Iconoclasm in Nineteenth Century Literature

by William A. Quayle

That history repeats itself is an apothegm which has descended to us from a dateless antiquity. It has been made to serve so often as to become trite; and yet its use is a necessity, inasmuch as it embodies a verity, which to ignore were ignorance and folly linked together; and as we stand on our eminence and scan the way humanity has worn with its multitudinous feet, as the events of the world pass in review before us, some so closely resemble others as that the one seems the echo of the other; and there appears reason for that fascinating generalization of the ancient philosopher, that the epochs and events of the physical realm and history were a fixed and limited quantity, which, revolving in a vast cycle, would bring from time to time the reiteration of the facts or doings of an ancient era. There was no new thing thinkable, only a reintroduction of the old. To illustrate this fact in brief, we have but to note the history of philosophy. You read the names of those who figure as founders of philosophical systems, and those systems seem many. Read the systems as founded, and you find an old-time philosophy, rejuvenated with some little addition of cap or bell better to adapt it to the modern time. The much-lauded Hegelian philosophy is the system of Democritus, with the addition of a little more absurdity in the assertion of the identity of contradictories. The multitudinous philosophies may thus be reduced to a single quaternion, and the reputed inaugurator of a new philosophy is like to be a charlatan. So history seems but a plagiarist.

There is an epoch in ecclesiastical history known as the War of the Iconoclast; but that was only an embodiment of what had transpired before, and what has occurred often since. Iconoclasm is a bias of humanity. It grows out of the constitution of man. He is by heredity a breaker of images. If this view be not fictitious, we must not be surprised if there are developments of this spirit in our era or any era. It is a perennial reappearance. Whether it come in religion, statecraft, economic science, or literature, can be of little moment. The fact is the matter of paramount importance. Christianity was the iconoclast which broke in pieces the images of decrepit polytheism, and hewed out a way where progress might march to fulfill her splendid destiny. Luther was the iconoclast whose giant strokes demolished the castle doors of Romish superstition, and broke to fragments the images of Mariolatry. The practical induction of Bacon, Earl of Verulam, was the death-warrant of the fruitless deductive philosophy which had culminated in the vagaries of Scholasticism. The Declaration of Independence and the Federation of the States were the iconoclast which slew the phantom of the divine necessity of kings. It is thus evident that iconoclasm abounds, and there will be no marvel if it have a place in literature.

Innovation is a practical synonym of iconoclasm; for an innovation is putting the new in the place of the old. In ancient literature and literatures, prose was an innovation as regards poetry; and later, rhyme was an innovation in the domain of poesy, and an innovation of such a sort that against it the master-poet, Milton, lifted up his voice in solemn protest, and the solitary epic in English literature is a perpetual protestation against the custom. Shakespeare was an innovator of the laws of the drama when he violated unities of time and place; and in a sense the drama was an innovation on narrative poetry, and the novel an iconoclast in its attitude to the drama.

The iconoclasm in literature in our time is objective rather than subjective; and attention to the spirit of the age will give a practical comprehension of this iconoclastic spirit.

It must be observed that the literature of an age is largely the product of that age. Times create literatures. The literature of any period, in an emphatic sense, will be directly and easily traceable to something in that age for its peculiarity.

The Iliad and Odyssey were necessities of the age which gave them birth. In so far as a literature is purely human, in so far will it be stamped with the seal of the times, customs, and thoughts in the midst of which it bloomed into beauty. In early Greek times an epic without its gods and demigods, without resounding battle-shout and din of mighty conflict, had been an anachronism for which there could have been offered no apology. The splendid era of Pericles demanded the tragedy, and such a tragedy as only Aeschylus and Sophocles could originate; while the foibles of an earlier era made the comedy imperative. On like principles, the writings of Lucretius are not enigmatical, but easy of explanation.

The age which made possible the revels of Kenilworth, made possible also the splendor, like that of setting suns, which characterizes the "Faerie Queen." And the prowess, the achievement, the discovery, the colonization, the high tide of life, which ran like lightning through the Nation's arteries, made the drama, not only a possibility, but a fact. It was the embodiment of the mighty activities of a mighty age. The tragedy, to use the splendid figure of Milton, "rose like an exhalation." A solitary lifetime brought it from sunrise to high noon; and from that hour what could the sun do but sink?

Our century is one of general iconoclasm. It is the Ishmael among the ages. Its hand is against every man. It has reversed the old-time order, that what was believed by our fathers and received by them should be received by us. It takes no truth second-hand. It goes to sources. Its motto is, "I came, I saw, I investigated." It found many things believed of old, which were founded on the sand. Physical science discovered the vast domain of physical law, and that science began to legislate for the universe, forgetting sometimes that it was not a law enactor, but a law discoverer. Investigation found that many ideas and systems of ideas, supposed philosophies and sciences, were false and unsubstantial as the "baseless fabric of a vision." Things received as truths from time immemorial were shown to be untrue. The tendency of the human intellect is to generalize; and finding many previously received systems and facts to be without evidence sufficient to substantiate them, there arose the unwilled generalization that all these systems are likewise false. I do not say that man has formulated this thought into speech, but that the trend of the intellect in our century has been such as is explicable only on this theory. In many instances the motto of investigation in the domain of history, criticism, and science has been, "Believe all things false until you prove them true." If such is the spirit of the age, and if literature be colored with the light of the century which produces it, shall we wonder if the nineteenth-century literature is distinctively an iconoclastic one?

All about us is the battle of the books. War rages along the entire line. No work of antiquity is free from this belligerency. Mars has the field. The investigation has been crucial. In so far as it has been learning coupled with wisdom, this is well. Truth never flinches before the charge of a wise investigation. But no truth can stand as such before a system of inquiry the canons of which are empirical, fallacious, and false. The task of demolition is a fascinating one. It possesses a charm impossible to explain, and impossible to fail to perceive. When one has a taste, it is much as with the tiger which has tasted blood. Such procedure seems to open vistas before men. Here are open doors, from behind which seems to come a voice crying, "Enter."

It will be chronologically accurate if we shall first notice the iconoclastic spirit as exemplified in the attack on the unity of the Iliad; and I class this with the nineteenth-century doings because it belongs to the spirit of that century, and was almost within its borders. The Iliad had been the glory of international literature for centuries. Greece held it in veneration from the beginning of its authentic history; and that work had blazed with a solar luster out of the Stygian darkness of prehistoric times. The book had made an epoch in literature. The cyclic poets, who, for centuries after the appearance of the Iliad and Odyssey, were the only Greek bards, were confessedly disciples of one Homer, the reputed author of the poems which embody the fact of the war of the races. The judgment of antiquity was: (a) These two works were ascribed to a single author. (b) This author was the master at whose wave of wand these revels had begun. In other words, Homer wrote the books which bear his name. However much they might discuss the location of the half-fabled Ilium, or marvel over the battles fought "far on the ringing plains of windy Troy," it was not doubted that a sublime and solitary bard conceived and wrought the wondrous work ascribed to him. It is not shown that this question was even mooted in the former times. Cities contended for the honor of having given this man birth. He was as much a verity as Pericles. Such was the status of the case when our century beheld it first. Bentley had hinted at the probability or possibility of separate authorship; but it remained for German criticism, in the person of Wolf, to make the onslaught on the time-honored belief. The attack was as impetuous as the charge of the Greeks across the plain of the Scamander. It astonished the world. It abashed scholarship. Grave philosophers and gifted poets were carried away in the rush of the attack. Goethe gave and Schiller withheld allegiance. The Atomist and Separatist for a time held the field. Wolf showed, by reasoning which he deemed irrefutable, that the Iliad could not have been composed by a single man. Writing did not exist. The story had many repetitions, contradictions, and inferiorities. Later, the philological argument was used against it. These statements summarize the Wolfian theory. The contrariety in dialect form was thought to be an invulnerable argument against the unity of authorship; and for a time the epic of the ancient world was declared to be the work of many hands, the ballads sung by rhapsodists of many names; and the Iliad, with its astonishing display of genius, was declared to be authorless. Less than a century has elapsed since the theory was propounded. The subject has received a wealth of attention and study unknown before. Discoveries have been made in philology which have practically raised it to the rank of a science; and to-day the atomistic theory of Wolf is not received. Grote and Mahaffy have theories which vary markedly from the great original; and the result of a century of investigation is, that scholars do now generally believe that some one author, or two at most, did give shape to the great epic of the Greek people. Wolf, Lachmann, and Bert have shown the follies of men of genius when pursuing a line of evidence to prove a favorite theory. Their assumptions are often absurd, and their conclusions, once admitting their premises, are a logical necessity. The spirit of iconoclasm rested, not with the authority of the book, but assailed the geographic and topographical features. Troy was declared a dream. The Trojan War had never been. But Schliemann has proven to virtual demonstration the existence of, not only a Troy, but the Troy about which Hector and Achilles fought.

This iconoclasm has nowhere more fully displayed itself than in its attitude toward the Bible. That book comes properly under the head of literature, for the reason that the general line of attack during this century has been made from a literary standpoint. Of course, there has always been, whether easily discoverable or not, an undertone of skepticism of the rank sort. Oftentimes the battle has been avowedly against the book as a professed inspiration. Strauss and Rénan made no cloak for their deed. But in many instances the method of procedure has been to study, as under a calcium light, the literary style, the linguistic peculiarities, the whole work as a literary composition. In this regard the method of criticism was such as was used in dissecting Homer's works. Each author laid down canons of criticism by which to measure the book in question. He cut the work into fragments. He stated such and such parts were the work of an early writer, while certain others were the additions of men unknown, far removed in time and place. For the most part these assumptions were wholly arbitrary, as may be seen by reading the authors on the various books. The thing which is the most observable is their lack of agreement, while the method used is the dogmatic. They all agree that the book is not of the date nor authorship usually assigned to it; but what the date and who the author, is very seldom agreed between any two. The criticism is largely of the ipse dixit sort, and the grounds of attack are, though rationalistic, seldom rationally taken. In the vaunted name of reason, the most monstrous absurdities are perpetrated. The line of argument professed to be used is inductive; but in reality the inductive element in this criticism stands second, and the deductive element has the chief seat in the synagogue. The assumption in the case, the a priori, sine qua non ("without which nothing")—these are the all-important elements in the discussion. It is the Homeric argument restated. Each man professes to find his hypothesis in the structure and language of the book. In fact, the author usually began with his hypothesis, and seeks to find proofs for the staying his assumptions up. The Scriptures are open to investigation. They challenge it. No one need offer an objection to the most scrutinizing inquiry. The book is here, and must stand upon its merits. Its high claims need not deter scholarship from its investigation. Only, to use the language of Bishop Butler in regard to another matter, "Let reason be kept to." If we are to be regaled with flights of imagination, let them be thus denominated; but let men not profess to be following the leadership of scholarship and scientific candor, when they are in reality dealing in imagination and scientific dogmatism, and appealing to philology to give them much needed support. After these years of attack from a literary standpoint, the books of the Bible are less affected than the Iliad. The Atomist has signally failed to make a single case. Iconoclasm has performed its task as best it could, and finds its labor lost. The criticism of to-day is, even in Germany, professedly in favor of the integrity of the Scripture.

But I pass to another part of the literary field. From the Bible to Shakespeare. This, at first thought, may seem a long journey. There appears but little congruity between the two. The only needed connection is the similarity of attack. The same spirit has whetted its sword against each; but the lack of similarity is more apparent than real. The Bible is God's exhibit of human nature and its relation to the Divine personality and plans. Shakespeare is man's profoundest exhibit of man in his relation to present and future. The fields are the same. They differ in extent. The profoundness of Shakespeare seems a shoreward shallow when viewed alongside the Bible. The Bible and Shakespeare have a further similarity, not one of character, but of results.

Each has been a potential factor in the stability of the English language. They each present the noble possibilities of the speech of the Anglo-Saxon. Each has left its indelible impress on speech and literature. Kossuth's mastery of English is by him attributed to the Bible, Shakespeare, and Webster's Dictionary. These were his sole masters, and sufficed to give him a command of language which ranks him among the princes of our English speech. That the authorship of the Iliad and the books of the Bible should be attacked is cause for little surprise. They were works of antiquity. It is an observable tendency of the mind to doubt a thing far removed in time. We lose sight of evidence. We dispense with the leadership of reason, and let inclination and imagination guide. This is a bias which antiquity must meet and, if it may, master. If the Iliad and the Bible were vulnerable in this regard, Shakespeare was not. He was a modern. His thought is neither ancient nor mediaeval. He has the characteristics of modern life, begotten of the hot-blooded era in which he lived. The modern Shakespeare is a target for the iconoclast. It seems but a stone's-cast from our time to the reign of Elizabeth and the day of the English drama. The time was one of action in every department of society. Conquest, colonization, literature, were beginning to render the Saxon name illustrious. It was the epoch of chivalry and chivalrous procedure, such as to create a species of literature and bring it to a perfection which half-wrested the scepter of supremacy from the hand of the Attic tragedy. In this literature there is a name which dwarfs all others. Otway, Ford, Massinger, Webster, Ben Jonson, Green, and Marlowe (some of these men of surprising genius) must take a lower place, for the master of revels is come. William Shakespeare is here. His life is not lengthily but plainly writ. He might have said, as did Tennyson's Ulysses, "I am become a name." It would seem that a man at such a time, with such a reputation, would have naught to fear from iconoclasm, however fierce. He, in a sense, was known as Raleigh or Essex were not. He has put himself into human history, and made the world his debtor. The existence of a man whose personality was admitted by his contemporaries must be believed in. Stories concerning him haunted the byways of London and literature. Ben Jonson paid him a tardy tribute. Men received him as they received Chaucer. But the spirit of the age finds him vulnerable. Delia Bacon, Smith, O'Connor, Holmes, and Donnelly are leaders who deny Shakespeare's identity. I may note Donnelly, an American gentleman of research and painstaking which would be creditable to a German scholar. He must be allowed to be a man of ingenuity. His method of discovering that Shakespeare was not himself has all the flavor of an invention. It glitters, not with generalities, but ingenuities. A sample page of his folio, covered with hieroglyphics which mark the progress of finding the cipher which he thinks the plays contain—such sample page is certainly a marvel, even to the generation which has read with avidity "Robert Elsmere" and "Looking Backward." A peculiarity in it all is, that his explanation makes marvelous doubly so. To believe that a man should have hidden his authorship of such works as the plays of Shakespeare makes a draft on the credulity of men too great to be borne. Why Junius should not have revealed himself is not difficult to discover. His life was at stake. But why the author of "The Tempest," or "King Lear," or "The Merchant of Venice," should have concealed his personality so carefully that three centuries have elapsed before men could discover it—this is an enigma no man can solve. In general, it is objected by non-believers in Shakespeare that it is impossible to conceive of a man whose rearing possessed so few advantages as did that of Shakespeare, having written the plays attributed to him. This is really the strong point in the whole discussion. All other arguments are subordinate. It is admitted that it does seem impossible for the poacher and wild country lad to become the poet pre-eminent in English literature. But this question is not to be decided by a priori reasoning. The genius displayed in the dramatic works under consideration is little less than miraculous. This all concede. Now, history has shown that to genius there is a sense in which "all things are possible." Genius can cross the Alps, can conquer Europe, can dumfound the world. Genius knows no rules. Once allow genius, and the problem is solved. It is conceded that for a common man, or even for one of exceptional ability, to have acquired without help the learning which characterizes the works of Shakespeare is impossible. But the man who wrote Hamlet was no mediocre, be he Bacon or Shakespeare. He was a superlative genius. This fact admitted, we need have no difficulty with the problem. It becomes a question a child can answer. The "myriad-minded Shakespeare" could do what to an ordinary, or even extraordinary, man would be an absolute impossibility. One critic discovers Shakespeare to be a musician; another, a classical scholar; and so he has been claimed in almost every field. He was not all. So critics confound us. They also confound themselves. The genius which could write the plays could master all these, though he squandered his youth. Let the history of genius guide from this labyrinth. Was not Caesar orator, general, historian? Was not Napoleon the same? Does not genius destroy all demonstrations with reference to itself? Do not Pascal, Euler, Da Vinci, and Angelo confound us? How dare we dogmatize as to the doings of genius? Read Shakespeare, and find you can not discover the characteristic of the man. You can not in his writings read his interior life. David Copperfield may display Dickens, and Byron's poems may give us the author's autobiography, and Shelley's writings may give a photograph of his intellectual self; but Shakespeare's plays give no clew to his character. He is all. He grovels in Falstaff; he towers in Prospero. He smites all strings that have music in them. He baffles us like a spirit, hiding himself in darkness. To attribute the authorship of the plays to Bacon is, to my thought, not to rid us of our difficulty, but rather to increase difficulty. Bacon we know. He was jurist, statesman, natural philosopher. Add to these the possibility of his having written Shakespeare, and the magnificence of his achievement would dwarf that of Shakespeare. Space forbids dwelling on this longer, though the theme is fascinating to any lover of letters. The thought in this paper (and that goes without the saying) is, not to discuss thoroughly these various phases of literary iconoclasm, but rather to call attention to them and to co-ordinate them.

I desire to show that these phases of criticism are not difficult of explanation. These are natural, and are the outgrowth of an image-making age. Study the age, understand it thoroughly, and the literature of that period can hardly be a puzzling question. The nineteenth century will stand in history as the chiefest iconoclast which has arisen in the world's first six thousand years. And its science, statecraft, art, and literature will be looked upon as segments of the one circle, and that circle the century.