I've mentioned Lord David Cecil before on this blog (e.g. here), and I'm still coming across books of his on the charity-shop shelves. The latest to catch my eye was a handsome little 200-pager called Poets and Story-Tellers: A Book of Critical Essays. It dates from March 1949 and was reprinted in the month of publication (imagine that happening today with such a book). Dedicated to Max Beerbohm, it's a collection of reprinted essays and lectures, on subjects ranging from Antony and Cleopatra to E.M. Forster, by way of John Webster, Thomas Gray, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Turgenev, Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, and Virginia Woolf. All of the essays display Cecil's elegant, sympathetic style and shrewd judgment, though his praise of Jane Austen might seem a little extravagant to even the most devoted Janeite (Fanny Burney, on the other hand, gets a perfectly balanced assessment). As someone who is all but allergic to Virginia Woolf, I of course judge Cecil over-generous to her, but I think he expresses very well what is ultimately unsatisfying about E. M. Forster, concluding:
'No wonder Mr Forster leaves his readers a little uncomfortable! This inability to achieve a consistent moral relation to his subject-matter means that the world of his creation is fundamentally unstable. For, unluckily, that world rests on moral foundations; it is the expression of his moral vision. If that vision is incoherent, if those foundations are insecure, so also is the building that rests on them. We move through it entranced but uneasy; for we are, half consciously, aware that at any moment the whole delicate structure may come tumbling about our ears.'
Shakespeare, on the other hand, Cecil presents in his essay on Antony and Cleopatra as an artist who 'did not approach life primarily from the moral point of view'. He presents the facts, and leaves moral judgment - ours as well as his - suspended. We cannot form a single and certain moral conclusion about a character such as Antony.
'The moralistic critic finds such uncertainty painful,' writes Cecil, 'To him, a world in which he cannot be sure whom to praise, whom to blame is a disheartening place, whose apparent glories must be suspect. But Shakespeare is only disheartened by a world without glory, a world which weakens his gusto for living. In his darkest mood, he has shown us such a world. But this is not the mood which informs Antony and Cleopatra. On the contrary, in it Shakespeare teaches us that it is possible to face life at its most baffling and imperfect and unideal, and yet to find it inextinguishably enthralling and splendid. It is a lesson worth learning.'
It is indeed, and Cecil's essay is a powerful defence of one of Shakespeare's very greatest plays against the critics who have condemned it for not being something it was never intended to be.