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TO GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS, ESQ.
MY DEAR CURTIS:
You will remember that the publisher of Shakespeare's Sonnets addresses them to a mysterious Mr. W. H., as their “ONLIE BEGETTER: " so I address this Preface to you, because it is to a suggestion of yours that it owes its existence. Let me remind
you that in talking with you upon the subject of this book and its character, I told you why I had been so superfluous as to write it, and how it was written ; upon which you kindly, but I thought with some reason, remarked, that the motives and the circumstances which produced it would add materially to whatever intrinsic value it might possess, and that a statement of these would be the best evidence of the warrant of its author to speak upon its theme. Your opinion, upon reflection, seemed well founded; and therefore, although if a book need an excuse it is past the help of one, I will undertake to tell why this was written. If the story of the volume should prove uninteresting, that will be the fault of the relator; if the contrary, then you can say, with Baron Pompolino,
“And as I'm the parent vine,
The book is called, what its author claims to have been for many years and yet to be, Shakespeare's Scholar,-a title which the proudest may be proud to bear, and which the humblest may yet with humility assume. It attempts not to decide what Shakespeare might have written or what he could have written, or to seek the interpretation of his thoughts from those who proclaim themselves his prophets, but to learn from him what he did write, and to study to understand that in the submissive yet still inquiring spirit with which a neophyte listens to the teachings of a revered and no less beloved master. It is in this spirit that I have studied Shakespeare since the time whereof my memory runneth not to the contrary; and it is because so few of his editors, commentators, and verbal critics, seem to have thus studied him, and because during all my study I have kept free from the contamination and perversion of their instruction, and have learned only of him, that for the sake of the thousands who love, feel, and understand him as I do, or who would do so, were it not for those who have made themselves middlemen between him and them, doling out his golden thoughts and stopping the best part of them on the way,—it is for the sake of those readers and on their part, as one of them, that I have written this book; and I wrote it thus.
Though never one of those who devote their social hours to trumpeting their admiration of him who wrote for all time, yet having been, as you have already seen, his devoted student at so early an age as to be unable to remember when I first began to muse and ponder with wondering delight upon his pages, it was inevitable that love should grow with knowledge, admiration with the capacity to apprehend, and reverence with the gradually acquired ability to compare his mind with those of the others who are called great in literature. But what I first esteemed a misfortune I now regard as one of the happiest circumstances of my intellectual life:—my Father's bookshelves were guiltless of an annotated copy, and I read Shakespeare pure and simple, that is, in a state as nearly approaching purity as the mere text of Mr. Singer's edition gave it to me. A copy of the small Chiswick edition in one volume, bought with the savings of my own slender stock of pocket money, kept in my own room, carried with me to the country during my school vacations, read by surreptitious candlelight when I was supposed to be asleep, was, through boyhood to youth, through youth to manhood, my companion and my constant joy. You will pardon the egotism, for you will see, if you do not already, that it is necessary.
Thrown as I continually was among those who were men of scholarship, even if not professional or
literary men, you will wonder, perhaps, how I avoided reading or talking Shakesperian criticism. It was thus. I had heard much said of the wonderful learning and ability which had been brought to the illustration of Shakespeare; and discovering that such eminent names as those of Pope and Johnson were enrolled in the list of his editors and commentators, I looked forward to the perusal of these writings with delightful anticipations. At last, in my Freshman year, I picked up a volume of an annotated edition in the room of a classmate the edition, I think, was one called Reed and Johnson's by its American publishers. I opened it eagerly and looked for the comments. The surprise and disappointment with which I read them, I will not undertake to tell you. I found them to consist, not of expansions or illustrations of Shakespeare's thought or analysis of his characters, but of attempts to illuminate passages which had always been to me as clear as noonday, or cold and pragmatic approval or censure of works which I thought should be spoken of only with enthusiastic admiration, tempered with reverence. Nearly all the comments, whether right or wrong, irritated me equally; for nearly all of them seemed to me to be superfluous and therefore insulting. But I reflected that I was but a College boy, and that these were the great Dr. Johnson, the learned Bishop Warburton, or the great poet Pope, or the “very ingenious ” contemporaries and friends of those eminent men; and feeling that respectful consideration for their eminence became me, I read on for half an hour in various parts of the volume, until I came to Johnson's closing remarks upon Cymbeline, in which he speaks of “the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct,” &c., and finishes by pointing out the “unresisting imbecility” of the work. This was too much for me: shocked, wounded, repelled, with a sense of personal wrong I flung the book aside, and mentally registered a solemn vow never to read again a criticism or comment of any kind upon Shakespeare's works. My thoughts were akin to those of the author of the Pursuits of Literature, whose remarkable satire I met with, years afterward.
“Must I for SHAKESPEARE no compassion feel,
Hot was the chace; I left it out of breath ;
I reasoned thus:- If this be what such men as Pope, and Warburton, and Johnson say about Shakespeare, and with not only the assent but the approbation of the world, their Shakespeare and the world's Shakespeare is not mine; and mine is too dear to me to be given up at the bidding of any poet, or bishop, or lexicographer of them all. Except the examination of some MS. notes, original and selected, kindly lent to me by Mr. Hackett, I kept my vow until about five years ago. Then I bought a