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Title: The Art of Letters
Author: Lynd, Robert, 1879-1949
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Art of Letters" ***

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New York



My Dear Jack,

You were godfather to a good many of the chapters in this book when they
first appeared in the _London Mercury_, the _New Statesman_, and the
_British Review_. Others of the chapters appeared in the _Daily News_, the
_Nation_, the _Athenæum_, the _Observer_, and _Everyman_. Will it
embarrass you if I now present you with the entire brood in the name of a
friendship that has lasted many midnights?


Robert Lynd.


30th August 1920


    I. MR. PEPYS










       (3) THE POET OF HOPE



       (1) SWIFT
       (2) SHAKESPEARE


       (1) THE EGOIST


       (1) MR. SAINTSBURY
       (2) MR. GOSSE


       (1) MR. DE LA MARE
       (2) THE GROUP







Mr. Pepys was a Puritan. Froude once painted a portrait of Bunyan as an
old Cavalier. He almost persuaded one that it was true till the later
discovery of Bunyan's name on the muster-roll of one of Cromwell's
regiments showed that he had been a Puritan from the beginning. If one
calls Mr. Pepys a Puritan, however, one does not do so for the love of
paradox or at a guess. He tells us himself that he "was a great Roundhead
when I was a boy," and that, on the day on which King Charles was
beheaded, he said: "Were I to preach on him, my text should be--'the
memory of the wicked shall rot.'" After the Restoration he was uneasy lest
his old schoolfellow, Mr. Christmas, should remember these strong words.
True, when it came to the turn of the Puritans to suffer, he went, with a
fine impartiality, to see General Harrison disembowelled at Charing Cross.
"Thus it was my chance," he comments, "to see the King beheaded at White
Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King
at Charing Cross. From thence to my Lord's, and took Captain Cuttance and
Mr. Shepley to the Sun Tavern, and did give them some oysters." Pepys was
a spectator and a gourmet even more than he was a Puritan. He was a
Puritan, indeed, only north-north-west. Even when at Cambridge he gave
evidence of certain susceptibilities to the sins of the flesh. He was
"admonished" on one occasion for "having been scandalously overserved with
drink ye night before." He even began to write a romance entitled _Love a
Cheate_, which he tore up ten years later, though he "liked it very well."
At the same time his writing never lost the tang of Puritan speech.
"Blessed be God" are the first words of his shocking Diary. When he had to
give up keeping the Diary nine and a half years later, owing to failing
sight, he wound up, after expressing his intention of dictating in the
future a more seemly journal to an amanuensis, with the characteristic

    Or, if there be anything, which cannot be much, now my amours to
    Deb. are past, I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open,
    to add, here and there, a note in shorthand with my own hand.

    And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as
    to see myself go into my grave; for which, and all the discomforts
    that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me.

With these words the great book ends--the diary of one of the godliest and
most lecherous of men.

In some respects Mr. Pepys reminds one of a type that is now commoner in
Scotland, I fancy, than elsewhere. He himself seems at one time to have
taken the view that he was of Scottish descent. None of the authorities,
however, will admit this, and there is apparently no doubt that he
belonged to an old Cambridgeshire family that had come down in the world,
his father having dwindled into a London tailor. In temperament, however,
he seems to me to have been more Scottish than the very Scottish Boswell.
He led a double life with the same simplicity of heart. He was Scottish in
the way in which he lived with one eye on the "lassies" and the other on
"the meenister." He was notoriously respectable, notoriously hard-working,
a judge of sermons, fond of the bottle, cautious, thrifty. He had all the
virtues of a K.C.B. He was no scapegrace or scallywag such as you might
find nowadays crowing over his sins in Chelsea. He lived, so far as the
world was concerned, in the complete starch of rectitude. He was a pillar
of Society, and whatever age he had been born in, he would have accepted
its orthodoxy. He was as grave a man as Holy Willie. Stevenson has
commented on the gradual decline of his primness in the later years of the
Diary. "His favourite ejaculation, 'Lord!' occurs," he declares, "but once
that I have observed in 1660, never in '61, twice in '62, and at least
five times in '63; after which the 'Lords' may be said to pullulate like
herrings, with here and there a solitary 'damned,' as it were a whale
among the shoal." As a matter of fact, Mr. Pepys's use of the expression
"Lord!" has been greatly exaggerated, especially by the parodists. His
primness, if that is the right word, never altogether deserted him. We
discover this even in the story of his relations with women. In 1665, for
instance, he writes with surprised censoriousness of Mrs. Penington:

    There we drank and laughed [he relates], and she willingly suffered
    me to put my hand in her bosom very wantonly, and keep it there
    long. Which methought was very strange, and I looked upon myself as
    a man mightily deceived in a lady, for I could not have thought she
    could have suffered it by her former discourse with me; so modest
    she seemed and I know not what.

It is a sad world for idealists.

Mr. Pepys's Puritanism, however, was something less than Mr. Pepys. It was
but a pair of creaking Sunday boots on the feet of a pagan. Mr. Pepys was
an appreciator of life to a degree that not many Englishmen have been
since Chaucer. He was a walking appetite. And not an entirely ignoble
appetite either. He reminds one in some respects of the poet in Browning's
"How it strikes a Contemporary," save that he had more worldly success.
One fancies him with the same inquisitive ferrule on the end of his stick,
the same "scrutinizing hat," the same eye for the bookstall and "the man
who slices lemon into drink." "If any cursed a woman, he took note."
Browning's poet, however, apparently "took note" on behalf of a higher
power. It is difficult to imagine Mr. Pepys sending his Diary to the
address of the Recording Angel. Rather, the Diary is the soliloquy of an
egoist, disinterested and daring as a bad boy's reverie over the fire.

Nearly all those who have written about Pepys are perplexed by the
question whether Pepys wrote his Diary with a view to its ultimate
publication. This seems to me to betray some ignorance of the working of
the human mind.

Those who find one of the world's puzzles in the fact that Mr. Pepys
wrapped his great book in the secrecy of a cipher, as though he meant no
other eye ever to read it but his own, perplex their brains unnecessarily.
Pepys was not the first human being to make his confession in an empty
confessional. Criminals, lovers and other egoists, for lack of a priest,
will make their confessions to a stone wall or a tree. There is no more
mystery in it than in the singing of birds. The motive may be either to
obtain discharge from the sense of guilt or a desire to save and store up
the very echoes and last drops of pleasure. Human beings keep diaries for
as many different reasons as they write lyric poems. With Pepys, I fancy,
the main motive was a simple happiness in chewing the cud of pleasure.
The fact that so much of his pleasure had to be kept secret from the world
made it all the more necessary for him to babble when alone. True, in the
early days his confidences are innocent enough. Pepys began to write in
cipher some time before there was any purpose in it save the common
prudence of a secretive man. Having built, however, this secret and
solitary fastness, he gradually became more daring. He had discovered a
room to the walls of which he dared speak aloud. Here we see the
respectable man liberated. He no longer needs to be on his official
behaviour, but may play the part of a small Nero, if he wishes, behind the
safety of shorthand. And how he takes advantage of his opportunities! He
remains to the end something of a Puritan in his standards and his public
carriage, but in his diary he reveals himself as a pig from the sty of
Epicurus, naked and only half-ashamed. He never, it must be admitted,
entirely shakes off his timidity. At a crisis he dare not confess in
English even in a cipher, but puts the worst in bad French with a blush.
In some instances the French may be for facetiousness rather than
concealment, as in the reference to the ladies of Rochester Castle in

    Thence to Rochester, walked to the Crowne, and while dinner was
    getting ready, I did then walk to visit the old Castle ruines,
    which hath been a noble place, and there going up I did upon the
    stairs overtake three pretty mayds or women and took them up with
    me, and I did _baiser sur mouches et toucher leur mains_ and necks
    to my great pleasure; but lord! to see what a dreadfull thing it is
    to look down the precipices, for it did fright me mightily, and
    hinder me of much pleasure which I would have made to myself in the
    company of these three, if it had not been for that.

Even here, however, Mr. Pepys's French has a suggestion of evasion. He
always had a faint hope that his conscience would not understand French.

Some people have written as though Mr. Pepys, in confessing himself in his
Diary, had confessed us all. They profess to see in the Diary simply the
image of Everyman in his bare skin. They think of Pepys as an ordinary man
who wrote an extraordinary book. To me it seems that Pepys's Diary is not
more extraordinary as a book than Pepys himself is as a man. Taken
separately, nine out of ten of his characteristics may seem ordinary
enough--his fears, his greeds, his vices, his utilitarian repentances.
They were compounded in him, however, in such proportion as to produce an
entirely new mixture--a character hardly less original than Dr. Johnson or
Charles Lamb. He had not any great originality of virtue, as these others
had, but he was immensely original in his responsiveness--his capacity for
being interested, tempted and pleased. The voluptuous nature of the man
may be seen in such a passage as that in which, speaking of "the
wind-musique when the angel comes down" in _The Virgin Martyr_, he

    It ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that
    it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love
    with my wife.

Writing of Mrs. Knipp on another occasion, he says:

   She and I singing, and God forgive me! I do still see that my nature
   is not to be quite conquered, but will esteem pleasure above all
   things, though yet in the middle of it, it has reluctances after my
   business, which is neglected by my following my pleasure. However,
   musique and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.

Within a few weeks of this we find him writing again:

    So abroad to my ruler's of my books, having, God forgive me! a mind
    to see Nan there, which I did, and so back again, and then out
    again to see Mrs. Bettons, who were looking out of the window as I
    came through Fenchurch Streete. So that, indeed, I am not, as I
    ought to be, able to command myself in the pleasures of my eye.

Though page after page of the Diary reveals Mr. Pepys as an extravagant
pleasure-lover, however, he differed from the majority of pleasure-lovers
in literature in not being a man of taste. He had a rolling rather than a
fastidious eye. He kissed promiscuously, and was not aspiring in his
lusts. He once held Lady Castlemaine in his arms, indeed, but it was in a
dream. He reflected, he tells us,

    that since it was a dream, and that I took so much real pleasure in
    it, what a happy thing it would be if when we are in our graves (as
    Shakespeare resembles it) we could dream, and dream but such dreams
    as this, that then we should not need to be so fearful of death, as
    we are this plague time.

He praises this dream at the same time as "the best that ever was dreamt."
Mr. Pepys's idea of Paradise, it would be seen, was that commonly
attributed to the Mohammedans. Meanwhile he did his best to turn London
into an anticipatory harem. We get a pleasant picture of a little
Roundhead Sultan in such a sentence as "At night had Mercer comb my head
and so to supper, sing a psalm and to bed."

       *       *       *       *       *

It may seem unfair to over-emphasize the voluptuary in Mr. Pepys, but it
is Mr. Pepys, the promiscuous amourist; stringing his lute (God forgive
him!) on a Sunday, that is the outstanding figure in the Diary. Mr. Pepys
attracts us, however, in a host of other aspects--Mr. Pepys whose nose his
jealous wife attacked with the red-hot tongs as he lay in bed; Mr. Pepys
who always held an anniversary feast on the date on which he had been cut
for the stone; Mr. Pepys who was not "troubled at it at all" as soon as he
saw that the lady who had spat on him in the theatre was a pretty one; Mr.
Pepys drinking; Mr. Pepys among his dishes; Mr. Pepys among princes; Mr.
Pepys who was "mightily pleased" as he listened to "my aunt Jenny, a poor,
religious, well-meaning good soul, talking of nothing but God Almighty";
Mr. Pepys, as he counts up his blessings in wealth, women, honour and
life, and decides that "all these things are ordered by God Almighty to
make me contented"; Mr. Pepys as, having just refused to see Lady
Pickering, he comments, "But how natural it is for us to slight people out
of power!"; Mr. Pepys who groans as he sees his office clerks sitting in
more expensive seats than himself at the theatre. Mr. Pepys is a man so
many-sided, indeed, that in order to illustrate his character one would
have to quote the greater part of his Diary. He is a mass of contrasts and
contradictions. He lives without sequence except in the business of
getting-on (in which he might well have been taken as a model by Samuel
Smiles). One thinks of him sometimes as a sort of Deacon Brodie, sometimes
as the most innocent sinner who ever lived. For, though he was brutal and
snobbish and self-seeking and simian, he had a pious and a merry and a
grateful heart. He felt that God had created the world for the pleasure of
Samuel Pepys, and had no doubt that it was good.


Once, when John Bunyan had been preaching in London, a friend
congratulated him on the excellence of his sermon. "You need not remind me
of that," replied Bunyan. "The Devil told me of it before I was out of the
pulpit." On another occasion, when he was going about in disguise, a
constable who had a warrant for his arrest spoke to him and inquired if he
knew that devil Bunyan. "Know him?" said Bunyan. "You might call him a
devil if you knew him as well as I once did." We have in these anecdotes a
key to the nature of Bunyan's genius. He was a realist, a romanticist, and
a humourist. He was as exact a realist (though in a different way) as Mr.
Pepys, whose contemporary he was. He was a realist both in his
self-knowledge and in his sense of the outer world. He had the acute eye
of the artist which was aware of the stones of the street and the crows in
the ploughed field. As a preacher, he did not guide the thoughts of his
hearers, as so many preachers do, into the wind. He recalled them from
orthodox abstractions to the solid earth. "Have you forgot," he asked his
followers, "the close, the milk-house, the stable, the barn, and the like,
where God did visit your souls?" He himself could never be indifferent to
the place or setting of the great tragi-comedy of salvation. When he
relates how he gave up swearing as a result of a reproof from a "loose and
ungodly" woman, he begins the story: "One day, as I was standing at a
neighbour's shop-window, and there cursing and swearing after my wonted
manner, there sat within the woman of the house, who heard me." This
passion for locality was always at his elbow. A few pages further on in
_Grace Abounding_, when he tells us how he abandoned not only swearing but
the deeper-rooted sins of bell-ringing and dancing, and nevertheless
remained self-righteous and "ignorant of Jesus Christ," he introduces the
next episode in the story of his conversion with the sentence: "But upon a
day the good providence of God called me to Bedford to work at my calling,
and in one of the streets of that town I came where there were three or
four poor women sitting at a door in the sun, talking about the things of
God." That seems to me to be one of the most beautiful sentences in
English literature. Its beauty is largely due to the hungry eyes with
which Bunyan looked at the present world during his progress to the next.
If he wrote the greatest allegory in English literature, it is because he
was able to give his narrative the reality of a travel-book instead of the
insubstantial quality of a dream. He leaves the reader with the feeling
that he is moving among real places and real people. As for the people,
Bunyan can give even an abstract virtue--still more, an abstract vice--the
skin and bones of a man. A recent critic has said disparagingly that
Bunyan would have called Hamlet Mr. Facing-both-ways. As a matter of fact,
Bunyan's secret is the direct opposite of this. His great and singular
gift was the power to create an atmosphere in which a character with a
name like Mr. Facing-both-ways is accepted on the same plane of reality as

If Bunyan was a realist, however, as regards place and character, his
conception of life was none the less romantic. Life to him was a story of
hairbreadth escapes--of a quest beset with a thousand perils. Not only was
there that great dragon the Devil lying in wait for the traveller, but
there was Doubting Castle to pass, and Giant Despair, and the lions. We
have in _The Pilgrim's Progress_ almost every property of romantic
adventure and terror. We want only a map in order to bring home to us the
fact that it belongs to the same school of fiction as _Treasure Island_.
There may be theological contentions here and there that interrupt the
action of the story as they interrupt the interest of _Grace Abounding_.
But the tedious passages are extraordinarily few, considering that the
author had the passions of a preacher. No doubt the fact that, when he
wrote _The Pilgrim's Progress_, he was not definitely thinking of the
edification of his neighbours, goes far towards explaining the absence of
commonplace arguments and exhortations. "I did it mine own self to
gratify," he declared in his rhymed "apology for his book." Later on, in
reply to some brethren of the stricter sort who condemned such dabbling in
fiction, he defended his book as a tract, remarking that, if you want to
catch fish,

  They must be groped for, and be tickled too,
  Or they will not be catch't, whate'er you do.

But in its origin _The Pilgrim's Progress_ was not a tract, but the
inevitable image of the experiences of the writer's soul. And what wild
adventures those were every reader of _Grace Abounding_ knows. There were
terrific contests with the Devil, who could never charm John Bunyan as he
charmed Eve. To Bunyan these contests were not metaphorical battles, but
were as struggles with flesh and blood. "He pulled, and I pulled," he
wrote in one place; "but, God be praised, I overcame him--I got sweetness
from it." And the Devil not only fought him openly, but made more subtle
attempts to entice him to sin. "Sometimes, again, when I have been
preaching, I have been violently assaulted with thoughts of blasphemy, and
strongly tempted to speak the words with my mouth before the
congregation." Bunyan, as he looked back over the long record of his
spiritual torments, thought of it chiefly as a running fight with the
Devil. Outside the covers of the Bible, little existed save temptations
for the soul. No sentence in _The Pilgrim's Progress_ is more suggestive
of Bunyan's view of life than that in which the merchandise of Vanity Fair
is described as including "delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives,
husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls,
silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not." It is no wonder
that one to whom so much of the common life of man was simply Devil's
traffic took a tragic view of even the most innocent pleasures, and
applied to himself, on account of his love of strong language, Sunday
sports and bell-ringing, epithets that would hardly have been too strong
if he had committed all the crimes of the latest Bluebeard. He himself,
indeed, seems to have become alarmed when--probably as a result of his own
confessions--it began to be rumoured that he was a man with an unspeakable
past. He now demanded that "any woman in heaven, earth or hell" should be
produced with whom he had ever had relations before his marriage. "My
foes," he declared, "have missed their mark in this shooting at me. I am
not the man. I wish that they themselves be guiltless. If all the
fornicators and adulterers in England were hanged up by the neck till they
be dead, John Bunyan, the object of their envy, would still be alive and
well." Bunyan, one observes, was always as ready to defend as to attack
himself. The verses he prefixed to _The Holy War_ are an indignant reply
to those who accused him of not being the real author of _The Pilgrim's
Progress_. He wound up a fervent defence of his claims to originality by
pointing out the fact that his name, if "anagrammed," made the words: "NU
HONY IN A B." Many worse arguments have been used in the quarrels of

Bunyan has been described as a tall, red-haired man, stern of countenance,
quick of eye, and mild of speech. His mildness of speech, I fancy, must
have been an acquired mildness. He loved swearing as a boy, and, as _The
Pilgrim's Progress_ shows, even in his later life he had not lost the
humour of calling names. No other English author has ever invented a name
of the labelling kind equal to that of Mr. Worldly Wiseman--a character,
by the way, who does not appear in the first edition of _The Pilgrim's
Progress_, but came in later as an afterthought. Congreve's "Tribulation
Spintext" and Dickens's "Lord Frederick Verisopht" are mere mechanical
contrivances compared to this triumph of imagination and phrase. Bunyan's
gift for names was in its kind supreme. His humorous fancy chiefly took
that form. Even atheists can read him with pleasure for the sake of his
names. The modern reader, no doubt, often smiles at these names where
Bunyan did not mean him to smile, as when Mrs. Lightmind says: "I was
yesterday at Madam Wantons, when we were as merry as the maids. For who do
you think should be there but I and Mrs. Love-the-flesh, and three or four
more, with Mr. Lechery, Mrs. Filth, and some others?" Bunyan's
fancifulness, however, gives us pleasure quite apart from such quaint
effects as this. How delightful is Mr. By-ends's explanation of the two
points in regard to which he and his family differ in religion from those
of the stricter sort: "First, we never strive against wind and tide.
Secondly, we are always most zealous when Religion goes in his silver
slippers; we love much to walk with him in the street, if the sun shines,
and the people applaud him." What a fine grotesque, again, Bunyan gives us
in toothless Giant Pope sitting in the mouth of the cave, and, though too
feeble to follow Christian, calling out after him: "You will never mend
till more of you be burnt." We do not read _The Pilgrim's Progress_,
however, as a humorous book. Bunyan's pains mean more to us than the play
of his fancy. His books are not seventeenth-century grotesques, but the
story of his heart. He has written that story twice over--with the gloom
of the realist in _Grace Abounding_, and with the joy of the artist in
_The Pilgrim's Progress_. Even in _Grace Abounding_, however, much as it
is taken up with a tale of almost lunatic terror, the tenderness of
Bunyan's nature breaks out as he tells us how, when he was taken off to
prison, "the parting with my wife and four children hath often been to me
in the place as the pulling the flesh from the bones ... especially my
poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all beside. Oh, the
thoughts of the hardship I thought my poor blind one might go under would
break my heart to pieces!" At the same time, fear and not love is the
dominating passion in _Grace Abounding_. We are never far from the noise
of Hell in its pages. In _Grace Abounding_ man is a trembling criminal. In
_The Pilgrim's Progress_ he has become, despite his immense capacity for
fear, a hero. The description of the fight with Apollyon is a piece of
heroic literature equal to anything in those romances of adventure that
went to the head of Don Quixote. "But, as God would have it, while
Apollyon was fetching his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this
good man, Christian nimbly reached out his hand for his sword, and caught
it, saying: 'Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy! when I fall I shall
arise'; and with that gave him a deadly thrust, which made him give back,
as one that had received a mortal wound." Heroic literature cannot surpass
this. Its appeal is universal. When one reads it, one ceases to wonder
that there exists even a Catholic version of _The Pilgrim's Progress_, in
which Giant Pope is discreetly omitted, but the heroism of Christian
remains. Bunyan disliked being called by the name of any sect. His
imagination was certainly as little sectarian as that of a
seventeenth-century preacher could well be. His hero is primarily not a
Baptist, but a man. He bears, perhaps, almost too close a resemblance to
Everyman, but his journey, his adventures and his speech save him from
sinking into a pulpit generalization.


Thomas Campion is among English poets the perfect minstrel. He takes love
as a theme rather than is burned by it. His most charming, if not his most
beautiful poem begins: "Hark, all you ladies." He sings of love-making
rather than of love. His poetry, like Moore's--though it is infinitely
better poetry than Moore's--is the poetry of flirtation. Little is known
about his life, but one may infer from his work that his range of amorous
experience was rather wide than deep. There is no lady "with two pitch
balls stuck in her face for eyes" troubling his pages with a constant
presence. The Mellea and Caspia--the one too easy of capture, the other
too difficult--to whom so many of the Latin epigrams are addressed, are
said to have been his chief schoolmistresses in love. But he has buried
most of his erotic woes, such as they were, in a dead language. His
English poems do not portray him as a man likely to die of love, or even
to forget a meal on account of it. His world is a happy land of song, in
which ladies all golden in the sunlight succeed one another as in a
pageant of beauties. Lesbia, Laura, and Corinna with her lute equally
inhabit it. They are all characters in a masque of love, forms and figures
in a revel. Their maker is an Epicurean and an enemy to "the sager sort":

  My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love,
  And, though the sager sort our deeps reprove,
  Let us not weigh them. Heav'n's great lamps do dive
  Into their west, and straight again revive.
  But, soon as once is set our little light,
  Then must we sleep our ever-during night.

Ladies in so bright and insecure a day must not be permitted to "let their
lovers moan." If they do, they will incur the just vengeance of the Fairy
Queen Proserpina, who will send her attendant fairies to pinch their white
hands and pitiless arms. Campion is the Fairy Queen's court poet. He
claims all men--perhaps, one ought rather to say all women--as her

  In myrtle arbours on the downs
    The Fairy Queen Proserpina,
  This night by moonshine leading merry rounds,
    Holds a watch with sweet love,
  Down the dale, up the hill;
    No plaints or groans may move
       Their holy vigil.

  All you that will hold watch with love,
    The Fairy Queen Proserpina
  Will make you fairer than Dione's dove;
    Roses red, lilies white
  And the clear damask hue,
    Shall on your cheeks alight:
       Love will adorn you.

  All you that love, or lov'd before,
    The Fairy Queen Proserpina
  Bids you increase that loving humour more:
    They that have not fed
  On delight amorous,
    She vows that they shall lead
       Apes in Avernus.

It would be folly to call the poem that contains these three verses one of
the great English love-songs. It gets no nearer love than a ballet does.
There are few lyrics of "delight amorous" in English, however, that can
compare with it in exquisite fancy and still more exquisite music.

Campion, at the same time, if he was the poet of the higher flirtation,
was no mere amorous jester, as Moore was. His affairs of the heart were
also affairs of the imagination. Love may not have transformed the earth
for him, as it did Shakespeare and Donne and Browning, but at least it
transformed his accents. He sang neither the "De Profundis" of love nor
the triumphal ode of love that increases from anniversary to anniversary;
but he knew the flying sun and shadow of romantic love, and staged them in
music of a delicious sadness, of a fantastic and playful gravity. His
poems, regarded as statements of fact, are a little insincere. They are
the compliments, not the confessions, of a lover. He exaggerates the
burden of his sigh, the incurableness of his wounded heart. But beneath
these conventional excesses there is a flow of sincere and beautiful
feeling. He may not have been a worshipper, but his admirations were
golden. In one or two of his poems, such as:

  Follow your saint, follow with accents sweet;
  Haste you, sad notes, fall at her flying feet,

admiration treads on the heels of worship.

  All that I sung still to her praise did tend;
  Still she was first, still she my song did end--

in these lines we find a note of triumphant fidelity rare in Campion's
work. Compared with this, that other song beginning:

  Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow,
  Though thou be black as night,
  And she made all of light,
  Yet follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow--

seems but the ultimate perfection among valentines. Others of the songs
hesitate between compliment and the finer ecstasy. The compliment is
certainly of the noblest in the lyric which sets out--

  When thou must home to shades of underground,
  And, there arriv'd, a new admired guest,
  The beauteous spirits do ingirt thee round,
  White lope, blithe Helen, and the rest,
  To hear the stories of thy finisht love
  From that smooth tongue whose music hell can move;

but it fades by way of beauty into the triviality of convention in the
second verse:

  Then wilt thou speak of banqueting delights,
  Of masks and revels which sweet youth did make,
  Of tourneys and great challenges of knights,
  And all these triumphs for thy beauty's sake:
  When thou hast told these honours done to thee,
  Then tell, O tell, how thou didst murther me.

There is more of jest than of sorrow in the last line. It is an act of
courtesy. Through all these songs, however, there is a continuous expense
of beauty, of a very fortune of admiration, that entitles Campion to a
place above any of the other contemporaries of Shakespeare as a writer of
songs. His dates (1567-1620) almost coincide with those of Shakespeare.
Living in an age of music, he wrote music that Shakespeare alone could
equal and even Shakespeare could hardly surpass. Campion's words are
themselves airs. They give us at once singer and song and stringed

It is only in music, however, that Campion is in any way comparable to
Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the nonpareil among song-writers, not merely
because of his music, but because of the imaginative riches that he pours
out in his songs. In contrast with his abundance, Campion's fortune seems
lean, like his person. Campion could not see the world for lovely ladies.
Shakespeare in his lightest songs was always aware of the abundant
background of the visible world. Campion seems scarcely to know of the
existence of the world apart from the needs of a masque-writer. Among his
songs there is nothing comparable to "When daisies pied and violets blue,"
or "Where the bee sucks," or "You spotted snakes with double tongue," or
"When daffodils begin to peer," or "Full fathom five," or "Fear no more
the heat o' the sun." He had neither Shakespeare's eye nor Shakespeare's
experiencing soul. He puts no girdle round the world in his verse. He
knows but one mood and its sub-moods. Though he can write

  There is a garden in her face,
  Where roses and white lilies grow,

he brings into his songs none of the dye and fragrance of flowers.

Perhaps it was because he suspected a certain levity and thinness in his
genius that Campion was so contemptuous of his English verse. His songs he
dismissed as "superfluous blossoms of his deeper studies." It is as though
he thought, like Bacon, that anything written for immortality should be
written in Latin. Bacon, it may be remembered, translated his essays into
Latin for fear they might perish in so modern and barbarous a tongue as
English. Campion was equally inclined to despise his own language in
comparison with that of the Greeks and Romans. His main quarrel with it
arose, however, from the obstinacy with which English poets clung to "the
childish titillation of rhyming." "Bring before me now," he wrote, "any
the most self-loved rhymer, and let me see if without blushing he be able
to read his lame, halting rhymes." There are few more startling paradoxes
in literature than that it should have been this hater of rhymes who did
more than any other writer to bring the art of rhyme to perfection in the
English language. The bent of his intellect was classical, as we see in
his astonishing _Observations on the Art of English Poesy_, in which he
sets out to demonstrate "the unaptness of rhyme in poesy." The bent of his
genius, on the other hand, was romantic, as was shown when, desiring to
provide certain airs with words, he turned out--that seems, in the
circumstances, to be the proper word--"after the fashion of the time,
ear-pleasing rhymes without art." His songs can hardly be called
"pot-boilers," but they were equally the children of chance. They were
accidents, not fulfilments of desire. Luckily, Campion, writing them with
music in his head, made his words themselves creatures of music. "In these
English airs," he wrote in one of his prefaces, "I have chiefly aimed to
couple my words and notes lovingly together." It would be impossible to
improve on this as a description of his achievement in rhyme. Only one of
his good poems, "Rosecheek'd Laura," is to be found among those which he
wrote according to his pseudo-classical theory. All the rest are among
those in which he coupled his words and notes lovingly together, not as a
duty, but as a diversion.

Irish critics have sometimes hoped that certain qualities in Campion's
music might be traced to the fact that his grandfather was "John Campion
of Dublin, Ireland." The art--and in Campion it was art, not
artlessness--with which he made use of such rhymes as "hill" and "vigil,"
"sing" and "darling," besides his occasional use of internal rhyme and
assonance (he rhymed "licens'd" and "silence," "strangeness" and
"plainness," for example), has seemed to be more akin to the practices of
Irish than of English poets. No evidence exists, however, as to whether
Campion's grandfather was Irish in anything except his adventures. Of
Campion himself we know that his training was English. He went to
Peterhouse, and, though he left it without taking a degree, he was
apparently regarded as one of the promising figures in the Cambridge of
his day. "I know, Cambridge," apostrophized a writer of the time,
"howsoever now old, thou hast some young. Bid them be chaste, yet suffer
them to be witty. Let them be soundly learned, yet suffer them to be
gentlemanlike qualified"; and the admonitory reference, though he had left
Cambridge some time before, is said to have been to "sweet master

The rest of his career may be summarized in a few sentences. He was
admitted to Gray's Inn, but was never called to the Bar. That he served as
a soldier in France under Essex is inferred by his biographers. He
afterwards practised as a doctor, but whether he studied medicine during
his travels abroad or in England is not known. The most startling fact
recorded of his maturity is that he acted as a go-between in bribing the
Lieutenant of the Tower to resign his post and make way for a more pliable
successor on the eve of the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. This he did on
behalf of Sir Thomas Monson, one of whose dependants, as Mr. Percival
Vivian says, "actually carried the poisoned tarts and jellies." Campion
afterwards wrote a masque in celebration of the nuptials of the murderers.
Both Monson and he, however, are universally believed to have been
innocent agents in the crime. Campion boldly dedicated his _Third Book of
Airs_ to Monson after the first shadow of suspicion had passed.

As a poet, though he was no Puritan, he gives the impression of having
been a man of general virtue. It is not only that he added piety to
amorousness. This might be regarded as flirting with religion. Did not he
himself write, in explaining why he mixed pious and light songs; "He that
in publishing any work hath a desire to content all palates must cater for
them accordingly"? Even if the spiritual depth of his graver songs has
been exaggerated, however, they are clearly the expression of a charming
and tender spirit.

  Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore,
  Never tired pilgrim's limbs affected slumber more,
  Than my wearied sprite now longs to fly out of my troubled breast.
  O come quickly, sweetest Lord, and take my soul to rest.

What has the "sweet master Campion" who wrote these lines to do with
poisoned tarts and jellies? They are not ecstatic enough to have been
written by a murderer.


Izaak Walton in his short life of Donne has painted a figure of almost
seraphic beauty. When Donne was but a boy, he declares, it was said that
the age had brought forth another Pico della Mirandola. As a young man in
his twenties, he was a prince among lovers, who by his secret marriage
with his patron's niece--"for love," says Walton, "is a flattering
mischief"--purchased at first only the ruin of his hopes and a term in
prison. Finally, we have the later Donne in the pulpit of St. Paul's
represented, in a beautiful adaptation of one of his own images, as
"always preaching to himself, like an angel from a cloud, though in none;
carrying some, as St. Paul was, to Heaven in holy raptures, and enticing
others by a sacred art and courtship to amend their lives." The picture is
all of noble charm. Walton speaks in one place of "his winning
behaviour--which, when it would entice, had a strange kind of elegant
irresistible art." There are no harsh phrases even in the references to
those irregularities of Donne's youth, by which he had wasted the fortune
of £3,000--equal, I believe, to more than £30,000 of our money--bequeathed
to him by his father, the ironmonger. "Mr. Donne's estate," writes Walton
gently, referring to his penury at the time of his marriage, "was the
greatest part spent in many and chargeable travels, books, and dear-bought
experience." It is true that he quotes Donne's own confession of the
irregularities of his early life. But he counts them of no significance.
He also utters a sober reproof of Donne's secret marriage as "the
remarkable error of his life." But how little he condemned it in his heart
is clear when he goes on to tell us that God blessed Donne and his wife
"with so mutual and cordial affections, as in the midst of their
sufferings made their bread of sorrow taste more pleasantly than the
banquets of dull and low-spirited people." It was not for Walton to go in
search of small blemishes in him whom he regarded as the wonder of the
world--him whose grave, mournful friends "strewed ... with an abundance of
curious and costly flowers," as Alexander the Great strewed the grave of
"the famous Achilles." In that grave there was buried for Walton a whole
age magnificent with wit, passion, adventure, piety and beauty. More than
that, the burial of Donne was for him the burial of an inimitable
Christian. He mourns over "that body, which once was a Temple of the Holy
Ghost, and is now become a small quantity of Christian dust," and, as he
mourns, he breaks off with the fervent prophecy, "But I shall see it
reanimated." That is his valediction. If Donne is esteemed three hundred
years after his death less as a great Christian than as a great pagan,
this is because we now look for him in his writings rather than in his
biography, in his poetry rather than in his prose, and in his _Songs and
Sonnets_ and _Elegies_ rather than in his _Divine Poems_. We find, in some
of these, abundant evidence of the existence of a dark angel at odds with
the good angel of Walton's raptures. Donne suffered in his youth all the
temptations of Faust. His thirst was not for salvation but for
experience--experience of the intellect and experience of sensation. He
has left it on record in one of his letters that he was a victim at one
period of "the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptic, immoderate desire of
human learning and languages." Faust in his cell can hardly have been a
more insatiate student than Donne. "In the most unsettled days of his
youth," Walton tells us, "his bed was not able to detain him beyond the
hour of four in the morning; and it was no common business that drew him
out of his chamber till past ten; all which time was employed in study;
though he took great liberty after it." His thoroughness of study may be
judged from the fact that "he left the resultance of 1,400 authors, most
of them abridged and analyzed with his own hand." But we need not go
beyond his poems for proof of the wilderness of learning that he had made
his own. He was versed in medicine and the law as well as in theology. He
subdued astronomy, physiology, and geography to the needs of poetry. Nine
Muses were not enough for him, even though they included Urania. He called
in to their aid Galen and Copernicus. He did not go to the hills and the
springs for his images, but to the laboratory and the library, and in the
library the books that he consulted to the greatest effect were the works
of men of science and learning, not of the great poets with whom London
may almost be said to have been peopled during his lifetime. I do not
think his verse or correspondence contains a single reference to
Shakespeare, whose contemporary he was, being born only nine years later.
The only great Elizabethan poet whom he seems to have regarded with
interest and even friendship was Ben Jonson. Jonson's Catholicism may have
been a link between them. But, more important than that, Jonson was, like
Donne himself, an inflamed pedant. For each of them learning was the
necessary robe of genius. Jonson, it is true, was a pedant of the
classics, Donne of the speculative sciences; but both of them alike ate to
a surfeit of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It was, I think, because
Donne was to so great a degree a pagan of the Renaissance, loving the
proud things of the intellect more than the treasures of the humble, that
he found it easy to abandon the Catholicism of his family for
Protestantism. He undoubtedly became in later life a convinced and
passionate Christian of the Protestant faith, but at the time when he
first changed his religion he had none of the fanaticism of the pious
convert. He wrote in an early satire as a man whom the intellect had
liberated from dogma-worship. Nor did he ever lose this rationalist
tolerance. "You know," he once wrote to a friend, "I have never imprisoned
the word religion.... They" (the churches) "are all virtual beams of one
sun." Few converts in those days of the wars of religion wrote with such
wise reason of the creeds as did Donne in the lines:

  To adore or scorn an image, or protest,
  May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
  To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
  To sleep or run wrong is. On a huge hill,
  Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
  Reach her, about must and about must go;
  And what the hill's suddenness resists win so.

This surely was the heresy of an inquisitive mind, not the mood of a
theologian. It betrays a tolerance springing from ardent doubt, not from
ardent faith.

It is all in keeping with one's impression of the young Donne as a man
setting out bravely in his cockle-shell on the oceans of knowledge and
experience. He travels, though he knows not why he travels. He loves,
though he knows not why he loves. He must escape from that "hydroptic,
immoderate" thirst of experience by yielding to it. One fancies that it
was in this spirit that he joined the expedition of Essex to Cadiz in 1596
and afterwards sailed to the Azores. Or partly in this spirit, for he
himself leads one to think that his love-affairs may have had something to
do with it. In the second of those prematurely realistic descriptions of
storm and calm relating to the Azores voyage, he writes:

  Whether a rotten state, and hope of gain,
  Or to disuse me from the queasy pain
  Of being belov'd, and loving, or the thirst
  Of honour, or fair death, out pusht me first.

In these lines we get a glimpse of the Donne that has attracted most
interest in recent years--the Donne who experienced more variously than
any other poet of his time "the queasy pain of being beloved and loving."
Donne was curious of adventures of many kinds, but in nothing more than in
love. As a youth he leaves the impression of having been an Odysseus of
love, a man of many wiles and many travels. He was a virile neurotic,
comparable in some points to Baudelaire, who was a sensualist of the mind
even more than of the body. His sensibilities were different as well as
less of a piece, but he had something of Baudelaire's taste for hideous
and shocking aspects of lust. One is not surprised to find among his poems
that "heroical epistle of Sappho to Philaenis," in which he makes himself
the casuist of forbidden things. His studies of sensuality, however, are
for the most part normal, even in their grossness. There was in him more
of the Yahoo than of the decadent. There was an excremental element in his
genius as in the genius of that other gloomy dean, Jonathan Swift. Donne
and Swift were alike satirists born under Saturn. They laughed more
frequently from disillusion than from happiness. Donne, it must be
admitted, turned his disillusion to charming as well as hideous uses. _Go
and Catch a Falling Star_ is but one of a series of delightful lyrics in
disparagement of women. In several of the _Elegies_, however, he throws
away his lute and comes to the satirist's more prosaic business. He writes
frankly as a man in search of bodily experiences:

  Whoever loves, if he do not propose
  The right true end of love, he's one that goes
  To sea for nothing but to make him sick.

In _Love Progress_ he lets his fancy dwell on the detailed geography of a
woman's body, with the sick imagination of a schoolboy, till the beautiful
seems almost beastly. In _The Anagram_ and _The Comparison_ he plays the
Yahoo at the expense of all women by the similes he uses in insulting two
of them. In _The Perfume_ he relates the story of an intrigue with a girl
whose father discovered his presence in the house as a result of his using
scent. Donne's jest about it is suggestive of his uncontrollable passion
for ugliness:

  Had it been some bad smell, he would have thought
  That his own feet, or breath, that smell had brought.

It may be contended that in _The Perfume_ he was describing an imaginary
experience, and indeed we have his own words on record: "I did best when I
had least truth for my subjects." But even if we did not accept Mr.
Gosse's common-sense explanation of these words, we should feel that the
details of the story have a vividness that springs straight from reality.
It is difficult to believe that Donne had not actually lived in terror of
the gigantic manservant who was set to spy on the lovers:

  The grim eight-foot-high iron-bound serving-man
  That oft names God in oaths, and only then;
  He that to bar the first gate doth as wide
  As the great Rhodian Colossus stride,
  Which, if in hell no other pains there were,
  Makes me fear hell, because he must be there.

But the most interesting of all the sensual intrigues of Donne, from the
point of view of biography, especially since Mr. Gosse gave it such
commanding significance in that _Life of John Donne_ in which he made a
living man out of a mummy, is that of which we have the story in
_Jealousy_ and _His Parting from Her_. It is another story of furtive and
forbidden love. Its theme is an intrigue carried on under a

                  Husband's towering eyes,
  That flamed with oily sweat of jealousy.

A characteristic touch of grimness is added to the story by making the
husband a deformed man. Donne, however, merely laughs at his deformity, as
he bids the lady laugh at the jealousy that reduces her to tears:

  O give him many thanks, he is courteous,
  That in suspecting kindly warneth us.
  We must not, as we used, flout openly,
  In scoffing riddles, his deformity;
  Nor at his board together being set,
  With words nor touch scarce looks adulterate.

And he proposes that, now that the husband seems to have discovered them,
they shall henceforth carry on their intrigue at some distance from where

              He, swol'n and pampered with great fare,
  Sits down and snorts, cag'd in his basket chair.

It is an extraordinary story, if it is true. It throws a scarcely less
extraordinary light on the nature of Donne's mind, if he invented it. At
the same time, I do not think the events it relates played the important
part which Mr. Gosse assigns to them in Donne's spiritual biography. It is
impossible to read Mr. Gosse's two volumes without getting the impression
that "the deplorable but eventful liaison," as he calls it, was the most
fruitful occurrence in Donne's life as a poet. He discovers traces of it
in one great poem after another--even in the _Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's
Day_, which is commonly supposed to relate to the Countess of Bedford, and
in _The Funeral_, the theme of which Professor Grierson takes to be the
mother of George Herbert. I confess that the oftener I read the poetry of
Donne the more firmly I become convinced that, far from being primarily
the poet of desire gratified and satiated, he is essentially the poet of
frustrated love. He is often described by the historians of literature as
the poet who finally broke down the tradition of Platonic love. I believe
that, so far is this from being the case, he is the supreme example of a
Platonic lover among the English poets. He was usually Platonic under
protest, but at other times exultantly so. Whether he finally overcame the
more consistent Platonism of his mistress by the impassioned logic of _The
Ecstasy_ we have no means of knowing. If he did, it would be difficult to
resist the conclusion that the lady who wished to continue to be his
passionate friend and to ignore the physical side of love was Anne More,
whom he afterwards married. If not, we may look for her where we will,
whether in Magdalen Herbert (already a young widow who had borne ten
children when he first met her) or in the Countess of Bedford or in
another. The name is not important, and one is not concerned to know it,
especially when one remembers Donne's alarming curse on:

  Whoever guesses, thinks, or dreams he knows
        Who is my mistress.

One sort of readers will go on speculating, hoping to discover real people
in the shadows, as they speculate about Swift's Stella and Vanessa, and
his relations to them. It is enough for us to feel, however, that these
poems railing at or glorying in Platonic love are no mere goldsmith's
compliments, like the rhymed letters to Mrs. Herbert and Lady Bedford.
Miracles of this sort are not wrought save by the heart. We do not find in
them the underground and sardonic element that appears in so much of
Donne's merely amorous work. We no longer picture him as a sort of Vulcan
hammering out the poetry of base love, raucous, powerful, mocking. He
becomes in them a child Apollo, as far as his temperament will allow him.
He makes music of so grave and stately a beauty that one begins to wonder
at all the critics who have found fault with his rhythms--from Ben Jonson,
who said that "for not keeping accent, Donne deserved hanging," down to
Coleridge, who declared that his "muse on dromedary trots," and described
him as "rhyme's sturdy cripple." Coleridge's quatrain on Donne is, without
doubt, an unequalled masterpiece of epigrammatic criticism. But Donne rode
no dromedary. In his greatest poems he rides Pegasus like a master, even
if he does rather weigh the poor beast down by carrying an encyclopædia
in his saddle-bags.

Not only does Donne remain a learned man on his Pegasus, however: he also
remains a humorist, a serious fantastic. Humour and passion pursue each
other through the labyrinth of his being, as we find in those two
beautiful poems, _The Relic_ and _The Funeral_, addressed to the lady who
had given him a bracelet of her hair. In the former he foretells what will
happen if ever his grave is broken up and his skeleton discovered with

  A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.

People will fancy, he declares, that the bracelet is a device of lovers

  To make their souls at the last busy day
  Meet at the grave and make a little stay.

Bone and bracelet will be worshipped as relics--the relics of a Magdalen
and her lover. He conjectures with a quiet smile:

  All women shall adore us, and some men.

He warns his worshippers, however, that the facts are far different from
what they imagine, and tells the miracle seekers what in reality were "the
miracles we harmless lovers wrought":

  First we loved well and faithfully,
  Yet knew not what we lov'd, nor why;
  Difference of sex no more we knew
  Than our guardian angels do;
      Coming and going, we
  Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
      Our hands ne'er touch'd the seals,
  Which nature, injur'd by late law, sets free:
  These miracles we did; but now, alas!
  All measure, and all language I should pass,
  Should I tell what a miracle she was.

In _The Funeral_ he returns to the same theme:

  Whoever comes to shroud me do not harm
      Nor question much
  That subtle wreath of hair that crowns my arm;
  The mystery, the sign you must not touch,
      For 'tis my outward soul.

In this poem, however, he finds less consolation than before in the too
miraculous nobleness of their love:

  Whate'er she meant by it, bury it with me,
      For since I am
  Love's martyr, it might breed idolatry,
  If into other hands these relics came;
      As 'twas humility
  To afford to it all that a soul can do,
      So, 'tis some bravery,
  That, since you would have none of me, I bury some of you.

In _The Blossom_ he is in a still more earthly mood, and declares that, if
his mistress remains obdurate, he will return to London, where he will
find a mistress:

  As glad to have my body as my mind.

_The Primrose_ is another appeal for a less intellectual love:

                  Should she
  Be more than woman, she would get above
  All thought of sex, and think to move
  My heart to study her, and not to love.

If we turn back to _The Undertaking_, however, we find Donne boasting once
more of the miraculous purity of a love which it would be useless to
communicate to other men, since, there being no other mistress to love in
the same kind, they "would love but as before." Hence he will keep the
tale a secret:

  If, as I have, you also do,
    Virtue attir'd in woman see,
  And dare love that, and say so too,
    And forget the He and She.

  And if this love, though placed so,
    From profane men you hide,
  Which will no faith on this bestow,
    Or, if they do, deride:

  Then you have done a braver thing
    Than all the Worthies did;
  And a braver thence will spring,
    Which is, to keep that hid.

It seems to me, in view of this remarkable series of poems, that it is
useless to look in Donne for a single consistent attitude to love. His
poems take us round the entire compass of love as the work of no other
English poet--not even, perhaps, Browning's--does. He was by destiny the
complete experimentalist in love in English literature. He passed through
phase after phase of the love of the body only, phase after phase of the
love of the soul only, and ended as the poet of the perfect marriage. In
his youth he was a gay--but was he ever really gay?--free-lover, who sang

  How happy were our sires in ancient time,
  Who held plurality of loves no crime!

But even then he looks forward, not with cynicism, to a time when he

  Shall not so easily be to change dispos'd,
  Nor to the arts of several eyes obeying;
  But beauty with true worth securely weighing,
  Which, being found assembled in some one,
  We'll love her ever, and love her alone.

By the time he writes _The Ecstasy_ the victim of the body has become the
protesting victim of the soul. He cries out against a love that is merely
an ecstatic friendship:

  But O alas, so long, so far,
  Our bodies why do we forbear?

He pleads for the recognition of the body, contending that it is not the
enemy but the companion of the soul:

  Soul into the soul may flow
      Though it to body first repair.

The realistic philosophy of love has never been set forth with greater
intellectual vehemence:

  So must pure lovers' souls descend
    T' affections and to faculties,
  Which sense may reach and apprehend,
    Else a great Prince in prison lies.
  To our bodies turn we then, that so
    Weak men on love reveal'd may look;
  Love's mysteries in souls do grow
    But yet the body is the book.

I, for one, find it impossible to believe that all this passionate
verse--verse in which we find the quintessence of Donne's genius--was a
mere utterance of abstract thoughts into the wind. Donne, as has been
pointed out, was more than most writers a poet of personal experience. His
greatest poetry was born of struggle and conflict in the obscure depths of
the soul as surely as was the religion of St. Paul. I doubt if, in the
history of his genius, any event ever happened of equal importance to his
meeting with the lady who first set going in his brain that fevered
dialogue between the body and the soul. Had he been less of a frustrated
lover, less of a martyr, in whom love's

                     Art did express
  A quintessence even from nothingness,
  From dull privations and lean emptiness,

much of his greatest poetry, it seems to me, would never have been

One cannot, unfortunately, write the history of the progress of Donne's
genius save by inference and guessing. His poems were not, with some
unimportant exceptions, published in his lifetime. He did not arrange them
in chronological or in any sort of order. His poem on the flea that has
bitten both him and his inamorata comes after the triumphant
_Anniversary_, and but a page or two before the _Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's
Day_. Hence there is no means of telling how far we are indebted to the
Platonism of one woman, how much to his marriage with another, for the
enrichment of his genius. Such a poem as _The Canonisation_ can be
interpreted either in a Platonic sense or as a poem written to Anne More,
who was to bring him both imprisonment and the liberty of love. It is, in
either case, written in defence of his love against some who censured him
for it:

  For God's sake, hold your tongue, and let me love.

In the last verses of the poem Donne proclaims that his love cannot be
measured by the standards of the vulgar:

  We can die by it, if not live by love,
    And if unfit for tombs or hearse
  Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
    And, if no piece of chronicle we prove,
      We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
      As well a well-wrought urn becomes
  The greatest ashes as half-acre tombs,
      And by these hymns all shall approve
      Us canoniz'd by love:

  And thus invoke us: "You whom reverend love
    Made one another's hermitage;
  You to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
    Who did the whole world's soul contract and drove
      Into the glasses of your eyes
      (So made such mirrors, and such spies,
  That they did all to you epitomize),
      Countries, towns, courts. Beg from above
      A pattern of your love!"

According to Walton, it was to his wife that Donne addressed the beautiful
verses beginning:

  Sweetest love, I do not go
         For weariness of thee;

as well as the series of _Valedictions_. Of many of the other love-poems,
however, we can measure the intensity but not guess the occasion. All that
we can say with confidence when we have read them is that, after we have
followed one tributary on another leading down to the ultimate Thames of
his genius, we know that his progress as a lover was a progress from
infidelity to fidelity, from wandering amorousness to deep and enduring
passion. The image that is finally stamped on his greatest work is not
that of a roving adulterer, but of a monotheist of love. It is true that
there is enough Don-Juanism in the poems to have led even Sir Thomas
Browne to think of Donne's verse rather as a confession of his sins than
as a golden book of love. Browne's quaint poem, _To the deceased Author,
before the Promiscuous printing of his Poems, the Looser Sort, with the
Religious_, is so little known that it may be quoted in full as the
expression of one point of view in regard to Donne's work:

  When thy loose raptures, Donne, shall meet with those
      That do confine
      Tuning unto the duller line,
  And sing not but in sanctified prose,
      How will they, with sharper eyes,
      The foreskin of thy fancy circumcise,
  And fear thy wantonness should now begin
  Example, that hath ceased to be sin!
      And that fear fans their heat; whilst knowing eyes
          Will not admire
          At this strange fire
      That here is mingled with thy sacrifice,
          But dare read even thy wanton story
          As thy confession, not thy glory;
  And will so envy both to future times,
  That they would buy thy goodness with thy crimes.

To the modern reader, on the contrary, it will seem that there is as much
divinity in the best of the love-poems as in the best of the religious
ones. Donne's last word as a secular poet may well be regarded as having
been uttered in that great poem in celebration of lasting love, _The
Anniversary_, which closes with so majestic a sweep:

  Here upon earth we are kings, and none but we
  Can be such kings, nor of such subjects be.
  Who is so safe as we, where none can do
  Treason to us, except one of us two?
      True and false fears let us refrain;
  Let us love nobly, and live, and add again
  Years and years unto years, till we attain
  To write three-score: this is the second of our reign.

Donne's conversion as a lover was obviously as complete and revolutionary
as his conversion in religion.

It is said, indeed, to have led to his conversion to passionate religion.
When his marriage with Sir George More's sixteen-year-old daughter brought
him at first only imprisonment and poverty, he summed up the sorrows of
the situation in the famous line--a line which has some additional
interest as suggesting the correct pronunciation of his name:

  John Donne; Anne Donne; Undone.

His married life, however, in spite of a succession of miseries due to
ill-health, debt and thwarted ambition, seems to have been happy beyond
prophecy; and when at the end of sixteen years his wife died in childbed,
after having borne him twelve children, a religious crisis resulted that
turned his conventional churchmanship into sanctity. His original change
from Catholicism to Protestantism has been already mentioned. Most of the
authorities are agreed, however, that this was a conversion in a formal
rather than in a spiritual sense. Even when he took Holy Orders in 1615,
at the age of forty-two, he appears to have done so less in answer to any
impulse to a religious life from within than because, with the downfall of
Somerset, all hope of advancement through his legal attainments was
brought to an end. Undoubtedly, as far back as 1612, he had thought of
entering the Church. But we find him at the end of 1613 writing an
epithalamium for the murderers of Sir Thomas Overbury. It is a curious
fact that three great poets--Donne, Ben Jonson, and Campion--appear,
though innocently enough, in the story of the Countess of Essex's sordid
crime. Donne's temper at the time is still clearly that of a man of the
world. His jest at the expense of Sir Walter Raleigh, then in the Tower,
is the jest of an ungenerous worldling. Even after his admission into the
Church he reveals himself as ungenerously morose when the Countess of
Bedford, in trouble about her own extravagances, can afford him no more
than £30 to pay his debts. The truth is, to be forty and a failure is an
affliction that might sour even a healthy nature. The effect on a man of
Donne's ambitious and melancholy temperament, together with the memory of
his dissipated health and his dissipated fortune, and the spectacle of a
long family in constant process of increase, must have been disastrous. To
such a man poverty and neglected merit are a prison, as they were to
Swift. One thinks of each of them as a lion in a cage, ever growing less
and less patient of his bars. Shakespeare and Shelley had in them some
volatile element that could, one feels, have escaped through the bars and
sung above the ground. Donne and Swift were morbid men suffering from
claustrophobia. They were pent and imprisoned spirits, hating the walls
that seemed to threaten to close in on them and crush them. In his poems
and letters Donne is haunted especially by three images--the hospital, the
prison, and the grave. Disease, I think, preyed on his mind even more
terrifyingly than warped ambition. "Put all the miseries that man is
subject to together," he exclaims in one of the passages in that luxuriant
anthology that Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith has made from the _Sermons_;
"sickness is more than all .... In poverty I lack but other things; in
banishment I lack but other men; but in sickness I lack myself." Walton
declares that it was from consumption that Donne suffered; but he had
probably the seeds of many diseases. In some of his letters he dwells
miserably on the symptoms of his illnesses. At one time, his sickness
"hath so much of a cramp that it wrests the sinews, so much of tetane that
it withdraws and pulls the mouth, and so much of the gout ... that it is
not like to be cured.... I shall," he adds, "be in this world, like a
porter in a great house, but seldomest abroad; I shall have many things to
make me weary, and yet not get leave to be gone." Even after his
conversion he felt drawn to a morbid insistence on the details of his
ill-health. Those amazing records which he wrote while lying ill in bed in
October, 1623, give us a realistic study of a sick-bed and its
circumstances, the gloom of which is hardly even lightened by his odd
account of the disappearance of his sense of taste: "My taste is not gone
away, but gone up to sit at David's table; my stomach is not gone, but
gone upwards toward the Supper of the Lamb." "I am mine own ghost," he
cries, "and rather affright my beholders than interest them.... Miserable
and inhuman fortune, when I must practise my lying in the grave by lying

It does not surprise one to learn that a man thus assailed by wretchedness
and given to looking in the mirror of his own bodily corruptions was often
tempted, by "a sickly inclination," to commit suicide, and that he even
wrote, though he did not dare to publish, an apology for suicide on
religious grounds, his famous and little-read _Biathanatos_. The family
crest of the Donnes was a sheaf of snakes, and these symbolize well enough
the brood of temptations that twisted about in this unfortunate
Christian's bosom. Donne, in the days of his salvation, abandoned the
family crest for a new one--Christ crucified on an anchor. But he might
well have left the snakes writhing about the anchor. He remained a tempted
man to the end. One wishes that the _Sermons_ threw more light on his
later personal life than they do. But perhaps that is too much to expect
of sermons. There is no form of literature less personal except a leading
article. The preacher usually regards himself as a mouthpiece rather than
a man giving expression to himself. In the circumstances what surprises us
is that the _Sermons_ reveal, not so little, but so much of Donne. Indeed,
they make us feel far more intimate with Donne than do his private
letters, many of which are little more than exercises in composition. As a
preacher, no less than as a poet, he is inflamed by the creative heat. He
shows the same vehemence of fancy in the presence of the divine and
infernal universe--a vehemence that prevents even his most far-sought
extravagances from disgusting us as do the lukewarm follies of the
Euphuists. Undoubtedly the modern reader smiles when Donne, explaining
that man can be an enemy of God as the mouse can be an enemy to the
elephant, goes on to speak of "God who is not only a multiplied elephant,
millions of elephants multiplied into one, but a multiplied world, a
multiplied all, all that can be conceived by us, infinite many times over;
nay (if we may dare to say so) a multiplied God, a God that hath the
millions of the heathens' gods in Himself alone." But at the same time one
finds oneself taking a serious pleasure in the huge sorites of quips and
fancies in which he loves to present the divine argument. Nine out of ten
readers of the _Sermons_, I imagine, will be first attracted to them
through love of the poems. They need not be surprised if they do not
immediately enjoy them. The dust of the pulpit lies on them thickly
enough. As one goes on reading them, however, one becomes suddenly aware
of their florid and exiled beauty. One sees beyond their local theology to
the passion of a great suffering artist. Here are sentences that express
the Paradise, the Purgatory, and the Hell of John Donne's soul. A noble
imagination is at work--a grave-digging imagination, but also an
imagination that is at home among the stars. One can open Mr. Pearsall
Smith's anthology almost at random and be sure of lighting on a passage
which gives us a characteristic movement in the symphony of horror and
hope that was Donne's contribution to the art of prose. Listen to this,
for example, from a sermon preached in St. Paul's in January, 1626:

    Let me wither and wear out mine age in a discomfortable, in an
    unwholesome, in a penurious prison, and so pay my debts with my
    bones, and recompense the wastefulness of my youth with the beggary
    of mine age; let me wither in a spittle under sharp, and foul, and
    infamous diseases, and so recompense the wantonness of my youth
    with that loathsomeness in mine age; yet, if God withdraw not his
    spiritual blessings, his grace, his patience, if I can call my
    suffering his doing, my passion his action, all this that is
    temporal, is but a caterpillar got into one corner of my garden,
    but a mildew fallen upon one acre of my corn: the body of all, the
    substance of all is safe, so long as the soul is safe.

The self-contempt with which his imagination loved to intoxicate itself
finds more lavish expression in a passage in a sermon delivered on Easter
Sunday two years later:

    When I consider what I was in my parents' loins (a substance
    unworthy of a word, unworthy of a thought), when I consider what I
    am now (a volume of diseases bound up together; a dry cinder, if I
    look for natural, for radical moisture; and yet a sponge, a bottle
    of overflowing Rheums, if I consider accidental; an aged child, a
    grey-headed infant, and but the ghost of mine own youth), when I
    consider what I shall be at last, by the hand of death, in my grave
    (first, but putrefaction, and, not so much as putrefaction; I shall
    not be able to send forth so much as ill air, not any air at all,
    but shall be all insipid, tasteless, savourless, dust; for a while,
    all worms, and after a while, not so much as worms, sordid,
    senseless, nameless dust), when I consider the past, and present,
    and future state of this body, in this world, I am able to
    conceive, able to express the worst that can befall it in nature,
    and the worst that can be inflicted on it by man, or fortune. But
    the least degree of glory that God hath prepared for that body in
    heaven, I am not able to express, not able to conceive.

Excerpts of great prose seldom give us that rounded and final beauty which
we expect in a work of art; and the reader of Donne's _Sermons_ in their
latest form will be wise if he comes to them expecting to find beauty
piecemeal and tarnished though in profusion. He will be wise, too, not to
expect too many passages of the same intimate kind as that famous
confession in regard to prayer which Mr. Pearsall Smith quotes, and which
no writer on Donne can afford not to quote:

    I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God,
    and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and
    his Angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach,
    for the whining of a door. I talk on, in the same posture of
    praying; eyes lifted up; knees bowed down; as though I prayed to
    God; and, if God, or his Angels should ask me, when I thought last
    of God in that prayer, I cannot tell. Sometimes I find that
    I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I
    cannot tell. A memory of yesterday's pleasures, a fear of
    to-morrow's dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a
    light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my
    brain troubles me in my prayer.

If Donne had written much prose in this kind, his _Sermons_ would be as
famous as the writings of any of the saints since the days of the

Even as it is, there is no other Elizabethan man of letters whose
personality is an island with a crooked shore, inviting us into a thousand
bays and creeks and river-mouths, to the same degree as the personality
that expressed itself in the poems, sermons, and life of John Donne. It is
a mysterious and at times repellent island. It lies only intermittently in
the sun. A fog hangs around its coast, and at the base of its most radiant
mountain-tops there is, as a rule, a miasma-infested swamp. There are
jewels to be found scattered among its rocks and over its surface, and by
miners in the dark. It is richer, indeed, in jewels and precious metals
and curious ornaments than in flowers. The shepherd on the hillside seldom
tells his tale uninterrupted. Strange rites in honour of ancient infernal
deities that delight in death are practised in hidden places, and the echo
of these reaches him on the sighs of the wind and makes him shudder even
as he looks at his beloved. It is an island with a cemetery smell. The
chief figure who haunts it is a living man in a winding-sheet. It is, no
doubt, Walton's story of the last days of Donne's life that makes us, as
we read even the sermons and the love-poems, so aware of this ghostly
apparition. Donne, it will be remembered, almost on the eve of his death,
dressed himself in a winding-sheet, "tied with knots at his head and
feet," and stood on a wooden urn with his eyes shut, and "with so much of
the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale, and death-like face,"
while a painter made a sketch of him for his funeral monument. He then had
the picture placed at his bedside, to which he summoned his friends and
servants in order to bid them farewell. As he lay awaiting death, he said
characteristically, "I were miserable if I might not die," and then
repeatedly, in a faint voice, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done." At the
very end he lost his speech, and "as his soul ascended and his last breath
departed from him he closed his eyes, and then disposed his hands and body
into such a posture as required not the least alteration by those that
came to shroud him." It was a strange chance that preserved his spectral
monument almost uninjured when St. Paul's was burned down in the Great
Fire, and no other monument in the cathedral escaped. Among all his
fantasies none remains in the imagination more despotically than this last
fanciful game of dying. Donne, however, remained in all respects a
fantastic to the last, as we may see in that hymn which he wrote eight
days before the end, tricked out with queer geography, and so anciently
egoistic amid its worship, as in the verse:

  Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
    Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
  Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
    That this is my south-west discovery,
    _Per fretum febris_, by these straits to die.

Donne was the poet-geographer of himself, his mistresses, and his God.
Other poets of his time dived deeper and soared to greater altitudes, but
none travelled so far, so curiously, and in such out-of-the-way places,
now hurrying like a nervous fugitive, and now in the exultation of the
first man in a new found land.


    [1] _Letters of Horace Walpole_; Oxford University Press, 16 vols.,
       96s. _Supplementary Letters_, 1919; Oxford University Press, 2
       vols., 17s.

Horace Walpole was "a dainty rogue in porcelain" who walked badly. In his
best days, as he records in one of his letters, it was said of him that he
"tripped like a pewit." "If I do not flatter myself," he wrote when he was
just under sixty, "my march at present is more like a dab-chick's." A lady
has left a description of him entering a room, "knees bent, and feet on
tiptoe as if afraid of a wet floor." When his feet were not swollen with
the gout, they were so slender, he said, that he "could dance a minuet on
a silver penny." He was ridiculously lean, and his hands were crooked with
his unmerited disease. An invalid, a caricature of the birds, and not
particularly well dressed in spite of his lavender suit and partridge silk
stockings, he has nevertheless contrived to leave in his letters an
impression of almost perfect grace and dandyism. He had all the airs of a
beau. He affected coolness, disdain, amateurishness, triviality. He was a
china figure of insolence. He lived on the mantelpiece, and regarded
everything that happened on the floor as a rather low joke that could not
be helped. He warmed into humanity in his friendships and in his defence
of the house of Walpole; but if he descended from his mantelpiece, it was
more likely to be in order to feed a squirrel than to save an empire. His
most common image of the world was a puppet-show. He saw kings, prime
ministers, and men of genius alike about the size of dolls. When George
II. died, he wrote a brief note to Thomas Brand: "Dear Brand--You love
laughing; there is a king dead; can you help coming to town?" That
represents his measure of things. Those who love laughing will laugh all
the more when they discover that, a week earlier, Walpole had written a
letter, rotund, fulsome, and in the language of the bended knee, begging
Lord Bute to be allowed to kiss the Prince of Wales's hand. His attitude
to the Court he described to George Montagu as "mixing extreme politeness
with extreme indifference." His politeness, like his indifference, was but
play at the expense of a solemn world. "I wrote to Lord Bute," he informed
Montagu; "thrust all the _unexpecteds, want of ambition,
disinterestedness, etc._, that I could amass, gilded with as much duty,
affection, zeal, etc., as possible." He frankly professed relief that he
had not after all to go to Court and act out the extravagant compliments
he had written. "Was ever so agreeable a man as King George the Second,"
he wrote, "to die the very day it was necessary to save me from ridicule?"
"For my part," he adds later in the same spirit, "my man Harry will always
be a favourite; he tells me all the amusing news; he first told me of the
late Prince of Wales's death, and to-day of the King's." It is not that
Walpole was a republican of the school of Plutarch. He was merely a toy
republican who enjoyed being insolent at the expense of kings, and behind
their backs. He was scarcely capable of open rudeness in the fashion of
Beau Brummell's "Who's your fat friend?" His ridicule was never a public
display; it was a secret treasured for his friends. He was the greatest
private entertainer of the eighteenth century, and he ridiculed the great,
as people say, for the love of diversion. "I always write the thoughts of
the moment," he told the dearest of his friends, Conway, "and even laugh
to divert the person I am writing to, without any ill will on the subjects
I mention." His letters are for the most part those of a good-natured man.

It is not that he was above the foible--it was barely more than that--of
hatred. He did not trouble greatly about enemies of his own, but he never
could forgive the enemies of Sir Robert Walpole. His ridicule of the Duke
of Newcastle goes far beyond diversion. It is the baiting of a mean and
treacherous animal, whose teeth were "tumbling out," and whose mouth was
"tumbling in." He rejoices in the exposure of the dribbling indignity of
the Duke, as when he describes him going to Court on becoming Prime
Minister in 1754:

    On Friday this august remnant of the Pelhams went to Court for the
    first time. At the foot of the stairs he cried and sunk down; the
    yeomen of the guard were forced to drag him up under the arms. When
    the closet-door opened, he flung himself at his length at the
    King's feet, sobbed, and cried, "God bless your Majesty! God
    preserve your Majesty!" and lay there howling, embracing the King's
    knees, with one foot so extended that my Lord Coventry, who was
    _luckily_ in waiting, and begged the standers-by to retire, with,
    "For God's sake, gentlemen, don't look at a great man in distress!"
    endeavouring to shut the door, caught his grace's foot, and made
    him roar with pain.

The caricature of the Duke is equally merciless in the description of
George II.'s funeral in the Abbey, in which the "burlesque Duke" is
introduced as comic relief into the solemn picture:

    He fell into a fit of crying the moment he came into the chapel,
    and flung himself back in a stall, the Archbishop hovering over him
    with a smelling-bottle; but in two minutes his curiosity got the
    better of his hypocrisy, and he ran about the chapel with his glass
    to spy who was or was not there, spying with one hand and mopping
    his eyes with the other. Then returned the fear of catching cold;
    and the Duke of Cumberland, who was sinking with heat, felt himself
    weighed down, and turning round found it was the Duke of Newcastle
    standing upon his train to avoid the chill of the marble.

Walpole, indeed, broke through his habit of public decorum in his
persecution of the Duke; and he tells how on one occasion at a ball at
Bedford House he and Brand and George Selwyn plagued the pitiful old
creature, who "wriggled, and shuffled, and lisped, and winked, and spied"
his way through the company, with a conversation at his expense carried on
in stage whispers. There was never a more loyal son than Horace Walpole.
He offered up a Prime Minister daily as a sacrifice at Sir Robert's tomb.

At the same time, his aversions were not always assumed as part of a
family inheritance. He had by temperament a small opinion of men and women
outside the circle of his affections. It was his first instinct to
disparage. He even described his great friend Madame du Deffand, at the
first time of meeting her, as "an old blind débauchée of wit." His
comments on the men of genius of his time are almost all written in a vein
of satirical intolerance. He spoke ill of Sterne and Dr. Johnson, of
Fielding and Richardson, of Boswell and Goldsmith. Goldsmith he found
"silly"; he was "an idiot with once or twice a fit of parts." Boswell's
_Tour of the Hebrides_ was "the story of a mountebank and his zany."
Walpole felt doubly justified in disliking Johnson owing to the criticism
of Gray in the _Lives of the Poets_. He would not even, when Johnson
died, subscribe to a monument. A circular letter asking for a subscription
was sent to him, signed by Burke, Boswell, and Reynolds. "I would not
deign to write an answer," Walpole told the Miss Berrys, "but sent down
word by my footman, as I would have done to parish officers with a brief,
that I would not subscribe." Walpole does not appear in this incident the
"sweet-tempered creature" he had earlier claimed to be. His pose is that
of a schoolgirl in a cutting mood. At the same time his judgment of
Johnson has an element of truth in it. "Though he was good-natured at
bottom," he said of him, "he was very ill-natured at top." It has often
been said of Walpole that, in his attitude to contemporary men of genius,
he was influenced mainly by their position in Society--that he regarded an
author who was not a gentleman as being necessarily an inferior author.
This is hardly fair. The contemporary of whom he thought most highly was
Gray, the son of a money broker. He did not spare Lady Mary Wortley
Montagu any more than Richardson. If he found an author offensive, it was
more likely to be owing to a fastidious distaste for low life than to an
aristocratic distaste for low birth; and to him Bohemianism was the lowest
of low life. It was certainly Fielding's Bohemianism that disgusted him.
He relates how two of his friends called on Fielding one evening and found
him "banqueting with a blind man, a woman, and three Irishmen, on some
cold mutton and a bone of ham, both in one dish, and the dirtiest cloth."
Horace Walpole's daintiness recoiled from the spirit of an author who did
not know how to sup decently. If he found Boswell's _Johnson_ tedious, it
was no doubt partly due to his inability to reconcile himself to Johnson's
table manners. It can hardly be denied that he was unnaturally sensitive
to surface impressions. He was a great observer of manners, but not a
great portrayer of character. He knew men in their absurd actions rather
than in their motives--even their absurd motives. He never admits us into
the springs of action in his portraits as Saint-Simon does. He was too
studied a believer in the puppetry of men and women to make them more than
ridiculous. And unquestionably the vain race of authors lent itself
admirably to his love of caricature. His account of the vanity of Gibbon,
whose history he admired this side enthusiasm, shows how he delighted in
playing with an egoistic author as with a trout:

    You will be diverted to hear that Mr. Gibbon has quarrelled with
    me. He lent me his second volume in the middle of November. I
    returned it with a most civil panegyric. He came for more incense.
    I gave it, but, alas, with too much sincerity! I added, "Mr.
    Gibbon, I am sorry _you_ should have pitched on so disgusting a
    subject as the Constantinopolitan History. There is so much of the
    Arians and Eumonians, and semi-Pelagians; and there is such a
    strange contrast between Roman and Gothic manners, and so little
    harmony between a Consul Sabinus and a Ricimer, Duke of the palace,
    that though you have written the story as well as it could be
    written, I fear few will have patience to read it." He coloured;
    all his round features squeezed themselves into sharp angles; he
    screwed up his button mouth, and rapping his snuff-box, said, "It
    had never been put together before"--_so well_ he meant to add--but
    gulped it. He meant _so well_ certainly, for Tillemont, whom he
    quotes in every page, has done the very thing. Well, from that hour
    to this I have never seen him, though he used to call once or twice
    a week; nor has he sent me the third volume, as he promised. I well
    knew his vanity, even about his ridiculous face and person, but
    thought he had too much sense to avow it so palpably.

"So much," he concludes, "for literature and its fops." The comic spirit
leans to an under-estimate rather than an over-estimate of human nature,
and the airs the authors gave themselves were not only a breach of his
code, but an invitation to his contempt. "You know," he once wrote, "I
shun authors, and would never have been one myself if it obliged me to
keep such bad company. They are always in earnest and think their
profession serious, and will dwell upon trifles and reverence learning. I
laugh at all these things, and write only to laugh at them and divert
myself. None of us are authors of any consequence, and it is the most
ridiculous of all vanities to be vain of being _mediocre."_ He followed
the Chinese school of manners and made light of his own writings. "What
have I written," he asks, "that was worth remembering, even by myself?"
"It would be affected," he tells Gray, "to say I am indifferent to fame. I
certainly am not, but I am indifferent to almost anything I have done to
acquire it. The greater part are mere compilations; and no wonder they
are, as you say, incorrect when they were commonly written with people in
the room."

It is generally assumed that, in speaking lightly of himself, Walpole was
merely posturing. To me it seems that he was sincere enough. He had a
sense of greatness in literature, as is shown by his reverence of
Shakespeare, and he was too much of a realist not to see that his own
writings at their best were trifles beside the monuments of the poets. He
felt that he was doing little things in a little age. He was diffident
both for his times and for himself. So difficult do some writers find it
to believe that there was any deep genuineness in him that they ask us to
regard even his enthusiasm for great literature as a pretence. They do not
realize that the secret of his attraction for us is that he was an
enthusiast disguised as an eighteenth-century man of fashion. His airs and
graces were not the result of languor, but of his pleasure in wearing a
mask. He was quick, responsive, excitable, and only withdrew into, the
similitude of a china figure, as Diogenes into his tub, through
philosophy. The truth is, the only dandies who are tolerable are those
whose dandyism is a cloak of reserve. Our interest in character is largely
an interest in contradictions of this kind. The beau capable of breaking
into excitement awakens our curiosity, as does the conqueror stooping to a
humane action, the Puritan caught in the net of the senses, or the
pacifist in a rage of violence. The average man, whom one knows
superficially, is a formula, or seems to live the life of a formula. That
is why we find him dull. The characters who interest us in history and
literature, on the other hand, are perpetually giving the lie to the
formulae we invent, and are bound to invent, for them. They give us
pleasure not by confirming us, but by surprising us. It seems to me
absurd, then, to regard Walpole's air of indifference as the only real
thing about him and to question his raptures. From his first travels among
the Alps with Gray down to his senile letters to Hannah More about the
French Revolution, we see him as a man almost hysterical in the intensity
of his sensations, whether of joy or of horror. He lived for his
sensations like an æsthete. He wrote of himself as "I, who am as constant
at a fire as George Selwyn at an execution." If he cared for the crownings
of kings and such occasions, it was because he took a childish delight in
the fireworks and illuminations.

He had the keen spirit of a masquerader. Masquerades, he declared, were
"one of my ancient passions," and we find him as an elderly man dressing
out "a thousand young Conways and Cholmondeleys" for an entertainment of
the kind, and going "with more pleasure to see them pleased than when I
formerly delighted in that diversion myself." He was equally an enthusiast
in his hobbies and his tastes. He rejoiced to get back in May to
Strawberry Hill, "where my two passions, lilacs and nightingales, are in
bloom." He could not have made his collections or built his battlements in
a mood of indifference. In his love of mediæval ruins he showed himself a
Goth-intoxicated man. As for Strawberry Hill itself, the result may have
been a ridiculous mouse, but it took a mountain of enthusiasm to produce
it. Walpole's own description of his house and its surroundings has an
exquisite charm that almost makes one love the place as he did. "It is a
little plaything house," he told Conway, "that I got out of Mrs.
Chenevix's shop, and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw. It is set in
enamelled meadows, with filigree hedges:

  "A small Euphrates through the piece is roll'd,
  And little finches wave their wings in gold."

He goes on to decorate the theme with comic and fanciful properties:

  Two delightful roads that you would call dusty supply me continually
  with coaches and chaises; barges as solemn as barons of the exchequer
  move under my window; Richmond Hill and Ham-walks bound my prospect;
  but, thank God, the Thames is between me and the Duchess of
  Queensberry. Dowagers as plenty as flounders inhabit all around, and
  Pope's ghost is just now skimming under my window by a most poetical
  moonlight. I have about land enough to keep such a farm as Noah's
  when he set up in the Ark with a pair of each kind.

It is in the spirit of a child throwing its whole imagination into playing
with a Noah's Ark that he describes his queer house. It is in this spirit
that he sees the fields around his house "speckled with cows, horses and
sheep." The very phrase suggests toy animals. Walpole himself declared at
the age of seventy-three: "My best wisdom has consisted in forming a
baby-house full of playthings for my second childhood." That explains why
one almost loves the creature. Macaulay has severely censured him for
devoting himself to the collection of knick-knacks, such as King William
III.'s spurs, and it is apparently impossible to defend Walpole as a
collector to be taken seriously. Walpole, however, collected things in a
mood of fantasy as much as of connoisseurship. He did not take himself
quite seriously. It was fancy, not connoisseurship, that made him hang up
Magna Charta beside his bed and, opposite it, the warrant for the
execution of King Charles I., on which he had written "Major Charta." Who
can question the fantastic quality of the mind that wrote to Conway:
"Remember, neither Lady Salisbury nor you, nor Mrs. Damer, have seen my
new divine closet, nor the billiard-sticks with which the Countess of
Pembroke and Arcadia used to play with her brother, Sir Philip," and
ended: "I never did see Cotchel, and am sorry. Is not the old ward-robe
there still? There was one from the time of Cain, but Adam's breeches and
Eve's under-petticoat were eaten by a goat in the ark. Good-night." He
laughed over the knick-knacks he collected for himself and his friends.
"As to snuff-boxes and toothpick cases," he wrote to the Countess of
Ossory from Paris in 1771, "the vintage has entirely failed this year."
Everything that he turned his mind to in Strawberry Hill he regarded in
the same spirit of comic delight. He stood outside himself, like a
spectator, and nothing gave him more pleasure than to figure himself as a
master of the ceremonies among the bantams, and the squirrels and the
goldfish. In one of his letters he describes himself and Bentley fishing
in the pond for goldfish with "nothing but a pail and a basin and a
tea-strainer, which I persuade my neighbours is the Chinese method." This
was in order to capture some of the fish for Bentley, who "carried a dozen
to town t'other day in a decanter." Walpole is similarly amused by the
spectacle of himself as a planter and gardener. "I have made great
progress," he boasts, "and talk very learnedly with the nursery-men,
except that now and then a lettuce runs to seed, overturns all my botany,
and I have more than once taken it for a curious West Indian flowering
shrub. Then the deliberation with which trees grow is extremely
inconvenient to my natural impatience." He goes on enviously to imagine
the discovery by posterity of a means of transplanting oaks of a hundred
and fifty years as easily as tulip-bulbs. This leads him to enlarge upon
the wonders that the Horace Walpole of posterity will be able to possess
when the miraculous discoveries have been made.

    Then the delightfulness of having whole groves of humming-birds,
    tatne tigers taught to fetch and carry, pocket spying-glasses to
    see all that is doing in China, and a thousand other toys, which we
    now look upon as impracticable, and which pert posterity would
    laugh in our face for staring at.

Among the various creatures with which he loved to surround himself, it is
impossible to forget either the little black spaniel, Tony, that the wolf
carried off near a wood in the Alps during his first travels, or the more
imperious little dog, Tonton, which he has constantly to prevent from
biting people at Madame du Deffand's, but which with Madame du Deffand
herself "grows the greater favourite the more people he devours." "T'other
night," writes Walpole, to whom Madame du Deffand afterwards bequeathed
the dog in her will, "he flew at Lady Barrymore's face, and I thought
would have torn her eye out, but it ended in biting her finger. She was
terrified; she fell into tears. Madame du Deffand, who has too much parts
not to see everything in its true light, perceiving that she had not
beaten Tonton half enough, immediately told us a story of a lady whose dog
having bitten a piece out of a gentleman's leg, the tender dame, in a
great fright, cried out, 'Won't it make him sick?'" In the most attractive
accounts we possess of Walpole in his old age, we see him seated at the
breakfast-table, drinking tea out of "most rare and precious ancient
porcelain of Japan," and sharing the loaf and butter with Tonton (now
grown almost too fat to move, and spread on a sofa beside him), and
afterwards going to the window with a basin of bread and milk to throw to
the squirrels in the garden.

Many people would be willing to admit, however, that Walpole was an
excitable creature where small things were concerned--a parroquet or the
prospect of being able to print original letters of Ninon de l'Enclos at
Strawberry, or the discovery of a poem by the brother of Anne Boleyn, or
Ranelagh, where "the floor is all of beaten princes." What is not
generally realized is that he was also a high-strung and eager spectator
of the greater things. I have already spoken of his enthusiasm for wild
nature as shown in his letters from the Alps. It is true he grew weary of
them. "Such uncouth rocks," he wrote, "and such uncomely inhabitants." "I
am as surfeited with mountains and inns as if I had eat them," he groaned
in a later letter. But the enthusiasm was at least as genuine as the
fatigue. His tergiversation of mood proves only that there were two
Walpoles, not that the Walpole of the romantic enthusiasms was insincere.
He was a devotee of romance, but it was romance under the control of the
comic spirit. He was always amused to have romance brought down to
reality, as when, writing of Mary Queen of Scots, he said: "I believe I
have told you that, in a very old trial of her, which I bought for Lord
Oxford's collection, it is said that she was a large lame woman. Take
sentiments out of their _pantaufles_, and reduce them to the infirmities
of mortality, what a falling off there is!" But see him in the
picture-gallery in his father's old house at Houghton, after an absence of
sixteen years, and the romantic mood is upper-most. "In one respect," he
writes, speaking of the pictures, "I am very young; I cannot satiate
myself with looking," and he adds, "Not a picture here but calls a
history; not one but I remember in Downing Street or Chelsea, where queens
and crowds admired them." And, if he could not "satiate himself with
looking" at the Italian and Flemish masters, he similarly preserved the
heat of youth in his enthusiasm for Shakespeare. "When," he wrote, during
his dispute with Voltaire on the point, "I think over all the great
authors of the Greeks, Romans, Italians, French and English (and I know no
other languages), I set Shakespeare first and alone and then begin anew."
One is astonished to find that he was contemptuous of Montaigne. "What
signifies what a man thought," he wrote, "who never thought of anything
but himself, and what signifies what a man did who never did anything?"
This sentence might have served as a condemnation of Walpole himself, and
indeed he meant it so. Walpole, however, was an egoist of an opposite kind
to Montaigne. Walpole lived for his eyes, and saw the world as a masque of
bright and amusing creatures. Montaigne studied the map of himself rather
than the map of his neighbours' vanities. Walpole was a social being, and
not finally self-centred. His chief purpose in life was not to know
himself, but to give pleasure to his friends. If he was bored by
Montaigne, it was because he had little introspective curiosity. Like
Montaigne himself, however, he was much the servant of whim in his
literary tastes. That he was no sceptic but a disciple as regards
Shakespeare and Milton and Pope and Gray suggests, on the other hand, how
foolish it is to regard him as being critically a fashionable trifler.

Not that it is possible to represent him as a man with anything Dionysiac
in his temperament. The furthest that one can go is to say that he was a
man of sincere strong sentiment with quivering nerves. Capricious in
little things, he was faithful in great. His warmth of nature as a son, as
a friend, as a humanitarian, as a believer in tolerance and liberty, is so
unfailing that it is curious it should ever have been brought in question
by any reader of the letters. His quarrels are negligible when put beside
his ceaseless extravagance of good humour to his friends. His letters
alone were golden gifts, but we also find him offering his fortune to
Conway when the latter was in difficulties. "I have sense enough," he
wrote, "to have real pleasure in denying myself baubles, and in saving a
very good income to make a man happy for whom I have a just esteem and
most sincere friendship." "Blameable in ten thousand other respects," he
wrote to Conway seventeen years later, "may not I almost say I am perfect
with regard to you? Since I was fifteen have I not loved you unalterably?"
"I am," he claimed towards the end of his life, "very constant and sincere
to friends of above forty years." In his friendships he was more eager to
give than to receive. Madame du Deffand was only dissuaded from making him
her heir by his threat that if she did so he would never visit her again.
Ever since his boyhood he was noted for his love of giving pleasure and
for his thoughtfulness regarding those he loved. The earliest of his
published letters was until recently one written at the age of fourteen.
But Dr. Paget Toynbee, in his supplementary volumes of Walpole letters,
recently published, has been able to print one to Lady Walpole written at
the age of eight, which suggests that Walpole was a delightful sort of
child, incapable of forgetting a parent, a friend, or a pet:

    Dear mama, I hop you are wall, and I am very wall, and I hop papa
    is wal, and I begin to slaap, and I hop al wall and my cosens like
    there pla things vary wall

    and I hop Doly phillips is wall and pray
    give my Duty to papa.
                                                       HORACE WALPOLE.

    and I am very glad to hear by Tom that all my cruatuars are all
    wall. and Mrs. Selwyn has sprand her Fot and givs her Sarves to you
    and I dind ther yester Day.

At Eton later on he was a member of two leagues of friendship--the
"Triumvirate," as it was called, which included the two Montagus, and the
"Quadruple Alliance," in which one of his fellows was Gray. The truth is,
Walpole was always a person who depended greatly on being loved. "One
loves to find people care for one," he wrote to Conway, "when they can
have no view in it." His friendship in his old age for the Miss
Berrys--his "twin wifes," his "dear Both"--to each of whom he left an
annuity of £4,000, was but a continuation of that kindliness which ran
like a stream (ruffled and sparkling with malice, no doubt) through his
long life. And his kindness was not limited to his friends, but was at the
call of children and, as we have seen, of animals. "You know," he explains
to Conway, apologizing for not being able to visit him on account of the
presence of a "poor little sick girl" at Strawberry Hill, "how courteous a
knight I am to distrest virgins of five years old, and that my castle
gates are always open to them." One does not think of Walpole primarily as
a squire of children, and certainly, though he loved on occasion to romp
with the young, there was little in him of a Dickens character. But he was
what is called "sympathetic." He was sufficient of a man of imagination to
wish to see an end put to the sufferings of "those poor victims,
chimney-sweepers." So far from being a heartless person, as he has been at
times portrayed, he had a heart as sensitive as an anti-vivisectionist.
This was shown in his attitude to animals. In 1760, when there was a great
terror of mad dogs in London, and an order was issued that all dogs found
in the streets were to be killed, he wrote to the Earl of Strafford:

    In London there is a more cruel campaign than that waged by the
    Russians: the streets are a very picture of the murder of the
    innocents--one drives over nothing but poor dead dogs! The dear,
    good-natured, honest, sensible creatures! Christ! how can anybody
    hurt them? Nobody could but those Cherokees the English, who desire
    no better than to be halloo'd to blood--one day Samuel Byng, the
    next Lord George Sackville, and to-day the poor dogs!

As for Walpole's interest in politics, we are told by writer after writer
that he never took them seriously, but was interested in them mainly for
gossip's sake. It cannot be denied that he made no great fight for good
causes while he sat in the House of Commons. Nor had he the temper of a
ruler of men. But as a commentator on politics and a spreader of opinion
in private, he showed himself to be a politician at once sagacious,
humane, and sensitive to the meaning of events. His detestation of the
arbitrary use of power had almost the heat of a passion. He detested it
alike in a government and in a mob. He loathed the violence that compassed
the death of Admiral Byng and the violence that made war on America. He
raged against a public world that he believed was going to the devil. "I
am not surprised," he wrote in 1776, "at the idea of the devil being
always at our elbows. They who invented him no doubt could not conceive
how men could be so atrocious to one another, without the intervention of
a fiend. Don't you think, if he had never been heard of before, that he
would have been invented on the late partition of Poland?" "Philosophy has
a poor chance with me," he wrote a little later in regard to America,
"when my warmth is stirred--and yet I know that an angry old man out of
Parliament, and that can do nothing but be angry, is a ridiculous animal."
The war against America he described as "a wretched farce of fear daubed
over with airs of bullying." War at any time was, in his eyes, all but the
unforgivable sin. In 1781, however, his hatred had lightened into
contempt. "The Dutch fleet is hovering about," he wrote, "but it is a
pickpocket war, and not a martial one, and I never attend to petty
larceny." As for mobs, his attitude to them is to be seen in his comment
on the Wilkes riots, when he declares:

    I cannot bear to have the name of Liberty profaned to the
    destruction of the cause; for frantic tumults only lead to that
    terrible corrective, Arbitrary Power--which cowards call out for as
    protection, and knaves are so ready to grant.

Not that he feared mobs as he feared governments. He regarded them with an
aristocrat's scorn. The only mob that almost won his tolerance was that
which celebrated the acquittal of Admiral Keppel in 1779. It was of the
mob at this time that he wrote to the Countess of Ossory: "They were, as
George Montagu said of our earthquakes, _so tame you might have stroked
them_." When near the end of his life the September massacres broke out in
Paris, his mob-hatred revived again, and he denounced the French with the
hysterical violence with which many people to-day denounce the
Bolshevists. He called them "_inferno-human_ beings," "that atrocious and
detestable nation," and declared that "France must be abhorred to latest
posterity." His letters on the subject to "Holy Hannah," whatever else may
be said against them, are not those of a cold and dilettante gossip. They
are the letters of the same excitable Horace Walpole who, at an earlier
age, when a row had broken out between the manager and the audience in
Drury Lane Theatre, had not been able to restrain himself, but had cried
angrily from his box, "He is an impudent rascal!" But his politics never
got beyond an angry cry. His conduct in Drury Lane was characteristic of

    The whole pit huzzaed, and repeated the words. Only think of my
    being a popular orator! But what was still better, while my shadow
    of a person was dilating to the consistence of a hero, one of the
    chief ringleaders of the riot, coming under the box where I sat,
    and pulling off his hat, said, "Mr. Walpole, what would you please
    to have us do next?" It is impossible to describe to you the
    confusion into which this apostrophe threw me. I sank down into the
    box, and have never since ventured to set my foot into the playhouse.

There you have the fable of Walpole's life. He always in the end sank down
into his box or clambered back to his mantelpiece. Other men might save
the situation. As for him, he had to look after his squirrels and his

This means no more than that he was not a statesman, but an artist. He was
a connoisseur of great actions, not a practicer of them. At Strawberry
Hill he could at least keep himself in sufficient health with the aid of
iced water and by not wearing a hat when out of doors to compose the
greatest works of art of their kind that have appeared in English. Had he
written his letters for money we should have praised him as one of the
busiest and most devoted of authors, and never have thought of blaming him
for abstaining from statesmanship as he did from wine. Possibly he had the
constitution for neither. His genius was a genius, not of Westminster, but
of Strawberry Hill. It is in Strawberry Hill that one finally prefers to
see him framed, an extraordinarily likeable, charming, and whimsical
figure. He himself has suggested his kingdom entrancingly for us in a
letter describing his return to Strawberry after a visit to Paris in 1769:

    I feel myself here like a swan, that after living six weeks in a
    nasty pool upon a common, is got back into its own Thames. I do
    nothing but plume and clean myself, and enjoy the verdure and
    silent waves. Neatness and greenth are so essential in my opinion
    to the country, that in France, where I see nothing but chalk and
    dirty peasants, I seem in a terrestrial purgatory that is neither
    town or country. The face of England is so beautiful, that I do not
    believe Tempe or Arcadia were half so rural; for both lying in hot
    climates, must have wanted the turf of our lawns. It is unfortunate
    to have so pastoral a taste, when I want a cane more than a crook.
    We are absurd creatures; at twenty I loved nothing but London.

Back in Strawberry Hill, he is the Prince Charming among correspondents.
One cannot love him as one loves Charles Lamb and men of a deeper and more
imaginative tenderness. But how incomparable he is as an acquaintance! How
exquisite a specimen--hand-painted--for the collector of the choice
creatures of the human race!


Cowper has the charm of littleness. His life and genius were on the
miniature scale, though his tragedy was a burden for Atlas. He left
several pictures of himself in his letters, all of which make one see him
as a veritable Tom Thumb among Christians. He wrote, he tells us, at
Olney, in "a summerhouse not much bigger than a sedan-chair." At an
earlier date, when he was living at Huntingdon, he compared himself to "a
Thames wherry in a world full of tempest and commotion," and congratulated
himself on "the creek I have put into and the snugness it affords me." His
very clothes suggested that he was the inhabitant of a plaything world.
"Green and buff," he declared, "are colours in which I am oftener seen
than in any others, and are become almost as natural to me as a parrot."
"My thoughts," he informed the Rev. John Newton, "are clad in a sober
livery, for the most part as grave as that of a bishop's servants"; but
his body was dressed in parrot's colours, and his bald head was bagged or
in a white cap. If he requested one of his friends to send him anything
from town, it was usually some little thing, such as a "genteelish
toothpick case," a handsome stock-buckle, a new hat--"not a round slouch,
which I abhor, but a smart well-cocked fashionable affair"--or a
cuckoo-clock. He seems to have shared Wordsworth's taste for the last of
these. Are we not told that Wordsworth died as his favourite cuckoo-clock
was striking noon? Cowper may almost be said, so far as his tastes and
travels are concerned, to have lived in a cage. He never ventured outside
England, and even of England he knew only a few of the southern counties.
"I have lived much at Southampton," boasted at the age of sixty, "have
slept and caught a sore throat at Lyndhurst, and have swum in the Bay of
Weymouth." That was his grand tour. He made a journey to Eastham, near
Chichester, about the time of this boast, and confessed that, as he drove
with Mrs. Unwin over the downs by moonlight, "I indeed myself was a little
daunted by the tremendous height of the Sussex hills in comparison of
which all I had seen elsewhere are dwarfs." He went on a visit to some
relations on the coast of Norfolk a few years later, and, writing to Lady
Hesketh, lamented: "I shall never see Weston more. I have been tossed like
a ball into a far country, from which there is no rebound for me." Who but
the little recluse of a little world could think of Norfolk as a far
country and shake with alarm before the "tremendous height" of the Sussex

"We are strange creatures, my little friend," Cowper once wrote to
Christopher Rowley; "everything that we do is in reality important, though
half that we do seems to be push-pin." Here we see one of the main reasons
of Cowper's eternal attractiveness. He played at push-pin during most of
his life, but he did so in full consciousness of the background of doom.
He trifled because he knew, if he did not trifle, he would go mad with
thinking about Heaven and Hell. He sought in the infinitesimal a cure for
the disease of brooding on the infinite. His distractions were those not
of too light, but of too grave, a mind. If he picnicked with the ladies,
it was in order to divert his thoughts from the wrath to come. He was gay,
but on the edge of the precipice.

I do not mean to suggest that he had no natural inclination to trifling.
Even in the days when he was studying law in the Temple he dined every
Thursday with six of his old school-fellows at the Nonsense Club. His
essays in Bonnell Thornton and Coleman's paper, _The Connoisseur_, written
some time before he went mad and tried to hang himself in a garter, lead
one to believe that, if it had not been for his breakdown, he might have
equalled or surpassed Addison as a master of light prose. He was something
of the traditional idle apprentice, indeed, during his first years in a
solicitor's office, as we gather from the letter in which he reminds Lady
Hesketh how he and Thurlow used to pass the time with her and her sister,
Theodora, the object of his fruitless love. "There was I, and the future
Lord Chancellor," he wrote, "constantly employed from morning to night in
giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law." Such was his
life till the first attack of madness came at the age of thirty-two. He
had already, it is true, on one occasion, felt an ominous shock as a
schoolboy at Westminster, when a skull thrown up by a gravedigger at St.
Margaret's rolled towards him and struck him on the leg. Again, in his
chambers in the Middle Temple, he suffered for a time from religious
melancholy, which he did his best to combat with the aid of the poems of
George Herbert. Even at the age of twenty-three he told Robert Lloyd in a
rhymed epistle that he "addressed the muse," not in order to show his
genius or his wit,

  But to divert a fierce banditti
  (Sworn foe to everything that's witty)
  That, in a black infernal train,
  Make cruel inroads in my brain,
  And daily threaten to drive thence
  My little garrison of sense.

It was not till after his release from the St. Alban's madhouse in his
thirties, however, that he began to build a little new world of pleasures
on the ruins of the old. He now set himself of necessity to the task of
creating a refuge within sight of the Cross, where he could live, in his
brighter moments, a sort of Epicurean of evangelical piety. He was a
damned soul that must occupy itself at all costs and not damn itself still
deeper in the process. His round of recreation, it must be admitted, was
for the most part such as would make the average modern pleasure-seeker
quail worse than any inferno of miseries. Only a nature of peculiar
sweetness could charm us from the atmosphere of endless sermons and hymns
in which Cowper learned to be happy in the Unwins' Huntingdon home.
Breakfast, he tells us, was between eight and nine. Then, "till eleven, we
read either the Scripture, or the sermons of some faithful preacher of
those holy mysteries." Church was at eleven. After that he was at
liberty to read, walk, ride, or work in the garden till the three o'clock
dinner. Then to the garden, "where with Mrs. Unwin and her son I have
generally the pleasure of religious conversation till tea-time." After tea
came a four-mile walk, and "at night we read and converse, as before, till
supper, and commonly finish the evening either with hymns or a sermon; and
last of all the family are called to prayers." In those days, it may be,
evangelical religion had some of the attractions of a new discovery.
Theories of religion were probably as exciting a theme of discussion in
the age of Wesley as theories of art and literature in the age of cubism
and _vers libre_. One has to remember this in order to be able to realize
that, as Cowper said, "such a life as this is consistent with the utmost
cheerfulness." He unquestionably found it so, and, when the Rev. Morley
Unwin was killed as the result of a fall from his horse, Cowper and Mrs.
Unwin moved to Olney in order to enjoy further evangelical companionship
in the neighbourhood of the Rev. John Newton, the converted slave-trader,
who was curate in that town. At Olney Cowper added at once to his
terrors of Hell and to his amusements. For the terrors, Newton, who seems
to have wielded the Gospel as fiercely as a slaver's whip, was largely
responsible. He had earned a reputation for "preaching people mad," and
Cowper, tortured with shyness, was even subjected to the ordeal of leading
in prayer at gatherings of the faithful. Newton, however, was a man of
tenderness, humour, and literary tastes, as well as of a somewhat savage
piety. He was not only Cowper's tyrant, but Cowper's nurse, and, in
setting Cowper to write the Olney Hymns, he gave a powerful impulse to a
talent hitherto all but hidden. At the same time, when, as a result of the
too merciless flagellation of his parishioners on the occasion of some
Fifth of November revels, Newton was attacked by a mob and driven out of
Olney, Cowper undoubtedly began to breathe more freely. Even under the eye
of Newton, however, Cowper could enjoy his small pleasures, and we have an
attractive picture of him feeding his eight pair of tame pigeons every
morning on the gravel walk in the garden. He shared with Newton his
amusements as well as his miseries. We find him in 1780 writing to the
departed Newton to tell him of his recreations as an artist and gardener.
"I draw," he said, "mountains, valleys, woods, and streams, and ducks, and
dab-chicks." He represents himself in this lively letter as a Christian
lover of baubles, rather to the disadvantage of lovers of baubles who are
not Christians:

    I delight in baubles, and know them to be so; for rested in, and
    viewed without a reference to their author, what is the earth--what
    are the planets--what is the sun itself but a bauble? Better for a
    man never to have seen them, or to see them with the eyes of a
    brute, stupid and unconscious of what he beholds, than not to be
    able to say, "The Maker of all these wonders is my friend!" Their
    eyes have never been opened to see that they are trifles; mine have
    been, and will be till they are closed for ever. They think a fine
    estate, a large conservatory, a hothouse rich as a West Indian
    garden, things of consequence; visit them with pleasure, and muse
    upon them with ten times more. I am pleased with a frame of four
    lights, doubtful whether the few pines it contains will ever be
    worth a farthing; amuse myself with a greenhouse which Lord Bute's
    gardener could take upon his back, and walk away with; and when I
    have paid it the accustomed visit, and watered it, and given it
    air, I say to myself: "This is not mine, it is a plaything lent me
    for the present; I must leave it soon."

In this and the following year we find him turning his thoughts more and
more frequently to writing as a means of forgetting himself. "The
necessity of amusement," he wrote to Mrs. Unwin's clergyman son, "makes me
sometimes write verses; it made me a carpenter, a birdcage maker, a
gardener; and has lately taught me to draw, and to draw too with ...
surprising proficiency in the art, considering my total ignorance of it
two months ago." His impulse towards writing verses, however, was an
impulse of a playful fancy rather than of a burning imagination. "I have
no more right to the name of poet," he once said, "than a maker of
mouse-traps has to that of an engineer.... Such a talent in verse as mine
is like a child's rattle--very entertaining to the trifler that uses it,
and very disagreeable to all beside." "Alas," he wrote in another letter,
"what can I do with my wit? I have not enough to do great things with, and
these little things are so fugitive that, while a man catches at the
subject, he is only filling his hand with smoke. I must do with it as I do
with my linnet; I keep him for the most part in a cage, but now and then
set open the door, that he may whisk about the room a little, and then
shut him up again." It may be doubted whether, if subjects had not been
imposed on him from without, he would have written much save in the vein
of "dear Mat Prior's easy jingle" or the Latin trifles of Vincent Bourne,
of whom Cowper said: "He can speak of a magpie or a cat in terms so
exquisitely appropriated to the character he draws that one would suppose
him animated by the spirit of the creature he describes."

Cowper was not to be allowed to write, except occasionally, on magpies and
cats. Mrs. Unwin, who took a serious view of the poet's art, gave him as a
subject _The Progress of Error_, and is thus mainly responsible for the
now little-read volume of moral satires, with which he began his career as
a poet at the age of fifty in 1782. It is not a book that can be read with
unmixed, or even with much, delight. It seldom rises above a good man's
rhetoric. Cowper, instead of writing about himself and his pets, and his
cucumber-frames, wrote of the wicked world from which he had retired, and
the vices of which he could not attack with that particularity that makes
satire interesting. The satires are not exactly dull, but they are lacking
in force, either of wit or of passion. They are hardly more than an
expression of sentiment and opinion. The sentiments are usually sound--for
Cowper was an honest lover of liberty and goodness--but even the cause of
liberty is not likely to gain much from such a couplet as:

  Man made for kings! those optics are but dim
  That tell you so--say, rather, they for him.

Nor will the manners of the clergy benefit much as the result of such an
attack on the "pleasant-Sunday-afternoon" kind of pastor as is contained
in the lines:

  If apostolic gravity be free
  To play the fool on Sundays, why not we?
  If he the tinkling harpsichord regards
  As inoffensive, what offence in cards?

These, it must in fairness be said, are not examples of the best in the
moral satires; but the latter is worth quoting as evidence of the way in
which Cowper tried to use verse as the pulpit of a rather narrow creed.
The satires are hardly more than denominational in their interest. They
belong to the religious fashion of their time, and are interesting to us
now only as the old clothes of eighteenth-century evangelicalism. The
subject-matter is secular as well as religious, but the atmosphere almost
always remains evangelical. The Rev. John Newton wrote a preface for the
volume, suggesting this and claiming that the author "aims to communicate
his own perceptions of the truth, beauty and influence of the religion of
the Bible." The publisher became so alarmed at this advertisement of the
piety of the book that he succeeded in suppressing it in the first
edition. Cowper himself had enough worldly wisdom to wish to conceal his
pious intentions from the first glance of the reader, and for this reason
opened the book, not with _The Progress of Error_, but with the more
attractively-named _Table Talk_. "My sole drift is to be useful," he told
a relation, however. "... My readers will hardly have begun to laugh
before they will be called upon to correct that levity, and peruse me with
a more serious air." He informed Newton at the same time: "Thinking myself
in a measure obliged to tickle, if I meant to please, I therefore affected
a jocularity I did not feel." He also told Newton: "I am merry that I may
decoy people into my company." On the other hand, Cowper did not write
_John Gilpin_ which is certainly his masterpiece, in the mood of a man
using wit as a decoy. He wrote it because it irresistibly demanded to be
written. "I wonder," he once wrote to Newton, "that a sportive thought
should ever knock at the door of my intellects, and still more that it
should gain admittance. It is as if harlequin should intrude himself into
the gloomy chamber where a corpse is deposited in state." Harlequin,
luckily for us, took hold of his pen in _John Gilpin_ and in many of the
letters. In the moral satires, harlequin is dressed in a sober suit and
sent to a theological seminary. One cannot but feel that there is
something incongruous in the boast of a wit and a poet that he had "found
occasion towards the close of my last poem, called _Retirement_, to take
some notice of the modern passion for seaside entertainments, and to
direct the means by which they might be made useful as well as agreeable."
This might serve well enough as a theme for a "letter to the editor" of
_The Baptist Eye-opener_. One cannot imagine, however, its causing a
flutter in the breast of even the meekest of the nine muses.

Cowper, to say truth, had the genius not of a poet but of a letter-writer.
The interest of his verse is chiefly historical. He was a poet of the
transition to Wordsworth and the revolutionists, and was a mouthpiece of
his time. But he has left only a tiny quantity of memorable verse. Lamb
has often been quoted in his favour. "I have," he wrote to Coleridge in
1796, "been reading _The Task_ with fresh delight. I am glad you love
Cowper. I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton, but I would not
call that man my friend who should be offended with the 'divine chit-chat
of Cowper.'" Lamb, it should be remembered, was a youth of twenty-one when
he wrote this, and Cowper's verse had still the attractions of early
blossoms that herald the coming of spring. There is little in _The Task_
to make it worth reading to-day, except to the student of literary
history. Like the Olney Hymns and the moral satires it was a poem written
to order. Lady Austen, the vivacious widow who had meanwhile joined the
Olney group, was anxious that Cowper should show what he could do in blank
verse. He undertook to humour her if she would give him a subject. "Oh,"
she said, "you can never be in want of a subject; you can write upon any;
write upon this sofa!" Cowper, in his more ambitious verse, seems seldom
to have written under the compulsion of the subject as the great poets do.
Even the noble lines _On the Loss of the Royal George_ were written, as he
confessed, "by desire of Lady Austen, who wanted words to the March in
_Scipio_." For this Lady Austen deserves the world's thanks, as she does
for cheering him up in his low spirits with the story of John Gilpin. He
did not write _John Gilpin_ by request, however. He was so delighted on
hearing the story that he lay awake half the night laughing at it, and the
next day he felt compelled to sit down and write it out as a ballad.
"Strange as it may seem," he afterwards said of it, "the most ludicrous
lines I ever wrote have been written in the saddest mood, and but for that
saddest mood, perhaps, had never been written at all." "The grinners at
_John Gilpin_," he said in another letter, "little dream what the author
sometimes suffers. How I hated myself yesterday for having ever wrote it!"
It was the publication of _The Task_ and _John Gilpin_ that made Cowper
famous. It is not _The Task_ that keeps him famous to-day. There is, it
seems to me, more of the divine fire in any half-dozen of his good letters
than there is in the entire six books of _The Task_. One has only to read
the argument at the top of the third book, called _The Garden_, in order
to see in what a dreary didactic spirit it is written. Here is the
argument in full:

    Self-recollection and reproof--Address to domestic happiness--Some
    account of myself--The vanity of many of the pursuits which are
    accounted wise--Justification of my censures--Divine illumination
    necessary to the most expert philosopher--The question, what is
    truth? answered by other questions--Domestic happiness addressed
    again--Few lovers of the country--My tame hare--Occupations of a
    retired gentleman in the
    garden--Pruning--Framing--Greenhouse--Sowing of flower-seeds--The
    country preferable to the town even in the winter--Reasons why it
    is deserted at that season--Ruinous effects of gaming and of
    expensive improvement--Book concludes with an apostrophe to the

It is true that, in the intervals of addresses to domestic happiness and
apostrophes to the metropolis, there is plenty of room here for Virgilian
verse if Cowper had had the genius for it. Unfortunately, when he writes
about his garden, he too often writes about it as prosaically as a
contributor to a gardening paper. His description of the making of a hot
frame is merely a blank-verse paraphrase of the commonest prose. First, he
tells us:

  The stable yields a stercoraceous heap,
  Impregnated with quick fermenting salts,
  And potent to resist the freezing blast;
  For, ere the beech and elm have cast their leaf,
  Deciduous, when now November dark
  Checks vegetation in the torpid plant,
  Expos'd to his cold breath, the task begins.
  Warily therefore, and with prudent heed
  He seeks a favour'd spot; that where he builds
  Th' agglomerated pile his frame may front
  The sun's meridian disk, and at the back
  Enjoy close shelter, wall, or reeds, or hedge
  Impervious to the wind.

Having further prepared the ground:

  Th' uplifted frame, compact at every joint,
  And overlaid with clear translucent glass,
  He settles next upon the sloping mount,
  Whose sharp declivity shoots off secure
  From the dash'd pane the deluge as it falls.

The writing of blank verse puts the poet to the severest test, and Cowper
does not survive the test. Had _The Task_ been written in couplets he
might have been forced to sharpen his wit by the necessity of rhyme. As it
is, he is merely ponderous--a snail of imagination labouring under a heavy
shell of eloquence. In the fragment called _Yardley Oak_ he undoubtedly
achieved something worthier of a distant disciple of Milton. But I do not
think he was ever sufficiently preoccupied with poetry to be a good poet.
He had even ceased to read poetry by the time he began in earnest to write
it. "I reckon it," he wrote in 1781, "among my principal advantages, as a
composer of verses, that I have not read an English poet these thirteen
years, and but one these thirteen years." So mild was his interest in his
contemporaries that he had never heard Collins's name till he read about
him in Johnson's _Lives of the Poets_. Though descended from Donne--his
mother was Anne Donne--he was apparently more interested in Churchill and
Beattie than in him. His one great poetical master in English was Milton,
Johnson's disparagement of whom he resented with amusing vehemence. He was
probably the least bookish poet who had ever had a classical education. He
described himself in a letter to the Rev. Walter Bagot, in his later
years, as "a poor man who has but twenty books in the world, and two of
them are your brother Chester's." The passages I have quoted give, no
doubt, an exaggerated impression of Cowper's indifference to literature.
His relish for such books as he enjoyed is proved in many of his letters.
But he was incapable of such enthusiasm for the great things in literature
as Keats showed, for instance, in his sonnet on Chapman's Homer. Though
Cowper, disgusted with Pope, took the extreme step of translating Homer
into English verse, he enjoyed even Homer only with certain evangelical
reservations. "I should not have chosen to have been the original author
of such a business," he declared, while he was translating the nineteenth
book of the _Iliad_, "even though all the Nine had stood at my elbow. Time
has wonderful effects. We admire that in an ancient for which we should
send a modern bard to Bedlam." It is hardly to be wondered at that his
translation of Homer has not survived, while his delightful translation of
Vincent Bourne's _Jackdaw_ has.

Cowper's poetry, however, is to be praised, if for nothing else, because
it played so great a part in giving the world a letter-writer of genius.
It brought him one of the best of his correspondents, his cousin, Lady
Hesketh, and it gave various other people a reason for keeping his
letters. Had it not been for his fame as a poet his letters might never
have been published, and we should have missed one of the most exquisite
histories of small beer to be had outside the pages of Jane Austen. As a
letter-writer he does not, I think, stand in the same rank as Horace
Walpole and Charles Lamb. He has less wit and humour, and he mirrors less
of the world. His letters, however, have an extraordinarily soothing
charm. Cowper's occupations amuse one, while his nature delights one. His
letters, like Lamb's, have a soul of goodness--not of mere virtue, but of
goodness--and we know from his biography that in life he endured the
severest test to which a good nature can be subjected. His treatment of
Mrs. Unwin in the imbecile despotism of her old age was as fine in its way
as Lamb's treatment of his sister. Mrs. Unwin, who had supported Cowper
through so many dark and suicidal hours, afterwards became palsied and
lost her mental faculties. "Her character," as Sir James Frazer writes in
the introduction to his charming selection from the letters,[2] "underwent
a great change, and she who for years had found all her happiness in
ministering to her afflicted friend, and seemed to have no thought but for
his welfare, now became querulous and exacting, forgetful of him and
mindful, apparently, only of herself. Unable to move out of her chair
without help, or to walk across the room unless supported by two people,
her speech at times almost unintelligible, she deprived him of all his
wonted exercises, both bodily and mental, as she did not choose that he
should leave her for a moment, or even use a pen or a book, except when he
read to her. To these demands he responded with all the devotion of
gratitude and affection; he was assiduous in his attentions to her, but
the strain told heavily on his strength." To know all this does not modify
our opinion of Cowper's letters, except is so far as it strengthens it. It
helps us, however, to explain to ourselves why we love them. We love them
because, as surely as the writings of Shakespeare and Lamb, they are an
expression of that sort of heroic gentleness which can endure the fires of
the most devastating tragedy. Shakespeare finally revealed the strong
sweetness of his nature in _The Tempest_. Many people are inclined to
over-estimate _The Tempest_ as poetry simply because it gives them so
precious a clue to the character of his genius, and makes clear once more
that the grand source and material of poetry is the infinite tenderness of
the human heart. Cowper's letters are a tiny thing beside Shakespeare's
plays. But the same light falls on them. They have an eighteenth-century
restraint, and freedom from emotionalism and gush. But behind their
chronicle of trifles, their small fancies, their little vanities, one is
aware of an intensely loving and lovable personality. Cowper's poem, _To
Mary_, written to Mrs. Unwin in the days of her feebleness, is, to my
mind, made commonplace by the odious reiteration of "my Mary!" at the end
of every verse. Leave the "my Marys" out, however, and see how beautiful,
as well as moving, a poem it becomes. Cowper was at one time on the point
of marrying Mrs. Unwin, when an attack of madness prevented him. Later on
Lady Austen apparently wished to marry him. He had an extraordinary gift
for commanding the affections of those of both sexes who knew him. His
friendship with the poet Hayley, then a rocket fallen to earth, towards
the close of his life, reveals the lovableness of both men.

    [2] _Letters of William Cowper_. Chosen and edited by J.G. Frazer.
        Two vols. Eversley Series. Macmillan. 12s. net.

If we love Cowper, then, it is not only because of his little world, but
because of his greatness of soul that stands in contrast to it. He is like
one of those tiny pools among the rocks, left behind by the deep waters of
ocean and reflecting the blue height of the sky. His most trivial actions
acquire a pathos from what we know of the _De Profundis_ that is behind
them. When we read of the Olney household--"our snug parlour, one lady
knitting, the other netting, and the gentleman winding worsted"--we feel
that this marionette-show has some second and immortal significance. On
another day, "one of the ladies has been playing a harpsichord, while I,
with the other, have been playing at battledore and shuttlecock." It is a
game of cherubs, though of cherubs slightly unfeathered as a result of
belonging to the pious English upper-middle classes. The poet, inclined to
be fat, whose chief occupation in winter is "to walk ten times in a day
from the fireside to his cucumber frame and back again," is busy enough on
a heavenly errand. With his pet hares, his goldfinches, his dog, his
carpentry, his greenhouse--"Is not our greenhouse a cabinet of
perfumes?"--his clergymen, his ladies, and his tasks, he is not only
constantly amusing himself, but carrying on a secret battle, with all the
terrors of Hell. He is, indeed, a pilgrim who struggles out of one slough
of despond only to fall waist-deep into another. This strange creature who
passed so much of his time writing such things as _Verses written at Bath
on Finding the Heel of a Shoe, Ode to Apollo on an Ink-glass almost dried
in the Sun, Lines sent with Two Cockscombs to Miss Green_, and _On the
Death of Mrs. Throckmorton's Bullfinch_, stumbled along under a load of
woe and repentance as terrible as any of the sorrows that we read of in
the great tragedies. The last of his original poems, _The Castaway_, is an
image of his utter hopelessness. As he lay dying in 1880 he was asked how
he felt. He replied, "I feel unutterable despair." To face damnation with
the sweet unselfishness of William Cowper is a rare and saintly
accomplishment. It gives him a place in the company of the beloved authors
with men of far greater genius than himself--with Shakespeare and Lamb and

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch has, in one of his essays, expressed the opinion
that of all the English poets "the one who, but for a stroke of madness,
would have become our English Horace was William Cowper. He had the wit,"
he added, "with the underlying moral seriousness." As for the wit, I doubt
it. Cowper had not the wit that inevitably hardens into "jewels five words
long." Laboriously as he sought after perfection in his verse, he was
never a master of the Horatian phrase. Such phrases of his--and there are
not many of them--as have passed into the common speech flash neither with
wit nor with wisdom. Take the best-known of them:

                        "The cups
  That cheer but not inebriate;"

  "God made the country and man made the town;"

  "I am monarch of all I survey;"

  "Regions Cæsar never knew;" and

  "England, with all thy faults, I love thee still!"

This is lead for gold. Horace, it is true, must be judged as something
more than an inventor of golden tags. But no man can hope to succeed
Horace unless his lines and phrases are of the kind that naturally pass
into golden tags. This, I know, is a matter not only of style but of
temper. But it is in temper as much as in style that Cowper differs from
Horace. Horace mixed on easy terms with the world. He enjoyed the same
pleasures; he paid his respects to the same duties. He was a man of the
world above all other poets. Cowper was in comparison a man of the
parlour. His sensibilities would, I fancy, have driven him into retreat,
even if he had been neither mad nor pious. He was the very opposite of a
worldling. He was, as he said of himself in his early thirties, "of a very
singular temper, and very unlike all the men that I have ever conversed
with." While claiming that he was not an absolute fool, he added: "If I
was as fit for the next world as I am unfit for this--and God forbid I
should speak it in vanity--I would not change conditions with any saint in
Christendom." Had Horace lived in the eighteenth century he would almost
certainly have been a Deist. Cowper was very nearly a Methodist. The
difference, indeed, between them is fundamental. Horace was a pig, though
a charming one; Cowper was a pigeon.

This being so, it seems to me a mistake to regard Cowper as a Horace
_manqué_, instead of being content with his miraculous achievement as a
letter-writer. It may well be that his sufferings, so far from destroying
his real genius, harrowed and fertilized the soil in which it grew. He
unquestionably was more ambitious for his verse than for his prose. He
wrote his letters without labour, while he was never weary of using the
file on his poems. "To touch and retouch," he once wrote to the Rev.
William Unwin, "is, though some writers boast of negligence, and others
would be ashamed to show their foul copies, the secret of almost all good
writing, especially in verse. I am never weary of it myself." Even if we
count him only a middling poet, however, this does not mean that all his
fastidiousness of composition was wasted. He acquired in the workshop of
verse the style that stood him in such good stead in the field of familiar
prose. It is because of this hard-won ease of style that readers of
English will never grow weary of that epistolary autobiography in which he
recounts his maniacal fear that his food has been poisoned; his open-eyed
wonder at balloons; the story of his mouse; the cure of the distention of
his stomach by Lady Hesketh's gingerbread; the pulling out of a tooth at
the dinner-table unperceived by the other guests; his desire to thrash Dr.
Johnson till his pension jingled in his pocket; and the mildly fascinated
tastes to which he confesses in such a paragraph as:

    I know no beast in England whose voice I do not account musical
    save and except always the braying of an ass. The notes of all our
    birds and fowls please me without one exception. I should not
    indeed think of keeping a goose in a cage, that I might hang him up
    in the parlour for the sake of his melody, but a goose upon a
    common, or in a farm-yard, is no bad performer.

Here he is no missfire rival of Horace or Milton or Prior, or any of the
other poets. Here he has arrived at the perfection for which he was born.
How much better he was fitted to be a letter-writer than a poet may be
seen by anyone who compares his treatment of the same incidents in verse
and in prose. There is, for instance, that charming letter about the
escaped goldfinch, which is not spoiled for us even though we may take
Blake's view of caged birds:

    I have two goldfinches, which in the summer occupy the greenhouse.
    A few days since, being employed in cleaning out their cages, I
    placed that which I had in hand upon the table, while the other
    hung against the wall; the windows and the doors stood wide open. I
    went to fill the fountain at the pump, and on my return was not a
    little surprised to find a goldfinch sitting on the top of the cage
    I had been cleaning, and singing to and kissing the goldfinch
    within. I approached him, and he discovered no fear; still
    nearer, and he discovered none. I advanced my hand towards him, and
    he took no notice of it. I seized him, and supposed I had caught a
    new bird, but casting my eye upon the other cage perceived my
    mistake. Its inhabitant, during my absence, had contrived to find
    an opening, where the wire had been a little bent, and made no
    other use of the escape it afforded him, than to salute his friend,
    and to converse with him more intimately than he had done before. I
    returned him to his proper mansion, but in vain. In less than a
    minute he had thrust his little person through the aperture again,
    and again perched upon his neighbour's cage, kissing him, as at the
    first, and singing, as if transported with the fortunate adventure.
    I could not but respect such friendship, as for the sake of its
    gratification had twice declined an opportunity to be free, and
    consenting to their union, resolved that for the future one cage
    should hold them both. I am glad of such incidents; for at a pinch,
    and when I need entertainment, the versification of them serves to
    divert me....

Cowper's "versification" of the incident is vapid compared to this. The
incident of the viper and the kittens again, which he "versified" in _The
Colubriad_, is chronicled far more charmingly in the letters. His quiet
prose gave him a vehicle for that intimacy of the heart and fancy which
was the deepest need of his nature. He made a full confession of himself
only to his friends. In one of his letters he compares himself, as he
rises in the morning to "an infernal frog out of Acheron, covered with the
ooze and mud of melancholy." In his most ambitious verse he is a frog
trying to blow himself out into a bull. It is the frog in him, not the
intended bull, that makes friends with us to-day.


Voltaire's criticism of Shakespeare as rude and barbarous has only one
fault. It does not fit Shakespeare. Shakespeare, however, is the single
dramatist of his age to whom it is not in a measure applicable. "He was a
savage," said Voltaire, "who had imagination. He has written many happy
lines; but his pieces can please only in London and in Canada." Had this
been said of Marlowe, or Chapman, or Jonson (despite his learning), or
Cyril Tourneur, one might differ, but one would admit that perhaps there
was something in it. Again, Voltaire's boast that he had been the first to
show the French "some pearls which I had found" in the "enormous dunghill"
of Shakespeare's plays was the sort of thing that might reasonably have
been said by an anthologist who had made selections from Dekker or
Beaumont and Fletcher or any dramatist writing under Elizabeth and James
except William Shakespeare. One reads the average Elizabethan play in the
certainty that the pearls will be few and the rubbish-heap practically
five acts high. There are, perhaps, a dozen Elizabethan plays apart from
Shakespeare's that are as great as his third-best work. But there are no
_Hamlets_ or _Lears_ among them. There are no _Midsummer Night's Dreams_.
There is not even a _Winter's Tale_.

If Lamb, then, had boasted about what he had done for the Elizabethans in
general in the terms used by Voltaire concerning himself and Shakespeare
his claim would have been just. Lamb, however, was free from Voltaire's
vanity. He did not feel that he was shedding lustre on the Elizabethans as
a patron: he regarded himself as a follower. Voltaire was infuriated by
the suggestion that Shakespeare wrote better than himself; Lamb probably
looked on even Cyril Tourneur as his superior. Lamb was in this as wide of
the mark as Voltaire had been. His reverent praise has made famous among
virgins and boys many an old dramatist who but for him would long ago have
been thrown to the antiquaries, and have deserved it. Everyone goes to the
Elizabethans at some time or another in the hope of coming on a long
succession of sleeping beauties. The average man retires disappointed from
the quest. He would have to be unusually open to suggestion not to be
disappointed at the first reading of most of the plays. Many a man can
read the Elizabethans with Charles Lamb's enthusiasm, however, who never
could have read them with his own.

One day, when Swinburne was looking over Mr. Gosse's books, he took down
Lamb's _Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets_, and, turning to Mr.
Gosse, said, "That book taught me more than any other book in the
world--that and the Bible." Swinburne was a notorious borrower of other
men's enthusiasms. He borrowed republicanism from Landor and Mazzini, the
Devil from Baudelaire, and the Elizabethans from Lamb. He had not, as Lamb
had, Elizabethan blood in his veins. Lamb had the Elizabethan love of
phrases that have cost a voyage of fancies discovered in a cave. Swinburne
had none of this rich taste in speech. He used words riotously, but he did
not use great words riotously. He was excitedly extravagant where Lamb was
carefully extravagant. He often seemed to be bent chiefly on making a
beautiful noise. Nor was this the only point on which he was opposed to
Lamb and the Elizabethans. He differed fundamentally from them in his
attitude to the spectacle of life. His mood was the mood not of a
spectator but of a revivalist. He lectured his generation on the deadly
virtues. He was far more anxious to shock the drawing-room than to
entertain the bar-parlour. Lamb himself was little enough of a formal
Puritan. He felt that the wings both of the virtues and the vices had been
clipped by the descendants of the Puritans. He did not scold, however, but
retired into the spectacle of another century. He wandered among old plays
like an exile returning with devouring eyes to a dusty ancestral castle.
Swinburne, for his part, cared little for seeing things and much for
saying things. As a result, a great deal of his verse--and still more of
his prose--has the heat of an argument rather than the warmth of life.

His posthumous book on the Elizabethans is liveliest when it is most
argumentative. Swinburne is less amusing when he is exalting the
Elizabethans than when he is cleaving the skull of a pet aversion. His
style is an admirable one for faction-fighting, but is less suitable for
intimate conversation. He writes in superlatives that give one the
impression that he is furious about something or other even when he is
being fairly sensible. His criticism has thus an air of being much more
insane than it is. His estimates of Chapman and Richard Brome are both far
more moderate and reasonable than appears at first reading. He out-Lambs
Lamb in his appreciativeness; but one cannot accuse him of injudicious
excess when he says of Brome:

    Were he now alive, he would be a brilliant and able competitor in
    their own field of work and study with such admirable writers as
    Mrs. Oliphant and Mr. Norris.

Brome, I think, is better than this implies. Swinburne is not going many
miles too far when he calls _The Antipodes_ "one of the most fanciful and
delightful farces in the world." It is a piece of poetic low comedy that
will almost certainly entertain and delight any reader who goes to it
expecting to be bored.

It is safe to say of most of the Elizabethan dramatists that the average
reader must fulfil one of two conditions if he is not to be disappointed
in them. He must not expect to find them giants on the Shakespeare scale.
Better still, he must turn to them as to a continent or age of poetry
rather than for the genius of separate plays. Of most of them it may be
said that their age is greater than they--that they are glorified by their
period rather than glorify it. They are figures in a golden and teeming
landscape, and one moves among them under the spell of their noble

They are less great individually than in the mass. If they are giants, few
of them are giants who can stand on their own legs. They prop one another
up. There are not more than a dozen Elizabethan plays that are
individually worth a superlative, as a novel by Jane Austen or a sonnet by
Wordsworth is. The Elizabethan lyrics are an immensely more precious
possession than the plays. The best of the dramatists, indeed, were poets
by destiny and dramatists by accident. It is conceivable that the greatest
of them apart from Shakespeare--Marlowe and Jonson and Webster and
Dekker--might have been greater writers if the English theatre had never
existed. Shakespeare alone was as great in the theatre as in poetry.
Jonson, perhaps, also came near being so. _The Alchemist_ is a brilliant
heavy-weight comedy, which one would hardly sacrifice even for another of
Jonson's songs. As for Dekker, on the other hand, much as one admires the
excellent style in which he writes as well as the fine poetry and comedy
which survive in his dialogue, his _Sweet Content_ is worth all the purely
dramatic work he ever wrote.

One thing that differentiates the other Elizabethan and Jacobean
dramatists from Shakespeare is their comparative indifference to human
nature. There is too much mechanical malice in their tragedies and too
little of the passion that every man recognizes in his own breast. Even so
good a play as _The Duchess of Malfi_ is marred by inadequacy of motive on
the part of the duchess's persecutors. Similarly, in Chapman's _Bussy
d'Ambois_, the villains are simply a dramatist's infernal machines.
Shakespeare's own plays contain numerous examples of inadequacy of
motive--the casting-off of Cordelia by her father, for instance, and in
part the revenge of Iago. But, if we accept the first act of _King Lear_
as an incident in a fairy-tale, the motive of the Passion of Lear in the
other four acts is not only adequate out overwhelming. _Othello_ breaks
free from mechanism of Plot in a similar way. Shakespeare as a writer of
the fiction of human nature was as supreme among his contemporaries as was
Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

Having recognized this, one can begin to enjoy the Elizabethan dramatists
again. Lamb and Coleridge and Hazlitt found them lying flat, and it was
natural that they should raise them up and set them affectionately on
pedestals for the gaze of a too indifferent world. The modern reader,
accustomed to seeing them on their pedestals, however, is tempted to wish
that they were lying flat again. Most of the Elizabethans deserve neither
fate. They should be left neither flat nor standing on separate pedestals,
but leaning at an angle of about forty-five degrees--resting against the
base of Shakespeare's colossal statue.

Had Swinburne written of them all as imaginatively as he has written of
Chapman, his interpretations, excessive though they often are, would have
added to one's enjoyment of them. His _Chapman_ gives us a portrait of a
character. Several of the chapters in _Contemporaries of Shakespeare_,
however, are, apart from the strong language, little more inspiring than
the summaries of novels and plays in a school history of literature. Even
Mr. Gosse himself, if I remember right, in his _Life of Swinburne_,
described one of the chapters as "unreadable." The book as a whole is not
that. But it unquestionably shows us some of the minor Elizabethans by fog
rather than by the full light of day.


There is--at least, there seems to be--more cant talked about poetry just
now than at any previous time. Tartuffe is to-day not a priest but a
poet--or a critic. Or, perhaps, Tartuffe is too lively a prototype for the
curates of poetry who swarm in the world's capitals at the present hour.
There is a tendency in the followers of every art or craft to impose it on
the world as a mystery of which the vulgar can know nothing. In medicine,
as in bricklaying, there is a powerful trade union into which the members
can retire as into a sanctuary of the initiate. In the same way, the
theologians took possession of the temple of religion and refused
admittance to laymen, except as a meek and awe-struck audience. This
largely resulted from the Pharisaic instinct that assumes superiority over
other men. Pharisaism is simply an Imperialism of the spirit--joyless and
domineering. Religion is a communion of immortal souls. Pharisaism is a
denial of this and an attempt to set up an oligarchy of superior persons.
All the great religious reformations have been rebellions on the part of
the immortal souls against the superior persons. Religion, the reformers
have proclaimed, is the common possession of mankind. Christ came into the
world not to afford a career to theological pedants, but that the mass of
mankind might have life and might have it more abundantly.

Poetry is in constant danger of suffering the same fate as religion. In
the great ages of poetry, poetry was what is called a popular subject. The
greatest poets, both of Greece and of England, took their genius to that
extremely popular institution, the theatre. They wrote not for pedants or
any exclusive circle, but for mankind. They were, we have reason to
believe, under no illusions as to the imperfections of mankind. But it was
the best audience they could get, and represented more or less the same
kind of world that they found in their own bosoms. It is a difficult thing
to prove that the ordinary man can appreciate poetry, just as it is a
difficult thing to prove that the ordinary man has an immortal soul. But
the great poets, like the great saints, gave him the benefit of the doubt.
If they had not, we should not have had the Greek drama or Shakespeare.

That they were right seems probable in view of the excellence of the poems
and songs that survive among a peasantry that has not been de-educated in
the schools. If the arts were not a natural inheritance of simple people,
neither the Irish love-songs collected by Dr. Douglas Hyde nor the Irish
music edited by Moore could have survived. I do not mean to suggest that
any art can be kept alive without the aid of such specialists as the poet,
the singer, and the musician; but neither can it be kept healthily alive
without the popular audience. Tolstoy's use of the unspoiled peasant as
the test of art may lead to absurdities, if carried too far. But at least
it is an error in the right direction. It is an affirmation of the fact
that every man is potentially an artist just as Christianity is an
affirmation of the fact that every man is potentially a saint. It is also
an affirmation of the fact that art, like religion, makes its appeal to
feelings which are shared by the mass of men rather than the feelings
which are the exclusive possession of the few. Where Tolstoy made his
chief mistake was in failing to see that the artistic sense, like the
religious sense, is something that, so far from being born perfect, even
in the unspoiled peasant, passes though stage after stage of labour and
experience on the way to perfection. Every man is an artist in the seed:
he is not an artist in the flower. He may pass all his life without ever
coming to flower. The great artist, however, appeals to a universal
potentiality of beauty. Tolstoy's most astounding paradox came _to_
nothing more than this--that art exists, not for the hundreds of people
who are artists in name, but for the millions of people who are artists in

At the same time, there is no use in being too confident that the average
man will ever be a poet, even in the sense of being a reader of poetry.
All that one can ask is that the doors of literature shall be thrown open
to him, as the doors of religion are in spite of the fact that he is not a
perfect saint. The histories of literature and religion, it seems likely,
both go back to a time in which men expressed their most rapturous
emotions in dances. In time the inarticulate shouts of the
dancers--Scottish dancers still utter those shouts, do they not?--gave
place to rhythmic words. It may have been the genius of a single dancer
that first broke into speech, but his genius consisted not so much in his
separateness from the others as in his power to express what all the
others felt. He was the prophet of a rapture that was theirs as much as
his own.

Men learned to speak rhythmically, however, not merely in order to
liberate their deepest emotions, but in order to remember things. Poetry
has a double origin in joy and utility. The "Thirty days hath September"
rhyme of the English child suggests the way in which men must have turned
to verse in prehistoric times as a preservative of facts, of proverbial
wisdom, of legend and narrative. Sir Henry Newbolt, I gather from his _New
Study of English Poetry_, would deny the name of poetry to all verse that
is not descended from the choric dance. In my opinion it is better to
recognize the two lines, as of the father and the mother, in the pedigree
of poetry. We find abundant traces of them not only in Hesiod and Virgil,
but in Homer and Chaucer. The utility of form and the joy of form have in
all these poets become inextricably united. The objection to most of the
"free verse" that is being written to-day is that in form it is neither
delightful nor memorable. The truth is, the memorableness of the writings
of a man of genius becomes a part of their delight. If Pope is a
delightful writer it is not merely because he expressed interesting
opinions; it is because he threw most of the energies of his being into
the task of making them memorable and gave them a heightened vitality by
giving them rhymes. His satires and _The Rape of the Lock_ are, no doubt,
better poetry than the _Essay on Man_, because he poured into them a still
more vivid energy. But I doubt if there is any reasonable definition of
poetry which would exclude even Pope the "essayist" from the circle of the
poets. He was a puny poet, it may be, but poets were always, as they are
to-day, of all shapes and sizes.

Unfortunately, "poetry," like "religion," is a word that we are almost
bound to use in several senses. Sometimes we speak of "poetry" in
contradistinction to prose: sometimes in contradistinction to bad poetry.
Similarly, "religion" would in one sense include the Abode of Love as
opposed to rationalism, and in another sense would exclude the Abode of
Love as opposed to the religion of St. James. In a common-sense
classification, it seems to me, poetry includes every kind of literature
written in verse or in rhythms akin to verse. Sir Thomas Browne may have
been more poetic than Erasmus Darwin, but in his best work he did not
write poetry. Erasmus Darwin may have been more prosaic than Sir Thomas
Browne, but in his most famous work he did not write prose. Sir Henry
Newbolt will not permit a classification of this kind. For him poetry is
an expression of intuitions--an emotional transfiguration of life--while
prose is the expression of a scientific fact or a judgment. I doubt if
this division is defensible. Everything that is literature is, in a sense,
poetry as opposed to science; but both prose and poetry contain a great
deal of work that is preponderantly the result of observation and
judgment, as well as a great deal that is preponderantly imaginative.
Poetry is a house of many mansions. It includes fine poetry and foolish
poetry, noble poetry and base poetry. The chief duty of criticism is the
praise--the infectious praise--of the greatest poetry. The critic has the
right to demand not only a transfiguration of life, but a noble
transfiguration of life. Swinburne transfigures life in _Anactoria_ no
less than Shakespeare transfigures it in _King Lear_. But Swinburne's is
an ignoble, Shakespeare's a noble transfiguration. Poetry may be divine or
devilish, just as religion may be. Literary criticism is so timid of being
accused of Puritanism that it is chary of admitting that there may be a
Heaven and a Hell of poetic genius as well as of religious genius. The
moralists go too far on the other side and are tempted to judge literature
by its morality rather than by its genius. It seems more reasonable to
conclude that it is possible to have a poet of genius who is nevertheless
a false poet, just as it is possible to have a prophet of genius who is
nevertheless a false prophet. The lover of literature will be interested
in them all, but he will not finally be deceived into blindness to the
fact that the greatest poets are spiritually and morally, as well as
aesthetically, great. If Shakespeare is infinitely the greatest of the
Elizabethans, it is not merely because he is imaginatively the greatest;
it is also because he had a soul incomparably noble and generous. Sir
Henry Newbolt deals in an interesting way with this ennoblement of life
that is the mark of great poetry. He does not demand of poetry an orthodox
code of morals, but he does contend that great poetry marches along the
path that leads to abundance of life, and not to a feeble and degenerate

The greatest value of his book, however, lies in the fact that he treats
poetry as a natural human activity, and that he sees that poetry must be
able to meet the challenge to its right to exist. The extreme moralist
would deny that it had a right to exist unless it could be proved to make
men more moral. The hedonist is content if it only gives him pleasure. The
greatest poets, however, do not accept the point of view either of the
extreme moralist or of the hedonist. Poetry exists for the purpose of
delivering us neither to good conduct nor to pleasure. It exists for the
purpose of releasing the human spirit to sing, like a lark, above this
scene of wonder, beauty and terror. It is consonant both with the world of
good conduct and the world of pleasure, but its song is a voice and an
enrichment of the earth, uttered on wings half-way between earth and
heaven. Sir Henry Newbolt suggests that the reason why hymns almost always
fail as poetry is that the writers of hymns turn their eyes away so
resolutely from the earth we know to the world that is only a formula.
Poetry, in his view, is a transfiguration of life heightened by the
home-sickness of the spirit from a perfect world. But it must always use
the life we live as the material of its joyous vision. It is born of our
double attachment to Earth and to Paradise. There is no formula for
absolute beauty, but the poet can praise the echo and reflection of it in
the songs of the birds and the colours of the flowers. It is open to
question whether

  There is a fountain filled with blood

expresses the home-sickness of the spirit as yearningly as

  And now my heart with pleasure fills
  And dances with the daffodils.

There are many details on which one would like to join issue with Sir
Henry Newbolt, but his main contentions are so suggestive, his sympathies
so catholic and generous, that it seems hardly worth while arguing with
him about questions of scansion or of the relation of Blake to
contemporary politics, or of the evil of anthologies. His book is the
reply of a capable and honest man of letters to the challenge uttered to
poets by Keats in _The Fall of Hyperion_, where Moneta demands:

  What benfits canst thou, or all thy tribe
  To the great world?

and declares:

  None can usurp this height ...
  But those to whom the miseries of the world
  Are misery, and will not let them rest.

Sir Henry Newbolt, like Sir Sidney Colvin, no doubt, would hold that here
Keats dismisses too slightingly his own best work. But how noble is
Keats's dissatisfaction with himself! It is such noble dissatisfaction as
this that distinguishes the great poets from the amateurs. Poetry and
religion--the impulse is very much the same. The rest is but a


So little is Edward Young read in these days that we have almost forgotten
how wide was his influence in the eighteenth century. It was not merely
that he was popular in England, where his satires, _The Love of Fame, the
Universal Passion_, are said to have made him £3,000. He was also a power
on the Continent. His _Night Thoughts_ was translated not only into all
the major languages, but into Portuguese, Swedish and Magyar. It was
adopted as one of the heralds of the romantic movement in France. Even his
_Conjectures on Original Composition_, written in 1759 in the form of a
letter to Samuel Richardson, earned in foreign countries a fame that has
lasted till our own day. A new edition of the German translation was
published at Bonn so recently as 1910. In England there is no famous
author more assiduously neglected. Not so much as a line is quoted from
him in _The Oxford Book of English Verse_. I recently turned up a fairly
full anthology of eighteenth-century verse only to find that though it has
room for Mallet and Ambrose Phillips and Picken, Young has not been
allowed to contribute a purple patch even five lines long. I look round my
own shelves, and they tell the same story. Small enough poets stand there
in shivering neglect. Akenside, Churchill and Parnell have all been
thought worth keeping. But not on the coldest, topmost shelf has space
been found for Young. He scarcely survives even in popular quotations. The
copy-books have perpetuated one line:

  Procrastination is the thief of time.

Apart from that, _Night Thoughts_ have been swallowed up in an eternal

And certainly a study of the titles of his works will not encourage the
average reader to go to him in search of treasures of the imagination. At
the age of thirty, in 1713, he wrote a _Poem on the Last Day_, which he
dedicated to Queen Anne. In the following year he wrote _The Force of
Religion, or Vanquish'd Love_, a poem about Lady Jane Grey, which he
dedicated to the Countess of Salisbury. And no sooner was Queen Anne dead
than he made haste to salute the rising sun in an epistle _On the Late
Queen's Death and His Majesty's Accession to the Throne_. Passing over a
number of years, we find him, in 1730, publishing a so-called Pindaric
ode, _Imperium Pelagi; a Naval Lyric_, in the preface to which he declares
with characteristic italics: "_Trade_ is a very _noble_ subject in itself;
more _proper_ than any for an Englishman; and particularly _seasonable_ at
this juncture." Add to this that he was the son of a dean, that he married
the daughter of an earl, and that, other means of advancement having
failed, he became a clergyman at the age of between forty and fifty, and
the suggested portrait is that of a prudent hanger-on rather than a fiery
man of genius. His prudence was rewarded with a pension of £200 a year, a
Royal Chaplaincy, and the position (after George III.'s accession) of
Clerk of the Closet to the Princess Dowager. In the opinion of Young
himself, who lived till the age of 82, the reward was inadequate. At the
age of 79, however, he had conquered his disappointment to a sufficient
degree to write a poem on _Resignation_.

Readers who, after a hasty glance at his biography, are inclined to look
satirically on Young as a time-server, oily with the mediocrity of
self-help, will have a pleasant surprise if they read his _Conjectures on
Original Composition_ for the first time. It is a bold and masculine essay
on literary criticism, written in a style of quite brilliant, if
old-fashioned, rhetoric. Mrs. Thrale said of it: "In the _Conjectures upon
Original Composition_ ... we shall perhaps read the wittiest piece of
prose our whole language has to boast; yet from its over-twinkling, it
seems too little gazed at and too little admired perhaps." This is an
exaggerated estimate. Dr. Johnson, who heard Young read the _Conjectures_
at Richardson's house, said that "he was surprised to find Young receive
as novelties what he thought very common maxims." If one tempers Mrs.
Thrale's enthusiasms and Dr. Johnson's scorn, one will have a fairly just
idea of the quality of Young's book.

It is simply a shot fired with a good aim in the eternal war between
authority and liberty in literature. This is a controversy for which, were
men wise, there would be no need. We require in literature both the
authority of tradition and the liberty of genius to such new conquests.
Unfortunately, we cannot agree as to the proportions in which each of them
is required. The French exaggerated the importance of tradition, and so
gave us the classical drama of Racine and Corneille. Walt Whitman
exaggerated the importance of liberty, and so gave us _Leaves of Grass_.
In nearly all periods of literary energy, we find writers rushing to one
or other of these extremes. Either they declare that the classics are
perfect and cannot be surpassed but only imitated; or, like the Futurists,
they want to burn the classics and release the spirit of man for new
adventures. It is all a prolonged duel between reaction and revolution,
and the wise man of genius doing his best, like a Liberal, to bring the
two opponents to terms.

Much of the interest of Young's book is due to the fact that in an age of
reaction he came out on the revolutionary side. There was seldom a time at
which the classics were more slavishly idolized and imitated. Miss Morley
quotes from Pope the saying that "all that is left us is to recommend our
productions by the imitation of the ancients." Young threw all his
eloquence on the opposite side. He uttered the bold paradox: "The less we
copy the renowned ancients, we shall resemble them the more." "Become a
noble collateral," he advised, "not a humble descendant from them. Let us
build our compositions in the spirit, and in the taste, of the ancients,
but not with their materials. Thus will they resemble the structures of
Pericles at Athens, which Plutarch commends for having had an air of
antiquity as soon as they were built." He refuses to believe that the
moderns are necessarily inferior to the ancients. If they are inferior, it
is because they plagiarize from the ancients instead of emulating them.
"If ancients and moderns," he declares, "were no longer considered as
masters, and pupils, but as hard-matched rivals for renown, then moderns,
by the longevity of their labours, might one day become ancients

He deplores the fact that Pope should have been so content to indenture
his genius to the work of translation and imitation:

    Though we stand much obliged to him for giving us an Homer, yet had
    he doubled our obligation by giving us--a Pope. He had a strong
    imagination and the true sublime? That granted, we might have had
    two Homers instead of one, if longer had been his life; for I heard
    the dying swan talk over an epic plan a few weeks before his

For ourselves, we hold that Pope showed himself to be as original as needs
be in his epistles to Martha Blount and Dr. Arbuthnot. None the less, the
general philosophy of Young's remarks is sound enough. We should reverence
tradition in literature, but not superstitiously. Too much awe of the old
masters may easily scare a modern into hiding his talent in a napkin.
True, we are not in much danger of servitude to tradition in literature
to-day. We no longer imitate the ancients; we only imitate each other. On
the whole, we wish there was rather more sense of the tradition in
contemporary writing. The danger of arbitrary egoism is quite as great as
the danger of classicism. Luckily, Young, in stating the case against the
classicists, has at the same time stated perfectly the case for
familiarity with the classics. "It is," he declares, "but a sort of noble
contagion, from a general familiarity with their writings, and not by any
particular sordid theft, that we can be the better for those who went
before us," However we may deride a servile classicism, we should always
set out assuming the necessity of the "noble contagion for every man of

The truth is, the man of letters must in some way reconcile himself to the
paradox that he is at once the acolyte and the rival of the ancients.
Young is optimistic enough to believe that it is possible to surpass them.
In the mechanic arts, he complains, men are always attempting to go beyond
their predecessors; in the liberal arts, they merely try to follow them.
The analogy between the continuous advance of science and a possible
continuous advance in literature is perhaps, a misleading one. Professor
Gilbert Murray, in _Religio Grammatici_, bases much of his argument on a
denial that such an analogy should be drawn. Literary genius cannot be
bequeathed and added to as a scientific discovery can. The modern poet
does not stand on Shakespeare's shoulders as the modern astronomer stands
on Galileo's shoulders. Scientific discovery is progressive. Literary
genius, like religious genius, is a miracle less dependent on time. None
the less, we may reasonably believe that literature, like science, has
ever new worlds to conquer--that, even if Æschylus and Shakespeare cannot
be surpassed, names as great as theirs may one day be added to the roll of
literary fame. And this will be possible only if men in each generation
are determined, in the words of Goldsmith, "bravely to shake off
admiration, and, undazzled by the splendour of another's reputation, to
chalk out a path to fame for themselves, and boldly cultivate untried
experiment." Goldsmith wrote these words in _The Bee_ in the same year in
which Young's _Conjectures_ was published. I feel tolerably certain that
he wrote them as a result of reading Young's work. The reaction against
traditionalism, however, was gathering general force by this time, and the
desire to be original was beginning to oust the desire to copy. Both
Young's and Goldsmith's essays are exceedingly interesting as
anticipations of the romantic movement. Young was a true romantic when he
wrote that Nature "brings us into the world all Originals--no two faces,
no two minds, are just alike; but all bear evident marks of separation on
them. Born Originals, how comes it to pass that we are Copies?" Genius, he
thinks, is commoner than is sometimes supposed, if we would make use of
it. His book is a plea for giving genius its head. He wants to see the
modern writer, instead of tilling an exhausted soil, staking out a claim
in the perfectly virgin field of his own experience. He cannot teach you
to be a man of genius; he could not even teach himself to be one. But at
least he lays down many of the right rules for the use of genius. His book
marks a most interesting stage in the development of English literary


There seems to be a definite connection between good writing and
indolence. The men whom we call stylists have, most of them, been idlers.
From Horace to Robert Louis Stevenson, nearly all have been pigs from the
sty of Epicurus. They have not, to use an excellent Anglo-Irish word,
"industered" like insects or millionaires. The greatest men, one must
admit, have mostly been as punctual at their labours as the sun--as fiery
and inexhaustible. But, then, one does not think of the greatest writers
as stylists. They are so much more than that. The style of Shakespeare is
infinitely more marvellous than the style of Gray. But one hardly thinks
of style in presence of the sea or a range of mountains or in reading
Shakespeare. His munificent and gorgeous genius was as far above style as
the statesmanship of Pericles or the sanctity of Joan of Arc was above
good manners. The world has not endorsed Ben Jonson's retort to those who
commended Shakespeare for never having "blotted out" a line: "Would he had
blotted out a thousand!" We feel that so vast a genius is beyond the
perfection of control we look for in a stylist. There may be badly-written
scenes in Shakespeare, and pot-house jokes, and wordy hyperboles, but with
all this there are enchanted continents left in him which we may continue
to explore though we live to be a hundred.

The fact that the noble impatience of a Shakespeare is above our
fault-finding, however, must not be used to disparage the lazy patience of
good writing. An Æschylus or a Shakespeare, a Browning or a Dickens,
conquers us with an abundance like nature's. He feeds us out of a horn, of
plenty. This, unfortunately, is possible only to writers of the first
order. The others, when they attempt profusion, become fluent rather than
abundant, facile of ink rather than generous of golden grain. Who does not
agree with Pope that Dryden, though not Shakespeare, would have been a
better poet if he had learned:

  The last and greatest art--the art to blot?

Who is there who would not rather have written a single ode of Gray's than
all the poetical works of Southey? If voluminousness alone made a man a
great writer, we should have to canonize Lord Lytton. The truth is,
literary genius has no rule either of voluminousness or of the opposite.
The genius of one writer is a world ever moving. The genius of another is
a garden often still. The greatest genius is undoubtedly of the former
kind. But as there is hardly enough genius of this kind to fill a wall,
much less a library, we may well encourage the lesser writers to cultivate
their gardens, and, in the absence of the wilder tumult of creation, to
delight us with blooms of leisurely phrase and quiet thought.

Gray and Collins were both writers who labored in little gardens. Collins,
indeed, had a small flower-bed--perhaps only a pot, indeed--rather than a
garden. He produced in it one perfect bloom--the _Ode to Evening_. The
rest of his work is carefully written, inoffensive, historically
interesting. But his continual personification of abstract ideas makes the
greater part of his verse lifeless as allegories or as sculpture in a
graveyard. He was a romantic, an inventor of new forms, in his own day. He
seems academic to ours. His work is that of a man striking an attitude
rather than of one expressing the deeps of a passionate nature. He is
always careful not to confess. His _Ode to Fear_ does not admit us to any
of the secrets of his maniacal and melancholy breast. It is an
anticipation of the factitious gloom of Byron, not of the nerve-shattered
gloom of Dostoevsky. Collins, we cannot help feeling, says in it what he
does not really think. He glorifies fear as though it were the better part
of imagination, going so far as to end his ode with the lines:

  O thou whose spirit most possessed,
  The sacred seat of Shakespeare's breast!
  By all that from thy prophet broke
  In thy divine emotions spoke:
  Hither again thy fury deal,
  Teach me but once, like him, to feel;
  His cypress wreath my meed decree,
  And I, O Fear, will dwell with thee!

We have only to compare these lines with Claudio's terrible speech about
death in _Measure for Measure_ to see the difference between pretence and
passion in literature. Shakespeare had no fear of telling us what he knew
about fear. Collins lived in a more reticent century, and attempted to fob
off a disease on us as an accomplishment. What perpetually delights us in
the _Ode to Evening_ is that here at least Collins can tell the truth
without falsification or chilling rhetoric. Here he is writing of the
world as he has really seen it and been moved by it. He still makes use of
personifications, but they have been transmuted by his emotion into
imagery. In these exquisite formal unrhymed lines, Collins has summed up
his view and dream of life. One knows that he was not lying or bent upon
expressing any other man's experiences but his own when he described how

  Air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat,
  With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing,
        Or where the beetle winds
        His small but sullen horn.

He speaks here, not in the stiffness of rhetoric, but in the liberty of a
new mood, never, for all he knew or cared, expressed before. As far as all
the rest of his work is concerned, his passion for style is more or less
wasted. But the _Ode to Evening_ justifies both his pains and his
indolence. As for the pains he took with his work, we have it on the
authority of Thomas Warton that "all his odes ... had the marks of
repeated correction: he was perpetually changing his epithets." As for his
indolence, his uncle, Colonel Martin, thought him "too indolent even for
the Army," and advised him to enter the Church--a step from which he was
dissuaded, we are told, by "a tobacconist in Fleet Street." For the rest,
he was the son of a hatter, and went mad. He is said to have haunted the
cloisters of Chichester Cathedral during his fits of melancholia, and to
have uttered a strange accompaniment of groans and howls during the
playing of the organ. The Castle of Indolence was for Collins no keep of
the pleasures. One may doubt if it is ever this for any artist. Did not
even Horace attempt to escape into Stoicism? Did not Stevenson write
_Pulvis et Umbra_?

Assuredly Gray, though he was as fastidious in his appetites as Collins
was wild, cannot be called in as a witness to prove the Castle of
Indolence a happy place. "Low spirits," he wrote, when he was still an
undergraduate, "are my true and faithful companions; they get up with me,
go to bed with me, make journeys and return as I do; nay, and pay visits,
and will even affect to be jocose, and force a feeble laugh with me." The
end of the sentence shows (as do his letters, indeed, and his verses on
the drowning of Horace Walpole's cat) that his indolent melancholy was not
without its compensations. He was a wit, an observer of himself and the
world about him, a man who wrote letters that have the genius of the
essay. Further, he was Horace Walpole's friend, and (while his father had
a devil in him) his mother and his aunts made a circle of quiet tenderness
into which he could always retire. "I do not remember," Mr. Gosse has said
of Gray, "that the history of literature presents us with the memoirs of
any other poet favoured by nature with so many aunts as Gray possessed."
This delicious sentence contains an important criticism of Gray. Gray was
a poet of the sheltered life. His genius was shy and retiring. He had no
ambition to thrust himself upon the world. He kept himself to himself, as
the saying is. He published the _Elegy in a Country Churchyard_ in 1751
only because the editors of the _Magazine of Magazines_ had got hold of a
copy and Gray was afraid that they would publish it first. How lethargic a
poet Gray was may be gathered from the fact that he began the _Elegy_ as
far back as 1746--Mason says it was begun in August, 1742--and did not
finish it until June 12, 1750. Probably there is no other short poem in
English literature which was brooded over for so many seasons. Nor was
there ever a greater justification for patient brooding. Gray in this poem
liberated the English imagination after half a century of prose and
rhetoric. He restored poetry to its true function as the confession of an
individual soul. Wordsworth has blamed Gray for introducing, or at least,
assisting to introduce, the curse of poetic diction into English
literature. But poetic diction was in use long before Gray. He is
remarkable among English poets, not for having succumbed to poetic
diction, but for having triumphed over it. It is poetic feeling, not
poetic diction, that distinguishes him from the mass of eighteenth-century
writers. It is an interesting coincidence that Gray and Collins should
have brought about a poetic revival by the rediscovery of the beauty of
evening, just as Mr. Yeats and "A.E." brought about a poetic revival in
our own day by the rediscovery of the beauty of twilight. Both schools of
poetry (if it is permissible to call them schools) found in the stillness
of the evening a natural refuge for the individual soul from the
tyrannical prose of common day. There have been critics, including Matthew
Arnold, who have denied that the _Elegy_ is the greatest of Gray's poems.
This, I think, can only be because they have been unable to see the poetry
for the quotations. No other poem that Gray ever wrote was a miracle. _The
Bard_ is a masterpiece of imaginative rhetoric. But the _Elegy_ is more
than this. It is an autobiography and the creation of a world for the
hearts of men. Here Gray delivers the secret doctrine of the poets. Here
he escapes out of the eighteenth century into immortality. One realizes
what an effort it must have been to rise above his century when one reads
an earlier version of some of his most famous lines:

  Some village Cato (----) with dauntless breast
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
  Some mute, inglorious Tully here may rest;
    Some Cæsar guiltless of his country's blood.

Could there be a more effective example of the return to reality than we
find in the final shape of this verse?

  Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
  Some mute, inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

It is as though suddenly it had been revealed to Gray that poetry is not a
mere literary exercise but the image of reality; that it does not consist
in vain admiration of models far off in time and place, but that it is as
near to one as one's breath and one's country. Not that the _Elegy_ would
have been one of the great poems of the world if it had never plunged
deeper into the heart than in this verse. It is a poem of beauty and
sorrow that cannot be symbolized by such public figures as Cromwell and
Milton. Here the genius of the parting day, and all that it means to the
imagination, its quiet movement and its music, its pensiveness and its
regrets, have been given a form more lasting than bronze. Perhaps the poem
owes a part of its popularity to the fact that it is a great homily,
though a homily transfigured. But then does not _Hamlet_ owe a great part
of its popularity to the fact that it is (among other things) a great
blood-and-thunder play with duels and a ghost?

One of the so-called mysteries of literature is the fact that Gray, having
written so greatly, should have written so little. He spoke of himself as
a "shrimp of an author," and expressed the fear that his works might be
mistaken for those of "a pismire or a flea." But to make a mystery of the
indolence of a rather timid, idle, and unadventurous scholar, who was
blessed with more fastidiousness than passion, is absurd. To say perfectly
once and for all what one has to say is surely as fine an achievement as
to keep restlessly trying to say it a thousand times over. Gray was no
blabber. It is said that he did not even let his mother and his aunts know
that he wrote poetry. He lacked boldness, volubility and vital energy. He
stood aside from life. He would not even take money from his publishers
for his poetry. No wonder that he earned the scorn of Dr. Johnson, who
said of him to Boswell, "Sir, he was dull in his company, dull in his
closet, dull everywhere. He was dull in a new way, and that made many
think him great." Luckily, Gray's reserve tempted him into his own heart
and into external nature for safety and consolation. Johnson could see in
him only a "mechanical poet." To most of us he seems the first natural
poet in modern literature.



Shelley is one of the most difficult of men of genius to portray. It is
easy enough to attack him or defend him--to damn him as an infidel or to
praise him because he made Harriet Westbrook so miserable that she threw
herself into the Serpentine. But this is an entirely different thing from
recapturing the likeness of the man from the nine hundred and ninety-nine
anecdotes that are told of him. These for the most part leave him with an
air of absurdity. In his habit of ignoring facts he appeals again and
again to one's sense of the comic, like a drunken man who fails to see the
kerb or who walks into a wall. He was indeed drunken with doctrine. He
lived almost as much from doctrine as from passion. He pursued theories as
a child chases butterflies. There is a story told of his Oxford days which
shows how eccentrically his theories converted themselves into conduct.
Having been reading Plato with Hogg, and having soaked himself in the
theory of pre-existence and reminiscence, he was walking on Magdalen
Bridge when he met a woman with a child in her arms. He seized the child,
while its mother, thinking he was about to throw it into the river, clung
on to it by the clothes. "Will your baby tell us anything about
pre-existence, madam?" he asked, in a piercing voice and with a wistful
look. She made no answer, but on Shelley repeating the question she said,
"He cannot speak." "But surely," exclaimed Shelley, "he can if he will,
for he is only a few weeks old! He may fancy perhaps that he cannot, but
it is only a silly whim; he cannot have forgotten entirely the use of
speech in so short a time; the thing is absolutely impossible." The woman,
obviously taking him for a lunatic, replied mildly:  "It is not for me to
dispute with you gentlemen, but I can safely declare that I never heard
him speak, nor any child, indeed, of his age." Shelley walked away with
his friend, observing, with a deep sigh: "How provokingly close are these
new-born babes!" One can, possibly, discover similar anecdotes in the
lives of other men of genius and of men who thought they had genius. But
in such cases it is usually quite clear that the action was a jest or a
piece of attitudinizing, or that the person who performed it was, as the
vulgar say, "a little above himself." In any event it almost invariably
appears as an abnormal incident in the life of a normal man. Shelley's
life, on the other hand, is largely a concentration of abnormal incidents.
He was habitually "a bit above himself." In the above incident he may have
been consciously behaving comically. But many of his serious actions were
quite as comically extraordinary.

Godwin is related to have said that "Shelley was so beautiful, it was a
pity he was so wicked." I doubt if there is a single literate person in
the world to-day who would apply the word "wicked" to Shelley. It is said
that Browning, who had begun as so ardent a worshipper, never felt the
same regard for Shelley after reading the full story of his desertion of
Harriet Westbrook and her suicide. But Browning did not know the full
story. No one of us knows the full story. On the face of it, it looks a
peculiarly atrocious thing to desert a wife at a time when she is about to
become a mother. It seems ungenerous, again, when a man has an income of
£1,000 a year to make an annual allowance of only £200 to a deserted wife
and her two children. Shelley, however, had not married Harriet for love.
A nineteen-year-old boy, he had run away with a seventeen-year-old girl in
order to save her from the imagined tyranny of her father. At the end of
three years Harriet had lost interest in him. Besides this, she had an
intolerable elder sister whom Shelley hated. Harriet's sister, it is
suggested, influenced her in the direction of a taste for bonnet-shops
instead of supporting Shelley's exhortations to her that she should
cultivate her mind. "Harriet," says Mr. Ingpen in _Shelley in England_,
"foolishly allowed herself to be influenced by her sister, under whose
advice she probably acted when, some months earlier, she prevailed upon
Shelley to provide her with a carriage, silver plate and expensive
clothes." We cannot help sympathizing a little with Harriet. At the same
time, she was making a breach with Shelley inevitable. She wished him to
remain her husband and to pay for her bonnets, but she did not wish even
to pretend to "live up to him" any longer. As Mr. Ingpen says, "it was
love, not matrimony," for which Shelley yearned. "Marriage," Shelley had
once written, echoing Godwin, "is hateful, detestable. A kind of
ineffable, sickening disgust seizes my mind when I think of this most
despotic, most unrequired fetter which prejudice has forged to confine its
energies." Having lived for years in a theory of "anti-matrimonialism," he
now saw himself doomed to one of those conventional marriages which had
always seemed to him a denial of the holy spirit of love. This, too, at a
time when he had found in Mary Godwin a woman belonging to the same
intellectual and spiritual race as himself--a woman whom he loved as the
great lovers in all the centuries have loved. Shelley himself expressed
the situation in a few characteristic words to Thomas Love Peacock:
"Everyone who knows me," he said, "must know that the partner of my life
should be one who can feel poetry and understand philosophy. Harriet is a
noble animal, but she can do neither." "It always appeared to me," said
Peacock, "that you were very fond of Harriet." Shelley replied: "But you
did not know how I hated her sister." And so Harriet's marriage-lines
were, torn up, as people say nowadays, like a scrap of paper. That Shelley
did not feel he had done anything inconsiderate is shown by the fact that,
within three weeks of his elopement with Mary Godwin, he was writing to
Harriet, describing the scenery through which Mary and he had travelled,
and urging her to come and live near them in Switzerland. "I write," his
letter runs--

    to urge you to come to Switzerland, where you will at least
    find one firm and constant friend, to whom your interests will be
    always dear--by whom your feelings will never wilfully be injured.
    From none can you expect this but me--all else are unfeeling, or
    selfish, or have beloved friends of their own, as Mrs. B[oinville],
    to whom their attention and affection is confined.

He signed this letter (the Ianthe of whom he speaks was his daughter):

    With love to my sweet little Ianthe, ever most affectionately
    yours, S.

This letter, if it had been written by an amorist, would seem either
base or priggish. Coming from Shelley, it is a miracle of what can only be
called innocence.

The most interesting of the "new facts and letters" in Mr. Ingpen's book
relate to Shelley's expulsion from Oxford and his runaway match with
Harriet, and to his father's attitude on both these occasions. Shelley's
father, backed by the family solicitor, cuts a commonplace figure in the
story. He is simply the conventional grieved parent. He made no effort to
understand his son. The most he did was to try to save his respectability.
He objected to Shelley's studying for the Bar, but was anxious to make him
a member of Parliament; and Shelley and he dined with the Duke of Norfolk
to discuss the matter, the result being that the younger man was highly
indignant "at what he considered an effort to shackle his mind, and
introduce him into life as a mere follower of the Duke." How unpromising
as a party politician Shelley was may be gathered from the fact that in
1811, the same year in which he dined with the Duke, he not only wrote a
satire on the Regent _à propos_ of a Carlton House fête, but "amused
himself with throwing copies into the carriages of persons going to
Carlton House after the fête." Shelley's methods of propaganda were on
other occasions also more eccentric than is usual with followers of dukes.
His journey to Dublin to preach Catholic Emancipation and repeal of the
Union was, the beginning of a brief but extraordinary period of propaganda
by pamphlet. Having written a fivepenny pamphlet, _An Address to the Irish
People_, he stood in the balcony of his lodgings in Lower Sackville
Street, and threw copies to the passers-by. "I stand," he wrote at the
time, "at the balcony of our window, and watch till I see a man _who looks
likely_; I throw a book to him." Harriet, it is to be feared, saw only the
comic side of the adventure. Writing to Elizabeth Hitchener--"the Brown
Demon," as Shelley called her when he came to hate her--she said:

    I'm sure you would laugh were you to see us give the pamphlets. We
    throw them out of the window, and give them to men that we pass in
    the streets. For myself, I am ready to die of laughter when it is
    done, and Percy looks so grave. Yesterday he put one into a woman's
    hood and cloak. She knew nothing of it, and we passed her. I could
    hardly get on: my muscles were so irritated.

Shelley, none the less, was in regard to Ireland a wiser politician than
the politicians, and he was indulging in no turgid or fanciful prose in
his _Address_ when he described the Act of Union as "the most successful
engine that England ever wielded over the misery of fallen Ireland."
Godwin, with whom Shelley had been corresponding for some time, now became
alarmed at his disciple's reckless daring. "Shelley, you are preparing a
scene of blood!" he wrote to him in his anxiety. It is evidence of the
extent of Godwin's influence over Shelley that the latter withdrew his
Irish publications and returned to England, having spent about six weeks
on his mission to the Irish people.

Mr. Ingpen has really written a new biography of Shelley rather than a
compilation of new material. The new documents incorporated in the book
were discovered by the successors to Mr. William Whitton, the Shelleys'
family solicitor, but they can hardly be said to add much to our knowledge
of the facts about Shelley. They prove, however, that his marriage to
Harriet Westbrook took place in a Presbyterian church in Edinburgh, and
that, at a later period, he was twice arrested for debt. Mr. Ingpen holds
that they also prove that Shelley "appeared on the boards of the Windsor
Theatre as an actor in Shakespearean drama." But we have only William
Whitton, the solicitor's words for this, and it is clear that he had been
at no pains to investigate the matter. "It was mentioned to me yesterday,"
he wrote to Shelley's father in November, 1815, "that Mr. P.B. Shelley was
exhibiting himself on the Windsor stage in the character of Shakespeare's
plays, under the figured name of Cooks." "The character of Shakespeare's
plays" sounds oddly, as though Whitton did not know what he was talking
about, unless he was referring to allegorical "tableaux vivants" of some
sort. Certainly, so vague a rumour as this--the sort of rumour that would
naturally arise in regard to a young man who was supposed to have gone to
the bad--is no trustworthy evidence that Shelley was ever "an actor in
Shakespearean drama." At the same time, Mr. Ingpen deserves enthusiastic
praise for the untiring pursuit of facts which has enabled him to add an
indispensable book to the Shelley library. I wish that, as he has to some
extent followed the events of Shelley's life until the end, he had filled
in the details of the life abroad as well as the life in England. His book
is an absorbing biography, but it remains of set purpose a biography with
gaps. He writes, it should be added, in the spirit of a collector of facts
rather than of a psychologist. One has to create one's own portrait of
Shelley out of the facts he has brought together.

One is surprised, by the way, to find so devoted a student of Shelley--a
student to whom every lover of literature is indebted for his edition of
Shelley's letters as well as for the biography--referring to Shelley again
and again as "Bysshe." Shelley's family, it may be admitted, called him
"Bysshe." But never was a more inappropriate name given to a poet who
brought down music from heaven. At the same time, as we read his biography
over again, we feel that it is possible that the two names do somehow
express two incongruous aspects of the man. In his life he was, to a great
extent, Bysshe; in his poetry he was Shelley. Shelley wrote _The Skylark_
and _Pan_ and _The West Wind_. It was Bysshe who imagined that a fat old
woman in a train had infected him with incurable elephantiasis. Mr. Ingpen
quotes Peacock's account of this characteristic illusion:

    He was continually on the watch for its symptoms; his legs were to
    swell to the size of an elephant's, and his skin was to be crumpled
    over like goose-skin. He would draw the skin of his own hands arms,
    and neck, very tight, and, if he discovered any deviation from
    smoothness, he would seize the person next to him and endeavour, by
    a corresponding pressure, to see if any corresponding deviation
    existed. He often startled young ladies in an evening party by this
    singular process, which was as instantaneous as a flash of

Mr. Ingpen has wisely omitted nothing about Bysshe, however ludicrous.
After reading a biography so unsparing in tragi-comic narrative, however,
one has to read _Prometheus_ again in order to recall that divine song of
a freed spirit, the incarnation of which we call Shelley.


Mr. Buxton Forman has an original way of recommending books to our notice.
In an introduction to Medwin's _Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley_ he begins by
frankly telling us that it is a bad book, and that the only point of
controversy in regard to it is as to the kind of bad book it is. "Last
century," he declares, "produced a plethora of bad books that were
valuable, and of fairly good books with no lasting value. Medwin's
distinction is that he left two bad books which were and still are
valuable, but whether the _Byron Conversations_ and the _Life of Shelley_
should be called the two most valuable bad books of the century or the two
worst valuable books of the century is a hard point in casuistry." Medwin,
we may admit, even if he was not the "perfect idiot" he has been called,
would have been a dull fellow enough if he had never met Shelley or Byron.
But he did meet them, and as a result he will live to all eternity, or
near it, a little gilded by their rays. He was not, Mr. Forman contends,
the original of the man who "saw Shelley plain" in Browning's lyric. None
the less, he is precisely that man in the imaginations of most of us. A
relative of Shelley, a school friend, an intimate of the last years in
Italy, even though we know him to have been one of those men who cannot
help lying because they are so stupid, he still fascinates us as a
treasury of sidelights on one of the loveliest and most flashing lives in
the history of English literature.

Shelley is often presented to us as a kind of creature from fairyland,
continually wounded in a struggle with the despotic realities of earth.
Here and in his poetry, however, we see him rather as the herald of the
age of science: he was a born experimentalist; he experimented, not only
in chemistry, but in life and in politics. At school, he and his solar
microscope were inseparable. Ardently interested in chemistry, he once, we
are told, borrowed a book on the subject from Medwin's father, but his own
father sent it back with a note saying: "I have returned the book on
chemistry, as it is a forbidden thing at Eton." During his life at
University College, Oxford, his delight in chemical experiments continued.

    His chemical operations seemed to an unskilful observer to premise
    nothing but disasters. He had blown himself up at Eton. He had
    inadvertently swallowed some mineral poison, which he declared had
    seriously injured his health, and from the effects of which he
    should never recover. His hands, his clothes, his books, and his
    furniture, were stained and covered by medical acids--more than one
    hole in the carpet could elucidate the ultimate phenomena of
    combustion, especially in the middle of the room, where the floor
    had also been burnt by his mixing ether or some other fluid in a
    crucible, and the honourable wound was speedily enlarged by rents,
    for the philosopher, as he hastily crossed the room in pursuit of
    truth, was frequently caught in it by the foot.

The same eagerness of discovery is shown in his passion for kite-flying as
a boy:

    He was fond of flying kites, and at Field Place made an electrical
    one, an idea borrowed from Franklin, in order to draw lightning
    from The clouds--fire from Heaven, like a new Prometheus.

And his generous dream of bringing science to the service of humanity is
revealed in his reflection:

    What a comfort it would be to the poor at all times, and especially
    in winter, if we could be masters of caloric, and could at will
    furnish them with a constant supply!

Shelley's many-sided zeal in the pursuit of truth naturally led him early
to invade theology. From his Eton days, he used to enter into
controversies by letter with learned divines. Medwin declares that he saw
one such correspondence in which Shelley engaged in argument with a bishop
"under the assumed name of a woman." It must have been in a somewhat
similar mood that "one Sunday after we had been to Rowland Hill's chapel,
and were dining together in the city, he wrote to him under an assumed
name, proposing to preach to his congregation."

Certainly, Shelley loved mystification scarcely less than he loved truth
itself. He was a romanticist as well as a philosopher, and the reading in
his childhood of novels like _Zofloya the Moor_--a work as wild,
apparently, as anything Cyril Tourneur ever wrote--excited his imagination
to impossible flights of adventure. Few of us have the endurance to study
the effects of this ghostly reading in Shelley's own work--his forgotten
novels, _Zastrossi_, and _St. Irvyne or the Rosicrucian_--but we can see
how his life itself borrowed some of the extravagances of fiction. Many of
his recorded adventures are supposed to have been hallucinations, like the
story of the "stranger in a military cloak," who, seeing him in a
post-office at Pisa, said, "What! Are you that d--d atheist, Shelley?" and
felled him to the ground. On the other hand, Shelley's story of his being
attacked by a midnight assassin in Wales, after being disbelieved for
three-quarters of a century, has in recent years been corroborated in the
most unexpected way. Wild a fiction as his life was in many respects, it
was a fiction he himself sincerely and innocently believed. His
imaginative appetite, having devoured science by day and sixpenny romances
by night, still remained unsatisfied, and, quite probably, went on to mix
up reality and make-believe past all recognition for its next dish.
Francis Thompson, with all respect to many critics, was right when he
noted what a complete playfellow Shelley was in his life. When he was in
London after his expulsion from the University, he could throw himself
with all his being into childish games like skimming stones on the
Serpentine, "counting with the utmost glee the number of bounds, as the
flat stones flew skimming over the surface of the water." He found a
perfect pleasure in paper boats, and we hear of his making a sail on one
occasion out of a ten-pound note--one of those myths, perhaps, which
gather round poets. It must have been the innocence of pleasure shown in
games like these that made him an irresistible companion to so many
comparatively prosaic people. For the idea that Shelley in private life
was aloof and unpopular from his childhood up is an entirely false one. As
Medwin points out, in referring to his school-days, he "must have had a
rather large circle of friends, since his parting breakfast at Eton cost

Even at the distance of a century, we are still seized by the fascination
of that boyish figure with the "stag eyes," so enthusiastically in pursuit
of truth and of dreams, of trifles light as air and of the redemption of
the human race. "His figure," Hogg tells us, "was slight and fragile, and
yet his bones were large and strong. He was tall, but he stooped so much
that he seemed of low stature." And, in Medwin's book, we even become
reconciled to that shrill voice of his, which Lamb and most other people
found so unpleasant. Medwin gives us nothing in the nature of a portrait
of Shelley in these heavy and incoherent pages; but he gives us invaluable
materials for such a portrait--in descriptions, for instance, of how he
used to go on with his reading, even when he was out walking, and would
get so absorbed in his studies that he sometimes asked, "Mary, have I
dined?" More important, as revealing his too exquisite sensitiveness, is
the account of how Medwin saw him, "after threading the carnival crowd in
the Lung' Arno Corsos, throw himself, half-fainting, into a chair,
overpowered by the atmosphere of evil passions, as he used to say, in that
sensual and unintellectual crowd." Some people, on reading a passage like
this, will rush to the conclusion that Shelley was a prig. But the prig is
a man easily wounded by blows to his self-esteem, not by the miseries and
imperfections of humanity. Shelley, no doubt, was more convinced of his
own rightness than any other man of the same fine genius in English
history. He did not indulge in repentance, like Burns and Byron. On the
other hand, he was not in the smallest degree an egolator. He had not even
such an innocent egoism as Thoreau's. He was always longing to give
himself to the world. In the Italian days we find him planning an
expedition with Byron to rescue, by main force, a man who was in danger of
being burnt alive for sacrilege. He has often been denounced for his
heartless treatment of Harriet Westbrook, and, though we may not judge
him, it is possible that a better man would have behaved differently. But
it was a mark of his unselfishness, at least, that he went through the
marriage service with both his wives, in spite of his principles, that he
so long endured Harriet's sister as the tyrant of his house, and that he
neglected none of his responsibilities to her, in so far as they were
consistent with his deserting her for another woman. This may seem a
_bizarre_ defence, but I merely wish to emphasize the fact that Shelley
behaved far better than ninety-nine men out of a hundred would have done,
given the same principles and the same circumstances. He was a man who
never followed the line of least resistance or of self-indulgence, as most
men do in their love affairs. He fought a difficult fight all his life in
a world that ignored him, except when it was denouncing him as a polluter
of Society. Whatever mistakes we may consider him to have made, we can
hardly fail to admit that he was one of the greatest of English Puritans.


Shelley is the poet for a revolutionary age. He is the poet of hope, as
Wordsworth is the poet of wisdom. He has been charged with being
intangible and unearthly, but he is so only in the sense in which the
future is intangible and unearthly. He is no more unearthly than the
skylark or the rainbow or the dawn. His world, indeed, is a universe of
skylarks and rainbows and dawns--a universe in which

  Like a thousand dawns on a single night
  The splendours rise and spread.

He at once dazzles and overwhelms us with light and music. He is unearthly
in the sense that as we read him we seem to move in a new element. We lose
to some extent the gravity of flesh and find ourselves wandering among
stars and sunbeams, or diving under sea or stream to visit the buried day
of some wonder-strewn cave. There are other great poets besides Shelley
who have had a vision of the heights and depths. Compared with him,
however, they have all about them something of Goliath's disadvantageous
bulk. Shelley alone retains a boyish grace like David's, and does not seem
to groan under the burden of his task. He does not round his shoulders in
gloom in the presence of Heaven and Hell. His cosmos is a constellation.
His thousand dawns are shaken out over the earth with a promise that turns
even the long agony of Prometheus into joy. There is no other joy in
literature like Shelley's. It is the joy not of one who is blind or
untroubled, but of one who, in a midnight of tyranny and suffering of the
unselfish, has learned

              ... to hope till Hope creates
  From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.

To write like this is to triumph over death. It is to cease to be a victim
and to become a creator. Shelley recognized that the world had been bound
into slavery by the Devil, but he more than anyone else believed that it
was possible for the human race in a single dayspring to recover the first
intention of God.

  In the great morning of the world,
  The Spirit of God with might unfurled
    The flag of Freedom over Chaos.

Shelley desired to restore to earth not the past of man but the past of
God. He lacked the bad sort of historical sense that will sacrifice the
perfect to-morrow to pride in the imperfect yesterday. He was the devoted
enemy of that dark spirit of Power which holds fast to the old greed as to
a treasure. In _Hellas_ he puts into the mouth of Christ a reproof of
Mahomet which is a reproof to all the Carsons and those who are haters of
a finer future to-day.

                        Obdurate spirit!
  Thou seest but the Past in the To-come.
  Pride is thy error and thy punishment.
  Boast not thine empire, dream not that thy worlds
  Are more than furnace-sparks or rainbow-drops
  Before the Power that wields and kindles them.
  True greatness asks not space.

There are some critics who would like to separate Shelley's politics from
his poetry. But Shelley's politics are part of his poetry. They are the
politics of hope as his poetry is the poetry of hope. Europe did not adopt
his politics in the generation that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and the
result is we have had an infinitely more terrible war a hundred years
later. Every generation rejects Shelley; it prefers incredulity to hope,
fear to joy, obedience to common sense, and is surprised when the logic of
its common sense turns out to be a tragedy such as even the wildest orgy
of idealism could not have produced. Shelley must, no doubt, still seem a
shocking poet to an age in which the limitation of the veto of the House
of Lords was described as a revolutionary step. To Shelley even the new
earth for which the Bolsheviks are calling would not have seemed an
extravagant demand. He was almost the only English poet up to his own time
who believed that the world had a future. One can think of no other poet
to whom to turn for the prophetic music of a real League of Nations.
Tennyson may have spoken of the federation of the world, but his passion
was not for that but for the British Empire. He had the craven fear of
being great on any but the old Imperialist lines. His work did nothing to
make his country more generous than it was before. Shelley, on the other
hand, creates for us a new atmosphere of generosity. His patriotism was
love of the people of England, not love of the Government of England.
Hence, when the Government of England allied itself with the oppressors of
mankind, he saw nothing unpatriotic in arraigning it as he would have
arraigned a German or a Russian Government in the same circumstances.

He arraigned it, indeed, in the preface to _Hellas_ in a paragraph which
the publisher nervously suppressed, and which was only restored in 1892 by
Mr. Buxton Forman. The seditious paragraph ran:

    Should the English people ever become free, they will reflect upon
    the part which those who presume to represent them will have played
    in the great drama of the revival of liberty, with feelings which
    it would become them to anticipate. This is the age of the war of
    the oppressed against the oppressors, and every one of those
    ringleaders of the privileged gangs of murderers and swindlers,
    called Sovereigns, look to each other for aid against the common
    enemy, and suspend their mutual jealousies in the presence of a
    mightier fear. Of this holy alliance all the despots of the earth
    are virtual members. But a new race has arisen throughout Europe,
    nursed in the abhorrence of the opinions which are its chains, and
    she will continue to produce fresh generations to accomplish that
    destiny which tyrants foresee and dread.

It is nearly a hundred years since Shelley proclaimed this birth of a new
race throughout Europe. Would he have turned pessimist if he had lived to
see the world infected with Prussianism as it has been in our time? I do
not think he would. He would have been the singer of the new race to-day
as he was then. To him the resurrection of the old despotism, foreign and
domestic, would have seemed but a fresh assault by the Furies on the body
of Prometheus. He would have scattered the Furies with a song.

For Shelley has not failed. He is one of those who have brought down to
earth the creative spirit of freedom. And that spirit has never ceased to
brood, with however disappointing results, over the chaos of Europe until
our own time. His greatest service to freedom is, perhaps, that he made it
seem, not a policy, but a part of Nature. He made it desirable as the
spring, lovely as a cloud in a blue sky, gay as a lark, glad as a wave,
golden as a star, mighty as a wind. Other poets speak of freedom, and
invite the birds on to the platform. Shelley spoke of freedom and himself
became a bird in the air, a wave of the sea. He did not humiliate beauty
into a lesson. He scattered beauty among men not as a homily but as a

  Singing hymns unbidden, till the world is wrought
  To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.

His politics are implicit in _The Cloud_ and _The Skylark_ and _The West
Wind_, no less than in _The Mask of Anarchy_. His idea of the State as
well as his idea of sky and stream and forest was rooted in the exuberant
imagination of a lover. The whole body of his work, whether lyrical in the
strictest sense or propagandist, is in the nature of a Book of Revelation.

It is impossible to say whether he might not have been a greater poet if
he had not been in such haste to rebuild the world. He would, one fancies,
have been a better artist if he had had a finer patience of phrase. On the
other hand, his achievement even in the sphere of phrase and music is
surpassed by no poet since Shakespeare. He may hurry along at intervals in
a cloud of second-best words, but out of the cloud suddenly comes a song
like Ariel's and a radiance like the radiance of a new day. With him a
poem is a melody rather than a manuscript. Not since Prospero commanded
songs from his attendant spirits has there been singing heard like the
_Hymn of Pan_ and _The Indian Serenade_. _The Cloud_ is the most magical
transmutation of things seen into things heard in the English language.
Not that Shelley misses the wonder of things seen. But he sees things,
as it were, musically.

    My soul is an enchanted boat
    Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
  Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing.

There is more of music than painting in this kind of writing.

There is no other music but Shelley's which seems to me likely to bring
healing to the madness of the modern Saul. For this reason I hope that
Professor Herford's fine edition of the shorter poems (arranged for the
first time in chronological order) will encourage men and women to turn to
Shelley again. Professor Herford promises us a companion volume on the
same lines, containing the dramas and longer poems, if sufficient interest
is shown in his book. The average reader will probably be content with Mr.
Hutchinson's cheap and perfect "Oxford Edition" of Shelley. But the
scholar, as well as the lover of a beautiful page, will find in Professor
Herford's edition a new pleasure in old verse.



Coleridge was the thirteenth child of a rather queer clergyman. The Rev.
John Coleridge was queer enough in having thirteen children: he was
queerer still in being the author of a Latin grammar in which he renamed
the "ablative" the "quale-quare-quidditive case." Coleridge was thus born
not only with an unlucky number, but trailing clouds of definitions. He
was in some respects the unluckiest of all Englishmen of literary genius.
He leaves on us an impression of failure as no other writer of the same
stature does. The impression may not be justified. There are few writers
who would not prefer the magnificent failure of a Coleridge to their own
little mole-hill of success. Coleridge was a failure in comparison not
with ordinary men, but only with the immense shadow of his own genius. His
imperfection is the imperfection of a demi-god. Charles Lamb summed up the
truth about his genius as well as about his character in that final
phrase, "an archangel a little damaged." This was said at a time when the
archangel was much more than a little damaged by the habit of laudanum;
but even then Lamb wrote: "His face, when he repeats his verses, hath its
ancient glory." Most of Coleridge's great contemporaries were aware of
that glory. Even those who were afterwards to be counted among his
revilers, such as Hazlitt and De Quincey, had known what it was to be
disciples at the feet of this inspired ruin. They spoke not only of his
mind, but even of his physical characteristics--his voice and his hair--as
though these belonged to the one man of his time whose food was ambrosia.
Even as a boy at Christ's Hospital, according to Lamb, he used to make the
"casual passer through the Cloisters stand still, intranced with
admiration (while he weighed the disproportion between the _speech_ and
the _garb_ of the young Mirandola), to hear thee unfold, in thy deep and
sweet intonations, the mysteries of Iamblichus, or Plotinus ... or
reciting Homer in the Greek, or Pindar--while the walls of the old Grey
Friars re-echoed to the accents of the _inspired charity-boy!_"

It is exceedingly important that, as we read Coleridge, we should
constantly remember what an archangel he was in the eyes of his
contemporaries. _Christabel_ and _Kubla Kahn_ we could read, no doubt, in
perfect enjoyment even if we did not know the author's name. For the rest,
there is so much flagging of wing both in his verse and in his prose that,
if we did not remind ourselves what flights he was born to take, we might
persuade ourselves at times that there was little in his work but the dull
flappings and slitherings of a penguin. His genius is intermittent and
comes arbitrarily to an end. He is inspired only in fragments and
aphorisms. He was all but incapable of writing a complete book or a
complete poem at a high level. His irresponsibility as an author is
described in that sentence in which he says: "I have laid too many eggs in
the hot sands of this wilderness, the world, with ostrich carelessness and
ostrich oblivion." His literary plans had a ludicrous way of breaking
down. It was characteristic of him that, in 1817, when he projected a
complete edition of his poems, under the title _Sibylline Leaves_, he
omitted to publish Volume I. and published only Volume II. He would
announce a lecture on Milton, and then give his audience "a very eloquent
and popular discourse on the general character of Shakespeare." His two
finest poems he never finished. He wrote not by an act of the will but
according to the wind, and when the wind dropped he came to earth. It was
as though he could soar but was unable to fly. It is this that
differentiates him from other great poets or critics. None of them has
left such a record of unfulfilled purposes. It is not that he did not get
through an enormous amount of work, but that, like the revellers in Mr.
Chesterton's poem, he "went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head," and in
the end he did not get to Birmingham. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch gives an
amusing account of the way in which _Biographia Literaria_ came to be
written. Originally, in 1815, it was conceived as a preface--to be "done
in two, or at farthest three days"--to a collection of some "scattered and
manuscript poems." Two months later the plan had changed. Coleridge was
now busy on a preface to an _Autobiographia Literaria, sketches of my
literary Life and Opinions_. This in turn developed into "a full account
(_raisonné_) of the controversy concerning Wordsworth's poems and theory,"
with a "disquisition on the powers of Association ... and on the generic
difference between the Fancy and the Imagination." This ran to such a
length that he decided not to use it as a preface, but to amplify it into
a work in three volumes. He succeeded in writing the first volume, but he
found himself unable to fill the second. "Then, as the volume obstinately
remained too small, he tossed in _Satyrane_, an epistolary account of his
wanderings in Germany, topped up with a critique of a bad play, and gave
the whole painfully to the world in July, 1817." It is one of the ironies
of literary history that Coleridge, the censor of the incongruous in
literature, the vindicator of the formal purpose as opposed to the
haphazard inspiration of the greatest of writers, a missionary of the
"shaping imagination," should himself have given us in his greatest book
of criticism an incongruous, haphazard, and shapeless jumble. It is but
another proof of the fact that, while talent cannot safely ignore what is
called technique, genius almost can. Coleridge, in spite of his
formlessness, remains the wisest man who ever spoke in English about
literature. His place is that of an oracle among controversialists.

Even so, _Biographia Literaria_ is a disappointing book. It is the porch,
but it is not the temple. It may be that, in literary criticism, there can
be no temple. Literary criticism is in its nature largely an incitement to
enter, a hint of the treasures that are to be found within. Persons who
seek rest in literary orthodoxy are always hoping to discover written upon
the walls of the porch the ten commandments of good writing. It is
extremely easy to invent ten such commandments--it was done in the age of
Racine and in the age of Pope--but the wise critic knows that in
literature the rules are less important than the "inner light." Hence,
criticism at its highest is not a theorist's attempt to impose iron laws
on writers: it is an attempt to capture the secret of that "inner light"
and of those who possess it and to communicate it to others. It is also an
attempt to define the conditions in which the "inner light" has most
happily manifested itself, and to judge new writers of promise according
to the measure in which they have been true to the spirit, though not
necessarily to the technicalities, of the great tradition. Criticism,
then, is not the Roman father of good writing: it is the disciple and
missionary of good writing. The end of criticism is less law-giving than
conversion. It teaches not the legalities, but the love, of literature.
_Biographia Literaria_ does this in its most admirable parts by
interesting us in Coleridge's own literary beginnings, by emphasizing the
strong sweetness of great poets in contrast to the petty animosities of
little ones, by pointing out the signs of the miracle of genius in the
young Shakespeare, and by disengaging the true genius of Wordsworth from a
hundred extravagances of theory and practice. Coleridge's remarks on the
irritability of minor poets--"men of undoubted talents, but not of
genius," whose tempers are "rendered yet more irritable by their desire to
_appear_ men of genius"--should be written up on the study walls of
everyone commencing author. His description, too, of his period as "this
age of personality, this age of literary and political gossiping, when the
meanest insects are worshipped with sort of Egyptian superstition if only
the brainless head be atoned for by the sting of personal malignity in the
tail," conveys a warning to writers that is not of an age but for all
time. Coleridge may have exaggerated the "manly hilarity" and "evenness
and sweetness of temper" of men of genius. But there is no denying that,
the smaller the genius, the greater is the spite of wounded self-love.
"Experience informs us," as Coleridge says, "that the first defence of
weak minds is to recriminate." As for Coleridge's great service to
Wordsworth's fame, it was that of a gold-washer. He cleansed it from all
that was false in Wordsworth's reaction both in theory and in practice
against "poetic diction." Coleridge pointed out that Wordsworth had
misunderstood the ultimate objections to eighteenth-century verse. The
valid objection to a great deal of eighteenth-century verse was not, he
showed, that it was written in language different from that of prose, but
that it consisted of "translations of prose thoughts into poetic
language." Coleridge put it still more strongly, indeed, when he said that
"the language from Pope's translation of Homer to Darwin's _Temple of
Nature_ may, notwithstanding some illustrious exceptions, be too
faithfully characterized as claiming to be poetical for no better reason
than that it would be intolerable in conversation or in prose."
Wordsworth, unfortunately, in protesting against the meretricious garb of
mean thoughts, wished to deny verse its more splendid clothing altogether.
If we accepted his theories we should have to condemn his _Ode_, the
greatest of his sonnets, and, as Coleridge put it, "two-thirds at least of
the marked beauties of his poetry." The truth is, Wordsworth created an
engine that was in danger of destroying not only Pope but himself.
Coleridge destroyed the engine and so helped to save Wordsworth. Coleridge
may, in his turn, have gone too far in dividing language into three
groups--language peculiar to poetry, language peculiar to prose, and
language common to both, though there is much to be said for the division;
but his jealousy for the great tradition in language was the jealousy of a
sound critic. "Language," he declared, "is the armoury of the human mind;
and at once contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its
future conquests."

He, himself, wrote idly enough at times: he did not shrink from the
phrase, "literary man," abominated by Mr. Birrell. But he rises in
sentence after sentence into the great manner, as when he declares:

    No man was ever yet a great poet without being at the same time a
    profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy
    of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions,

How excellently, again, he describes Wordsworth's early aim as being--

    to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite
    a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind's
    attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the
    loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.

He explains Wordsworth's gift more fully in another passage:

It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought, the fine
balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying
the objects observed, and, above all, the original gift of spreading the
tone, the _atmosphere_, and with it the depth and height of the ideal
world, around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the
common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the
sparkle and the dew-drops.

Coleridge's censures on Wordsworth, on the other hand, such as that on
_The Daffodil_, may not all be endorsed by us to-day. But in the mass they
have the insight of genius, as when he condemns "the approximation to what
might be called _mental_ bombast, as distinguished from verbal." His
quotations of great passages, again, are the very flower of good

Mr. George Sampson's editorial selection from _Biographia Literaria_
and his pleasant as well as instructive notes give one a new
pleasure in re-reading this classic of critical literature. The
"quale-quare-quidditive" chapters have been removed, and Wordsworth's
revolutionary prefaces and essays given in their place. In its new form,
_Biographia Literaria_ may not be the best book that could be written, but
there is good reason for believing that it is the best book that has been
written on poetry in the English tongue.


Coleridge's talk resembles the movements of one of the heavenly bodies. It
moves luminously on its way without impediment, without conflict. When Dr.
Johnson talks, half our pleasure is due to our sense of conflict. His
sentences are knobby sticks. We love him as a good man playing the bully
even more than as a wise man talking common sense. He is one of the comic
characters in literature. He belongs, in his eloquence, to the same
company as Falstaff and Micawber. He was, to some extent, the invention of
a Scottish humourist named Boswell. "Burke," we read in Coleridge's _Table
Talk_, "said and wrote more than once that he thought Johnson greater in
talking than writing, and greater in Boswell than in real life."
Coleridge's conversation is not to the same extent a coloured expression
of personality. He speaks out of the solitude of an oracle rather than
struts upon the stage of good company, a master of repartees. At his best,
he becomes the mouthpiece of universal wisdom, as when he says: "To most
men experience is like the stern lights of a ship, which illuminate only
the track it has passed." He can give us in a sentence the central truth
of politics, reconciling what is good in Individualism with what is good
in Socialism in a score or so of words:

    That is the most excellent state of society in which the patriotism
    of the citizen ennobles, but does not merge, the individual energy
    of the man.

And he can give common sense as well as wisdom imaginative form, as in the

    Truth is a good dog; but beware of barking too close to the heels
    of error, lest you get your brains knocked out.

"I am, by the law of my nature, a reasoner," said Coleridge, and he
explained that he did not mean by this "an arguer." He was a discoverer of
order, of laws, of causes, not a controversialist. He sought after
principles, whether in politics or literature. He quarrelled with Gibbon
because his _Decline and Fall_ was "little else but a disguised collection
of ... splendid anecdotes" instead of a philosophic search for the
ultimate causes of the ruin of the Roman Empire. Coleridge himself
formulated these causes in sentences that are worth remembering at a time
when we are debating whether the world of the future is to be a vast
boxing ring of empires or a community of independent nations. He said:

    The true key to the declension of the Roman Empire--which is not to
    be found in all Gibbon's immense work--may be stated in two words:
    the imperial character overlaying, and finally destroying, the
    _national_ character. Rome under Trajan was an empire without a

One must not claim too much for Coleridge, however. He was a seer with his
head among the stars, but he was also a human being with uneven gait,
stumbling amid infirmities, prejudices, and unhappinesses. He himself
boasted in a delightful sentence:

    For one mercy I owe thanks beyond all utterance--that, with all my
    gastric and bowel distempers, my head hath ever been like the head
    of a mountain in blue air and sunshine.

It is to be feared that Coleridge's "gastric and bowel distempers" had
more effect on his head than he was aware of. Like other men, he often
spoke out of a heart full of grievances. He uttered the bitterness of an
unhappily married dyspeptic when he said: "The most happy marriage I can
picture or image to myself would be the union of a deaf man to a blind
woman." It is amusing to reflect that one of the many books which he
wished to write was "a book on the duties of women, more especially to
their husbands." One feels, again, that in his defence of the egoism of
the great reformers, he was apologizing for a vice of his own rather than
making an impersonal statement of truth. "How can a tall man help thinking
of his size," he asked, "when dwarfs are constantly standing on tiptoe
beside him?" The personal note that occasionally breaks in upon the
oracular rhythm of the _Table Talk_, however, is a virtue in literature,
even if a lapse in philosophy. The crumbs of a great man's autobiography
are no less precious than the crumbs of his wisdom. There are moods in
which one prefers his egotism to his great thoughts. It is pleasant to
hear Coleridge boasting; "The _Ancient Mariner_ cannot be imitated, nor
the poem _Love_. _They may be excelled; they are not imitable._" One is
amused to know that he succeeded in offending Lamb on one occasion by
illustrating "the cases of vast genius in proportion to talent and the
predominance of talent in conjunction with genius in the persons of Lamb
and himself." It is amusing, too, to find that, while Wordsworth regarded
_The Ancient Mariner_ as a dangerous drag on the popularity of _Lyrical
Ballads_, Coleridge looked on his poem as the feature that had sold the
greatest number of the copies of the book. It is only fair to add that in
taking this view he spoke not self-complacently, but humorously:

    I was told by Longmans that the greater part of the _Lyrical
    Ballads_ had been sold to seafaring men, who, having heard of the
    _Ancient Mariner_, concluded that it was a naval song-book, or, at
    all events, that it had some relation to nautical matters.

Of autobiographical confessions there are not so many in _Table Talk_ as
one would like. At the same time, there are one or two which throw light
on the nature of Coleridge's imagination. We get an idea of one of the
chief differences between the poetry of Coleridge and the poetry of
Wordsworth when we read the confession:

    I had the perception of individual images very strong, but a dim
    one of the relation of place. I remember the man or the tree, but
    where I saw them I mostly forget.

The nephew who collected Coleridge's talk declared that there was no man
whom he would more readily have chosen as a guide in morals, but "I would
not take him as a guide through streets or fields or earthly roads." The
author of _Kubla Khan_ asserted still more strongly on another occasion
his indifference to locality:

    Dear Sir Walter Scott and myself were exact but harmonious
    opposites in this--that every old ruin, hill, river, or tree called
    up in his mind a host of historical or biographical associations,
    just as a bright pan of brass, when beaten, is said to attract the
    swarming bees; whereas, for myself, notwithstanding Dr. Johnson, I
    believe I should walk over the plain of Marathon without taking
    more interest in it than in any other plain of similar features.
    Yet I receive as much pleasure in reading the account of the
    battle, in Herodotus, as anyone can. Charles Lamb wrote an essay on
    a man who lived in past time: I thought of adding another to it on
    one who lived not _in time_ at all, past, present, or future--but
    beside or collaterally.

Some of Coleridge's other memories are of a more trifling and amusing
sort. He recalls, for instance, the occasion of his only flogging at
school. He had gone to a shoemaker and asked to be taken on as an
apprentice. The shoemaker, "being an honest man," had at once told the
boy's master:

    Bowyer asked me why I had made myself such a fool? to which I
    answered, that I had a great desire to be a shoemaker, and that I
    hated the thought of being a clergyman. "Why so?" said he.
    "Because, to tell you the truth, sir," said I, "I am an infidel!"
    For this, without more ado, Bowyer flogged me--wisely, as I
    think--soundly, as I know. Any whining or sermonizing would have
    gratified my vanity, and confirmed me in my absurdity; as it was, I
    laughed at, and got heartily ashamed of my folly.

Among the reminiscences of Coleridge no passage is more famous than that
in which he relates how, as he was walking in a lane near Highgate one
day, a "loose, slack, not well-dressed youth" was introduced to him:

    It was Keats. He was introduced to me, and stayed a minute or so.
    After he had left us a little way, he came back, and said: "Let me
    carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!"
    "There is death in that hand," I said to ----, when Keats was gone;
    yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself

Another famous anecdote relates to the time at which Coleridge, like
Wordsworth, carried the fires of the French Revolution about him into the
peace of the West Country. Speaking of a fellow-disciple of the liberty of
those days, Coleridge afterwards said:

    John Thelwall had something very good about him. We were once
    sitting in a beautiful recess in the Quantocks, when I said to him:
    "Citizen John, this is a fine place to talk treason in!" "Nay!
    Citizen Samuel," replied he, "it is rather a place to make a man
    forget that there is any necessity for treason!"

Is there any prettier anecdote in literary history?

Besides the impersonal wisdom and the personal anecdotes of the _Table
Talk_, however, there are a great number of opinions which show us
Coleridge not as a seer, but as a "character"--a crusty gentleman, every
whit as ready to express an antipathy as a principle. He shared Dr.
Johnson's quarrel with the Scots, and said of them:

    I have generally found a Scotchman with a little literature very
    disagreeable. He is a superficial German or a dull Frenchman. The
    Scotch will attribute merit to people of any nation rather than the

He had no love for Jews, or Dissenters, or Catholics, and anticipated
Carlyle's hostility to the emancipation of the negroes. He raged against
the Reform Bill, Catholic Emancipation, and the education of the poor in
schools. He was indignant with Belgium for claiming national independence.
One cannot read much of his talk about politics without amazement that so
wise a man should have been so frequently a fool. At the same time, he
generally remained an original fool. He never degenerated into a mere
partisan. He might be deceived by reactionary ideals, but he was not taken
in by reactionary leaders. He was no more capable than Shelley of
mistaking Castlereagh for a great man, and he did not join in the
glorification of Pitt. Like Dr. Johnson, he could be a Tory without
feeling that it was necessary at all costs to bully Ireland. Coleridge,
indeed, went so far as to wish to cut the last link with Ireland as the
only means of saving England. Discussing the Irish question, he said:

    I am quite sure that no dangers are to be feared by England from
    the disannexing and independence of Ireland at all comparable with
    the evils which have been, and will yet be, caused to England by
    the Union. We have never received one particle of advantage from
    our association with Ireland.... Mr. Pitt has received great credit
    for effecting the Union; but I believe it will sooner or later be
    discovered that the manner in which, and the terms upon which, he
    effected it made it the most fatal blow that ever was levelled
    against the peace and prosperity of England. From it came the
    Catholic Bill. From the Catholic Bill has come this Reform Bill!
    And what next?

When one thinks of the injury that the subjection of Ireland has done the
English name in America, in Russia, in Australia, and elsewhere in quite
recent times, one can hardly deny that on this matter Coleridge was a
sound prophet.

It is the literary rather than the political opinions, however, that will
bring every generation of readers afresh to Coleridge's _Table Talk_. No
man ever talked better in a few sentences on Shakespeare, Sterne, and the
tribe of authors. One may not agree with Coleridge in regarding Jeremy
Taylor as one of the four chief glories of English literature, or in
thinking Southey's style "next door to faultless." But one listens to his
_obiter dicta_ eagerly as the sayings of one of the greatest minds that
have interested themselves in the criticism of literature. There are
tedious pages in _Table Talk_, but these are, for the most part, concerned
with theology. On the whole, the speech of Coleridge was golden. Even the
leaden parts are interesting because they are Coleridge's lead. One wishes
the theology was balanced, however, by a few more glimpses of his lighter
interests, such as we find in the passage: "Never take an iambus for a
Christian name. A trochee, or tribrach, will do very well. Edith and Rotha
are my favourite names for women." What we want most of all in table talk
is to get an author into the confession album. Coleridge's _Table Talk_
would have stood a worse chance of immortality were it not for the fact
that he occasionally came down out of the pulpit and babbled.


If Tennyson's reputation has diminished, it is not that it has fallen
before hostile criticism: it has merely faded through time. Perhaps there
was never an English poet who loomed so large to his own age as
Tennyson--who represented his contemporaries with the same passion and
power. Pope was sufficiently representative of his age, but his age meant,
by comparison, a limited and aristocratic circle. Byron represented and
shocked his age by turns. Tennyson, on the other hand, was as close to the
educated middle-class men and women of his time as the family clergyman.
That is why, inevitably, he means less to us than he did to them. That he
was ahead of his age on many points on which this could not be said of the
family clergyman one need not dispute. He was a kind of "new theologian."
He stood, like Dean Farrar, for the larger hope and various other
heresies. Every representative man is ahead of his age--a little, but not
enough to be beyond the reach of the sympathies of ordinary people. It may
be objected that Tennyson is primarily an artist, not a thinker, and that
he should be judged not by his message but by his song. But his message
and his song sprang from the same vision--a vision of the world seen, not
_sub specie æternitatis_, but _sub specie_ the reign of Queen Victoria.
Before we appreciate Tennyson's real place in literature, we must frankly
recognize the fact that his muse wore a crinoline. The great mass of his
work bears its date stamped upon it as obviously almost as a copy of _The
Times_. How topical, both in mood and phrasing, are such lines as those in
_Locksley Hall:_

  Then her cheek was pale, and thinner than should be for one so young.
  And her eyes on all my motions with a mute observance hung.
  And I said "My cousin Amy, speak, and speak the truth to me,
  Trust me, cousin, all the current of my being sets to thee."

One would not, of course, quote these lines as typical of Tennyson's
genius. I think, however, they may be fairly quoted as lines suggesting
the mid-Victorian atmosphere that clings round all but his greatest work.
They bring before our minds the genteel magazine illustrations of other
days. They conjure up a world of charming, vapid faces, where there is
little life apart from sentiment and rhetoric. Contrast such a poem as
_Locksley Hall_ with _The Flight of the Duchess_. Each contains at once a
dramatization of human relations, and the statement of a creed. The human
beings in Browning's poem, however, are not mere shadows out of old
magazines; they are as real as the men and women in the portraits of the
masters, as real as ourselves. Similarly, in expressing his thought,
Browning gives it imaginative dignity as philosophy, while Tennyson writes
what is after all merely an exalted leading article. There is more in
common between Tennyson and Lytton than is generally realized. Both were
fond of windy words. They were slaves of language to almost as great an
extent as Swinburne. One feels that too often phrases like "moor and fell"
and "bower and hall" were mere sounding substitutes for a creative
imagination. I have heard it argued that the lines in _Maud_:

  All night have the roses heard
  The flute, violin, bassoon;

introduce a curiously inappropriate instrument into a ball-room orchestra
merely for the sake of euphony. The mistake about the bassoon is a small
one, and is, I suppose, borrowed from Coleridge, but it is characteristic.

Tennyson was by no means the complete artist that for years he was
generally accepted as being. He was an artist of lines rather than of
poems. He seldom wrote a poem which seemed to spring full-armed from the
imagination as the great poems of the world do. He built them up
haphazard, as Thackeray wrote his novels. They are full of sententious
padding and prettiness, and the wordiness is not merely a philosopher's
vacuous babbling in his sleep, as so much of Wordsworth is; it is the
word-spinning of a man who loves words more than people, or philosophy, or
things. Let us admit at once that when Tennyson is word perfect he takes
his place among the immortals. One may be convinced that the bulk of his
work is already as dead as the bulk of Longfellow's work. But in his great
poems he awoke to the vision of romance in its perfect form, and expressed
it perfectly. He did this in _Ulysses_, which comes nearer a noble
perfection, perhaps, than anything else he ever wrote. One can imagine the
enthusiasm of some literary discoverer many centuries hence, when Tennyson
is as little known as Donne was fifty years ago, coming upon lines
hackneyed for us by much quotation:

  The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
  The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
  Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
  'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
  Push off, and sitting well in order smite
  The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
  To sail beyond the sunset and the baths
  Of all the western stars, until I die.
  It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
  It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
  And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

There, even if you have not the stalwart imagination which makes
Browning's people alive, you have a most beautiful fancy illustrating an
old story. One of the most beautiful lines Tennyson ever wrote:

  The horns of Elfland faintly blowing,

has the same suggestion of having been forged from the gold of the world's

Tennyson's art at its best, however, and in these two instances is art
founded upon art, not art founded upon life. We used to be asked to admire
the vivid observation shown in such lines as:

  More black than ashbuds in the front of March;

and it is undoubtedly interesting to learn that Tennyson had a quick eye
for the facts of nature. But such lines, however accurate, do not make a
man a poet. It is in his fine ornamental moods that Tennyson means most to
our imaginations nowadays--in the moods of such lines as:

  Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost.

The truth is, Tennyson, with all his rhetoric and with all his prosaic
Victorian opinions, was an æsthete in the immortal part of him no less
than were Rossetti and Swinburne. He seemed immense to his contemporaries,
because he put their doubts and fears into music, and was master of the
fervid rhetoric of the new gospel of Imperialism. They did not realize
that great poetry cannot be founded on a basis of perishable doubts and
perishable gospels. It was enough for them to feel that _In Memoriam_ gave
them soothing anchorage and shelter from the destructive hurricanes of
science. It was enough for them to thrill to the public-speech poetry of
_Of old sat Freedom on the Heights_, the patriotic triumph of _The Relief
of Lucknow_, the glorious contempt for foreigners exhibited in his
references to "the red fool-fury of the Seine." Is it any wonder that
during a great part of his life Tennyson was widely regarded as not only a
poet, but a teacher and a statesman? His sneering caricature of Bright as
the "broad-brimmed hawker of holy things" should have made it clear that
in politics he was but a party man, and that his political intelligence
was commonplace.

He was too deficient in the highest kind of imagination and intellect to
achieve the greatest things. He seldom or never stood aloof from his own
time, as Wordsworth did through his philosophic imagination, as Keats did
through his æsthetic imagination, as Browning did through his dramatic
imagination. He wore a poetical cloak, and avoided the vulgar crowd
physically; he had none of Browning's taste for tea-parties. But Browning
had not the tea-party imagination; Tennyson, in a great degree, had. He
preached excellent virtues to his time; but they were respectable rather
than spiritual virtues. Thus, _The Idylls of the King_ have become to us
mere ancient fashion-plates of the virtues, while the moral power of _The
Ring and the Book_ is as commanding to-day as in the year in which the
poem was first published.

It is all the more surprising that no good selection from Tennyson has yet
appeared. His "complete works" contain so much that is ephemeral and
uninspired as to be a mere book of reference on our shelves. When will
some critic do for him what Matthew Arnold did for Wordsworth, and
separate the gold from the dross--do it as well as Matthew Arnold did it
for Wordsworth? Such a volume would be far thinner than the Wordsworth
selection. But it would entitle Tennyson to a much higher place among the
poets than in these years of the reaction he is generally given.



There are few greater ironies in history than that the modern
Conservatives should be eager to claim Swift as one of themselves. One
finds even the _Morning Post_--which someone has aptly enough named the
_Morning Prussian_--cheerfully counting the author of _A Voyage to
Houyhnhnms_ in the list of sound Tories. It is undeniable that Swift wrote
pamphlets for the Tory Party of his day. A Whig, he turned from the Whigs
of Queen Anne in disgust, and carried the Tory label for the rest of his
life. If we consider realities rather than labels, however, what do we
find were the chief political ideals for which Swift stood? His politics,
as every reader of his pamphlets knows, were, above all, the politics of a
pacifist and a Home Ruler--the two things most abhorrent to the orthodox
Tories of our own time. Swift belonged to the Tory Party at one of those
rare periods at which it was a peace party. _The Conduct of the Allies_
was simply a demand for a premature peace. Worse than this, it was a
pamphlet against England's taking part in a land-war on the Continent
instead of confining herself to naval operations. "It was the kingdom's
misfortune," wrote Swift, "that the sea was not the Duke of Marlborough's
element, otherwise the whole force of the war would infallibly have been
bestowed there, infinitely to the advantage of his country." Whether Swift
and the Tories were right in their attack on Marlborough and the war is a
question into which I do not propose to enter. I merely wish to emphasize
the fact that _The Conduct of the Allies_ was, from the modern Tory point
of view, not merely a pacifist, but a treasonable, document. Were anything
like it to appear nowadays, it would be suppressed under the Defence of
the Realm Act. And that Swift was a hater of war, not merely as a party
politician, but as a philosopher, is shown by the discourse on the causes
of war which he puts into the mouth of Gulliver when the latter is trying
to convey a picture of human society to his Houyhnhnm master:

    Sometimes the quarrel between two princes is to decide which of
    them shall dispossess a third of his dominions, where neither of
    them pretends to any right. Sometimes one prince quarrelleth with
    another for fear the other should quarrel with him. Sometimes a war
    is entered upon because the enemy is too strong, and sometimes
    because he is too weak. Sometimes our neighbours want the things
    which we have, or have the things which we want; and we both fight
    till they take ours or give us theirs. It is a very justifiable
    cause of a war to invade a country after the people have been
    wasted by famine, destroyed by pestilence or embroiled by factions
    among themselves. It is justifiable to enter into war with our
    nearest ally, when one of his towns lies convenient for us, or a
    territory of land that would render our dominions round and
    complete. If a prince sends forces into a nation, where the people
    are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to death or
    make slaves of the rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from
    their barbarous way of living.

There you have "Kultur" wars, and "white man's burden" wars, and wars for
"places of strategic importance," satirized as though by a
twentieth-century humanitarian. When the _Morning Post_ begins to write
leaders in the same strain, we shall begin to believe that Swift was a
Tory in the ordinary meaning of the word.

As for Swift's Irish politics, Mr. Charles Whibley, like other
Conservative writers, attempts to gloss over their essential Nationalism
by suggesting that Swift was merely a just man righteously indignant at
the destruction of Irish manufactures. At least, one would never gather
from the present book that Swift was practically the father of the modern
Irish demand for self-government. Swift was an Irish patriot in the sense
in which Washington was an American patriot. Like Washington, he had no
quarrel with English civilization. He was not an eighteenth-century Sinn
Feiner. He regarded himself as a colonist, and his Nationalism was
Colonial Nationalism. As such he was the forerunner of Grattan and Flood,
and also, in a measure, of Parnell and Redmond. While not a Separatist, he
had the strongest possible objection to being either ruled or ruined from
London. In his _Short View of the State of Ireland_, published in 1728, he
preached the whole gospel of Colonial Nationalism as it is accepted by
Irishmen like Sir Horace Plunkett to-day. He declared that one of the
causes of a nation's thriving--

    ... is by being governed only by laws made with their own consent,
    for otherwise they are not a free people. And, therefore, all
    appeals for justice, or applications for favour or preferment, to
    another country are so many grievous impoverishments.

He said of the Irish:

    We are in the condition of patients who have physic sent to them by
    doctors at a distance, strangers to their constitution and the
    nature of their disease.

In the _Drapier's Letters_ he denied the right of the English Parliament
to legislate for Ireland. He declared that all reason was on the side of
Ireland's being free, though power and the love of power made for
Ireland's servitude. "The arguments on both sides," he said in a passage
which sums up with perfect irony the centuries-old controversy between
England and Ireland, were "invincible":

    For in reason all government without the consent of the governed is
    slavery. But, in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly subdue
    one single man in his shirt.

It would be interesting to know how the modern Tory, whose gospel is the
gospel of the eleven men well armed, squares this with Swift's passionate
championship of the "one single man in his shirt." One wishes very
earnestly that the Toryism of Swift were in fact the Toryism of the modern
Conservative party. Had it been so, there would have been no such thing as
Carsonism in pre-war England; and, had there been no Carsonism, one may
infer from Mr. Gerard's recent revelations, there might have been no
European war.

Mr. Whibley, it is only fair to say, is concerned with Swift as a man of
letters and a friend, rather than with Swift as a party politician. The
present book is a reprint of the Leslie Stephen lecture which he delivered
at Cambridge a few months ago. It was bound, therefore, to be
predominantly literary in interest. At the same time, Mr. Whibley's
political bias appears both in what he says and in what he keeps silent
about. His defence of Swift against the charge of misanthropy is a defence
with which we find ourselves largely in agreement. But Mr. Whibley is too
single-minded a party politician to be able to defend the Dean without
clubbing a number of his own pet antipathies in the process. He seems to
think that the only alternative to the attitude of Dean Swift towards
humanity is the attitude of persons who, "feigning a bland and general
love of abtract humanity ... wreak a wild revenge upon individuals." He
apparently believes that it is impossible for one human being to wish well
to the human race in general, and to be affectionate to John, Peter and
Thomas in particular. Here are some of Mr. Whibley's rather wild comments
on this topic. He writes:

    We know well enough whither universal philanthropy leads us. The
    Friend of Man is seldom the friend of men. At his best he is
    content with a moral maxim, and buttons up his pocket in the
    presence of poverty. "I _give_ thee sixpence! I will see thee
    damned first!" It is not for nothing that Canning's immortal words
    were put in the mouth of the Friend of Humanity, who, finding that
    he cannot turn the Needy Knife Grinder to political account, give
    him kicks for ha'pence, and goes off in "a transport of Republican
    enthusiasm." Such is the Friend of Man at his best.

"At his best" is good. It makes one realize that Mr. Whibley is merely
playing a game of make-believe, and playing it very hard. His indictment
of humanitarians has about as much, or as little, basis in fact as would
an indictment of wives or seagulls or fields of corn. One has only to
mention Shelley with his innumerable personal benevolences to set Mr.
Whibley's card-castle of abuse tumbling.

With Mr. Whibley's general view of Swift as opposed to his general view of
politics, I find myself for the most part in harmony. I doubt, however,
whether Swift has been pursued in his grave with such torrential malignity
as Mr. Whibley imagines. Thackeray's denigration, I admit, takes the
breath away. One can hardly believe that Thackeray had read either Swift's
writings or his life. Of course he had done so, but his passion for the
sentimental graces made him incapable of doing justice to a genius of
saturnine realism such as Swift's. The truth is, though Swift was among
the staunchest of friends, he is not among the most sociable of authors.
His writings are seldom in the vein either of tenderness or of merriment.
We know of the tenderness of Swift only from a rare anecdote or from the
prattle of the _Journal to Stella_. As for his laughter, as Mr. Whibley
rightly points out, Pope was talking nonsense when he wrote of Swift as
laughing and shaking in Rabelais's easy chair. Swift's humour is
essentially of the intellect. He laughs out of his own bitterness rather
than to amuse his fellow-men. As Mr. Whibley says, he is not a cynic. He
is not sufficiently indifferent for that. He is a satirist, a sort of
perverted and suffering idealist: an idealist with the cynic's vision. It
is the essential nobleness of Swift's nature which makes the voyage to the
Houyhnhnms a noble and not a disgusting piece of literature. There are
people who pretend that this section of _Gulliver's Travels_ is almost too
terrible for sensitive persons to read. This is sheer affectation. It can
only be honestly maintained by those who believe that life is too terrible
for sensitive persons to live!


Mr. Whibley goes through history like an electioneering bill-poster. He
plasters up his election-time shrillnesses not only on Fox's House of
Commons but on Shakespeare's Theatre. He is apparently interested in men
of genius chiefly as regards their attitude to his electioneering
activities. Shakespeare, he seems to imagine, was the sort of person who
would have asked for nothing better as a frieze in his sitting-room in New
Place than a scroll bearing in huge letters some such motto as "Vote for
Podgkins and Down with the Common People" or "Vote for Podgkins and No
League of Nations." Mr. Whibley thinks Shakespeare was like that, and so
he exalts Shakespeare. He has, I do not doubt, read Shakespeare, but that
has made no difference, He would clearly have taken much the same view of
Shakespeare if he had never read him. To be great, said Emerson, is to be
misunderstood. To be great is assuredly to be misunderstood by Mr.

I do not think it is doing an injustice to Mr. Whibley to single out the
chapter on "Shakespeare: Patriot and Tory" as the most representative in
his volume of _Political Portraits_. It would be unjust if one were to
suggest that Mr. Whibley could write nothing better than this. His
historical portraits are often delightful as the work of a clever
illustrator, even if we cannot accept them as portraits. Those essays in
which he keeps himself out of the picture and eschews ideas most
successfully attract us as coming from the hand of a skilful writer. His
studies of Clarendon, Metternich, Napoleon and Melbourne are all of them
good entertainment. If I comment on the Shakespeare essay rather than on
these, it is because here more than anywhere else in the book the author's
skill as a portrait-painter is put to the test. Here he has to depend
almost exclusively on his imagination, intelligence, and knowledge of
human nature. Here, where there are scarcely any epigrams or anecdotes to
quote, a writer must reveal whether he is an artist and a critic, or a
pedestrian intelligence with the trick of words. Mr. Whibley, I fear,
comes badly off from the test. One does not blame him for having written
on the theme that "Shakespeare, being a patriot, was a Tory also." It
would be easy to conceive a scholarly and amusing study of Shakespeare on
these lines. Whitman maintained that there is much in Shakespeare to
offend the democratic mind; and there is no reason why an intelligent Tory
should not praise Shakespeare for what Whitman deplored in him. There is
every reason, however, why the portraiture of Shakespeare as a Tory, if it
is to be done, should be done with grace, intelligence, and sureness of
touch. Mr. Whibley throws all these qualifications to the winds,
especially the second. The proof of Shakespeare's Toryism, for instance,
which he draws from _Troilus and Cressida_, is based on a total
misunderstanding of the famous and simple speech of Ulysses about the
necessity of observing "degree, priority and place." Mr. Whibley, plunging
blindly about in Tory blinkers, imagines that in this speech Ulysses, or
rather Shakespeare, is referring to the necessity of keeping the democracy
in its place. "Might he not," he asks, "have written these prophetic lines
with his mind's eye upon France of the Terror or upon modern Russia?" Had
Mr. Whibley read the play with that small amount of self-forgetfulness
without which no man has ever yet been able to appreciate literature, he
would have discovered that it is the unruliness not of the democracy but
of the aristocracy against which Ulysses--or, if you prefer it,
Shakespeare--inveighs in this speech. The speech is aimed at the self-will
and factiousness of Achilles and his disloyalty to Agamemnon. If there are
any moderns who come under the noble lash of Ulysses, they must be sought
for not among either French or Russian revolutionists, but in the persons
of such sound Tories as Sir Edward Carson and such sound patriots as Mr.
Lloyd George. It is tolerably certain that neither Ulysses nor Shakespeare
foresaw Sir Edward Carson's escapades or Mr. Lloyd George's insurbordinate
career as a member of Mr. Asquith's Cabinet. But how admirably they sum up
all the wild statesmanship of these later days in lines which Mr. Whibley,
accountably enough, fails to quote:

  They tax our policy, and call it cowardice;
  Count wisdom as no member of the war;
  Forestall prescience, and esteem no act
  But that of hand; the still and mental parts--
  That do contrive how many hands shall strike,
  When fitness calls them on, and know, by measure
  Of their observant toil, the enemies' weight--
  Why, this hath not a finger's dignity.
  They call this bed-work, mappery, closet-war:
  So that the ram, that batters down the wall,
  For the great swing and rudeness of his poise,
  They place before his hand that made the engine,
  Or those that with the fineness of their souls
  By reason guide his execution.

There is not much in the moral of this speech to bring balm to the soul of
the author of the _Letters of an Englishman_.

Mr. Whibley is not content, unfortunately, with having failed to grasp the
point of _Troilus and Cressida_. He blunders with equal assiduity in
regard to _Coriolanus_. He treats this play, not as a play about
Coriolanus, but as a pamphlet in favour of Coriolanus. He has not been
initiated, it seems, into the first secret of imaginative literature,
which is that one may portray a hero sympathetically without making
believe that his vices are virtues. Shakespeare no more endorses
Coriolanus's patrician pride than he endorses Othello's jealousy or
Macbeth's murderous ambition. Shakespeare was concerned with painting
noble natures, not with pandering to their vices. He makes us sympathize
with Coriolanus in his heroism, in his sufferings, in his return to his
better nature, in his death; but from Shakespeare's point of view, as from
most men's the Nietzschean arrogance which led Coriolanus to become a
traitor to his city is a theme for sadness, not (as apparently with Mr.
Whibley) for enthusiasm. "Shakespeare," cries Mr. Whibley, as he quotes
some of Coriolanus's anti-popular speeches, "will not let the people off.
He pursues it with an irony of scorn." "There in a few lines," he writes
of some other speeches, "are expressed the external folly and shame of
democracy. Ever committed to the worse cause, the people has not even the
courage of its own opinions." It would be interesting to know whether in
Mr. Whibley's eyes Coriolanus's hatred of the people is a sufficiently
splendid virtue to cover his guilt in becoming a traitor. That good Tories
have the right to become traitors was a gospel preached often enough in
regard to the Ulster trouble before the war. It may be doubted, however,
whether Shakespeare was sufficiently a Tory to foresee the necessity of
such a gospel in _Coriolanus_. Certainly, the mother of Coriolanus, who
was far from being a Radical, or even a mild Whig, preached the very
opposite of the gospel of treason. She warned Coriolanus that his triumph
over Rome would be a traitor's triumph, that his name would be "dogg'd
with curses," and that his character would be summed up in history in one
fatal sentence:

                        The man was noble,
  But with his last attempt he wiped it out,
  Destroyed his country, and his name remains
  To the ensuing age abhorr'd.

Mr. Whibley appears to loathe the mass of human beings so excessively that
he does not quite realize the enormity (from the modern point of view) of
Coriolanus's crime. It would, I agree, be foolish to judge Coriolanus too
scrupulously from a modern point of view. But Mr. Whibley has asked us to
accept the play as a tract for the times, and we must examine it as such
in order to discover what Mr. Whibley means.

But, after all, Mr. Whibley's failure as a portrait-painter is a failure
of the spirit even more than of the intellect. A narrow spirit cannot
comprehend a magnanimous spirit, and Mr. Whibley's imagination does not
move in that large Shakespearean world in which illustrious men salute
their mortal enemies in immortal sentences of praise after the manner of

  He was the noblest Roman of them all.

The author who is capable of writing Mr. Whibley's character-study of Fox
does not understand enough about the splendour and the miseries of human
nature to write well on Shakespeare. Of Fox Mr. Whibley says:

    He put no bounds upon his hatred of England, and he thought it not
    shameful to intrigue with foreigners against the safety and credit
    of the land to which he belonged. Wherever there was a foe to
    England, there was a friend of Fox. America, Ireland, France, each
    in turn inspired his enthusiasm. When Howe was victorious at
    Brooklyn, he publicly deplored "the terrible news." After Valmy he
    did not hesitate to express his joy. "No public event," he wrote,
    "not excepting Yorktown and Saratoga, ever happened that gave me so
    much delight. I could not allow myself to believe it for some days
    for fear of disappointment."

It does not seem to occur to Mr. Whibley that in regard to America,
Ireland, and France, Fox was, according to the standard of every ideal for
which the Allies professed to fight, tremendously right, and that, were it
not for Yorktown and Valmy, America and France would not in our own time
have been great free nations fighting against the embattled Whibleys of
Germany. So far as Mr. Whibley's political philosophy goes, I see no
reason why he should not have declared himself on the side of Germany. He
believes in patriotism, it is true, but he is apparently a patriot of the
sort that loves his country and hates his fellow-countrymen (if that is
what he means by "the people," and presumably it must be). Mr. Whibley has
certainly the mind of a German professor. His vehemence against the
Germans for appreciating Shakespeare is strangely like a German
professor's vehemence against the English for not appreciating him. "Why
then," he asks,

    should the Germans have attempted to lay violent hands upon our
    Shakespeare? It is but part of their general policy of pillage.
    Stealing comes as easy to them as it came to Bardolph and Nym, who
    in Calais stole a fire-shovel. Wherever they have gone they have
    cast a thievish eye upon what does not belong to them. They hit
    upon the happy plan of levying tolls upon starved Belgium. It was
    not enough for their greed to empty a country of food; they must
    extract something from its pocket, even though it be dying of
    hunger.... No doubt, if they came to these shores, they would feed
    their fury by scattering Shakespeare's dust to the winds of
    heaven. As they are unable to sack Stratford, they do what seems to
    them the next best thing: they hoist the Jolly Roger over
    Shakespeare's works.

    Their arrogance is busy in vain. Shakespeare shall never be theirs.
    He was an English patriot, who would always have refused to bow the
    knee to an insolent alien.

This is mere foaming at the mouth--the tawdry violence of a Tory
Thersites. This passage is a measure of the good sense and imagination Mr.
Whibley brings to the study of Shakespeare. It is simply theatrical


One thinks of William Morris as a man who wished to make the world as
beautiful as an illuminated manuscript. He loved the bright colours, the
gold, the little strange insets of landscape, the exquisite craftsmanship
of decoration, in which the genius of the medieval illuminators expressed
itself. His Utopia meant the restoration, not so much of the soul of man,
as of the selected delights of the arts and crafts of the Middle Ages. His
passion for trappings--and what fine trappings!--is admirably suggested by
Mr. Cunninghame Graham in his preface to Mr. Compton-Rickett's _William
Morris: a Study in Personality_. Morris he declares, was in his opinion
"no mystic, but a sort of symbolist set in a medieval frame, and it
appeared to me that all his love of the old times of which he wrote was
chiefly of the setting; of tapestries well wrought; of needlework, rich
colours of stained glass falling upon old monuments, and of fine work not
scamped." To emphasize the preoccupation of Morris with the very
handiwork, rather than with the mystic secrets, of beauty is not
necessarily to diminish his name. He was essentially a man for whom the
visible world existed, and in the manner in which he wore himself out in
his efforts to reshape the visible world he proved himself one of the
great men of his century. His life was, in its own way, devotional ever
since those years in which Burne-Jones, his fellow-undergraduate at
Oxford, wrote to him: "We must enlist you in this Crusade and Holy Warfare
against the age." Like all revolutions, of course, the Morris revolution
was a prophecy rather than an achievement. But, perhaps, a prophecy of
Utopia is itself one of the greatest achievements of which humanity is

It is odd that one who spilled out his genius for the world of men should
have been so self-sufficing, so little dependent on friendships and
ordinary human relationships as Morris is depicted both in Mr. Mackail's
biography and Mr. Compton-Rickett's study. Obviously, he was a man with
whom generosity was a second nature. When he became a Socialist, he sold
the greater part of his precious library in order to help the cause. On
the other hand, to balance this, we have Rossetti's famous assertion:
"Top"--the general nickname for Morris--"never gives money to a beggar."
Mr. Mackail, if I remember right, accepted Rossetti's statement as
expressive of Morris's indifference to men as compared with causes. Mr.
Compton-Rickett, however, challenges the truth of the observation. "The
number of 'beggars,'" he affirms, "who called at his house and went away
rewarded were legion."

    Mr. Belfort Bax declares that he kept a drawerful of half-crowns
    for foreign anarchists, because, as he explained apologetically:
    "They always wanted half-a-crown, and it saved time to have a stock

But this is no real contradiction of Rossetti. Morris's anarchists
represented his life's work to him. He did not help them from that
personal and irrational charity which made Rossetti want to give a penny
to a beggar in the street. This may be regarded as a supersubtle
distinction; but it is necessary if we are to understand the important
fact about Morris that--to quote Mr. Compton-Rickett--"human nature in the
concrete never profoundly interested him." Enthusiastic as were the
friendships of his youth--when he gushed into "dearests" in his
letters--we could imagine him as living without friends and yet being
tolerably happy. He was, as Mr. Compton-Rickett suggests, like a child
with a new toy in his discovery of ever-fresh pursuits in the three worlds
of Politics, Literature and Art. He was a person to whom even duties were
Pleasures. Mr. Mackail has spoken of him as "the rare distance of a man
who, without ever once swerving from truth or duty, knew what he liked and
did what he liked, all his life long." One thinks of him in his work as a
child with a box of paints--an inspired child with wonderful paints and
the skill to use them. He was such a child as accepts companions with
pleasure, but also accepts the absence of companions with pleasure. He
could absorb himself in his games of genius anywhere and everywhere. "Much
of his literary work was done on buses and in trains." His poetry is
often, as it were, the delightful nursery-work of a grown man. "His best
work," as Mr. Compton-Rickett says, "reads like happy improvisations." He
had a child's sudden and impulsive temper, too. Once, having come into his
studio in a rage, he "took a flying kick at the door, and smashed in a
panel." "It's all right," he assured the scared model, who was preparing
to fly; "it's all right--_something_ had to give way." The same violence
of impulse is seen in the story of how, on one occasion, when he was
staying in the country, he took an artistic dislike to his hostess's
curtains, and tore them down during the night. His judgments were often
much the same kind of untempered emotions as he showed in the matter of
the curtains--his complaint, for example, that a Greek temple was "like a
table on four legs: a damned dull thing!" He was a creature of whims: so
much so that, as a boy, he used to have the curse, "Unstable as water,
thou shalt not excel," flung at him. He enjoyed the expression of
knock-out opinions such as: "I always bless God for making anything so
strong as an onion!" He laughed easily, not from humour so much as from a
romping playfulness. He took a young boy's pleasure in showing off the
strength of his mane of dark brown hair. He would get a child to get hold
of it, and lift him off the ground by it "with no apparent inconvenience."
He was at the same time nervous and restless. He was given to talking to
himself; his hands were never at peace; "if he read aloud, he punched his
own head in the exuberance of his emotions." Possibly there was something
high-strung even about his play, as when, Mr. Mackail tells us, "he would
imitate an eagle with considerable skill and humour, climbing on to a
chair and, after a sullen pause, coming down with a soft, heavy flop." It
seems odd that Mr. John Burns could say of this sensitive and capricious
man of genius, as we find him saying in Mr. Compton-Rickett's book, that
"William Morris was a chunk of humanity in the rough; he was a piece of
good, strong, unvarnished oak--nothing of the elm about him." But we can
forgive Mr. Burns's imperfect judgment in gratitude for the sentences that

    There is no side of modern life which he has not touched for good.
    I am sure he would have endorsed heartily the House and Town
    Planning Act for which I am responsible.

Morris, by the way, would have appreciated Mr. Burns's reference to him as
a fellow-craftsman: did he not once himself boast of being "a master
artisan, if I may claim that dignity"?

The buoyant life of this craftsman-preacher--whose craftsmanship, indeed,
was the chief part of his preaching--who taught the labourers of his age,
both by precept and example, that the difference between success and
failure in life was the difference between being artisans of loveliness
and poor hackworkers of profitable but hideous things--has a unique
attractiveness in the history of the latter half of the nineteenth
century. He is a figure of whom we cannot be too constantly and vividly
reminded. When I took up Mr. Compton-Rickett's book I was full of hope
that it would reinterpret for a new generation Morris's evangelistic
personality and ideals. Unfortunately, it contains very little of
importance that has not already appeared in Mr. Mackail's distinguished
biography; and the only interpretation of first-rate interest in the book
occurs in the bold imaginative prose of Mr. Cunninghame Graham's
introduction. More than once the author tells us the same things as Mr.
Mackail, only in a less life-like way. For example, where Mr. Mackail says
of Morris that "by the time he was seven years old he had read all the
Waverley novels, and many of Marryat's," Mr. Compton-Rickett vaguely
writes: "He was suckled on Romance, and knew his Scott and Marryat almost
before he could lisp their names." That is typical of Mr.
Compton-Rickett's method. Instead of contenting himself with simple and
realistic sentences like Mr. Mackail's, he aims at--and certainly
achieves--a kind of imitative picturesqueness. We again see his taste for
the high-flown in such a paragraph as that which tells us that "a common
bond unites all these men--Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris. They
differed in much; but, like great mountains lying apart in the base, they
converge high up in the air." The landscape suggested in these sentences
is more topsy-turvy than the imagination likes to dwell upon. And the
criticisms in the book are seldom lightning-flashes of revelation. For

    A more polished artistry we find in Tennyson; a greater
    intellectual grip in Browning; a more haunting magic in Rossetti;
    but for easy mastery over his material and general diffusion of
    beauty Morris has no superior.

That, apart from the excellent "general diffusion of beauty," is the kind
of conventional criticism that might pass in a paper read to a literary
society. But somehow, in a critic who deliberately writes a book, we look
for a greater and more personal mastery of his authors than Mr.
Compton-Rickett gives evidence of in the too facile eloquence of these

The most interesting part of the book is that which is devoted to
personalia. But even in the matter of personalia Mr. Cunninghame Graham
tells us more vital things in a page of his introduction than Mr.
Compton-Rickett scatters through a chapter. His description of Morris's
appearance, if not a piece of heroic painting, gives us a fine grotesque
design of the man:

    His face was ruddy, and his hair inclined to red, and grew in waves
    like water just before it breaks over a fall. His beard was of the
    same colour as his hair. His eyes were blue and fiery. His teeth,
    small and irregular, but white except upon the side on which he hew
    his pipe, where they were stained with brown. When he walked he
    swayed a little, not like (_sic_) a sailor sways, but as a man who
    lives a sedentary life toddles a little in his gait. His ears were
    small, his nose high and well-made, his hands and feet small for a
    man of his considerable bulk. His speech and address were fitting
    the man; bold, bluff, and hearty.... He was quick-tempered and
    irritable, swift to anger and swift to reconciliation, and I should
    think never bore malice in his life.

    When he talked he seldom looked at you, and his hands were always
    twisting, as if they wished to be at work.

Such was the front the man bore. The ideal for which he lived may be
summed up, in Mr. Compton-Rickett's expressive phrase, as "the
democratization of beauty." Or it may be stated more humanly in the words
which Morris himself spoke at the grave of a young man who died of
injuries received at the hands of the police in Trafalgar Square on
"Bloody Sunday." "Our friend," he then said:

    Our friend who lies here has had a hard life, and met with a hard
    death; and, if society had been differently constituted, his life
    might have been a delightful, a beautiful, and a happy one. It is
    our business to begin to organize for the purpose of seeing that
    such things shall not happen; to try and make this earth a
    beautiful and happy place.

There you have the sum of all Morris's teaching. Like so many fine artists
since Plato, he dreamed of a society which would be as beautiful as a work
of art. He saw the future of society as a radiant picture, full of the
bright light of hope, as he saw the past of society as a picture steeped
in the charming lights of fancy. He once explained Rossetti's indifference
to politics by saying that he supposed "it needs a person of hopeful mind
to take disinterested notice of politics, and Rossetti was certainly not
hopeful." Morris was the very illuminator of hope. He was as hopeful a man
as ever set out with words and colours to bring back the innocent
splendours of the Golden Age.



George Meredith, as his friends used to tell one with amusement, was a
vain man. Someone has related how, in his later years, he regarded it as a
matter of extreme importance that his visitors should sit in a position
from which they would see his face in profile. This is symbolic of his
attitude to the world. All his life he kept one side of his face hidden.
Mr. Ellis, who is the son of one of Meredith's cousins, now takes us for a
walk round Meredith's chair. No longer are we permitted to remain in
restful veneration of "a god and a Greek." Mr. Ellis invites us--and we
cannot refuse the invitation--to look at the other side of the face, to
consider the full face and the back of the head. He encourages us to feel
Meredith's bumps, and no man whose bumps we are allowed to feel can
continue for five minutes the pretence of being an Olympian. He becomes a
human being under a criticizing thumb. We discover that he had a genius
for imposture, an egoist's temper, and a stomach that fluttered greedily
at the thought of dainty dishes. We find all those characteristics that
prevented him from remaining on good terms first with his father, next
with his wife, and then with his son. At first, when one reads the full
story of Meredith's estrangements through three generations, one has the
feeling that one is in the presence of an idol in ruins. Certainly, one
can never mistake Box Hill for Olympus again. On the other hand, let us
but have time to accustom ourselves to see Meredith in other aspects than
that which he himself chose to present to his contemporaries--let us begin
to see in him not so much one of the world's great comic censors, as one
of the world's great comic subjects, and we shall soon find ourselves back
among his books, reading them no longer with tedious awe, but with a new
passion of interest in the figure-in-the-background of the complex human
being who wrote them.

For Meredith was his own great subject. Had he been an Olympian he could
not have written _The Egoist_ or _Harry Richmond_. He was an egoist and
pretender, coming of a line of egoists and pretenders, and his novels are
simply the confession and apology of such a person. Meredith concealed the
truth about himself in his daily conversation; he revealed it in his
novels. He made such a mystery about his birth that many people thought he
was a cousin of Queen Victoria's or at least a son of Bulwer Lytton's. It
was only in _Evan Harrington_ that he told the essentials of the truth
about the tailor's shop in Portsmouth above which he was born. Outside his
art, nothing would persuade him to own up to the tailor's shop. Once, when
Mr. Clodd was filling in a census-paper for him, Meredith told him to put
"near Petersfield" as his place of birth. The fact that he was born at
Portsmouth was not publicly known, indeed, until some time after his
death. And not only was there the tailor's shop to live down, but on his
mother's side he was the grandson of a publican, Michael Macnamara.
Meredith liked to boast that his mother was "pure Irish"--an exaggeration,
according to Mr. Ellis--but he said nothing about Michael Macnamara of
"The Vine." At the same time it was the presence not of a bar sinister but
of a yardstick sinister in his coat of arms that chiefly filled him with
shame. When he was marrying his first wife he wrote "Esquire" in the
register as a description of his father's profession. There is no
evidence, apparently, as to whether Meredith himself ever served in the
tailor's shop after his father moved from Portsmouth to St. James's
Street, London. Nothing is known of his life during the two years after
his return from the Moravian school at Neuwied. As for his hapless father
(who had been trained as a medical student but went into the family
business in order to save it from ruin), he did not succeed in London any
better than in Portsmouth, and in 1849 he emigrated to South Africa and
opened a shop in Cape Town. It was while in Cape Town that he read
Meredith's ironical comedy on the family tailordom, _Evan Harrington; or
He Would be a Gentleman_. Naturally, he regarded the book (in which his
father and himself were two of the chief figures) with horror. It was as
though George had washed the family tape-measure in public. Augustus
Meredith, no less than George, blushed for the tape-measure daily.
Probably, Melchizedek Meredith, who begat Augustus, who begat George, had
also blushed for it in his day. As the "great Mel" in _Evan Harrington_ he
is an immortal figure of genteel imposture. His lordly practice of never
sending in a bill was hardly that of a man who accepted the conditions of
his trade. In _Evan Harrington_ three generations of a family's shame were
held up to ridicule. No wonder that Augustus Meredith, when he was
congratulated by a customer on his son's fame, turned away silently with a
look of pain.

The comedy of the Meredith family springs, of course, not from the fact
that they were tailors, but that they pretended not to be tailors. Whether
Meredith himself was more ashamed of their tailoring or their
pretentiousness it is not easy to decide. Both _Evan Harrington_ and
_Harry Richmond_ are in a measure, comedies of imposture, in which the
vice of imposture is lashed as fiercely as Molière lashes the vice of
hypocrisy in _Tartuffe_. But it may well be that in life Meredith was a
snob, while in art he was a critic of snobs. Mr. Yeats, in his last book
of prose, put forward the suggestion that the artist reveals in his art
not his "self" (which is expressed in his life), but his "anti-self," a
complementary and even contrary self. He might find in the life and works
of Meredith some support for his not quite convincing theory. Meredith was
an egoist in his life, an anti-egoist in his books. He was pretentious in
his life, anti-pretentious in his books. He took up the attitude of the
wronged man in his life; he took up the case of the wronged woman in his
books. In short, his life was vehemently pro-George-Meredith, while his
books were vehemently anti-George-Meredith. He knew himself more
thoroughly, so far as we can discover from his books, than any other
English novelist has ever done.

He knew himself comically, no doubt, rather than tragically. In _Modern
Love_ and _Richard Feverel_ he reveals himself as by no means a laughing
philosopher; but he strove to make fiction a vehicle of philosophic
laughter rather than of passionate sympathy. Were it not that a great
poetic imagination is always at work--in his prose, perhaps, even more
than in his verse--his genius might seem a little cold and
head-in-the-air. But his poet's joy in his characters saves his books from
inhumanity. As Diana Warwick steps out in the dawn she is not a mere
female human being undergoing critical dissection; she is bird-song and
the light of morning and the coming of the flowers. Meredith had as great
a capacity for rapture as for criticism and portraiture. He has expressed
in literature as no other novelist has done the rapturous vision of a boy
in love. He knew that a boy in love is not mainly a calf but a poet. _Love
in a Valley_ is the incomparable music of a boy's ecstasy. Much of
_Richard Feverel_ is its incomparable prose. Rapture and criticism,
however, make a more practical combination in literature than in life. In
literature, criticism may add flavour to rapture; in life it is more than
likely to destroy the flavour. One is not surprised, then, to learn the
full story of Meredith's first unhappy marriage. A boy of twenty-one, he
married a widow of thirty, high-strung, hot and satirical like himself;
and after a depressing sequence of dead babies, followed by the birth of a
son who survived, she found life with a man of genius intolerable, and ran
away with a painter. Meredith apparently refused her request to go and see
her when she was dying. His imaginative sympathy enabled him to see the
woman's point of view in poetry and fiction; it does not seem to have
extended to his life. Thus, his biography is to a great extent a
"showing-up" of George Meredith. He proved as incapable of keeping the
affection of his son Arthur, as of keeping that of his wife. Much as he
loved the boy he had not been married again long before he allowed him to
become an alien presence. The boy felt he had a grievance. He
said--probably without justice--that his father kept him short of money.
Possibly he was jealous for his dead mother's sake. Further, though put
into business, he had literary ambitions--a prolific source of bitterness.
When Arthur died, Meredith did not even attend his funeral.

Mr. Ellis has shown Meredith up not only as a husband and a father, but as
a hireling journalist and a lark-devouring gourmet. On the whole, the poet
who could eat larks in a pie seems to me to be a more shocking "great man"
than the Radical who could write Tory articles in a newspaper for pay. At
the same time, it is only fair to say that Meredith remains a sufficiently
splendid figure in. Mr. Ellis's book even when we know the worst about
him. Was his a generous genius? It was at least a prodigal one. As poet,
novelist, correspondent, and conversationalist, he leaves an impression of
beauty, wit, and power in a combination without a precedent.


Lady Butcher's charming _Memoirs of George Meredith_ is admittedly written
in reply to Mr. Ellis's startling volume. It seems to me, however, that it
is a supplement rather than a reply. Mr. Ellis was not quite fair to
Meredith as a man, but he enabled us to understand the limitations which
were the conditions of Meredith's peculiar genius. Many readers were
shocked by the suggestion that characters, like countries, must have
boundaries. Where Mr. Ellis failed, in my opinion, was not in drawing
these as carefully as possible, but in the rather unfriendly glee with
which, one could not help feeling, he did so. It is also true that he
missed some of the grander mountain-peaks in Meredith's character. Lady
Butcher, on the other hand, is far less successful than Mr. Ellis in
drawing a portrait which makes us feel that now we understand something of
the events that gave birth to _The Egoist_ and _Richard Feverel_ and
_Modern Love_. Her book tells us nothing of the seed-time of genius, but
is a delightful account of its autumn.

At the same time it helps to dissipate one ridiculous popular fallacy
about Meredith. Meredith, like most all the wits, has been accused of
straining after image and epigram. Wit acts as an irritant on many people.
They forget the admirable saying of Coleridge: "Exclusive of the abstract
sciences, the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of
aphorisms; and the greatest of men is but an aphorism." They might as well
denounce a hedge for producing wild roses or a peacock for growing tail
feathers with pretty eyes as a witty writer for flowering into aphorism,
epigram and image. Even so artificial a writer as Wilde had not to labour
to be witty. It has often been laid to his charge that his work smells of
the lamp, whereas what is really the matter with it is that it smells of
the drawing-room gas. It was the result of too much "easy-goingness," not
of too much strain. As for Meredith, his wit was the wit of an abounding
imagination. Lady Butcher gives some delightful examples of it. He could
not see a baby in long robes without a witty image leaping into his mind.
He said he adored babies "in the comet stage."

Of a lady of his acquaintance he said: "She is a woman who has never had
the first tadpole wriggle of an idea," adding, "She has a mind as clean
and white and flat as a plate: there are no eminences in it." Lady Butcher
tells of a picnic-party on Box Hill at which Meredith was one of the
company. "After our picnic ... it came on to rain, and as we drearily
trudged down the hill with cloaks and umbrellas, and burdened with our tea
baskets, Mr. Meredith, with a grimace, called out to a passing friend:
'Behold! the funeral of picnic!'"

If Meredith is to some extent an obscure author, it is clear that this was
not due to his over-reaching himself in laborious efforts after wit. His
obscurity is not that of a man straining after expression, but the
obscurity of a man deliberately hiding something. Meredith believed in
being as mysterious as an oracle. He assumed the Olympian manner, and
objected to being mistaken for a frequenter of the market-place. He was
impatient of ordinary human witlessness, and spoke to his fellows, not as
man to man, but as Apollo from his seat. This was probably a result of the
fact that his mind marched much too fast for the ordinary man to keep pace
with it. "How I leaped through leagues of thought when I could walk!" he
once said when he had lost the power of his legs. Such buoyancy of the
imagination and intellect separated him more and more from a world in
which most of the athletics are muscular, not mental; and he began to take
a malicious pleasure in exaggerating the difference that already existed
between himself and ordinary mortals. He dressed his genius in a
mannerism, and, as he leaped through his leagues of thought, the flying
skirts of his mannerism were all that the average reader panting
desperately after him could see. Shakespeare and the greatest men of
genius are human enough to wait for us, and give us time to recover our
breath. Meredith, however, was a proud man, and a mocker.

In the ordinary affairs of life, Lady Butcher tells us, he was so proud
that it was difficult to give him even trifling gifts. "I remember," she
says, "bringing him two silver flat poached-egg spoons from Norway, and he
implored me to take them back with me to London, and looked much relieved
when I consented to do so!" He would always "prefer to bestow rather than
to accept gifts." Lady Butcher, replying to the charge that he was
ungrateful, suggests that "no one should expect an eagle to be grateful."
But then, neither can one love an eagle, and one would like to be able to
love the author of _Love in a Valley_ and _Richard Feverel_. Meredith was
too keenly aware what an eagle he was. Speaking of the reviewers who had
attacked him, he said: "They have always been abusing me. I have been
observing them. It is the crueller process." It is quite true, but it was
a superior person who said it.

Meredith, however, among his friends and among the young, loses this air
of superiority, and becomes something of a radiant romp as well as an
Olympian. Lady Butcher's first meeting with him took place when she was a
girl of thirteen. She was going up Box Hill to see the sun rise with a
sixteen-year-old cousin, when the latter said: "I know a madman who lives
on Box Hill. He's quite mad, but very amusing; he likes walks and
sunrises. Let's go and shout him up!" It does Meredith credit that he got
out of bed and joined them, "his nightshirt thrust into brown trousers."
Even when the small girl insisted on "reading aloud to him one of the
hymns from Keble's _Christian Year_," he did not, as the saying is, turn a
hair. His attachment to his daughter Mariette--his "dearie girl," as he
spoke of her with unaffected softness of phrase--also helps one to
realize that he was not all Olympian. Meredith, the condemner of the
"guarded life," was humanly nervous in guarding his own little daughter.
"He would never allow Mariette to travel alone, even the very short
distance by train from Box Hill to Ewell; a maid had always to be sent
with her or to fetch her. He never allowed her to walk by herself." One
likes Meredith the better for Lady Butcher's picture of him as a "harassed

One likes him, too, as he converses with his dogs, and for his
thoughtfulness in giving some of his MSS., including that of _Richard
Feverel_, to Frank Cole, his gardener, in the hope that "some day the
gardener would be able to sell them" and so get some reward for his
devotion. As to the underground passages in Meredith's life and character,
Lady Butcher is not concerned with them. She writes of him merely as she
knew him. Her book is a friend's tribute, though not a blind tribute. It
may not be effective as an argument against those who are bent on
disparaging the greatest lyrical wit in modern English literature. But it
will be welcomed by those for whom Meredith's genius is still a bubbling
spring of good sense and delight.


Meredith never wrote a novel which was less a novel than _Celt and Saxon_.
It is only a fragment of a book. It is so much a series of essays and
sharp character-sketches, however, that the untimely fall of the curtain
does not greatly trouble us. There is no excitement of plot, no gripping
anxiety as to whether this or that pair of lovers will ever reach the
altar. Philip O'Donnell and Patrick, his devoted brother, and their
caricature relative, the middle-aged Captain Con, all interest us as they
abet each other in the affairs of love or politics, or as they discuss
their native country or the temperament of the country which oppresses it;
but they are chiefly desirable as performers in an Anglo-Irish fantasia, a
Meredithian piece of comic music, with various national anthems, English,
Welsh, and Irish, running through and across it in all manner of guises,
and producing all manner of agreeable disharmonies.

In the beginning we have Patrick O'Donnell, an enthusiast, a Celt, a
Catholic, setting out for the English mansion of the father of Adiante
Adister to find if the girl cannot be pleaded over to reconsider her
refusal of his brother Philip. He arrives in the midst of turmoil in the
house, the cause of it being a hasty marriage which Adiante had
ambitiously contracted with a hook-nosed foreign prince. Patrick, a
broken-hearted proxy, successfully begs her family for a miniature of the
girl to take back to his brother, but he falls so deeply in love with her
on seeing the portrait that his loyalty to Philip almost wavers, when the
latter carelessly asks him to leave the miniature on a more or less public
table instead of taking it off to the solitude of his own room for a long
vigil of adoration.

In the rest of the story we have an account of the brothers in the London
house of Captain Con, the happy husband married to a stark English wife of
mechanical propriety--a rebellious husband, too, when in the sociable
atmosphere of his own upper room, amid the blackened clay pipes and the
friendly fumes of whiskey, he sings her praises, while at the same time
full of grotesque and whimsical criticisms of all those things, Saxon and
more widely human, for which she stands. There is a touch of farce in the
relations of these two, aptly symbolized by the bell which rings for
Captain Con, and hastens him away from his midnight eloquence with Patrick
and Philip. "He groaned, 'I must go. I haven't heard the tinkler for
months. It signifies she's cold in her bed. The thing called circulation
is unknown to her save by the aid of outward application, and I'm the
warming-pan, as legitimately as I should be, I'm her husband and her
Harvey in one.'"

It is in the house of Captain Con, it should be added, that Philip and
Patrick meet Jane Mattock, the Saxon woman; and the story as we have it
ends with Philip invalided home from service in India, and Jane, a victim
of love, catching "glimpses of the gulfs of bondage, delicious,
rose-enfolded, foreign." There are nearly three hundred pages of it
altogether, some of them as fantastic and lyrical as any that Meredith
ever wrote.

As one reads _Celt and Saxon_, however, one seems to get an inkling of the
reason why Meredith has so often been set down as an obscure author. It is
not entirely that he is given to using imagery as the language of
explanation--a subtle and personal sort of hieroglyphics. It is chiefly, I
think, because there is so little direct painting of men and women in his
books. Despite his lyricism, he had something of an X-ray's imagination.
The details of the modelling of a face, the interpreting lines and looks,
did not fix themselves with preciseness on his vision enabling him to pass
them on to us with the surface reality we generally demand in prose

It is as though he painted some of his men and women upon air: they are
elusive for all we know of their mental and spiritual processes. Even
though he is at pains to tell us that Diana's hair is dark, we do not at
once accept the fact but are at liberty to go on believing she is a fair
woman, for he himself was general rather than insistently particular in
his vision of such matters. In the present book, again, we have a glimpse
of Adiante in her miniature--"this lighted face, with the dark raised eyes
and abounding auburn tresses, where the contrast of colours was in itself
thrilling," "the light above beauty distinguishing its noble classic lines
and the energy of radiance, like a morning of chivalrous promise, in the
eyes"--and, despite the details mentioned, the result is to give us only
the lyric aura of the woman where we wanted a design.

Ultimately, these women of Meredith's become intensely real to us--the
most real women, I think, in English fiction--but, before we come to
handshaking terms with them, we have sometimes to go to them over bogs and
rocky places with the sun in our eyes. Before this, physically, they are
apt to be exquisite parts of a landscape, sharers of a lyric beauty with
the cherry-trees and the purple crocuses.

Coming to the substance of the book--the glance from many sides at the
Irish and English temperaments--we find Meredith extremely penetrating in
his criticism of John Bullishness, but something of a foreigner in his
study of the Irish character. The son of an Irishwoman, he chose an
Irishwoman as his most conquering heroine, but he writes of the race as
one who has known the men and women of it entirely, or almost entirely, in
an English setting--a setting, in other words, which shows up their
strangeness and any surface eccentricities they may have, but does not
give us an ordinary human sense of them. Captain Con is vital, because
Meredith imagined him vitally, but when all is said and done, he is
largely a stage-Irishman, winking over his whiskey that has paid no
excise--a better-born relative of Captain Costigan.

Politically, _Celt and Saxon_ seems to be a plea for Home Rule--Home Rule,
with a view towards a "consolidation of the union." Its diagnosis of the
Irish difficulty is one which has long been popular with many intellectual
men on this side of the Irish Sea. Meredith sees, as the roots of the
trouble, misunderstanding, want of imagination, want of sympathy. It has
always seemed curious to me that intelligent men could persuade themselves
that Ireland was chiefly suffering from want of understanding and want of
sympathy on the part of England, when all the time her only ailment has
been want of liberty. To adapt the organ-grinder's motto,

  Sympathy without relief
  Is like mustard without beef.

As a matter of fact, Meredith realized this, and was a friend to many
Irish national movements from the Home Rule struggle down to the Gaelic
League, to the latter of which the Irish part of him sent a subscription a
year or two ago. He saw things from the point of view of an Imperial
Liberal idealist, however, not of a Nationalist. In the result, he did not
know the every-day and traditional setting of Irish life sufficiently well
to give us an Irish Nationalist central figure as winning and heroic, even
in his extravagances, as, say, the patriotic Englishman, Neville

At the same time, one must be thankful for a book so obviously the work of
a great abundant mind--a mind giving out its criticisms like flutters of
birds--a heroic intellect always in the service of an ideal liberty,
courage, and gracious manners--a characteristically island brain, that was
yet not insular.


Oscar Wilde is a writer whom one must see through in order to appreciate.
One must smash the idol in order to preserve the god. If Mr. Ransome's
estimate of Wilde in his clever and interesting and seriously-written book
is a little unsatisfactory, it is partly because he is not enough of an
iconoclast. He has not realized with sufficient clearness that, while
Wilde belonged to the first rank as a wit, he was scarcely better than
second-rate as anything else. Consequently, it is not Wilde the beau of
literature who dominates his book. Rather, it is Wilde the
egoistic,--æsthetic philosopher, and Wilde the imaginative artist.

This is, of course, as Wilde would have liked it to be. For, as Mr.
Ransome says, "though Wilde had the secret of a wonderful laughter, he
preferred to think of himself as a person with magnificent dreams."
Indeed, so much was this so, that it is even suggested that, if _Salomé_
had not been censored, the social comedies might never have been written.
"It is possible," observes Mr. Ransome, "that we owe _The Importance of
Being Earnest_ to the fact that the Censor prevented Sarah Bernhardt from
playing _Salomé_ at the Palace Theatre." If this conjecture is right, one
can never think quite so unkindly of the Censor again, for in _The
Importance of Being Earnest_, and in it alone, Wilde achieved a work of
supreme genius in its kind.

It is as lightly-built as a house of cards, a frail edifice of laughter
for laughter's sake. Or you might say that, in the literature of farce, it
has a place as a "dainty rogue in porcelain." It is even lighter and more
fragile than that. It is a bubble, or a flight of bubbles. It is the very
ecstasy of levity. As we listen to Lady Bracknell discussing the
possibility of parting with her daughter to a man who had been "born, or
at least bred, in a handbag," or as we watch Jack and Algernon wrangling
over the propriety of eating muffins in an hour of gloom, we seem somehow
to be caught up and to sail through an exhilarating mid-air of nonsense.
Some people will contend that Wilde's laughter is always the laughter not
of the open air but of the salon. But there is a spontaneity in the
laughter of _The Importance of Being Earnest_ that seems to me to
associate it with running water and the sap rising in the green field.

It is when he begins to take Wilde seriously as a serious writer that one
quarrels with Mr. Ransome. Wilde was much better at showing off than at
revealing himself, and, as the comedy of showing off is much more
delightful than the solemn vanity of it, he was naturally happiest as a
wit and persifleur. On his serious side he ranks, not as an original
artist, but as a popularizer--the most accomplished popularizer, perhaps,
in English literature. He popularized William Morris, both his domestic
interiors and his Utopias, in the æsthetic lectures and in _The Soul of
Man under Socialism_--a wonderful pamphlet, the secret of the world-wide
fame of which Mr. Ransome curiously misses. He popularized the cloistral
æstheticism of Pater and the cultural egoism of Goethe in _Intentions_ and
elsewhere. In _Salomé_ he popularized the gorgeous processionals of
ornamental sentences upon which Flaubert had expended not the least
marvellous portion of his genius.

Into an age that guarded respectability more closely than virtue and
ridiculed beauty because it paid no dividend came Wilde, the assailant of
even the most respectable ugliness, parrying the mockery of the meat tea
with a mockery that sparkled like wine. Lighting upon a world that
advertised commercial wares, he set himself to advertise art with, as
heroic an extravagance, and who knows how much his puce velvet
knee-breeches may have done to make the British public aware of the
genius, say, of Walter Pater? Not that Wilde was not a finished egoist,
using the arts and the authors to advertise himself rather than himself to
advertise them. But the time-spirit contrived that the arts and the
authors should benefit by his outrageous breeches.

It is in the relation of a great popularizer, then--a popularizer who, for
a new thing, was not also a vulgarizer--that Wilde seems to me to stand to
his age. What, then, of Mr. Ransome's estimate of _Salomé_? That it is a
fascinating play no lover of the pageantry of words can deny. But of what
quality is this fascination? It is, when all is said and done, the
fascination of the lust of painted faces. Here we have no tragedy, but a
mixing of degenerate philtres. Mr. Ransome hears "the beating of the wings
of the angel of death" in the play; but that seems to me to be exactly the
atmosphere that Wilde fails to create. As the curtain falls on the broken
body of _Salomé_ one has a sick feeling, as though one had been present
where vermin were being crushed. There is not a hint of the elation, the
liberation, of real tragedy. The whole thing is simply a wonderful piece
of coloured sensationalism. And even if we turn to the costly sentences of
the play, do we not find that, while in his choice of colour and jewel and
design Flaubert wrought in language like a skilled artificer, Wilde, in
his treatment of words, was more like a lavish amateur about town
displaying his collection of splendid gems?

Wilde speaks of himself in _De Profundis_ as a lord of language. Of
course, he was just the opposite. Language was a vice with him. He took to
it as a man might take to drink. He was addicted rather than devoted to
language. He had a passion for it, but too little sense of responsibility
towards it, and, in his choice of beautiful words, we are always conscious
of the indolence as well as the extravagance of the man of pleasure. How
beautifully, with what facility of beauty, he could use words, everyone
knows who has read his brief _Endymion_ (to name one of the poems), and
the many hyacinthine passages in _Intentions_. But when one is anxious to
see the man himself as in _De Profundis_--that book of a soul imprisoned
in embroidered sophistries--one feels that this cloak of strange words is
no better than a curse.

If Wilde was not a lord of language, however, but only its bejewelled
slave, he was a lord of laughter, and it is because there is so much
laughter as well as language in _Intentions_ that I am inclined to agree
with Mr. Ransome that _Intentions_ is "that one of Wilde's books that most
nearly represents him." Even here, however, Mr. Ransome will insist on
taking Wilde far too seriously. For instance, he tells us that "his
paradoxes are only unfamiliar truths." How horrified Wilde would have been
to hear him say so! His paradoxes are a good deal more than truths--or a
good deal less. They helped, no doubt, to redress a balance, but many of
them were the merest exercises in intellectual rebellion. Mr. Ransome's
attitude on the question of Wilde's sincerity seems to me as impossible as
his attitude in regard to the paradoxes. He draws up a code of artistic
sincerity which might serve as a gospel for minor artists, but of which
every great artist is a living denial. But there is no room to go into
that. Disagree as we may with many of Mr. Ransome's conclusions, we must
be grateful to him for a thoughtful, provocative, and ambitious study of
one of the most brilliant personalities and wits, though by no means one
of the most brilliant imaginative artists, of the nineteenth century.



Mr. Saintsbury as a critic possesses in a high degree the gift of sending
the reader post-haste to the works he criticizes. His _Peace of the
Augustans_ is an almost irresistible incitement to go and forget the
present world among the poets and novelists and biographers and
letter-writers of the eighteenth century. His enthusiasm weaves spells
about even the least of them. He does not merely remind us of the genius
of Pope and Swift, of Fielding and Johnson and Walpole. He also summons us
to Armory's _John Buncle_ and to the Reverend Richard Graves's _Spiritual
Quixote_ as to a feast. Of the latter novel he declares that "for a book
that is to be amusing without being flimsy, and substantial without being
ponderous, _The Spiritual Quixote_ may, perhaps, be commended above all
its predecessors and contemporaries outside the work of the great Four
themselves." That is characteristic of the wealth of invitations scattered
through _The Peace of the Augustans_. After reading the book, one can
scarcely resist the temptation to spend an evening over Young's _Night
Thoughts_ and one will be almost more likely to turn to Prior than to
Shakespeare himself--Prior who, "with the eternal and almost unnecessary
exception of Shakespeare ... is about the first to bring out the true
English humour which involves sentiment and romance, which laughs gently
at its own, tears, and has more than half a tear for its own
laughter"--Prior, of whom it is further written that "no one, except
Thackeray, has ever entered more thoroughly into the spirit of
_Ecclesiastes_." It does not matter that in a later chapter of the book it
is _Rasselas_ which is put with _Ecclesiastes_, and, after _Rasselas_,
_The Vanity of Human Wishes_. One does not go to Mr. Saintsbury as an
inspector of literary weights and measures. His estimates of authors are
the impressions of a man talking in a hurry, and his method is the method
of exaggeration rather than of precise statement. How deficient he is in
the sense of proportion may be judged from the fact that he devotes
slightly more space to Collins than to Pope, unless the pages in which he
assails "Grub Street" as a malicious invention of Pope's are to be counted
to the credit of the latter. But Mr. Saintsbury's book is not so much a
thorough and balanced survey of eighteenth-century literature as a
confession, an almost garrulous monologue on the delights of that
literature. How pleasant and unexpected it is to see a critic in his
seventies as incautious, as pugnacious, as boisterous as an undergraduate!
It is seldom that we find the apostolic spirit of youth living in the same
breast with the riches of experience and memory, as we do in the present

One of the great attractions of the eighteenth century for the modern
world is that, while it is safely set at an historical distance from us,
it is, at the same time, brought within range of our everyday interests.
It is not merely that about the beginning of it men began to write and
talk according to the simple rules of modern times. It is rather that
about this time the man of letters emerges from the mists of legend and
becomes as real as one's uncle in his daily passions and his train of
little interests. One has not to reconstruct the lives of Swift and Pope
from a handful of myths and references in legal documents. There is no
room for anything akin to Baconianism in their regard. They live in a
thousand letters and contemporary illusions, and one might as well be an
agnostic about Mr. Asquith as about either of them. Pope was a champion
liar, and Swift spun mystifications about himself. But, in spite of lies
and Mystifications and gossip, they are both as real to us as if we met
them walking down the Strand. One could not easily imagine Shakespeare
walking down the Strand. The Strand would have to be rebuilt, and the rest
of us would have to put on fancy dress in order to receive him. But though
Swift and Pope lived in a century of wig and powder and in a London
strangely unlike the London of to-day, we do not feel that similar
preparations would be needed in their case. If Swift came back, one can
without difficulty imagine him pamphleteering about war as though he had
merely been asleep for a couple of centuries; and Pope, we may be sure,
would resume, without too great perplexity, his attack on the egoists and
dunces of the world of letters. But Shakespeare's would be a return from
legendary Elysian fields.

Hence Mr. Saintsbury may justly hope that his summons to the modern random
reader, no less than to the scholar, to go and enjoy himself among the
writers of the eighteenth century will not fall on entirely deaf ears. At
the same time, it is only fair to warn the general reader not to follow
Mr. Saintsbury's recommendations and opinions too blindly. He will do well
to take the author's advice and read Pope, but he will do very ill to take
the author's advice as regards what in Pope is best worth reading. Mr.
Saintsbury speaks with respect, for instance, of the _Elegy on an
Unfortunate Lady_--an insincere piece of tombstone rhetoric. "There are
some," he declared in a footnote, "to whom this singular piece is Pope's
strongest atonement, both as poet and man, for his faults as both." It
seems to me to be a poem which reveals Pope's faults as a poet, while of
Pope the man it tells us simply nothing. It has none of Pope's wit, none
of his epigrammatic characterization, none of his bewigged and powdered
fancies, none of his malicious self-revelation. Almost the only
interesting thing about it is the notes the critics have written on it,
discussing whether the lady ever lived, and, if so, whether she was a Miss
Wainsbury or a lady of title, whether she was beautiful or deformed,
whether she was in love with Pope or the Duke of Buckingham or the Duc de
Berry, whether Pope was in love with her, or even knew her, or whether she
killed herself with a sword or by hanging herself. One can find plenty of
"rest and refreshment" among the conjectures of the commentators, but in
the verse itself one can find little but a good example of the technique
of the rhymed couplet. But Mr. Saintsbury evidently loves the heroic
couplet for itself alone. The only long example of Pope's verse which he
quotes is merely ding-dong, and might have been written by any capable
imitator of the poet later in the century. Surely, if his contention is
true that Pope's reputation as a poet is now lower than it ought to be, he
ought to have quoted something from the _Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot_ or _The
Rape of the Lock_, or even _The Essay on Man_. The two first are almost
flawless masterpieces. Here Pope suddenly becomes a star. Here he gilds
his age and his passions with wit and fancy; he ceases to be a mere rhymed
moralist, a mechanician of metre. Mr. Saintsbury, I regret to see,
contends that the first version of _The Rape of the Lock_ is the best. One
can hardly forgive this throwing overboard of the toilet and the fairies
which Pope added in the later edition. We may admit that the gnomes are a
less happy invention than the sylphs, and that their introduction lets the
poem down from its level of magic illusion. But in the second telling the
poem is an infinitely richer and more peopled thing. Had we only known the
first version, we should, no doubt, have felt with Addison that it was
madness to tamper with such exquisite perfection. But Pope, who foolishly
attributed Addison's advice to envy, proved that Addison was wrong. His
revision of _The Rape of the Lock_ is one of the few magnificently
successful examples in literature of painting the lily.

One differs from Mr. Saintsbury, however, less in liking a different
garden from his than in liking a different seat in the same garden. One
who is familiar as he is with all the literature he discusses in the
present volume is bound to indulge all manner of preferences, whims and
even eccentricities. An instance of Mr. Saintsbury's whims is his
complaint that the eighteenth-century essays are almost always reprinted
only in selections and without the advertisements that appeared with them
on their first publication. He is impatient of J. R. Green's dismissal of
the periodical essayist as a "mass of rubbish," and he demands his
eighteenth-century essayists in full, advertisements and all. "Here," he
insists, "these things fringe and vignette the text in the most
appropriate manner, and so set off the quaint variety and the
other-worldly character as nothing else could do." Is not the author's
contention, however, as to the great loss the Addisonian essay suffers
when isolated from its context a severe criticism on that essay as
literature? The man of letters likes to read from a complete _Spectator_
as he does from a complete Wordsworth. At the same time, the best of
Addison, as of Wordsworth, can stand on its own feet in an anthology, and
this is the final proof of its literary excellence. The taste for
eighteenth century advertisements is, after all, only literary
antiquarianism--a delightful indulgence, a by-path, but hardly necessary
to the enjoyment of Addison's genius.

But it is neither Pope nor Addison who is ultimately Mr. Saintsbury's idol
among the poets and prose-writers of the eighteenth century. His idol of
idols is Swift, and next to him he seems most wholeheartedly to love and
admire Dr. Johnson and Fielding. He makes no bones about confessing his
preference of Swift to Aristophanes and Rabelais and Molière. Swift does
not at once fascinate and cold-shoulder him as he does to so many people.
Mr. Saintsbury glorifies _Gulliver_, and wisely so, right down to the last
word about the Houyhnhnms, and he demands for the _Journal to Stella_
recognition as "the first great novel, being at the same time a marvellous
and absolutely genuine autobiography." His ultimate burst of appreciation
is a beautifully characteristic example of what has before been called
Saintsburyese--not because of any obscurity in it, but because of its
oddity of phrase and metaphor:

    Swift never wearies, for, as Bossuet said of human passion
    generally, there is in this greatest master of one of its most
    terrible forms, _quelque chose d'infini_, and the refreshment which
    he offers varies unceasingly from the lightest froth of pure
    nonsense, through beverages middle and stronger to the most drastic
    restoratives--the very strychnine and capsicum of irony.

But what, above all, attracts Mr. Saintsbury in Swift, Fielding and
Johnson is their eminent manliness. He is an enthusiast within limits for
the genius of Sterne and the genius of Horace Walpole. But he loves them
in a grudging way. He is disgusted with their lack of muscle. He admits of
the characters in _Tristrom Shandy_ that "they are ... much more
intrinsically true to life than many, if not almost all, the characters of
Dickens," but he is too greatly shocked by Sterne's humour to be just to
his work as a whole. It is the same with Walpole's letters. Mr. Saintsbury
will heap sentence after sentence of praise upon them, till one would
imagine they were his favourite eighteenth-century literature. He even
defends Walpole's character against Macaulay, but in the result he damns
him with faint praise quite as effectively as Macaulay did. That he has an
enviable appetite for Walpole's letters is shown by the fact that, in
speaking of Mrs. Toynbee's huge sixteen-volume edition of them, he
observes that "even a single reading of it will supply the evening
requirements of a man who does not go to bed very late, and has learnt the
last lesson of intellectual as of other enjoyment--to enjoy _slowly_--for
nearer a month than a week, and perhaps for longer still." The man who can
get through Horace Walpole in a month of evenings without sitting up late
seems to me to be endowed not only with an avarice of reading, but with an
avarice of Walpole. But, in spite of this, Mr. Saintsbury does not seem to
like his author. His ideal author is one of whom he can say, as he does of
Johnson, that he is "one of the greatest of Englishmen, one of the
greatest men of letters, and one of the greatest of _men_." One of his
complaints against Gray is that, though he liked _Joseph Andrews_, he "had
apparently not enough manliness to see some of Fielding's real merits." As
for Fielding, Mr. Saintsbury's verdict is summed up in Dryden's praise of
Chaucer. "Here is God's plenty." In _Tom Jones_ he contends that Fielding
"puts the whole plant of the pleasure-giver in motion, as no
novel-writer--not even Cervantes--had ever done before." For myself, I
doubt whether the exaltation of Fielding has not become too much a matter
of orthodoxy in recent years. Compare him with Swift, and he is
long-winded in his sentences. Compare him with Sterne, and his characters
are mechanical. Compare him with Dickens, and he reaches none of the
depths, either of laughter or of sadness. This is not to question the
genius of Fielding's vivid and critical picture of eighteenth-century
manners and morals. It is merely to put a drag on the wheel of Mr
Saintsbury's galloping enthusiasm.

But, however one may quarrel with it, _The Peace of the Augustans_ is a
book to read with delight--an eccentric book, an extravagant book, a
grumpy book, but a book of rare and amazing enthusiasm for good
literature. Mr. Saintsbury's constant jibes at the present age, as though
no one had ever been unmanly enough to make a joke before Mr. Shaw, become
amusing in the end like Dr. Johnson's rudenesses. And Mr. Saintsbury's one
attempt to criticize contemporary fiction--where he speaks of _Sinister
Street_ in the same breath with _Waverley_ and _Pride and Prejudice_--is
both amusing and rather appalling. But, in spite of his attitude to his
own times, one could not ask for more genial company on going on a
pilgrimage among the Augustans. Mr. Saintsbury has in this book written
the most irresistible advertisement of eighteenth-century literature that
has been published for many years.


Mr. Gosse and Mr. Saintsbury are the two kings of Sparta among English
critics of to-day. They stand preeminent among those of our contemporaries
who have served literature in the capacity of law-givers during the past
fifty years. I do not suggest that they are better critics than Mr.
Birrell or Sir Sidney Colvin or the late Sir E.T. Cook. But none of these
three was ever a professional and whole-time critic, as Mr. Gosse and Mr.
Saintsbury are. One thinks of the latter primarily as the authors of books
about books, though Mr. Gosse is a poet and biographer as well, and Mr.
Saintsbury, it is said, once dreamed of writing a history of wine. One
might say of Mr. Gosse that even in his critical work he writes largely as
a poet and biographer, while Mr. Saintsbury writes of literature as though
he were writing a history of wine. Mr. Saintsbury seeks in literature,
above all things, exhilarating qualities. He can read almost anything and
in any language, provided it is not non-intoxicating. He has a good head,
and it cannot be said that he ever allows an author to go to it. But the
authors whom he has collected in his wonderful cellar unquestionably make
him merry. In his books he always seems to be pressing on us "another
glass of Jane Austen," or "just a thimbleful of Pope," or "a drop of '42
Tennyson." No other critic of literature writes with the garrulous gusto
of a boon-companion as Mr. Saintsbury does. In our youth, when we demand
style as well as gusto, we condemn him on account of his atrocious
English. As we grow older, we think of his English merely as a rather
eccentric sort of coat, and we begin to recognize that geniality such as
his is a part of critical genius. True, he is not over-genial to new
authors. He regards them as he might 1916 claret. Perhaps he is right.
Authors undoubtedly get mellower with age. Even great poetry is, we are
told, a little crude to the taste till it has stood for a few seasons.

Mr. Gosse is at once more grave and more deferential in his treatment of
great authors. One cannot imagine Mr. Saintsbury speaking in a hushed
voice before Shakespeare himself. One can almost hear him saying, "Hullo,
Shakespeare!" To Mr. Gosse, however, literature is an almost sacred
subject. He glows in its presence. He is more lyrical than Mr. Saintsbury,
more imaginative and more eloquent. His short history of English
literature is a book that fills a young head with enthusiasm. He writes as
a servant of the great tradition. He is a Whig, where Mr. Saintsbury is an
heretical old Jacobite. He is, however, saved from a professorial
earnestness by his sharp talent for portraiture. Mr. Gosse's judgments may
or may not last: his portraits certainly will. It is to be hoped that he
will one day write his reminiscences. Such a book would, we feel sure, be
among the great books of portraiture in the history of English literature.
He has already set Patmore and Swinburne before us in comic reality, and
who can forget the grotesque figure of Hans Andersen, sketched in a few
lines though it is, in _Two Visits to Denmark_? It may be replied that Mr.
Gosse has already given us the best of his reminiscences in half a dozen
books of essay and biography. Even so, there were probably many things
which it was not expedient to tell ten or twenty years ago, but which
might well be related for the sake of truth and entertainment to-day. Mr.
Gosse in the past has usually told the truth about authors with the
gentleness of a modern dentist extracting a tooth. He keeps up a steady
conversation of praise while doing the damage. The truth is out before you
know. One becomes suddenly aware that the author has ceased to be as
coldly perfect as a tailor's model, and is a queer-looking creature with a
gap in his jaw. It is possible that the author, were he alive, would feel
furious, as a child sometimes feels with the dentist. None the less, Mr.
Gosse has done him a service. The man who extracts a truth is as much to
be commended as the man who extracts a tooth. It is not the function of
the biographer any more than it is that of a dentist to prettify his
subject. Each is an enemy of decay, a furtherer of life. There is such a
thing as painless biography, but it is the work of quacks. Mr. Gosse is
one of those honest dentists who reassure you by allowing it to hurt you
"just a little."

This gift for telling the truth is no small achievement in a man of
letters. Literature is a broom that sweeps lies out of the mind, and
fortunate is the man who wields it. Unhappily, while Mr. Gosse is daring
in portraiture, he is the reverse in comment. In comment, as his writings
on the war showed, he will fall in with the cant of the times. He can see
through the cant of yesterday with a sparkle in his eyes, but he is less
critical of the cant of to-day. He is at least fond of throwing out saving
clauses, as when, writing of Mr. Sassoon's verse, he says: "His temper is
not altogether to be applauded, for such sentiments must tend to relax the
effort of the struggle, yet they can hardly be reproved when conducted
with so much honesty and courage." Mr. Gosse again writes out of the
official rather than the imaginative mind when, speaking of the war poets,
he observes:

    It was only proper that the earliest of all should be the Poet
    Laureate's address to England, ending with the prophecy:

      Much suffering shall cleanse thee!
        But thou through the flood
      Shall win to salvation,
        To Beauty through blood.

Had a writer of the age of Charles II. written a verse like that, Mr.
Gosse's chortles would have disturbed the somnolent peace of the House of
Peers. Even if it had been written in the time of Albert the Good, he
would have rent it with the destructive dagger of a phrase. As it is, one
is not sure that Mr. Gosse regards this appalling scrap from a bad hymnal
as funny. One hopes that he quoted it with malicious intention. But did
he? Was it not Mr. Gosse who early in the war glorified the blood that was
being shed as a cleansing stream of Condy's Fluid? The truth is, apart
from his thoughts about literature, Mr. Gosse thinks much as the
leader-writers tell him. He is sensitive to beauty of style and to
idiosyncrasy of character, but he lacks philosophy and that tragic sense
that gives the deepest sympathy. That, we fancy, is why we would rather
read him on Catherine Trotter, the precursor of the bluestockings, than on
any subject connected with the war.

Two of the most interesting chapters in Mr. Gosse's _Diversions of a Man
of Letters_ are the essay on Catherine Trotter and that on "the message of
the Wartons." Here he is on ground on which there is no leader-writer to
take him by the hand and guide him into saying "the right thing." He
writes as a disinterested scholar and an entertainer. He forgets the war
and is amused. How many readers are there in England who know that
Catherine Trotter "published in 1693 a copy of verses addressed to Mr.
Bevil Higgons on the occasion of his recovery from the smallpox," and that
"she was then fourteen years of age"? How many know even that she wrote a
blank-verse tragedy in five acts, called _Agnes de Cestro_, and had it
produced at Drury Lane at the age of sixteen? At the age of nineteen she
was the friend of Congreve, and was addressed by Farquhar as "one of the
fairest of her sex and the best judge." By the age of twenty-five,
however, she had apparently written herself out, so far as the stage was
concerned, and after her tragedy, _The Revolution in Sweden_, the theatre
knows her no more. Though described as "the Sappho of Scotland" by the
Queen of Prussia, and by the Duke of Marlborough as "the wisest virgin I
ever knew," her fame did not last even as long as her life. She married a
clergyman, wrote on philosophy and religion, and lived till seventy. Her
later writings, according to Mr. Gosse, "are so dull that merely to think
of them brings tears into one's eyes." Her husband, who was a bit of a
Jacobite, lost his money on account of his opinions, even though--"a
perfect gentleman at heart--'he always prayed for the King and Royal
Family by name.'" "Meanwhile," writes Mr. Gosse, "to uplift his spirits in
this dreadful condition, he is discovered engaged upon a treatise on the
Mosaic deluge, which he could persuade no publisher to print. He reminds
us of Dr. Primrose in _The Vicar of Wakefield_, and, like him, Mr.
Cockburn probably had strong views on the Whistonian doctrine." Altogether
the essay on Catherine Trotter is an admirable example of Mr. Gosse in a
playful mood.

The study of Joseph and Thomas Warton as "two pioneers of romanticism" is
more serious in purpose, and is a scholarly attempt to discover the first
symptoms of romanticism in eighteenth-century literature. Mr. Gosse finds
in _The Enthusiast_, written by Joseph Warton at the age of eighteen, "the
earliest expression of full revolt against the classical attitude which
had been sovereign in all European literature for nearly a century." He
does not pretend that it is a good poem, but "here, for the first time, we
find unwaveringly emphasized and repeated what was entirely new in
literature, the essence of romantic hysteria." It is in Joseph Warton,
according to Mr. Gosse, that we first meet with "the individualist
attitude to nature." Readers of Horace Walpole's letters, however, will
remember still earlier examples of the romantic attitude to nature. But
these were not published for many years afterwards.

The other essays in the book range from the charm of Sterne to the
vivacity of Lady Dorothy Nevill, from a eulogy of Poe to a discussion of
Disraeli as a novelist. The variety, the scholarship, the portraiture of
the book make it a pleasure to read; and, even when Mr. Gosse flatters in
his portraits, his sense of truth impels him to draw the features
correctly, so that the facts break through the praise. The truth is Mr.
Gosse is always doing his best to balance the pleasure of saying the best
with the pleasure of saying the worst. His books are all the more vital
because they bear the stamp of an appreciative and mildly cruel


It is rather odd that two of the ablest American critics should also be
two of the most unsparing enemies of romanticism in literature. Professor
Babbitt and Mr. Paul Elmer More cannot get over the French Revolution.
They seem to think that the rights of man have poisoned literature. One
suspects that they have their doubts even about the American Revolution;
for there, too, the rights of man were asserted against the lust of power.
It is only fair to Professor Babbitt to say that he does not defend the
lust of power. On the contrary, he damns it, and explains it as the
logical and almost inevitable outcome of the rights of man! The steps of
the process by which the change is effected are these. First, we have the
Rousseaus asserting that the natural man is essentially good, but that he
has been depraved by an artificial social system imposed on him from
without. Instead of the quarrel between good and evil in his breast, they
see only the quarrel between the innate good in man and his evil
environment. They hold that all will be well if only he is set free--if
his genius or natural impulses are liberated. "Rousseauism is ... an
emancipation of impulse--especially of the impulse of sex." It is a gospel
of egoism and leaves little room for conscience. Hence it makes men
mengalomaniacs, and the lust for dominion is given its head no less than
the lust of the flesh. "In the absence of ethical discipline," writes
Professor Babbitt in _Rousseau and Romanticism_, "the lust for knowledge
and the lust for feeling count very little, at least practically, compared
with the third main lust of human nature--the lust for power. Hence the
emergence of that most sinister of all types, the efficient megalomaniac."
In the result it appears that not only Rousseau and Hugo, but Wordsworth,
Keats, and Shelley, helped to bring about the European War! Had there been
no wars, no tyrants, and no lascivious men before Rousseau, one would have
been ready to take Professor Babbitt's indictment more seriously.

Professor Babbitt, however, has a serious philosophic idea at the back of
all he says. He believes that man at his noblest lives the life of
obligation rather than of impulse; and that romantic literature
discourages him in this. He holds that man should rise from the plane of
nature to the plane of humanism or the plane of religion, and that to live
according to one's temperament, as the romanticists preach, is to sink
back from human nature, in the best sense, to animal nature. He takes the
view that men of science since Bacon, by the great conquests they have
made in the material sphere, have prepared man to take the romantic and
boastful view of himself. "If men had not been so heartened by scientific
progress they would have been less ready, we may be sure, to listen to
Rousseau when he affirmed that they were naturally good." Not that
Professor Babbitt looks on us as utterly evil and worthy of damnation. He
objects to the gloomy Jonathan-Edwards view, because it helps to
precipitate by reaction the opposite extreme--"the boundless sycophancy of
human nature from which we are now suffering." It was, perhaps, in
reaction against the priests that Rousseau made the most boastful
announcements of his righteousness. "Rousseau feels himself so good that
he is ready, as he declares, to appear before the Almighty at the sound of
the trump of the Last Judgment, with the book of his _Confessions_ in his
hand, and there to issue a challenge to the whole human race, 'Let a
single one assert to Thee if he dare: "I am better than that man."'"
Rousseau would have been saved from this fustian virtue, Professor Babbitt
thinks, if he had accepted either the classic or the religious view of
life: for the classic view imposes on human nature the discipline of
decorum, while the religious view imposes the discipline of humility.
Human nature, he holds, requires the restrictions of the everlasting "No."
Virtue is a struggle within iron limitations, not an easy gush of feeling.
At the same time, Professor Babbitt does not offer us as a cure for our
troubles the decorum of the Pharisees and the pseudo-classicists, who bid
us obey outward rules instead of imitating a spirit. He wishes our men of
letters to rediscover the ethical imagination of the Greeks. "True
classicism," he observes, "does not rest on the observance of rules or the
imitation of modes, but on an immediate insight into the universal." The
romanticists, he thinks, cultivate not the awe we find in the great
writers, but mere wonder. He takes Poe as a typical romanticist. "It is
not easy to discover in either the personality or writings of Poe an atom
of awe or reverence. On the other hand, he both experiences wonder and
seeks in his art to be a pure wonder-smith."

One of the results of putting wonder above awe is that the romanticists
unduly praise the ignorant--the savage, the peasant, and the child.
Wordsworth here comes in for denunciation for having hailed a child of six
as "Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!" Christ, Professor Babbitt tells us,
praised the child not for its capacity for wonder, but for its freedom
from sin. The romanticist, on the other hand, loves the spontaneous gush
of wonder. He loves day-dreams, Arcadianism, fairy-tale Utopianism. He
begins with an uncontrolled fancy and ends with an uncontrolled character.
He tries all sorts of false gods--nature-worship, art-worship,
humanitarianism, sentimentalism about animals. As regards the last of
these, romanticism, according to the author, has meant the rehabilitation
of the ass, and the Rousseauists are guilty of onolatry. "Medical men have
given a learned name to the malady of those who neglect the members of
their own family and gush over animals (zoöphilpsychosis). But Rousseau
already exhibits this 'psychosis.' He abandoned his five children one
after the other, but had, we are told, an unspeakable affection for his
dog." As for the worship of nature, it leads to a "wise passiveness"
instead of the wise energy of knowledge and virtue, and tempts man to idle
in pantheistic reveries. "In Rousseau or Walt Whitman it amounts to a sort
of ecstatic animality that sets up as a divine illumination." Professor
Babbitt distrusts ecstasy as he distrusts Arcadianism. He perceives the
mote of Arcadianism even in "the light that never was on sea or land." He
has no objection to a "return to nature," if it is for purposes of
recreation: he denounces it, however, when it is set up as a cult or "a
substitute for philosophy and religion." He denounces, indeed, every kind
of "painless substitute for genuine spiritual effort." He admires the
difficult virtues, and holds that the gift of sympathy or pity or
fraternity is in their absence hardly worth having.

On points of this kind, I fancy, he would have had on his side Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Browning, and many of the other "Rousseauists" whom he attacks.
Professor Babbitt, however, is a merciless critic, and the writers of the
nineteenth century, who seemed to most of us veritable monsters of ethics,
are to him simply false prophets of romanticism and scientific
complacency. "The nineteenth century," he declares, "may very well prove
to have been the most wonderful and the least wise of centuries." He
admits the immense materialistic energy of the century, but this did not
make up for the lack of a genuine philosophic insight in life and
literature. Man is a morally indolent animal, and he was never more so
than when he was working "with something approaching frenzy according to
the natural law." Faced with the spectacle of a romantic spiritual sloth
accompanied by a materialistic, physical, and even intellectual energy,
the author warns us that "the discipline that helps a man to self-mastery
is found to have a more important bearing on his happiness than the
discipline that helps him to a mastery of physical nature." He sees a
peril to our civilization in our absorption in the temporal and our
failure to discover that "something abiding" on which civilization must
rest. He quotes Aristotle's anti-romantic saying that "most men would
rather live in a disorderly than in a sober manner." He feels that in
conduct, politics, and the arts, we have, as the saying is, "plumped for"
the disorderly manner to-day.

His book is a very useful challenge to the times, though it is a dangerous
book to put in the hands of anyone inclined to Conservatism. After all,
romanticism was a great liberating force. It liberated men, not from
decorum, but from pseudo-decorum--not from humility, but from
subserviency. It may be admitted that, without humility and decorum of the
true kind, liberty is only pseudo-liberty, equality only pseudo-equality,
and fraternity only pseudo-fraternity. I am afraid, however, that in
getting rid of the vices of romanticism Professor Babbitt would pour away
the baby with the bath water.

Where Professor Babbitt goes wrong is in not realizing that romanticism
with its emphasis on rights is a necessary counterpart to classicism with
its emphasis on duties. Each of them tries to do without the other. The
most notorious romantic lovers were men who failed to realize the
necessity of fidelity, just as the minor romantic artists to-day fail to
realize the necessity of tradition. On the other hand, the
classicist-in-excess prefers a world in which men preserve the decorum of
servants to a world in which they might attain to the decorum of equals.
Professor Babbitt refers to the pseudo-classical drama of
seventeenth-century France, in which men confused nobility of language
with the language of the nobility. He himself unfortunately is not free
from similar prejudices. He is antipathetic, so far as one can see, to any
movement for a better social system than we already possess. He is
definitely in reaction against the whole forward movement of the last two
centuries. He has pointed out certain flaws in the moderns, but he has
failed to appreciate their virtues. Literature to-day is less noble than
the literature of Shakespeare, partly, I think, because men have lost the
"sense of sin." Without the sense of sin we cannot have the greatest
tragedy. The Greeks and Shakespeare perceived the contrast between the
pure and the impure, the noble and the base, as no writer perceives it
to-day. Romanticism undoubtedly led to a confusion of moral values. On the
other hand, it was a necessary counterblast to formalism. In the great
books of the world, in _Isaiah_ and the Gospels, the best elements of both
the classic and the romantic are found working together in harmony. If
Christ were living to-day, is Professor Babbitt quite sure that he himself
would not have censured the anthophilpsychosis of "Consider the lilies of
the field"?



Mr. Walter de la Mare gives us no Thames of song. His genius is scarcely
more than a rill. But how the rill shines! How sweet a music it makes!
Into what lands of romance does it flow, and beneath what hedges populous
with birds! It seems at times as though it were a little fugitive stream
attempting to run as far away as possible from the wilderness of reality
and to lose itself in quiet, dreaming places. There never were shyer songs
than these.

Mr. de la Mare is at the opposite pole to poets so robustly at ease with
experience as Browning and Whitman. He has no cheers or welcome for the
labouring universe on its march. He is interested in the daily procession
only because he seeks in it one face, one figure. He is love-sick for
love, for beauty, and longs to save it from the contamination of the
common world. Like the lover in _The Tryst_, he dreams always of a secret
place of love and beauty set solitarily beyond the bounds of the time and
space we know:

  Beyond the rumour even of Paradise come,
  There, out of all remembrance, make our home:
  Seek we some close hid shadow for our lair,
  Hollowed by Noah's mouse beneath the chair
  Wherein the Omnipotent, in slumber bound,
  Nods till the piteous Trump of Judgment sound.
  Perchance Leviathan of the deep sea
  Would lease a lost mermaiden's grot to me,
  There of your beauty we would joyance make--
  A music wistful for the sea-nymph's sake:
  Haply Elijah, o'er his spokes of fire,
  Cresting steep Leo, or the Heavenly Lyre,
  Spied, tranced in azure of inanest space,
  Some eyrie hostel meet for human grace,
  Where two might happy be--just you and I--
  Lost in the uttermost of Eternity.

This is, no doubt, a far from rare mood in poetry. Even the waltz-songs of
the music-halls express, or attempt to express, the longing of lovers for
an impossible loneliness. Mr. de la Mare touches our hearts, however, not
because he shares our sentimental day-dreams, but because he so mournfully
turns back from them to the bitterness of reality:

  No, no. Nor earth, nor air, nor fire, nor deep
  Could lull poor mortal longingness asleep.
  Somewhere there Nothing is; and there lost Man
  Shall win what changeless vague of peace he can.

These lines (ending in an unsatisfactory and ineffective vagueness of
phrase, which is Mr. de la Mare's peculiar vice as a poet) suggests
something of the sad philosophy which runs through the verse in _Motley_.
The poems are, for the most part, praise of beauty sought and found in the
shadow of death.

Melancholy though it is, however, Mr. de la Mare's book is, as we have
said, a book of praise, not of lamentations. He triumphantly announces
that, if he were to begin to write of earth's wonders:

  Flit would the ages
  On soundless wings
  Ere unto Z
  My pen drew nigh;
  Leviathan told,
  And the honey-fly.

He cannot come upon a twittering linnet, a "thing of light," in a bush
without realizing that--

  All the throbbing world
    Of dew and sun and air
  By this small parcel of life
    Is made more fair.

He bids us in _Farewell_:

  Look thy last on all things lovely
    Every hour. Let no night
  Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
    Till to delight
  Thou have paid thy utmost blessing.

Thus, there is nothing faint-hearted in Mr. de la Mare's melancholy. His
sorrow is idealist's sorrow. He has the heart of a worshipper, a lover.

We find evidence of this not least in his war-verses. At the outbreak of
the war he evidently shared with other lovers and idealists the feeling of
elation in the presence of noble sacrifices made for the world.

  Now each man's mind all Europe is,

he cries, in the first line in _Happy England_, and, as he remembers the
peace of England, "her woods and wilds, her loveliness," he exclaims:

  O what a deep contented night
    The sun from out her Eastern seas
  Would bring the dust which in her sight
    Had given its all for these!

So beautiful a spirit as Mr. de la Mare's, however, could not remain
content with idealizing from afar the sacrifices and heroism of dying men.
In the long poem called _Motley_ he turns from the heroism to the madness
of war, translating his vision into a fool's song:

  Nay, but a dream I had
  Of a world all mad,
  Not simply happy mad like me,
  Who am mad like an empty scene
  Of water and willow-tree,
  Where the wind hath been;
  But that foul Satan-mad,
  Who rots in his own head....

The fool's vision of men going into battle is not a vision of knights of
the Holy Ghost nobly falling in the lists with their country looking on,
but of men's bodies--

  Dragging cold cannon through a mire
  Of rain and blood and spouting fire,
  The new moon glinting hard on eyes
  Wide with insanities!

In _The Marionettes_ Mr. de la Mare turns to tragic satire for relief from
the bitterness of a war-maddened world:

  Let the foul scene proceed:
    There's laughter in the wings;
  'Tis sawdust that they bleed,
    But a box Death brings.

  How rare a skill is theirs
    These extreme pangs to show,
  How real a frenzy wears
    Each feigner of woe!

And the poem goes on in perplexity of anger and anguish:

  Strange, such a Piece is free,
    While we spectators sit,
  Aghast at its agony,
    Yet absorbed in it!

  Dark is the outer air,
    Coldly the night draughts blow,
  Mutely we stare, and stare,
    At the frenzied Show.

  Yet Heaven hath its quiet shroud
    Of deep, immutable blue--
  We cry, "The end!" We are bowed
    By the dread, "'Tis true!"

  While the Shape who hoofs applause
    Behind our deafened ear,
  Hoots--angel-wise--"the Cause"!
    And affrights even fear.

There is something in these lines that reminds one of Mr. Thomas Hardy's
black-edged indictment of life.

As we read Mr. de la Mare, indeed, we are reminded again and again of the
work of many other poets--of the ballad-writers, the Elizabethan
song-writers, Blake and Wordsworth, Mr. Hardy and Mr. W.B. Yeats. In some
instances it is as though Mr. de la Mare had deliberately set himself to
compose a musical variation on the same theme as one of the older masters.
Thus, _April Moon_, which contains the charming verse--

  "The little moon that April brings,
    More lovely shade than light,
  That, setting, silvers lonely hills
    Upon the verge of night"--

is merely Wordsworth's "She dwelt among the untrodden ways" turned into
new music. New music, we should say, is Mr. de la Mare's chief gift to
literature--a music not regular or precise or certain, but none the less a
music in which weak rhymes and even weak phrases are jangled into a
strange beauty, as in _Alexander_, which begins:

  It was the Great Alexander,
    Capped with a golden helm,
  Sate in the ages, in his floating ship,
    In a dead calm.

One finds Mr. de la Mare's characteristic, unemphatic music again in the
opening lines of _Mrs. Grundy_:

  Step very softly, sweet Quiet-foot,
  Stumble not, whisper not, smile not,

where "foot" and "not" are rhymes.

It is the stream of music flowing through his verses rather than any
riches of imagery or phrase that makes one rank the author so high among
living poets. But music in verse can hardly be separated from intensity
and sincerity of vision. This music of Mr. de la Mare's is not a mere
craftsman's tune: it is an echo of the spirit. Had he not seen beautiful
things passionately, Mr. de la Mare could never have written:

  Thou with thy cheek on mine,
  And dark hair loosed, shalt see
  Take the far stars for fruit
  The cypress tree,
  And in the yew's black
  Shall the moon be.

Beautiful as Mr. de la Mare's vision is, however, and beautiful as is his
music, we miss in his work that frequent perfection of phrase which is
part of the genius of (to take another living writer) Mr. Yeats. One has
only to compare Mr. Yeats's _I Heard the Old, Old Men Say_ with Mr. de la
Mare's _The Old Men_ to see how far the latter falls below verbal mastery.
Mr. Yeats has found the perfect embodiment for his imagination. Mr. de la
Mare seems in comparison to be struggling with his medium, and contrives
in his first verse to be no more than just articulate:

  Old and alone, sit we,
    Caged, riddle-rid men,
  Lost to earth's "Listen!" and "See!"
    Thought's "Wherefore?" and "When?"

There is vision in some of the later verses in the poem, but, if we read
it alongside of Mr. Yeats's, we get an impression of unsuccess of
execution. Whether one can fairly use the word "unsuccess" in reference to
verse which succeeds so exquisitely as Mr. de la Mare's in being
literature is a nice question. But how else is one to define the peculiar
quality of his style--its hesitations, its vaguenesses, its obscurities?
On the other hand, even when his lines leave the intellect puzzled and the
desire for grammar unsatisfied, a breath of original romance blows through
them and appeals to us like the illogical burden of a ballad. Here at
least are the rhythms and raptures of poetry, if not always the beaten
gold of speech. Sometimes Mr. de la Mare's verse reminds one of
piano-music, sometimes of bird-music: it wavers so curiously between what
is composed and what is unsophisticated. Not that one ever doubts for a
moment that Mr. de la Mare has spent on his work an artist's pains. He has
made a craft out of his innocence. If he produces in his verse the effect
of the wind among the reeds, it is the result not only of his artlessness,
but of his art. He is one of the modern poets who have broken away from
the metrical formalities of Swinburne and the older men, and who, of set
purpose, have imposed upon poetry the beauty of a slightly irregular

He is typical of his generation, however, not only in his form, but in the
pain of his unbelief (as shown in _Betrayal_), and in that sense of
half-revelation that fills him always with wonder and sometimes with hope.
His poems tell of the visits of strange presences in dream and vacancy. In
_A Vacant Day_, after describing the beauty of a summer moon, with clear
waters flowing under willows, he closes with the verses:

  I listened; and my heart was dumb
    With praise no language could express;
  Longing in vain for him to come
    Who had breathed such blessedness.

  On this fair world, wherein we pass
    So chequered and so brief a stay,
  And yearned in spirit to learn, alas!
    What kept him still away.

In these poems we have the genius of the beauty of gentleness expressing
itself as it is doing nowhere else just now in verse. Mr. de la Mare's
poetry is not only lovely, but lovable. He has a personal possession--

  The skill of words to sweeten despair,

such as will, we are confident, give him a permanent place in English


The latest collection of Georgian verse has had a mixed reception. One or
two distinguished critics have written of it in the mood of a challenge to
mortal combat. Men have begun to quarrel over the question whether we are
living in an age of poetic dearth or of poetic plenty--whether the world
is a nest of singing-birds or a cage in which the last canary has been
dead for several years.

All this, I think, is a good sign. It means that poetry is interesting
people sufficiently to make them wish to argue about it. Better a
breeze--even a somewhat excessive breeze--than stagnant air. It is good
both for poets and for the reading public. It prevents the poets from
resting on their wings, as they might be tempted to do by a consistent
calm of praise. It compels them to examine their work more critically.
Anyhow, "fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil," and a reasonable
amount of sharp censure will do a true poet more good than harm. It will
not necessarily injure even his sales. I understand the latest volume of
_Georgian Poetry_ is already in greater demand than its predecessor.

It is a good anthology of the poetry of the last two years without being
an ideal anthology. Some good poets and some good poems have been omitted.
And they have been omitted, in some instances, in favour of inferior work.
Many of us would prefer an anthology of the best poems rather than an
anthology of authors. At the same time, with all its faults, _Georgian
Poetry_ still remains the best guide we possess to the poetic activities
of the time. I am glad to see that the editor includes the work of a woman
in his new volume. This helps to make it more representative than the
previous selections. But there are several other living women who are
better poets, at the lowest estimate, than at least a quarter of the men
who have gained admission.

Mr. W.H. Davies is by now a veteran among the Georgians, and one cannot
easily imagine a presence more welcome in a book of verse. Among poets he
is a bird singing in a hedge. He communicates the same sense of freshness
while he sings. He has also the quick eye of a bird. He is, for all his
fairy music, on the look-out for things that will gratify his appetite. He
looks to the earth rather than the sky, though he is by no means deaf to
the lark that

  Raves in his windy heights above a cloud.

At the same time, at his best, he says nothing about his appetite, and
sings in the free spirit of a child at play. His best poems are songs of
innocence. At least, that is the predominant element in them. He warned
the public in a recent book that he is not so innocent as he sounds. But
his genius certainly is. He has written greater poems than any that are
included in the present selection. _Birds_, however, is a beautiful
example of his gift for joy. We need not fear for contemporary poetry
while the hedges contain a poet such as Mr. Davies.

Mr. de la Mare does not sing from a hedge. He is a child of the arts. He
plays an instrument. His music is the music of a lute of which some of the
strings have been broken. It is so extraordinarily sweet, indeed, that one
has to explain him to oneself as the perfect master of an imperfect
instrument. He is at times like Watts's figure of Hope listening to the
faint music of the single string that remains unbroken. There is always
some element of hope, or of some kindred excuse for joy, even in his
deepest melancholy. But it is the joy of a spirit, not of a "super-tramp."
Prospero might have summoned just such a spirit through the air to make
music for him. And Mr. de la Mare's is a spirit perceptible to the ear
rather than to the eye. One need not count him the equal of Campion in
order to feel that he has something of Campion's beautiful genius for
making airs out of words. He has little enough of the Keatsian genius for
choosing the word that has the most meaning for the seeing imagination.
But there is a secret melody in his words that, when once one has
recognized it, one can never forget.

How different the Georgian poets are from each other may be seen if we
compare three of the best poems in this book, all of them on similar
subjects--Mr. Davies's _Birds_, Mr. de la Mare's _Linnet_, and Mr.
Squire's _Birds_. Mr. Squire would feel as out of place in a hedge as
would Mr. de la Mare. He has an aquiline love of soaring and surveying
immense tracts with keen eyes. He loves to explore both time and the map,
but he does this without losing his eyehold on the details of the Noah's
Ark of life on the earth beneath him. He does not lose himself in vaporous
abstractions; his eye, as well as his mind, is extraordinarily
interesting. This poem of his, _Birds_, is peopled with birds. We see them
in flight and in their nests. At the same time, the philosophic wonder of
Mr. Squire's poem separates him from Mr. Davies and Mr. de la Mare. Mr.
Davies, I fancy, loves most to look at birds; Mr. de la Mare to listen to
birds; Mr. Squire to brood over them with the philosophic imagination. It
would, of course, be absurd to offer this as a final statement of the
poetic attitude of the three writers. It is merely an attempt to
differentiate among them with the help of a prominent characteristic of

The other poets in the collection include Mr. Robert Graves (with his
pleasant bias towards nursery rhymes), Mr. Sassoon (with his sensitive,
passionate satire), and Mr. Edward Shanks (with his trembling
responsiveness to beauty). It is the first time that Mr. Shanks appears
among the Georgians, and his _Night Piece_ and _Glow-worm_ both show how
exquisite is his sensibility. He differs from the other poets by his
quasi-analytic method. He seems to be analyzing the beauty of the evening
in both these poems. Mrs. Shove's _A Man Dreams that He is the Creator_ is
a charming example of fancy toying with a great theme.


Satire, it has been said, is an ignoble art; and it is probable that there
are no satirists in Heaven. Probably there are no doctors either. Satire
and medicine are our responses to a diseased world--to our diseased
selves. They are responses, however, that make for health. Satire holds
the medicine-glass up to human nature. It also holds the mirror up in a
limited way. It does not show a man what he looks like when he is both
well and good. It does show a man what he looks like, however, when he
breaks out into spots or goes yellow, pale, or mottled as a result of
making a beast of himself. It reflects only sick men; but it reflects them
with a purpose. It would be a crime to permit it, if the world were a
hospital for incurables. To write satire is an act of faith, not a
luxurious exercise. The despairing Swift was a fighter, as the despairing
Anatole France is a fighter. They may have uttered the very Z of
melancholy about the animal called man; but at least they were
sufficiently optimistic to write satires and to throw themselves into
defeated causes.

It would be too much to expect of satire that it alone will cure mankind
of the disease of war. It is a good sign, however, that satires on war
have begun to be written. War has affected with horror or disgust a number
of great imaginative writers in the last two or three thousand years. The
tragic indictment of war in _The Trojan Women_ and the satiric indictment
in _The Voyage to the Houyhnhnms_ are evidence that some men at least saw
through the romance of war before the twentieth century. In the war that
has just ended, however--or that would have ended if the Peace Conference
would let it--we have seen an imaginative revolt against war, not on the
part of mere men of letters, but on the part of soldiers. Ballads have
survived from other wars, depicting the plight of the mutilated soldier
left to beg:

  You haven't an arm and you haven't a leg,
  You're an eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg,
  You ought to be put in a bowl to beg--
      Och, Johnnie, I hardly knew you!

But the recent war has produced a literature of indictment, basing itself
neither on the woes of women nor on the wrongs of ex-soldiers, but on the
right of common men not to be forced into mutual murder by statesmen who
themselves never killed anything more formidable than a pheasant.
Soldiers--or some of them--see that wars go on only because the people who
cause them do not realize what war is like. I do not mean to suggest that
the kings, statesmen and journalists who bring wars about would not
themselves take part in the fighting rather than that there should be no
fighting at all. The people who cause wars, however, are ultimately the
people who endure kings, statesmen and journalists of the exploiting and
bullying kind. The satire of the soldiers is an appeal not to the
statesmen and journalists, but to the general imagination of mankind. It
is an attempt to drag our imaginations away from the heroics of the
senate-house into the filth of the slaughter-house. It does not deny the
heroism that exists in the slaughter-house any more than it denies the
heroism that exists in the hospital ward. But it protests that, just as
the heroism of a man dying of cancer must not be taken to justify cancer,
so the heroism of a million men dying of war must not be taken to justify
war. There are some who believe that neither war nor cancer is a curable
disease. One thing we can be sure of in this connection: we shall never
get rid either of war or of cancer if we do not learn to look at them
realistically and see how loathsome they are. So long as war was regarded
as inevitable, the poet was justified in romanticizing it, as in that
epigram in the _Greek Anthology:_

    Demætia sent eight sons to encounter the phalanx of the foe, and
    she buried them all beneath one stone. No tear did she shed in her
    mourning, but said this only: "Ho, Sparta, I bore these children
    for thee."

As soon as it is realized, however, that wars are not inevitable, men
cease to idealize Demætia, unless they are sure she did her best to keep
the peace. To a realistic poet of war such as Mr. Sassoon, she is an
object of pity rather than praise. His sonnet, _Glory of Women_, suggests
that there is another point of view besides Demætia's:

  You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
  Or wounded in a mentionable place.
  You worship decorations; you believe
  That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
  You make us shells. You listen with delight,
  By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
  You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
  And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.

  You can't believe that British troops "retire"
  When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
  Trampling the terrible corpses--blind with blood.
  _O German mother dreaming by the fire,_
  _While you, are knitting socks to send your son_
  _His face is trodden deeper in the mud._

To Mr. Sassoon and the other war satirists, indeed, those stay at home and
incite others to go out and kill or get killed seem either pitifully
stupid or pervertedly criminal. Mr. Sassoon has now collected all his war
poems into one volume, and one is struck by the energetic hatred of those
who make war in safety that finds expression in them. Most readers will
remember the bitter joy of the dream that one day he might hear "the
yellow pressmen grunt and squeal," and see the Junkers driven out of
Parliament by the returned soldiers. Mr. Sassoon cannot endure the
enthusiasm of the stay-at-home--especially the enthusiasm that pretends
that soldiers not only behave like music-hall clowns, but are incapable of
the more terrible emotional experiences. He would like, I fancy, to forbid
civilians to make jokes during war-time. His hatred of the jesting
civilian attains passionate expression in the poem called _Blighters_:

  The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
  And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
  Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
  "We're sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!"

  I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
  Lurching to rag-time tunes, or "Home, sweet Home,"--
  And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls
  To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Mr. Sassoon himself laughs on occasion, but it is the laughter of a man
being driven insane by an insane world. The spectacle of lives being
thrown away by the hundred thousand by statesmen and generals without the
capacity to run a village flower-show, makes him find relief now and then
in a hysteria of mirth, as in _The General_:

  "Good-morning; good-morning!" the General said
  When we met him last week on our way to the Line,
  Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
  And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
  "He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
  As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
         *       *       *       *       *
  But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Mr. Sassoon's verse is also of importance because it paints life in the
trenches with a realism not to be found elsewhere in the English poetry of
the war. He spares us nothing of:

                        The strangled horror
  And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

He gives us every detail of the filth, the dullness, and the agony of the
trenches. His book is in its aim destructive. It is a great pamphlet
against war. If posterity wishes to know what war was like during this
period, it will discover the truth, not in _Barrack-room Ballads_, but in
Mr. Sassoon's verse. The best poems in the book are poems of hatred. This
means that Mr. Sassoon has still other worlds to conquer in poetry. His
poems have not the constructive ardour that we find in the revolutionary
poems of Shelley. They are utterances of pain rather than of vision. Many
of them, however, rise to a noble pity--_The Prelude_, for instance, and
_Aftermath_, the latter of which ends:

  Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,--
  The night you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
  Do you remember the rats; and the stench
  Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,--
  And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
  Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"

  Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
  And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
  As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
  Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
  With dying eyes and lolling heads,--those ashen-grey
  Masks of the lad who once were keen and kind and gay?

  _Have you forgotten yet?..._
  _Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you'll never forget._

Mr. Sitwell's satires--which occupy the most interesting pages of
_Argonaut and Juggernaut_--seldom take us into the trenches. Mr. Sitwell
gets all the subjects he wants in London clubs and drawing-rooms. These
"free-verse" satires do not lend themselves readily to quotation, but both
the manner and the mood of them can be guessed from the closing verses of
_War-horses_, in which the "septuagenarian butterflies" of Society return
to their platitudes and parties after seeing the war through:

  But now
  They have come out.
  They have preened
  And dried themselves
  After their blood bath.
  Old men seem a little younger,
  And tortoise-shell combs
  Are longer than ever;
  Earrings weigh down aged ears;
  And Golconda has given them of its best.

  They have seen it through!
  Theirs is the triumph,
  And, beneath
  The carved smile of the Mona Lisa,
  False teeth
  Like machine-guns,
  In anticipation
  Of food and platitudes.
  Les Vieilles Dames Sans Merci!

Mr. Sitwell's hatred of war is seldom touched with pity. It is arrogant
hatred. There is little emotion in it but that of a young man at war with
age. He pictures the dotards of two thousand years ago complaining that
Christ did not die--

                      Like a hero
  With an oath on his lips,
  Or the refrain from a comic song--
  Or a cheerful comment of some kind.

His own verse, however, seems to me to be hardly more in sympathy with the
spirit of Christ than with the spirit of those who mocked him. He is moved
to write by unbelief in the ideals of other people rather than by the
passionate force of ideals of his own. He is a sceptic, not a sufferer.
His work proceeds less from his heart than from his brain. It is a clever
brain, however, and his satirical poems are harshly entertaining and will
infuriate the right people. They may not kill Goliath, but at least they
will annoy Goliath's friends. David's weapon, it should be remembered, was
a sling, with some pebbles from the brook, not a pea-shooter.

The truth is, so far as I can see, Mr. Sitwell has not begun to take
poetry quite seriously. His non-satirical verse is full of bright colour,
but it has the brightness, not of the fields and the flowers, but of
captive birds in an aviary. It is as though Mr. Sitwell had taken poetry
for his hobby. I suspect his Argonauts of being ballet dancers. He enjoys
amusing little decorations--phrases such as "concertina waves" and--

  The ocean at a toy shore
  Yaps like a Pekinese.

His moonlight owl is surely a pretty creature from the unreality of a

  An owl, horned wizard of the night,
  Flaps through the air so soft and still;
  Moaning, it wings its flight
  Far from the forest cool,
  To find the star-entangled surface of a pool,
  Where it may drink its fill
  Of stars.

At the same time, here and there are evidences that Mr. Sitwell has felt
as well as fancied. The opening verse of _Pierrot Old_ gives us a real
impression of shadows:

  The harvest moon is at its height,
  The evening primrose greets its light
  With grace and joy: then opens up
  The mimic moon within its cup.
  Tall trees, as high as Babel tower,
  Throw down their shadows to the flower--
  Shadows that shiver--seem to see
  An ending to infinity.

But there is too much of Pan, the fauns and all those other ballet-dancers
in his verse. Mr. Sitwell's muse wears some pretty costumes. But one
wonders when she will begin to live for something besides clothes.


Literature maintains an endless quarrel with idle sentences. Twenty years
ago this would have seemed too obvious to bear saying. But in the meantime
there has been a good deal of dipping of pens in chaos, and authors have
found excuses for themselves in a theory of literature which is impatient
of difficult writing. It would not matter if it were only the paunched and
flat-footed authors who were proclaiming the importance of writing without
style. Unhappily, many excellent writers as well have used their gift of
style to publish the praise of stylelessness. Within the last few weeks I
have seen it suggested by two different critics that the hasty writing
which has left its mark on so much of the work of Scott and Balzac was a
good thing and almost a necessity of genius. It is no longer taken for
granted, as it was in the days of Stevenson, that the starry word is worth
the pains of discovery. Stevenson, indeed, is commonly dismissed as a
pretty-pretty writer, a word-taster without intellect or passion, a
juggler rather than an artist. Pater's bust also is mutilated by
irreverent schoolboys: it is hinted that he may have done well enough for
the days of Victoria, but that he will not do at all for the world of
George. It is all part of the reaction against style which took place when
everybody found out the æsthetes. It was, one may admit, an excellent
thing to get rid of the æsthetes, but it was by no means an excellent
thing to get rid of the virtue which they tried to bring into English art
and literature. The æsthetes were wrong in almost everything they said
about art and literature, but they were right in impressing upon the
children of men the duty of good drawing and good words. With the
condemnation of Oscar Wilde, however, good words became suspected of
kinship with evil deeds. Style was looked on as the sign of minor poets
and major vices. Possibly, on the other hand, the reaction against style
had nothing to do with the Wilde condemnation. The heresy of the
stylelessness is considerably older than that. Perhaps it is not quite
fair to call it the heresy of stylelessness: it would be more accurate to
describe it as the heresy of style without pains. It springs from the idea
that great literature is all a matter of first fine careless raptures, and
it is supported by the fact that apparently much of the greatest
literature is so. If lines like

  Hark, hark! the lark at Heaven's gate sings,


  When daffodils begin to peer,


  His golden locks time hath to silver turned,

shape themselves in the poet's first thoughts, he would be a manifest fool
to trouble himself further. Genius is the recognition of the perfect line,
the perfect phrase, the perfect word, when it appears, and this perfect
line or phrase or word is quite as likely to appear in the twinkling of an
eye as after a week of vigils. But the point is that it does not
invariably so appear. It sometimes cost Flaubert three days' labour to
write one perfect sentence. Greater writers have written more hurriedly.
But this does not justify lesser writers in writing hurriedly too.

Of all the authors who have exalted the part played in literature by
inspiration as compared with labour, none has written more nobly or with
better warrant than Shelley. "The mind," he wrote in the _Defence of

    The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible
    influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory
    brightness; the power arises from within, like the colour of a
    flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the
    conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its
    approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its
    original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the
    greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration
    is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry
    that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble
    shadow of the original conceptions of the poet. I appeal to the
    greatest poets of the present day, whether it is not an error to
    assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour
    and study.

He then goes on to interpret literally Milton's reference to _Paradise
Lost_ as an "unpremeditated song" "dictated" by the Muse, and to reply
scornfully to those "who would allege the fifty-six various readings of
the first line of the _Orlando Furioso_." Who is there who would not agree
with Shelley quickly if it were a question of having to choose between his
inspirational theory of literature and the mechanical theory of the arts
advocated by writers like Sir Joshua Reynolds? Literature without
inspiration is obviously even a meaner thing than literature without
style. But the idea that any man can become an artist by taking pains is
merely an exaggerated protest against the idea that a man can become an
artist without taking pains. Anthony Trollope, who settled down
industriously to his day's task of literature as to bookkeeping, did not
grow into an artist in any large sense; and Zola, with the motto "Nulle
dies sine linea" ever facing him on his desk, made himself a prodigious
author, indeed, but never more than a second-rate writer. On the other
hand, Trollope without industry would have been nobody at all, and Zola
without pains might as well have been a waiter. Nor is it only the little
or the clumsy artists who have found inspiration in labour. It is a pity
we have not first drafts of all the great poems in the world: we might
then see how much of the magic of literature is the result of toil and how
much of the unprophesied wind of inspiration. Sir Sidney Colvin recently
published an early draft of Keats's sonnet, "Bright star, would I were
stedfast as thou art," which showed that in the case of Keats at least the
mind in creation was not "as a fading coal," but as a coal blown to
increasing flame and splendour by sheer "labour and study." And the poetry
of Keats is full of examples of the inspiration not of first but of second
and later thoughts. Henry Stephens, a medical student who lived with him
for time, declared that an early draft of _Endymion_ opened with the line:

  A thing of beauty is a constant joy

--a line which, Stephens observed on hearing it, was "a fine line, but
wanting something." Keats thought over it for a little, then cried out, "I
have it," and wrote in its place:

  A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

Nor is this an exceptional example of the studied miracles of Keats. The
most famous and, worn and cheapened by quotation though it is, the most
beautiful of all his phrases--

    magic casements, opening on the foam
  Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn--

did not reach its perfect shape without hesitation and thinking. He
originally wrote "the wide casements" and "keelless seas":

    the wide casements, opening on the foam
  Of keelless seas, in fairy lands forlorn.

That would probably have seemed beautiful if the perfect version had not
spoiled it for us. But does not the final version go to prove that
Shelley's assertion that "when composition begins, inspiration is already
on the decline" does not hold good for all poets? On the contrary, it is
often the heat of labour which produces the heat of inspiration. Or rather
it is often the heat of labour which enables the writer to recall the heat
of inspiration. Ben Jonson, who held justly that "the poet must be able by
nature and instinct to pour out the treasure of his mind," took care to
add the warning that no one must think he "can leap forth suddenly a poet
by dreaming he hath been in Parnassus." Poe has uttered a comparable
warning against an excessive belief in the theory of the plenary
inspiration of poets in his _Marginalia_, where he declares that "this
untenable and paradoxical idea of the incompatibility of genius and _art_"
must be "kick[ed] out of the world's way." Wordsworth's saying that poetry
has its origin in "emotion recollected in tranquillity" also suggests that
the inspiration of poetry is an inspiration that may be recaptured by
contemplation and labour. How eagerly one would study a Shakespeare
manuscript, were it unearthed, in which one could see the shaping
imagination of the poet at work upon his lines! Many people have the
theory--it is supported by an assertion of Jonson's--that Shakespeare
wrote with a current pen, heedless of blots and little changes. He was, it
is evident, not one of the correct authors. But it seems unlikely that no
pains of rewriting went to the making of the speeches in _A Midsummer
Night's Dream_ or Hamlet's address to the skull. Shakespeare, one feels,
is richer than any other author in the beauty of first thoughts. But one
seems to perceive in much of his work the beauty of second thoughts too.
There have been few great writers who have been so incapable of revision
as Robert Browning, but Browning with all his genius is not a great
stylist to be named with Shakespeare. He did indeed prove himself to be a
great stylist in more than one poem, such as _Childe Roland_--which he
wrote almost at a sitting. His inspiration, however, seldom raised his
work to the same beauty of perfection. He is, as regards mere style, the
most imperfect of the great poets. If only Tennyson had had his genius! If
only Browning had had Tennyson's desire for golden words!

It would be absurd, however, to suggest that the main labour of an author
consists in rewriting. The choice of words may have been made before a
single one of them has been written down, as tradition tells us was the
case with Menander, who described one of his plays as "finished" before he
had written a word of it. It would be foolish, too, to write as though
perfection of form in literature were merely a matter of picking and
choosing among decorative words. Style is a method, not of decoration, but
of expression. It is an attempt to make the beauty and energy of the
imagination articulate. It is not any more than is construction the
essence of the greatest art: it is, however, a prerequisite of the
greatest art. Even those writers whom we regard as the least decorative
labour and sorrow after it no less than the æsthetes. We who do not know
Russian do not usually think of Tolstoy as a stylist, but he took far more
trouble with his writing than did Oscar Wilde (whose chief fault is,
indeed, that in spite of his theories his style is not laboured and
artistic but inspirational and indolent). Count Ilya Tolstoy, the son of
the novelist, published a volume of reminiscences of his father last year,
in which he gave some interesting particulars of his father's energetic
struggle for perfection in writing:

    When _Anna Karénina_ began to come out in the _Russki Vyéstnik_ [he
    wrote], long galley-proofs were posted to my father, and he looked
    them through and corrected them. At first, the margins would be
    marked with the ordinary typographical signs, letters omitted,
    marks of punctuation, and so on; then individual words would be
    changed, and then whole sentences; erasures and additions would
    begin, till in the end the proof-sheet would be reduced to a mass
    of patches, quite black in places, and it was quite impossible to
    send it back as it stood because no one but my mother could make
    head or tail of the tangle of conventional signs, transpositions,
    and erasures.

    My mother would sit up all night copying the whole thing out

    In the morning there lay the pages on her table, neatly piled
    together, covered all over with her fine, clear handwriting, and
    everything ready, so that when "Lyóvotchka" came down he could send
    the proof-sheets out by post.

    My father would carry them off to his study to have "just one last
    look," and by the evening it was worse than before; the whole thing
    had been rewritten and messed up once more.

    "Sonya, my dear, I am very sorry, but I've spoilt all your work
    again; I promise I won't do it any more," he would say, showing her
    the passages with a guilty air. "We'll send them off to-morrow
    without fail." But his to-morrow was put off day by day for weeks
    or months together.

    "There's just one bit I want to look through again," my father
    would say; but he would get carried away and rewrite the whole
    thing afresh. There were even occasions when, after posting the
    Proofs, my father would remember some particular words next day and
    correct them by telegraph.

There, better than in a thousand generalizations, you see what the
artistic conscience is. In a world in which authors, like solicitors, must
live, it is, of course, seldom possible to take pains in this measure.
Dostoevsky used to groan that his poverty left him no time or chance to
write his best as Tolstoy and Turgenev could write theirs. But he at least
laboured all that he could. Novel-writing has since his time become as
painless as dentistry, and the result may be seen in a host of books that,
while affecting to be fine literature, have no price except as


Matthew Arnold once advised people who wanted to know what was good poetry
not to trouble themselves with definitions of poetry, but to learn by
heart passages, or even single lines, from the works of the great poets,
and to apply these as touchstones. Certainly a book like Mr. Cowl's
_Theory of Poetry in England_, which aims at giving us a representative
selection of the theoretical things which were said in England about
poetry between the time of Elizabeth and the time of Victoria, makes one
wonder at the barrenness of men's thoughts about so fruitful a world as
that of the poets. Mr. Cowl's book is not intended to be read as an
anthology of fine things. Its value is not that of a book of golden
thoughts. It is an ordered selection of documents chosen, not for their
beauty, but simply for their use as milestones in the progress of English
poetic theory. It is a work, not of literature, but of literary history;
and students of literary history are under a deep debt of gratitude to the
author for bringing together and arranging the documents of the subject in
so convenient and lucid a form. The arrangement is under subjects, and
chronological. There are forty-one pages on the theory of poetic creation,
beginning with George Gascoigne and ending with Matthew Arnold. These are
followed by a few pages of representative passages about poetry as an
imitative art, the first of the authors quoted being Roger Ascham and the
last F.W.H. Myers. The hook is divided into twelve sections of this kind,
some of which have a tendency to overlap. Thus, in addition to the section
on poetry as an imitative art, we have a section on imitation of nature,
another on external nature, and another on imitation. Imitation, in the
last of these, it is true, means for the most part imitation of the
ancients, as in the sentence in which Thomas Rymer urged the
seventeenth-century dramatists to imitate Attic tragedy even to the point
of introducing the chorus.

Mr. Cowl's book is interesting, however, less on account of the sections
and subsections into which it is divided than because of the manner in
which it enables us to follow the flight of English poetry from the
romanticism of the Elizabethans to the neo-classicism of the eighteenth
century, and from this on to the romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge,
and from this to a newer neo-classicism whose prophet was Matthew Arnold.
There is not much of poetry captured in these cold-blooded criticisms, but
still the shadow of the poetry of his time occasionally falls on the
critic's formulae and aphorisms. How excellently Sir Philip Sidney
expresses the truth that the poet does not imitate the world, but creates
a world, in his observation that Nature's world "is brazen, the poets only
deliver a golden!" This, however, is a fine saying rather than an
interpretation. It has no importance as a contribution to the theory of
poetry to compare with a passage like that so often quoted from
Wordsworth's preface to _Lyrical Ballads_:

    I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful
    feelings; it takes its origin from emotions recollected in
    tranquillity; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of
    reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion,
    kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is
    gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

As a theory of poetic creation this may not apply universally. But what a
flood of light it throws on the creative genius of Wordsworth himself! How
rich in psychological insight it is, for instance, compared with Dryden's
comparable reference to the part played by the memory in poetry:

The composition of all poems is, or ought to be, of wit; and wit in the
poet ... is no other than the faculty of imagination in the writer,
which, like a nimble spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field
of memory, till it springs the quarry it hunted after.

As a matter of fact, few of these generalizations carry one far. Ben
Jonson revealed more of the secret of poetry when he said simply: "It
utters somewhat above a mortal mouth." So did Edgar Allan Poe, when he
said: "It is no mere appreciation of the beauty before us, but a wild
effort to reach the beauty above." Coleridge, again, initiates us into the
secrets of the poetic imagination when he speaks of it as something

    combining many circumstances into one moment of consciousness,
    tends to produce that ultimate end of all human thought and human
    feeling, unity, and thereby the reduction of the spirit to its
    principle and fountain, which is alone truly one.

On the other hand, the most dreadful thing that was ever written about
poetry was also written by Coleridge, and is repeated in Mr. Cowl's book:

    How excellently the German _Einbildungskraft_ expresses this prime
    and loftiest faculty, the power of coadunation, the faculty that
    forms the many into one--_Ineins-bildung_! Eisenoplasy, or
    esenoplastic power, is contradistinguished from fantasy, either
    catoptric or metoptric--repeating simply, or by transposition--and,
    again, involuntary [fantasy] as in dreams, or by an act of the will.

The meaning is simple enough: it is much the same as that of the preceding
paragraph. But was there ever a passage written suggesting more forcibly
how much easier it is to explain poetry by writing it than by writing
about it?

Mr. Cowl's book makes it clear that fiercely as the critics may dispute
about poetry, they are practically all agreed on at least one point--that
it is an imitation. The schools have differed less over the question
whether it is an imitation than over the question how, in a discussion on
the nature of poetry, the word "imitation" must be qualified. Obviously,
the poet must imitate something--either what he sees in nature, or what he
sees in memory, or what he sees in other poets, or what he sees in his
soul, or it may me, all together. There arise schools every now and
then--classicists, Parnassians, realists, and so forth--who believe in
imitation, but will not allow it to be a free imitation of things seen in
the imaginative world. In the result their work is no true imitation of
life. Pope's poetry is not as true an imitation of life as Shakespeare's.
Nor is Zola's, for all its fidelity, as close an imitation of life as
Victor Hugo's. Poetry, or prose either, without romance, without
liberation, can never rise above the second order. The poet must be
faithful not only to his subject, but to his soul. Poe defined art as the
"reproduction of what the senses perceive in nature through the veil of
the soul," and this, though like most definitions of art, incomplete, is
true in so far as it reminds us that art at its greatest is the statement
of a personal and ideal vision. That is why the reverence of rules in the
arts is so dangerous. It puts the standards of poetry not in the hands of
the poet, but in the hands of the grammarians. It is a Procrustes' bed
which mutilates the poet's vision. Luckily, England has always been a
rather lawless country, and we find even Pope insisting that "to judge ...
of Shakespeare by Aristotle's rules is like trying a man by the laws of
one country who acted under those of another." Dennis might cry: "Poetry
is either an art or whimsy and fanaticism.... The great design of the arts
is to restore the decays that happened to human nature by the fall, by
restoring order." But, on the whole, the English poets and critics have
realized the truth that it is not an order imposed from without, but an
order imposed from within at which the poet must aim. He aims at bringing
order into chaos, but that does not mean that he aims at bringing
Aristotle into chaos. He is, in a sense, "beyond good and evil," so far as
the orthodoxies of form are concerned. Coleridge put the matter in a
nutshell when he remarked that the mistake of the formal critics who
condemned Shakespeare as "a sort of African nature, rich in beautiful
monsters," lay "in the confounding mechanical regularity with organic
form." And he states the whole duty of poets as regards form in another
sentence in the same lecture:

    As it must not, so genius cannot, be lawless; for it is
    even this that constitutes its genius--the power of acting
    creatively under laws of its own origination.

Mr. Cowl enables us to follow, as in no other book we know, the endless
quarrel between romance and the rules, between the spirit and the letter,
among the English authorities on poetry. It is a quarrel which will
obviously never be finally settled in any country. The mechanical theory
is a necessary reaction against romance that has decayed into windiness,
extravagance, and incoherence. It brings the poets back to literature
again. The romantic theory, on the other hand, is necessary as a reminder
that the poet must offer to the world, not a formula, but a vision. It
brings the poets back to nature again. No one but a Dennis will hesitate
an instant in deciding which of the theories is the more importantly and
eternally true one.


It has been said often enough that all good criticism is praise. Pater
boldly called one of his volumes of critical essays _Appreciations_. There
are, of course, not a few brilliant instances of hostility in criticism.
The best-known of these in English is Macaulay's essay on Robert
Montgomery. In recent years we have witnessed the much more significant
assault by Tolstoy upon almost the whole army of the authors of the
civilized world from Æschylus down to Mallarmé. _What is Art?_ was
unquestionably the most remarkable piece of sustained hostile criticism
that was ever written. At the same time, it was less a denunciation of
individual authors than an attack on the general tendencies of the
literary art. Tolstoy quarrelled with Shakespeare not so much for being
Shakespeare as for failing to write like the authors of the Gospels.
Tolstoy would have made every book a Bible. He raged against men of
letters because with them literature was a means not to more abundant life
but to more abundant luxury. Like so many inexorable moralists, he was
intolerant of all literature that did not serve as a sort of example of
his own moral and social theories. That is why he was not a great critic,
though he was immeasurably greater than a great critic. One would not turn
to him for the perfect appreciation even of one of the authors he spared,
like Hugo or Dickens. The good critic must in some way begin by accepting
literature as it is, just as the good lyric poet must begin by accepting
life as it is. He may be as full of revolutionary and reforming theories
as he likes, but he must not allow any of these to come like a cloud
between him and the sun, moon and stars of literature. The man who
disparages the beauty of flowers and birds and love and laughter and
courage will never be counted among the lyric poets; and the man who
questions the beauty of the inhabited world the imaginative writers have
made--a world as unreasonable in its loveliness as the world of nature--is
not in the way of becoming a critic of literature.

Another argument which tells in favour of the theory that the best
criticism is praise is the fact that almost all the memorable examples of
critical folly have been denunciations. One remembers that Carlyle
dismissed Herbert Spencer as a "never-ending ass." One remembers that
Byron thought nothing of Keats--"Jack Ketch," as he called him. One
remembers that the critics damned Wagner's operas as a new form of sin.
One remembers that Ruskin denounced one of Whistler's nocturnes as a pot
of paint flung in the face of the British public. In the world of science
we have a thousand similar examples of new genius being hailed by the
critics as folly and charlatanry. Only the other day a biographer of Lord
Lister was reminding us how, at the British Association in 1869, Lister's
antiseptic treatment was attacked as a "return to the dark ages of
surgery," the "carbolic mania," and "a professional criminality." The
history of science, art, music and literature is strewn with the wrecks of
such hostile criticisms. It is an appalling spectacle for anyone
interested in asserting the intelligence of the human race. So appalling
is it, indeed, that most of us nowadays labour under such a terror of
accidentally condemning something good that we have not the courage to
condemn anything at all. We think of the way in which Browning was once
taunted for his obscurity, and we cannot find it in our hearts to censure
Mr. Doughty. We recall the ignorant attacks on Manet and Monet, and we
will not risk an onslaught on the follies of Picasso and the
worse-than-Picassos of contemporary art. We grow a monstrous and unhealthy
plant of tolerance in our souls, and its branches drop colourless good
words on the just and on the unjust--on everybody, indeed, except Miss
Marie Corelli, Mr. Hall Caine, and a few others whom we know to be
second-rate because they have such big circulations. This is really a
disastrous state of affairs for literature and the other arts. If
criticism is, generally speaking, praise, it is, more definitely, praise
of the right things. Praise for the sake of praise is as great an evil as
blame for the sake of blame. Indiscriminate praise, in so far as it is the
result of distrust of one's own judgment or of laziness or of insincerity,
is one of the deadly sins in criticism. It is also one of the deadly dull
sins. Its effect is to make criticism ever more unreadable, and in the end
even the publishers, who love silly sentences to quote about their bad
books, will open their eyes to the futility of it. They will realize that,
when once criticism has become unreal and unreadable, people will no more
be bothered with it than they will with drinking lukewarm water. I mention
the publisher in especial, because there is no doubt that it is with the
idea of putting the publishers in a good, open-handed humour that so many
papers and reviews have turned criticism into a kind of stagnant pond.
Publishers, fortunately, are coming more and more to see that this kind of
criticism is of no use to them. Reviews in such-and-such a paper, they
will tell you, do not sell books. And the papers to which they refer in
such cases are always papers in which praise is disgustingly served out to
everybody, like spoonfuls of treacle-and-brimstone to a mob of

Criticism, then, is praise, but it is praise of literature. There is all
the difference in the world between that and the praise of what pretends
to be literature. True criticism is a search for beauty and truth and an
announcement of them. It does not care twopence whether the method of
their revelation is new or old, academic or futuristic. It only asks that
the revelation shall be genuine. It is concerned with form, because beauty
and truth demand perfect expression. But it is a mere heresy in æsthetics
to say that perfect expression is the whole of art that matters. It is the
spirit that breaks through the form that is the main interest of
criticism. Form, we know, has a permanence of its own: so much so that it
has again and again been worshipped by the idolators of art as being in
itself more enduring than the thing which it embodies. Robert Burns, by
his genius for perfect statement, can give immortality to the joys of
being drunk with whiskey as the average hymn-writer cannot give
immortality to the joys of being drunk with the love of God. Style, then,
does seem actually to be a form of life. The critic may not ignore it any
more than he may exaggerate its place in the arts. As a matter of fact, he
could not ignore it if he would, for style and spirit have a way of
corresponding to one another like health and sunlight.

It is to combat the stylelessness of many contemporary writers that the
destructive kind of criticism is just now most necessary. For, dangerous
as the heresy of style was forty or fifty years ago, the newer heresy of
sylelessness is more dangerous still. It has become the custom even of men
who write well to be as ashamed of their style as a schoolboy is of being
caught in an obvious piece of goodness. They keep silent about it as
though it were a kind of powdering or painting. They do not realize that
it is merely a form of ordinary truthfulness--the truthfulness of the word
about the thought. They forget that one has no more right to misuse words
than to beat one's wife. Someone has said that in the last analysis style
is a moral quality. It is a sincerity, a refusal to bow the knee to the
superficial, a passion for justice in language. Stylelessness, where it is
not, like colour-blindness, an accident of nature, is for the most part
merely an echo of the commercial man's world of hustle. It is like the
rushing to and fro of motor-buses which save minutes with great loss of
life. It is like the swift making of furniture with unseasoned wood. It is
a kind of introduction of the quick-lunch system into literature. One
cannot altogether acquit Mr. Masefield of a hasty stylelessness in some of
those long poems which the world has been raving about in the last year or
two. His line in _The Everlasting Mercy:_

  And yet men ask, "Are barmaids chaste?"

is a masterpiece of inexpertness. And the couplet:

  The Bosun turned: "I'll give you a thick ear!
  Do it? I didn't. Get to hell from here!"

is like a Sunday-school teacher's lame attempt to repeat a blasphemous
story. Mr. Masefield, on the other hand, is, we always feel, wrestling
with language. If he writes in a hurry, it is not because he is
indifferent, but because his soul is full of something that he is eager to
express. He does not gabble; he is, as it were, a man stammering out a
vision. So vastly greater are his virtues than his faults as a poet,
indeed, that the latter would only be worth the briefest mention if it
were not for the danger of their infecting other writers who envy him his
method but do not possess his conscience. One cannot contemplate with
equanimity the prospect of a Masefield school of poetry with all Mr.
Masefield's ineptitudes and none of his genius.

Criticism, however, it is to be feared, is a fight for a lost cause if it
essays to prevent the founding of schools upon the faults of good writers.
Criticism will never kill the copyist. Nothing but the end of the world
can do that. Still, whatever the practical results of his work may be, it
is the function of the critic to keep the standard of writing high--to
insist that the authors shall write well, even if his own sentences are
like torn strips of newspaper for commonness. He is the enemy of
sloppiness in others--especially of that airy sloppiness which so often
nowadays runs to four or five hundred pages in a novel. It was amazing to
find with what airiness a promising writer like Mr. Compton Mackenzie gave
us some years ago _Sinister Street_, a novel containing thousands of
sentences that only seemed to be there because he had not thought it worth
his while to leave them out, and thousands of others that seemed to be
mere hurried attempts to express realities upon which he was unable to
spend more time. Here is a writer who began literature with a sense of
words, and who is declining into a mere sense of wordiness. It is simply
another instance of the ridiculous rush of writing that is going on all
about us--a rush to satisfy a public which demands quantity rather than
quality in its books. I do not say that Mr. Mackenzie consciously wrote
down to the public, but the atmosphere obviously affected him. Otherwise
he would hardly have let his book go out into the world till he had
rewritten it--till he had separated his necessary from his unnecessary
sentences and given his conversations the tones of reality.

There is no need, however, for criticism to lash out indiscriminately at
all hurried writing. There are a multitude of books turned out every year
which make no claim to be literature--the "thrillers," for example, of Mr.
Phillips Oppenheim and of that capable firm of feuilletonists, Coralie
Stanton and Heath Hosken. I do not think literature stands to gain
anything, even though all the critics in Europe were suddenly to assail
this kind of writing. It is a frankly commercial affair, and we have no
more right to demand style from those who live by it than from the authors
of the weather reports in the newspapers. Often, one notices, when the
golden youth, fresh from college and the reading of Shelley and Anatole
France, commences literary critic, he begins damning the sensational
novelists as though it were their business to write like Jane Austen. This
is a mere waste of literary standards, which need only be applied to what
pretends to be literature. That is why one is often impelled to attack
really excellent writers, like Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch or Mr. Galsworthy,
as one would never dream of attacking, say, Mr. William Le Queux. To
attack Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch is, indeed, a form of appreciation, for
the only just criticism that can be levelled against him is that his later
work does not seem to be written with that singleness of imagination and
that deliberate rightness of phrase which made _Noughts and Crosses_ and
_The Ship of Stars_ books to be kept beyond the end of the year. If one
attacks Mr. Galsworthy, again, it is usually because one admires his best
work so whole-heartedly that one is not willing to accept from him
anything but the best. One cannot, however, be content to see the author
of _The Man of Property_ dropping the platitudes and the false
fancifulness of _The Inn of Tranquillity_. It is the false pretences in
literature which criticism must seek to destroy. Recognizing Mr.
Galsworthy's genius for the realistic representation of men and women, it
must not be blinded by that genius to the essential second-rateness and
sentimentality of much of his presentation of ideas. He is a man of genius
in the black humility with which he confesses strength and weakness
through the figures of men and women. He achieves too much of a pulpit
complacency--therefore of condescendingness--therefore of falseness to the
deep intimacy of good literature--when he begins to moralize about time
and the universe. One finds the same complacency, the same
condescendingness, in a far higher degree in the essays of Mr. A.C.
Benson. Mr. Benson, I imagine, began writing with a considerable literary
gift, but his later work seems to me to have little in it but a good man's
pretentiousness. It has the air of going profoundly into the secrecies of
love and joy and truth, but it contains hardly a sentence that would waken
a ruffle on the surface of the shallowest spirit. It is not of the
literature that awakens, indeed, but of the literature that puts to sleep,
and that is always a danger unless it is properly labelled and
recognizable. Sleeping-draughts may be useful to help a sick man through a
bad night, but one does not recommend them as a cure for ordinary healthy
thirst. Nor will Mr. Benson escape just criticism on the score of his
manner of writing. He is an absolute master of the otiose word, the
superfluous sentence. He pours out pages as easily as a bird sings, but,
alas! it is a clockwork bird in this instance. He lacks the true innocent
absorption in his task which makes happy writing and happy reading.

It is not always the authors, on the other hand, whose pretences it is the
work of criticism to destroy. It is frequently the wild claims of the
partisans of an author that must be put to the test. This sort of
pretentiousness often happens during "booms," when some author is talked
of as though he were the only man who had ever written well. How many of
these booms have we had in recent years--booms of Wilde, of Synge, of
Donne, of Dostoevsky! On the whole, no doubt, they do more good than harm.
They create a vivid enthusiasm for literature that affects many people who
might not otherwise know that to read a fine book is as exciting an
experience as going to a horse-race. Hundreds of people would not have the
courage to sit down to read a book like _The Brothers Karamazov_ unless
they were compelled to do so as a matter of fashionable duty. On the other
hand, booms more than anything else make for false estimates. It seems
impossible with many people to praise Dostoevsky without saying that he is
greater than Tolstoy or Turgenev. Oscar Wilde enthusiasts, again, invite
us to rejoice, not only over that pearl of triviality, _The Importance of
Being Earnest_, but over a blaze of paste jewelry like _Salomé_.
Similarly, Donne worshippers are not content to ask us to praise Donne's
gifts of fancy, analysis and idiosyncratic music. They insist that we
shall also admit that he knew the human heart better than Shakespeare. It
may be all we like sheep have gone astray in this kind of literary riot.
And so long as the exaggeration of a good writer's genius is an honest
personal affair, one resents it no more than one resents the large nose or
the bandy legs of a friend. It is when men begin to exaggerate in
herds--to repeat like a lesson learned the enthusiasm of others--that the
boom becomes offensive. It is as if men who had not large noses were to
begin to pretend that they had, or as if men whose legs were not bandy
were to pretend that they were, for fashion's sake. Insincerity is the one
entirely hideous artistic sin--whether in the creation or in the
appreciation of art. The man who enjoys reading _The Family Herald_, and
admits it, is nearer a true artistic sense than the man who is bored by
Henry James and denies it: though, perhaps, hypocrisy is a kind of homage
paid to art as well as to virtue. Still, the affectation of literary
rapture offends like every other affectation. It was the chorus of
imitative rapture over Synge a few years ago that helped most to bring
about a speedy reaction against him. Synge was undoubtedly a man of fine
genius--the genius of gloomy comedy and ironic tragedy. His mind delved
for strangenesses in speech and imagination among people whom the new age
had hardly touched, and his discoveries were sufficiently magnificent to
make the eyes of any lover of language brighten. His work showed less of
the mastery of life, however, than of the mastery of a theme. It was a
curious by-world of literature, a little literature of death's-heads, and,
therefore, no more to be mentioned with the work of the greatest than the
stories of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Unfortunately, some disturbances in
Dublin at the first production of _The Playboy_ turned the play into a
battle-cry, and the artists, headed by Mr. Yeats, used Synge to belabour
the Philistinism of the mob. In the excitement of the fight they were soon
talking about Synge as though Dublin had rejected a Shakespeare. Mr. Yeats
even used the word "Homeric" about him--surely the most inappropriate word
it would be possible to imagine. Before long Mr. Yeats's enthusiasm had
spread to England, where people who ignored the real magic of Synge's
work, as it is to be found in _Riders to the Sea_, _In the Shadow of the
Glen_, and _The Well of the Saints_, went into ecstasies over the inferior
_Playboy_. Such a boom meant not the appreciation of Synge but a
glorification of his more negligible work. It was almost as if we were to
boom Swinburne on the score of his later political poetry. Criticism makes
for the destruction of such booms. I do not mean that the critic has not
the right to fling about superlatives like any other man. Criticism, in
one aspect, is the art of flinging about superlatives finely. But they
must be personal superlatives, not boom superlatives. Even when they are
showered on an author who is the just victim of a boom--and, on a
reasonable estimate, at least fifty per cent of the booms have some
justification--they are as unbeautiful as rotten apples unless they have
this personal kind of honesty.

It may be thought that an attitude of criticism like this may easily sink
into Pharisaism--a sort of "superior-person" aloofness from other people.
And no doubt the critic, like other people, needs to beat his breast and
pray, "God be merciful to me, a--critic." On the whole, however, the
critic is far less of a professional faultfinder than is sometimes
imagined. He is first of all a virtue-finder, a singer of praise. He is
not concerned with getting rid of the dross except in so far as it hides
the gold. In other words, the destructive side of criticism is purely a
subsidiary affair. None of the best critics have been men of destructive
minds. They are like gardeners whose business is more with the flowers
than with the weeds. If I may change the metaphor, the whole truth about
criticism is contained in the Eastern proverb which declares that "Love is
the net of Truth." It is as a lover that the critic, like the lyric poet
and the mystic, will be most excellently symbolized.


I notice that in Mr. Seekers' _Art and Craft of Letters_ series no volume
on book-reviewing has yet been announced. A volume on criticism has been
published, it is true, but book-reviewing is something different from
criticism. It swings somewhere between criticism on the one hand and
reporting on the other. When Mr. Arthur Bourchier a few years ago, in the
course of a dispute about Mr. Walkley's criticisms, spoke of the dramatic
critic as a dramatic reporter, he did a very insolent thing. But there was
a certain reasonableness in his phrase. The critic on the Press is a
news-gatherer as surely as the man who is sent to describe a public
meeting or a strike. Whether he is asked to write a report on a play of
Mr. Shaw's or an exhibition of etchings by Mr. Bone or a volume of short
stories by Mr. Conrad or a speech by Mr. Asquith or a strike on the Clyde,
his function is the same. It is primarily to give an account, a
description, of what he has seen or heard or read. This may seem to many
people--especially to critics--a degrading conception of a book-reviewer's
work. But it is quite the contrary. A great deal of book-reviewing at the
present time is dead matter. Book-reviews ought at least to be alive as

At present everybody is ready to write book-reviews. This is because
nearly everybody believes that they are the easiest kind of thing to
write. People who would shrink from offering to write poems or leading
articles or descriptive sketches of football matches, have an idea that
reviewing books is something with the capacity for which every man is
born, as he is born with the capacity for talking prose. They think it is
as easy as having opinions. It is simply making a few remarks at the end
of a couple of hours spent with a book in an armchair. Many men and
women--novelists, barristers, professors and others--review books in their
spare time, as they look on this as work they can do when their brains are
too tired to do anything which is of genuine importance. A great deal of
book-reviewing is done contemptuously, as though to review books well were
not as difficult as to do anything else well. This is perhaps due in some
measure to the fact that, for the amount of hard work it involves,
book-reviewing is one of the worst-paid branches of journalism. The hero
of Mr. Beresford's new novel, _The Invisible Event_, makes an income of
£250 a year as an outside reviewer, and it is by no means every outside
reviewer who makes as much as that from reviewing alone. It is not that
there is not an immense public which reads book-reviews. Mr. T.P. O'Connor
showed an admirable journalistic instinct when twenty years or so ago he
filled the front page of the _Weekly Sun_ with a long book-review. The
sale of the _Times Literary Supplement_, since it became a separate
publication, is evidence that, for good or bad, many thousands of readers
have acquired the habit of reading criticism of current literature.

But I do not think that the mediocre quality of most book-reviewing is due
to low payment. It is a result, I believe, of a wrong conception of what a
book-review should be. My own opinion is that a review should be, from one
point of view, a portrait of a book. It should present the book instead of
merely presenting remarks about the book. In reviewing, portraiture is
more important than opinion. One has to get the reflexion of the book, and
not a mere comment on it, down on paper. Obviously, one must not press
this theory of portraiture too far. It is useful chiefly as a protest
against the curse of comment. Many clever writers, when they come to write
book-reviews, instead of portraying the book, waste their time in remarks
to the effect that the book should never have been written, and so forth.
That, in fact, is the usual attitude of clever reviewers when they begin.
They are so horrified to find that Mr. William Le Queux does not write
like Dostoevsky and that Mrs. Florence Barclay lacks the grandeur of
Æschylus that they run amok among their contemporaries with something of
the furious destructiveness of Don Quixote on his adventures. It is the
noble intolerance of youth; but how unreasonable it is! Suppose a
portrait-painter were suddenly to take his sitter by the throat on the
ground that he had no right to exist. One would say to him that that was
not his business: his business is to take the man's existence for granted,
and to paint him until he becomes in a new sense alive. If he is
worthless, paint his worthlessness, but do not merely comment on it. There
is no reason why a portrait should be flattering, but it should be a
portrait. It may be a portrait in the grand matter, or a portrait in
caricature: if it expresses its subject honestly and delightfully, that is
all we can ask of it. A critical portrait of a book by Mr. Le Queux may be
amazingly alive: a censorious comment can only be dull. Mr. Hubert Bland
was at one time an almost ideal portrait-painter of commonplace novels. He
obviously liked them, as the caricaturist likes the people in the street.
The novels themselves might not be readable, but Mr. Bland's reviews of
them were. He could reveal their characteristics in a few strokes, which
would tell you more of what you wanted to know about them than a whole
dictionary of adjectives of praise and blame. One could tell at a glance
whether the book had any literary value, whether it was worth turning to
as a stimulant, whether it was even intelligent of its kind. One would not
like to see Mr. Bland's method too slavishly adopted by reviewers: it was
suitable only for portraying certain kinds of books. But it is worth
recalling as the method of a man who, dealing with books that were for the
most part insipid and worthless, made his reviews delightfully alive as
well as admirably interpretative.

The comparison of a review to a portrait fixes attention on one essential
quality of a book-review. A reviewer should never forget his
responsibility to his subject. He must allow nothing to distract him from
his main task of setting down the features of his book vividly and
recognizably. One may say this even while admitting that the most
delightful book-reviews of modern times--for the literary causeries of
Anatole France may fairly be classified as book-reviews--were the revolt
of an escaped angel against the limitations of a journalistic form. But
Anatole France happens to be a man of genius, and genius is a
justification of any method. In the hands of a pinchbeck Anatole France,
how unendurable the review conceived as a causerie would become! Anatole
France observes that "all books in general, and even the most admirable,
seem to me infinitely less precious for what they contain than for what he
who reads puts into them." That, in a sense, is true. But no reviewer
ought to believe it. His duty is to his author: whatever he "puts into
him" is a subsidiary matter. "The critic," says Anatole France again,
"must imbue himself thoroughly with the idea that every book has as many
different aspects as it has readers, and that a poem, like a landscape, is
transformed in all the eyes that see it, in all the souls that conceive
it." Here he gets nearer the idea of criticism as portraiture, and
practically every critic of importance has been a portrait-painter. In
this respect Saint-Beuve is at one with Macaulay, Pater with Matthew
Arnold, Anatole France (occasionally) with Henry James. They may portray
authors rather than books, artists rather than their work, but this only
means that criticism at its highest is a study of the mind of the artist
as reflected in his art.

Clearly, if the reviewer can paint the portrait of an author, he is
achieving something better even than the portrait of a book. But what, at
all costs, he must avoid doing is to substitute for a portrait of one kind
or another the rag-bag of his own moral, political or religious opinions.
It is one of the most difficult things in the world for anyone who happens
to hold strong opinions not to make the mind of Shakespeare himself a
pulpit from which to roar them at the world. Reviewers with theories about
morality and religion can seldom be induced to come to the point of
portraiture until they have enjoyed a preliminary half-column of
self-explanation. In their eyes a review is a moral essay rather than an
imaginative interpretation. In dissenting from this view, one is not
pleading for a race of reviewers without moral or religious ideas, or even
prepossessions. One is merely urging that in a review, as in a novel or a
play, the moral should be seated at the heart instead of sprawling all
over the surface. In the well-worn phrase it should be implicit, not
explicit. Undoubtedly a rare critic of genius can make an interesting
review-article out of a statement of his own moral and political ideas.
But that only justifies the article as an essay, not as a review. To many
reviewers--especially in the bright days of youth--it seems an immensely
more important thing to write a good essay than a good review. And so it
is, but not when a review is wanted. It is a far, far better thing to
write a good essay about America than a good review of a book on America.
But the one should not be substituted for the other. If one takes up a
review of a book on America by Mr. Wells or Mr. Bennett, it is in
ninety-nine cases out of a hundred in order to find out what the author
thinks, not what the reviewer thinks. If the reviewer begins with a
paragraph of general remarks about America--or, worse still, about some
abstract thing like liberty--he is almost invariably wasting paper. I
believe it is a sound rule to destroy all preliminary paragraphs of this
kind. They are detestable in almost all writing, but most detestable of
all in book-reviews, where it is important to plunge all at once into the
middle of things. I say this, though there is an occasional book-reviewer
whose preliminary paragraphs I would not miss for worlds. But one has even
known book-reviewers who wrote delightful articles, though they made
scarcely any reference to the books under review at all.

To my mind, nothing more clearly shows the general misconception of the
purpose of a book-review than the attitude of the majority of journalists
to the quotational review. It is the custom to despise the quotational
review--to dismiss is as mere "gutting." As a consequence, it is generally
very badly done. It is done as if under the impression that it does not
matter what quotations one gives so long as one fills the space. One great
paper lends support to this contemptuous attitude towards quotational
criticism by refusing to pay its contributors for space taken up by
quotations. A London evening newspaper was once guilty of the same folly.
A reviewer on the staff of the latter confessed to me that to the present
day he finds it impossible, without an effort, to make quotations in a
review, because of the memory of those days when to quote was to add to
one's poverty. Despised work is seldom done well, and it is not surprising
that it is almost more seldom that one finds a quotational review well
done than any other sort. Yet how critically illuminating a quotation may
be! There are many books in regard to which quotation is the only
criticism necessary. Books of memoirs and books of verse--the least
artistic as well as the most artistic forms of literature--both lend
themselves to it. To criticize verse without giving quotations is to leave
one largely in ignorance of the quality of the verse. The selection of
passages to quote is at least as fine a test of artistic judgment as any
comment the critic can make. In regard to books of memoirs, gossip, and so
forth, one does not ask for a test of delicate artistic judgment. Books of
this kind should simply be rummaged for entertaining "news." To review
them well is to make an anthology of (in a wide sense) amusing passages.
There is no other way to portray them. And yet I have known a very
brilliant reviewer take a book of gossip about the German Court and,
instead of quoting any of the numerous things that would interest people,
fill half a column with abuse of the way in which the book was written, of
the inconsequence of the chapters, of the second-handedness of many of the
anecdotes. Now, I do not object to any of these charges being brought. It
is well that "made" books should not be palmed off on the public as
literature. On the other hand, a mediocre book (from the point of view of
literature or history) is no excuse for a mediocre review. No matter how
mediocre a book is, if it is on a subject of great interest, it usually
contains enough vital matter to make an exciting half-column. Many
reviewers despise a bad book so heartily that, instead of squeezing every
drop of interest out of it, as they ought to do, they refrain from
squeezing a single drop of interest out of it. They are frequently people
who suffer from anecdotophobia. "Scorn not the anecdote" is a motto that
might be modestly hung up in the heart of every reviewer. After all,
Montaigne did not scorn it, and there is no reason why the modern
journalist should be ashamed of following so respectable an example. One
can quite easily understand how the gluttony of many publishers for
anecdotes has driven writers with a respect for their intellect into
revolt. But let us not be unjust to the anecdote because it has been
cheapened through no fault of its own. We may be sure of one thing. A
review--a review, at any rate, of a book of memoirs or any similar kind of
non-literary book--which contains an anecdote is better than a review
which does not contain an anecdote. If an anecdotal review is bad, it is
because it is badly done, not because it is anecdotal. This, one might
imagine, is too obvious to require saying; but many men of brains go
through life without ever being able to see it.

One of the chief virtues of the anecdote is that it brings the reviewer
down from his generalizations to the individual instances. Generalizations
mixed with instances make a fine sort of review, but to flow on for a
column of generalizations without ever pausing to light them into life
with instances, concrete examples, anecdotes, is to write not a
book-review but a sermon. Of the two, the sermon is much the easier to
write: it does not involve the trouble of constant reference to one's
authorities. Perhaps, however, someone with practice in writing sermons
will argue that the sermon without instances is as somniferous as the
book-review with the same want. Whether that it so or not, the book-review
is not, as a rule, the place for abstract argument. Not that one wants to
shut out controversy. There is no pleasanter review to read than a
controversial review. Even here, however, one demands portrait as well as
argument. It is, in nine cases out of ten, waste of time to assail a
theory when you can portray a man. It always seems to me to be hopelessly
wrong for the reviewer of biographies, critical studies, or books of a
similar kind, to allow his mind to wander from the main figure in the book
to the discussion of some theory or other that has been incidentally put
forward. Thus, in a review of a book on Stevenson, the important thing is
to reconstruct the figure of Stevenson, the man and the artist. This is
much more vitally interesting and relevant than theorizing on such
questions as whether the writing of prose or of poetry is the more
difficult art, or what are the essential characteristics of romance. These
and many other questions may arise, and it is the proper task of the
reviewer to discuss them, so long as their discussion is kept subordinate
to the portraiture of the central figure. But they must not be allowed to
push the leading character in the whole business right out of the review.
If they are brought in at all, they must be brought in, like moral
sentiments, inoffensively by the way.

In pleading that a review should be a portrait of a book to a vastly
greater degree than it is a direct comment on the book, I am not pleading
that it should be a mere bald summary. The summary kind of review is no
more a portrait than is the Scotland Yard description of a man wanted by
the police. Portraiture implies selection and a new emphasis. The synopsis
of the plot of a novel is as far from being a good review as is a
paragraph of general comment on it. The review must justify itself, not as
a reflection of dead bones, but by a new life of its own.

Further, I am not pleading for the suppression of comment and, if need be,
condemnation. But either to praise or condemn without instances is dull.
Neither the one thing nor the other is the chief thing in the review. They
are the crown of the review, but not its life. There are many critics to
whom condemnation of books they do not like seems the chief end of man.
They regard themselves as engaged upon a holy war against the Devil and
his works. Horace complained that it was only poets who were not allowed
to be mediocre. The modern critic--I should say the modern critic of the
censorious kind, not the critic who looks on it as his duty to puff out
meaningless superlatives over every book that appears--will not allow any
author to be mediocre. The war against mediocrity is a necessary war, but
I cannot help thinking that mediocrity is more likely to yield to humour
than to contemptuous abuse. Apart from this, it is the reviewer's part to
maintain high standards for work that aims at being literature, rather
than to career about, like a destroying angel, among books that have no
such aim. Criticism, Anatole France has said, is the record of the soul's
adventures among masterpieces. Reviewing, alas! is for the most part the
record of the soul's adventures among books that are the reverse of
masterpieces. What, then, are his standards to be? Well, a man must judge
linen as linen, cotton as cotton, and shoddy as shoddy. It is ridiculous
to denounce any of them for not being silk. To do so is not to apply high
standards so much as to apply wrong standards. One has no right as a
reviewer to judge a book by any standard save that which the author aims
at reaching. As a private reader, one has the right to say of a novel by
Mr. Joseph Hocking, for instance: "This is not literature. This is not
realism. This does not interest me. This is awful." I do not say that
these sentences can be fairly used of any of Mr. Hocking's novels. I
merely take him as an example of a popular novelist who would be bound to
be condemned if judged by comparison with Flaubert or Meredith or even Mr.
Galsworthy. But the reviewer is not asked to state whether he finds Mr.
Hocking readable so much as to state the kind of readableness at which Mr.
Hocking aims and the measure of his success in achieving it. It is the
reviewer's business to discover the quality of a book rather than to keep
announcing that the quality does not appeal to him. Not that he need
conceal the fact that it has failed to appeal to him, but he should
remember that this is a comparatively irrelevant matter. He may make it as
clear as day--indeed, he ought to make it as clear as day, if it is his
opinion--that he regards the novels of Charles Garvice as shoddy, but he
ought also to make it clear whether they are the kind of shoddy that
serves its purpose.

Is this to lower literary standards? I do not think so, for, in cases of
this kind, one is not judging literature, but popular books. Those to whom
popular books are anathema have a temperament which will always find it
difficult to fall in with the limitations of the work of a general
reviewer. The curious thing is that this intolerance of easy writing is
most generally found among those who are most opposed to intolerance in
the sphere of morals. It is as though they had escaped from one sort of
Puritanism into another. Personally, I do not see why, if we should be
tolerant of the breach of a moral commandment, we should not be equally
tolerant of the breach of a literary commandment. We should gently scan,
not only our brother man, but our brother author. The æsthete of to-day,
however, will look kindly on adultery, but show all the harshness of a
Pilgrim Father in his condemnation of a split infinitive. I cannot see the
logic of this. If irregular and commonplace people have the right to
exist, surely irregular and commonplace books have a right to exist by
their side.

The reviewer, however, is often led into a false attitude to a book, not
by its bad quality, but by some irrelevant quality--some underlying moral
or political idea. He denounces a novel the moral ideas of which offend
him, without giving sufficient consideration to the success or failure of
the novelist in the effort to make his characters live. Similarly, he
praises a novel with the moral ideas of which he agrees, without
reflecting that perhaps it is as a tract rather than as a work of art that
it has given him pleasure. Both the praise and blame which have been
heaped upon Mr. Kipling are largely due to appreciation or dislike of his
politics. The Imperialist finds his heart beating faster as he reads _The
English Flag_, and he praises Mr. Kipling as an artist when it is really
Mr. Kipling as a propagandist who has moved him. The anti-Imperialist, on
the other hand, is often led by detestation of Mr. Kipling's politics to
deny even the palpable fact that Mr. Kipling is a very brilliant
short-story teller. It is for the reviewer to raise himself above such
prejudices and to discover what are Mr. Kipling's ideas apart from his
art, and what is his art apart from his ideas.

The relation between one and the other is also clearly a relevant matter
for discussion. But the confusion of one with the other is fatal. In the
field of morals we are perhaps led astray in our judgments even more
frequently than in matters of politics. Mr. Shaw's plays are often
denounced by critics whom they have made laugh till their sides ached, and
the reason is that, after leaving the theatre, the critics remember that
they do not like Mr, Shaw's moral ideas. In the same way, it seems to me,
a great deal of the praise that has been given to Mr. D.H. Lawrence as an
artist ought really to be given to him as a distributor of certain moral
ideas. That he has studied wonderfully one aspect of human nature, that he
can describe wonderfully some aspects of external nature, I know; but I
doubt whether his art is fine enough or sympathetic enough to make
enthusiastic anyone who differs from the moral attitude, as it may be
called, of his stories. This is the real test of a work of art--has it
sufficient imaginative vitality to capture the imagination of artistic
readers who are not in sympathy with its point of view? The _Book of Job_
survives the test: it is a book to the spell of which no imaginative man
could be indifferent, whether Christian, Jew or atheist. Similarly,
Shelley is read and written about with enthusiasm by many who hold moral,
religious, and political ideas directly contrary to his own. Mr. Kipling's
_Recessional_, with its sombre imaginative glow, its recapturing of Old
Testament prides and fears, commands the praise of thousands to whom much
of the rest of his poetry is the abominable thing. It is the reviewer's
task to discover imagination even in those who are the enemies of the
ideas he cherishes. In so far as he cannot do this, he fails in his
business as a critic of the arts.

It may be said in answer to all this, however, that to appeal for
tolerance in book-reviewers is not necessary. The Press is already
overcrowded with laudations of commonplace books. Not a day passes but at
least a dozen books are praised as having "not a dull moment," being
"readable from cover to cover," and as reminding the reviewer of
Stevenson, Meredith, Oscar Wilde, Paul de Kock, and Jane Austen. That is
not the kind of tolerance which one is eager to see. That kind of review
is scarcely different from a publisher's advertisement. Besides, it
usually sins in being mere summary and comment, or even comment without
summary. It is a thoughtless scattering of acceptable words and is as
unlike the review conceived as a portrait as is the hostile kind of
commentatory review which I have been discussing. It is generally the
comment of a lazy brain, instead of being, like the other, the comment of
a clever brain. Praise is the vice of the commonplace reviewer, just as
censoriousness is the vice of the more clever sort. Not that one wishes
either praise or censure to be stinted. One is merely anxious not to see
them misapplied. It is a vice, not a virtue, of reviewing to be lukewarm
either in the one or the other. What one desires most of all in a
reviewer, after a capacity to portray books, is the courage of his
opinions, so that, whether he is face to face with an old reputation like
Mr. Conrad's or a new reputation like Mr. Mackenzie's, he will boldly
express his enthusiasms and his dissatisfactions without regard to the
estimate of the author, which is, for the moment, "in the air." What seems
to be wanted, then, in a book-reviewer is that, without being servile, he
should be swift to praise, and that, without being censorious, he should
have the courage to blame. While tolerant of kinds in literature, he
should be intolerant of pretentiousness. He should be less patient, for
instance, of a pseudo-Milton than of a writer who frankly aimed at nothing
higher than a book of music-hall songs. He should be more eager to define
the qualities of a book than to heap comment upon comment. If--I hope the
image is not too strained--he draws a book from the life, he will produce
a better review than if he spends his time calling it names, whether foul
or fair.

But what of the equipment of the reviewer? it may be asked. What of his
standards? One of the faults of modern reviewing seems to me to be that
the standards of many critics are derived almost entirely from the
literature of the last thirty years. This is especially so with some
American critics, who rush feverishly into print with volumes spotted with
the names of modern writers as Christmas pudding is spotted with currants.
To read them is to get the impression that the world is only a hundred
years old. It seems to me that Matthew Arnold was right when he urged men
to turn to the classics for their standards. His definition of the
classics may have been too narrow, and nothing could be more utterly dead
than a criticism which tries to measure imaginary literature by an
academic standard or the rules of Aristotle. But it is only those to whom
the classics are themselves dead who are likely to lay this academic dead
hand on new literature. Besides, even the most academic standards are
valuable in a world in which chaos is hailed with enthusiasm both in art
and in politics. But, when all is said, the taste which is the essential
quality of a critic is something with which he is born. It is something
which is not born of reading Sophocles and Plato and does not perish of
reading Miss Marie Corelli. This taste must illuminate all the reviewer's
portraits. Without it, he had far better be a coach-builder than a
reviewer of books. It is this taste in the background that gives
distinction to a tolerant and humorous review of even the most unambitious
detective story.

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