The tender, subtle, sweet, and occasionally thrilling muse of Gerald Massey is sinewed by an ardent, noble patriotism.
Along with Milton, Wordsworth, and Spenser, yet independently, he shares the distinction of being inspired by a passion for England and its greatness.
In truth, this passion is rare. Not merely national, as with Shakespeare or Pope, but with a wider meaning.
And where the Laureate in faint echoes or straining efforts barely succeeds in touching a permanent emotion, Gerald Massey, in almost unearthly harmonies, has forever exalted the beauty and the majesty of his ideal.
His exquisite verse is bound up, in a measure which only the future can appraise, with English history and English lore; and his chivalrous book on the best-loved bard of our land does not detract from the unique merit indicated.
The sufferings of his pathetic life have mellowed his interesting personality to fine issues of heroic affection, and his "Labour of Love" on behalf of Shakespeare's sonnets is touchingly suggestive.
Mr. Massey published, about a quarter of a century ago, an early exposition of his notable theory, that the "Sonnets" are partly personal and partly dramatic.
In the volume under review the theory is re-stated and amplified. He denies that the confessions are autobiographical—confessions which Carlyle and Emerson bewailed.
Granted the adequacy of his plea, a sinister spot on the sun of Shakespeare's fame is removed.
The immensity of the labour involved, the intricacies of research, and the excellent tissue of relevant detail demand that the verdict must be pronounced by a judicial few.
But Mr. Massey excels in delicate dramatic instinct, and his criticism works inside.
He rejoices in interpretative insight, and the average reader is convinced of veracious impression.
And, from a first reading of "The Secret Drama," the average reader will
arise in the possession of an added joy, a new light on Shakespeare's
sonnets, and a new love for Shakespeare the man. Southampton, the
worshipped friend, emerges in this modern book to vindicate with
significance the moral sinew of what was erstwhile deemed emasculated.
The only demerit we perceive in the book is but occasional—i.e., a brief descent into the arena where adverse critics invite a little "slogging."
And in one or two sentences the old Adam is indulged—pardonably perhaps yet unworthily.
But full often there is music in the fine mockery; the laugh is Rabelaisan, and prodigal as wine.
Noting a suggestion of Mr. J. A. Heraud, that "The Two Loves" of Sonnet 144 are the "Celibate Church on the one hand, and the Reformed Church on the other! and that later the poet finds in the Bible the "Bride who is 'black but comely '—at once the bride of his
CELESTIAL FRIEND and his own," Mr. Massey pronounces it "good enough surely, if
boundless folly can reach so far, to tickle Shakespeare in eternity, and make him feel a carnal gush of the old human jollity."
It is hardly possible to indicate the outline of this monumental achievement.
Suffice it to say that nothing whatever is assumed. Along with the profound commentaries appear the Sonnets themselves in accurate reprint; and his theoretical and critical divisions of them are interwoven with opulent delights of sparkling historic gems and imagery.
Punch congratulated Mr. Massey on—
"Your slaughtering of that colossal sham,
Egregious Donnelly's Great Cryptogram!"
and the dissection of the Yankee cipher-crotchet is racy and ruthless.
Gerald Massey, the tender songster, simply pulverises the Donnellians.
The criticism is acute, the writing convincing and caustic, and the conclusions, inevitable enough, are driven home with tropical ardour.
There is not a single offence against taste; but the mask and tinsel and meretricious veils are stripped from the convicted sophistry, and the truth revealed in nude radiance.
"And now," Mr. Massey concludes, "the moon-rakers have turned their attention to this reflection of Shakespeare that is seen shimmering in the writings of Bacon, or as they apprehend it, the image of Bacon in the writings of Shakespeare; they have been dredging and trying to land the delusive likeness; and there's the real moon in heaven all the while, high overhead, laughing in all its glory at their poor, futile efforts to rake out of the water this wavering, mocking, deluding, drowned reflection of that lofty, large, and lasting intellectual light."
Here, mindful of the editorial frown, we bid this book reluctant and reverent farewell.
But Art is longer than time.