Great art is worth nothing if it teaches us nothing.
Unless it makes us wiser and kinder people, there is no more merit in studying, or being able to recite passages from, Hamlet or the Pilgrim’s progress or The Prelude, than there is in knowing a handful of nursery rhymes by heart.
Not so much, in fact. Children – and many adults – far prefer “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”.
Literature is, or should be, the great instructor and humaniser of man, and if we do not recognise or acknowledge it in this, it’s supreme and unique role, we immediately relegate it to the level of the crossword or jigsaw puzzle, which are merely entertaining amusements which help to break the back of boredom.
Erudition and scholarship too, however rarified, are only means to an end, and are of themselves worth little. They are merely candles which light the dusty way, for it is with the creative arts as it is with religious belief: unless it bear fruit in right action, it is cut away and burned like the dead branches of a tree.
Learning without works is mere emptiness.
The transcendent creative spirits – your Rembrandt, Beethoven or Shakespeare, to name but the greatest, are mans’ supreme teachers and it is to them (and the hundreds of lesser lights) we must turn if we would learn what life is all about.
It is often asked, particularly by the young, what can Shakespeare possibly tell us? Why bother with him and his ilk? What afterall can a man of the days of the Spanish Armada say that can have the slightest revelance in this age of advanced scientific wizardry?
The slender reflections contained in the articles which I hope will follow this in time are an attempt to answer some, at least, of these vitally important questions.
Shakespeare wrote of the eternal verities and these are as relevant today as they were in his day and, going back further, in the days of the Pharaohs. If anyone doubt the truth of this, let him plumb, if he can, the profound and chilling implications of such a passage as:
KING: See yond Justice rails upon yond simple thief.
Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the Justice, which is the thief?
Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
GLOSTER: Ay, Sir.
KING: And the creature run from the cur?
There thou mightst behold the great image of authority.
A dog’s obey’d in office”.
Shakespeare irrelevant – out-of-date?
Why, his blade cuts keener and deeper than the finest and sharpest steel.
“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act 5.Sc 1
It is an inspiring moment when we suddenly become consciously aware of the truth that everything that man has ever done, every invention, every discovery, every venture he has ever embarked upon, was in the beginning nothing but a tenuous and very fragile idea in somebody’s mind.
And of all ideas, THAT one itself, when rightly understood, is the most profound and devastating idea of all, and carries within itself more potential power than all the elemental forces of nature combined. It is truly the Archimedian lever with which we can lift the globe itself.
For Einstein had an idea once.
Hitler had one too.
And so did Caesar, Napoleon and Churchill.
And there have been others have there not – like Raphael, Bach, Tolstoy, Newton, Nietzsche, Copernicus and Wren. Even Shakespeare had a few ideas of his own!
Remember, also, the huge army of lesser mortals, who in the mass, have given us the general wonders of everyday science, of medicine, engineering, architecture and art.
The whole fabric of our technologically wondrous civilisation exists simply because one day, someone like you or me said: “I’ve had an idea”. And because they believed in it – and themselves – they went ahead and gave their “airy nothing a local habitation and a name”.
As difficult as it sometimes is to grasp, our nuclear missiles, our computers and books, our ships and aircraft, telescopes and cathedrals were once just rather far-fetched and unrealistic ideas in someone’s head.
But look now (for in principle it in no way differs): Si monumentum requiris circumspice as it is written in St Paul’s cathedral. “If”, we are exhorted, “you would see his monument, just look around you”, or as it has been more humourously put:
“If anybody calls
Say I am designing St Pauls!”
Let us just spare a few moments and look around us and look at where these tiny, feeble ideas have got us.
Even nations and empires too were often only ideas once – or dreams. Cecil John Rhodes, when he travelled through his fledgling country of Rhodesia (now another Zimbabwe ruins!) shook his head in wonder and murmured: “and all the result of an idle dream!”
Small wonder he later came to say: “Never think a thing impossible. Have a great idea, one great object and follow it and never give in until you achieve it. You will win in the end even though you may have to wait a long time for it.”
Ideas rightly considered, are our children – they are the children of our minds, and they need to be loved, fed and clothed, educated and tenderly disciplined, even the not so brilliant ones. When we conceive (and the word itself is pregnant with meaning) an idea, we must learn to see it in its true light and implications. For it is not a mere trifle to be toyed with for a while and then thrown away. We must learn to penetrate its secret, to discern the oak in the acorn, the ostrich in the egg, or like Columbus see a whole continent in a strand of stray seaweed, because, as Shakespeare again put it in words of haunting beauty:
“In such indexes, although small pricks
To their subsequent volumes, there is seen
The baby figure of the giant mass
Of things to come at large”
No, do not be afraid to dream. Never scorn an idea be it yours or anothers. Never say with an embarrassed shrug of the shoulders: “O well, it was only an idea”.
For those silly, feeble, impractical ideas are the very steps by which we will, in time, storm the gates of heaven itself.