Most men will readily admit that the two poets who have the greatest hold over Englishmen are Handel and Shakespeare — for it is as a poet, a sympathiser with and renderer of all estates and conditions whether of men or things, rather than as a mere musician, that Handel reigns supreme. There have been many who have known as much English as Shakespeare, and so, doubtless, there have been no fewer who have known as much music as Handel: perhaps Bach, probably Haydn, certainly Mozart; as likely as not, many a known and unknown musician now living; but the poet is not known by knowledge alone — not by gnosis only — but also, and in greater part, by the agape which makes him wish to steal men’s hearts, and prompts him so to apply his knowledge that he shall succeed. There has been no one to touch Handel as an observer of all that was observable, a lover of all that was loveable, a hater of all that was hateable, and, therefore, as a poet. Shakespeare loved not wisely but too well. Handel loved as well as Shakespeare, but more wisely. He is as much above Shakespeare as Shakespeare is above all others, except Handel himself; he is no less lofty, impassioned, tender, and full alike of fire and love of play; he is no less universal in the range of his sympathies, no less a master of expression and illustration than Shakespeare, and at the same time he is of robuster, stronger fibre, more easy, less introspective. Englishmen are of so mixed a race, so inventive, and so given to migration, that for many generations to come they are bound to be at times puzzled, and therefore introspective; if they get their freedom at all they get it as Shakespeare “with a great sum,” whereas Handel was “free born.” Shakespeare sometimes errs and grievously, he is as one of his own best men “moulded out of faults,” who “for the most become much more the better, for being a little bad;” Handel, if he puts forth his strength at all, is unerring: he gains the maximum of effect with the minimum of effort. As Mozart said of him, “he beats us all in effect, when he chooses he strikes like a thunderbolt.” Shakespeare’s strength is perfected in weakness; Handel is the serenity and unself- consciousness of health itself. “There,” said Beethoven on his deathbed, pointing to the works of Handel, “there — is truth.” These, however, are details, the main point that will be admitted is that the average Englishman is more attracted by Handel and Shakespeare than by any other two men who have been long enough dead for us to have formed a fairly permanent verdict concerning them. We not only believe them to have been the best men familiarly known here in England, but we see foreign nations join us for the most part in assigning to them the highest place as renderers of emotion.
It is always a pleasure to me to reflect that the countries dearest to these two master spirits are those which are also dearest to myself, I mean England and Italy. Both of them lived mainly here in London, but both of them turned mainly to Italy when realising their dreams. Handel’s music is the embodiment of all the best Italian music of his time and before him, assimilated and reproduced with the enlargements and additions suggested by his own genius. He studied in Italy; his subjects for many years were almost exclusively from Italian sources; the very language of his thoughts was Italian, and to the end of his life he would have composed nothing but Italian operas, if the English public would have supported him. His spirit flew to Italy, but his home was London. So also Shakespeare turned to Italy more than to any other country for his subjects. Roughly, he wrote nineteen Italian, or what to him were virtually Italian plays, to twelve English, one Scotch, one Danish, three French, and two early British.
But who does not turn to Italy who has the chance of doing so? What, indeed, do we not owe to that most lovely and loveable country? Take up a Bank of England note and the Italian language will be found still lingering upon it. It is signed “for Bank of England and Compa.” (Compagnia), not “Compy.” Our laws are Roman in their origin. Our music, as we have seen, and our painting comes from Italy. Our very religion till a few hundred years ago found its headquarters, not in London nor in Canterbury, but in Rome. What, in fact, is there which has not filtered through Italy, even though it arose elsewhere? On the other hand, there are infinite attractions in London. I have seen many foreign cities, but I know none so commodious, or, let me add, so beautiful. I know of nothing in any foreign city equal to the view down Fleet Street, walking along the north side from the corner of Fetter Lane. It is often said that this has been spoiled by the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway bridge over Ludgate Hill; I think, however, the effect is more imposing now than it was before the bridge was built. Time has already softened it; it does not obtrude itself; it adds greatly to the sense of size, and makes us doubly aware of the movement of life, the colossal circulation to which London owes so much of its impressiveness. We gain more by this than we lose by the infraction of some pedant’s canon about the artistically correct intersection of right lines. Vast as is the world below the bridge, there is a vaster still on high, and when trains are passing, the steam from the engine will throw the dome of St. Paul’s into the clouds, and make it seem as though there were a commingling of earth and some far-off mysterious palace in dreamland. I am not very fond of Milton, but I admit that he does at times put me in mind of Fleet Street.
While on the subject of Fleet Street, I would put in a word in favour of the much-abused griffin. The whole monument is one of the handsomest in London. As for its being an obstruction, I have discoursed with a large number of omnibus conductors on the subject, and am satisfied that the obstruction is imaginary.
When, again, I think of Waterloo Bridge, and the huge wide-opened jaws of those two Behemoths, the Cannon Street and Charing Cross railway stations, I am not sure that the prospect here is not even finer than in Fleet Street. See how they belch forth puffing trains as the breath of their nostrils, gorging and disgorging incessantly those human atoms whose movement is the life of the city. How like it all is to some great bodily mechanism of which the people are the blood. And then, above all, see the ineffable St. Paul’s. I was once on Waterloo Bridge after a heavy thunderstorm in summer. A thick darkness was upon the river and the buildings upon the north side, but just below I could see the water hurrying onward as in an abyss, dark, gloomy, and mysterious. On a level with the eye there was an absolute blank, but above, the sky was clear, and out of the gloom the dome and towers of St. Paul’s rose up sharply, looking higher than they actually were, and as though they rested upon space.
Then as for the neighbourhood within, we will say, a radius of thirty miles. It is one of the main businesses of my life to explore this district. I have walked several thousands of miles in doing so, and I mark where I have been in red upon the Ordnance map, so that I may see at a glance what parts I know least well, and direct my attention to them as soon as possible. For ten months in the year I continue my walks in the home counties, every week adding some new village or farmhouse to my list of things worth seeing; and no matter where else I may have been, I find a charm in the villages of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, which in its way I know not where to rival.
I have ventured to say the above, because during the remainder of my book I shall be occupied almost exclusively with Italy, and wish to make it clear that my Italian rambles are taken not because I prefer Italy to England, but as by way of parergon, or by-work, as every man should have both his profession and his hobby. I have chosen Italy as my second country, and would dedicate this book to her as a thank-offering for the happiness she has afforded me.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05