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a simile which sets us thinking of those lines in Julius Caesar, where Brutus is meditating on the domination of Caesar :
'It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
Again, because we are so used to think of the mulberry as peculiarly Shakespeare's tree, it is to be expected that we take a little more than common interest in the circumstance that it was with mulberries and red-ripe cherries' that the birds used to feed Adonis, and we may even like to see here a reference to what may well have been two of the poet's favourite edible fruits: but we can hardly claim that the circumstance has any bearing on his observation of nature. The bulk of Shakespeare's references to natural objects are of this sort.
Yet surely Shakespeare drew upon actual observation in his 'limning' of Adonis' horse? We imagine so; until one day we stumble on this catalogue which Mr. A. Forbes Sieveking excerpted from some Elizabethan manual on horsemanship, long since forgotten by all but special students, and printed for our delectation in Shakespeare's England:
'Round hooves, short pasterns with long fewter lockes, broade breast, great eies, short and slender head, wide nostrils, the crest rising, short ears, strong legs, crispe mane, long and bushy tail, great round buttocks.'
So Shakespeare knew old Thomas Blundeville and 'lifted' from him as boldly as he 'lifted' anything out of Holinshed or North's Plutarch. After this we are prepared to be told that even in the account of the hunting of the hare, which is without question the best part of the poem, there are curious resemblances' to Étienne Jodelle's Ode de la Chase. As indeed there are, only not so close as to rule out the possibility that Shakespeare may be drawing
III i 14-15.
3 Vol. II, p. 413.
Cf. Venus, 11. 295-8.
• L. 1103.
Sir Sidney Lee: A Life of William Shakespeare: new and enlarged edition, 1922, p. 145.
on his own observation. For one thing the subject of Jodelle's poem is a stag hunt. However, we think Mr. Morton Luce is right when he contends that the Venus and Adonis is not the work of an enthusiastic lover of the country-side. It is the work of a young poet who was fascinated by Arthur Golding's Ovid, who had read at least some foreign Renaissance literature, and whose thoughts were too much occupied with sexual passion.
A number of references to nature are found in the Lucrece. We are shewn the 'corn o'ergrown by weeds,' and the morning's silver-melting dew' which vanishes before the golden splendour of the sun.'1 We see Lucrece likened to a
poor frighted deer, that stands at gaze, Wildly determining which way to fly,' 2
and Tarquin to a 'night-waking cat,' that
.. doth but dally
While in his hold-fast foot the weak mouse panteth.' 3
Some of the poet's 'observations,' however, are derived from anything but his own powers of observing. It is true that the nightingale frequents thorny copses, but it is of course not true that it leans against a thorn in order to keep its sharp woes waking.' 4 Shakespeare is relying on either books or oral tradition, probably the latter. Again, the poet is clearly wrong when he says that the nightingale does not sing in the daytime. In the case of the Lucrece, as in the case of the Venus, it will be found that Shakespeare's familiarity with country life does not extend much beyond the 'everyday incidents of rustic existence.' On the whole, then, a study of this poem does not materially affect our judgement.
Neither does a reading of the Sonnets. With the difficult problems which arise out of them we are not now concerned, but we are concerned that their theme
1 L. 281; 11. 24-25.
2 Ll. 1149-50.
Cf. ll. 1135-6.
3 Ll. 554-5.
5 L. 1142.
is life, the life of men and women, and not external nature.
'O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument.'1
This, if we substitute 'loves' for the first 'love,' roughly holds of the entire series. When nature is introduced it is because the poet wants to point a lesson of some kind. Thus it is that he sings of the 'gold candles fix'd in heaven's air,' or tells how he has seen the trees
.. barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.' 3
So, too, he tells of the forward violet' which blows in all its' purple pride,' of the waves making towards the pebbled shore, of the nightingale which
. . . in summer's front doth sing
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.' 4
Here, in his main fact, Shakespeare is right. The nightingale, which comes to us about the middle of April, loses its voice at the end of May. Although the poet consistently, but wrongly, makes the female bird the singer, it can be urged in his defence that literary convention demands that the nightingale be feminine: his usage does not necessarily prove ignorance.
It will be objected that because a poet introduces external nature for the purpose of comparing or contrasting her life with the life of men, we have no ground for holding that he did not appreciate nature and the objection is valid. We do not for a moment suppose that Shakespeare did not enjoy natural scenery-indeed the well-known sonnet beginning' Full many a glorious morning have I seen makes such a supposal impossible-though he probably would not have appreciated quite the same scenery which
1 Sonnet lxxvi.
3 Sonnet xii.
5 Sonnet xxxiii.
2 Sonnet xxi.
4 Sonnets xcix, lx, cii.
we do; but we can find no evidence in his non-dramatic work that he had studied his Warwickshire country-side or any country-side with a keen eye. On the contrary Steevens was fully justified in remarking, with regard to Sonnet liv, that Shakespeare's avowal that the wild rose or 'canker-bloom' is of as deep a dye' as the rose itself, shews that he had not yet begun to observe the productions of nature with accuracy.'
Our task now is to study the plays and see whether the gleam of hope which Steevens' 'yet' holds out materializes.
An early play, A Midsummer-Night's Dream, shews Shakespeare on the way to becoming a poet of nature, if it is proper to use the term of him (and we use it merely for want of a better), but as yet one whose interest is the product rather of his reading than of patient and constant observation. Indeed Mr. Morton Luce would hardly allow that it shews him even on the way. However, certain passages, including some well-known ones, do, we think, suggest that the writer of A Midsummer-Night's Dream had some first-hand knowledge of nature. It is the same sort of knowledge which we have found in the narrative. poems and sonnets. Certainly much is redolent of the study, yet Shakespeare would hardly have written such lines as these if he had not himself felt something of nature's charm:
'Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
1 II i 2-15.
Shakespeare often mentions the cowslip, and if any flower was familiar to him it was. We need not therefore necessarily suppose that he had taken less careful note of it when he composed these lines than he had years afterwards when he told how Iachimo, having hidden himself in Imogen's chamber, saw on the sleeper's left breast
'A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
Which drops assuredly are not crimson. Yet in spite of this Shakespeare's knowledge of natural objects was probably not so accurate when he penned A MidsummerNight's Dream as it subsequently became. For all his banks where the wild thyme blows,' in A MidsummerNight's Dream he did not really get at close quarters with nature at all. To give an illustration. The delicately scented musk rose had then recently been introduced into England from Italy. It would be exceedingly unlikely that it would be found in England growing on any bank. This is no fault in the poem: it can quite legitimately grow on Oberon's bank, just as, for example, in other places the poet can depart from strict botanical truth, since we are in fairy-land. But the mere mention of the musk rose tells us nothing except that Shakespeare knew that there was such a rose. What is probably the truth is that at this period the poet had a fondness for flowers in a general way, but not a sufficient love of them to set him studying them in any detail or even watching them very carefully. With this attitude many will sympathize.
Nor was Shakespeare interested in flowers only. Already we have noticed a reference in the Sonnets to heaven's ' gold candles,' and it is more than likely it made us think of that scene which Sir Sidney Colvin is probably not alone in considering the most enchanting moonlight scene in all literature,' the opening of the last act of The Merchant of Venice. Again, few scenes are dearer to us than the balcony
1 Cymbeline, II ii 37–39.
2 John Keats, his Life and Poetry, etc., 3rd edition, 1920, p. 167.