of the Waves of the vasty deep of style, never fails to come when he calls on it. We do not know the exact order of his compositions; and there is dispute about some of the probably earlier items in it. Some maintain that the Titus Andronicus which we have is not the Titus that Meres attributed to him; and some that the admitted rewriting of Love's Labour's Lost makes it a doubtful witness; while the date of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is extremely uncertain. But it would, I think, be difficult so to pack a jury of competent scholars that these plays, and the Comedy of Errors, should not be put in the van. And though every one of them is full of crudities, the Grand Style appears in each, as it never does appear in any other probably contemporary work, except Marlowe's, and not as it appears in Marlowe himself. The central splendour of Adriana's speech in the Errors (n. ii. 112 ff.); the glorious 'phrase of the ring' in the fatal discovery of the murder of Bassianus in Titus (II. iii. 226 ff.); the famous and incomparable veiled confession of Julia in the Two Gentlemen (iv. iv. 154 ff.); at least a dozen passages in Love's Labour's Lost—have the broad arrow—the royal mark—upon them unmistakably.

But, it is said, there is so much else—so much even of the close context of these very passages—which has not the mark! And why should it have? Poetry, and most especially dramatic poetry, is a microcosm: and it may—perhaps it should, like the macrocosm—contain wood, hay, and stubble as well as gold and silver. Again, in these plays, it is said, there are failures of the Grand Style—slips from it or mis-shots at it—fallings into conceit, preciousness, bombast, frigidity, what not. Is it necessary, even at this time of day, to recapitulate the classes of persons to whom, according to the adage, half-done work should not be shown? Or is there any one, not included in these classes, who really wishes that we had not got Shakespeare's half-done work? I should be sorry to think that there is—especially in this audience. But, if there be, may I suggest to him that on the calculus we are using, the fact, supposing it to be a fact, does not matter? It is not a question whether anything that is not the Grand Style exists in these plays: but whether the Grand Style itself exists there. And I profess myself unable to understand how any one can deny its presence in the passages to which I have referred, and in scores, almost hundreds, of others.

But let us come to somewhat closer quarters. What is it, in these passages themselves, which, in spite of the evident novitiate of their author, claims for them grandeur of style? It is no one thing; the sources of the Sublime in style are many—as many as the qualities and circumstances of Style itself. Whenever one of these qualities is displayed, whenever one of these circumstances is utilized, in the transmuting and transporting fashion and degree—there is the Grand Style. In the speech of Julia, above referred to,

She hath been fairer, Madam, than she is,

the secret lies, to a great extent, in the double meaning, and in the pathetic moderation and modulation of the disguised and deserted mistress. The language is quite plain—it is an instance, one of many, which shows that poetic diction is not a sine qua non, though none of these shows that it can be or ought to be wholly dispensed with. But as I am, I confess, strongly and indeed irreconcilably opposed to the doctrine that the great thought ipso facto makes the Great Style—that the meaning is the thing—I am particularly glad to start with an instance where the secret does lie mainly in the meaning.

It lies there less in the passage of the Errors:

For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself, and not me too.

Here the meaning is good, is true, is pathetic—but it is not in it that the transport and the transmutation lie. They lie partly, as Longinus would assert, in the Figure—the vivid image of the breaking gulf, and the drop of water contrasted with and whelmed in it. They lie, I think, partly also in the actual verbal phrase by which that figure is conveyed. But to me they lie most in the management of the metre, the alternative check and rush of the rhythm of the now sundered, now overlapping, verses—the perfection of the entire phrase, prosodic and poetic.

The third passage, that in Titus, is more of a 'Passage Perilous'; for the evidence of the novitiate is here very strong:

Upon his bloody finger he doth wear
A precious ring that lightens all the hole,
Which, like a taper in some monument,
Doth shine upon the dead man's earthy cheeks
And shows the ragged entrails of the pit."

After this it goes off into mere failure about Pyramus and the moon, and Cocytus, and other gradus matters. Even here, in the lines quoted, the expression is not thoroughly 'brought off'—it is the Grand Style in the rough, with the master's hand not yet in case to finish it. Yet the solemn splendour of the opening line, and the lights and shades and contrasts of dim outline and ghastly colour, have the right quality—or at least the promise of it.

When we come to such a play as Romeo and Juliet the command of these sources is far surer and more frequent, though it seems to be masqued or marred, to some spectators, by the accompanying comedy or farce, which is not, and is not intended to be, grand in any way. The famous 'Queen Mab' speech is not quite up to our mark—not at all because it is light in subject, but because Mercutio, pleasant as is his fancy, does, as Romeo says, 'talk of nothing' to some extent, or talk a little too much of his pleasant something. But the famous later scenes of the play are full of the Grand Style; and Romeo's dying speeches, after he has disposed of Paris, have it in perfection and in rare volume. If anybody denies that this is the Grand Style I should like to meet him foot to foot, he taking any passage he likes from Homer, Dante, Milton, or any one else, and to fight the question out, phrase by phrase, line by line, and total impression by total impression.

It is this increasing command of the style that transmutes the subject and transports the reader, which is so characteristic of Shakespeare; joined as it is to a perfect readiness not to use it when he thinks it is not required. I have pointed out that I think this somewhat misled Mr. Arnold, and has misled others. They cannot conceive Apollo without the bent bow; they think that the Grand Style is a sort of panoply which the wearer, like some adventurous knights under a vow, must never take off. Once more, I cannot help thinking this is a mistake. 'Homer and the Grand Style' is a subject which would be very interesting, and which I should not be afraid to handle; but it would be quite irrelevant to say much of it here. The Homeric grandeur, whatever it is, is quite different in species from that of Dante and Milton; and though it is more like Shakespeare's, I do not think that the difference between the two is small. But it is certain that Homer does not wear his Grand Style as a continental officer wears his uniform, while Milton does this to the utmost possible extent, and Dante to an extent extremely great. Shakespeare who is nothing if not English, except that he is also universal is never more English than in his preference for mufti on occasion. It seems to be this preference which has, in the eyes of some, disqualified him.

And yet no one can wear his uniform with more dignity, or assume it with such lightning quickness; while no one can keep it longer fresh on duty. The Sonnets are, of course, the great example of this; for with the rarest exceptions the Sonnets, whatever else they may be or not be, are Grand Style throughout. Their subject does not, from this point of view, matter; whether Elizabethan sonnets in general, and these sonnets at a rather extraordinary particular, present rehandlings of old stuff, or not, is of no importance. Let fifty—let five hundred, or five thousand, people have moralled, poetically or prosaically, on sunrise, noon, and sunset. When the fifty-first, or the five hundred and first, writes,

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head,

the Grand Style appears. It is nearly as impossible to describe, meticulously, the constituents of its grandeur as to describe those of the majesty of the sun itself. There is, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus was perfectly right in holding, something mysterious in the mere word-material—the contrasted sound and structure of the words 'orient', 'gracious', 'burning'. There is much more in their juxtaposition. But there is most in the whole phrase; though with the contestable exception of 'orient' and perhaps 'Lo!' there is not a single specimen of 'poetic diction' in it; most of it is in the simplest vocabulary; and the central thought and image are as common as grass or earth. But the attitude of the phrase is the thing; the simple dignified attitude which sets off, and is set off by 'orient' and 'gracious' and 'burning', as jewels set off, and are set off by, simplicity and dignity and grace combined in the human port and bearing. It is in this that Shakespeare excels all his great competitors in quantity, and differs from all but Dante in quality. In Milton there is always something that is not exactly simple; and in Homer 'perpetual epithets', compound epithets, and the like, interfere to some extent with that ever-varying yet often extraordinarily plain speech which we find in Shakespeare and in Dante. On the other hand, Milton is segregated from the other three by the fact that he depends less than any of them on mighty single words; it is rather (putting proper names out of the question) on the rhetorical collocation of those which he uses that he relies. The double epithets that he employs are imitations from the Greek. But Shakespeare delights in such words as 'multitudinous,' 'incarnadine,' 'unwedgable,' just as Dante does in such as ammassiccia and fiammeggiante. And yet Shakespeare can produce the Grand Style effect with five repetitions of 'never' in a single line, or with such a renunciation of emphasis, such a miracle of negative expression, as 'The rest is Silence'. I suppose the very prodigality of his use of it, the insouciance of this prodigality, like that of

Wealthy men who care not how they give,

and above all the disconcerting way in which he gives it when people do not expect it, and are not prepared for it, account to some extent for the dubiety and discomfort with which it has been and is received, for the tendency to plead 'his time' and 'the necessities of the theatre' and the like. For it is a great mistake to suppose that the day of apologies for Shakespeare is over. The form of the apology alters, but the fact remains: and I am inclined to think that Shakespeare, though he would certainly have been amused by most of his modern assailants, would have been still more amused by some of his modern apologists. Still, the 'wilfulness' (as his own age would have said) of this prodigality is no doubt disconcerting to some honest folk. People are uncomfortable at being taken by surprise. They want to be told to 'prepare to receive cavalry'; there must be a warning-bell and a voluntary, and ornaments and vestments, to put them into a proper Grand Style frame of mind. Milton provides all this, and he is recognized as a grand stylist; Shakespeare does not, and his title is questioned. A respectable but rather futile gentleman like Duke Orsino is plentifully supplied with the noblest phrase; a petulant, dishonourable, almost worthless prince like Richard II is supplied more plentifully still, and from a still nobler mint. He does not grudge it to his villains; if

The wheel is come full circle; I am here[3]

be not in the Grand Style, I confess myself utterly ignorant what the Grand Style is. It comes sometimes, as it were, 'promiscuously' in the vulgar sense of that term. It would, for instance, be exceedingly difficult for the most expert, or the most futile, ingenuity of the commentator to assign an exact reason for the occurrence, where it occurs, of what is perhaps the grandest example of the Grand Style in all literature—the words of Prospero to Ferdinand, when the revels are ended. An excuse is wanted to break off the pretty 'vanity of his art'; to get rid of the lovers; and to punish, in defeating it, the intentionally murderous but practically idle plot of Caliban and his mates. Anything would do; and the actual pretext is anything or nothing But Shakespeare chooses to accompany it with a 'criticism of life'—and of more than life—so all-embracing, couched in expression of such magnificence, that one knows not where to look for its like as form and matter combined. An ordinary man, if, per impossibile, he could have written it, would have put it at the end; an extraordinary one might have substituted it for, or added it to, the more definite announcement of abdication and change which now comes later with 'Ye elves', &c. Shakespeare puts it here.

Sometimes he will even outrage the Mrs. Grundy of criticism by almost burlesquing the Grand Style, by letting Titania, in her deluded courtship of Bottom, be not merely graceful, and fanciful, and pathetically pleading, but by making her indulge in such positive magnificence, such sheer Sublime as

The Summer still doth tend upon my state,

which the most serious poet, telling the severest tale, might be only too happy to have invented. At other times the examples are frequent in the probably rehandled chronicle-plays—he will take another man's phrase which is not grand at all, and 'grandee' it—equip it with the Orders of the King, and the qualifications necessary to justify them—by a stroke or two of added or altered diction. Constantly it seems as though a sort of whim took him to be grand or as if (in the words of one of his own characters who is too graceless for the strictly Grand Style, though grand enough in his own fashion) ''grandeur lay in his way and he found it '. Some of these characters—Hamlet for one, of course, and Macbeth for another—would speak habitually in it if they had not more grace of congruity than to do so. There is no one who has it more perfectly than Antony—unless it be Cleopatra—when either chooses; and Othello at his best excels almost all others. Once more, if his last words be not in the Grand Style, where are we to look for it?

But the old aporia—the old curious fallacy-objection—recurs. 'These things are grand—but there is so. much else that is not grand.' To this there is, once more, only the old answer to all fallacy-objections of the kind. 'Why not?' I suspect that the fallacy arises, as so many aesthetic fallacies do, from a confusion of Arts. It is sometimes forgotten that literature, especially in some of its forms, is much more of a macrocosm than any of its sister species of Imitation. The greater epic, the novel, and especially the drama, have got to face and reproduce life, character, action, circumstance, in all their varieties, foul as well as fair, trivial as well as dignified, commonplace as well as exceptional. To attempt to clothe all this in the same Grand Style, or in the Grand Style at all, is to offend against the sumptuary laws of Art itself. The so-called classical drama of modern time has made this attempt; and the wiser judgement of the best periods of criticism has decided that it has failed. Poetry at large tried to do it for a century and a half or thereabouts, and failed even more egregiously. Prose fiction never really succeeded until it cast the attempt aside. I have boldly confessed that I do not think Dante did attempt it; and that, though Milton certainly did, and achieved perhaps the only success on record, he paid for it somewhat dearly, and could not have attained what success he did attain but for the extremely exceptional nature of his subject. Further, I think that, in certain notorious passages, he actually tried to get out of the Grand Style—without succeeding in getting into anything else good. Your short poem, like your sculpture or your picture, is all the better for being Grand Style unmixed; not so your long one, and still less your drama. Thus Shakespeare himself never deserts the Grand Style in the Sonnets, or indeed in any of his poems, except—and then not always—songs in the plays of such a character that grandeur would be almost or wholly out of place. In his plays themselves he suits style to subject, and so alternates Grand Style with that which is not grand.

But the grandeur of its grandeur when it is grand! And the inexhaustible variety of it, and of the means whereby it is attained! I believe I was once rash enough to assert that you could not open a double page of the Globe edition—which means something more than two hundred lines—(excepting of course the prose passages, the plays only partially Shakespeare's and those dealing with purely comic matter) without coming on something unmistakably in the Grand Style. To justify this boast 'at the foot of the letter' would no doubt be difficult, seeing that there are something like five hundred such page-openings. But in such experiments as I have made—and they are numerous—I have very rarely drawn the cover blank, and have frequently 'found' where, from the subject and context, finding was unlikely.

This ubiquity of the Shakespearian Grand Style, as combined and contrasted with its abstinence from continuity, is one of its most notable characteristics, and is connected in the closest degree with that absence of mannerism which has been noted. The extreme difficulty of defining or even describing Shakespeare's style has been alike the theme and the despair of the commentators; it extends to, and is intensified in the case of, his Grand Style. The ticketing critics who were so common in classical times, and who are not unknown in modern, would be—some of the latter have been—hopelessly 'out' with him. You cannot fix on any special collocation of words like Milton's adoption and extension of the Chaucerian epithet before and after the noun; on any tricks of grammar like Milton's apposition; on any specially favourite words such as those to be found in the most diverse writers. It seems as if he had deliberately determined that no special mould, no particular tool, no recipe of mixture and arrangement, should be capable of being pointed out as his secret, or even as one of his secrets, of attaining grandeur. It has been remarked already that the subject, or at least the context of subject, hardly matters. But other things matter as little. Any vocabulary; any syntax; any rhetoric, will do for Shakespeare to produce his masterpieces; and it may sometimes seem as if—like conjurors very often and chemists sometimes—he had taken a sort of whimsical delight in producing his effects with the minimum of apparatus, or with apparatus of the least formal kind.

You may find curious instances of this in the very forefront of his work as it is read, though it may have been his last completed task. Take those two well-known lines of Prospero's,

In the dark backward and abysm of Time,
and

To act her earthy and abhorred commands.

Now a hasty critic may dismiss the most obvious device by which the style is raised in these as merely the old trick, familiar for generations before Shakespeare, and already almost caricatured by men like Fisher and Berners—the trick of combining native and imported elements. But there is something much more than a mere draft on the Teutonic and Romance columns of a conveniently arranged Dictionary of Synonyms. The double source Is drawn upon; 'backward' and 'earthy' do stand to 'abysm' and 'abhorred' as the pairs so familiar in Bible and Prayer-book do to each other. But Shakespeare is not content with this grammar-school antithesis. In the first place, he varies the meaning in 'backward' and 'abysm', giving waste horizontal stretch in the one case and unplumbed depth in the other; and he also contrasts the mere sound of the words as much as possible, while deliberately adopting the form in 'ysm' for the sake of euphony. In the second he adds to the contrast of origin and sound a complete change of point of view. 'Earthy' is a quality of the commands; 'abhorred' an attitude of the mind commanded. He has tapped not one but many of the Longinian 'sources'; he has blended the products of his tapping. And yet these are mere everyday instances, the ordinaire, as it were, of his cellar.

Pass from the almost certainly last to one of the certainly earliest plays, the Two Gentlemen, and, avoiding the apex already quoted from it, taking (at whatever may be their full value) the imperfect construction, the more imperfect characterization, the superabundant evidences of the novitiate in conceit and word-play and trifling—consider for a moment one line of its second greatest passage (I. ii. 84),

The uncertain glory of an April day.

'Quite commonplace,' says the quite commonplace reader. 'Everybody knows that April days are uncertain.' But has everybody called them so in this simplicity and consummateness of phrase? Try obvious variants:

The fickle glory of an April day,

or 'the treacherous', or 'the passing', or a dozen others, not to mention the non-obvious ones which would have commended themselves to second- or tenth-rate writers of that day and this—far-fetched and dear-bought frigidities which will suggest themselves by the dozen. Then do the same thing with 'glory,' substituting 'splendour,' 'beauty,' what you will. Put all the results of experiment beside the actual text, and you will, if you have a Grand Style ear, have very little difficulty in determining where the Grand Style lies—with Ariel and the bee, not beside the lamp and in the chemist's shop.

To go through all the plays, even by sample at fancy, would be impossible; but it may perhaps be permitted to me to give a few more of my sortes Shakespearianae. I shall avoid, as I have avoided, except by general reference, the most famous passages—for there is no need to have recourse to them, and the means by which their effects are achieved, though always different in individual, are never different in general character from those manifest in the smaller instances—if any can be called small. The most general touch of all is perhaps that already noticed—the ambidexterity with which the poet uses the most and the least unusual phrases and words. He has neither a studied grandiloquence nor a studied simplicity, nor does he specially affect that peculiar source of sublimity—that is to say, 'transport'—which consists in a sort of catachresis or deliberate misuse of words in secondary intentions, like that frequently adopted by Sir Thomas Browne. He will at one moment write a phrase 'to tear with thunder the wide cheeks of the air', which has the very sound-effect of which it speaks, and which has the largeness of the universe itself, with metrical accompaniments to match; and then he will pass in the same speech from this poetical magnificence to the plain downright scorn of

This fellow had a Volscian to his mother.[4]

He will write, using the simplest words and most familiar metre,

Fear no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages,

producing, it appears, on some people the effect of 'drivel'—certainly producing on others the effect of the most perfect and poignant poetry of ordinary life. And then, within a page or two, he will sketch a picture of war in a line and a half, with a couple of images of sound and sight that could not be beaten in effect by a paragraph, or another page:

That when they hear the Roman horses neigh,
Behold their quartered fires—

where the absence of superfluity, and the presence of concentration, are equally remarkable.[5] For my part, if I had any doubt about Shakespeare having a hand in Pericles, one line would settle it—

A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear.[6]

For even Middleton or Webster, the two who have come nearest to Shakespearian phraseology, could hardly have achieved this curious union of simplicity and the Grand Style; while Cyril Tourneur, who has been thought by some to have the touch, certainly could not have achieved it.

Nor is it less interesting to examine the passages which—not of the greatest as wholes; not containing any of the actual 'jewels five words long' which are so plentiful; not exempt, it may be, from the less grand marks of the form and pressure of the time, in conceit and euphuism and absence of restraint—still betray this Grand Style of Shakespeare's. Take, for instance, that in some ways most Shakespearian of all the plays not greatest—Timon of Athens. The central situation is, of course, dramatic enough; but it is not perhaps one which lends itself to effective dramatic treatment of the Shakespearian kind, because there is not sufficient development of character; while it does lend itself to that Shakespearian divagation and promiscuity of handling which, though they do not disturb some of us, seem to disturb others so much. But the play is simply drenched with the Grand Style—every rift is packed with Grand Style gold—not, it may be, refined to the point of the greatest, but gold unmistakable. It peeps out of the rhetorical commonplaces of the professional cynic Apemantus:

Like madness is the glory of this life,
As this pomp shows to a little oil and root,

where the first verse at least is perfect.[7] Alcibiades—in Shakespeare's scheme not the Admirable Crichton of some views of him, if not of history, but only a rather good specimen of professional soldier—has vouchsafed to him that splendid cadence—

Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven. Dead
Is noble Timon.[8]

The excellent Flavius—best of servants, but certainly not most poetical of men—is made mouthpiece of that glorious line—

O! the fierce wretchedness that glory brings us.[9]

As for Timon himself, his misfortunes make him a Shakespeare. Even the first frantic retrospect of cursing on Athens is, till the rhyme comes at least, a Grand-Style raving. The address to 'the blessed breeding sun' is greater still; and the better known demonstration of the universality of thieving is raised by the style, despite its desperate quaintness, almost to the level of the greatest things in Hamlet.

The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, that this Grand Style is not easily tracked or discovered by observation, unless you give yourself up primarily to the feeling of it. You cannot tell how it arises, and you will often have some difficulty in deciding why it goes. It is the truest, precisely because it is the most irresponsible, of the winds of the spirit—no trade wind or Etesian gale, but a breeze that rises and falls, if not exactly as it listeth—as the genius of the poet and the occasions of the subject list. We may recur once more—in the useful, not the useless, fashion of comparison, the fashion which appraises qualities, but does not ticket values to the four names which, in Literature, have been most frequently associated with this Style. Homer has it in a form scarcely comparable with the others. If we had more early Greek epic—more especially if we had Antimachus—we should be much better judges of the Homeric Grand Style than we are. As it is, we see in it extraordinary and extraordinarily varied melody of verse and phrase, a use of Figure, especially of Simile, which is unsurpassed, and to which indeed all subsequent literary poetry is directly or indirectly indebted; and one great engine, the elaborate and mostly perpetual epithet, which is a great puzzle to cautious and widely experienced critics. For the ancients will not tell us exactly how these epithets affected them; and we ought to know, lest we make the same mistakes which, as we see, foreigners are constantly making about English, and which, no doubt, Englishmen as frequently make about foreign literature.

We are safer with Dante, for there we have practically all possible facilities of comparison. The language is still living; we know what those who have spoken and written it since thought and think about it; and we have our own independent, but in this case fully informed, judgement to be the sovereign guide. We find that there is undoubtedly a prevalent style in Dante: and that this is of a peculiar gravity, the gravest style perhaps in all literature, yet in no sense stiff or stilted, and not (to some tastes) at all affected. But it seems, to some at least, that this style is very largely influenced, and even to some considerable extent produced, by the metre—which is of an intense idiosyncrasy, and though not in the least monotonous, curiously uniform in general atmosphere—much more so indeed than the Greek hexameter, and quite infinitely more so than the English blank verse. We find, further, that Dante has no exclusive preference for lofty images or even expressions: and that though he will use the most elaborate and carefully-sifted poetic-pictorial diction, his Grand Style is not so much a matter of that as of the suffused atmosphere or aura spoken of above. There is in fact, in the old sense of the word as applied to music, a Dantesque mode—pervading everything and affecting grotesque, extravagance, pedantry—(these are not my words, but such as others use)—almost or quite as much as the grander parts themselves. Breaking chronological order, for obvious reasons, we come to Milton, and here again we find something all-pervading. But its nature is different: and so is the nature of its pervasion. It is practically independent of metre—for the peculiarity of blank verse is that it imposes no character of its own, but takes that of its writer—'blankness' in the worst sense; the 'tumid gorgeousness' which Johnson, not without some excuse, mistook for its differentia; or a varied magnificence in the best and strictest sense of that word, which knows no limit and accepts no rule. The Miltonic style is quite above the Miltonic metre in one sense of 'above', though hardly in another; it is perceivable almost equally, in the complicated stanza of the 'Nativity', in the octo-syllables of the early middle poems, in the rhymed blank verse of Lycidas, in the pure blank verse of the Paradises, in the dialogue and the chorics of Samson. It admits variety; but here also, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. I do not know that we can free it from the label of affectation; though it is affectation transcendentalized and sublimed. The proof is that it cannot descend and unbend as Dante's can. But we are not talking at length of Milton here. Suffice it to say, that this undoubted uniformity, with the less universal but somewhat similar uniformity of Dante, which no doubt patterned it, and the quite different uniformity of Homer, undoubtedly helped to create the idea of a Grand Style existing almost ab extra, and bound to present itself separately, at demand, everywhere, for everything.

To this idea Shakespeare is certainly rebel; if a manner so absolutely aristocratic as his can even admit the suggestion of rebellion. Milton he cannot be for many reasons, including the fact that he has to go before Milton can come; Dante he does not choose to be; Shakespeare he is. And as being Shakespeare—in order, indeed, to make what we mean by Shakespeare—he uses the Grand Style as his Attendant Spirit. He says to it, 'Come,' and it comes; he says to it, 'Go,' and it goes. It is not his master, as to some extent their styles were the masters both of Dante and of Milton. He does not make it his mistress, as not a few hardly lesser men have done—caressing it; doing homage to it; and never letting it out of his sight if he can help. Sometimes he seems almost wilfully and capriciously to give it its congé—to take up with inferior creatures for pastime. But this is a delusion. He knows that to employ a being so majestical for every purpose of a dramatic household is a profanation—that she is for the pageants and the passions, for the big wars and the happy or unhappy loves, for the actions and the agonies of pith and moment. For the rest, the handmaidens and the serving men, the clowns and the fools, the Osrics and the Poloniuses will do; though he willnot grudge even to them, when it suits him, a touch of the higher language, a flash of the sublimer thought. To this you must make up your mind, if you go a Grand-Styling with Shakespeare.

There is no fear, as I said before, of drawing the covers blank. Take for our last instance that strange play—so puzzling in many ways, so offensive, I believe, to some good wits, such a mixture of almost the highest Shakespeare and almost the most ordinary University Wit—take Troilus and Cressida. Neglect, while to this or that extent acknowledging—for, if you cannot combine acknowledgement and neglect in this way, you may be an excellent neighbour and a very good bowler, but you are no critic—neglect the disappointment in the handling of some of the characters, the confused action, the uncomely patches. Neglect further—or rather do not neglect, but use only as a contrast and foil—the tale of bombasted blank verse and craggy conceited phrase as it seems to some. Postpone for consideration the jumble (I am here speaking throughout the language of the Advocatus Diaboli) of long-winded tirades and word-playing prose. What remains in your sieve—your crucible—your gold-washing cradle? Not merely the famous 'One touch of nature' which has been so frequently and so curiously misinterpreted. Not merely the less generally known but hardly inferior beauties of that same magnificent speech which begins

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,

and ends—

Made emulous missions 'mongst the Gods themselves
And drave great Mars to faction.[10]

This singular throwing into dramatic form of the ordinary Troy-books perpetually develops Grand Style; the common-places of Nestor and the other chiefs break into it in the same odd fashion in which an apparently quiet wave, hardly undulating the surface a little way from shore, will break on the beach itself with a sudden burst of glittering thunder. It is extraordinary how the γνὤμαι (the 'sentences', as Greek and Latin rhetoricians .would have called them) of the great debating Third Scene of the First Act stick in one's memory. The play itself is never acted; never used for those official purposes which, I fear, make other parts of Shakespeare best known to us both in youth and age; nor is it in all ways seductive to private reading. Yet the Grand Style impression is made constantly: though with that singular diversity and elusiveness of means, direct and suggested, to which attention has been drawn throughout. Take this:

There is seen
The baby figure of the giant mass
Of things to come at large.[11]

That is no bad instance of what may be called the middle or average Shakespearian Grand Style perhaps indeed it is a little below the average. It is all the better example. The poet takes, you see, the most ordinary words the actual vocabulary of the phrase is not above even Wordsworthian proof. He takes for figure an equally ordinary antithesis 'baby' and 'giant' though a different writer would probably have spoilt his own farther chances by using 'pygmy' or 'dwarf', instead of 'baby'. And here he gets his first hold on us; for the baby, unlike the dwarf, will grow though whether it will grow to giant size or not, only the Future can tell. Then he thinks of something else 'figure' and 'mass' being not, like 'baby' and 'giant', contrasts of size merely, but indicating the form, the idea, that is to be impressed on the mass. And then he is not satisfied with the limited greatness of 'giant mass' itself; but expands and flings it out into the obscure infinity of things to come, and of things to come at large. You have passed in some dozen or sixteen words, artfully selected, from the definite doll of the baby figure to the vast of Space and Time.

This may seem a fanciful sermon on a more fancifully selected text; but I venture to hope that it may induce some who have not yet thought on the matter to take not uninteresting views of the Grand Style in general and of Shakespeare's Grand Style in particular. They will not find these views easily exhaustible: all the less so because all really Grand Style appeals to a certain complementary gift and faculty in the person who is to appreciate it; it is a sort of infinitely varying tally, which awaits and adjusts itself to an infinite number of counter-pieces. It abides; the counter-pieces may get themselves ready as they can and will.

George Saintsbury.


  1. Presidential address to the Association, January 1910.
  2. See the lectures On Translating Homer.
  3. King Lear, v. iii. 174.
  4. Coriolanus, v. iii. 151, 178.
  5. Cymbeline, IV. ii. 258, iv. 17.
  6. Perides, III. i. 57.
  7. Timon of Athens, I. ii. 139.
  8. Ibid, v. iv. 78.
  9. Ibid. iv. ii. 30.
  10. Troilus and Cressida, in. iii. 145 ff.
  11. Troilus and Cressida, I. iii. 345.