With Americans of Past and Present Days/6
WE meet on a solemn occasion.
One has recently disappeared from our midst whose work was a model; whose life, too, was a model; whose benign influence, exerted for many years from the seclusion of a quiet retreat, was felt far beyond the limits of his own country; whose views, always expressed in the gentlest terms, will outlive the thunder of many a noisy writer, as ever-renewing flowers survive earthquakes.
A member of the American Philosophical Society, founded in his own city by Franklin “to promote useful knowledge,” Furness was true to the motto of the society and lived the life of a true philosopher. I call him Furness, without Doctor or any other title, not because he is no more, but to obey a request of his. “I do not like titles in the republic of letters,” he wrote me in the early times of our acquaintance; “if you will drop all to me, I will do the same to you. One touch of Shakespeare makes the whole world kin.”
All those whom the spirit of philosophy has penetrated and who stanchly adhere to its ideal count among the noblest types of humanity and, whatever their rank in life or the period when they lived, resemble each other. When Furness died numerous eulogies, biographies, and portraits of him, penned, many of them, by the hands of masters, were published. I wonder if any better resembled him than this one:
“Remember his constancy in the fulfilling of the dictates of reason, the evenness of his humor at all junctures, the serenity of his face, his extreme gentleness, his scorn for vainglory, his application to penetrate the meaning of things. He never dismissed any point without having first well examined and well understood it. He bore unjust reproaches without acrimony. He did nothing with undue haste. A foe to slander, he was neither hypercritical, nor suspicious, nor sophistical. He was pleased with little, modest in his house, his clothing, his food. He loved work, ate soberly, and thus was able to busy himself, for the whole day, with the same problems. Let us remember how constant and equable was his friendship, with what open mind he accepted a frank contradiction of his own views, with what joy he received advice that proved better than his own, and the kind of piety, free from all superstition, that was his. Do as he did, and your last hour will be comforted, as his was, by the conscience of the good accomplished.”
In those higher regions where true philosophers live, equality reigns; they resemble each other by their virtues; this portrait, which, to my mind, gives such a vivid idea of the life Furness led at Wallingford, near Philadelphia, was drawn eighteen centuries ago, by that noblest of antique minds, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, describing his predecessor, the first of the Antonines, he who, on the last night of his life, being asked for the password, had answered: “Æquanimitas.”
After studies at Harvard and Philadelphia and a visit to Europe and the Levant, having taken such part in the Civil War as his infirmity allowed him, a happy husband, a happy father, Horace Howard Furness decided to devote his life to the “promotion of useful knowledge.” He withdrew, in a way, from the world, settling in a quiet retreat, and started on his life’s work with the equipment of a modern scientist and the silent enthusiasm, the indefatigable energy of mediæval thinkers, the compilers of Summœ of times gone, regretting nothing, happy with his lot, at one with that master mind of old English literature, the author of Piers Plowman. “For,” said centuries ago the man “robed in russet,”
“If heaven be on this erthe · and ese to any soule,
It is in cloistre or in scole · be many skilles I finde;
For in cloistre cometh no man · to chide ne to fihte,
But all is buxomnesse there and bokes · to rede and to lerne.”
Such a cloister, with ease to his soul, with buxomness, with books to read and learn, was for our departed friend his house in Wallingford, where he lived surrounded by that extraordinarily gifted family of his: a wife to whom we owe the Concordance to the poems of Shakespeare, a sister who translated for him the German critics, sons and a daughter and a sister’s relative who have all made their mark in their country’s literature. There, for years, he toiled, never thinking of self nor of fame, busy with his task, and even in his seclusion, with his tenderness of heart and ample sympathies, listening to
The still sad music of humanity.
What that task was all the world now knows. A passionate admirer of Shakespeare, he wanted to make accessible to all every criticism, information, comment, explanation concerning the poet which had appeared anywhere at any time. Each volume was to be a complete encyclopædia of all that concerned each play. The first appeared in 1871, the sixteenth is the last he will have put his hand to.
In the introduction to each volume, his purposes and methods are explained, and never has any writer more completely and more unwittingly allowed us to look into his own character than Furness when writing what he must have considered his very impersonal statements. What strikes the reader, before all, is the philosophical spirit which pervades the whole work. A worthy member of the American Philosophical Society, he wanted to be “useful.” Lives are and will be more and more encumbered; the acquisition of knowledge should, therefore, be made more and more easy of reach. “To abridge the labor and to save the time of others” was, said he in his first volume, what impelled him to write. No pains of his were spared to lessen those of others. And all specialists know the extraordinary reliability of his texts and statements. “Nowhere, perhaps,” Sir Sidney Lee wrote in his Life of Shakespeare, “has more labor been devoted to the study of the works of the poet than that given by Mr. H. H. Furness, of Philadelphia, to the preparation of the new Variorum edition.”
The labor was one of love, and a lover naturally forgets himself for the beloved one. Furness tried not to show the ardor of his sentiments; but it now and then appears, usually in small details when he would, more naturally, be off his guard. Shakespeare calls Cæsar’s Ambassador Thidias, and not Thyreus, as the later-day editors do, under pretense that it was the real name. They are wrong: “Shakespeare in his nomenclature was, as in all things, exquisite.… For certain reasons (did he ever do anything without reason?) he chose the name of Thidias.…”
In the privacy of intimate correspondence Furness would be more outspoken, being not restrained by the thought that he would be imposing his own views upon the mass of readers. On Cleopatra, about whom I had risked opinions somewhat different from his, he wrote me—it seems it was yesterday: “Of course, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is not history. But who cares for history ? Of this be assured, that, if you had lived with her as I have for two years, you would adore her as deeply as I do.”
The truth is that, as he said, he actually lived with the personages of the plays, and he rapturously listened to those far-off voices, which came clearer to his infirm ears than to those of any one of us, meant only for commonplace uses. He had a better right than any to form an opinion, but was ever afraid to seem to force it on others. Of his edition itself he had written: “I do not flatter myself that this is an enjoyable edition of Shakespeare. I regard it rather as a necessary evil.” On another occasion, having been criticised about a certain statement of his, he wrote: “I now wish to state that my critic was entirely right and I entirely wrong.” His work was a work of love, but it was also a work of reason, as befits a philosopher. He leaned throughout toward conservative methods, which have doubtless the fault of attracting less tumultuous attention to the worker: a great fault in the eyes of the many, a great quality in Furness’s own.
His shrewd good sense, seconded by a no less enjoyable good humor, never failed him. When he began, one important question had first to be decided: would he admit in his work only textual and philological criticisms or also æsthetic criticism, mere poetry, sheer literature? To many the temptation would have been great to exclude the latter, the fashion being among the most haughty, if not the most learned, of the learned to doubt the seriousness, laboriousness, usefulness of any who can enjoy, in a play of Shakespeare’s, something else than doubtful readings and misprints. This school is less new than is generally believed, and in his Temple du Goût Voltaire had already represented the superb critics of the matter-of-fact school answering those who asked them whether they would not visit the temple:
“Nous, Messieurs, point du tout.
Ce n’est pas là, grâce à Dieu, notre étude;
Le goût n’est rien, nous avons I’habitude
De rédiger au long, de point en point,
Ce qu’on pensa, mais nous ne pensons point.”
The fact is that, as Furness well perceived from the first, the two elements should no more be separated than soul from body. Without accuracy, literary criticism is mere trumpery; without a sense of the beautiful, mere accuracy is deathlike Much so-called æsthetic criticism, wrote Furness, “is flat, stale, unprofitable.… But shall we ignore the possible existence of a keener insight than our own? … Are we not to listen eagerly and reverently when Coleridge or Goethe talks about Shakespeare?”
With such a rule in mind he made his selections, pruning what he deemed should be pruned: “rejectiones et exclusiones debitas,” as Bacon would have said. But one more kind of thing he excluded, and this is an eminently characteristic trait of his. His gentleness (not a weak, but a manly one) rebelled at others’ acerbity, and when he saw appear that unwelcome and somewhat abundant element in modern criticism, he simply left it out: no admittance for any such thing within the covers of a gentleman-scholar’s gentlemanly and scholarly work. True it is that, while Shakespeare is the author most read—after the Bible, it is also the one about which the most furious and unchristian disputes have been waged —after the Bible. The Philadelphia scholar wanted all the critics admitted within his fold to keep the peace there, and he adopted the following rule: “First, all unfavorable criticism of fellow critics is excluded as much as possible.… To confound Goethe, Schlegel, or Tieck is one thing, to elucidate Shakespeare is another.” He went even further, and since he could not quote whole books and had to select, “the endeavor,” he said, “in all honesty has been to select from every author the passages wherein he appears to best advantage.” What critic, then, can be imagined so blind to the service rendered, so much in love with his own harshness, that would not feel toward Furness as Queen Katharine toward Griffith:
After my death I wish no other herald,
No other speaker of my living actions,
To keep mine honor from corruption,
But such an honest chronicler as—Furness.
His friendly appreciation of French critics (who, with all they lacked in early days, were, after all, the first to form, outside of England, an opinion on Shakespeare, the oldest one being of about 1680) cannot but touch a French heart. “It has given me especial pleasure,” he said in the Introduction to his first volume, “to lay before the English reader the extracts from the French; it is but little known, in this country at least, outside the ranks of Shakespeare students, how great is the influence which Shakespeare at this hour is exerting on French literature, and how many and how ardent are his admirers in this nation.” He had even, at a later date, a good word for poor Ducis and his Hamlet, a Hamlet truly Ducis’s own.
Nor shall I ever forget in what tones, amidst friendly applause, the great scholar spoke of France in his own city of Philadelphia, at the memorable gathering of April 20, 1906, when, in accordance with the will of the nation as expressed by Congress, a medal was offered to my country to commemorate her reception of Franklin at the hour when the fate of the States was still weighing in the balance.
In the early years of manhood one sees, far ahead on the road, those great thinkers, scientists, master men, tall, powerful, visible from a distance, ready to help the passer-by, like great oaks offering their shade. They seem so strong, so far above the common that the thought never occurs that we of the frailer sort may see the day when they will be no more. Who was ever present at the death of an oak? Whoever thought that he could see the day when he would accompany Robert Browning’s remains to Westminster or mourn for the disappearance of Taine or Gaston Paris? The feeling I had for them I had for Furness, too. Was it possible to think that this solid oak would fall?
He himself, however, had misgivings, and it seemed, of late years, as if the dear ones who had gone before were beckoning to him. “Do you remember,” he wrote me in 1909, “my sister, Mrs. Wister, to whom I had the pleasure of introducing you at the Franklin celebration? I am now living under the black and heavy shadow of her loss. She left me last November, solitary and alone, aching for the ‘sound of a voice that is silent.’” And at a more recent date: “I have been so shattered by the blows of fate that I doubt you’ll ever again receive a printed forget-me-not from me.”
And now, in our turn, members of the American Philosophical Society, members of the Shakespeare Societies of the world, members innumerable of the republic of letters, we too ache for “the sound of a voice that is silent.” On the signet with which he used to seal his letters, Furness had engraved a motto, which is the best summing up of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s firm and resigned philosophy: “This, too, will pass away.”
For him, too, the august sad hour struck. But so far as anything in this fleeting world may be held to remain, so long as mankind shall be able to appreciate honest work honestly done, the name of Furness will not pass away, but live enshrined in every scholar’s grateful memory.
- Owen Wister.
- Introduction to Hamlet.