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A Hero and Some Other Folks by William A. Quayle

Shakespeare is absolutely sane


The genesis of misconceptions, however, is worth one's while to study; for in a majority of cases there is in the misconception a sufficient flavoring of truth to make the erroneous notion pass as true. At bottom, the human soul loves truth, nor willingly believes or receives a lie. Our intellectual sin is synecdoche, the putting a part truth for a whole truth. Generalization is dangerous intellectual exercise. Our premise is insufficient, and our conclusion is self-sufficient, like some strutting scion of a decayed house. Trace the origin of this idea of a poet's non-sanity. He was not ordinary, as other men, but was extraordinary, and as such belonged to the upper rather than the lower world; for we must be convinced how wholly the ancients kept the super-earthly in mind in their logical processes--an attitude wise and in consonance with the wisest of this world's thinking. Heaven must not be left out of our computations, just as the sun must not be omitted in writing the history of a rose or a spike of golden-rod. In harmony with this exalted origin of the poet went the notion that he was under an afflatus. A breath from behind the world blew in his face; nay, more, a breath from behind the world blew noble ideas into his soul, and he spake as one inspired of the gods. This conception of a poet is high and worthy; nothing gross grimes it with common dust. Yet from so noble a thought--because the thought was partial--grew the gross misconception of the poet as beyond law, as not amenable to social and moral customs, as one who might transgress the moral code with impunity, and stand unreproved, even blameless. He was thought to be his own law--a man whose course should no more be reproved or hindered than the winds. The poet's supremacy brought us to a wrong conclusion. The philosopher we assumed to be balanced, the poet to be unbalanced. Shelley, and Poe, and Heine, and Byron, and Burns elucidate this erroneous hypothesis of the poet. We pass lightly their misrule of themselves with a tacit assumption of their genius having shaken and shocked their moral faculties as in some giant perturbation.

I now recur to the initial suggestion, that the great poet is sane. The poet is yet a man, and man is more than poet. Manhood is the regal fact to which all else must subordinate itself. Nothing must be allowed to disfranchise manhood; and he who manumits the poet from social and ethical bonds is not logical, nor penetrative into the dark mystery of soul, nor is he the poet's friend. Nor is he a friend who assumes that the poet, because a poet, moves in eccentric paths rather than in concentric circles. Hold with all tenacity to the poet's sanity. He is superior, and lives where the eagles fly and stars run their far and splendid courses; but he is still man, though man grown tall and sublime. To the truth of this view of the great poet bear witness Aeschylus, and Dante, and Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Tennyson, and Browning, in naming whom we are lighting on high summits, as clouds do, and leaving the main range of mountains untouched. Shakespeare is absolutely sane. Not Blondin, crossing Niagara on a thread for a pathway, was so absolute in his balance as Shakespeare. He saw all the world. Nor is this all; for there are those who see an entire world, but see it distorted as an anamorphism. There is a cartoon world, where everybody is apprehended as taking on other shapes than his own, and is valued in proportion as he is susceptible of caricature. But plate-glass is better for looking through than is a prism. What men need is eyes which are neither far-sighted nor near-sighted, but right-sighted. Shakespeare was that. There is no hint of exaggeration in his characters. They are people we have met on journeys, and some of whom we have known intimately. To be a poet it is not necessary to be a madman--a doctrine wholesome and encouraging. I lay down, then, as one of the canons for testing a poet's greatness, this, "Is he sane?" and purpose applying the canon to Robert Browning, giving results of such application rather than the _modus operandi_ of such results. I assert that he bears the test. No saner man than Browning ever walked this world's streets. He was entirely human in his love of life for its own sake, in his love of nature and friends and wife and child. His voice, in both speech and laughter, had a ring and joyousness such as reminded us of Charles Dickens in his youth. His appreciation of life was intense and immense. This world and all worlds reported to him as if he were an officer to whom they all, as subalterns, must report. The pendulum in the clock on a lady's mantel-shelf is not more natural than the pendulum swung in a cathedral tower, though the swing of the one is a slight and the swing of the other a great arc. Browning is a pendulum whose vibrations touch the horizons. He does business with fabulous capital and on a huge scale, and thinks, sees, serves, and loves after a colossal fashion, but is as natural in his large life as a lesser man is in his meager life. "Caliban upon Setebos" is a hint of the man's immense movement of soul and his serene rationality.


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