John Berrymans Shakespeare problem first gripped him during the war, when he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to work on a new edition of King Lear. Soon he was writing to his old teacher Mark Van Doren, Lears renovation is going on rapidly & ruins me altogether for anything else. I am willing, however, to be destroyed in this cause. Eight years later, the project had changed, but the mania remained: I havent got any verse writtenjust Shakespeare, another hundred pages. And only the year before his death in 1972, having dunned the elderly Van Doren for a letter of reference for yet another fellowship, this time for a critical biography of Shakespeare, he received this bemused reply: You will never finish the Shakespeare book . You have this illusion that youre a scholar, but you know damn well you are nothing of the sort. Berryman cringed and blustered, but died without ever nearing the end of the Shakespeare, any Shakespeare.
Berryman in his obsession was different from Keats, who confronted the Bard on the divided ground of his syntax, the no-mans land of language. Keats wanted to conquer Shakespeare in the sins of his sentences, and when he referred to Things realsuch as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakspeare, he meant it. Berrymans anxiety of influence was more knowing and more difficult. His sonnets (and clumsy sonnets they are) have a mistress as mysterious as Shakespeares, but his Dream Songs are merely the shallow, troubled nightmares of a Caliban. The failures of scholarship are less wounding than failures of poetry, just as the successes are less ennobling: to be a scholar of Shakespeare is to live in the mortality of archives and libraries, to sift the dust of dust as protégé and epigone, but never to challenge Shakespeare on his own soil.
A precocious student at Columbia and Cambridge, Berryman had (unlike Falstaff) a Falstaffian appetite for work and over-work, and (like Falstaff) a cocksure belief in his gifts and hubris enough for a four-star general. The Thirties model of the heroic scholar was Housman, and Berryman wanted to out-Housman Housman (who toiled in the classical backwater of the poet Manilius) by turning his talents to a revolutionary edition of Learit hardly takes much Freud to see that such excess smells out a father figure somewhere. The most annihilating tragedy, the most intractable text, the supreme unfathomed poetTop Bard, as Auden used to say. Scholarship is the reforming character of literature, and in its character more telling than a Rorschach test. Something needed to be proved.
Poetry is often a disabling condition for serious criticism (and vice versa); the skeletons of lost books litter the ground. Where is Delmore Schwartzs book on Eliot, announced and even advertised? Or Jarrells book on Auden? Or Lowells on American poetry? One reason modern poets like poetry is that most poems are short. Scholarship, like an epic poem, requires staminaif modern poets had stamina, theyd be writing novels instead (Jarrells one novel is one odd-duck exception to the failures).
Berryman once set out to read all the books Shakespeare read (a project, like most, left half complete) as well as the surviving English plays published between 1570 and 1614over two hundred of them. The critical edition of Lear was never entirely abandoned, but at various times he planned Shakespeare: A Critical Biography, Plays of Shakespeare, A Shakespeare Handbook, Shakespeares Reading, and Shakespeares Identity, later retitled Shakespeares Reality, a last attempt at biography. For most of these Berryman signed contracts and accepted advances, went into a mania of note-taking, issued optimistic reports (Shakespeares Reading, of which apparently nothing exists worth publishing, was called well advanced in a cadging letter to the Guggenheim Foundation), became discouraged, then fell into silence. Berryman had a drudges relish for tedium, but to finish a project is to declare an imperfection and submit to judgment. What Berryman sought wasnt judgment but exhaustion and redemption.
John Haffenden, Berrymans editor, has worked twenty years to extract the usable ruin of these projects. He faced thousands of pages of notes and drafts, and an inventory that ran to nearly a hundred pages. Scholarship ages faster than fashion (an E. K. Chambers is as rare as a Chanel), and Berryman so stalled publication of his few discoveries that other scholars displaced him. Berrymans Shakespeare retrieves the insights of a brilliant critic who rarely found proper form for his criticism, and was crippled by his gifts. The editor has had to place himself back in the Forties and Fifties to understand Berrymans methods and motives; and in the masterly but longwinded introduction Haffenden has recreated the spirit in which Berryman undertook these massive, hopeless projects.
Berrymans Shakespeare includes fragments of the abandoned biographies; a splendid series of eight lectures on Shakespeares development; essays on Lear with disjecta membra of the Lear edition; idiosyncratic (and completely mistaken) work on the mystery of Mr. W. H.; and a handful of brief, ill-calculated sketches mostly destined for the abandoned Handbook. Four of the best pieces (including his most important essay, Shakespeare at Thirty) were contained in the remarkable collection of Berrymans criticism, The Freedom of the Poet (1976).
Lear first. All texts of Shakespeare are a compromise with disorder, but Lear is the most troubled. It comes to us in three versions, a Quarto of 1608 (Q); a reprint of 1619 fraudulently misdated 1608 (Q2); and the Folio edition of 1623. The text of Q is confused, badly lineated (verse is prose; prose verse), nearly unreadable in places. Q2 has no independent authority, so far as we know, but someone corrected a few of Qs obvious errors even as reprinting introduced new ones. The Folio is very different from the Quartos and probably derives from a later playhouse version, cutting some three hundred lines and one entire scene, adding a hundred new lines, changing many readings. Worse, for an editor, the Folio was set from a scribbled-over copy of Q2, or Q, or a revised transcript of Q, or even a combinationthe scholars are still at war. For years these texts were taken as butchered versions of some grander Lear, and married willy-nilly according to the editors taste.
Berryman entered the quarrel over Lear attracted by the troubled nature of Q. What caused its bizarre confusions? Theories at the time held that its errors were due not just to sloppy compositors and a near-sighted press corrector, but because it was either a memorial reconstruction, dictated by actors who had lost or temporarily mislaid the manuscript (perhaps while on a provincial tour), or a shorthand report taken down from the theater stalls in order to pirate the play. Shorthand writers existedplaywrights and theater owners feared them. The theories have moved on, and many scholars now think Q was taken from Shakespeares foul papers, and the Folio was Shakespeares later revision. The two incompatible versions leave us with an indeterminate postmodern Lear. (Its an attractive if trendy theory; but I have doubts the problems of Q still look, as they did to Berryman half a century ago, like textual decay, not rough draft.)
These problems gave Berryman deadly opportunity. An edition of any Shakespeare play is a labor, and five years is commonly accounted reasonable time to edit a common play. A certain personality should never go anywhere near such temptation; and Lear is the greatest tar pit of all, with its contrary versions, murky readings, dubious line-breaks, and endless chance for commentary. Berryman saw the fearsome difficulty: One must emend through the error to the copy, and through that to the actor, hoping to reach Shakespeare. He was soon happy in the tar, firing off letters to his teacher Van Doren (One of the strongholds of corruption in Lear fell I think this morning), and casting letters across the Atlantic to the elderly scholar W. W. Greg, the old master of Lear study, who encouraged him with a cheery, riding-to-hounds Good hunting!
It hardly matters, at this distance, what toils Berryman put himself through over each crux. The Quarto reads My father poorelie,leed, and that reading is taken over by Q2 and the Folio, though a corrected sheet of Q reads parti,eyd. The press corrector saw something, or thought he saw something, in the secretary hand before him. Berryman proposed bloody-eyed, then parti-eyed, then emptie-eyd, and later pearly-eyd. Months went by, each close study leading to close studyand this for dozens of other problems howling for attention, most of them trivial to the reader weeping over Gloucesters blindness, Cordelias hanging, and Lears Howl, howl, howl!, but each offering narrow access to Shakespeares hand scrawling across foolscap four centuries ago. Scholarship is often the quest writ small, writ very small.
A man who stares too long at a corrupt passage can begin to imagine anything. If hes conservative hell keep the words as they are, but derive wilder and wilder meanings for what has been corrupted past sense. If hes radical, as Berryman often was, his eye will devise stranger and stranger alternatives for words printed on the page, until each word is entirely transformed, short becoming fowl, store becoming scorn. We will never achieve satisfaction for much of the corruption in Shakespeare, and we can be sure of only two things: there is corruption in many lines that look perfectly innocent, and sense to be had in words where we smell corruption. Berrymans absorption in minutiae makes every difficulty moral very few scholars are as able to convey the thrill of intellectual job work. He knew how little the plays and poems could reveal of the man who wrote them, but was aware that some trace of actual life bears its burden into art:
One is asked to see William Shakespeare looking around for a subject for his next play, either quite at random or at the dictates of opportunism. One is asked to imagine a poet entirely unlike any other major poet we know . One notices at once that the father-dominated tragedy, Hamlet, must have been finally handled by the poet at a time very close to the death of his father in 1600 and that the mother-dominated tragedy, Coriolanus, must have been written close to the death of his mother in 1609, but upon examination each of the cases bristles with difficulties.
Though Berryman breaks off this essay on The Conceiving of King Lear, as far too many of these essays are broken off, he sees Shakespeare with fewer of the coral accretions of scholarship. This Shakespeare might have been drawn to subjects because he was a man, not an institutiona man in dirty linen, with a quill that needed sharpening, trying to write despite clamor in the street. Berryman notes King Jamess visit to Oxford in 1605, where the king liked a Latin playlet, devoted to his ancestor Banquo, in which women made prophecies. It was only thirty lines long, and the sole play he liked he almost left another in the middle, hated a third, napped through a fourth, and avoided a fifth by visiting the library! Had Shakespeare observed this, or heard of it,
he must have looked hard in his Holinshed and been thinking of a short play about Macbeth that would include five characters from whom King James was directly descended, that would culminate in a great necromantic scene wherein all his royal ancestors would be shown, that would centre (though very indirectly) in conscience, a subject upon which James had strong views that were known because he had published a book on it [Daemonologie], and that would include of course witches, of which James had had absorbing experience in Scotland.
The comment on the king is droll James was proud of his learning, but he was primarily a hunter, and sleepy in the evening: he liked short plays. Macbeth is Shakespeares shortest play. Berryman kept the past in focus within the present, and never forgot what we know by coming later, or what someone coming earlier, like Shakespeare, could not know. The passage above is drawn from his central achievement, eight lectures on the development of Shakespeares mind and art. In small they can be quarreled withBerryman took liberties with his biographical notions, as Empson did, often reading too much, though a shrewd (and psychological) too much, into the obsessions of the plays. In Berrymans philosophy, Shakespeare was made a tragic playwright by two devastating crises, and Hamlet invents an imagined life for his dead little son Hamnet.
Such organic comprehension of the spoils of language is possible, if only with difficulty plausible, when we have the life (the diaries, letters, the closed phenomena of existence) and literature in parallel form, as Berryman found in Stephen Crane, whose biography he was no doubt able to complete because Crane died at twenty-eight. In Shakespeare, the life is mostly a superstitious blanka glint here and there, gossip from decades after his death, stories so much like lies they must sometimes tell the truth. Berryman invents a life from the hypothesized order of the plays; and it is an inspired life, but a fictional life. One beetle of fact would down the house of cards. You cant derive from a purely hypothetical order of plays (plays later perhaps revised) an orderly psychology of inspiration. You can only mark the effects of the writers execution, how in executive use the local event, thwarted desire, and half-realized anxiety become the reticulation of art.
These are the sonnets of a young man, probably; their chief defect a certain indifference to how things wind up, so that most of the couplets are weak; their chief virtues expressiveness and violent power. Some of the very simplest are among the best; and in general, despite their tiresome (though justified) claims to immortality, they strike one as proceeding from a man more or less without a poseroughly, naked; not to speak of the humiliating privacy of some of their subject matter, which is quite different from the matter of all the other Elizabethan sonneteers.
Berrymans brusqueness has the vanity of good sense. In his ravenous reading he was naked before literature, his virtues grounded in a scholars note-gathering as well as a readers appreciations, even when appreciation was touched with Bardolatry (this poets phrases will drag at our profoundest thought as if, truly, we overheard the soul of the world murmuring truths to herself Reader, I married him, you half expect Berryman to say). The ant and the grasshopper possess different kinds of genius. There is the genius that gathers, that exhausts itself in accumulation (a genius of mastery that never finds use for everything stored away), and the genius that exhausts itself in discharge (a genius of insight that leaves nothing wastedindeed, that sometimes seems not to have accumulated much, if anything, before the discharge). This is the difference between a Berryman and a Lowell (or a Jonson and a Shakespeare, for that matter), though in his hungry insight Berryman could sometimes be a grasshopper, too.
As a psychology, Berryman is often transparent. What interested him was how Shakespeare produced what he produced the finicky work on cruces was only the medium of this understanding. Berryman closely watched, for example, how old Shakespeare was when he wrote, and the pressure of this analysis lies in anxiety over his own achievementthirty-six, the approximate age when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, seems old to a man of twenty and young to a man of fifty. Berryman often felt he had not accomplished enough, that until his mid-forties high promise had yielded meager result. Shakespeare had finished most of his great work before Berryman had even begun.
Such attention leads him into whimsies (it seems unlikely that Shakespeares sudden interest in human physiology in Coriolanus and Timon was owed to conversation with his new son-in-law, a doctor). In passage after passage, however, on Shakespeares sex nausea; on his portrayal of wives (not notably sympathetic); on the notion that Shakespeare revolutionized the length of the Elizabethan play; or that the young actor might have started playwriting casually, by improving parts (this would make Richard Greenes insults more comprehensible), the vividness of Berrymans thinking, however prone to exaggeration or histrionics, shows that immersion in Shakespeare goes deeper than instinct. Only a scrupulous and determining critic could have seen that the sonnets mention acting but never playwriting (possibly affecting their date), that Shakespeares most familiar pronouncements on human life in context are ironic, that until his mother is dead Hamlet cant kill Claudius. All these passages, and others too dense for the précis of a phrase, show a critic with the sustained power and application of Coleridge, but more wounded than Coleridge. Each was victim of addiction and depression, feelings of unworthiness and sloth.
Haffenden, who has also written a usable if not penetrating biography of Berryman, has done with this midden of old paper what could be done. He should have left out the piece on Shakespeares Early Comedy, which has little about comedy and much repeated elsewhere. Berryman, for all his appetite and wide reading, often returned to the same scenes and speeches to make his points (an example from Henry VI, Part II is used at least four times) indeed, later essays often cannibalize the earlier. The last part of the book is a disappointment, short essays that dont come to the point, if they have a pointsome are just lists of sources. The piece on the sonnets has a lovely description of a sonnets action, but descends into mumpish fact and opinion, like lecture notes put into a compactor. Only when writing on King John and to a lesser extent Macbeth does the older Berryman seem engaged. The last piece in the book, Shakespeares Reality, all that remains of his late critical biography, is autocratic, confused, a rambling embarrassment that shows how far, in the end he was from completing anything publishable.
Each poet honors the Bard in a different wayDryden by adaptation, Pope and Johnson in the labor of editing, William Henry Ireland by forgery, Keats by hero worship, Eliot by avoidance, or absorption. Berrymans work on Shakespeare is wreckage, a group of mutilated essays; and such fragmentary achievement shows why he was no scholarhe worked by enthusiasms, and only as long as enthusiasm held out. His overcalculation of means knew the romance of ambition: the desperation to make discoveries, to do what no other scholar had been able to do, was also the weakness of his poetry, which strained too often for original effect and ended sounding like baby talk. Little wonder Berryman was attracted to Macbethdouble-natured, heroic, uncertainly wicked, both loyal and faithless, meditative and violent, and does know what he is getting into. Berryman was a brilliant critic for the same reason he was a failed scholar: a megalomaniac can rule his insights like a kingdom, but never be able to kneel to the imperfection scholarship demands.
Shakespeare was the last writer who didnt have to contend with Shakespeare. Its an old notion: most poets have read so much about him, have read so much of him, its difficult to remember how little, in comparison, Shakespeare read of anything. He had his Ovid, and his Holinshed, and other books besides; but they would make a small shelf compared to our vast libraries, or just the libraries on him that annually pour from the press. He had to readlucky man!none of them, had to face only a few short references to his career, some wives tales and rumor, a few sly insults and jokes. He never suffered the Shakespeare problem that has entangled poets since.
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William Logans edition of John Townsend Trowbridges lost classic, Guy Vernon, was published by University of Minnesota Press in the spring of 2012
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