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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Vision of a Great Poet

By Henry Norman Hudson (1814–1886)

[Born in Cornwall, Vt., 1814. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1886. Lectures on Shakespeare. 1848.]

MOST of us see things only in their phenomena; Shakespeare sees them in their principles: we study their history, and infer their nature; he seizes their nature, and infers their history: we learn what they are by observing what they do; he sees at once what they are, and can prophesy what they will do. Viewing effects, not as they come up in detail and succession, but in the causes that produce them, he can therefore anticipate and preannounce them with as much essential accuracy as they can announce themselves. While, for example, we can scarce discern the form and structure of a tree when it stands full-grown before us, Shakespeare discerns its whole form and structure, as it were, in the seed from which it springs. Or take any human institution, the institution, for example, of knighthood: Shakespeare does not learn its nature by poring over an obscure heap of historical records, but penetrates at once to the fundamental principle which built up and organized the whole fabric; and therefore can write its history in substance without studying it. In the parent germ, as it were, he discerns the whole systems of feelings, and sentiments, which will in due time grow out of it. Once more, take any given actual person; Shakespeare does not need to wander, like the rest of us, through the facts of his past life, to arrive at his character, but seizes at a glance the actuating principle of his being; and, from the inexhaustible variety of forms and images at his command, can reveal the character better, perhaps, in a few minutes, than the character can reveal itself in as many years. Disentangling, as it were, and drawing out the pure reality from the dreamy, unreal mixtures which everywhere darken and obstruct it, he bodies it forth in more transpicuous and more expressive forms. Accordingly, Goethe has compared his characters to watches with crystalline cases and plates, which, while they point out with perfect accuracy the course of the hours and minutes, at the same time disclose the whole combination of springs and wheels whereby they are moved. Therefore it is that his characters often seem more real than the characters about us, because the former are given to us cleared from the perplexities and obscurations which more or less cloud the simplest characters of real life from our vision….

He never confounds his own individuality with that of his characters; never, like Byron, thrusts himself upon us under the names and through the faces of his different persons. In a word, he distinguishes perfectly between himself and the object of his thought, and therefore never discloses the one when he means to disclose the other. The thing stands before him in its exact shape and color, unmodified by his own thoughts, untinged by his own feelings; and the pure white light of his intellect reveals the whole thing without being visible itself. Undoubtedly much of this was owing to his singular purity of heart, his freedom from everything like conceit, and pride, and vanity; his willingness to make his characters everything, himself nothing; to keep behind his subject, instead of getting upon it. So that it seems doubtful whether this perfect self-aloofness from his representations declares more strongly for his purity or for his perspicacity of mind; whether his self-oblivion sprung from clearness of sight or his clearsightedness from oblivion of self. His genius, in short, was like sunlight, which, always taking the precise form and color of the object it shines upon, makes everything else visible, but remains itself unseen.