That the story appears in many variants indicates the universality of its appeal, but the emotions it aroused must have been limited largely to common curiosity in verbal puzzles and the pleasure, not confined to children, of discovering that children are more subtle than their parents.A narrative riddle, then, such as might be added to the collections of the Grimm brothers is the prototype of the story that Shakespeare transformed into a tragedy.In only certain senses, then, does Shakespeare forever elude us and refuse to “abide our question,” for, if there are general problems confronting every writer, we should be able to ask questions that Shakespeare of all men made no attempt to elude.
Furthermore, since the madness of Lear is almost entirely Shakespeare’s invention , it brings us face to face with both the tragic art and the tragic artist.
Now, to speak of a consummate poetic accomplishment is to imply that the kind of criticism which views all a writer’s problems as unique has overlooked a part of the whole of truth.
Coming closer to the paper on which was written, we also know that to have the characters tell their own story on a stage raises problems very distinct from those required for putting the story between the covers of a novel.
It may seem that the distinction between manners of presenting a story is largely classificatory; yet stories are so locked artistically to those selected to tell them that great novels seldom remain great when they are strutted upon the stage, and vice versa.
He may wish, as many lyric poets have wished, to write a drama or a novel, but the story is so distinct from the lyric that few poets, despite a tendency of poets to be expansive in their ambitions, have been eminent in both poetic arts.
Shelley and Keats had a maximum of aspiration but hardly a minimum of gift for plot and character, and even Browning, with his surpassing delineation of men and women in dramatic monologue, could not make anything happen in a drama.
On the other hand, the madness of Lear could have been drawn at such length that the spectator, like Kent, could not continue to view the suffering or, worse still, until the spectator began to suspect an author was manipulating suffering for suspense—and in either case the spectator would feel that he had seen too much.
Moreover, the size of any literary particle is not a matter of quantity only.
What is here taken as ultimate in poetry is what is true of all good poems: they give a high order of distinctive pleasures, and it may be said summarily of high and distinctive pleasures that no man seems in danger of exceeding his allotment.
In a way a poet is untroubled about all this—about writing or writing poetry, for these are abstractions that cannot be engaged in, and he is trying to find the first or next word, and after “thick rotundity” he listens to “of” and is troubled, and then hears “o’ ” and so moves on to other troubles, leaving behind him “the thick rotundity o’ th’ world.” In a way, then, even in a long life a poet never writes poetry—just a few poems; and in this sense a poet’s problems do not begin until he closes in upon a piece of paper with something less abstract in mind than writing or writing poetry.