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THE ENGLISH OF THE BIBLE.
the Old Testament, with obsolete phraseology, and with single words long since abandoned, or retained only in provincial use."
This may all be true; yet, in the face of Hallam's implied disparagement, we hold, with scores of better judges, that the English of the Bible is unequalled in the full range of our literature. Whether we take the subtile argument of Paul's Epistles, the sublime poetry of Job and the Psalms, the beautiful imagery of the Parables, the simple narrative of the Gospels, the magnificent eloquence of Isaiah, or the clear plain histories of Moses and Samuel, but one impression deepens as we read, and remains as we close the volume,—that, without regard to its infinite greatness as the written word of God, taken simply as a literary work, there is no English book like our English Bible.
CLOSE by the river Avon in Warwickshire, a tall grey spire, springing from amid embowering elms and lime-trees, marks the position of the parish church of Stratford, in the chancel of which sleeps the body of our greatest poet. The proud roof of Westminster has been deemed by England the fitting vault for her illustrious dead; but Shakspere's dust rests in a humbler tomb. By his own loved river, whose gentle music fell sweet upon his childish ear, he dropped into his last long sleep; and still its melancholy murmur, as it sweeps between its willowy banks, seems to sing the poet's dirge. Four lines, carved upon the flat stone which lies over his grave, are ascribed to his own pen. Whoever wrote them, they have served their purpose well, for a religious horror of disturbing the honoured dust has ever since hung about the place :
Good friend, for Jesus' sake, forbeare,
A niche in the wall above holds a bust of the poet, whose high arching brow, and sweet oval face, fringed with a peaked beard and small moustache, are so familiar to us all. How well we know his face and his spirit; and yet, how little of the man's real life las descended to our day !
Not very far from Shakspere's tomb part of the house in which he was born still stands. Sun and rain and air have
BIRTH AND PARENTAGE OF SHAKSPERE.
gradually reduced the plastered timber of its old neighbours into powder; but its wood and lime still hold together, and the room is still shown in which baby Shakspere's voice uttered its first feeble wail. The dingy walls of the little chamber are scribbled all over with the names of visitors, known and unknown to fame. It is pleasant to think that this shrine, sacred to the memory of the greatest English writer, has been lately purchased by the English nation; so that lovers of Shakspere have now the satisfaction of feeling that the relics, which tell so picturesque a story of the poet's earliest days, are in safe and careful keeping.
Here, then, was born in April 1564 William, son of John Shakspere and Mary Arden, his wife. The gossiping Aubrey, no great authority, certainly, who came into the 1564 world about ten years after Shakspere's death, says that the poet's father was a butcher; others make out the honest man to have been a wool-comber or a glover, while an ingenious writer strives to reconcile all accounts by supposing that since good John held some land in the neighbourhood of Stratford, whenever he killed a sheep, he sold the mutton, the wool, and the skin, adding to his other occupations the occasional dressing of leather and fashioning of gloves. Perhaps John Shakspere's chief occupation was dealing in wool. At any rate, whatever may have been his calling, he ranked high enough among the burgesses of Stratford to sit on the bench as High Bailiff or Mayor of the town. Mary Arden, who should perhaps interest us more, if the commonly received rule be true, that men more strongly resemble their mothers in nature and genius, seems to have belonged to an old county family, and to have possessed what was then a considerable fortune.
The beautiful woodland scenery amid which the boy grew to early manhood made a deep impression on his soul. The beds of violets and banks of wild thyme, whose fragrance seems to mingle with the music of the lines that paint their beauty, blossomed richly by the Avon. The leafy glades, from which were pictured those through whose cool green light the melancholy Jacques wandered, and under whose arching boughs Bully Bottom and his
THE POET'S SCHOOL DAYS.
friends rehearsed their “very tragical mirth,” were not in the dales of Middlesex or Surrey, but in the Warwickshire Valley of the Red Horse. But of all men or boys, Shakspere was no mere dreamer, fit only
"To pore upon the brook that babbles by."
We have no doubt that, when the daily tasks were done in the Free Grammar School of Stratford, where Will probably got all the regular instruction he ever had, the said Will might often have been spied on Avon banks, rod in hand, thinking more of trout and dace than of violets or wild thyme. And, as we shall shortly see, there is a strong suspicion, not far removed from certainty, that more than once he saw the moon rise over the dark oak woods of Charlecote Park, while he lurked in the shadow, waiting for the deer, with more of the poacher than the poet in his guise.
And, while he was receiving from Hunt and Jenkins, then the masters of the school, that education which his friend Janson characterizes as consisting of “little Latin and less Greek,” an occasional visit to scenes of a different kind, not far away, may have mingled the colouring of town life and courtly pageants with those pictures of woodland sweetness which his mind caught from the home landscape. Warwick and Coventry-Godiva's town-were near; and in the grand castle of Kenilworth in the year 1575, when the princely Leicester feasted the Queen for nineteen days, why may we not suppose that Alderman or ExBailiff Shakspere, his wife Dame Mary, and his little sou Will, then aged eleven, were among the crowd of people who had travelled from all the country round to see the Queen, the masquers, and the fire-works ? Strolling players, too, sometimes knocked up their crazy stage, hung with faded curtains, in the market-place of Stratford, and there flourished their wooden swords, and raved through their parts to the immense delight of the gaping rustics. Such visits, dear to all the boys of a country town, were, no doubt, longed for and intensely enjoyed by young Shakspere.
How he spent his life after he had left school, and before he went to London, we know as dimly as we know the calling of his
TRADITIONS OF HIS YOUTH.
father. Aubrey says he helped his father the butcher, and that he acted also as a teacher. It is thought, from the constant recurrence of law terms in his writings, that he spent some of these years in an attorney's office. All stories may be true, for everything we know of the poet during this period goes to show that he was by no means a steady or settled character. He may have killed an odd calf or sheep, have taught an occasional class for his former master, and have driven the quill over many yards of yellow parchment. The very existence of three different stories about his early occupation implies that his life at Stratford was changeful and undecided. Nor was he free from youthful faults. To tell the truth, he appears to have engaged in many wild pranks, of which two stories have floated down to our day. One relates to an ale-drinking bout at the neighbouring village of Bidford, by which he was so overcome that, with his companions, he was obliged to spend the night by the road-side under the sheltering boughs of a large crab-tree. The other story is that of the poaching affair already alluded to. It seems that the wild youths of Stratford could not resist the temptation of hunting deer and rabbits in the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, who lived at Charlecote, about three miles off. Shakspere got into the poaching set, was detected one night, and locked up in the keeper's lodge till morning. His examination before the offended justice, and whatever punishment followed it, awoke the anger of the boyish poet, who in revenge wrote some doggerel, punning rhymes upon Sir Thomas, and stuck them on the park gate. This was throwing oil upon flame; and the knight's rage grew so violent that Shakspere had to flee from Stratford. We have thought it right to notice these traditions, though modern authorities discard them with scorn. With much fictitious colouring they have, perhaps, a ground-work of truth sufficient to afford a strong presumption that Shakspere's opening manhood was wild and riotous. His early marriage, too, contracted 1582 when he was but a boy of eighteen, with Anne Hathaway of Shottery, a yeoman's daughter, some eight years older than himself, affords additional evidence of youthful indiscretion.