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Title: Hours in a Library, Volume I. (of III.)
Author: Stephen, Leslie, Sir, 1832-1904
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.

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HOURS IN A LIBRARY

VOL. I.

HOURS IN A LIBRARY

BY

LESLIE STEPHEN

_NEW EDITION, WITH ADDITIONS_

IN THREE VOLUMES.

VOL. I.

LONDON SMITH, ELDER, & CO., 15 WATERLOO PLACE 1892

[_All rights reserved_]



CONTENTS

OF

THE FIRST VOLUME


                                                        PAGE
DE FOE'S NOVELS                                            1

RICHARDSON'S NOVELS                                       47

POPE AS A MORALIST                                        94

SIR WALTER SCOTT                                         137

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE                                      169

BALZAC'S NOVELS                                          199

DE QUINCEY                                               237

SIR THOMAS BROWNE                                        269

JONATHAN EDWARDS                                         300

HORACE WALPOLE                                           345



_OPINIONS OF AUTHORS_


     Libraries are as the shrines where all the relics of the
     ancient saints, full of true virtue, and that without
     delusion or imposture, are preserved and reposed.--BACON,
     _Advancement of Learning_.


     We visit at the shrine, drink in some measure of the
     inspiration, and cannot easily breathe in other air less
     pure, accustomed to immortal fruits.--HAZLITT'S _Plain
     Speaker_.


     What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though
     all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their
     labours to the Bodleian were reposing here as in some
     dormitory or middle state. I seem to inhale learning,
     walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old
     moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of the
     sciential apples which grew around the happy
     orchard.--CHARLES LAMB, _Oxford in the Long Vacation_.


     My neighbours think me often alone, and yet at such times I
     am in company with more than five hundred mutes, each of
     whom communicates his ideas to me by dumb signs quite as
     intelligibly as any person living can do by uttering of
     words; and with a motion of my hand I can bring them as near
     to me as I please; I handle them as I like; they never
     complain of ill-usage; and when dismissed from my presence,
     though ever so abruptly, take no offence.--STERNE,
     _Letters_.


     In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear
     friends imprisoned by an enchanter in paper and leathern
     boxes,--EMERSON, _Books, Society, and Solitude_.


     Nothing is pleasanter than exploring in a library.--LANDOR,
     _Pericles and Aspasia_.


     I never come into a library (saith Heinsius) but I bolt the
     door to me, excluding lust, ambition, avarice, and all such
     vices whose nurse is idleness, the mother of ignorance and
     melancholy herself; and in the very lap of eternity, among
     so many divine souls, I take my seat with so lofty a spirit
     and sweet content that I pity all our great ones and rich
     men that know not their happiness.--BURTON, _Anatomy of
     Melancholy_.


     I do not know that I am happiest when alone; but this I am
     sure of, that I am never long even in the society of her I
     love without a yearning for the company of my lamp and my
     utterly confused and tumbled-over library.--BYRON, _Moore's
     Life_.


     Montesquieu used to say that he had never known a pain or a
     distress which he could not soothe by half an hour of a good
     book.--JOHN MORLEY, _On Popular Culture_.


     There is no truer word than that of Solomon: 'There is no
     end of making books'; the sight of a great library verifies
     it; there is no end--indeed, it were pity there should
     be.--BISHOP HALL.


     You that are genuine Athenians, devour with a golden
     Epicurism the arts and sciences, the spirits and extractions
     of authors.--CULVERWELL, _Light of Nature_.


     He hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book;
     he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink;
     his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only
     sensible in the duller parts.--SHAKESPEARE, _Love's Labour's
     Lost_.


     I have wondered at the patience of the antediluvians; their
     libraries were insufficiently furnished; how then could
     seven or eight hundred years of life be
     supportable?--COWPER, _Life and Letters by Southey_.


      Unconfused Babel of all tongues! which e'er
      The mighty linguist Fame or Time the mighty traveller,
        That could speak or this could hear!
      Majestic monument and pyramid!
      Where still the shapes of parted souls abide
      Embalmed in verse; exalted souls which now
      Enjoy those arts they wooed so well below,
        Which now all wonders plainly see
        That have been, are, or are to be
      In the mysterious Library,
      The beatific Bodley of the Deity!

             COWLEY, _Ode on the Bodleian_.


      This to a structure led well known to fame,
        And called, 'The Monument of Vanished Minds,'
      Where when they thought they saw in well-sought books
        The assembled souls of all that men thought wise,
      It bred such awful reverence in their looks,
        As if they saw the buried writers rise.
      Such heaps of written thought; gold of the dead,
        Which Time does still disperse but not devour,
      Made them presume all was from deluge freed
        Which long-lived authors writ ere Noah's shower.

             DAVENANT, _Gondibert_.


     Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a
     progeny of life in them, to be as active as that soul whose
     progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the
     purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that
     bred them.--MILTON, _Areopagitica_.


     Nor is there any paternal fondness which seems to savour
     less of absolute instinct, and which may be so well
     reconciled to worldly wisdom, as this of authors for their
     books. These children may most truly be called the riches of
     their father, and many of them have with true filial piety
     fed their parent in his old age; so that not only the
     affection but the interest of the author may be highly
     injured by those slanderers whose poisonous breath brings
     his book to an untimely end.--FIELDING, _Tom Jones_.


     We whom the world is pleased to honour with the title of
     modern authors should never have been able to compass our
     great design of everlasting remembrance and never-dying fame
     if our endeavours had not been so highly serviceable to the
     general good of mankind.--SWIFT, _Tale of a Tub_.


     A good library always makes me melancholy, where the best
     author is as much squeezed and as obscure as a porter at a
     coronation.--SWIFT.


     In my youth I never entered a great library but my
     predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of
     mind--not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes on
     viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred
     years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect
     to books, the same effect would be brought about by my own
     death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the
     worst of them capable of giving me some instruction and
     pleasure; and before I can have had time to extract the
     honey from one-twentieth of this hive in all likelihood I
     shall be summoned away.--DE QUINCEY, _Letter to a young
     man_.


     A man may be judged by his library.--BENTHAM.


     I ever look upon a library with the reverence of a
     temple.--EVELYN, _to Wotton_.


     'Father, I should like to learn to make gold.' 'And what
     would'st thou do if thou could'st make it?' 'Why, I would
     build a great house and fill it with books.'--SOUTHEY,
     _Doctor_.


     What would you have more? A wife? That is none of the
     indispensable requisites of life. Books? That is one of
     them, and I have more than I can use.--DAVID HUME, _Burton's
     'Life_.'


     Talk of the happiness of getting a great prize in the
     lottery! What is that to opening a box of books? The joy
     upon lifting up the cover must be something like that which
     we shall feel when Peter the porter opens the door upstairs,
     and says, 'Please to walk in, Sir.'--SOUTHEY, _Life_.


     I would rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of
     books than a king who did not love reading.--MACAULAY.


     Our books ... do not our hearts hug them, and quiet
     themselves in them even more than in God?--BAXTER'S _Saint's
     Rest_.


     It is our duty to live among books.--NEWMAN, _Tracts for the
     Times, No. 2_.


     What lovely things books are!--BUCKLE, _Life by Huth_.


     (Query) Whether the collected wisdom of all ages and nations
     be not found in books?--BERKELEY, _Querist_.


     Read we must, be writers ever so indifferent.--SHAFTESBURY,
     _Characteristics_.


     It's mighty hard to write nowadays without getting something
     or other worth listening to into your essay or your volume.
     The foolishest book is a kind of leaky boat on a sea of
     wisdom; some of the wisdom will get in anyhow.--O. W.
     HOLMES, _Poet at the Breakfast Table_.


     I adopted the tolerating measure of the elder Pliny--'nullum
     esse librum tam malum ut non in aliqua parte
     prodesset.'--GIBBON, _Autobiography_.


     A book's a book, although there's nothing in't.--BYRON,
     _English Bards and Scotch Reviewers_.


      While you converse with lords and dukes,
      I have their betters here, my books;
      Fixed in an elbow chair at ease
      I choose companions as I please.
      I'd rather have one single shelf
      Than all my friends, except yourself.
      For, after all that can be said,
      Our best companions are the dead.

             SHERIDAN _to Swift_.


     We often hear of people who will descend to any servility,
     submit to any insult for the sake of getting themselves or
     their children into what is euphemistically called good
     society. Did it ever occur to them that there is a select
     society of all the centuries to which they and theirs can be
     admitted for the asking?--LOWELL, _Speech at Chelsea_.


     On all sides are we not driven to the conclusion that of all
     things which men can do or make here below, by far the most
     momentous, wonderful, and worthy are the things we call
     books? For, indeed, is it not verily the highest act of
     man's faculty that produces a book? It is the thought of
     man. The true thaumaturgic virtue by which man marks all
     things whatever. All that he does and brings to pass is the
     vesture of a book.--CARLYLE, _Hero Worship_.


                          Yet it is just
      That here in memory of all books which lay
      Their sure foundations in the heart of man,
      ...
      That I should here assert their rights, assert
      Their honours, and should, once for all, pronounce
      Their benediction, speak of them as powers
      For ever to be hallowed; only less
      For what we are and what we may become
      Than Nature's self, which is the breath of God,
      Or His pure word by miracle revealed.

             WORDSWORTH, _Prelude_.


      Take me to some lofty room,
        Lighted from the western sky,
      Where no glare dispels the gloom,
        Till the golden eve is nigh;
      Where the works of searching thought,
        Chosen books, may still impart
      What the wise of old have taught,
        What has tried the meek of heart;
      Books in long dead tongues that stirred
        Loving hearts in other climes;
      Telling to my eyes, unheard,
        Glorious deeds of olden times:
      Books that purify the thought,
      Spirits of the learned dead,
      Teachers of the little taught,
      Comforters when friends are fled.

             BARNES, _Poems of Rural Life_.


     A library is like a butcher's shop; it contains plenty of
     meat, but it is all raw; no person living can find a meal in
     it till some good cook comes along and says, 'Sir, I see by
     your looks that you are hungry; I know your taste; be
     patient for a moment and you shall be satisfied that you
     have an excellent appetite!'--G. ELLIS, Lockhart's
     '_Scott_.'


     A library is itself a cheap university.--H. SIDGWICK,
     _Political Economy_.


      O such a life as he resolved to live
      Once he had mastered all that books can give!

             BROWNING.


     I will bury myself in my books and the devil may pipe to his
     own.--TENNYSON.


     Words! words! words!--SHAKESPEARE.


HOURS IN A LIBRARY



_DE FOE'S NOVELS_


According to the high authority of Charles Lamb, it has sometimes
happened 'that from no inferior merit in the rest, but from some
superior good fortune in the choice of a subject, some single work' (of
a particular author) 'shall have been suffered to eclipse, and cast into
the shade, the deserts of its less fortunate brethren.' And after
quoting the case of Bunyan's 'Holy War' as compared with the 'Pilgrim's
Progress,' he adds that, 'in no instance has this excluding partiality
been exerted with more unfairness than against what may be termed the
secondary novels or romances of De Foe.' He proceeds to declare that
there are at least four other fictitious narratives by the same
writer--'Roxana,' 'Singleton,' 'Moll Flanders,' and 'Colonel
Jack'--which possess an interest not inferior to 'Robinson
Crusoe'--'except what results from a less felicitous choice of
situation.' Granting most unreservedly that the same hand is perceptible
in the minor novels as in 'Robinson Crusoe,' and that they bear at every
page the most unequivocal symptoms of De Foe's workmanship, I venture to
doubt the 'partiality' and the 'unfairness' of preferring to them their
more popular rival. The instinctive judgment of the world is not really
biassed by anything except the intrinsic power exerted by a book over
its sympathies; and as in the long run it has honoured 'Robinson
Crusoe,' in spite of the critics, and has comparatively neglected
'Roxana' and the companion stories, there is probably some good cause
for the distinction. The apparent injustice to books resembles what we
often see in the case of men. A. B. becomes Lord Chancellor, whilst C.
D. remains for years a briefless barrister; and yet for the life of us
we cannot tell but that C. D. is the abler man of the two. Perhaps he
was wanting in some one of the less conspicuous elements that are
essential to a successful career; he said, 'Open, wheat!' instead of
'Open, sesame!' and the barriers remained unaffected by his magic. The
secret may really be simple enough. The complete success of such a book
as 'Robinson' implies, it may be, the precise adaptation of the key to
every ward of the lock. The felicitous choice of situation to which Lamb
refers gave just the required fitness; and it is of little use to plead
that 'Roxana,' 'Colonel Jack,' and others might have done the same trick
if only they had received a little filing, or some slight change in
shape: a shoemaker might as well argue that if you had only one toe less
his shoes wouldn't pinch you.

To leave the unsatisfactory ground of metaphor, we may find out, on
examination, that De Foe had discovered in 'Robinson Crusoe' precisely
the field in which his talents could be most effectually applied; and
that a very slight alteration in the subject-matter might change the
merit of his work to a disproportionate extent. The more special the
idiosyncrasy upon which a man's literary success is founded, the
greater, of course, the probability that a small change will disconcert
him. A man who can only perform upon the drum will have to wait for
certain combinations of other instruments before his special talent can
be turned to account. Now, the talent in which De Foe surpasses all
other writers is just one of those peculiar gifts which must wait for a
favourable chance. When a gentleman, in a fairy story, has a power of
seeing a hundred miles, or covering seven leagues at a stride, we know
that an opportunity will speedily occur for putting his faculties to
use. But the gentleman with the seven-leagued boots is useless when the
occasion offers itself for telescopic vision, and the eyes are good for
nothing without the power of locomotion. To De Foe, if we may imitate
the language of the 'Arabian Nights,' was given a tongue to which no one
could listen without believing every word that he uttered--a
qualification, by the way, which would serve its owner far more
effectually in this commonplace world than swords of sharpness or cloaks
of darkness, or other fairy paraphernalia. In other words, he had the
most marvellous power ever known of giving verisimilitude to his
fictions; or, in other words again, he had the most amazing talent on
record for telling lies. We have all read how the 'History of the
Plague,' the 'Memoirs of a Cavalier,' and even, it is said, 'Robinson
Crusoe,' have succeeded in passing themselves off for veritable
narratives. The 'Memoirs of Captain Carleton' long passed for De Foe's,
but the Captain has now gained admission to the biographical dictionary
and is credited with his own memoirs. In either case, it is as
characteristic that a genuine narrative should be attributed to De Foe,
as that De Foe's narrative should be taken as genuine. An odd testimony
to De Foe's powers as a liar (a word for which there is, unfortunately,
no equivalent that does not imply some blame) has been mentioned. Mr.
M'Queen, quoted in Captain Burton's 'Nile Basin,' names 'Captain
Singleton' as a genuine account of travels in Central Africa, and
seriously mentions De Foe's imaginary pirate as 'a claimant for the
honour of the discovery of the sources of the White Nile.' Probably,
however, this only proves that Mr. M'Queen had never read the book.

Most of the literary artifices to which De Foe owed his power of
producing this illusion are sufficiently plain. Of all the fictions
which he succeeded in palming off for truths none is more instructive
than that admirable ghost, Mrs. Veal. Like the sonnets of some great
poets, it contains in a few lines all the essential peculiarities of his
art, and an admirable commentary has been appended to it by Sir Walter
Scott. The first device which strikes us is his ingenious plan for
manufacturing corroborative evidence. The ghost appears to Mrs.
Bargrave. The story of the apparition is told by a 'very sober and
understanding gentlewoman, who lives within a few doors of Mrs.
Bargrave;' and the character of this sober gentlewoman is supported by
the testimony of a justice of the peace at Maidstone, 'a very
intelligent person.' This elaborate chain of evidence is intended to
divert our attention from the obvious circumstance that the whole story
rests upon the authority of the anonymous person who tells us of the
sober gentlewoman, who supports Mrs. Bargrave, and is confirmed by the
intelligent justice. Simple as the artifice appears, it is one which is
constantly used in supernatural stories of the present day. One of those
improving legends tells how a ghost appeared to two officers in Canada,
and how, subsequently, one of the officers met the ghost's twin brother
in London, and straightway exclaimed, 'You are the person who appeared
to me in Canada!' Many people are diverted from the weak part of the
story by this ingenious confirmation, and, in their surprise at the
coherence of the narrative, forget that the narrative itself rests upon
entirely anonymous evidence. A chain is no stronger than its weakest
link; but if you show how admirably the last few are united together,
half the world will forget to test the security of the equally essential
links which are kept out of sight. De Foe generally repeats a similar
trick in the prefaces of his fictions. ''Tis certain,' he says, in the
'Memoirs of a Cavalier,' 'no man could have given a description of his
retreat from Marston Moor to Rochdale, and thence over the moors to the
North, in so apt and proper terms, unless he had really travelled over
the ground he describes,' which, indeed, is quite true, but by no means
proves that the journey was made by a fugitive from that particular
battle. He separates himself more ostentatiously from the supposititious
author by praising his admirable manner of relating the memoirs, and the
'wonderful variety of incidents with which they are beautified;' and,
with admirable impudence, assures us that they are written in so
soldierly a style, that it 'seems impossible any but the very person who
was present in every action here related was the relater of them.' In
the preface to 'Roxana,' he acts, with equal spirit, the character of an
impartial person, giving us the evidence on which he is himself
convinced of the truth of the story, as though he would, of all things,
refrain from pushing us unfairly for our belief. The writer, he says,
took the story from the lady's own mouth: he was, of course, obliged to
disguise names and places; but was himself 'particularly acquainted with
this lady's first husband, the brewer, and with his father, and also
with his bad circumstances, and knows that first part of the story.'
The rest we must, of course, take upon the lady's own evidence, but less
unwillingly, as the first is thus corroborated. We cannot venture to
suggest to so calm a witness that he has invented both the lady and the
writer of her history; and, in short, that when he says that A. says
that B. says something, it is, after all, merely the anonymous 'he' who
is speaking. In giving us his authority for 'Moll Flanders,' he ventures
upon the more refined art of throwing a little discredit upon the
narrator's veracity. She professes to have abandoned her evil ways, but,
as he tells us with a kind of aside, and as it were cautioning us
against over-incredulity, 'it seems' (a phrase itself suggesting the
impartial looker-on) that in her old age 'she was not so extraordinary a
penitent as she was at first; it seems only' (for, after all, you
mustn't make _too_ much of my insinuations) 'that indeed she always
spoke with abhorrence of her former life.' So we are left in a qualified
state of confidence, as if we had been talking about one of his patients
with the wary director of a reformatory.

This last touch, which is one of De Foe's favourite expedients, is most
fully exemplified in the story of Mrs. Veal. The author affects to take
us into his confidence, to make us privy to the pros and cons in regard
to the veracity of his own characters, till we are quite disarmed. The
sober gentlewoman vouches for Mrs. Bargrave; but Mrs. Bargrave is by no
means allowed to have it all her own way. One of the ghost's
communications related to the disposal of a certain sum of 10_l._ a
year, of which Mrs. Bargrave, according to her own account, could have
known nothing, except by this supernatural intervention. Mrs. Veal's
friends, however, tried to throw doubt upon the story of her appearance,
considering that it was disreputable for a decent woman to go abroad
after her death. One of them, therefore, declared that Mrs. Bargrave was
a liar, and that she had, in fact, known of the 10_l._ beforehand. On
the other hand, the person who thus attacked Mrs. Bargrave had himself
the 'reputation of a notorious liar.' Mr. Veal, the ghost's brother, was
too much of a gentleman to make such gross imputations. He confined
himself to the more moderate assertion that Mrs. Bargrave had been
crazed by a bad husband. He maintained that the story must be a mistake,
because, just before her death, his sister had declared that she had
nothing to dispose of. This statement, however, may be reconciled with
the ghost's remarks about the 10_l._, because she obviously mentioned
such a trifle merely by way of a token of the reality of her appearance.
Mr. Veal, indeed, makes rather a better point by stating that a certain
purse of gold mentioned by the ghost was found, not in the cabinet where
she told Mrs. Bargrave that she had placed it, but in a comb-box. Yet,
again, Mr. Veal's statement is here rather suspicious, for it is known
that Mrs. Veal was very particular about her cabinet, and would not have
let her gold out of it. We are left in some doubts by this conflict of
evidence, although the obvious desire of Mr. Veal to throw discredit on
the story of his sister's appearance rather inclines us to believe in
Mrs. Bargrave's story, who could have had no conceivable motive for
inventing such a fiction. The argument is finally clenched by a decisive
coincidence. The ghost wears a silk dress. In the course of a long
conversation she incidentally mentioned to Mrs. Bargrave that this was a
scoured silk, newly made up. When Mrs. Bargrave reported this remarkable
circumstance to a certain Mrs. Wilson, 'You have certainly seen her,'
exclaimed that lady, 'for none knew but Mrs. Veal and myself that the
gown had been scoured.' To this crushing piece of evidence it seems that
neither Mr. Veal nor the notorious liar could invent any sufficient
reply.

One can almost fancy De Foe chuckling as he concocted the refinements of
this most marvellous narrative. The whole artifice is, indeed, of a
simple kind. Lord Sunderland, according to Macaulay, once ingeniously
defended himself against a charge of treachery, by asking whether it was
possible that any man should be so base as to do that which he was, in
fact, in the constant habit of doing. De Foe asks us in substance, Is it
conceivable that any man should tell stories so elaborate, so complex,
with so many unnecessary details, with so many inclinations of evidence
this way and that, unless the stories were true? We instinctively
answer, that it is, in fact, inconceivable; and, even apart from any
such refinements as those noticed, the circumstantiality of the stories
is quite sufficient to catch an unworthy critic. It is, indeed,
perfectly easy to tell a story which shall be mistaken for a _bonâ fide_
narrative, if only we are indifferent to such considerations as making
it interesting or artistically satisfactory.

The praise which has been lavished upon De Foe for the verisimilitude of
his novels seems to be rather extravagant. The trick would be easy
enough, if it were worth performing. The story-teller cannot be
cross-examined; and if he is content to keep to the ordinary level of
commonplace facts, there is not the least difficulty in producing
conviction. We recognise the fictitious character of an ordinary novel,
because it makes a certain attempt at artistic unity, or because the
facts are such as could obviously not be known to, or would not be told
by, a real narrator, or possibly because they are inconsistent with
other established facts. If a man chooses to avoid such obvious
confessions of unreality, he can easily be as life-like as De Foe. I do
not suppose that foreign correspondence of a newspaper is often composed
in the Strand; but it is only because I believe that the honesty of
writers in the press is far too great to allow them to commit a crime
which must be speedily detected by independent evidence. Lying is, after
all, the easiest of all things, if the liar be not too ambitious. A
little clever circumstantiality will lull any incipient suspicion; and
it must be added that De Foe, in adopting the tone of a _bonâ fide_
narrator, not unfrequently overreaches himself. He forgets his dramatic
position in his anxiety to be minute. Colonel Jack, at the end of a long
career, tells us how one of his boyish companions stole certain articles
at a fair, and gives us the list, of which this is a part: '5thly, a
silver box, with 7_s._ in small silver; 6, a pocket-handkerchief; 7,
_another_; 8, a jointed baby, and a little looking-glass.' The
affectation of extreme precision, especially in the charming item
'another,' destroys the perspective of the story. We are listening to a
contemporary, not to an old man giving us his fading recollections of a
disreputable childhood.

The peculiar merit, then, of De Foe must be sought in something more
than the circumstantial nature of his lying, or even the ingenious
artifices by which he contrives to corroborate his own narrative. These,
indeed, show the pleasure which he took in simulating truth; and he may
very probably have attached undue importance to this talent in the
infancy of novel-writing, as in the infancy of painting it was held for
the greatest of triumphs when birds came and pecked at the grapes in a
picture. It is curious, indeed, that De Foe and Richardson, the
founders of our modern school of fiction, appear to have stumbled upon
their discovery by a kind of accident. As De Foe's novels are simply
history _minus_ the facts, so Richardson's are a series of letters
_minus_ the correspondents. The art of novel-writing, like the art of
cooking pigs in Lamb's most philosophical as well as humorous apologue,
first appeared in its most cumbrous shape. As Hoti had to burn his
cottage for every dish of pork, Richardson and De Foe had to produce
fiction at the expense of a close approach to falsehood. The division
between the art of lying and the art of fiction was not distinctly
visible to either; and both suffer to some extent from the attempt to
produce absolute illusion, where they should have been content with
portraiture. And yet the defect is balanced by the vigour naturally
connected with an unflinching realism. That this power rested, in De
Foe's case, upon something more than a bit of literary trickery, may be
inferred from his fate in another department of authorship. He twice got
into trouble for a device exactly analogous to that which he afterwards
practised in fiction. On both occasions he was punished for assuming a
character for purposes of mystification. In the latest instance, it is
seen, the pamphlet called 'What if the Pretender Comes?' was written in
such obvious irony, that the mistake of his intentions must have been
wilful. The other and better-known performance, 'The Shortest Way with
the Dissenters,' seems really to have imposed upon some of his readers.
It is difficult in these days of toleration to imagine that any one can
have taken the violent suggestions of the 'Shortest Way' as put forward
seriously. To those who might say that persecuting the Dissenters was
cruel, says De Foe, 'I answer, 'tis cruelty to kill a snake or a toad
in cold blood, but the poison of their nature makes it a charity to our
neighbours to destroy those creatures, not for any personal injury
received, but for prevention.... Serpents, toads, and vipers, &c., are
noxious to the body, and poison the sensitive life: these poison the
soul, corrupt our posterity, ensnare our children, destroy the vital of
our happiness, our future felicity, and contaminate the whole mass.' And
he concludes: 'Alas, the Church of England! What with Popery on the one
hand, and schismatics on the other, how has she been crucified between
two thieves! _Now let us crucify the thieves!_ Let her foundations be
established upon the destruction of her enemies: the doors of mercy
being always open to the returning part of the deluded people; let the
obstinate be ruled with a rod of iron!' It gives a pleasant impression
of the spirit of the times, to remember that this could be taken for a
genuine utterance of orthodoxy; that De Foe was imprisoned and
pilloried, and had to write a serious protestation that it was only a
joke, and that he meant to expose the nonjuring party by putting their
secret wishes into plain English. ''Tis hard,' he says, 'that this
should not be perceived by all the town; that not one man can see it,
either Churchman or Dissenter.' It certainly was very hard; but a
perusal of the whole pamphlet may make it a degree more intelligible.
Ironical writing of this kind is in substance a _reductio ad absurdum_.
It is a way of saying the logical result of your opinions is such or
such a monstrous error. So long as the appearance of logic is preserved,
the error cannot be stated too strongly. The attempt to soften the
absurdity so as to take in an antagonist is injurious artistically, if
it may be practically useful. An ironical intention which is quite
concealed might as well not exist. And thus the unscrupulous use of the
same weapon by Swift is now far more telling than De Foe's comparatively
guarded application of it. The artifice, however, is most skilfully
carried out for the end which De Foe had in view. The 'Shortest Way'
begins with a comparative gravity to throw us off our guard; the author
is not afraid of imitating a little of the dulness of his supposed
antagonists, and repeats with all imaginable seriousness the very taunts
which a High Church bigot would in fact have used. It was not a sound
defence of persecution to say that the Dissenters had been cruel when
they had the upper hand, and that penalties imposed upon them were
merely retaliation for injuries suffered under Cromwell and from
Scottish Presbyterians; but it was one of those topics upon which a
hot-headed persecutor would naturally dwell, though De Foe gives him
rather more forcible language than he would be likely to possess. It is
only towards the end that the ironical purpose crops out in what we
should have thought an unmistakable manner. Few writers would have
preserved their incognito so long. The caricature would have been too
palpable, and invited ridicule too ostentatiously. An impatient man soon
frets under the mask and betrays his real strangeness in the hostile
camp.

De Foe in fact had a peculiarity at first sight less favourable to
success in fiction than in controversy. Amongst the political writers of
that age he was, on the whole, distinguished for good temper and an
absence of violence. Although a party man, he was by no means a man to
swallow the whole party platform. He walked on his own legs, and was not
afraid to be called a deserter by more thoroughgoing partisans. The
principles which he most ardently supported were those of religious
toleration and hatred to every form of arbitrary power. Now, the
intellectual groundwork upon which such a character is formed has
certain conspicuous merits, along with certain undeniable weaknesses.
Amongst the first may be reckoned a strong grasp of facts--which was
developed to an almost disproportionate degree in De Foe--and a
resolution to see things as they are without the gloss which is
contracted from strong party sentiment. He was one of those men of
vigorous common-sense who like to have everything down plainly and
distinctly in good unmistakable black and white, and indulge a voracious
appetite for facts and figures. He was, therefore, able--within the
limits of his vision--to see things from both sides, and to take his
adversaries' opinions as calmly as his own, so long, at least, as they
dealt with the class of considerations with which he was accustomed to
deal; for, indeed, there are certain regions of discussion to which we
cannot be borne on the wings of statistics, or even of common-sense. And
this, the weak side of his intellect, is equally unmistakable. The
matter-of-fact man may be compared to one who suffers from
colour-blindness. Perhaps he may have a power of penetrating, and even
microscopic vision; but he sees everything in his favourite black and
white or gray, and loses all the delights of gorgeous, though it may be
deceptive, colouring. One man sees everything in the forcible light and
shade of Rembrandt: a few heroes stand out conspicuously in a focus of
brilliancy from a background of imperfectly defined shadows, clustering
round the centre in strange but picturesque confusion. To another, every
figure is full of interest, with singular contrasts and sharply-defined
features; the whole effect is somewhat spoilt by the want of perspective
and the perpetual sparkle and glitter; yet when we fix our attention
upon any special part, it attracts us by its undeniable vivacity and
vitality. To a third, again, the individual figures become dimmer, but
he sees a slow and majestic procession of shapes imperceptibly
developing into some harmonious whole. Men profess to reach their
philosophical conclusions by some process of logic; but the imagination
is the faculty which furnishes the raw material upon which the logic is
employed, and, unconsciously to its owners, determines, for the most
part, the shape into which their theories will be moulded. Now, De Foe
was above the ordinary standard, in so far as he did not, like most of
us, see things merely as a blurred and inextricable chaos; but he was
below the great imaginative writers in the comparative coldness and dry
precision of his mental vision. To him the world was a vast picture,
from which all confusion was banished; everything was definite, clear,
and precise as in a photograph; as in a photograph, too, everything
could be accurately measured, and the result stated in figures; by the
same parallel, there was a want of perspective, for the most distant
objects were as precisely given as the nearest; and yet further, there
was the same absence of the colouring which is caused in natural objects
by light and heat, and in mental pictures by the fire of imaginative
passion. The result is a product which is to Fielding or Scott what a
portrait by a first-rate photographer is to one by Vandyke or Reynolds,
though, perhaps, the peculiar qualifications which go to make a De Foe
are almost as rare as those which form the more elevated artist.

To illustrate this a little more in detail, one curious proof of the
want of the passionate element in De Foe's novels is the singular
calmness with which he describes his villains. He always looks at the
matter in a purely business-like point of view. It is very wrong to
steal, or break any of the commandments: partly because the chances are
that it won't pay, and partly also because the devil will doubtless get
hold of you in time. But a villain in De Foe is extremely like a
virtuous person, only that, so to speak, he has unluckily backed the
losing side. Thus, for example, Colonel Jack is a thief from his youth
up; Moll Flanders is a thief, and worse; Roxana is a highly immoral
lady, and is under some suspicion of a most detestable murder; and
Captain Singleton is a pirate of the genuine buccaneering school. Yet we
should really doubt, but for their own confessions, whether they have
villainy enough amongst them to furnish an average pickpocket. Roxana
occasionally talks about a hell within, and even has unpleasant dreams
concerning 'apparitions of devils and monsters, of falling into gulphs,
and from off high and steep precipices.' She has, moreover, excellent
reasons for her discomfort. Still, in spite of a very erroneous course
of practice, her moral tone is all that can be desired. She discourses
about the importance of keeping to the paths of virtue with the most
exemplary punctuality, though she does not find them convenient for her
own personal use. Colonel Jack is a young Arab of the streets--as it is
fashionable to call them now-a-days--sleeping in the ashes of a
glasshouse by night, and consorting with thieves by day. Still the
exemplary nature of his sentiments would go far to establish Lord
Palmerston's rather heterodox theory of the innate goodness of man. He
talks like a book from his earliest infancy. He once forgets himself so
far as to rob a couple of poor women on the highway instead of picking
rich men's pockets; but his conscience pricks him so much that he cannot
rest till he has restored the money. Captain Singleton is a still more
striking case: he is a pirate by trade, but with a strong resemblance to
the ordinary British merchant in his habits of thought. He ultimately
retires from a business in which the risks are too great for his taste,
marries, and settles down quietly on his savings. There is a certain
Quaker who joins his ship, really as a volunteer, but under a show of
compulsion, in order to avoid the possible inconveniences of a capture.
The Quaker always advises him in his difficulties in such a way as to
avoid responsibility. When they are in action with a Portuguese
man-of-war, for example, the Quaker sees a chance of boarding, and,
coming up to Singleton, says very calmly, 'Friend, what dost thou mean?
why dost thou not visit thy neighbour in the ship, the door being open
for thee?' This ingenious gentleman always preserves as much humanity as
is compatible with his peculiar position, and even prevents certain
negroes from being tortured into confession, on the unanswerable ground
that, as neither party understands a word of the other's language, the
confession will not be to much purpose. 'It is no compliment to my
moderation,' says Singleton, 'to say, I was convinced by these reasons;
and yet we had all much ado to keep our second lieutenant from murdering
some of them to make them tell.'

Now, this humane pirate takes up pretty much the position which De Foe's
villains generally occupy in good earnest. They do very objectionable
things; but they always speak like steady, respectable Englishmen, with
an eye to the main chance. It is true that there is nothing more
difficult than to make a villain tell his own story naturally; in a way,
that is, so as to show at once the badness of the motive and the excuse
by which the actor reconciles it to his own mind. De Foe is entirely
deficient in this capacity of appreciating a character different from
his own. His actors are merely so many repetitions of himself placed
under different circumstances and committing crimes in the way of
business, as De Foe might himself have carried out a commercial
transaction. From the outside they are perfect; they are evidently
copied from the life; and Captain Singleton is himself a repetition of
the celebrated Captain Kidd, who indeed is mentioned in the novel. But
of the state of mind which leads a man to be a pirate, and of the
effects which it produces upon his morals, De Foe has either no notion,
or is, at least, totally incapable of giving us a representation. All
which goes by the name of psychological analysis in modern fiction is
totally alien to his art. He could, as we have said, show such dramatic
power as may be implied in transporting himself to a different position,
and looking at matters even from his adversary's point of view; but of
the further power of appreciating his adversary's character he shows not
the slightest trace. He looks at his actors from the outside, and gives
us with wonderful minuteness all the details of their lives; but he
never seems to remember that within the mechanism whose working he
describes there is a soul very different from that of Daniel De Foe.
Rather, he seems to see in mankind nothing but so many million Daniel De
Foes; they are in all sorts of postures, and thrown into every variety
of difficulty, but the stuff of which they are composed is identical
with that which he buttons into his own coat; there is variety of form,
but no colouring, in his pictures of life.

We may ask again, therefore, what is the peculiar source of De Foe's
power? He has little, or no dramatic power, in the higher sense of the
word, which implies sympathy with many characters and varying tones of
mind. If he had written 'Henry IV.,' Falstaff, and Hotspur, and Prince
Hal would all have been as like each other as are generally the first
and second murderer. Nor is the mere fact that he tells a story with a
strange appearance of veracity sufficient; for a story may be truth-like
and yet deadly dull. Indeed, no candid critic can deny that this is the
case with some of De Foe's narratives; as, for example, the latter part
of 'Colonel Jack,' where the details of management of a plantation in
Virginia are sufficiently uninteresting in spite of the minute financial
details. One device, which he occasionally employs with great force,
suggests an occasional source of interest. It is generally reckoned as
one of his most skilful tricks that in telling a story he cunningly
leaves a few stray ends, which are never taken up. Such is the
well-known incident of Xury, in 'Robinson Crusoe.' This contrivance
undoubtedly gives an appearance of authenticity, by increasing the
resemblance to real narratives; it is like the trick of artificially
roughening a stone after it has been fixed into a building, to give it
the appearance of being fresh from the quarry. De Foe, however,
frequently extracts a more valuable piece of service from these loose
ends. The situation which has been most praised in De Foe's novels is
that which occurs at the end of 'Roxana.' Roxana, after a life of
wickedness, is at last married to a substantial merchant. She has saved,
from the wages of sin, the convenient sum of 2,056_l._ a year, secured
upon excellent mortgages. Her husband has 17,000_l._ in cash, after
deducting a 'black article of 8,000 pistoles,' due on account of a
certain lawsuit in Paris, and 1,320_l._ a year in rent. There is a
satisfaction about these definite sums which we seldom receive from the
vague assertions of modern novelists. Unluckily, a girl turns up at this
moment who shows great curiosity about Roxana's history. It soon becomes
evident that she is, in fact, Roxana's daughter by a former and long
since deserted husband; but she cannot be acknowledged without a
revelation of her mother's subsequently most disreputable conduct. Now,
Roxana has a devoted maid, who threatens to get rid, by fair means or
foul, of this importunate daughter. Once she fails in her design, but
confesses to her mistress that, if necessary, she will commit the
murder. Roxana professes to be terribly shocked, but yet has a desire to
be relieved at almost any price from her tormentor. The maid thereupon
disappears again; soon afterwards the daughter disappears too; and
Roxana is left in terrible doubt, tormented by the opposing anxieties
that her maid may have murdered her daughter, or that her daughter may
have escaped and revealed the mother's true character. Here is a telling
situation for a sensation novelist; and the minuteness with which the
story is worked out, whilst we are kept in suspense, supplies the place
of the ordinary rant; to say nothing of the increased effect due to
apparent veracity, in which certainly few sensation novelists can even
venture a distant competition. The end of the story differs still more
widely from modern art. Roxana has to go abroad with her husband, still
in a state of doubt. Her maid after a time joins her, but gives no
intimation as to the fate of the daughter; and the story concludes by a
simple statement that Roxana afterwards fell into well-deserved misery.
The mystery is certainly impressive; and Roxana is heartily afraid of
the devil and the gallows, to say nothing of the chance of losing her
fortune. Whether, as Lamb maintained, the conclusion in which the
mystery is cleared up is a mere forgery, or was added by De Foe to
satisfy the ill-judged curiosity of his readers, I do not profess to
decide. Certainly it rather spoils the story; but in this, as in some
other cases, one is often left in doubt as to the degree in which De Foe
was conscious of his own merits.

Another instance on a smaller scale of the effective employment of
judicious silence, is an incident in 'Captain Singleton.' The Quaker of
our acquaintance meets with a Japanese priest who speaks a few words of
English, and explains that he has learnt it from thirteen Englishmen,
the only remnant of thirty-two who had been wrecked on the coast of
Japan. To confirm his story, he produces a bit of paper on which is
written, in plain English words: 'We came from Greenland and from the
North Pole.' Here are claimants for the discovery of a North-west
Passage, of whom we would gladly hear more. Unluckily, when Captain
Singleton comes to the place where his Quaker had met the priest, the
ship in which he was sailing had departed; and this put an end to an
inquiry, and perhaps 'may have disappointed mankind of one of the most
noble discoveries that ever was made or will again be made, in the
world, for the good of mankind in general; but so much for that.'

In these two fragments, which illustrate a very common device of De
Foe's, we come across two elements of positive power over our
imaginations. Even De Foe's imagination recognised and delighted in a
certain margin of mystery to this harsh world of facts and figures. He
is generally too anxious to set everything before us in broad daylight;
there is too little of the thoughts and emotions which inhabit the
twilight of the mind; of those dim half-seen forms which exercise the
strongest influence upon the imagination, and are the most tempting
subjects for the poet's art. De Foe, in truth, was little enough of a
poet. Sometimes by mere force of terse idiomatic language he rises into
real poetry, as it was understood in the days when Pope and Dryden were
our lawgivers. It is often really vigorous. The well-known verses--

    Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
    The devil always builds a chapel there--

which begin the 'True-born Englishman,' or the really fine lines which
occur in the 'Hymn to the Pillory,' that 'hieroglyphic state machine,
contrived to punish fancy in,' and ending--

    Tell them that placed him here,
    They're scandals to the times,
    Are at a loss to find his guilt,
    _And can't commit his crimes_--

may stand for specimens of his best manner. More frequently he
degenerates into the merest doggerel, _e.g._--

    No man was ever yet so void of sense,
    As to debate the right of self-defence,
    A principle so grafted in the mind,
    With nature born, and does like nature bind;
    Twisted with reason, and with nature too,
    As neither one nor t'other can undo--

which is scarcely a happy specimen of the difficult art of reasoning in
verse. His verse is at best vigorous epigrammatic writing, such as would
now be converted into leading articles, twisted with more or less
violence into rhyme. And yet there is a poetical side to his mind, or at
least a susceptibility to poetical impressions of a certain order. And
as a novelist is on the border-line between poetry and prose, and novels
should be as it were prose saturated with poetry, we may expect to come
in this direction upon the secret of De Foe's power. Although De Foe for
the most part deals with good tangible subjects, which he can weigh and
measure and reduce to moidores and pistoles, the mysterious has a very
strong though peculiar attraction for him. It is indeed that vulgar kind
of mystery which implies nothing of reverential awe. He was urged by a
restless curiosity to get away from this commonplace world, and reduce
the unknown regions beyond to scale and measure. The centre of Africa,
the wilds of Siberia, and even more distinctly the world of spirits, had
wonderful charms for him. Nothing would have given him greater pleasure
than to determine the exact number of the fallen angels and the date of
their calamity. In the 'History of the Devil' he touches, with a
singular kind of humorous gravity, upon several of these questions, and
seems to apologise for his limited information. 'Several things,' he
says, 'have been suggested to set us a-calculating the number of this
frightful throng of devils who, with Satan the master-devil, was thus
cast out of heaven.' He declines the task, though he quotes with a
certain pleasure the result obtained by a grave calculator, who found
that in the first line of Satan's army there were a thousand times a
hundred thousand million devils, and more in the other two. He gives a
kind of arithmetical measure of the decline of the devil's power by
pointing out that 'he who was once equal to the angel who killed eighty
thousand men in one night, is not able now, without a new commission, to
take away the life of one Job.' He is filled with curiosity as to the
proceedings of the first parliament (p--------t as he delicately puts
it) of devils; he regrets that as he was not personally present in that
'black divan'--at least, not that he can remember, for who can account
for his pre-existent state?--he cannot say what happened; but he adds,
'If I had as much personal acquaintance with the devil as would admit
it, and could depend upon the truth of what answer he would give me, the
first question would be, what measures they (the devils) resolved on at
their first assembly?' and the second how they employed the time between
their fall and the creation of the man? Here we see the instinct of the
politician; and we may add that De Foe is thoroughly dissatisfied with
Milton's statements upon this point, though admiring his genius; and
goes so far as to write certain verses intended as a correction of, or
interpolation into, 'Paradise Lost.'

Mr. Ruskin, in comparing Milton's Satan with Dante's, somewhere remarks
that the vagueness of Milton, as compared with the accurate measurements
given by Dante, is so far a proof of less activity of the imaginative
faculty. It is easier to leave the devil's stature uncertain than to say
that he was eighteen feet high. Without disputing the proposition as Mr.
Ruskin puts it, we fancy that he would scarcely take De Foe's poetry as
an improvement in dignity upon Milton's. We may, perhaps, guess at its
merits from this fragment of a speech in prose, addressed to Adam by
Eve: 'What ails the sot?' says the new termagant. 'What are you afraid
of?... Take it, you fool, and eat.... Take it, I say, or I will go and
cut down the tree, and you shall never eat any of it at all; and you
shall still be a fool, and be governed by your wife for ever.' This, and
much more gross buffoonery of the same kind, is apparently intended to
recommend certain sound moral aphorisms to the vulgar; but the cool
arithmetical method by which De Foe investigates the history of the
devil, his anxiety to pick up gossip about him, and the view which he
takes of him as a very acute and unscrupulous politician--though
impartially vindicating him from some of Mr. Milton's aspersions--is
exquisitely characteristic.

If we may measure the imaginative power of great poets by the relative
merits of their conceptions of Satan, we might find a humbler gauge for
inferior capacities in the power of summoning awe-inspiring ghosts. The
difficulty of the feat is extreme. Your ghost, as Bottom would have
said, is a very fearful wild-fowl to bring upon the stage. He must be
handled delicately, or he is spoilt. Scott has a good ghost or two; but
Lord Lytton, almost the only writer who has recently dealt with the
supernatural, draws too freely upon our belief, and creates only
melodramatic spiritual beings, with a strong dash of the vulgarising
element of modern 'spiritualism.' They are scarcely more awful beings
than the terrible creations of the raw-head-and-bloody-bones school of
fiction.

Amongst this school we fear that De Foe must, on the whole, be reckoned.
We have already made acquaintance with Mrs. Veal, who, in her ghostly
condition, talks for an hour and three-quarters with a gossip over a cup
of tea; who, indeed, so far forgets her ghostly condition as to ask for
a cup of the said tea, and only evades the consequences of her blunder
by one of those rather awkward excuses which we all sometimes practise
in society; and who, in short, is the least ethereal spirit that was
ever met with outside a table. De Foe's extraordinary love for
supernatural stories of the gossiping variety found vent in 'A History
of Apparitions,' and his 'System of Magic.' The position which he takes
up is a kind of modified rationalism. He believes that there are genuine
apparitions which personate our dead friends, and give us excellent
pieces of advice on occasion; but he refuses to believe that the spirits
can appear themselves, on account 'of the many strange inconveniences
and ill consequences which would happen if the souls of men and women,
unembodied and departed, were at liberty to visit the earth.' De Foe is
evidently as familiar with the habits of spirits generally as of the
devil. In that case, for example, the feuds of families would never die,
for the injured person would be always coming back to right himself. He
proceeds upon this principle to account for many apparitions, as, for
example, one which appeared in the likeness of a certain J. O. of the
period, and strongly recommended his widow to reduce her expenses. He
won't believe that the Virgin appeared to St. Francis, because all
stories of that kind are mere impostures of the priests; but he thinks
it very likely that he was haunted by the devil, who may have sometimes
taken the Virgin's shape. In the 'History of Witchcraft' De Foe tells us
how, as he was once riding in the country, he met a man on the way to
inquire of a certain wizard. De Foe, according to his account, which may
or may not be intended as authentic, waited the whole of the next day at
a public-house in a country town, in order to hear the result of the
inquiry; and had long conversations, reported in his usual style, with
infinite 'says he's' and 'says I's,' in which he tried to prove that the
wizard was an impostor. This lets us into the secret of many of De Foe's
apparitions. They are the ghosts that frighten villagers as they cross
commons late at night, or that rattle chains and display lights in
haunted houses. Sometimes they have vexed knavish attorneys by
discovering long-hidden deeds. Sometimes they have enticed highwaymen
into dark corners of woods, and there the wretched criminal finds in
their bags (for ghosts of this breed have good substantial luggage)
nothing but a halter and a bit of silver (value exactly 13-1/2_d._) to
pay the hangman. When he turns to the owner, he has vanished.
Occasionally, they are the legends told by some passing traveller from
distant lands--probably genuine superstitions in their origin, but
amplified by tradition into marvellous exactitude of detail, and
garnished with long gossiping conversations. Such a ghost, which, on the
whole, is my favourite, is the mysterious Owke Mouraski. This being,
whether devil or good spirit no man knows, accompanied a traveller for
four years through the steppes of Russia, and across Norway, Turkey, and
various other countries. On the march he was always seen a mile to the
left of the party, keeping parallel with them, in glorious indifference
to roads. He crossed rivers without bridges, and the sea without ships.
Everywhere, in the wild countries, he was known by name and dreaded; for
if he entered a house, some one would die there within a year. Yet he
was good to the traveller, going so far, indeed, on one occasion, as to
lend him a horse, and frequently treating him to good advice. Towards
the end of the journey Owke Mouraski informed his companion that he was
'the inhabitant of an invisible region,' and afterwards became very
familiar with him. The traveller, indeed, would never believe that his
friend was a devil, a scepticism of which De Foe doubtfully approves.
The story, however, must be true, because, as De Foe says, he saw it in
manuscript many years ago; and certainly Owke is of a superior order to
most of the pot-house ghosts.

De Foe, doubtless, had an insatiable appetite for legends of this kind,
talked about them with infinite zest in innumerable gossips, and
probably smoked pipes and consumed ale in abundance during the process.
The ghosts are the substantial creations of the popular fancy, which no
longer nourished itself upon a genuine faith in a more lofty order of
spiritual beings. It is superstition become gross and vulgar before it
disappears for ever. Romance and poetry have pretty well departed from
these ghosts, as from the witches of the period, who are little better
than those who still linger in our country villages and fill corners of
newspapers, headed 'Superstition in the nineteenth century.' In his
novels De Foe's instinct for probability generally enables him to employ
the marvellous moderately, and, therefore, effectively; he is specially
given to dreams; they are generally verified just enough to leave us the
choice of credulity or scepticism, and are in excellent keeping with the
supposed narrator. Roxana tells us how one morning she suddenly sees her
lover's face as though it were a death's-head, and his clothes covered
with blood. In the evening the lover is murdered. One of Moll Flanders'
husbands hears her call him at a distance of many miles--a superstition,
by the way, in which Boswell, if not Johnson, fully believed. De Foe
shows his usual skill in sometimes making the visions or omens fail of a
too close fulfilment, as in the excellent dream where Robinson Crusoe
hears Friday's father tell him of the sailors' attempt to murder the
Spaniards: no part of the dream, as he says, is specifically true,
though it has a general truth; and hence we may, at our choice, suppose
it to have been supernatural, or to be merely a natural result of
Crusoe's anxiety. This region of the marvellous, however, only affects
De Foe's novels in a subordinate degree. The Owke Mouraski suggests
another field in which a lover of the mysterious could then find room
for his imagination. The world still presented a boundless wilderness
of untravelled land. Mapped and explored territory was still a bright
spot surrounded by chaotic darkness, instead of the two being in the
reverse proportions. Geographers might fill up huge tracts by writing
'here is much gold,' or putting 'elephants instead of towns.' De Foe's
gossiping acquaintance, when they were tired of ghosts, could tell of
strange adventures in wild seas, where merchantmen followed a narrow
track, exposed to the assaults of pirates; or of long journeys over
endless steppes, in the days when travelling was travelling indeed; when
distances were reckoned by months, and men might expect to meet
undiscovered tribes and monsters unimagined by natural historians.
Doubtless he had listened greedily to the stories of seafaring men and
merchants from the Gold Coast or the East. 'Captain Singleton,' to omit
'Robinson Crusoe' for the present, shows the form into which these
stories moulded themselves in his mind. Singleton, besides his other
exploits, anticipated Livingstone in crossing Africa from sea to sea. De
Foe's biographers rather unnecessarily admire the marvellous way in
which his imaginary descriptions have been confirmed by later
travellers. And it is true that Singleton found two great lakes, which
may, if we please, be identified with those of recent discoverers. His
other guesses are not surprising. As a specimen of the mode in which he
filled up the unknown space we may mention that he covers the desert
'with a kind of thick moss of a blackish dead colour,' which is not a
very impressive phenomenon. It is in the matter of wild beasts, however,
that he is strongest. Their camp is in one place surrounded by
'innumerable numbers of devilish creatures.' These creatures were as
'thick as a drove of bullocks coming to a fair,' so that they could not
fire without hitting some; in fact, a volley brought down three tigers
and two wolves, besides one creature 'of an ill-gendered kind, between a
tiger and a leopard.' Before long they met an 'ugly, venomous, deformed
kind of a snake or serpent,' which had 'a hellish, ugly, deformed look
and voice;' indeed, they would have recognised in it the being who most
haunted De Foe's imaginary world--the devil--except that they could not
think what business the devil could have where there were no people. The
fauna of this country, besides innumerable lions, tigers, leopards, and
elephants, comprised 'living creatures as big as calves, but not of that
kind,' and creatures between a buffalo and a deer, which resembled
neither; they had no horns, but legs like a cow, with a fine head and
neck, like a deer. The 'ill-gendered' beast is an admirable specimen of
De Foe's workmanship. It shows his moderation under most tempting
circumstances. No dog-headed men, no men with eyes in their breasts, or
feet that serve as umbrellas, will suit him. He must have something new,
and yet probable; and he hits upon a very serviceable animal in this
mixture between a tiger and a leopard. Surely no one could refuse to
honour such a moderate draft upon his imagination. In short, De Foe,
even in the wildest of regions, where his pencil might have full play,
sticks closely to the commonplace, and will not venture beyond the
regions of the easily conceivable.

The final element in which De Foe's curiosity might find a congenial
food consisted of the stories floating about contemporary affairs. He
had talked with men who had fought in the Great Rebellion, or even in
the old German wars. He had himself been out with Monmouth, and taken
part in the fight at Sedgemoor. Doubtless that small experience of
actual warfare gave additional vivacity to his descriptions of battles,
and was useful to him, as Gibbon declares that his service with the
militia was of some assistance in describing armies of a very different
kind. There is a period in history which has a peculiar interest for all
of us. It is that which lies upon the border-land between the past and
present; which has gathered some romance from the lapse of time, and yet
is not so far off but that we have seen some of the actors, and can
distinctly realise the scenes in which they took part. Such to the
present generation is the era of the Revolutionary wars. 'Old men still
creep among us' who lived through that period of peril and excitement,
and yet we are far enough removed from them to fancy that there were
giants in those days. When De Foe wrote his novels the battles of the
great Civil War and the calamities of the Plague were passing through
this phase; and to them we owe two of his most interesting books, the
'Memoirs of a Cavalier' and the 'History of the Plague.'

When such a man spins us a yarn the conditions of its being interesting
are tolerably simple. The first condition obviously is, that the plot
must be a good one, and good in the sense that a representation in
dumb-show must be sufficiently exciting, without the necessity of any
explanation of motives. The novel of sentiment or passion or character
would be altogether beyond his scope. He will accumulate any number of
facts and details; but they must be such as will speak for themselves
without the need of an interpreter. For this reason we do not imagine
that 'Roxana,' 'Moll Flanders,' 'Colonel Jack,' or 'Captain Singleton'
can fairly claim any higher interest than that which belongs to the
ordinary police report, given with infinite fulness and vivacity of
detail. In each of them there are one or two forcible situations. Roxana
pursued by her daughter, Moll Flanders in prison, and Colonel Jack as a
young boy of the streets, are powerful fragments, and well adapted for
his peculiar method. He goes on heaping up little significant facts,
till we are able to realise the situation powerfully, and we may then
supply the sentiment for ourselves. But he never seems to know his own
strength. He gives us at equal length, and with the utmost
plain-speaking, the details of a number of other positions, which are
neither interesting nor edifying. He is decent or coarse, just as he is
dull or amusing, without knowing the difference. The details about the
different connections formed by Roxana and Moll Flanders have no atom of
sentiment, and are about as wearisome as the journal of a specially
heartless lady of the same character would be at the present day. He has
been praised for never gilding objectionable objects, or making vice
attractive. To all appearance, he would have been totally unable to set
about it. He has only one mode of telling a story, and he follows the
thread of his narrative into the back-slums of London, or lodging-houses
of doubtful character, or respectable places of trade, with the same
equanimity, at a good steady jog-trot of narrative. The absence of any
passion or sentiment deprives such places of the one possible source of
interest; and we must confess that two-thirds of each of these novels
are deadly dull; the remainder, though exhibiting specimens of his
genuine power, is not far enough from the commonplace to be specially
attractive. In short, the merit of De Foe's narrative bears a direct
proportion to the intrinsic merit of a plain statement of the facts;
and, in the novels already mentioned, as there is nothing very
surprising, certainly nothing unique, about the story, his treatment
cannot raise it above a very moderate level.

Above these stories comes De Foe's best fragment of fictitious
history.[1] The 'Memoirs of a Cavalier' is a very amusing book, though
it is less fiction than history, interspersed with a few personal
anecdotes. In it there are some exquisite little bits of genuine Defoe.
The Cavalier tells us, with such admirable frankness, that he once left
the army a day or two before a battle, in order to visit some relatives
at Bath, and excuses himself so modestly for his apparent neglect of
military duty, that we cannot refuse to believe in him. A novelist, we
say, would have certainly taken us to the battle, or would, at least,
have given his hero a more heroic excuse. The character, too, of the old
soldier, who has served under Gustavus Adolphus, who is disgusted with
the raw English levies, still more disgusted with the interference of
parsons, and who has a respect for his opponents--especially Sir Thomas
Fairfax--which is compounded partly of English love of fair play, and
partly of the indifference of a professional officer--is better
supported than most of De Foe's personages. An excellent Dugald Dalgetty
touch is his constant anxiety to impress upon the Royalist commanders
the importance of a particular trick which he has learned abroad of
mixing foot soldiers with the cavalry. We must leave him, however, to
say a few words upon the 'History of the Plague,' which seems to come
next in merit to 'Robinson Crusoe.' Here De Foe has to deal with a story
of such intrinsically tragic interest that all his details become
affecting. It needs no commentary to interpret the meaning of the
terrible anecdotes, many of which are doubtless founded on fact. There
is the strange superstitious element brought out by the horror of the
sudden visitation. The supposed writer hesitates as to leaving the
doomed city. He is decided to stay at last by opening the Bible at
random and coming upon the text, 'He shall deliver thee from the snare
of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.' He watches the comets:
the one which appeared before the Plague was 'of a dull, languid colour,
and its motion heavy, solemn, and slow;' the other, which preceded the
Great Fire, was 'bright and sparkling, and its motion swift and
furious.' Old women, he says, believed in them, especially 'the
hypochondriac part of the other sex,' who might, he thinks, be called
old women too. Still he half-believes himself, especially when the
second appears. He does not believe that the breath of the
plague-stricken upon a glass would leave shapes of 'dragons, snakes, and
devils, horrible to behold;' but he does believe that if they breathed
on a bird they would kill it, or 'at least make its eggs rotten.'
However, he admits that no experiments were tried. Then we have the
hideous, and sometimes horribly grotesque, incidents. There is the poor
naked creature, who runs up and down, exclaiming continually, 'Oh, the
great and the dreadful God!' but would say nothing else, and speak to no
one. There is the woman who suddenly opens a window and 'calls out,
"Death, death, death!" in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with
horror and chillness in the very blood.' There is the man who, with
death in his face, opens the door to a young apprentice sent to ask him
for money: 'Very well, child,' says the living ghost; 'go to Cripplegate
Church, and bid them ring the bell for me;' and with those words shuts
the door, goes upstairs, and dies. Then we have the horrors of the
dead-cart, and the unlucky piper who was carried off by mistake. De Foe,
with his usual ingenuity, corrects the inaccurate versions of the
story, and says that the piper was not blind, but only old and silly;
and that he does not believe that, as 'the story goes,' he set up his
pipes while in the cart. After this we cannot refuse to admit that he
was really carried off and all but buried. Another device for cheating
us into acceptance of his story is the ingenious way in which he
imitates the occasional lapses of memory of a genuine narrator, and
admits that he does not precisely recollect certain details; and still
better is the conscientious eagerness with which he distinguishes
between the occurrences of which he was an eye-witness and those which
he only knew by hearsay.

This book, more than any of the others, shows a skill in selecting
telling incidents. We are sometimes in doubt whether the particular
details which occur in other stories are not put in rather by good luck
than from a due perception of their value. He thus resembles a savage,
who is as much pleased with a glass bead as with a piece of gold; but in
the 'History of the Plague' every detail goes straight to the mark. At
one point he cannot help diverging into the story of three poor men who
escape into the fields, and giving us, with his usual relish, all their
rambling conversations by the way. For the most part, however, he is
less diffusive and more pointed than usual; the greatness of the
calamity seems to have given more intensity to his style; and it leaves
all the impression of a genuine narrative, told by one who has, as it
were, just escaped from the valley of the shadow of death, with the awe
still upon him, and every terrible sight and sound fresh in his memory.
The amazing truthfulness of the style is here in its proper place; we
wish to be brought as near as may be to the facts; we want good
realistic painting more than fine sentiment. The story reminds us of
certain ghastly photographs published during the American War, which had
been taken on the field of battle. They gave a more forcible impression
of the horrors of war than the most thrilling pictures drawn from the
fancy. In such cases we only wish the narrator to stand as much as
possible on one side, and just draw up a bit of the curtain which
conceals his gallery of horrors.

It is time, however, to say enough of 'Robinson Crusoe' to justify its
traditional superiority to De Foe's other writings. The charm, as some
critics say, is difficult to analyse; and I do not profess to
demonstrate mathematically that it must necessarily be, what it is, the
most fascinating boy's book ever written, and one which older critics
may study with delight. The most obvious advantage over the secondary
novels lies in the unique situation. Lamb, in the passage from which I
have quoted, gracefully evades this point. 'Are there no solitudes,' he
says, 'out of the cave and the desert? or cannot the heart, in the midst
of crowds, feel frightfully alone?' Singleton, he suggests, is alone
with pirates less merciful than the howling monsters, the devilish
serpents, and ill-gendered creatures of De Foe's deserts. Colonel Jack
is alone amidst the London thieves when he goes to bury his treasures in
the hollow tree. This is prettily said; but it suggests rather what
another writer might have made of De Foe's heroes, than what De Foe made
of them himself. Singleton, it is true, is alone amongst the pirates,
but he takes to them as naturally as a fish takes to the water, and,
indeed, finds them a good, honest, respectable, stupid sort of people.
They stick by him and he by them, and we are never made to feel the real
horrors of his position. Colonel Jack might, in other hands, have become
an Oliver Twist, less real perhaps than De Foe has made him, but
infinitely more pathetic. De Foe tells us of his unpleasant
sleeping-places; and his occasional fears of the gallows; but of the
supposed mental struggles, of the awful solitude of soul, we hear
nothing. How can we sympathise very deeply with a young gentleman whose
recollections run chiefly upon the exact numbers of shillings and pence
captured by himself and his pocket-picking 'pals'? Similarly Robinson
Crusoe dwells but little upon the horrors of his position, and when he
does is apt to get extremely prosy. We fancy that he could never have
been in want of a solid sermon on Sunday, however much he may have
missed the church-going bell. But in 'Robinson Crusoe,' as in the
'History of the Plague,' the story speaks for itself. To explain the
horrors of living among thieves, we must have some picture of internal
struggles, of a sense of honour opposed to temptation, and a pure mind
in danger of contamination. De Foe's extremely straightforward and
prosaic view of life prevents him from setting any such sentimental
trials before us; the lad avoids the gallows, and in time becomes the
honest master of a good plantation; and there's enough. But the horrors
of abandonment on a desert island can be appreciated by the simplest
sailor or schoolboy. The main thing is to bring out the situation
plainly and forcibly, to tell us of the difficulties of making pots and
pans, of catching goats and sowing corn, and of avoiding audacious
cannibals. This task De Foe performs with unequalled spirit and
vivacity. In his first discovery of a new art he shows the freshness so
often conspicuous in first novels. The scenery was just that which had
peculiar charms for his fancy; it was one of those half-true legends of
which he had heard strange stories from seafaring men, and possibly from
the acquaintances of his hero himself. He brings out the shrewd
vigorous character of the Englishman thrown upon his own resources with
evident enjoyment of his task. Indeed, De Foe tells us very emphatically
that in Robinson Crusoe he saw a kind of allegory of his own fate. He
had suffered from solitude of soul. Confinement in his prison is
represented in the book by confinement in an island; and even a
particular incident, here and there, such as the fright he receives one
night from something in his bed, 'was word for word a history of what
happened.' In other words, this novel too, like many of the best ever
written, has in it the autobiographical element which makes a man speak
from greater depths of feeling than in a purely imaginary story.

It would indeed be easy to show that the story, though in one sense
marvellously like truth, is singularly wanting as a psychological study.
Friday is no real savage, but a good English servant without plush. He
says 'muchee' and 'speakee,' but he becomes at once a civilised being,
and in his first conversation puzzles Crusoe terribly by that awkward
theological question, why God did not kill the devil--for
characteristically enough Crusoe's first lesson includes a little
instruction upon the enemy of mankind. He found, however, that it was
'not so easy to imprint right notions in Friday's mind about the devil,
as it was about the being of a God.' This is comparatively a trifle; but
Crusoe himself is all but impossible. Steele, indeed, gives an account
of Selkirk, from which he infers that 'this plain man's story is a
memorable example that he is happiest who confines his wants to natural
necessities;' but the facts do not warrant this pet doctrine of an
old-fashioned school. Selkirk's state of mind may be inferred from two
or three facts. He had almost forgotten to talk; he had learnt to catch
goats by hunting them on foot; and he had acquired the exceedingly
difficult art of making fire by rubbing two sticks. In other words, his
whole mind was absorbed in providing a few physical necessities, and he
was rapidly becoming a savage--for a man who can't speak and can make
fire is very near the Australian. We may infer, what is probable from
other cases, that a man living fifteen years by himself, like Crusoe,
would either go mad or sink into the semi-savage state. De Foe really
describes a man in prison, not in solitary confinement. We should not be
so pedantic as to call for accuracy in such matters; but the difference
between the fiction and what we believe would have been the reality is
significant. De Foe, even in 'Robinson Crusoe,' gives a very inadequate
picture of the mental torments to which his hero is exposed. He is
frightened by a parrot calling him by name, and by the strangely
picturesque incident of the footmark on the sand; but, on the whole, he
takes his imprisonment with preternatural stolidity. His stay on the
island produces the same state of mind as might be due to a dull Sunday
in Scotland. For this reason, the want of power in describing emotion as
compared with the amazing power of describing facts, 'Robinson Crusoe'
is a book for boys rather than men, and, as Lamb says, for the kitchen
rather than for higher circles. It falls short of any high intellectual
interest. When we leave the striking situation and get to the second
part, with the Spaniards and Will Atkins talking natural theology to his
wife, it sinks to the level of the secondary stories. But for people who
are not too proud to take a rather low order of amusement 'Robinson
Crusoe' will always be one of the most charming of books. We have the
romantic and adventurous incidents upon which the most unflinching
realism can be set to work without danger of vulgarity. Here is
precisely the story suited to De Foe's strength and weakness. He is
forced to be artistic in spite of himself. He cannot lose the thread of
the narrative and break it into disjointed fragments, for the limits of
the island confine him as well as his hero. He cannot tire us with
details, for all the details of such a story are interesting; it is made
up of petty incidents, as much as the life of a prisoner reduced to
taming flies, or making saws out of penknives. The island does as well
as the Bastille for making trifles valuable to the sufferer and to us.
The facts tell the story of themselves, without any demand for romantic
power to press them home to us; and the efforts to give an air of
authenticity to the story, which sometimes make us smile, and sometimes
rather bore us, in other novels are all to the purpose; for there is a
real point in putting such a story in the mouth of the sufferer, and in
giving us for the time an illusory belief in his reality. It is one of
the exceptional cases in which the poetical aspect of a position is
brought out best by the most prosaic accuracy of detail; and we imagine
that Robinson Crusoe's island, with all his small household torments,
will always be more impressive than the more gorgeously coloured island
of Enoch Arden. When we add that the whole book shows the freshness of a
writer employed on his first novel--though at the mature age of
fifty-eight; seeing in it an allegory of his own experience embodied in
the scenes which most interested his imagination, we see some reasons
why 'Robinson Crusoe' should hold a distinct rank by itself amongst his
works. As De Foe was a man of very powerful but very limited
imagination--able to see certain aspects of things with extraordinary
distinctness, but little able to rise above them--even his greatest book
shows his weakness, and scarcely satisfies a grown-up man with a taste
for high art. In revenge, it ought, according to Rousseau, to be for a
time the whole library of a boy, chiefly, it seems, to teach him that
the stock of an ironmonger is better than that of a jeweller. We may
agree in the conclusion without caring about the reason; and to have
pleased all the boys in Europe for near a hundred and fifty years is,
after all, a remarkable feat.

One remark must be added, which scarcely seems to have been sufficiently
noticed by Defoe's critics. He cannot be understood unless we remember
that he was primarily and essentially a journalist, and that even his
novels are part of his journalism. He was a pioneer in the art of
newspaper writing, and anticipated with singular acuteness many later
developments of his occupation. The nearest parallel to him is Cobbett,
who wrote still better English, though he could hardly have written a
'Robinson Crusoe.' Defoe, like Cobbett, was a sturdy middle-class
Englishman, and each was in his time the most effective advocate of the
political views of his class. De Foe represented the Whiggism, not of
the great 'junto' or aristocratic ring, but of the dissenters and
tradesmen whose prejudices the junto had to turn to account. He would
have stood by Chatham in the time of Wilkes and of the American War; he
would have demanded parliamentary reform in the time of Brougham and
Bentham, and he would have been a follower of the Manchester school in
the time of Bright and Cobden. We all know the type, and have made up
our minds as to its merits. When De Foe came to be a subject of
biography in this century, he was of course praised for his
enlightenment by men of congenial opinions. He was held up as a model
politician, not only for his creed but for his independence. The
revelations of his last biographer, Mr. Lee, showed unfortunately that
considerable deductions must be made from the independence. He was, as
we now know, in the pay of Government for many years, while boasting of
his perfect purity; he was transferred, like a mere dependent, from the
Whigs to the Tories and back again. In the reign of George I. he
consented to abandon his character in order to act as a spy upon unlucky
Jacobite colleagues. It is to the credit of Harley's acuteness that he
was the first English minister to make a systematic use of the press and
was the patron both of Swift and De Foe. But to use the press was then
to make a mere tool of the author. De Foe was a journalist, living, and
supporting a family, by his pen, in the days when a journalist had to
choose between the pillory and dependence. He soon had enough of the
pillory and preferred to do very dirty services for his employer. Other
journalists, I fear, since his day have consented to serve masters whom
in their hearts they disapproved. It may, I think, be fairly said on
behalf of De Foe that in the main he worked for causes of which he
really approved; that he never sacrificed the opinions to which he was
most deeply attached; that his morality was, at worst, above that of
many contemporary politicians; and that, in short, he had a conscience,
though he could not afford to obey it implicitly. He says himself, and I
think the statement has its pathetic side, that he made a kind of
compromise with that awkward instinct. He praised those acts only of the
Government which he really approved, though he could not afford to
denounce those from which he differed. Undoubtedly, as many respectable
moralists have told us, the man who endeavours to draw such lines will
get into difficulties and probably emerge with a character not a little
soiled in the process. But after all as things go, it is something to
find that a journalist has really a conscience, even though his
conscience be a little too open to solid arguments. He was still capable
of blushing. Let us be thankful that in these days our journalists are
too high-minded to be ever required to blush. Here, however, I have only
to speak of the effect of De Foe's position upon his fictions. He had
early begun to try other than political modes of journalism. His account
of the great storm of 1703 was one of his first attempts as a reporter;
and it is characteristic that, as he was in prison at the time, he had
already to report things seen only by the eye of faith. He tried at an
early period to give variety to his 'Review' by some of the 'social'
articles which afterwards became the staple of the 'Tatler' and
'Spectator.' When, after the death of Queen Anne, there was a political
lull he struck out new paths. It was then that he wrote lives of
highwaymen and dissenting divines, and that he patched up any narratives
which he could get hold of, and gave them the shape of authentic
historical documents. He discovered the great art of interviewing, and
one of his performances might still pass for a masterpiece. Jack
Sheppard, when already in the cart beneath the gallows, gave a paper to
a bystander, of which the life published by De Foe on the following day
professed to be a reproduction. Nothing that could be turned into copy
for the newspaper or the sixpenny pamphlet of the day came amiss to this
forerunner of journalistic enterprise. This is the true explanation of
'Robinson Crusoe' and its successors. 'Robinson Crusoe,' in fact, is
simply an application on a larger scale of the device which he was
practising every day. It is purely and simply a masterly bit of
journalism. It affects to be a true story, as, of course, every story
in a newspaper affects to be true; though De Foe had made the not very
remote discovery that it is often easier to invent the facts than to
investigate them. He is simply a reporter _minus_ the veracity. Like any
other reporter, he assumes that the interest of his story depends
obviously and entirely upon its verisimilitude. He relates the
adventures of the genuine Alexander Selkirk, only elaborated into more
detail, just as a modern reporter might give us an account of Mr.
Stanley's African expedition if Mr. Stanley had been unable to do so for
himself. He is always in the attitude of mind of the newspaper
correspondent, who has been interviewing the hero of an interesting
story and ventures at most a little safe embroidery. This explains a
remark made by Dickens, who complained that the account of Friday's
death showed an 'utter want of tenderness and sentiment,' and says
somewhere that 'Robinson Crusoe' is the only great novel which never
moves either to laughter or to tears. The creator of Oliver Twist and
Little Nell was naturally scandalised by De Foe's dry and matter-of-fact
narrative. But De Foe had never approached the conception of his art
which afterwards became familiar. He had nothing to do with sentiment or
psychology; those elements of interest came in with Richardson and
Fielding; he was simply telling a true story and leaving his readers to
feel what they pleased. It never even occurred to him, more than it
occurs to the ordinary reporter, to analyse character or describe
scenery or work up sentiment. He was simply a narrator of plain facts.
He left poetry and reflection to Mr. Pope or Mr. Addison, as your
straightforward annalist in a newspaper has no thoughts of rivalling
Lord Tennyson or Mr. Froude. His narratives were fictitious only in the
sense that the facts did not happen; but that trifling circumstance was
to make no difference to the mode of writing them. The poetical element
would have been as much out of place as it would have been in a
merchant's ledger. He could not, indeed, help introducing a little
moralising, for he was a typical English middle-class dissenter. Some of
his simple-minded commentators have even given him credit, upon the
strength of such passages, for lofty moral purpose. They fancy that his
lives of criminals, real or imaginary, were intended to be tracts
showing that vice leads to the gallows. No doubt, De Foe had the same
kind of solid homespun morality as Hogarth, for example, which was not
in its way a bad thing. But one need not be very cynical to believe that
his real object in writing such books was to produce something that
would sell, and that in the main he was neither more nor less moral than
the last newspaper writer who has told us the story of a sensational
murder.

De Foe, therefore, may be said to have stumbled almost unconsciously
into novel-writing. He was merely aiming at true stories, which happened
not to be true. But accidentally, or rather unconsciously, he could not
help presenting us with a type of curious interest; for he necessarily
described himself and the readers whose tastes he understood and shared
so thoroughly. His statement that 'Robinson Crusoe' was a kind of
allegory was truer than he knew. In 'Robinson Crusoe' is De Foe, and
more than De Foe, for he is the typical Englishman of his time. He is
the broad-shouldered, beef-eating John Bull, who has been shouldering
his way through the world ever since. Drop him in a desert island, and
he is just as sturdy and self-composed as if he were in Cheapside.
Instead of shrieking or writing poetry, becoming a wild hunter or a
religious hermit, he calmly sets about building a house and making
pottery and laying out a farm. He does not accommodate himself to his
surroundings; they have got to accommodate themselves to him. He meets a
savage and at once annexes him, and preaches him such a sermon as he had
heard from the exemplary Dr. Doddridge. Cannibals come to make a meal of
him, and he calmly stamps them out with the means provided by
civilisation. Long years of solitude produce no sort of effect upon him
morally or mentally. He comes home as he went out, a solid keen
tradesman, having, somehow or other, plenty of money in his pockets, and
ready to undertake similar risks in the hope of making a little more. He
has taken his own atmosphere with him to the remotest quarters. Wherever
he has set down his solid foot, he has taken permanent possession of the
country. The ancient religions of the primæval East or the quaint
beliefs of savage tribes make no particular impression upon him, except
a passing spasm of disgust at anybody having different superstitions
from his own; and, being in the main a good-natured animal in a stolid
way of his own, he is able to make use even of popish priests if they
will help to found a new market for his commerce. The portrait is not
the less effective because the artist was so far from intending it that
he could not even conceive of anybody being differently constituted from
himself. It shows us all the more vividly what was the manner of man
represented by the stalwart Englishman of the day; what were the men who
were building up vast systems of commerce and manufacture; shoving their
intrusive persons into every quarter of the globe; evolving a great
empire out of a few factories in the East; winning the American
continent for the dominant English race; sweeping up Australia by the
way as a convenient settlement for convicts; stamping firmly and
decisively on all toes that got in their way; blundering enormously and
preposterously, and yet always coming out steadily planted on their
feet; eating roast beef and plum-pudding; drinking rum in the tropics;
singing 'God Save the King' and intoning Watts's hymns under the nose of
ancient dynasties and prehistoric priesthoods; managing always to get
their own way, to force a reluctant world to take note of them as a
great if rather disagreeable fact, and making it probable that, in long
ages to come, the English of 'Robinson Crusoe' will be the native
language of inhabitants of every region under the sun.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Defoe may have had some materials for this story; but there seems to
be little doubt that it is substantially his own.



_RICHARDSON'S NOVELS_


The literary artifice, so often patronised by Lord Macaulay of
describing a character by a series of paradoxes, is of course, in one
sense, a mere artifice. It is easy enough to make a dark grey black and
a light grey white, and to bring the two into unnatural proximity. But
it rests also upon the principle which is more of a platitude than a
paradox, that our chief faults often lie close to our chief merits. The
greatest man is perhaps one who is so equably developed that he has the
strongest faculties in the most perfect equilibrium, and is apt to be
somewhat uninteresting to the rest of mankind. The man of lower eminence
has some one or more faculties developed out of all proportion to the
rest, with the natural result of occasionally overbalancing him.
Extraordinary memories with weak logical faculties, wonderful
imaginative sensibility with a complete absence of self-control, and
other defective conformations of mind, supply the raw materials for a
luminary of the second order, and imply a predisposition to certain
faults, which are natural complements to the conspicuous merits.

Such reflections naturally occur in speaking of one of our greatest
literary reputations, whose popularity is almost in an inverse ratio to
his celebrity. Every one knows the names of Sir Charles Grandison and
Clarissa Harlowe. They are amongst the established types which serve to
point a paragraph; but the volumes in which they are described remain
for the most part in undisturbed repose, sleeping peacefully amongst
Charles Lamb's _biblia a-biblia_, books which are no books, or, as he
explains, those books 'which no gentleman's library should be without.'
They never enjoy the honours of cheap reprints; the modern reader
shudders at a novel in eight volumes, and declines to dig for amusement
in so profound a mine; when some bold inquirer dips into their pages he
generally fancies that the sleep of years has been somehow absorbed into
the paper; a certain soporific aroma exhales from the endless files of
fictitious correspondence. This contrast, however, between popularity
and celebrity is not so rare as to deserve special notice. Richardson's
slumber may be deeper than that of most men of equal fame, but it is not
quite unprecedented. The string of paradoxes, which it would be easy to
apply to Richardson, would turn upon a different point. The odd thing
is, not that so many people should have forgotten him, but that he
should have been remembered by people at first sight so unlike him. Here
is a man, we might say, whose special characteristic it was to be a
milksop--who provoked Fielding to a coarse hearty burst of ridicule--who
was steeped in the incense of useless adulation from a throng of
middle-aged lady worshippers--who wrote his novels expressly to
recommend little unimpeachable moral maxims, as that evil courses lead
to unhappy deaths, that ladies ought to observe the laws of propriety,
and generally that it is an excellent thing to be thoroughly
respectable; who lived an obscure life in a petty coterie in fourth-rate
London society, and was in no respect at a point of view more exalted
than that of his companions. What greater contrast can be imagined in
its way than that between Richardson, with his second-rate
eighteenth-century priggishness and his twopenny-tract morality, and the
modern school of French novelists, who are certainly not prigs, and
whose morality is by no means that of tracts? We might have expected _à
priori_ that they would have summarily put him down, as a hopeless
Philistine. Yet Richardson was idolised by some of their best writers;
Balzac, for example, and George Sand, speak of him with reverence; and a
writer who is, perhaps, as odd a contrast to Richardson as could well be
imagined--Alfred de Musset--calls 'Clarissa' _le premier roman du
monde_. What is the secret which enables the steady old printer, with
his singular limitation to his own career of time and space, to impose
upon the Byronic Parisian of the next century? Amongst his
contemporaries Diderot expresses an almost fanatical admiration of
Richardson for his purity and power, and declares characteristically
that he will place Richardson's works on the same shelf with those of
Moses, Homer, Euripides, and other favourite writers; he even goes so
far as to excuse Clarissa's belief in Christianity on the ground of her
youthful innocence. To continue in the paradoxical vein, we might ask
how the quiet tradesman could create the character which has stood ever
since for a type of the fine gentleman of the period; or how from the
most prosaic of centuries should spring one of the most poetical of
feminine ideals? We can hardly fancy a genuine hero with a pigtail, or a
heroine in a hoop and high-heeled shoes, nor believe that persons who
wore those articles of costume could possess any very exalted virtues.
Perhaps our grandchildren may have the same difficulty about the race
which wears crinolines and chimney-pot hats.

It is a fact, however, that our grandfathers, in spite of their belief
in pigtails, and in Pope's poetry, and other matters that have gone out
of fashion, had some very excellent qualities, and even some genuine
sentiment, in their compositions. Indeed, now that their peculiarities
have been finally packed away in various lumber-rooms, and the revolt
against the old-fashioned school of thought and manners has become
triumphant instead of militant, we are beginning to see the picturesque
side of their character. They have gathered something of the halo that
comes with the lapse of years; and social habits that looked prosaic
enough to contemporaries, and to the generation which had to fight
against them, have gained a touch of romance. Richardson's characters
wear a costume and speak a language which are indeed queer and
old-fashioned, but are now far enough removed from the present to have a
certain piquancy; and it is becoming easier to recognise the real genius
which created them, as the active aversion to the forms in which it was
necessarily clothed tends to disappear. The wigs and the high-heeled
shoes are not without a certain pleasing quaintness; and when we have
surmounted this cause of disgust, we can see more plainly what was the
real power which men of the most opposite schools in art have
recognised. Readers whose appetite for ancient fiction is insufficient
to impel them to a perusal of 'Clarissa' may yet find some amusement in
turning over the curious collection of letters published with a life by
Mrs. Barbauld in 1804. Nowhere can we find a more vivid picture of the
social stratum to which Richardson belonged. We take a seat in the old
gentleman's shop, or drop in to take a dish of tea with him at North
End, in Hammersmith. We learn to know them almost as well as we know the
literary circle of the next generation from Boswell or the higher social
sphere from Horace Walpole--and it is a pleasant relief, after reading
the solemn histories which recall the struggles of Walpole and
Chesterfield and their like, to drop in upon this quiet little coterie
of homely commonplace people leading calm domestic lives and amusingly
unconscious of the political and intellectual storms which were raging
outside. Richardson himself was the typical industrious apprentice. He
was the son of a London tradesman who had witnessed with due horror the
Popish machinations of James II. Richardson, born just after the
Revolution, had been apprenticed to a printer, married his master's
daughter, set up a fairly successful business, was master of the
Stationers' Company in 1754, and was prosperous enough to have his
country box, first at North End and afterwards at Parson's Green. He
never learned any language but his own. He had taken to writing from his
infancy; he composed little stories of an edifying tendency and had
written love-letters for young women of his acquaintance. From his
experience in these departments he acquired the skill which was
afterwards displayed in 'Pamela' and his two later and superior novels.
We hear dimly of many domestic trials: of the loss of children, some of
whom had lived to be 'delightful prattlers,' of 'eleven affecting deaths
in two years.' Who were the eleven remains unknown. His sorrows have
long passed into oblivion, unless so far as the sentiment was transmuted
into his writings. We do not know whether it was from calamity or
constitutional infirmity that he became a very nervous and tremulous
little man. He never dared to ride, but exercised himself on a
'chamber-horse,' one of which apparently wooden animals he kept at each
of his houses. For years he could not raise a glass to his lips without
help. His dread of altercations prevented him from going often among
his workmen. He gave his orders in writing that he might not have to
bawl to a deaf foreman. He gave up 'wine and flesh and fish.' He drew a
capital portrait of himself, for the benefit of a lady still unknown to
him, who recognised him by its help at a distance of 'above three
hundred yards.' His description is minute enough: 'Short; rather plump
than emaciated, notwithstanding his complaints; about 5 foot 5 inches;
fair wig, lightish cloth coat, all black besides; one hand generally in
his bosom, the other, a cane in it, which he leans upon under the skirts
of his coat usually, that it may imperceptibly serve him as a support
when attacked by sudden tremors or startings and dizziness, which too
frequently attack him, but, thank God, not so often as formerly; looking
directly foreright, as passers by would imagine, but observing all that
stirs on either hand of him without moving his short neck; hardly ever
turning back; of a light-brown complexion; teeth not yet failing him;
smoothish-faced and ruddy cheeked; at some times looking to be about
sixty-five, at others much younger' (really sixty); 'a regular even pace
stealing away ground rather than seeming to rid it; a grey eye, too
often overclouded by mistinesses from the head; by chance lively--very
lively it will be if he have hopes of seeing a lady whom he loves and
honours; his eye always on the ladies; if they have very large hoops, he
looks down and supercilious and as if he would be thought wise, but
perhaps the sillier for that; as he approaches a lady his eye is never
fixed first upon her face, but upon her feet and thence he raises it up
pretty quickly for a dull eye; and one would think (if we thought him at
all worthy of observation) that from her air and the last beheld (her
face) he sets her down in his mind as _so_ and _so_, and then passes on
to the next object he meets; only then looking back, if he greatly
likes or dislikes, as if he would see if the lady appear to be all of a
piece in the one light or the other.' After this admirable likeness we
can appreciate better the two coloured engravings in the letters.
Richardson looks like a plump white mouse in a wig, at once vivacious
and timid. We see him in one picture toddling along the Pantiles at
Tunbridge-Wells, in the neighbourhood of the great Mr. Pitt and Speaker
Onslow and the bigamous Duchess of Kingston and Colley Cibber and the
cracked and shrivelled-up Whiston and a (perhaps not the famous) Mr.
Johnson in company with a bishop. In the other, he is sitting in his
parlour with its stiff old-fashioned furniture and a glimpse into the
garden, reading 'Sir Charles Grandison' to the admirable Miss Mulso,
afterwards Mrs. Chapone, and a small party, inclusive of the artist,
Miss Highmore, to whom we owe sincere gratitude for this peep into the
past. Richardson sits in his 'usual morning dress,' a kind of brown
dressing-gown with a skull-cap on his head, filling the chair with his
plump little body, and raising one foot (or has the artist found
difficulties in planting both upon the ground?) to point his moral with
an emphatic stamp.

Many eminent men of his time were polite to Richardson after he had won
fame at the mature age of fifty. He was not the man to presume on his
position. He was 'very shy of obtruding himself on persons of
condition.' He never rose like Pope, whose origin was not very
dissimilar, to speak to princes and ministers as an equal. He was always
the obsequious and respectful shopkeeper. The great Warburton wrote a
letter to his 'good sir'--a phrase equivalent to the two fingers of a
dignified greeting--suggesting, in Pope's name and his own, a plan for
continuing 'Pamela.' She was to be the ingenuous young person shocked at
the conventionalities of good society. Richardson sensibly declined a
plan for which he was unfitted; and in 1747 Warburton condescended to
write a preface to 'Clarissa Harlowe,' pointing out (very
superfluously!) the nature of the intended moral. Warburton afterwards
took offence at a passage in the same book which he took to glance at
Pope; and Richardson was on friendly terms with two authors, Edwards, of
the 'Canons of Criticism,' and Aaron Hill, who were among the
multitudinous enemies of Warburton and his patron Pope. Hill's letters
in the correspondence are worth reading as illustrations of the old
moral of literary vanity. He expresses with unusual _naïveté_ the
doctrine, so pleasant to the unsuccessful, that success means the
reverse of merit. Pope's fame was due to personal assiduities, and 'a
certain bladdery swell of management.' It is already passing away. He
does not speak from jealousy, for nobody ever courted fame 'with less
solicitude than I.' But for all that, there will come a time! He knows
it on a surer ground than vanity. Let us hope that this little salve to
self-esteem never lost its efficacy. Surely of all prayers the most
injudicious was that of Burns, that we might see ourselves as others see
us. What would become of us? Richardson, as we might expect, was highly
esteemed by Young of the 'Night Thoughts,' and by Johnson, to both of
whom he seems to have given substantial proofs of friendship. He wrote
the only number of the 'Rambler' which had a good sale, and helped
Johnson when under arrest for debt; Johnson repaid him by the phrase,
which long passed for the orthodox decision, that Richardson taught the
passions to move at the command of virtue. But the most delightful of
Richardson's friends was the irrepressible Colley Cibber. Mrs.
Pilkington, a disreputable adventuress, faintly remembered by her
relations to Swift, describes Cibber's reception of the unpublished
'Clarissa.' 'The dear gentleman did almost rave. When I told him that
she (Clarissa) must die, he said G---- d---- him if she should, and that
he should no longer believe Providence or eternal wisdom or goodness
governed the world if merit and innocence and beauty were to be so
destroyed. "Nay," added he, "my mind is so hurt with the thought of her
being violated, that were I to see her in heaven, sitting on the knees
of the blessed Virgin and crowned with glory, her sufferings would still
make me feel horror, horror distilled." These were his strongly
emphatical impressions.' Cibber's own letters are as lively as Mrs.
Pilkington's report of his talk. 'The delicious meal I made off Miss
Byron on Sunday last,' he says, 'has given me an appetite for another
slice of her, off from the spit, before she is served up to the public
table; if about five o'clock to-morrow afternoon be not inconvenient,
Mrs. Brown and I will come and nibble upon a bit more of her! And we
have grace after meat as well as before.' 'The devil take the insolent
goodness of your imagination!' exclaims the lively old buck, now past
eighty, and as well preserved as if he had never encountered Pope's
'scathing satire' (does satire ever 'scathe'?) or Fielding's rough
horseplay. One of Richardson's lady admirers saw Cibber flirting with
fine ladies at Tunbridge Wells in 1754 (he was born in 1671), and
miserable when he was neglected for a moment by the greatest _belle_ in
the society. He professed to be only seventy-seven!

Perhaps even Cibber was beaten in flattery by the 'minister of the
gospel' who thought that if some of Clarissa's letters had been found in
the Bible they would have been regarded as manifest proofs of divine
inspiration. But the more delightful incense came from the circle of
admiring young ladies who called him their dear papa; who passed long
days at his feet at Parson's Green; allowed him to escape to his
summer-house to add a letter to the growing volumes, and after an early
dinner persuaded him to read it aloud. Their eager discussions as to the
fate of the characters and the little points of morality which arose are
continued in his gossiping letters. When a child he had been the
confidant of tender-hearted maidens, and now he became a kind of
spiritual director. He was, as Miss Collier said, the 'only champion and
protector' of her sex. Women, and surely they must be good judges,
thought that he understood the feminine heart, as their descendants
afterwards attributed the same power to Balzac. The most attractive of
his feminine correspondents was Mrs. Klopstock, wife of the 'German
Milton,' who tells her only little love story with charming simplicity,
and thus lays her homage at the feet of Richardson. 'Honoured sir, will
you permit me to take this opportunity, in sending a letter to Dr.
Young, to address myself to you? It is very long that I wished to do it.
Having finished your "Clarissa" (oh, the heavenly book!), I would have
prayed you to write the history of a _manly_ Clarissa, but I had not
courage enough at that time. I should have it no more to-day, as this is
only my first English letter; but I have it! It may be because I am now
Klopstock's wife (I believe you know my husband by Mr. Hohorst), and
then I was only the single young girl. You have since written the manly
Clarissa without my prayer; oh, you have done it to the great joy and
thanks of all your happy readers! Now you can write no more, you must
write the history of an angel!'

Mrs. Klopstock died young; having had the happiness to find that
Richardson did not resent her intrusion, great author as he was. Another
correspondent, Lady Bradshaigh, wife of a Lancashire country gentleman,
took precautions which show what a halo then surrounded the author in
the eyes of his countrywomen. It was worth while to be an author then!
Lady Bradshaigh was a good housewife, it seems, but, having no children,
was able to devote some time to reading. She obtained a portrait of
Richardson, but altered the name to Dickenson, in order that no one
might suspect her of corresponding with an author. After reading the
first four volumes of 'Clarissa' (which were separately published), she
wrote under a feigned name to beg the author to alter the impending
catastrophe. She spoke as the mouthpiece of a 'multitude of admirers'
who desired to see Lovelace reformed and married to Clarissa. 'Sure you
will think it worth your while, sir, to save his soul!' she exclaims.
Richardson was too good an artist to spoil his tragedy; and was rewarded
by an account of her emotions on reading the last volumes. She laid the
book down in agonies, took it up again, shed a flood of tears, and threw
herself upon her couch to compose her mind. Her husband, who was
plodding after her, begged her to read no more. But she had promised
Richardson to finish the book. She nerved herself for the task; her
sleep was broken, she woke in tears during the night, and burst into
tears at her meals. Charmed by her delicious sufferings, she became
Richardson's friend for life, though it was long before she could muster
up courage to meet him face to face.

Yet Lady Bradshaigh seems to have been a sensible woman, and shows
vivacity and intelligence in some of her discussions with Richardson. If
he was not altogether spoilt by the flattery of so many excellent
women, we can only explain it by remembering that he did not become
famous till he was past fifty, and therefore past spoiling. One
peculiarity, indeed, is rather unpleasant in these letters. Richardson's
worshippers evidently felt that their deity was jealous, and made no
scruple of offering the base sacrifice of abuse of rival celebrities.
Richardson adopts their tone; he is always gibing at Fielding. '_I could
not help telling his sister_', he observes--a sister, too, whose merits
Fielding had praised with his usual generosity--'that I was equally
surprised at and concerned for his continuous lowness. Had your brother,
said I, been born in a stable or been a runner at a sponging-house we
should have thought him a genius,' but now! So another great writer came
just in time to be judged by Richardson. A bishop asked him, 'Who is
this Yorick,' who has, it seems, been countenanced by an 'ingenious
dutchess.' Richardson briefly replies that the bishop cannot have looked
into the books, 'execrable I cannot but call them.' Their only merit is
that they are 'too gross to be inflaming.' The history of the mutual
judgments upon each other of contemporary authors would be more amusing
than edifying.

Richardson should not have been so hard upon Sterne, for Sterne was in
some degree following Richardson's lead. 'What is the meaning,' asks
Lady Bradshaigh (about 1749) 'of the word _sentimental_, so much in
vogue among the polite both in town and country? Everything clever and
agreeable is comprehended in that word; but I am convinced a wrong
interpretation is given, because it is impossible everything clever and
agreeable can be so common as that word.' She has heard of a sentimental
man; a sentimental party, and a sentimental walk; and has been applauded
for calling a letter sentimental. I hope that the philological
dictionary may tell us what was the first appearance of a word which, in
this sense, marks an epoch in literature, and, indeed, in much else. I
find the word used in the old sense in 1752 in a pamphlet upon
'_Sentimental_ differences in point of faith,' that is, differences of
sentiment or opinion. When, a few years later, Sterne published his
'Sentimental Journey,' Wesley asks in his journal what is the meaning of
the new phrase, and observes (the illustration has lost its point) that
you might as well say _continental_. The appearance of the phrase
coincides with the appearance of the thing; for Richardson was the first
sentimentalist. We may trace the same movement elsewhere, though we need
not here speculate upon the cause. Pope's 'Essay on Man' is the
expression in verse of the dominant theology of the Deists and their
opponents, which was beginning to be condemned as dry and frigid. A
desire for something more 'sentimental' shows itself in Young's 'Night
Thoughts,' in Hervey's 'Meditations,' and appears in the religious
domain as Methodism. The literary historian has to trace the rise of the
same tendency in various places. In Germany, as we see from Mrs.
Klopstock's enthusiasm, the flame was only waiting for the spark.
Goethe, in his 'Wahrheit und Dichtung,' notices the influence of
Richardson's novels in Germany. They were among the predisposing causes
of Wertherism. In France, as I have said, Richardson found congenial
hearers, and Clarissa's soul doubtless transmigrated into the heroine of
the 'Nouvelle Héloïse.' Even in stubborn England, where Fielding's
masculine contempt for the whinings of 'Pamela' was more congenial, the
students of Richardson were prepared to receive 'Ossian' with
enthusiasm, and to be ecstatic over 'Tristram Shandy.' That Richardson
would have agreed with Johnson in regarding Rousseau as fit only for a
penal settlement, and that he actually considered Sterne to be
'execrable,' does not relieve him of the responsibility or deprive him
of the glory. He is not the only writer who has helped to evoke a spirit
which he would be the last to sanction. When he encouraged his admirably
proper young ladies to indulge in 'sentimentalism,' he could not tell
where so vague an impulse would ultimately land them. He was a sound
Tory, and an accepter of all established creeds. Sentimentalism with him
was merely a delight in cultivating the emotions, without any thought of
consequences; or, later, of cultivating them with the assumption that
they would continue to move, as he bade them, 'at the command of
virtue.' Once set in motion, they chose to take paths of their own; they
revolted against conventions, even those which he held most sacred; and
by degrees set up 'Nature' as an idol, and admired the ingenuous savage
instead of the respectable Clarissa, and denounced all corruption,
including, alas, the British constitution, and even the Thirty-nine
Articles, and put themselves at the disposal of all manner of
revolutionary audacities. But the little printer was safe in his grave,
and knew not of what strange developments he had been the ignorant
accomplice.

To return, however, it must be granted that Richardson's sympathy with
women gives a remarkable power to his works. Nothing is more rare than
to find a great novelist who can satisfactorily describe the opposite
sex. Women's heroes are women in disguise, or mere lay-figures, walking
gentlemen who parade tolerably through their parts, but have no real
vitality. On the other hand, the heroines of male writers are for the
most part unnaturally strained or quite colourless; male hands are too
heavy for the delicate work required. Milton could draw a majestic
Satan, but his Eve is no better than a good-managing housekeeper who
knows her place. It is, therefore, remarkable that Richardson's greatest
triumph should be in describing a woman, and that most of his feminine
characters are more life-like and more delicately discriminated than his
men. Unluckily, his conspicuous faults result from the same cause. His
moral prosings savour of the endless gossip over a dish of chocolate in
which his heroines delight; we can imagine the applause with which his
admiring feminine circle would receive his demonstration of the fact,
that adversity is harder to bear than prosperity, or the sentiment that
'a man of principle, whose love is founded in reason, and whose object
is mind rather than person, must make a worthy woman happy.' These are
admirable sentiments, but they savour of the serious tea-party. If 'Tom
Jones' has about it an occasional suspicion of beer and pipes at the
bar, 'Sir Charles Grandison' recalls an indefinite consumption of tea
and small-talk. In short, the feminine part of Richardson's character
has a little too much affinity to Mrs. Gamp--not that he would ever be
guilty of putting gin in his cup, but that he would have the same
capacity for spinning out indefinite twaddle of a superior kind. And, of
course, he fell into the faults which beset the members of mutual
admiration societies in general, but especially those which consist
chiefly of women. Men who meet for purposes of mutual flattery become
unnaturally solemn and priggish; they never free themselves from the
suspicion that the older members of the coterie may be laughing at them
behind their backs. But the flattery of women is so much more delicate,
and so much more sincere, that it is far more dangerous. It is a
poultice which in time softens the hardest outside. Richardson yielded
as entirely as any curate exposed to a shower of slippers. He evidently
wrote under the impression that he was not merely an imaginative writer
of the highest order, but also a great moralist. He was reforming the
world, putting down vice, sending duelling out of fashion, and
inculcating the lessons of the pulpit in a far more attractive form. A
modern novelist is half-ashamed of his art; he disclaims earnestly any
serious purpose; his highest aim is to amuse his readers, and his
greatest boast that he amuses them by honourable or at least by harmless
means. There are, indeed, novelists who write to inculcate High-Church
or Low-Church principles, or to prove that society at large is out of
joint; but a direct intention to prove that men ought not to steal or
get drunk, or commit any other atrocities, is generally considered to be
beside the novelist's function, and its introduction to be a fault of
art. Indeed, there is much to be said against it. In our youth we used
to read a poem about a cruel little boy who went out to fish and was
punished by somehow becoming suspended by his chin from a hook in the
larder. It never produced much effect upon us, because we felt that the
accident was, to say the least, rather exceptional; at most, we fished
on, and were careful about the larder. The same principle applies to the
poetic justice distributed by most novelists. When Richardson kills off
his villains by violent deaths, we know too well that many villains live
to a good old age, leave handsome fortunes, and are buried under the
handsomest of tombstones, with the most elegant of epitaphs. This very
rough device for inculcating morality is of course ineffectual, and
produces some artistic blemishes. The direct exhortations to his
readers to be good are still more annoying; no human being can long
endure a mixture of preaching and story-telling. For Heaven's sake, we
exclaim, tell us what happens to Clarissa, and don't stop to prove that
honesty is the best policy! In a wider sense, however, the seriousness
of Richardson's purpose is of high value. He is so keenly in earnest, so
profoundly interested about his characters, so determined to make us
enter into their motives, that we cannot help being carried away; if he
never spares an opportunity of giving us a lecture, at least his zeal in
setting forth an example never flags for an instant. The effort to give
us an ideally perfect character seems to stimulate his imagination, and
leads to a certain intensity of realisation which we are apt to miss in
the purposeless school of novelists. He is always, as it were, writing
at high-pressure and under a sense of responsibility.

The method which he adopts lends itself very conveniently to heighten
this effect. Richardson's feminine delight in letter-writing was, as we
have seen, the immediate cause of his plunge into authorship.
Richardson's novels, indeed, are not so much novels put for convenience
under the form of letters, as letters expanded till they become novels.
A genuine novelist who should put his work into the unnatural shape of a
correspondence would probably find it a very awkward expedient; but
Richardson gradually worked up to the novel from the conception of a
collection of letters; and his method, therefore, came spontaneously to
him. He started from the plan of writing letters to illustrate a certain
point of morality, and to make them more effective attributed them to a
fictitious character. The result was the gigantic tract called
'Pamela'--distinctly the worst of his works--of which it is enough to
say at present that it succeeds neither in being moral nor in amusing.
It shows, however, a truly amazing fertility in a specially feminine
art. We have all suffered from the propensity of some female minds (the
causes of which we will not attempt to analyse) for pouring forth
indefinite floods of correspondence. We know the heartless fashion in
which some ladies, even in these days of penny postage, will fill a
sheet of note-paper and proceed to cross their writing till the page
becomes a chequer-work of unintelligible hieroglyphics. But we may feel
gratitude in looking back to the days when time hung heavier, and
letter-writing was a more serious business. The letters of those times
may recall the fearful and wonderful labours of tapestry in which ladies
employed their needles by way of killing time. The monuments of both
kinds are a fearful indication of the _ennui_ from which the
perpetrators must have suffered. We pity those who endured the toil as
we pity the prisoners whose patient ingenuity has carved a passage
through a stone wall with a rusty nail. Richardson's heroines, and his
heroes too, for that matter, would have been portents at any time. We
will take an example at hazard. Miss Byron, on March 22, writes a letter
of fourteen pages (in the old collective edition). The same day she
follows it up by two of six and of twelve pages respectively. On the
23rd she leads off with a letter of eighteen pages, and another of ten.
On the 24th she gives us two, filling together thirty pages, at the end
of which she remarks that she is _forced_ to lay down her pen, and then
adds a postscript of six more; on the 25th she confines herself to two
pages; but after a Sunday's rest she makes another start of equal
vigour. In three days, therefore, she covers ninety-six pages. Two of
the pages are about equal to three in this volume. Consequently, in
three days' correspondence, referring to the events of the day, she
would fill something like a hundred and forty-four of these pages--a
task the magnitude of which may be appreciated by anyone who will try
the experiment. We should say that she must have written for nearly
eight hours a day, and are not surprised at her remark, that she has on
one occasion only managed two hours' sleep.

It would, of course, be the height of pedantry to dwell upon this, as
though a fictitious personage were to be in all respects bounded by the
narrow limits of human capacity. It is not the object of a really good
novelist, nor does it come within the legitimate means of high art in
any department, to produce an actual illusion. Showmen in some foreign
palaces call upon us to admire paintings which we cannot distinguish
from bas-reliefs; the deception is, of course, a mere trick, and the
paintings are simply childish. On the stage we do not require to believe
that the scenery is really what it imitates, and the attempt to
introduce scraps of real life is a clear proof of a low artistic aim.
Similarly a novelist is not only justified in writing so as to prove
that his work is fictitious, but he almost necessarily hampers himself,
to the prejudice of his work, if he imposes upon himself the condition
that his book shall be capable of being mistaken for a genuine
narrative. Every good novelist lets us into secrets about the private
thoughts of his characters which it would be impossible to obtain in
real life. We do not, therefore, blame Richardson because his characters
have a power of writing which no mortal could ever attain. His fault,
indeed, is exactly the contrary. He very erroneously fancies that he is
bound to convince us of the possibility of all his machinery, and often
produces the very shock to our belief which he seeks to avoid. He is
constantly trying to account by elaborate devices for the fertile
correspondence of his characters, when it is perfectly plain that they
are simply writing a novel. We should never have asked a question as to
the authenticity of the letters, if he did not force the question upon
us; and no art can induce us for a moment to accept the proffered
illusion. For example, Miss Byron gives us a long account of
conversations between persons whom she did not know, which took place
ten years before. It is much better that the impossibility should be
frankly accepted, on the clear ground that authors of novels, and
consequently their creatures, have the prerogative of omniscience. At
least, the slightest account of the way in which she came by the
knowledge would be enough to satisfy us for all purposes of fiction.
Richardson is not content with this, and elaborately demonstrates that
she might have known a number of minute details which it is perfectly
plain that a real Miss Byron could never have known, and thus dashes
into our faces an improbability which we should have been quite content
to pass unnoticed.

The method, however, of telling the story by the correspondence of the
actors produces more important effects. The hundred and forty-four pages
in question are all devoted to the proceedings of three days. They are
filled, for the most part, with interminable conversations. The story
advances by a very few steps; but we know all that every one of the
persons concerned has to say about the matter. We discover what was Sir
Charles Grandison's relation at a particular time to a certain Italian
lady, Clementina. We are told exactly what view he took of his own
position; what view Clementina took of it; what Miss Byron had to say to
Sir Charles on the subject, and what advice her relations bestowed upon
Miss Byron. Then we have all the sentiments of Sir Charles Grandison's
sisters, and of his brothers-in-law, and of his reverend old tutor; and
the sentiments of all the Lady Clementina's family, and the incidental
remarks of a number of subordinate actors. In short, we see the
characters all round in all their relations to each other, in every
possible variation and permutation; we are present at all the
discussions which take place before every step, and watch the gradual
variation of all the phases of the positions. We get the same sort of
elaborate familiarity with every aspect of affairs that we should
receive from reading a blue-book full of some prolix diplomatic
correspondence; indeed, Sir Charles Grandison closely resembles such a
blue-book, for the plot is carried on mainly by elaborate negotiations
between three different families, with proposals, and counter-proposals,
and amended proposals, and a final settlement of the very complicated
business by a deliberate signing of two different sets of articles. One
of them, we need hardly say, is a marriage settlement; the other is a
definite treaty between the lady who is not married and her family, the
discussion of which occupies many pages. The extent to which we are
drawn into the minutest details may be inferred from the fact that
nearly a volume is given to marrying Sir Charles Grandison to Miss
Byron, after all difficulties have been surmounted. We have at full
length all the discussions by which the day is fixed, and all the
remarks of the unfortunate lovers of both parties, and all the
criticisms of both families, and finally an elaborate account of the
ceremony, with the names of the persons who went in the separate
coaches, the dresses of the bride and bridesmaids, and the sums which
Sir Charles gave away to the village girls who strewed flowers on the
pathway. Surely the feminine element in Richardson's character was a
little in excess.

The result of all this is a sort of Dutch painting of extraordinary
minuteness. The art reminds us of the patient labour of a line-engraver,
who works for days at making out one little bit of minute stippling and
cross-hatching. The characters are displayed to us step by step and line
by line. We are gradually forced into familiarity with them by a process
resembling that by which we learn to know people in real life. We are
treated to few set analyses or summary descriptions, but by constantly
reading their letters and listening to their talk we gradually form an
opinion of the actors. We see them, too, all round; instead of, as is
usual in modern novels, regarding them steadily from one point of view;
we know what each person thinks of everyone else, and what everyone else
thinks of him; they are brought into a stereoscopic distinctness by
combining the different aspects of their character. Of course, a method
of this kind involves much labour on the part both of writer and reader.
It is evident that Richardson did not think of amusing a stray half-hour
in a railway-carriage or in a club smoking-room; he counted upon readers
who would apply themselves seriously to a task, in the hope of improving
their morals as much as of gaining some harmless amusement. This theory
is explicitly set forth in Warburton's preface to 'Clarissa.' But it
must also be said that, considering the cumbrous nature of the process,
the spirit with which it is applied is wonderful. Richardson's own
interest in his actors never flags. The distinct style of every
correspondent is faithfully preserved with singular vivacity. When we
have read a few letters we are never at a loss to tell, from the style
alone of any short passage, who is the imaginary author. Consequently,
readers who can bear to have their amusement diluted, who are content
with an imperceptibly slow development of plot, and can watch without
impatience the approach of a foreseen incident through a couple of
volumes, may find the prolixity less intolerable than might be expected.
If they will be content to skip when they are bored, even less patient
students may be entertained with a series of pictures of character and
manners skilfully contrasted and brilliantly coloured, though with a
limited allowance of incident. Within his own sphere, no writer exceeds
him in clearness and delicacy of conception.

In another way, the machinery of a fictitious correspondence is rather
troublesome. As the author never appears in his own person, he is often
obliged to trust his characters with trumpeting their own virtues. Sir
Charles Grandison has to tell us himself of his own virtuous deeds; how
he disarms ruffians who attack him in overwhelming numbers, and converts
evil-doers by impressive advice; and, still more awkwardly, he has to
repeat the amazing compliments which everybody is always paying him.
Richardson does his best to evade the necessity; he couples all his
virtuous heroes with friendly confidants, who relieve the virtuous
heroes of the tiresome task of self-adulation; he supplies the heroes
themselves with elaborate reasons for overcoming their modesty, and
makes them apologise profusely for the unwelcome task. Still, ingenious
as his expedients may be, and willing as we are to make allowance for
the necessities of his task, we cannot quite free ourselves from an
unpleasant suspicion as to the simplicity of his characters. 'Clarissa'
is comparatively free from this fault, though Clarissa takes a
questionable pleasure in uttering the finest sentiments and posing
herself as a model of virtue. But in 'Sir Charles Grandison' the
fulsome interchange of flattery becomes offensive even in fiction. The
virtuous characters give and receive an amount of eulogy enough to turn
the strongest stomachs. How amiable is A! says B; how virtuous is C, and
how marvellously witty is D! And then A, C, and D go through the same
performance, adding a proper compliment to B in place of the exclamation
appropriate to themselves. The only parallel in modern times is to be
found at some of the public dinners, where every man proposes his
neighbour's health with a tacit understanding that he is himself to
furnish the text for a similar oration. But then at dinners people have
the excuse of a state of modified sobriety.

This fault is, as we have said, aggravated by the epistolary method.
That method makes it necessary that each person should display his or
her own virtues, as in an exhibition of gymnastics the performers walk
round and show their muscles. But the fault lies a good deal deeper.
Every writer, consciously or unconsciously, puts himself into his
novels, and exhibits his own character even more distinctly than that of
his heroes. And Richardson, the head of a little circle of conscientious
admirers of each other's virtues, could not but reproduce on a different
scale the tone of his own society. The Grandisons, and the families of
Miss Byron and Clementina, merely repeat a practice with which he was
tolerably familiar at home; whilst his characters represent to some
extent the idealised Richardson himself;--and this leads us to the most
essential characteristic of his novels. The greatest woman in France,
according to Napoleon's brutal remark, was the woman who had the most
children. In a different sense, the saying may pass for truth. The
greatest writer is the one who has produced the largest family of
immortal children. Those of whom it can be said that they have really
added a new type to the fictitious world are indeed few in number.
Cervantes is in the front rank of all imaginative creators, because he
has given birth to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Richardson's literary
representatives are far indeed below these; but Richardson too may boast
that, in his narrower sphere of thought, he has invented two characters
that have still a strong vitality. They show all the weaknesses
inseparable from the age and country of their origin. They are far
inferior to the highest ideals of the great poets of the world; they are
cramped and deformed by the conventionalities of their century and the
narrow society in which they move and live. But for all that they stir
the emotions of a distant generation with power enough to show that
their author must have pierced below the surface into the deeper and
more perennial springs of human passion. These two characters are, of
course, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison; and I may endeavour shortly
to analyse the sources of their enduring interest.

Sir Charles Grandison has passed into a proverb. When Carlyle calls
Lafayette a Grandison-Cromwell, he hits off one of those admirable
nicknames which paint a character for us at once. Sir Charles Grandison
is the model fine gentleman of the eighteenth century--the master of
correct deportment, the unimpeachable representative of the old school.
Richardson tells us with a certain _naïveté_ that he has been accused of
describing an impossible character; that Sir Charles is a man absolutely
without a fault, or at least with faults visible only on a most
microscopic observation. In fact, the only fault to which Sir Charles
himself pleads guilty, in seven volumes, is that he once rather loses
his temper. Two ruffians try to bully him in his own house, and even
draw their swords upon him. Sir Charles so far forgets himself as to
draw his own sword, disarm both of his opponents and turn them out of
doors. He cannot forgive himself, he says, that he has been 'provoked by
two such men to violate the sanctity of his own house.' His only excuse
is, 'that there were two of them; and that tho' I drew, yet I had the
command of myself so far as only to defend myself, when I might have
done with them what I pleased.' According to Richardson, this venial
offence is the worst blot on Sir Charles's character. We certainly do
not blame him for the attempt to draw an ideally perfect hero. It is a
perfectly legitimate aim in fiction, and the only question can be
whether he has succeeded: for Richardson's own commendation cannot be
taken as quite sufficient, neither can we quite accept the ingenious
artifice by which all the secondary characters perform as decoy-birds to
attract our admiration. They do their very best to induce us to join in
their hymns of praise. 'Grandison,' says a Roman Catholic bishop, 'were
he one of us, might expect canonisation.' 'How,' exclaims his uncle,
after a conversation with his paragon of a nephew, 'how shall I bear my
own littleness?' A party of reprobates about town have a long dispute
with him, endeavouring to force him into a duel. At the end of it one of
them exclaims admiringly, 'Curse me, if I believe there is such another
man in the world!' 'I never saw a hero till now,' says another. 'I had
rather have Sir C. Grandison for my friend than the greatest prince on
earth,' says a third. 'I had rather,' replies his friend, 'be Sir C.
Grandison for this one past hour than the Great Mogul all my life.' And
the general conclusion is, 'What poor toads are we!' 'This man shows
us,' as a lady declares, 'that goodness and greatness are synonymous
words;' and when his sister marries, she complains that her brother 'has
long made all other men indifferent to her. Such an infinite
difference!' In the evening, according to custom, she dances a minuet
with her bridegroom, but whispers a friend that she would have performed
better had she danced with her brother.

The structure, however, of the story itself is the best illustration of
Sir Charles's admirable qualities. The plot is very simple. He rescues
Miss Byron from an attempt at a forcible abduction. Miss Byron,
according to her friends, is the queen of her sex, and is amongst women
what Sir Charles is amongst men. Of course, they straightway fall in
love. Sir Charles, however, shows symptoms of a singular reserve, which
is at last explained by the fact that he is already half-engaged to a
noble Italian lady, Clementina. He has promised, in fact, to marry her
if certain objections on the score of his country and religion can be
surmounted. The interest lies chiefly in the varying inclinations of the
balance, at one moment favourable to Miss Byron, and at another to the
'saint and angel' Clementina. When Miss Byron thinks that Sir Charles
will be bound in honour to marry Clementina, she begins to pine; 'she
visibly falls away; and her fine complexion fades;' her friends 'watch
in silent love every turn of her mild and patient eye, every change of
her charming countenance; for they know too well to what to impute the
malady which has approached the best of hearts; they know that the cure
cannot be within the art of the physician.' When Clementina fears that
the scruples of her relatives will separate her from Sir Charles, she
takes the still more decided step of going mad; and some of her madness
would be very touching, if it were not a trifle too much after the
conventional pattern of the mad women in Sheridan's 'Critic.' Whilst
these two ladies are breaking their hearts about Sir Charles they do
justice to each other's merits. Harriet will never be happy unless she
knows that the admirable Clementina has reconciled herself to the loss
of her adored; when Clementina finds herself finally separated from her
lover, she sincerely implores Sir Charles to marry her more fortunate
rival. Never was there such a display of fine feeling and utter absence
of jealousy. Meanwhile a lovely ward of Sir Charles finds it necessary
to her peace of mind to be separated from her guardian; and another
beautiful, but rather less admirable, Italian actually follows him to
England to persuade him to accept her hand. Four ladies--all of them
patterns of physical, moral, and intellectual excellence--are breaking
their hearts; and though they are so excellent that they overcome their
natural jealousy, they can scarcely look upon any other man after having
known this model of all his sex. Indeed, every woman who approaches him
falls desperately in love with him, unless she is his sister or old
enough to be his grandmother. The plot of the novel depends upon an
attraction for the fair sex which is apparently irresistible; and the
men, if they are virtuous, rejoice to sit admiringly at his feet, and if
they are vicious retire abashed from his presence, to entreat his good
advice when they are upon their deathbeds.

All this is easy enough. A novelist can make his women fall in love with
his hero as easily as, with a stroke of the pen, he can endow him with
fifty thousand a year, or bestow upon him every virtue under heaven.
Neither has he any difficulty in making him the finest dancer in
England, or giving him such marvellous skill with the small-sword that
he can avoid the sin of duelling by instantaneously disarming his most
formidable opponents. The real question is, whether he can animate this
conglomerate of all conceivable virtues with a real human soul, set him
before us as a living and breathing reality, and make us feel that, if
we had known him, we too should have been ready to swell the full chorus
of admiration. It is rather more difficult to convey the impression
which a perusal of his correspondence and conversation leaves upon an
unprejudiced mind. Does Sir Charles, when we come to know him
intimately--for, with the ample materials provided, we really seem to
know him--fairly support the amazing burden thrown upon him? Do we feel
a certain disappointment when we meet the man whom all ladies love, and
in whom every gentleman confesses a superior nature.

Two anecdotes about Sir Charles may suggest the answer. Voltaire, we
know, ridiculed the proud English, who with the same scissors cut off
the heads of their kings and the tails of their horses. To this last
weakness Sir Charles was superior. His horses, says Miss Byron, 'are not
docked; their tails are only tied up when they are on the road.' She
would wish to find some fault with him, but as she forcibly says, 'if he
be of opinion that the tails of these noble animals are not only a
natural ornament, but of real use to defend them from the vexatious
insects that in summer are so apt to annoy them, how far from a
dispraise is this humane consideration!' The other anecdote is of a
different kind. When Sir Charles goes to church he does not, like some
other gentlemen, bow low to the ladies of his acquaintance, and then to
others of the gentry. No! 'Sir Charles had first other devoirs to pay.
He paid us his second compliments.' From these two exemplary actions we
must infer his whole character. It should have been inscribed on his
tombstone, 'He would not dock his horses' tails.' That is the most
trifling details of his conduct are regulated on the most serious
considerations. He is one of those solemn beings who can't shave
themselves without implicitly asserting a great moral principle. He
finds sermons in his horses' tails; he could give an excellent reason
for the quantity of lace on his coat, which was due, it seems, to a
sentiment of filial reverence; and he could not fix his hour for dinner
without an eye to the reformation of society. In short, he was a prig of
the first water; self-conscious to the last degree; and so crammed with
little moral aphorisms that they drop out of his mouth whenever he opens
his lips. And then his religion is in admirable keeping. It is
intimately connected with the excellence of his deportment; and is, in
fact, merely the application of the laws of good society to the loftiest
sphere of human duty. He pays his second compliments to his lady, and
his first to the object of his adoration. He very properly gives the
precedence to the being he professes to adore. As he carries his
solemnity into the pettiest trifles of life, so he considers religious
duties to be simply the most important part of social etiquette. He
would shrink from blasphemy even more than from keeping on his hat in
the presence of ladies; but the respect which he owes in one case is of
the same order with that due in the other: it is only a degree more
important.

We feel, indeed, a certain affection for Sir Charles Grandison. He is
pompous and ceremonious to an insufferable degree; but there is really
some truth in his sister's assertion, that his is the most delicate of
human minds; through the cumbrous formalities of his century there
shines a certain quickness and sensibility; he even condescends to be
lively after a stately fashion, and to indulge in a little 'raillying,'
only guarding himself rather too carefully against unbecoming levity.
Indeed, though a man of the world at the present day would be as much
astonished at his elaborate manners as at his laced coat and sword, he
would admit that Sir Charles was by no means wanting in tact; his talk
is weighted with more elaborate formulæ than we care to employ, but it
is good vigorous conversation in the main, and, if rather overlaid with
sermonising, can at times be really amusing. His religion is not of a
very exalted character; he rises to no sublime heights of emotion, and
would simply be puzzled by the fervours or the doubts of a more modern
generation. In short, it seems to be compounded of common-sense and a
regard for decorum--and those are not bad things in their way, though
not the highest. He is not a very ardent reformer; he doubts whether the
poor should be taught to read, and is very clear that everyone should be
made to know his station; but still he talks with sense and moderation,
and even gets so far as to suggest the necessity of reformatories. He is
not very romantic, and displays an amount of self-command in judicially
settling the claims of the various ladies who are anxious to marry him,
which is almost comic; he is perfectly ready to marry the Italian lady,
if she can surmount her religious scruples, though he is in love with
Miss Byron; and his mind is evidently in a pleasing state of
equilibrium, so that he will be happy with either dear charmer. Indeed,
for so chivalric a gentleman, his view of love and marriage is far less
enthusiastic than we should now require. One of his benevolent actions,
which throws all his admirers into fits of eulogy, is to provide one of
his uncles with a wife. The gentleman is a peer, but has hitherto been
of disreputable life. The lady, though of good family and education, is
above thirty, and her family have lost their estate. The match of
convenience which Sir Charles patches up between them has obvious
prudential recommendations; and of course it turns out admirably. But
one is rather puzzled to know what special merits Sir Charles can claim
for bringing it to pass.

Such a hero as this may be worthy and respectable, but is not a very
exalted ideal. Neither do his circumstances increase our interest. It
would be rather a curious subject of inquiry why it should be so
impossible to make a virtuous hero interesting in fiction. In real life,
the men who do heroic actions are certainly more attractive than the
villains. Domestic affection, patriotism, piety, and other good
qualities are pleasant to contemplate in the world; why should they be
so often an unspeakable bore in novels? Principally, no doubt, because
our conception of a perfect man is apt to bring the negative qualities
into too great prominence; we are asked to admire men because they have
not passions--not because they overcome them. But there are further
difficulties; for example, in a novel it is generally so easy to see
what is wrong and what is right--the right-hand path branches off so
decidedly from the left, that we give a man little credit for making the
proper choice. Still more is it difficult to let us sufficiently into a
man's interior to let us see the struggle and the self-sacrifice which
ought to stir our sympathies. We witness the victories, but it is hard
to make us feel the cost at which they are won. Now, Richardson has, as
we shall directly remark, overcome this difficulty to a great extent in
Clarissa; but in Sir Charles Grandison he has entirely shirked it; he
has made everything too plain and easy for his hero. 'I think I could be
a good woman,' says Becky Sharp, 'if I had five thousand a year,'--and
the history of Sir Charles Grandison might have suggested the remark. To
be young, handsome, healthy, active, with a fine estate and a grand old
house; to be able, by your eloquence, to send a sinner into a fit (as
Sir Charles did once); to be the object of a devoted passion from three
or four amiable, accomplished, and beautiful women--each of whom has a
fine fortune, and only begs you to throw your handkerchief towards her,
whilst she promises to bear no grudge if you throw it to her
neighbour--all these are favourable conditions for virtue--especially if
you mean the virtues of being hospitable, generous, a good landlord and
husband, and in every walk of life thoroughly gentlemanlike in your
behaviour. But the whole design is rather too much in accordance with
the device in enabling Sir Charles to avoid duels by having a marvellous
trick of disarming his adversaries. 'What on earth is the use of my
fighting with you,' says King Padella to Prince Giglio, 'if you have got
a fairy sword and a fairy horse?' And what merit is there in winning the
battle of life, when you have every single circumstance in your favour?
We are more attracted by Fielding's rather questionable hero, Captain
Booth, though he does get into a sponging-house, and is anything but a
strict moralist, than by this prosperous young Sir Charles, rich with
every gift the gods can give him, and of whom the most we can say is
that the possession of all those gifts, if it has made him rather
pompous and self-conscious, has not made him close-fisted or
hard-hearted. Sir Charles, then, represents a rather carnal ideal; he
suggest to us those well-fed, almost beefy and corpulent angels, whom
the contemporary school of painters sometimes portray. No doubt they are
angels, for they have wings and are seated in the clouds; but there is
nothing ethereal in their whole nature. We have no love for asceticism;
but a few hours on the column of St. Simon Stylites, or a temporary diet
of locusts and wild honey, might have purified Sir Charles's exuberant
self-satisfaction. For all this, he is not without a certain solid
merit, and the persons by whom he is surrounded--on whom we have not
space to dwell--have a large share of the vivacity which amuses us in
the real men and women of their time. Their talk may not be equal to
that in Boswell's 'Johnson;' but it is animated and amusing, and they
compose a gallery of portraits which would look well in a solid
red-brick mansion of the Georgian era.

We must, however, leave Sir Charles, to say a few words upon that which
is Richardson's real masterpiece, and which, in spite of a full share of
the defects apparent in 'Grandison,' will always command the admiration
of persons who have courage enough to get through eight volumes of
correspondence. The characters of the little world in which the reader
will pass his time are in some cases the same who reappear in
'Grandison.' The lively Lady G. in the last is merely a new version of
Miss Howe in the former. Clarissa herself is Miss Byron under altered
circumstances, and receives from her friends the same shower of
superlatives, whenever they have occasion to touch upon her merits.
Richardson's ideal lady is not at first sight more prepossessing than
his gentleman. After Clarissa's death, her friend Miss Howe writes a
glowing panegyric on her character. It will be enough to give the
distribution of her time. To rest it seems she allotted six hours only.
Her first three morning hours were devoted to study and to writing those
terribly voluminous letters which, as one would have thought, must have
consumed a still longer period. Two hours more were given to domestic
management; for, as Miss Howe explains, 'she was a perfect mistress of
the four principal rules of arithmetic.' Five hours were spent in music,
drawing, and needlework, this last especially, and in conversation with
the venerable parson of the parish. Two hours she devoted to breakfast
and dinner; and as it was hard to restrict herself to this allowance,
she occasionally gave one hour more to dinner-time conversation. One
hour more was spent in visiting the neighbouring poor, and the remaining
four hours to supper and conversation. These periods, it seems, were not
fixed for every day; for she kept a kind of running account, and
permitted herself to have an occasional holiday by drawing upon the
reserved fund of the four hours for supper.

Setting aside the fearfully systematic nature of this arrangement--the
stern determination to live by rule and system--it must be admitted that
Miss Harlowe was what in outworn phrase was called a very 'superior'
person. She would have made an excellent housekeeper, or even a
respectable governess. We feel a certain gratitude to her for devoting
four hours to supper; and, indeed, Richardson's characters are always
well cared for in the victualling department. They always take their
solid three meals, with a liberal intercalation of dishes of tea and
chocolate. Miss Harlowe, we must add, knew Latin, although her
quotations of classical authors are generally taken from translations.
Her successor, Miss Byron, was not allowed this accomplishment,
Richardson's doubts of its suitability to ladies having apparently
gathered strength in the interval. Notwithstanding this one audacious
excursion into the regions of manly knowledge, Miss Harlowe appears to
us as, in the main, a healthy, sensible country girl, with sound sense,
the highest respect for decorum, and an exaggerated regard for
constituted, especially paternal, authority. We cannot expect, from her,
any of the outbreaks against the laws of society customary with George
Sand's heroines. If she had changed places with Maggie Tulliver, she
would have accepted the society of the 'Mill on the Floss' with perfect
contentment, respected all the family of aunts and uncles, and never
repined against the tyranny of her brother Tom. She would have been
conscious of no vague imaginative yearnings, nor have beaten herself
against the narrow bars of stolid custom. She would have laid up a vast
store of linen, and walked thankfully in the path chalked out for her.
Certainly she would never have run away with Mr. Stephen Guest without
tyranny of a much more tangible kind than that which acts only through
the finer spiritual tissues. When Clarissa went off with Lovelace, it
was not because she had unsatisfied aspirations after a higher order of
life, but because she had been locked up in her room, as a solitary
prisoner, and her family had tried to force her into marriage with a man
whom she had excellent reasons for hating and despising. The worst point
about Clarissa is one which was keenly noticed by Johnson. There is
always something, he said, which she prefers to truth. She is a little
too anxious to keep up appearances, and we desire to see more of the
natural woman.

Yet the long tragedy in which Clarissa is the victim is not the less
affecting because the torments are of an intelligible kind, and require
no highly-strung sensibility to give them keenness. The heroine is first
bullied and then deserted by her family, cut off from the friends who
have a desire to help her, and handed over to the power of an
unscrupulous libertine. When she dies of a broken heart, the most
callous and prosaic of readers must feel that it is the only release
possible for her. And in the gradual development of his plot, the slow
accumulation of horrors upon the head of a virtuous victim, Richardson
shows the power which places him in the front rank of novelists, and
finds precisely the field in which his method is most effective and its
drawbacks least annoying. In the first place, in spite of his enormous
prolixity, the interest is throughout concentrated upon one figure. In
'Sir Charles Grandison' there are episodes meant to illustrate the
virtues of the 'next-to-divine man' which have nothing to do with the
main narrative. In 'Clarissa' every subordinate plot--and they
abound--bears immediately upon the central action of the story, and
produces a constant alternation of hope and foreboding. The last
volumes, indeed, are dragged out in a way which is injurious in several
respects. Clarissa, to use Charles II.'s expression about himself, takes
an unconscionable time about dying. But until the climax is reached, we
see the clouds steadily gathering, and yet with an increasing hope that
they may be suddenly cleared up. The only English novel which produces a
similar effect, and impresses us with the sense of an inexorable fate,
slowly but steadily approaching, is the 'Bride of Lammermoor'--in some
respects the best and most artistic of Scott's novels. Superior as is
Scott's art in certain directions, we scarcely feel the same interest in
his chief characters, though there is the same unity of construction. We
cannot feel for the Master of Ravenswood the sympathy which Clarissa
extorts. For in Clarissa's profound distress we lose sight of the
narrow round of respectabilities in which her earlier life is passed;
the petty pompousness, the intense propriety which annoy us in 'Sir
Charles Grandison' disappear or become pathetic. When people are dying
of broken hearts we forget their little absurdities of costume. A more
powerful note is sounded, and the little superficial absurdities are
forgotten. We laugh at the first feminine description of her dress--a
Brussels-lace cap, with sky-blue ribbon, pale crimson-coloured paduasoy,
with cuffs embroidered in a running pattern of violets and their leaves;
but we are more disposed to cry (if many novels have not exhausted all
our powers of weeping) when we come to the final scene. 'One faded cheek
rested upon the good woman's bosom, the kindly warmth of which had
overspread it with a faint but charming flush; the other paler and
hollow, as if already iced over by death. Her hands, white as the lily,
with her meandering veins more transparently blue than ever I had seen
even hers, hanging lifelessly, one before her, the other grasped by the
right hand of the kindly widow, whose tears bedewed the sweet face which
her motherly bosom supported, though unfelt by the fair sleeper; and
either insensibly to the good woman, or what she would not disturb her
to wipe off or to change her posture. Her aspect was sweetly calm and
serene; and though she started now and then, yet her sleep seemed easy;
her breath indeed short and quick, but tolerably free, and not like that
of a dying person.' Allowing for the queer grammar, this is surely a
touching and simple picture. The epistolary method, though it has its
dangers, lends itself well to heighten our interest. Where the object is
rather to appeal to our sympathies than to give elaborate analyses of
character, or complicated narratives of incident, it is as well to let
the persons speak for themselves. A hero cannot conveniently say, like
Sir Charles Grandison, 'See how virtuous and brave and modest I am;' nor
is it easy to make a story clear when it has to be broken up and
distributed amongst people speaking from different points of view; it is
hard to make the testimonies of the different witnesses fit into each
other neatly. But a cry of agony can come from no other quarter so
effectively as from the sufferer's own mouth. 'Clarissa Harlowe' is in
fact one long lamentation, passing gradually from a tone of indignant
complaint to one of despair, and rising at the end to Christian
resignation. So prolonged a performance in every key of human misery is
indeed painful from its monotony; and we may admit that a limited
selection from the correspondence, passing through more rapid
gradations, would be more effective. We might be spared some of the
elaborate speculations upon various phases of the affair which pass away
without any permanent effect. Richardson seems to be scarcely content
even with drawing his characters as large as life; he wishes to apply a
magnifying-glass. Yet, even in this incessant repetition there is a
certain element of power. We are forced to drain every drop in the cup,
and to appreciate every ingredient which adds bitterness to its flavour.
We are annoyed and wearied at times; but as we read we not only wonder
at the number of variations performed upon one tune, but feel that he
has succeeded in thoroughly forcing upon our minds, by incessant
hammering, the impression which he desires to produce. If the blows are
not all very powerful, each blow tells. There is something impressive in
the intensity of purpose which keeps one end in view through so
elaborate a process, and the skill which forms such a multitudinous
variety of parts into one artistic whole. The proportions of this
gigantic growth are preserved with a skill which would be singular even
in the normal scale; a respect in which most giants, whether human or
literary, are apt to break down.

To make the story complete, the plot should have been as effectively
conceived as Clarissa herself, and the other characters should be
equally worthy of their position. Here there are certain drawbacks. The
plot, it might easily be shown, is utterly incredible. Richardson has
the greatest difficulty in preventing his heroine from escaping, and at
times we must not look too closely for fear of detecting the flimsy
nature of her imaginary chains. There is, indeed, no reason for looking
closely; so long as the situations bring out the desired sentiment, we
may accept them for the nonce, without asking whether they could
possibly have occurred. It is of more importance to judge of the
consistency of the chief agent in the persecution. Lovelace is by far
the most ambitious character that Richardson has attempted. To heap
together a mass of virtues, and christen the result Clarissa Harlowe or
Charles Grandison, is comparatively easy; but it is a harder task to
compose a villain, who shall be by nature a devil, and yet capable of
imposing upon an angel. Some of Richardson's judicious critics declared
that he must have been himself a man of vicious life or he could never
have described a libertine so vividly. This is one of the smart sayings
which are obviously the proper thing to say, but which, notwithstanding,
are little better than silly. Lovelace is evidently a fancy
character--if we may use the expression. He bears not a single mark of
being painted from life, and is formed by the simple process of putting
together the most brilliant qualities which his creator could devise to
meet the occasion. We do not say that the result is psychologically
impossible; for it would be very rash to dogmatise on any such question.
No one can say what strange amalgams of virtue and vice may have
sufficient stability to hold together during a journey through this
world. But it is plain that Lovelace is not a result of observation, but
an almost fantastic mixture of qualities intended to fit him for the
difficult part he has to play. To exalt Clarissa, for example,
Lovelace's family are represented as all along earnestly desirous of a
marriage between them; and Lovelace has every conceivable motive,
including the desire to avoid hanging, for agreeing to the match. His
refusal is unintelligible, and Richardson has to supply him with a
reason so absurd and so diabolical that we cannot believe in it; it
reminds us of Hamlet's objecting to killing his uncle whilst at prayers,
on the ground that it would be sending him straight to heaven. But we
may, if we please, consider Hamlet's conceit as a mere pretext invented
to excuse his irresolution to himself; whereas Lovelace speculates so
long and so seriously upon the marriage, that we are bound to consider
his far-fetched arguments as sincere. And the supposition makes his
wickedness gratuitous, if we believe in his sanity. Lovelace suffers,
again, from the same necessity which injures Sir Charles Grandison; as
the virtuous hero has to be always expatiating on his own virtues, the
vicious hero has to boast of his own vices; it is true that this is, in
an artistic sense, the least repulsive habit of the two; for it gives
reason for hating not a hero but a villain; unluckily it is also a
reason for refusing to believe in his existence. The improbability of a
thoroughpaced scoundrel writing daily elaborate confessions of his
criminality to a friend, even when the friend condemns him, expatiating
upon atrocities that deserved hanging, and justifying his vices on
principle, is rather too glaring to be admissible. And by another odd
inconsistency, Lovelace is described as being all the time a steady
believer in eternal punishment and a rebuker of sceptics--Richardson
being apparently of opinion that infidelity would be too bad to be
introduced upon the stage, though a vice might be described in detail. A
man who has broken through all moral laws might be allowed a little
free-thinking. We might add that Lovelace, in spite of the cleverness
attributed to him, is really a most imbecile schemer. The first
principle of a villain should be to tell as few lies as will serve his
purpose; but Lovelace invents such elaborate and complicated plots,
presenting so many chances of detection and introducing so many persons
into his secrets, that it is evident that in real life he would have
broken down in a week.

Granting the high improbability of Lovelace as a real living human
being, it must be admitted that he has every merit but that of
existence. The letters which he writes are the most animated in the
voluminous correspondence. The respectable domestic old printer, who
boasted of the perfect purity of his own life, seems to have thrown
himself with special gusto into the character of a heartless reprobate.
He must have felt a certain piquancy in writing down the most atrocious
sentiments in his own respectable parlour. He would show that the quiet
humdrum old tradesman could be on paper as sprightly and audacious as
the most profligate man about town. As quiet people are apt to do, he
probably exaggerated the enormities which such men would openly avow; he
fancied that the world beyond his little circle was a wilderness of wild
beasts who could gnash their teeth and show their claws after a terribly
ostentatious fashion in their own dens; they doubtless gloated upon all
the innocent sheep whom they had devoured without any shadow of
reticence. And he had a fancy that, in their way, they were amusing
monsters too; Lovelace is a lady's villain, as Grandison is a lady's
hero; he is designed by a person inexperienced even in the observation
of vice. Indeed, he would exaggerate the charm a good deal more than the
atrocity. We must also admit that when the old printer was put upon his
mettle he could be very lively indeed. Lovelace, like everybody else, is
at times unmercifully prolix; he never leaves us to guess any detail for
ourselves; but he is spirited, eloquent, and a thoroughly fine gentleman
after the Chesterfield type. 'The devil take such fine gentlemen!'
exclaims somebody; and if he does not, I see little use (to quote the
proverbial old lady) in keeping a devil. But, as Johnson observed, a man
may be very wicked and 'very genteel.' Richardson lectures us very
seriously on the evil results which are sure to follow bad courses; but
he evidently holds in his heart that, till the Nemesis descends, the
libertines are far the most amusing part of the world. In Sir Charles
Grandison's company, we should be treated to an intolerable deal of
sermonising, with an occasional descent into the regions of humour--but
the humour is always admitted under protest. With Lovelace we might hear
some very questionable morality, but there would be a never-ceasing flow
of sparkling witticisms. The devil's advocate has the laugh distinctly
on his side, whatever may be said of the argument. Finally, we may say
that Lovelace, if too obviously constructed to work the plot, certainly
works it well. When we coolly dissect him and ask whether he could ever
have existed, we may be forced to reply in the negative. But whilst we
read we forget to criticise; he seems to possess more vitality than
most living men; he is so full of eloquent brag, and audacious
sophistry, and unblushing impudence, that he fascinates us as he is
supposed to have bewildered Clarissa. The dragon who is to devour the
maiden comes with all the flash and glitter and overpowering whirl of
wings that can be desired. He seems to be irresistible--we admire him
and hate him, and some time elapses before we begin to suspect that he
is merely a stage dragon, and not one of those who really walk this
earth.

Richardson's defects are, of course, obvious enough. He cares nothing,
for example, for what we call the beauties of nature. There is scarcely
throughout his books one description showing the power of appealing to
emotions through scenery claimed by every modern scribbler. In passing
the Alps, the only remark which one of his characters has to make,
beyond describing the horrible dangers of the Mont Cenis, is that 'every
object which here presents itself is excessively miserable.' His ideal
scenery is a 'large and convenient country-house, situated in a spacious
park,' with plenty of 'fine prospects,' which you are expected to view
from a 'neat but plain villa, built in the rustic taste.' And his views
of morality are as contracted as his taste in landscapes. The most
distinctive article of his creed is that children should have a
reverence for their parents which would be exaggerated in the slave of
an Eastern despot. We can pardon Clarissa for refusing to die happy
until her stupid and ill-tempered old father has revoked a curse which
he bestowed upon her. But we cannot quite excuse Sir Charles Grandison
for writing in this fashion to his disreputable old parent, who has
asked his consent to a certain family arrangement in which he had a
legal right to be consulted:--

'As for myself,' he says, 'I cannot have one objection; but what am I in
this case? My sister is wholly my father's; I also am his. The
consideration he gives me in this instance confounds me. It binds me to
him in double duty. It would look like taking advantage of it, were I so
much as to offer my humble opinion, unless he were pleased to command it
from me.'

Even one of Richardson's abject lady-correspondents was revolted by this
exaggerated servility. But narrow as his vision might be in some
directions, his genius is not the less real. He is a curious example of
the power which a real artistic insight may exhibit under the most
disadvantageous forms. To realise his characteristic power, we should
take one of the great French novelists whom we admire for the exquisite
proportions of his story, the unity of the interest and the skill--so
unlike our common English clumsiness--with which all details are duly
subordinated. He should have, too, the comparative weakness of French
novelists, a defective perception of character, a certain unwillingness
in art as in politics to allow individual peculiarities to interfere
with the main flow of events; for, admitting the great excellence of his
minor performers, Richardson's most elaborately designed characters are
so artificial that they derive their interest from the events in which
they play their parts, rather than give interest to them--little as he
may have intended it. Then we must cause our imaginary Frenchman to
transmigrate into the body of a small, plump, weakly printer of the
eighteenth century. We may leave him a fair share of his vivacity,
though considerably narrowing his views of life and morality; but we
must surround him with a court of silly women whose incessant flatteries
must generate in him an unnatural propensity to twaddle. It is curious,
indeed, that he describes himself as writing without a plan. He compares
himself to a poor woman lying down upon the hearth to blow up a wretched
little fire of green sticks. He had to live from hand to mouth. But the
absence of an elaborate scheme is not fatal to the unity of design. He
watches, rather than designs, the development of his plot. He has so
lively a faith in his characters that, instead of laying down their
course of action, he simply watches them to see how they will act. This
makes him deliberate a little too much; they move less by impulse than
from careful reflection upon all the circumstances. Yet it also implies
an evolution of the story from the necessity of the characters in a
given situation, and gives an air of necessary deduction to the whole
scheme of his stories. All the gossiping propensities of his nature will
grow to unhealthy luxuriance, and the fine edge of his wit will be
somewhat dulled in the process. He will thus become capable of being a
bore--a thing which is impossible to any unsophisticated Frenchman. In
this way we might obtain a literary product so anomalous in appearance
as 'Clarissa'--a story in which a most affecting situation is drawn with
extreme power, and yet so overlaid with twaddle, so unmercifully
protracted and spun out as to be almost unreadable to the present
generation. But to complete Richardson, we must inoculate him with the
propensities of another school: we must give him a liberal share of the
feminine sensitiveness and closeness of observation of which Miss Austen
is the great example. And perhaps, to fill in the last details, he
ought, in addition, to have a dash of the more unctuous and offensive
variety of the dissenting preacher--for we know not where else to look
for the astonishing and often ungrammatical fluency by which he is
possessed, and which makes his best passages remind us of the marvellous
malleability of some precious metals.

Anyone who will take the trouble to work himself fairly into the story
will end by admitting Richardson's power. Sir George Trevelyan records
and corroborates a well-known anecdote told by Thackeray from Macaulay's
lips. A whole station was infected by the historian's zeal for
'Clarissa.' It worked itself up into a 'passion of excitement,' and all
the great men and their wives fought for the book, and could hardly read
it for tears. The critic must observe that Macaulay had a singular taste
for reading even the trashiest novels; and, that probably an Indian
station at that period was in respect of such reading like a thirsty
land after a long drought. For that reason it reproduced pretty
accurately the state of society in which 'Clarissa' was first read, when
there were as yet no circulating libraries, and the winter evenings were
long in the country and the back parlours of tradesmen's shops.
Probably, a person eager to enjoy Richardson's novels now would do well
to take them as his only recreation for a long holiday in a remote place
and pray for steady rain. On those conditions, he may enter into the old
spirit. And the remark may suggest one moral, for one ought not to
conclude an article upon Richardson without a moral. It is that a
purpose may be a very dangerous thing for a novelist in so far as it
leads him to try means of persuasion not appropriate to his art; but
when, as with Richardson, it implies a keen interest in an imaginary
world, a desire to set forth in the most forcible way what are the great
springs of action of human beings by showing them under appropriate
situations, then it may be a source of such power of fascination as is
exercised by the greatest writers alone.



_POPE AS A MORALIST_


The vitality of Pope's writings, or at least of certain fragments of
them, is remarkable. Few reputations have been exposed to such perils at
the hands of open enemies or of imprudent friends. In his lifetime 'the
wasp of Twickenham' could sting through a sevenfold covering of pride or
stupidity. Lady Mary and Lord Hervey writhed and retaliated with little
more success than the poor denizens of Grub Street. But it is more
remarkable that Pope seems to be stinging well into the second century
after his death. His writings resemble those fireworks which, after they
have fallen to the ground and been apparently quenched, suddenly break
out again into sputtering explosions. The waters of a literary
revolution have passed over him without putting him out. Though much of
his poetry has ceased to interest us, so many of his brilliant couplets
still survive that probably no dead writer, with the solitary exception
of Shakespeare, is more frequently quoted at the present day. It is in
vain that he is abused, ridiculed, and often declared to be no poet at
all. The school of Wordsworth regarded him as the embodiment of the
corrupting influence in English poetry; and it is only of late that we
are beginning to aim at a more catholic spirit in literary criticism. It
is not our business simply to revile or to extol the ideals of our
ancestors, but to try to understand them. The passionate partisanship
of militant schools is pardonable in the apostles of a new creed, but
when the struggle is over we must aim at saner judgments. Byron was
impelled by motives other than the purely judicial when he declared Pope
to be the 'great moral poet of all times, of all climes, of all
feelings, and of all stages of existence;' and it is not less
characteristic that Byron was at the same time helping to dethrone the
idol before which he prostrated himself. A critic whose judgments,
however wayward, are always keen and original, has more recently spoken
of Pope in terms which recall Byron's enthusiasm. 'Pope,' says Mr.
Ruskin, in one of his Oxford lectures, 'is the most perfect
representative we have since Chaucer of the true English mind;' and he
adds that his hearers will find, as they study Pope, that he has
expressed for them, 'in the strictest language, and within the briefest
limits, every law of art, of criticism, of economy, of policy, and
finally of a benevolence, humble, rational, and resigned, contented with
its allotted share of life, and trusting the problem of its salvation to
Him in whose hand lies that of the universe.' These remarks are added by
way of illustrating the relation of art to morals, and enforcing the
great principle that a noble style can only proceed from a sincere
heart. 'You can only learn to speak as these men spake by learning what
these men were.' When we ask impartially what Pope was, we may possibly
be inclined to doubt the complete soundness of the eulogy upon his
teaching. Meanwhile, however, Byron and Mr. Ruskin agree in holding up
Pope as an instance, almost as the typical instance, of that kind of
poetry which is directly intended to enforce a lofty morality. Though we
can never take either Byron or Mr. Ruskin as the representative of sweet
reasonableness, their admiration is some proof that Pope possessed great
merits as a poetical interpreter of morals. Without venturing into the
wider ocean of poetical criticism, I will endeavour to consider what was
the specific element in Pope's poetry which explains, if it does not
justify, this enthusiastic praise.

I shall venture to assume, indeed, that Pope was a genuine poet.
Perhaps, as M. Taine thinks, it is a proof of our British grossness that
we still admire the 'Rape of the Lock,' yet I must agree with most
critics that it is admirable after its kind. Pope's sylphs, as Mr. Elwin
says, are legitimate descendants from Shakespeare's fairies. True, they
have entered into rather humiliating bondage. Shakespeare's Ariel has to
fetch the midnight dew from the still-vexed Bermoothes; he delights to
fly--

    To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
    On the curl'd clouds--

whereas the 'humbler province' of Pope's Ariel is 'to tend the fair'--

    To steal from rainbows, ere they drop in showers,
    A brighter wash; to curl their waving hairs,
    Assist their blushes, and inspire their airs.
    Nay, oft in dreams invention we bestow
    To change a flounce or add a furbelow.

Prospero, threatening Ariel for murmuring, says 'I will

                                   rend an oak
    And peg thee in his knotty entrails, until
    Thou hast howled away twelve winters.'

The fate threatened to a disobedient sprite in the later poem is that he
shall

    Be stuff'd in vials, or transfixed with pins,
    Or plunged in lakes of bitter washes lie,
    Or wedged whole ages in a bodkin's eye.

Pope's muse--one may use the old-fashioned word in such a
connection--had left the free forest for Will's Coffee-house, and
haunted ladies' boudoirs instead of the brakes of the enchanted island.
Her wings were clogged with 'gums and pomatums,' and her 'thin essence'
had shrunk 'like a rivel'd flower.' But a delicate fancy is a delicate
fancy still, even when employed about the paraphernalia of modern life;
a truth which Byron maintained, though not in an unimpeachable form, in
his controversy with Bowles. We sometimes talk as if our ancestors were
nothing but hoops and wigs; and forget that they had a fair allowance of
human passions. And consequently we are very apt to make a false
estimate of the precise nature of that change which fairly entitles us
to call Pope's age prosaic. In showering down our epithets of
artificial, sceptical, and utilitarian, we not seldom forget what kind
of figure we are ourselves likely to make in the eyes of our own
descendants.

Whatever be the position rightly to be assigned to Pope in the British
Walhalla, his own theory has been unmistakably expressed. He boasts

    That not in fancy's maze he wandered long,
    But stooped to truth and moralised his song.

His theory is compressed into one of the innumerable aphorisms which
have to some degree lost their original sharpness of definition, because
they have passed, as current coinage, through so many hands.

    The proper study of mankind is man.

The saying is in form nearly identical with Goethe's remark that man is
properly the only object which interests man. The two poets, indeed,
understood the doctrine in a very different way. Pope's interpretation
strikes the present generation as narrow and mechanical. He would place
such limitations upon the sphere of human interest as to exclude,
perhaps, the greatest part of what we generally mean by poetry. How
much, for example, would have to be suppressed if we sympathised with
Pope's condemnation of the works in which

    Pure description holds the place of sense.

Nearly all the works of such poets as Thomson and Cowper would
disappear, Wordsworth's pages would show fearful gaps, and Keats would
be in risk of summary suppression. We may doubt whether much would be
left of Spenser, from whom both Keats and Pope, like so many other of
our poets, drew inspiration in their youth. Fairyland would be deserted,
and the poet condemned to working upon ordinary commonplaces in broad
daylight. The principle which Pope proclaimed is susceptible of the
inverse application. Poetry, as it proves, may rightly concern itself
with inanimate nature, with pure description, or with the presentation
of lovely symbols not definitely identified with any cut-and-dried saws
of moral wisdom; because there is no part of the visible universe to
which we have not some relation, and the most ethereal dreams that ever
visited a youthful poet 'on summer eve by haunted stream' are in some
sense reflections of the passions and interests that surround our daily
life. Pope, however, as the man more fitted than any other fully to
interpret the mind of his own age, inevitably gives a different
construction to a very sound maxim. He rightly assumes that man is his
proper study; but then by man he means not the genus, but a narrow
species of the human being. 'Man' means Bolingbroke, and Walpole, and
Swift, and Curll, and Theobald; it does not mean man as the product of a
long series of generations and part of the great universe of
inextricably involved forces. He cannot understand the man of distant
ages; Homer is to him not the spontaneous voice of the heroic age, but a
clever artist whose gods and heroes are consciously-constructed parts of
an artificial 'machinery.' Nature has, for him, ceased to be inhabited
by sylphs and fairies, except to amuse the fancies of fine ladies and
gentlemen, and has not yet received a new interest from the fairy tales
of science. The old ideal of chivalry merely suggests the sneers of
Cervantes, or even the buffoonery of Butler's wit, and has not undergone
restoration at the hands of modern romanticists. Politics are not
associated in his mind with any great social upheaval, but with a series
of petty squabbles for places and pensions, in which bribery is the
great moving force. What he means by religion is generally not so much
the existence of a divine element in the world as a series of bare
metaphysical demonstrations too frigid to produce enthusiasm or to
stimulate the imagination. And, therefore, he inevitably interests
himself chiefly in what is certainly a perennial source of interest--the
passions and thoughts of the men and women immediately related to
himself; and it may be remarked, in passing, that if this narrows the
range of Pope's poetry, the error is not so vital as a modern delusion
of the opposite kind. Because poetry should not be brought into too
close a contact with the prose of daily life, we sometimes seem to think
that it must have no relation to daily life at all, and consequently
convert it into a mere luxurious dreaming, where the beautiful very
speedily degenerates into the pretty or the picturesque. Because poetry
need not be always a point-blank fire of moral platitudes, we
occasionally declare that there is no connection at all between poetry
and morality, and that all art is good which is for the moment
agreeable. Such theories must end in reducing all poetry and art to be
at best more or less elegant trifling for the amusement of the indolent;
and to those who uphold them Pope's example may be of some use. If he
went too far in the direction of identifying poetry with preaching, he
was not wrong in assuming that poetry should involve preaching, though
by an indirect method. Morality and art are not independent, though not
identical. Both, as Mr. Ruskin urges in the passage just quoted, are
only admirable when the expression of healthful and noble natures. But,
without discussing that thorny problem and certainly without committing
myself to an approval of Mr. Ruskin's solution, I am content to look at
it for the time from Pope's stand-point.

Taking Pope's view of his poetical office, there remain considerable
difficulties in estimating the value of the lesson which he taught with
so much energy. The difficulties result both from that element which was
common to his contemporaries and from that which was supplied by Pope's
own idiosyncrasies. The commonplaces in which Pope takes such infinite
delight have become very stale for us. Assuming their perfect sincerity,
we cannot understand how anybody should have thought of enforcing them
with such amazing emphasis. We constantly feel a shock like that which
surprises the reader of Young's 'Night Thoughts' when he finds it
asserted, in all the pomp of blank verse, that

    Procrastination is the thief of time.

The maxim has rightly been consigned to copy-books. And a great deal of
Pope's moralising is of the same order. We do not want denunciations of
misers. Nobody at the present day keeps gold in an old stocking. When
we read the observation,

    'Tis strange the miser should his cares employ
    To gain the riches he can ne'er enjoy,

we can only reply that we have heard something like it before. In fact,
we cannot place ourselves in the position of men at the time when modern
society was first definitely emerging from the feudal state, and
everybody was sufficiently employed in gossiping about his neighbours.
We are perplexed by the extreme interest with which they dwell upon the
little series of obvious remarks which have been worked to death by
later writers. Pope, for example, is still wondering over the first
appearance of one of the most familiar of modern inventions. He
exclaims,

    Blest paper credit! last and best supply!
    That lends corruption lighter wings to fly!

He points out, with an odd superfluity of illustration, that bank-notes
enable a man to be bribed much more easily than of old. There is no
danger, he says, that a patriot will be exposed by a guinea dropping out
of his pocket at the end of an interview with the minister; and he shows
how awkward it would be if a statesman had to take his bribes in kind,
and his servants should proclaim,

    Sir, Spain has sent a thousand jars of oil;
    Huge bales of British cloth blockade the door;
    A hundred oxen at your levees roar.

This, however, was natural enough when the South Sea scheme was for the
first time illustrating the powers and the dangers of extended credit.
To us, who are beginning to fit our experience of commercial panics into
a scientific theory, the wonder expressed by Pope sounds like the
exclamations of a savage over a Tower musket. And in the sphere of
morals it is pretty much the same. All those reflections about the
little obvious vanities and frivolities of social life which supplied
two generations of British essayists, from the 'Tatler' to the
'Lounger,' with an inexhaustible fund of mild satire, have lost their
freshness. Our own modes of life have become so complex by comparison,
that we pass over these mere elements to plunge at once into more
refined speculations. A modern essayist starts where Addison or Johnson
left off. He assumes that his readers know that procrastination is an
evil, and tries to gain a little piquancy by paradoxically pointing out
the objections to punctuality. Character, of course, becomes more
complex, and requires more delicate modes of analysis. Compare, for
example, the most delicate of Pope's delineations with one of Mr.
Browning's elaborate psychological studies. Remember how many pages of
acute observation are required to set forth Bishop Blougram's peculiar
phase of worldliness, and then turn to Pope's descriptions of Addison,
or Wharton, or Buckingham. Each of those descriptions is, indeed, a
masterpiece in its way; the language is inimitably clear and pointed;
but the leading thought is obvious, and leads to no intricate problems.
Addison--assuming Pope's Addison to be the real Addison--might be
cold-blooded and jealous; but he had not worked out that elaborate
machinery for imposing upon himself and others which is required in a
more critical age. He wore a mask, but a mask of simple construction;
not one of those complex contrivances of modern invention which are so
like the real skin that it requires the acuteness and patience of a
scientific observer to detect the difference and point out the nature of
the deception. The moral difference between an Addison and a Blougram
is as great as the difference between an old stage-coach and a
steam-engine, or between the bulls and bears which first received the
name in Law's time and their descendants on the New York Stock Exchange.

If, therefore, Pope gains something in clearness and brilliancy by the
comparative simplicity of his art, he loses by the extreme obviousness
of its results. We cannot give him credit for being really moved by such
platitudes. We have the same feeling as when a modern preacher employs
twenty minutes in proving that it is wrong to worship idols of wood and
stone. But, unfortunately, there is a reason more peculiar to Pope which
damps our sympathy still more decidedly. Recent investigations have
strengthened those suspicions of his honesty which were common even
amongst his contemporaries. Mr. Elwin was (very excusably) disgusted by
the revelations of his hero's baseness, till his indignation became a
painful burden to himself and his readers. Speaking bluntly, indeed, we
admit that lying is a vice, and that Pope was in a small way one of the
most consummate liars that ever lived. He speaks himself of
'equivocating pretty genteelly' in regard to one of his peccadilloes.
Pope's equivocation is to the equivocation of ordinary men what a
tropical fern is to the stunted representatives of the same species in
England. It grows until the fowls of the air can rest on its branches.
His mendacity in short amounts to a monomania. That a man with intensely
irritable nerves, and so fragile in constitution that his life might,
without exaggeration, be called a 'long disease,' should defend himself
by the natural weapons of the weak, equivocation and subterfuge, when
exposed to the brutal horseplay common in that day, is indeed not
surprising. But Pope's delight in artifice was something unparalleled.
He could hardly drink tea without 'a stratagem,' or, as Lady Bolingbroke
put it, was a politician about cabbages and turnips; and certainly he
did not despise the arts known to politicians on a larger stage. Never,
surely, did all the arts of the most skilful diplomacy give rise to a
series of intrigues more complex than those which attended the
publication of the 'P. T. Letters.' An ordinary man says that he is
obliged to publish by request of friends, and we regard the transparent
device as, at most, a venial offence. But in Pope's hands this simple
trick becomes a complex apparatus of plots within plots, which have only
been unravelled by the persevering labours of most industrious literary
detectives. The whole story was given for the first time at full length
in Mr. Elwin's edition of Pope, and the revelation borders upon the
incredible. How Pope became for a time two men; how in one character he
worked upon the wretched Curll through mysterious emissaries until the
piratical bookseller undertook to publish the letters already privately
printed by Pope himself; how Pope in his other character protested
vehemently against the publication and disavowed all complicity in the
preparations; how he set the House of Lords in motion to suppress the
edition; and how, meanwhile, he took ingenious precautions to frustrate
the interference which he provoked; how in the course of these
manoeuvres his genteel equivocation swelled into lying on the most
stupendous scale--all this story, with its various ins and outs, may be
now read by those who have the patience. The problem may be suggested to
casuists how far the iniquity of a lie should be measured by its
immediate purpose, or how far it is aggravated by the enormous mass of
superincumbent falsehoods which it inevitably brings in its train. We
cannot condemn very seriously the affected coyness which tries to
conceal a desire for publication under an apparent yielding to
extortion; but we must certainly admit that the stomach of any other
human being of whom a record has been preserved would have revolted at
the thought of wading through such a waste of falsification to secure so
paltry an end. Moreover, this is only one instance, and by no means the
worst instance, of Pope's regular practice in such matters. Almost every
publication of his life was attended with some sort of mystification
passing into downright falsehood, and, at times, injurious to the
character of his dearest friends. We have to add to this all the cases
in which Pope attacked his enemies under feigned names and then
disavowed his attacks; the malicious misstatements which he tried to
propagate in regard to Addison; and we feel it a positive relief when we
are able to acquit him, partially at least, of the worst charge of
extorting 1,000_l._ from the Duchess of Marlborough for the suppression
of a satirical passage.

Whatever minor pleas may be put forward in extenuation, it certainly
cannot be denied that Pope's practical morality was defective. Genteel
equivocation is not one of the Christian graces; and a gentleman
convicted at the present day of practices comparable to those in which
Pope indulged so freely might find it expedient to take his name off the
books of any respectable club. Now, if we take literally Mr. Ruskin's
doctrine that a noble morality must proceed from a noble nature, the
inference from Pope's life to his writings is not satisfactory.

We may, indeed, take it for demonstrated that Pope was not one of those
men who can be seen from all points of view. There are corners of his
nature which will not bear examination. We cannot compare him with such
men as Milton, or Cowper, or Wordsworth, whose lives are the noblest
commentary on their works. Rather he is one of the numerous class in
whom the excessive sensibility of genius has generated very serious
disease. In more modern days we may fancy that his views would have
taken a different turn, and that Pope would have belonged to the Satanic
school of writers, and instead of lying enormously, have found relief
for his irritated nerves in reviling all that is praised by ordinary
mankind. But we must hesitate before passing from his acknowledged vices
to a summary condemnation of the whole man. Human nature (the remark is
not strictly original) is often inconsistent; and, side by side with
degrading tendencies, there sometimes lie not only keen powers of
intellect, but a genuine love for goodness, benevolence, and even for
honesty. Pope is one of those strangely mixed characters which can only
be fully delineated by a masterly hand, and Mr. Courthope in the life
which concludes the definitive edition of the works has at last
performed the task with admirable skill and without too much shrouding
his hero's weaknesses. Meanwhile our pleasure in reading him is much
counterbalanced by the suspicion that those pointed aphorisms which he
turns out in so admirably polished a form may come only from the lips
outwards. Pope, it must be remembered, is essentially a parasitical
writer. He was a systematic appropriator--I do not say plagiarist, for
the practice seems to be generally commendable--of other men's thoughts.
His brilliant gems have often been found in some obscure writer, and
have become valuable by the patient care with which he has polished and
mounted them. We doubt their perfect sincerity because, when he is
speaking in his own person, we can often prove him to be at best under
a curious delusion. Take, for example, the 'Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,'
which is his most perfect work. Some of the boasts in it are apparently
quite justified by the facts. But what are we to say to such a passage
as this?--

    I was not born for courts or great affairs;
    I pay my debts, believe, and say my prayers;
    Can sleep without a poem in my head,
    Nor know if Dennis be alive or dead.

Admitting his independence, and not inquiring too closely into his
prayers, can we forget that the gentleman who could sleep without a poem
in his head called up a servant four times in one night of 'the dreadful
winter of Forty' to supply him with paper, lest he should lose a
thought? Or what is the value of a professed indifference to Dennis from
the man distinguished beyond all other writers for the bitterness of his
resentment against all small critics; who disfigured his best poems by
his petty vengeance for old attacks; and who could not refrain from
sneering at poor Dennis, even in the Prologue which he condescended to
write for the benefit of his dying antagonist? Or, again, one can hardly
help smiling at his praises of his own hospitality. The dinner which he
promises to his friend is to conclude with--

    Cheerful healths (your mistress shall have place),
    And, what's more rare, a poet shall say grace.

The provision made for the 'cheerful healths,' as Johnson lets us know,
consisted of the remnant of a pint of wine, from which Pope had taken a
couple of glasses, divided amongst two guests. There was evidently no
danger of excessive conviviality. And then a grace in which Bolingbroke
joined could not have been a very impressive ceremony.

Thus, we are always pursued, in reading Pope, by disagreeable
misgivings. We don't know what comes from the heart, and what from the
lips: when the real man is speaking, and when we are only listening to
old commonplaces skilfully vamped. There is always, if we please, a bad
interpretation to be placed upon his finest sentiments. His indignation
against the vicious is confused with his hatred of personal enemies; he
protests most loudly that he is honest when he is 'equivocating most
genteelly;' his independence may be called selfishness or avarice; his
toleration simple indifference; and even his affection for his friends a
decorous fiction, which will never lead him to the slightest sacrifice
of his own vanity or comfort. A critic of the highest order is provided
with an Ithuriel spear, which discriminates the sham sentiments from the
true. As a banker's clerk can tell a bad coin by its ring on the
counter, without need of a testing apparatus, the true critic can
instinctively estimate the amount of bullion in Pope's epigrammatic
tinsel. But criticism of this kind, as Pope truly says, is as rare as
poetical genius. Humbler writers must be content to take their weights
and measures, or, in other words, to test their first impressions, by
such external evidence as is available. They must proceed cautiously in
these delicate matters, and instead of leaping to the truth by a rapid
intuition, patiently enquire what light is thrown upon Pope's sincerity
by the recorded events of his life, and a careful cross-examination of
the various witnesses to his character. They must, indeed, keep in mind
Mr. Ruskin's excellent canon--that good fruit, even in moralising, can
only be borne by a good tree. Where Pope has succeeded in casting into
enduring form some valuable moral sentiment, we may therefore give him
credit for having at least felt it sincerely. If he did not always act
upon it, the weakness is not peculiar to Pope. Time, indeed, has partly
done the work for us. In Pope, more than in almost any other writer, the
grain has sifted itself from the chaff. The jewels have remained after
the flimsy embroidery in which they were fixed has fallen into decay.
Such a result was natural from his mode of composition. He caught at
some inspiration of the moment; he cast it roughly into form; brooded
over it; retouched it again and again; and when he had brought it to the
very highest polish of which his art was capable, placed it in a
pigeon-hole to be fitted, when the opportunity offered, into an
appropriate corner of his mosaic-work. We can see him at work, for
example, in the passage about Addison and the celebrated concluding
couplet. The epigrams in which his poetry abounds have obviously been
composed in the same fashion, for that 'masterpiece of man,' as South is
made to call it in the 'Dunciad,' is only produced in perfection when
the labour which would have made an ode has been concentrated upon a
couple of lines. There is a celebrated recipe for dressing a lark, if we
remember rightly, in which the lark is placed inside a snipe, and the
snipe in a woodcock, and so on till you come to a turkey, or, if
procurable, to an ostrich; then, the mass having been properly stewed,
the superincumbent envelopes are all thrown away, and the essences of
the whole are supposed to be embodied in the original nucleus. So the
perfect epigram, at which Pope is constantly aiming, should be the
quintessence of a whole volume of reflection. Such literary cookery,
however, implies not only labour, but an unwearied vividness of thought
and feeling. The poet must put his soul into the work as well as his
artistic power. Thus, if we may take Pope's most vigorous expressions as
an indication of his strongest convictions, and check their conclusions
by his personal history and by the general tendency of his writings, we
might succeed in putting together something like a satisfactory
statement of the moral system which he expressed forcibly because he
believed in it sincerely.

Without following the proofs in detail, let us endeavour to give some
statement of the result. What, in fact, did Pope learn by his study of
man, such as it was? What does he tell us about the character of human
beings and their position in the universe which is either original or
marked by the freshness of independent thought? Perhaps the most
characteristic vein of reflection is that which is embodied in the
'Dunciad.' There, at least, we have Pope speaking energetically and
sincerely. He really detests, abjures, and abominates as impious and
heretical, without a trace of mental reservation, the worship of the
great goddess Dulness. The 'Dunciad' does not show the quality in which
Pope most excels, that which makes his best satires resemble the
quintessence of the most brilliant thought of his most brilliant
contemporaries. But it has more energy and continuity than most of his
other poetry. The 'Dunciad' often flows in a continuous stream of
eloquence, instead of dribbling out in little jets of epigram. If there
are fewer points, there are more frequent gushes of sustained rhetoric.
Even when Pope condescends--and he condescends much too often--to pelt
his antagonists with mere filth, he does it with a touch of boisterous
vigour. He laughs out. He catches something from his patron Swift when
he

    Laughs and shakes in Rabelais's easy chair.

His lungs seem to be fuller and his voice to lose for the time its
tricks of mincing affectation. Here, indeed, there can be no question of
insincerity. Pope's scorn of folly is to be condemned only so far as it
was connected with too bitter a hatred of fools. He has suffered, as
Swift foretold, by the insignificance of the enemies against whom he
rages with superfluous vehemence. But for Pope, no one in this
generation would have heard of Arnall and Moore and Breval and Bezaleel
Morris and fifty more ephemeral denizens of Grub Street. The fault is,
indeed, inherent in the plan. It is in some degree creditable to Pope
that his satire was on the whole justified, so far as it could be
justified, by the correctness of his judgment. The only great man whom
he has seriously assaulted is Bentley; and to Pope, Bentley was of
necessity not the greatest of classical critics, but the tasteless
mutilator of Milton, and, as we must perhaps add, the object of the
hatred of Pope's particular friends, Atterbury and Warburton. The
misfortune is that the more just his satire, the more perishable is its
interest; and if we regard the 'Dunciad' simply as an assault upon the
vermin who then infested literature, we must consider him as a man who
should use a steam-hammer to crack a flea. Unluckily for ourselves,
however, it cannot be admitted so easily that Curll and Dennis and the
rest had a merely temporary interest. Regarded as types of literary
nuisances--and Pope does not condescend in his poetry, though the want
is partly supplied in the notes, to indulge in much personal
detail--they may be said by cynics to have a more enduring vitality. Of
course there is at the present day no such bookseller as Curll, living
by piratical invasions of established rights, and pandering to the worst
passions of ignorant readers; no writer who could be fitly called, like
Concanen,

    A cold, long-winded native of the deep,

and fitly sentenced to dive where Fleet Ditch

    Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames;

and most certainly we must deny the present applicability of the note
upon 'Magazines' compiled by Pope, or rather by Warburton, for the
episcopal bludgeon is perceptible in the prose description. They are not
at present 'the eruption of every miserable scribbler, the scum of every
dirty newspaper, or fragments of fragments picked up from every dirty
dunghill ... equally the disgrace of human wit, morality, decency, and
common sense.' But if the translator of the 'Dunciad' into modern
phraseology would have some difficulty in finding a head for every cap,
there are perhaps some satirical stings which have not quite lost their
point. The legitimate drama, so theatrical critics tell us, has not
quite shaken off the rivalry of sensational scenery and idiotic
burlesque, though possibly we do not produce absurdities equal to that
which, as Pope tells us, was actually introduced by Theobald, in which

    Nile rises, Heaven descends, and dance on earth
    Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
    A fire, a jig, a battle and a ball,
    Till one wide conflagration swallows all.

There is still facetiousness which reminds us too forcibly that

    Gentle Dulness ever loves a joke,

and even sermons, for which we may apologise on the ground that

    Dulness is sacred in a sound divine.

Here and there, too, if we may trust certain stern reviewers, there are
writers who have learnt the principle that

    Index learning turns no student pale,
    Yet holds the eel of Science by the tail.

And the first four lines, at least, of the great prophecy at the
conclusion of the third book is thought by the enemies of muscular
Christianity to be possibly approaching its fulfilment:

    Proceed, great days! till learning fly the shore,
    Till birch shall blush with noble blood no more,
    Till Thames see Eton's sons for ever play,
    Till Westminster's whole year be holiday,
    Till Isis' elders reel, their pupils sport,
    And Alma Mater lies dissolved in Port!

No! So far as we can see, it is still true that

    Born a goddess, Dulness never dies.

Men, we know it on high authority, are still mostly fools. If Pope be in
error, it is not so much that his adversary is beneath him, as that she
is unassailable by wit or poetry. Weapons of the most ethereal temper
spend their keenness in vain against the 'anarch old' whose power lies
in utter insensibility. It is fighting with a mist, and firing
cannon-balls into a mudheap. As well rave against the force of
gravitation, or complain that our gross bodies must be nourished by
solid food. If, however, we should be rather grateful than otherwise to
a man who is sanguine enough to believe that satire can be successful
against stupidity, and that Grub Street, if it cannot be exterminated,
can at least be lashed into humility, we might perhaps complain that
Pope has taken rather too limited a view of the subject. Dulness has
other avatars besides the literary. In the last and finest book, Pope
attempts to complete his plan by exhibiting the influence of dulness
upon theology and science. The huge torpedo benumbs every faculty of
the human mind, and paralyses all the Muses, except 'mad Mathesis,'
which, indeed, does not carry on so internecine a war with the general
enemy. The design is commendable, and executed, so far as Pope was on a
level with his task, with infinite spirit. But, however excellent the
poetry, the logic is defective, and the description of the evil
inadequate. Pope has but a vague conception of the mode in which dulness
might become the leading force in politics, lower religion till it
became a mere cloak for selfishness, and make learning nothing but
laborious and pedantic trifling. Had his powers been equal to his
goodwill, we might have had a satire far more elevated than anything
which he has attempted; for a man must be indeed a dull student of
history who does not recognise the vast influence of dulness-worship on
the whole period which has intervened between Pope and ourselves. Nay,
it may be feared that it will yet be some time before education bills
and societies for university extension will have begun to dissipate the
evil. A modern satirist, were satire still alive, would find an ample
occupation for his talents in a worthy filling out of Pope's incomplete
sketch. But though I feel, I must endeavour to resist the temptation of
indicating some of the probable objects of his antipathy.

Pope's gallant assault on the common enemy indicates, meanwhile, his
characteristic attitude. Pope is the incarnation of the literary spirit.
He is the most complete representative in our language of the
intellectual instincts which find their natural expression in pure
literature, as distinguished from literature applied to immediate
practical ends, or enlisted in the service of philosophy or science. The
complete antithesis to that spirit is the evil principle which Pope
attacks as dulness. This false goddess is the literary Ahriman; and
Pope's natural antipathies, exaggerated by his personal passions and
weaknesses to extravagant proportions, express themselves fully in his
great mock-epic. His theory may be expressed in a parody of Nelson's
immortal advice to his midshipmen: 'Be an honest man and hate dulness as
you do the devil.' Dulness generates the asphyxiating atmosphere in
which no true literature can thrive. It oppresses the lungs and
irritates the nerves of men whose keen brilliant intellects mark them as
the natural servants of literature. Seen from this point of view, there
is an honourable completeness in Pope's career. Possibly a modern
subject of literature may, without paradox, express a certain gratitude
to Pope for a virtue which he would certainly be glad to imitate. Pope
was the first man who made an independence by literature. First and
last, he seems to have received over 8,000_l._ for his translation of
Homer, a sum then amply sufficient to enable him to live in comfort. No
sum at all comparable to this was ever received by a poet or novelist
until the era of Scott and Byron. Now, without challenging admiration
for Pope on the simple ground that he made his fortune, it is difficult
to exaggerate the importance of this feat at the time. A contemporary
who, whatever his faults, was a still more brilliant example than Pope
of the purely literary qualities, suggests a curious parallel. Voltaire,
as he tells us, was so weary of the humiliations that dishonour letters,
that to stay his disgust he resolved to make 'what scoundrels call a
great fortune.' Some of Voltaire's means of reaching this end appear to
have been more questionable than Pope's. But both of these men of genius
early secured their independence by raising themselves permanently above
the need of writing for money. It may be added in passing that there is
a curious similarity in intellect and character between Pope and
Voltaire which would on occasion be worth fuller exposition. The use,
too, which Pope made of his fortune was thoroughly honourable. We
scarcely give due credit, as a rule, to the man who has the rare merit
of distinctly recognising his true vocation in life, and adhering to it
with unflinching pertinacity. Probably the fact that such virtue
generally brings a sufficient personal reward in this world seems to
dispense with the necessity of additional praise. But call it a virtuous
or merely a useful quality, we must at least admit that it is the
necessary groundwork of a thoroughly satisfactory career. Pope, who from
his infancy had

    Lisped in numbers, for the numbers came,

gained by his later numbers a secure position, and used his position to
go on rhyming to the end of his life. He never failed to do his very
best. He regarded the wealth which he had earned as a retaining fee, not
as a discharge from his duties. Comparing him with his contemporaries,
we see how vast was the advantage. Elevated above Grub Street, he had no
temptation to manufacture rubbish or descend to actual meanness like De
Foe. Independent of patronage, he was not forced to become a 'tame cat'
in the hands of a duchess, like his friend Gay. Standing apart from
politics, he was free from those disappointed pangs which contributed to
the embitterment of the later years of Swift, dying 'like a poisoned rat
in a hole;' he had not, like Bolingbroke, to affect a philosophical
contempt for the game in which he could no longer take a part; nor was
he even, like Addison and Steele, induced to 'give up to party what was
meant for mankind.' He was not a better man than some of these, and
certainly not better than Goldsmith and Johnson in the succeeding
generation. Yet, when we think of the amount of good intellect that ran
to waste in the purlieus of Grub Street, or in hunting for pensions in
ministerial ante-chambers, we feel a certain gratitude to the one
literary magnate of the century, whose devotion, it is true, had a very
tangible reward, but whose devotion was yet continuous, and free from
any distractions but those of a constitutional irritability. Nay, if we
compare Pope to some of the later writers who have wrung still
princelier rewards from fortune, the result is not unfavourable. If
Scott had been as true to his calling, his life, so far superior to
Pope's in most other respects, would not have presented the melancholy
contrast of genius running to waste in desperate attempts to win money
at the cost of worthier fame.

Pope, as a Roman Catholic, and as the adherent of a defeated party, had
put himself out of the race for pecuniary reward. His loyal adherence to
his friends, though, like all his virtues, subject to some deduction, is
really a touching feature in his character. His Catholicism was of the
most nominal kind. He adhered in name to a depressed Church chiefly
because he could not bear to give pain to the parents whom he loved with
an exquisite tenderness. Granting that he would not have had much chance
of winning tangible rewards by the baseness of a desertion, he at least
recognised his true position; and instead of being soured by his
exclusion from the general competition, or wasting his life in frivolous
regrets, he preserved a spirit of tolerance and independence, and had a
full right to the boasts in which he certainly indulged a little too
freely:--

    Not Fortune's worshipper, nor Fashion's fool,
    Not Lucre's madman, nor Ambition's tool;
    Not proud, nor servile--be one poet's praise
    That, if he pleased, he pleased by manly ways;
    That flattery, even to kings, he held a shame,
    And thought a lie in prose or verse the same.

Admitting that the last line suggests a slight qualm, the portrait
suggested in the rest is about as faithful as one can expect a man to
paint from himself.

And hence we come to the question, what was the morality which Pope
dispensed from this exalted position? Admitting his independence, can we
listen to him patiently when he proclaims himself to be

    Of virtue only, and her friends, the friend;

or when he boasts in verses noble if quite sincere--

    Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
    Men not afraid of God, afraid of me;
    Safe from the Bar, the Pulpit, and the Throne,
    Yet touched and shamed by ridicule alone.

Is this guardian of virtue quite immaculate, and the morality which he
preaches quite of the most elevated kind? We must admit, of course, that
he does not sound the depths, or soar to the heights, in which men of
loftier genius are at home. He is not a mystic, but a man of the world.
He never, as we have already said, quits the sphere of ordinary and
rather obvious maxims about the daily life of society, or quits it at
his peril. His independence is not like Milton's, that of an ancient
prophet, consoling himself by celestial visions for a world given over
to baseness and frivolity; nor like Shelley's, that of a vehement
revolutionist, who has declared open war against the existing order; it
is the independence of a modern gentleman, with a competent fortune,
enjoying a time of political and religious calm. And therefore his
morality is in the main the expression of the conclusions reached by
supreme good sense, or, as he puts it,

    Good sense, which only is the gift of heaven,
    And though no science, fairly worth the seven.

Good sense is one of the excellent qualities to which we are scarcely
inclined to do justice at the present day; it is the guide of a time of
equilibrium, stirred by no vehement gales of passion, and we lose sight
of it just when it might give us some useful advice. A man in a passion
is never more irritated than when advised to be sensible; and at the
present day we are permanently in a passion, and therefore apt to assert
that, not only for a moment, but as a general rule, men do well to be
angry. Our art critics, for example, are never satisfied with their
frame of mind till they have lashed themselves into a fit of rhetoric.
Nothing more is wanted to explain why we are apt to be dissatisfied with
Pope, both as a critic and a moralist. In both capacities, however, Pope
is really admirable. Nobody, for example, has ridiculed more happily the
absurdities of which we sometimes take him to be a representative. The
recipe for making an epic poem is a perfect burlesque upon the
pseudo-classicism of his time. He sees the absurdity of the contemporary
statues, whose grotesque medley of ancient and modern costume is
recalled in the lines--

    That livelong wig, which Gorgon's self might own,
    Eternal buckle takes in Parian stone.

The painters and musicians come in for their share of ridicule, as in
the description of Timon's Chapel, where

    Light quirks of music, broken and uneven,
    Make the soul dance upon a jig to heaven;
    On painted ceilings you devoutly stare,
    Where sprawl the saints of Verrio and Laguerre.

Pope, again, was one of the first, by practice and precept, to break
through the old formal school of gardening, in which

    No pleasing intricacies intervene,
    No artful wildness to perplex the scene;
    Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother,
    And half the platform just reflects the other.
    The suffering eye inverted Nature sees,
    Trees cut to statues, statues thick as trees,
    With here a fountain never to be played,
    And there a summer-house that knows no shade;
    Here Amphitrite sails through myrtle bowers,
    There gladiators fight or die in flowers;
    Unwatered see the drooping sea-horse mourn,
    And swallows roost in Nilus' dusty urn.

It would be impossible to hit off more happily the queer formality which
annoys us, unless its quaintness makes us smile, in the days of good
Queen Anne, when Cato still appeared with a

    Long wig, flowered gown, and lacquered chair.

Pope's literary criticism, too, though verging too often on the
commonplace, is generally sound as far as it goes. If, as was
inevitable, he was blind to the merits of earlier schools of poetry, he
was yet amongst the first writers who helped to establish the rightful
supremacy of Shakespeare.

But in what way does Pope apply his good sense to morality? His
favourite doctrine about human nature is expressed in the theory of the
'ruling passion' which is to be found in all men, and which, once known,
enables us to unravel the secret of every character. As he says in the
'Essay on Man'--

    On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
    Reason the card, but passion is the gale.

Right reason, therefore, is the power which directs passions to the
worthiest end; and its highest lesson is to enforce

          The truth (enough for man to know)
    Virtue alone is happiness below.

The truth, though admirable, may be suspected of commonplace; and Pope
does not lay down any propositions unfamiliar to other moralists, nor,
it is to be feared, enforce them by preaching of more than usual
effectiveness. His denunciations of avarice, of corruption, and of
sensuality were probably of little more practical use than his
denunciation of dulness. The 'men not afraid of God' were hardly likely
to be deterred from selling their votes to Walpole by fear of Pope's
satire. He might

    Goad the Prelate slumbering in his stall

sufficiently to produce the episcopal equivalent for bad language; but
he would hardly interrupt the bishop's slumbers for many moments; and,
on the whole, he might congratulate himself, rather too cheaply, on
being animated by

    The strong antipathy of good to bad.

Without exaggerating its importance, however, we may seek to define the
precise point on which Pope's morality differed from that of many other
writers who have expressed their general approval of the ten
commandments. A healthy strain of moral feeling is useful, though we
cannot point to the individuals whom it has restrained from picking
pockets.

The defective side of the morality of good sense is, that it tends to
degenerate into cynicism, either of the indolent variety which commended
itself to Chesterfield, or of the more vehement sort, of which Swift's
writings are the most powerful embodiment. A shrewd man of the world,
of placid temperament, accepts placidly the conclusion that as he can
see through a good many people, virtue generally is a humbug. If he has
grace enough left to be soured by such a conclusion, he raves at the
universal corruption of mankind. Now Pope, notwithstanding his petty
spite, and his sympathy with the bitterness of his friends, always shows
a certain tenderness of nature which preserves him from sweeping
cynicism. He really believes in nature, and values life for the power of
what Johnson calls reciprocation of benevolence. The beauty of his
affection for his father and mother, and for his old nurse, breaks
pleasantly through the artificial language of his letters, like a sweet
spring in barren ground. When he touches upon the subject in his poetry,
one seems to see tears in his eyes, and to hear his voice tremble. There
is no more beautiful passage in his writings than the one in which he
expresses the hope that he may be spared

    To rock the cradle of reposing age,
    With lenient arts extend a mother's breath,
    Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death;
    Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
    And keep awhile one parent from the sky.

Here at least he is sincere beyond suspicion; and we know from
unimpeachable testimony that the sentiment so perfectly expressed was
equally exemplified in his life. It sounds easy, but unfortunately the
ease is not always proved in practice, for a man of genius to be
throughout their lives an unmixed comfort to his parents. It is
unpleasant to remember that a man so accessible to tender emotions
should jar upon us by his language about women generally. Byron
countersigns the opinion of Bolingbroke that he knew the sex well; but
testimony of that kind hardly prepossesses us in his favour. In fact,
the school of Bolingbroke and Swift, to say nothing of Wycherley, was
hardly calculated to generate a chivalrous tone of feeling. His
experience of Lady Mary gave additional bitterness to his sentiments.
Pope, in short, did not love good women--

    Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,
    And best distinguished as black, brown, or fair,

as he impudently tells a lady--as a man of genius ought; and women have
generally returned the dislike. Meanwhile the vein of benevolence shows
itself unmistakably in Pope's language about his friends. Thackeray
seizes upon this point of his character in his lectures on the English
Humourists, and his powerful, if rather too favourable, description
brings out forcibly the essential tenderness of the man who, during the
lucid intervals of his last illness, was 'always saying something kindly
of his present or absent friends.' Nobody, as has often been remarked,
has paid so many exquisitely turned compliments. There is something
which rises to the dog-like in his affectionate admiration for Swift and
for Bolingbroke, his rather questionable 'guide, philosopher, and
friend.' Whenever he speaks of a friend, he is sure to be felicitous.
There is Garth, for example--

            The best good Christian he,
    Although he knows it not.

There are beautiful lines upon Arbuthnot, addressed as--

    Friend to my life, which did not you prolong,
    The world had wanted many an idle song.

Or we may quote, though one verse has been spoilt by familiarity, the
lines in which Bolingbroke is coupled with Peterborough:--

    There St. John mingles with my friendly bowl
    The feast of reason and the flow of soul;
    And he whose lightning pierced the Iberian lines
    Now farms my quincunx, and now ranks my vines,
    And tames the genius of the stubborn plain
    Almost as quickly as he conquered Spain.

Or again, there are the verses in which he anticipates the dying words
attributed to Pitt:--

    And you, brave Cobham, to the latest breath,
    Shall feel the ruling passion strong in death;
    Such in those moments, as in all the past,
    'Oh, save my country, Heaven!' shall be your last.

Cobham's name, again, suggests the spirited lines--

    Spirit of Arnall! aid me while I lie,
    Cobham's a coward, Polwarth is a slave,
    And Lyttelton a dark, designing knave;
    St. John has ever been a wealthy fool--
    But let me add Sir Robert's mighty dull,
    Has never made a friend in private life,
    And was, besides, a tyrant to his wife.

Perhaps the last compliment is ambiguous, but Walpole's name again
reminds us that Pope could on occasion be grateful even to an opponent.
'Go see Sir Robert,' suggests his friend in the epilogue to the Satires;
and Pope replies--

    Seen him I have; but in his happier hour
    Of social pleasure, ill exchanged for power;
    Seen him uncumbered with the venal tribe
    Smile without art, and win without a bribe;
    Would he oblige me? Let me only find
    He does not think me what he thinks mankind;
    Come, come; at all I laugh, he laughs no doubt;
    The only difference is, I dare laugh out.

But there is no end to the delicate flattery which may be set off
against Pope's ferocious onslaughts upon his enemies. If one could have
a wish for the asking, one could scarcely ask for a more agreeable
sensation than that of being titillated by a man of equal ingenuity in
caressing one's pet vanities. The art of administering such consolation
is possessed only by men who unite such tenderness to an exquisitely
delicate intellect. This vein of genuine feeling sufficiently redeems
Pope's writings from the charge of a commonplace worldliness. Certainly
he is not one of the 'genial' school, whose indiscriminate benevolence
exudes over all that they touch. There is nothing mawkish in his
philanthropy. Pope was, if anything, too good a hater; 'the portentous
cub never forgives,' said Bentley; but kindliness is all the more
impressive when not too widely diffused. Add to this his hearty contempt
for pomposities, humbugs, and stupidities of all kinds, and above all
the fine spirit of independence, in which we have again the real man,
and which expresses itself in such lines as these:

    Oh, let me live my own, and die so too!
    (To live and die is all I have to do);
    Maintain a poet's dignity and ease,
    And see what friends and read what books I please.

And we may admit that Pope, in spite of his wig and his stays, his
vanities and his affectations, was in his way as fair an embodiment as
we would expect of that 'plain living and high thinking' of which
Wordsworth regretted the disappearance. The little cripple, diseased in
mind and body, spiteful and occasionally brutal, had in him the spirit
of a man. The monarch of the literary world was far from immaculate; but
he was not without a dignity of his own.

We come, however, to the question, what had Pope to say upon the deepest
subjects with which human beings can concern themselves? The most
explicit answer must be taken from the 'Essay on Man,' and the essay
must be acknowledged to have more conspicuous faults than any of Pope's
writings. The art of reasoning in verse is so difficult that we may
doubt whether it is in any case legitimate, and must acknowledge that it
has been never successfully practised by any English writer. Dryden's
'Religio Laici' may be better reasoning, but it is worse poetry than
Pope's Essay. It is true, again, that Pope's reasoning is intrinsically
feeble. He was no metaphysician, and confined himself to putting
together incoherent scraps of different systems. Some of his arguments
strike us as simply childish, as, for example, the quibble derived from
the Stoics, that

    The blest to-day is as completely so
    As who began a thousand years ago.

Nobody, we may safely say, was ever much comforted by that reflection.
Nor, though the celebrated argument about the scale of beings, which
Pope but half-understood, was then sanctioned by the most eminent
contemporary names, do we derive any deep consolation from the remark
that

        in the scale of reasoning life, 'tis plain,
    There must be somewhere such a rank as man.

To say no more of these frigid conceits, as they now appear to us, Pope
does not maintain the serious temper which befits a man pondering upon
the deep mysteries of the universe. Religious meditation does not
harmonise with epigrammatical satire. Admitting the value of the
reflection that other beings besides man are fitting objects of the
Divine benevolence, we are jarred by such a discord as this:

    While man exclaims, See all things for my use!
    See man for mine! replies a pampered goose.

The goose is appropriate enough in Charron or Montaigne, but should be
kept out of poetry. Such a shock, too, follows when Pope talks about the
superior beings who

    Showed a Newton as we show an ape.

Did anybody, again, ever complain that he wanted 'the strength of bulls,
the fur of bears?'[2] Or could it be worth while to meet his complaints
in a serious poem? Pope, in short, is not merely a bad reasoner, but he
wants that deep moral earnestness which gives a profound interest to
Johnson's satires--the best productions of his school--and the deeply
pathetic religious feeling of Cowper.

Admitting all this, however, and more, the 'Essay on Man' still contains
many passages which not only testify to the unequalled skill of this
great artist in words, but show a certain moral dignity. In the Essay,
more than in any of his other writings, we have the difficulty of
separating the solid bullion from the dross. Pope is here pre-eminently
parasitical, and it is possible to trace to other writers, such as
Montaigne, Pascal, Leibniz, Shaftesbury, Locke, and Wollaston, as well
as to the inspiration of Bolingbroke, nearly every argument which he
employs. He unfortunately worked up the rubbish as well as the gems.
When Mr. Ruskin says that his 'theology was two centuries in advance of
his time,' the phrase is curiously inaccurate. He was not really in
advance of the best men of his own time; but they, it is to be feared,
were considerably in advance of the average opinion of our own. What may
be said with more plausibility is, that whilst Pope frequently wastes
his skill in gilding refuse, he is really most sensitive to the noblest
sentiments of his contemporaries, and that, when he has good materials
to work upon, his verse glows with unusual fervour, often to sink with
unpleasant rapidity into mere quibbling or epigrammatic pungency. The
real truth is that Pope precisely expresses the position of the best
thinkers of his day. He did not understand the reasoning, but he fully
shared the sentiments of the philosophers among whom Locke and Leibniz
were the great lights. Pope is to the deists and semi-deists of his time
what Milton was to the Puritans or Dante to the Schoolmen. At times he
writes like a Pantheist, and then becomes orthodox, without a
consciousness of the transition; he is a believer in universal
predestination, and saves himself by inconsistent language about
'leaving free the human will;' his views about the origin of society are
an inextricable mass of inconsistency; and he may be quoted in behalf of
doctrines which he, with the help of Warburton, vainly endeavoured to
disavow. But, leaving sound divines to settle the question of his
orthodoxy, and metaphysicians to crush his arguments, if they think it
worth while, we are rather concerned with the general temper in which he
regards the universe, and the moral which he draws for his own
edification. The main doctrine which he enforces is, of course, one of
his usual commonplaces. The statement that 'whatever is, is right,' may
be verbally admitted, and strained to different purposes by half-a-dozen
differing schools. It may be alleged by the cynic, who regards virtue
as an empty name; by the mystic, who is lapped in heavenly contemplation
from the cares of this troublesome world; by the sceptic, whose whole
wisdom is concentrated in the duty of submitting to the inevitable; or
by the man who, abandoning the attempt of solving inscrutable enigmas,
is content to recognise in everything the hand of a Divine ordainer of
all things. Pope, judging him by his most forcible passages, prefers to
insist upon the inevitable ignorance of man in presence of the Infinite:

    'Tis but a part we see, and not the whole;

and any effort to pierce the impenetrable gloom can only end in
disappointment and discontent:

    In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies.

We think that we can judge the ways of the Almighty, and correct the
errors of His work. We are as incapable of accounting for human
wickedness as for plague, tempest, and earthquake. In each case our
highest wisdom is an humble confession of ignorance; or, as he puts it,

    In both, to reason right is to submit.

This vein of thought might, perhaps, have conducted him to the
scepticism of his master, Bolingbroke. He unluckily fills up the gaps of
his logical edifice with the untempered mortar of obsolete metaphysics,
long since become utterly uninteresting to all men. Admitting that he
cannot explain, he tries to manufacture sham explanations out of the
'scale of beings,' and other scholastic rubbish. But, in a sense, too,
the most reverent minds will agree most fully with Pope's avowal of the
limitation of human knowledge. He does not apply his scepticism or his
humility to stimulate to vain repining against the fetters with which
our minds are bound, or an angry denunciation, like that of Bolingbroke,
of the solutions in which other souls have found a sufficient refuge.
The perplexity in which he finds himself generates a spirit of
resignation and tolerance.

    Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
    Wait the great teacher, Death, and God adore.

That is the pith of his teaching. All optimism is apt to be a little
irritating to men whose sympathies with human suffering are unusually
strong; and the optimism of a man like Pope, vivacious rather than
profound in his thoughts and his sympathies, annoys us at times by his
calm complacency. We cannot thrust aside so easily the thought of the
heavy evils under which all creation groans. But we should wrong him by
a failure to recognise the real benevolence of his sentiment. Pope
indeed becomes too pantheistic for some tastes in the celebrated
fragment--the whole poem is a conglomerate of slightly connected
fragments--beginning,

    All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
    Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

But his real fault is that he is not consistently pantheistic. Pope was
attacked both for his pantheism and fatalism and for having borrowed
from Bolingbroke. It is curious enough that it was precisely these
doctrines which he did not borrow. Bolingbroke, like most feeble
reasoners, believed firmly in Free Will; and though a theist after a
fashion, his religion had not emotional depth or logical coherence
enough to be pantheistic. Pope, doubtless, did not here quit his
master's guidance from any superiority in logical perception. But he did
occasionally feel the poetical value of the pantheistic conception of
the universe. Pantheism, in fact, is the only poetical form of the
metaphysical theology current in Pope's day. The old historical theology
of Dante, or even of Milton, was too faded for poetical purposes; and
the 'personal Deity,' whose existence and attributes were proved by the
elaborate reasonings of the apologists of that day, was unfitted for
poetical celebration by the very fact that his existence required proof.
Poetry deals with intuitions, not with remote inferences, and therefore
in his better moments Pope spoke not of the intelligent moral Governor
discovered by philosophical investigation, but of the Divine Essence
immanent in all nature, whose 'living raiment' is the world. The finest
passages in the 'Essay on Man,' like the finest passages in Wordsworth,
are an attempt to expound that view, though Pope falls back too quickly
into epigram, as Wordsworth into prose. It was reserved for Goethe to
show what a poet might learn from the philosophy of Spinoza. Meanwhile
Pope, uncertain as is his grasp of any philosophical conceptions, shows,
not merely in set phrases, but in the general colouring of his poem,
something of that width of sympathy which should result from the
pantheistic view. The tenderness, for example, with which he always
speaks of the brute creation is pleasant in a writer so little
distinguished as a rule by an interest in what we popularly call nature.
The 'scale of being' argument may be illogical, but we pardon it when it
is applied to strengthen our sympathies with our unfortunate dependants
on the lower steps of the ladder. The lamb who

    Licks the hand just raised to shed his blood

is a second-hand lamb, and has, like so much of Pope's writing, acquired
a certain tinge of banality, which must limit quotation; and the same
must be said of the poor Indian, who

        thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
    His faithful dog will bear him company.

But the sentiment is as right as the language (in spite of its
familiarity we can still recognise the fact) is exquisite. Tolerance of
all forms of faith, from that of the poor Indian upwards, is so
characteristic of Pope as to have offended some modern critics who might
have known better. We may pick holes in the celebrated antithesis

    For forms of government let fools contest:
    Whate'er is best administered is best;
    For forms of faith let graceless zealots fight,
    He can't be wrong whose life is in the right.

Certainly, they are not mathematically accurate formulæ; but they are
generous, if imperfect, statements of great truths, and not unbecoming
in the mouth of the man who, as the member of an unpopular sect, learnt
to be cosmopolitan rather than bitter, and expressed his convictions in
the well-known words addressed to Swift: 'I am of the religion of
Erasmus, a Catholic; so I live, so I shall die; and hope one day to meet
you, Bishop Atterbury, the younger Craggs, Dr. Garth, Dean Berkeley, and
Mr. Hutchinson in heaven.' Who would wish to shorten the list? And the
scheme of morality which Pope deduced for practical guidance in life is
in harmony with the spirit which breathes in those words just quoted. A
recent dispute in a court of justice shows that even our most cultivated
men have forgotten Pope so far as to be ignorant of the source of the
familiar words--

    What can ennoble sots, or slaves, or cowards?
    Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards.

It is therefore necessary to say explicitly that the poem where they
occur, the fourth epistle of the 'Essay on Man,' not only contains
half-a-dozen other phrases equally familiar--_e.g._, 'An honest man's
the noblest work of God;'[3] 'Looks through nature up to nature's God;'
'From grave to gay, from lively to severe'--but breathes throughout
sentiments which it would be credulous to believe that any man could
express so vigorously without feeling profoundly. Mr. Ruskin has quoted
one couplet as giving 'the most complete, the most concise, and the most
lofty expression of moral temper existing in English words'--

    Never elated, while one man's oppressed;
    Never dejected, whilst another's blessed.

The passage in which they occur is worthy of this (let us admit, just a
little over-praised) sentiment; and leads not unfitly to the conclusion
and summary of the whole, that he who can recognise the beauty of
virtue knows that

    Where Faith, Law, Morals, all began,
    All end--in love of God and love of man.

I know but too well all that may be said against this view of Pope's
morality. He is, as Ste.-Beuve says, the easiest of all men to
caricature; and it is equally easy to throw cold water upon his
morality. We may count up his affectations, ridicule his platitudes,
make heavy deductions for his insincerity, denounce his too frequent
indulgence in a certain love of dirt, which he shares with, and in which
indeed he is distanced by, Swift; and decline to believe in the virtue,
or even in the love of virtue, of a man stained by so many vices and
weaknesses. Yet I must decline to believe that men can gather grapes off
thorns, or figs off thistles, or noble expressions of moral truth from a
corrupt heart thinly varnished by a coating of affectation. Turn it how
we may, the thing is impossible. Pope was more than a mere literary
artist, though he was an artist of unparalleled excellence in his own
department. He was a man in whom there was the seed of many good
thoughts, though choked in their development by the growth of
innumerable weeds. And I will venture, in conclusion, to adduce one more
proof of the justice of a lenient verdict. I have had already to quote
many phrases familiar to everyone who is tinctured in the slightest
degree with a knowledge of English literature; and yet have been haunted
by a dim suspicion that some of my readers may have been surprised to
recognise their author. Pope, we have seen, is recognised even by judges
of the land only through the medium of Byron; and therefore the
'Universal Prayer' may possibly be unfamiliar to some readers. If so, it
will do them no harm to read over again a few of its verses. Perhaps,
after that experience, they will admit that the little cripple of
Twickenham, distorted as were his instincts after he had been stretched
on the rack of this rough world, and grievous as were his offences
against the laws of decency and morality, had yet in him a noble strain
of eloquence significant of deep religious sentiment. A phrase in the
first stanza may shock us as bordering too closely on the epigrammatic;
but the whole poem from which I take these stanzas must, I think, be
recognised as the utterance of a tolerant, reverent, and kindly heart:

    Father of all! in every age,
      In every clime adored,
    By saint, by savage, and by sage--
      Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

    Thou great First Cause, least understood,
      Who all my sense confined
    To know but this, that thou art good,
      And that myself am blind.

    ...

    What conscience dictates to be done,
      Or warns me not to do,
    This, teach me more than hell to shun;
      That, more than heaven pursue.

    What blessings thy free bounty gives
      Let me not cast away;
    For God is paid when man receives--
      To enjoy is to obey.

    Yet not to earth's contracted span
      Thy goodness let me bound,
    Or think thee Lord alone of man,
      When thousand worlds are round.

    Let not this weak, unknowing hand
      Presume thy bolts to throw,
    Or deal damnation round the land
      On each I judge thy foe.

    If I am right, thy grace impart
      Still in the right to stay:
    If I am wrong, oh, teach my heart
      To find that better way.

    ...

These stanzas, I am well aware, do not quite conform to the modern taste
in hymns, nor are they likely to find favour with admirers of the
'Christian Year.' Another school would object to them on a very
different ground. The deism of Pope's day was not a stable form of
belief; but in the form in which it was held by the pure deists of the
Toland and Tindal school, or by the disguised deists who followed Locke
or Clarke, it was the highest creed then attainable; and Pope's prayer
is an adequate impression of its best sentiment.

FOOTNOTES:

[2] The remark was perhaps taken from Sir Thomas Browne: 'Thus have we
no just quarrel with nature for leaving us naked; or to envy the horns,
hoofs, skins, and furs of other creatures; being provided with reason
that can supply them all.'--_Religio Medici_, Part I. sec. 18.

[3] This sentiment, by the way, was attacked by Darnley, in his edition
of Beaumont and Fletcher, as 'false and degrading to man, derogatory to
God.' As I have lately seen the remark quoted with approbation, it is
worth noticing the argument by which Darnley supports it. He says that
an honest able man is nobler than an honest man, and Aristides with the
genius of Homer nobler than Aristides with the dulness of a clown.
Undoubtedly! But surely a man might say that English poetry is the
noblest in the world, and yet admit that Shakespeare was a nobler poet
than Tom Moore. Because honesty is nobler than any other quality, it
does not follow that all honest men are on a par. This bit of cavilling
reminds one of De Quincey's elaborate argument against the lines:

    Who would not laugh, if such a man there be?
    Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?

De Quincey says that precisely the same phenomenon is supposed to make
you laugh in one line and weep in the other; and that therefore the
thought is inaccurate. As if it would not be a fit cause for tears to
discover that one of our national idols was a fitting subject for
laughter!



_SIR WALTER SCOTT_


The question has begun to be asked about Scott which is asked about
every great man: whether he is still read or still read as he ought to
be read. I have been glad to see in some statistics of popular
literature that the Waverley Novels are still among the books most
frequently bought at railway stations, and scarcely surpassed even by
'Pickwick,' or 'David Copperfield.' A writer, it is said, is entitled to
be called a classic when his books have been read for a century after
his death. The number of books which fairly satisfies that condition is
remarkably small. There are certain books, of course, which we are all
bound to read if we make any claim to be decently educated. A modern
Englishman cannot afford to confess that he has not read Shakespeare or
Milton; if he talks about philosophy, he must have dipped at least into
Bacon and Hobbes and Locke; if he is a literary critic, he must know
something of Spenser and Donne and Dryden and the early dramatists; but
how many books are there of the seventeenth century which are still read
for pleasure by other than specialists? To speak within bounds, I fancy
that it would be exceedingly difficult to make out a list of one hundred
English books which after publication for a century are still really
familiar to the average reader. Something like ninety-nine of those have
in any case lost the charm of novelty, and are read, if read at all,
from some vague impression that the reader is doing a duty. It takes a
very powerful voice and a very clear utterance to make a man audible to
the fourth generation. If something of the mildew of time is stealing
over the Waverley Novels, we must regard that as all but inevitable.
Scott will have succeeded beyond any but the very greatest, perhaps even
as much as the very greatest, if, in the twentieth century, now so
unpleasantly near, he has a band of faithful followers, who still read
because they like to read and not because they are told to read.
Admitting that he must more or less undergo the universal fate, that the
glory must be dimmed even though it be not quenched, we may still ask
whether he will not retain as much vitality as the conditions of
humanity permit: Will our posterity understand at least why he was once
a luminary of the first magnitude, or wonder at their ancestors'
hallucination about a mere will-o'-the-wisp? Will some of his best
performances stand out like a cathedral amongst ruined hovels, or will
they all sink into the dust together, and the outlines of what once
charmed the world be traced only by Dryasdust and historians of
literature? It is a painful task to examine such questions impartially.
This probing a great reputation, and doubting whether we can come to
anything solid at the bottom, is especially painful in regard to Scott.
For he has, at least, this merit, that he is one of those rare natures
for whom we feel not merely admiration but affection. We may cherish the
fame of some writers in spite of, not on account of, many personal
defects; if we satisfied ourselves that their literary reputations were
founded on the sand, we might partly console ourselves with the thought
that we were only depriving bad men of a title to genius. But for Scott
most men feel in even stronger measure that kind of warm fraternal
regard which Macaulay and Thackeray expressed for the amiable, but,
perhaps, rather cold-blooded, Addison. The manliness and the sweetness
of the man's nature predispose us to return the most favourable verdict
in our power. And we may add that Scott is one of the last great English
writers whose influence extended beyond his island, and gave a stimulus
to the development of European thought. We cannot afford to surrender
our faith in one to whom, whatever his permanent merits, we must trace
so much that is characteristic of the mind of the nineteenth century.
Whilst, finally, if we have any Scotch blood in our veins, we must be
more or less than men to turn a deaf ear to the promptings of
patriotism. When Shakespeare's fame decays everywhere else, the
inhabitants of Stratford-on-Avon, if it still exist, should still revere
their tutelary saint; and the old town of Edinburgh should tremble in
its foundation when a sacrilegious hand is laid upon the glory of Scott.

Let us, however, take courage, and, with such impartiality as we may
possess, endeavour to sift the wheat from the chaff. And, by way of
following an able guide, let us dwell for a little on the judgment
pronounced upon Scott by one whose name I would never mention without
profound respect, and who has a special claim to be heard in this case.
Carlyle is (I must now say was) both a man of genius and a Scotchman.
His own writings show in every line that he comes of the same strong
Protestant race from which Scott received his best qualities. 'The
Scotch national character,' says Carlyle himself, 'originates in many
circumstances. First of all, the Saxon stuff there was to work on; but
next, and beyond all else except that, in the Presbyterian gospel of
John Knox. It seems a good national character, and, on some sides, not
so good. Let Scott thank John Knox, for he owed him much, little as he
dreamed of debt in that quarter! No Scotchman of his time was more
entirely Scotch than Walter Scott: the good and the not so good, which
all Scotchmen inherit, ran through every fibre of him.' Nothing more
true; and the words would be as strikingly appropriate if for Walter
Scott we substitute Thomas Carlyle. And to this source of sympathy we
might add others. Who in this generation could rival Scott's talent for
the picturesque, unless it be Carlyle? Who has done so much to apply the
lesson which Scott, as he says, first taught us--that the 'bygone ages
of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols,
state-papers, controversies, and abstractions of men'? If Scott would in
old days--I still quote his critic--have harried cattle in Tynedale or
cracked crowns in Redswire, would not Carlyle have thundered from the
pulpit of John Knox his own gospel, only in slightly altered
phraseology--that shams should not live but die, and that men should do
what work lies nearest to their hands, as in the presence of the
eternities and the infinite silences?

That last parallel reminds us that if there are points of similarity,
there are contrasts both wide and deep. The rugged old apostle had
probably a very low opinion of moss-troopers, and Carlyle has a message
to deliver to his fellow-creatures, which is not quite according to
Scott. And thus we see throughout his interesting essay a kind of
struggle between two opposite tendencies--a genuine liking for the man,
tempered by a sense that Scott dealt rather too much in those same shams
to pass muster with a stern moral censor. Nobody can touch Scott's
character more finely. There is a charming little anecdote which every
reader must remember: how there was a 'little Blenheim cocker' of
singular sensibility and sagacity; how the said cocker would at times
fall into musings like those of a Wertherean poet, and lived in
perpetual fear of strangers, regarding them all as potentially
dog-stealers; how the dog was, nevertheless, endowed with 'most amazing
moral tact,' and specially hated the genus _quack_, and, above all, that
of _acrid-quack_. 'These,' says Carlyle, 'though never so
clear-starched, bland-smiling, and beneficent, he absolutely would have
no trade with. Their very sugar-cake was unavailing. He said with
emphasis, as clearly as barking could say it, "Acrid-quack, avaunt!"'
But once when 'a tall, irregular, busy-looking man came halting by,'
that wise, nervous little dog ran towards him, and began 'fawning,
frisking, licking at the feet' of Sir Walter Scott. No reader of reviews
could have done better, says Carlyle; and, indeed, that canine
testimonial was worth having. I prefer that little anecdote even to
Lockhart's account of the pig, which had a romantic affection for the
author of 'Waverley.' Its relater at least perceived and loved that
unaffected benevolence, which invested even Scott's bodily presence with
a kind of natural aroma, perceptible, as it would appear, to very
far-away cousins. But Carlyle is on his guard, and though his sympathy
flows kindly enough, it is rather harshly intercepted by his sterner
mood. He cannot, indeed, but warm to Scott at the end. After touching on
the sad scene of Scott's closing years, at once ennobled and embittered
by that last desperate struggle to clear off the burden of debt, he
concludes with genuine feeling. 'It can be said of Scott, when he
departed he took a man's life along with him. No sounder piece of
British manhood was put together in that eighteenth century of time.
Alas, his fine Scotch face, with its shaggy honesty, sagacity, and
goodness, when we saw it latterly on the Edinburgh streets, was all worn
with care, the joy all fled from it, ploughed deep with labour and
sorrow. We shall never forget it--we shall never see it again. Adieu,
Sir Walter, pride of all Scotchmen; take our proud and sad farewell.'

If even the Waverley Novels should lose their interest, the last
journals of Scott, recently published by a judicious editor, can never
lose their interest as the record of one of the noblest struggles ever
carried on by a great man to redeem a lamentable error. It is a book to
do one good.

And now it is time to turn to the failings which, in Carlyle's opinion,
mar this pride of all Scotchmen, and make his permanent reputation
doubtful. The faults upon which he dwells are, of course, those which
are more or less acknowledged by all sound critics. Scott, says Carlyle,
had no great gospel to deliver; he had nothing of the martyr about him;
he slew no monsters and stirred no deep emotions. He did not believe in
anything, and did not even disbelieve in anything: he was content to
take the world as it came--the false and the true mixed
indistinguishably together. One Ram-dass, a Hindoo, 'who set up for
god-head lately,' being asked what he meant to do with the sins of
mankind, replied that 'he had fire enough in his belly to burn up all
the sins in the world.' Ram-dass had 'some spice of sense in him.' Now,
of fire of that kind we can detect few sparks in Scott. He was a
thoroughly healthy, sound, vigorous Scotchman, with an eye for the main
chance, but not much of an eye for the eternities. And that unfortunate
commercial element, which caused the misery of his life, was equally
mischievous to his work. He cared for no results of his working but such
as could be seen by the eye, and in one sense or other, 'handled,
looked at, and buttoned into the breeches' pocket.' He regarded
literature rather as a trade than an art; and literature, unless it is a
very poor affair, should have higher aims than that of 'harmlessly
amusing indolent, languid men.' Scott would not afford the time or the
trouble to go to the root of the matter, and is content to amuse us with
mere contrasts of costume, which will lose their interest when the
swallow-tail is as obsolete as the buff-coat. And then he fell into the
modern sin of extempore writing, and deluged the world with the first
hasty overflowings of his mind, instead of straining and refining it
till he could bestow the pure essence upon us. In short, his career is
summed up in the phrase that it was 'writing impromptu novels to buy
farms with'--a melancholy end, truly, for a man of rare genius. Nothing
is sadder than to hear of such a man 'writing himself out;' and it is
pitiable indeed that Scott should be the example of that fate which
rises most naturally to our minds. 'Something very perfect in its kind,'
says Carlyle, 'might have come from Scott, nor was it a low kind--nay,
who knows how high, with studious self-concentration, he might have
gone: what wealth nature implanted in him, which his circumstances, most
unkind while seeming to be kindest, had never impelled him to unfold?'

There is undoubtedly some truth in the severer criticisms to which some
more kindly sentences are a pleasant relief; but there is something too
which most persons will be apt to consider as rather harsher than
necessary. Is not the moral preacher intruding a little too much on the
province of the literary critic? In fact we fancy that, in the midst of
these energetic remarks, Carlyle is conscious of certain half-expressed
doubts. The name of Shakespeare occurs several times in the course of
his remarks, and suggests to us that we can hardly condemn Scott whilst
acquitting the greatest name in our literature. Scott, it seems, wrote
for money; he coined his brains into cash to buy farms. Did not
Shakespeare do pretty much the same? As Carlyle himself puts it, 'beyond
drawing audiences to the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare contemplated no
result in those plays of his.' Shakespeare, as Pope puts it,

            Whom you and every playhouse bill
    Style the divine, the matchless, what you will,
    For gain, not glory, wing'd his roving flight,
    And grew immortal in his own despite.

To write for money was long held to be disgraceful; and Byron, as we
know, taunted Scott because his publishers combined

    To yield his muse just half-a-crown per line;

whilst Scott seems half to admit that his conduct required
justification, and urges that he sacrificed to literature very fair
chances in his original profession. Many people might, perhaps, be
disposed to take a bolder line of defence. Cut out of English fiction
all that which has owed its birth more or less to a desire of earning
money honourably, and the residue would be painfully small. The truth,
indeed, seems to be simple. No good work is done when the one impelling
motive is the desire of making a little money; but some of the best work
that has ever been done has been indirectly due to the impecuniosity of
the labourers. When a man is empty he makes a very poor job of it, in
straining colourless trash from his hardbound brains; but when his mind
is full to bursting he may still require the spur of a moderate craving
for cash to induce him to take the decisive plunge. Scott illustrates
both cases. The melancholy drudgery of his later years was forced from
him in spite of nature; but nobody ever wrote more spontaneously than
Scott when he was composing his early poems and novels. If the precedent
of Shakespeare is good for anything, it is good for this. Shakespeare,
it may be, had a more moderate ambition; but there seems to be no reason
why the desire of a good house at Stratford should be intrinsically
nobler than the desire of a fine estate at Abbotsford. But then, it is
urged, Scott allowed himself to write with preposterous haste. And
Shakespeare, who never blotted a line! What is the great difference
between them? Mr. Carlyle feels that here too Scott has at least a very
good precedent to allege; but he endeavours to establish a distinction.
It was right, he says, for Shakespeare to write rapidly, 'being ready to
do it. And herein truly lies the secret of the matter; such swiftness of
writing, after due energy of preparation, is, doubtless, the right
method; the hot furnace having long worked and simmered, let the pure
gold flow out at one gush.' Could there be a better description of Scott
in his earlier years? He published his first poem of any pretensions at
thirty-four, an age which Shelley and Keats never reached, and which
Byron only passed by two years. 'Waverley' came out when he was
forty-three--most of our modern novelists have written themselves out
long before they arrive at that respectable period of life. From a child
he had been accumulating the knowledge and the thoughts that at last
found expression in his work. He had been a teller of stories before he
was well in breeches; and had worked hard till middle life in
accumulating vast stores of picturesque imagery. The delightful notes
to all his books give us some impression of the fulness of mind which
poured forth a boundless torrent of anecdote to the guests at
Abbotsford. We only repine at the prodigality of the harvest when we
forget the long process of culture by which it was produced. And, more
than this, when we look at the peculiar characteristics of Scott's
style--that easy flow of narrative never heightening into epigram, and
indeed, to speak the truth, full of slovenly blunders and amazing
grammatical solecisms, but also always full of a charm of freshness and
fancy most difficult to analyse--we may well doubt whether much labour
would have improved or injured him. No man ever depended more on the
perfectly spontaneous flow of his narratives. Carlyle quotes Schiller
against him, amongst other and greater names. We need not attempt to
compare the two men; but do not Schiller's tragedies smell rather
painfully of the lamp? Does not the professor of æsthetics pierce a
little too distinctly through the exterior of the poet? And, for one
example, are not Schiller's excellent but remarkably platitudinous
peasants in 'William Tell' miserably colourless alongside of Scott's
rough border dalesmen, racy of speech, and redolent of their native soil
in every word and gesture? To every man his method according to his
talent. Scott is the most perfectly delightful of story-tellers, and it
is the very essence of story-telling that it should not follow
prescribed canons of criticism, but be as natural as the talk by
firesides, and, it is to be feared, over many gallons of whisky-toddy,
of which it is, in fact, the refined essence. Scott skims off the cream
of his varied stores of popular tradition and antiquarian learning with
strange facility; but he had tramped through many a long day's march,
and pored over innumerable ballads and forgotten writers, before he had
anything to skim. Had he not--if we may use the word without
offence--been cramming all his life, and practising the art of
story-telling every day he lived? Probably the most striking incidents
of his books are in reality mere modifications of anecdotes which he had
rehearsed a hundred times before, just disguised enough to fit into his
story. Who can read, for example, the inimitable legend of the blind
piper in 'Redgauntlet' without seeing that it bears all the marks of
long elaboration as clearly as one of those discourses of Whitfield,
which, by constant repetition, became marvels of dramatic art? He was an
impromptu composer, in the sense that when his anecdotes once reached
paper, they flowed rapidly, and were little corrected; but the
correction must have been substantially done in many cases long before
they appeared in the state of 'copy.'

Let us, however, pursue the indictment a little further. Scott did not
believe in anything in particular. Yet once more, did Shakespeare? There
is surely a poetry of doubt as well as a poetry of conviction, or what
shall we say to 'Hamlet'? Appearing in such an age as the end of the
last and the beginning of this century, Scott could but share the
intellectual atmosphere in which he was born, and at that day, whatever
we may think of this, few people had any strong faith to boast of. Why
should not a poet stand aside from the chaos of conflicting opinions, so
far as he was able to extricate himself from the unutterable confusion
around them, and show us what was beautiful in the world as he saw it,
without striving to combine the office of prophet with his more
congenial occupation? Carlyle did not mean to urge so feeble a criticism
as that Scott had no very uncompromising belief in the Thirty-nine
Articles; for that is a weakness which he would share with his critic
and with his critic's idol, Goethe. The meaning is partly given by
another phrase. 'While Shakespeare works from the heart outwards,
Scott,' says Carlyle, 'works from the skin inwards, never getting near
the heart of men.' The books are addressed entirely to the everyday
mind. They have nothing to do with emotions or principles, beyond those
of the ordinary country gentleman; and, we may add, of the country
gentleman with his digestion in good order, and his hereditary gout
still in the distant future. The more inspiring thoughts, the deeper
passions, are seldom roused. If in his width of sympathy, and his vivid
perception of character within certain limits, he reminds us of
Shakespeare, we can find no analogy in his writings to the passion of
'Romeo and Juliet,' or to the intellectual agony of 'Hamlet.' The charge
is not really that Scott lacks faith, but that he never appeals, one way
or the other, to the faculties which make faith a vital necessity to
some natures, or lead to a desperate revolt against established faiths
in others. If Byron and Scott could have been combined; if the energetic
passions of the one could have been joined to the healthy nature and
quick sympathies of the other, we might have seen another Shakespeare in
the nineteenth century. As it is, both of them are maimed and imperfect
on different sides. It is, in fact, remarkable how Scott fails when he
attempts a flight into the regions where he is less at home than in his
ordinary style. Take, for instance, a passage from 'Rob Roy,' where our
dear friend, the Bailie, Nicol Jarvie, is taken prisoner by Rob Roy's
amiable wife, and appeals to her feelings of kinship. '"I dinna ken,"
said the undaunted Bailie, "if the kindred has ever been weel redd out
to you yet, cousin--but it's kenned, and can be proved. My mother,
Elspeth Macfarlane (otherwise Macgregor), was the wife of my father,
Denison Nicol Jarvie (peace be with them baith), and Elspeth was the
daughter of Farlane Macfarlane (or MacGregor), at the shielding of Loch
Sloy. Now this Farlane Macfarlane (or Macgregor), as his surviving
daughter, Maggy Macfarlane, wha married Duncan Macnab of
Stuckavrallachan, can testify, stood as near to your gudeman, Robin
MacGregor, as in the fourth degree of kindred, fur----"

'The virago lopped the genealogical tree by demanding haughtily if a
stream of rushing water acknowledged any relation with the portion
withdrawn from it for the mean domestic uses of those who dwelt on its
banks?'

The Bailie is as real a human being as ever lived--as the present Lord
Mayor, or Dandie Dinmont, or Sir Walter himself; but Mrs. Macgregor has
obviously just stepped off the boards of a minor theatre, devoted to the
melodrama. As long as Scott keeps to his strong ground, his figures are
as good flesh and blood as ever walked in the Saltmarket of Glasgow;
when once he tries his heroics, he too often manufactures his characters
from the materials used by the frequenters of masked balls. Yet there
are many such occasions on which his genius does not desert him. Balfour
of Burley may rub shoulders against genuine Covenanters and west-country
Whigs without betraying his fictitious origin. The Master of Ravenswood
attitudinises a little too much with his Spanish cloak and his slouched
hat; but we feel really sorry for him when he disappears in the Kelpie's
Flow. And when Scott has to do with his own peasants, with the
thoroughbred Presbyterian Scotchman, he can bring intense tragic
interest from his homely materials. Douce Davie Deans, distracted
between his religious principles and his desire of saving his daughter's
life, and seeking relief even in the midst of his agonies by that
admirable burst of spiritual pride: 'Though I will neither exalt myself
nor pull down others, I wish that every man and woman in this land had
kept the true testimony and the middle and straight path, as it were on
the ridge of a hill, where wind and water steals, avoiding right-hand
snare and extremes, and left-hand way-slidings, as well as Johnny Dodds
of Farthy's acre and ae man mair that shall be nameless'--Davie is as
admirable a figure as ever appeared in fiction. It is a pity that he was
mixed up with the conventional madwoman, Madge Wildfire, and that a
story most touching in its native simplicity, was twisted and tortured
into needless intricacy. The religious exaltation of Balfour, or the
religious pigheadedness of Davie Deans, are indeed given from the point
of view of the kindly humourist, rather than of one who can fully
sympathise with the sublimity of an intense faith in a homely exterior.
And though many good judges hold the 'Bride of Lammermoor' to be Scott's
best performance, in virtue of the loftier passions which animate the
chief actors in the tragedy, we are, after all, called upon to
sympathise as much with the gentleman of good family who can't ask his
friends to dinner without an unworthy device to hide his poverty, as
with the passionate lover whose mistress has her heart broken. In truth,
this criticism as to the absence of high passion reminds us again that
Scott was a thorough Scotsman, and--for it is necessary, even now, to
avoid the queer misconception which confounds together the most distinct
races--a thorough Saxon. He belonged, that is, to the race which has in
the most eminent degree the typical English qualities. Especially his
intellect had a strong substratum of downright dogged common sense; his
religion, one may conjecture, was pretty much that of all men of sense
in his time. It was that of the society which had produced and been
influenced by Hume and Adam Smith; which had dropped its old dogmas
without becoming openly sceptical, but which emphatically took 'common
sense' for the motto of its philosophy. It was equally afraid of bigotry
and scepticism and had manufactured a creed out of decent compromises
which served well enough for ordinary purposes. Even Hume, a sceptic in
theory, was a Tory and a Scottish patriot in politics. Scott, who cared
nothing for abstract philosophy, did not bother himself to form any
definite system of opinions; he shared Hume's political prejudices
without inquiring into his philosophy. He thoroughly detested the
dogmatism of the John Knox variety, and considered the Episcopal Church
to offer the religion for a gentleman. But his common sense in such
matters was chiefly shown by not asking awkward questions and adopting
the creed which was most to his taste without committing himself to any
strong persuasion as to abstract truth. He would, on the whole, leave
such matters alone, an attitude of mind which was not to Carlyle's
taste. In the purely artistic direction, this common sense is partly
responsible for the defect which has been so often noticed in Scott's
heroes. Your genuine Scot is indeed as capable of intense passion as any
human being in the world. Burns is proof enough of the fact if anyone
doubted it. But Scott was a man of more massive and less impulsive
character. If he had strong passions, they were ruled by his common
sense; he kept them well in hand, and did not write till the period of
youthful effervescence was over. His heroes always seem to be described
from the point of view of a man old enough to see the folly of youthful
passion or too old fully to sympathise with it. They are chiefly
remarkable for a punctilious pride which gives their creator some
difficulty in keeping them out of superfluous duels. When they fall in
love, they always seem to feel themselves as Lovel felt himself in the
'Antiquary,' under the eye of Jonathan Oldbuck, who was himself once in
love but has come to see that he was a fool for his pains. Certainly,
somehow or other, they are apt to be terribly wooden. Cranstoun in the
'Lay of the Last Minstrel,' Graeme in the 'Lady of the Lake,' or Wilton
in 'Marmion,' are all unspeakable bores. Waverley himself, and Lovel in
the 'Antiquary,' and Vanbeest Brown in 'Guy Mannering,' and Harry Morton
in 'Old Mortality,' and, in short, the whole series of Scott's pattern
young men, are all chips of the same block. They can all run, and ride,
and fight, and make pretty speeches, and express the most becoming
sentiments; but somehow they all partake of one fault, the same which
was charged against the otherwise incomparable horse, namely, that they
are dead. And we must confess that this is a considerable drawback from
Scott's novels. To take the passion out of a novel is something like
taking the sunlight out of a landscape; and to condemn all the heroes to
be utterly commonplace is to remove the centre of interest in a manner
detrimental to the best intents of the story. When Thackeray endeavoured
to restore Rebecca to her rightful place in 'Ivanhoe,' he was only doing
what is more or less desirable in all the series. We long to dismount
these insipid creatures from the pride of place, and to supplant them by
some of the admirable characters who are doomed to play subsidiary
parts. There is, however, another reason for this weakness which seems
to be overlooked by many of Scott's critics. We are often referred to
Scott as a master of pure and what is called 'objective' story-telling.
Certainly I don't deny that Scott could be an admirable story-teller:
'Ivanhoe' and the 'Bride of Lammermoor' would be sufficient to convict
me of error if I did. But as mere stories, many of his novels--and
moreover his masterpieces--are not only faulty, but distinctly bad.
Taking him purely and simply from that point of view, he is very
inferior, for example, to Alexandre Dumas. You cannot follow the thread
of most of his narratives with any particular interest in the fate of
the chief actors. In the 'Introductory Epistle' prefixed to the
'Fortunes of Nigel' Scott himself gives a very interesting account of
his method. He has often, he says in answer to an imaginary critic,
begun by laying down a plan of his work and tried to construct an ideal
story, evolving itself by due degrees and ending by a proper
catastrophe. But, a demon seats himself on his pen, and leads it astray.
Characters expand; incidents multiply; the story lingers while the
materials increase; Bailie Jarvie or Dugald Dalgetty leads him astray,
and he goes many a weary mile from the regular road and has to leap
hedge and ditch to get back. If he resists the temptation, his
imagination flags and he becomes prosy and dull. No one can read his
best novels without seeing the truth of this description. 'Waverley'
made an immense success as a description of new scenes and social
conditions: the story of Waverley himself is the least interesting part
of the book. Everybody who has read 'Guy Mannering' remembers Dandie
Dinmont and Meg Merrilies and Pleydell and Dominie Sampson; but how many
people could explain the ostensible story--the love affair of Vanbeest
Brown and Julia Mannering? We can see how Scott put the story together.
He was pouring out the most vivid and interesting recollections of the
borderers whom he knew so well, of the old Scottish gentry and smugglers
and peasants, and the old-fashioned lawyers who played high jinks in the
wynds of Edinburgh. No more delightful collection of portraits could be
brought together. But he had to get a story as a thread. He started with
the legend about an astrological prediction told of Dryden and one of
his sons, and mixed it up with the Annesley case, where a claimant
turned up with more plausibility than the notorious Orton. This
introduced of necessity an impossible and conventional bit of lovemaking
and a recognition of a long-lost heir. He is full of long-lost heirs.
Equally conventional and impossible stories are introduced in the
'Antiquary,' the 'Heart of Midlothian,' and the 'Legend of Montrose' and
elsewhere. Nobody cares about them, and the characters which ostensibly
play the chief part serve merely to introduce us to the subordinate
actors. 'Waverley,' for example, gives a description drawn with
unsurpassable spirit of the state of the Highland clans in 1745; and
poor Waverley's love affair passes altogether out of sight during the
greatest and most interesting part of the narrative. When Moore said of
the poems that Scott intended to illustrate all the gentlemen's seats
between Edinburgh and London, he was not altogether wide of the mark.
The novels are all illustrations--not of 'gentlemen's seats' indeed, but
of various social states; and it is only by a kind of happy accident
when this interest in the surroundings does not put the chief characters
out of focus. Nobody has created a greater number of admirable types,
but when we run over their names we perceive that in most cases they are
the secondary performers who are ousting the nominal heroes and heroines
from their places. Dugald Dalgetty, for example, becomes so attractive
that he squeezes all the other actors into a mere corner of the canvas.
Perhaps nothing more is necessary to explain why Scott failed as a
dramatist. With him, Hamlet would have been a mere peg to show us how
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern amused themselves at the royal drinking
parties.

For this reason, again, Scott bestows an apparently disproportionate
amount of imagination upon the mere scene-painting, the external
trappings, the clothes, or dwelling-places of his performers. A
traveller into a strange country naturally gives us the external
peculiarities which strike him. Scott has to tell us what 'completed the
costume' of his Highland chiefs or mediæval barons. He took, in short,
to that 'buff-jerkin' business of which Carlyle speaks so
contemptuously, and fairly carried away the hearts of his contemporaries
by a lavish display of mediæval upholstery. Lockhart tells us that Scott
could not bear the commonplace daubings of walls with uniform coats of
white, blue, and grey. All the roofs at Abbotsford 'were, in appearance
at least, of carved oak, relieved by coats-of-arms duly blazoned at the
intersections of beams, and resting on cornices, to the eye of the same
material, but composed of casts in plaster of Paris, after the foliage,
the flowers, the grotesque monsters and dwarfs, and sometimes the
beautiful heads of nuns and confessors, on which he had doated from
infancy among the cloisters of Melrose Abbey.' The plaster looks as well
as the carved oak for a time; but the day speedily comes when the sham
crumbles into ashes, and Scott's knights and nobles, like his carved
cornices, became dust in the next generation. It is hard to say it, and
yet we fear it must be admitted, that many of those historical novels,
which once charmed all men, and for which we have still a lingering
affection, are rapidly converting themselves into mere débris of plaster
of Paris. Sir F. Palgrave says somewhere that 'historical novels are
mortal enemies to history,' and we are often tempted to add that they
are mortal enemies to fiction. There maybe an exception or two, but as a
rule the task is simply impracticable. The novelist is bound to come so
near to the facts that we feel the unreality of his portraits. Either
the novel becomes pure cram, a dictionary of antiquities dissolved in a
thin solution of romance, or, which is generally more refreshing, it
takes leave of accuracy altogether and simply takes the plot and the
costume from history, but allows us to feel that genuine moderns are
masquerading in the dress of a bygone century. Even in the last case, it
generally results in a kind of dance in fetters and a comparative
breakdown under self-imposed obligations. 'Ivanhoe' and 'Kenilworth' and
'Quentin Durward,' and the rest are of course audacious anachronisms for
the genuine historian. Scott was imposed upon by his own fancy. He was
probably not aware that his Balfour of Burley was real flesh and blood,
because painted from real people round him, while his Claverhouse is
made chiefly of plumes and jackboots. Scott is chiefly responsible for
the odd perversion of facts, which reached its height, as Macaulay
remarks, in the marvellous performance of our venerated ruler, George
IV. That monarch, he observes, 'thought that he could not give a more
striking proof of his respect for the usages which had prevailed in
Scotland before the Union than by disguising himself in what, before the
Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a
thief.' The passage recalls the too familiar anecdote about Scott and
the wine-glass consecrated by the sacred lips of his king. At one of
the portrait exhibitions in South Kensington was hung up a
representation of George IV., with the body of a stalwart highlander in
full costume, some seven or eight feet high; the face formed from the
red puffy cheeks developed by innumerable bottles of port and burgundy
at Carlton House; and the whole surmounted by a bonnet with waving
plumes. Scott was chiefly responsible for disguising that elderly London
debauchee in the costume of a wild Gaelic cattle-stealer, and was
apparently insensible of the gross absurdity. We are told that an air of
burlesque was thrown over the proceedings at Holyrood by the apparition
of a true London alderman in the same costume as his master. An alderman
who could burlesque such a monarch must indeed have been a credit to his
turtle-soup. Let us pass by with a brief lamentation that so great and
good a man laid himself open to Carlyle's charge of sham worship. We
have lost our love of buff jerkins and other scraps from mediæval
museums, and Scott is suffering from having preferred working in stucco
to carving in marble. We are perhaps inclined to saddle Scott
unconsciously with the sins of a later generation. Borrow, in his
delightful 'Lavengro,' meets a kind of Jesuit in disguise in that
sequestered dell where he beats 'the Blazing Tinman.' The Jesuit, if I
remember rightly, confides to him that Scott was a tool of that
diabolical conspiracy which has infected our old English Protestantism
with the poison of modern Popery. And, though the evil may be traced
further back, and was due to more general causes than the influence of
any one writer, Scott was clearly responsible in his degree for certain
recent phenomena. The buff jerkin became the lineal ancestor of various
copes, stoles, and chasubles which stink in the nostrils of honest
dissenters. Our modern revivalists profess to despise the flimsiness of
the first attempts in this direction. They laugh at the carpenter's
Gothic of Abbotsford or Strawberry Hill, and do not ask themselves how
their own more elaborate blundering will look in the eyes of a future
generation. What will our posterity think of our masquerading in old
clothes? Will they want a new Cromwell to sweep away nineteenth-century
shams, as his ancestors smashed mediæval ruins, or will they, as we may
rather hope, be content to let our pretentious rubbish find its natural
road to ruin? One thing is pretty certain, and in its way comforting;
that, however far the rage for revivalism may be pushed, nobody will
ever want to revive the nineteenth century. But for Scott, in spite of
his complicity in this wearisome process, there is something still to be
said. 'Ivanhoe' cannot be given up. The vivacity of the description--the
delight with which Scott throws himself into the pursuit of his
knicknacks and antiquarian rubbish, has something contagious about it.
'Ivanhoe,' let it be granted, is no longer a work for men, but it still
is, or still ought to be, delightful reading for boys. The ordinary boy,
indeed, when he reads anything, seems to choose descriptions of the
cricket-matches and boat-races in which his soul most delights. But
there must still be some unsophisticated youths who can relish 'Robinson
Crusoe' and the 'Arabian Nights' and other favourites of our own
childhood, and such at least should pore over the 'Gentle and free
passage of arms at Ashby,' admire those incredible feats with the
long-bow which would have enabled Robin Hood to meet successfully a
modern volunteer armed with the Martini-Henry, and follow the terrific
head-breaking of Front-de-Boeuf, Bois-Guilbert, the holy clerk of
Copmanshurst, and the _Noir Fainéant_, even to the time when, for no
particular reason beyond the exigencies of the story, the Templar
suddenly falls from his horse, and is discovered, to our no small
surprise, to be 'unscathed by the lance of the enemy,' and to have died
a victim to the violence of his own contending passions. If 'Ivanhoe'
has been exploded by Professor Freeman, it did good work in its day. If
it were possible for a critic to weigh the merits of a great man in a
balance, and to decide precisely how far his excellences exceed his
defects, we should have to set off Scott's real services to the spread
of a genuine historical spirit against the encouragement which he
afforded to its bastard counterfeit. To enable us rightly to appreciate
our forefathers, to recognise that they were living men, and to feel our
close connection with them, is to put a vivid imagination to one of its
worthiest uses. It was perhaps inevitable that we should learn to
appreciate our ancestors by paying them the doubtful compliment of
external mimicry; and that only by slow degrees, and at the price of
much humiliating experience, should we learn the simple lesson that a
childish adult has not the grace of childhood. Even in his errors,
however, Scott had the merit of unconsciousness, which is fast
disappearing from our more elaborate affectations; and, therefore,
though we regret, we are not irritated by his weakness and deficiency in
true insight. He really enjoys his playthings too naïvely for the
pleasure not to be a little contagious, when we can descend from our
critical dignity. In his later work, indeed, the effort becomes truly
painful, tending more to the provocation of sadness than of anger. But
that work is best forgotten except as an occasional warning.

Scott, however, understood, and nobody has better illustrated by
example, the true mode of connecting past and present. Mr. Palgrave,
whose recognition of the charm of Scott's lyrics merits our gratitude,
observes in the notes to the 'Golden Treasury' that the songs about
Brignall banks and Rosabelle exemplify 'the peculiar skill with which
Scott employs proper names;' nor, he adds, 'is there a surer sign of
high poetical genius.' The last remark might possibly be disputed; if
Milton possessed the same talent, so did Lord Macaulay, whose ballads,
admirable as they are, are not first-rate poetry; but the conclusion to
which the remark points is one which is illustrated by each of these
cases. The secret of the power is simply this, that a man whose mind is
full of historical associations somehow communicates to us something of
the sentiment which they awake in himself. Scott, as all who saw him
tell us, could never see an old tower, or a bank, or a rush of a stream
without instantly recalling a boundless collection of appropriate
anecdotes. He might be quoted as a case in point by those who would
explain all poetical imagination by the power of associating ideas. He
is the poet of association. A proper name acts upon him like a charm. It
calls up the past days, the heroes of the '41, or the skirmish of
Drumclog, or the old Covenanting times, by a spontaneous and
inexplicable magic. When the barest natural object is taken into his
imagination, all manner of past fancies and legends crystallise around
it at once.

Though it is more difficult to explain how the same glow which ennobled
them to him is conveyed to his readers, the process somehow takes place.
We catch the enthusiasm. A word, which strikes us as a bare abstraction
in the report of the Censor General, say, or in a collection of poor law
returns, gains an entirely new significance when he touches it in the
most casual manner. A kind of mellowing atmosphere surrounds all
objects in his pages, and tinges them with poetical hues. Even the
Scottish dialect, repulsive to some ignorant Southrons, becomes musical
to his true admirers. In this power lies one secret of Scott's most
successful writing. Thus, for example, I often fancy that the second
title of 'Waverley'--''Tis Sixty Years Since'--indicates precisely the
distance of time at which a romantic novelist should place himself from
his creations. They are just far enough from us to have acquired a
certain picturesque colouring, which conceals the vulgarity, and yet
leaves them living and intelligible beings. His best stories might be
all described as 'Tales of a Grandfather.' They have the charm of
anecdotes told to the narrator by some old man who had himself been part
of what he describes. Scott's best novels depend, for their deep
interest, upon the scenery and society with which he had been familiar
in his early days, more or less harmonised by removal to what we may
call, in a different sense from the common one, the twilight of history;
that period, namely, from which the broad glare of the present has
departed, and which we can yet dimly observe without making use of the
dark lantern of ancient historians, and accepting the guidance of
Dryasdust. Dandie Dinmont, though a contemporary of Scott's youth,
represented a fast perishing phase of society; and Balfour of Burley,
though his day was past, had yet left his mantle with many spiritual
descendants who were scarcely less familiar. Between the times so fixed
Scott seems to exhibit his genuine power; and within these limits we
should find it hard to name any second, or indeed any third.

Indeed, when we have gone as far as we please in denouncing shams,
ridiculing men in buff-jerkins, and the whole Wardour Street business of
gimcrack and Brummagem antiquities, it still remains true that Scott's
great service was what we may call the vivification of history. He made
us feel, it is generally said, as no one had ever made us feel before,
that the men of the past were once real human beings; and I can agree if
I am permitted to make a certain distinction. His best service, I should
say, was not so much in showing us the past as it was when it was
present; but in showing us the past as it is really still present. His
knights and crusaders and feudal nobles are after all unreal, and the
best critics felt even in his own day that his greatest triumphs were in
describing the Scottish peasantry of his time. Dandie Dinmont and Jeanie
Deans and their like are better than many Front de Boeufs and Robin
Hoods. It is in dealing with his own contemporaries that he really shows
the imaginative insight which entitles him to be called a great creator
as well as an amusing story-teller. But this, rightly stated, is not
inconsistent with the previous statement. For the special characteristic
of Scott as distinguished from his predecessors is precisely his clear
perception that the characters whom he loved so well and described so
vividly were the products of a long historical evolution. His patriotism
was the love of a country in which everything had obvious roots in its
previous history. The stout farmer Dinmont was the descendant of the old
borderers; the Deanses were survivals from the days of the Covenanters
or of John Knox; every peculiarity upon which he delighted to dwell was
invested with all the charm of descent from a long and picturesque
history. When Fielding describes the squires or lawyers of the
eighteenth century, he says nothing to show that he was even aware of
the existence of a seventeenth, or still less of a sixteenth century.
Scott can describe no character without assigning to it its place in
the social organism which has been growing up since the earliest dawn of
history. This was, of course, no accident. He came at the time when the
little provincial centres were just feeling the first invasion of the
great movements from without. Edinburgh, whether quite comparable to
Athens or not, had been for two or three generations a remarkable centre
of intellectual cultivation. Hume and Adam Smith were only the most
conspicuous members of a society which monopolised pretty well all the
philosophy which existed in the island and a great deal of the history
and criticism. In Scott's time the patriotic feeling which had been a
blind instinct was becoming more or less self-conscious. The literary
society in which Scott was leader of the Tories, and Jeffrey of the
Whigs, included a large proportion of the best intellect of the time and
was sufficiently in contact with the outside world to be conscious of
its own characteristics. When the crash of the French Revolution came in
Scott's youth, Burke denounced its _à priori_ abstract reasonings in the
name of prescription. A traditional order and belief were essential, as
he urged, to the well-being of every human society. What Scott did
afterwards was precisely to show by concrete instances, most vividly
depicted, the value and interest of a natural body of traditions. Like
many other of his ablest contemporaries, he saw with alarm the great
movement, of which the French Revolution was the obvious embodiment,
sweeping away all manner of local traditions and threatening to engulf
the little society which still retained its specific character in
Scotland. He was stirred, too, in his whole nature when any sacrilegious
reformer threatened to sweep away any part of the true old Scottish
system. And this is, in fact, the moral implicitly involved in Scott's
best work. Take the beggar, for example, Edie Ochiltree, the old
'bluegown.' Beggars, you say, are a nuisance and would be sentenced to
starvation by Mr. Malthus in the name of an abstract principle of
population. But look, says Scott, at the old-fashioned beggar as he
really was. He had his place in society; he was the depository of the
legends of the whole country-side: chatting with the lairds, the
confidential friend of fishermen, peasants, and farmers; the oracle in
all sports and ruler of village feasts; repaying in friendly offices far
more than the value of the alms which he took as a right; a respecter of
old privileges, because he had privileges himself; and ready when the
French came to take his part in fighting for the old country. There can
be no fear for a country, says Scott, where even the beggar is as ready
to take up arms as the noble. The bluegown, in short, is no waif and
stray, no product of social corruption, or mere obnoxious parasite, but
a genuine member of the fabric, who could respect himself and scorn
servility as much as the highest members of the social hierarchy. Scott,
as Lockhart tells us, was most grievously wounded by the insults of the
Radical mob in Selkirk, who cried 'Burke Sir Walter!' in the place where
all men had loved and honoured him. It was the meeting of the old and
new, and the revelation to Scott in brutal terms of the new spirit which
was destroying all the old social ties. Scott and Wordsworth and
Coleridge and Southey and their like saw in fact the approach of that
industrial revolution, as we call it now, which for good or evil has
been ever since developing. The Radicals denounced them as mere
sentimentalists; the solid Whigs, who fancied that the revolution was
never to get beyond the Reform Bill of 1832, laughed at them as mere
obstructives; by us, who, whatever our opinions, speak with the
advantage of later experience, it must be admitted that such
Conservatism had its justification, and that good and far-seeing men
might well look with alarm at changes whose far-reaching consequences
cannot yet be estimated. Scott, meanwhile, is the incomparable painter
of the sturdy race which he loved so well--a race high-spirited, loyal
to its principles, surpassingly energetic, full of strong affections and
manly spirits, if crabbed, bigoted, and capable of queer perversity and
narrow self-conceit. Nor, if we differ from his opinions, can anyone who
desires to take a reasonable view of history doubt the interest and
value of the conceptions involved. Scott was really the first
imaginative observer who saw distinctly how the national type of
character is the product of past history, and embodies all the great
social forces by which it has slowly shaped itself. That is the new
element in his portraiture of human life; and we may pardon him if he
set rather too high a value upon the picturesque elements which he had
been the first to recognise. One of the acutest of recent writers upon
politics, the late Mr. Bagehot, has insisted upon the immense value of
what he called a 'solid cake of customs,' and the thought is more or
less familiar to every writer of the evolutionist way of thinking.
Scott, without any philosophy to speak of, political or otherwise, saw
and recognised intuitively a typical instance. He saw how much the
social fabric had been woven out of ancient tradition; and he made
others see it more clearly than could be done by any abstract reasoner.

When naturalists wish to preserve a skeleton, they bury an animal in an
ant-hill and dig him up after many days with all the perishable matter
fairly eaten away. That is the process which great men have to undergo.
A vast multitude of insignificant, unknown, and unconscious critics
destroy what has no genuine power of resistance, and leave the remainder
for posterity. Much disappears in every case, and it is a question,
perhaps, whether the firmer parts of Scott's reputation will be
sufficiently coherent to resist after the removal of the rubbish. We
must admit that even his best work is of more or less mixed value, and
that the test will be a severe one. Yet we hope, not only for reasons
already suggested, but for one which remains to be expressed. The
ultimate source of pleasure derivable from all art is that it brings you
into communication with the artist. What you really love in the picture
or the poem is the painter or the poet whom it brings into sympathy with
you across the gulf of time. He tells you what are the thoughts which
some fragment of natural scenery, or some incident of human life,
excited in a mind greatly wiser and more perceptive than your own. A
dramatist or a novelist professes to describe different actors on his
little scene, but he is really setting forth the varying phases of his
own mind. And so Dandie Dinmont, or the Antiquary, or Balfour of Burley,
is merely the conductor through which Scott's personal magnetism affects
our own natures. And certainly, whatever faults a critic may discover in
the work, it may be said that no work in our literature places us in
communication with a manlier or more lovable nature. Scott, indeed,
setting up as the landed proprietor at Abbotsford, and solacing himself
with painted plaster of Paris instead of carved oak, does not strike us,
any more than he does Carlyle, as a very noble phenomenon. But luckily
for us, we have also the Scott who must have been the most charming of
all conceivable companions; the Scott who was idolised even by a
judicious pig; the Scott, who, unlike the irritable race of literary
magnates in general, never lost a friend, and whose presence diffused an
equable glow of kindly feeling to the farthest limits of the social
system which gravitated round him. He was not precisely brilliant;
nobody, so far as we know, who wrote so many sentences has left so few
that have fixed themselves upon us as established commonplaces; beyond
that unlucky phrase about 'my name being MacGregor and my foot being on
my native heath'--which is not a very admirable sentiment--I do not at
present remember a single gem of this kind. Landor, I think, said that
in the whole of Scott's poetry there was only one good line, that,
namely, in the poem about Helvellyn referring to the dog of the lost
man--

    When the wind waved his garments, how oft didst thou start!

Scott is not one of the coruscating geniuses, throwing out epigrams at
every turn, and sparkling with good things. But the poetry, which was
first admired to excess and then rejected with undue contempt, is now
beginning to find its due level. It is not poetry of the first order. It
is not the poetry of deep meditation or of rapt enthusiasm. Much that
was once admired has now become rather offensive than otherwise. And yet
it has a charm, which becomes more sensible the more familiar we grow
with it, the charm of unaffected and spontaneous love of nature; and not
only is it perfectly in harmony with the nature which Scott loved so
well, but it is still the best interpreter of the sound healthy love of
wild scenery. Wordsworth, no doubt, goes deeper; and Byron is more
vigorous; and Shelley more ethereal. But it is, and will remain, a good
thing to have a breath from the Cheviots brought straight into London
streets, as Scott alone can do it. When Washington Irving visited
Scott, they had an amicable dispute as to the scenery: Irving, as became
an American, complaining of the absence of forests; Scott declaring his
love for 'his honest grey hills,' and saying that if he did not see the
heather once a year he thought he should die. Everybody who has
refreshed himself with mountain and moor this summer should feel how
much we owe, and how much more we are likely to owe in future, to the
man who first inoculated us with his own enthusiasm, and who is still
the best interpreter of the 'honest grey hills.' Scott's poetical
faculty may, perhaps, be more felt in his prose than his verse. The fact
need not be decided; but as we read the best of his novels we feel
ourselves transported to the 'distant Cheviot's blue;' mixing with the
sturdy dalesmen, and the tough indomitable puritans of his native land;
for their sakes we can forgive the exploded feudalism and the faded
romance which he attempted with less success to galvanise into life. The
pleasure of that healthy open-air life, with that manly companion, is
not likely to diminish; and Scott as its exponent may still retain a
hold upon our affections which would have been long ago forfeited if he
had depended entirely on his romantic nonsense. We are rather in the
habit of talking about a healthy animalism, and try most elaborately to
be simple and manly. When we turn from our modern professors in that
line, who affect a total absence of affectation, to Scott's Dandie
Dinmonts and Edie Ochiltrees, we see the difference between the sham and
the reality, and fancy that Scott may still have a lesson or two to
preach to this generation. Those to come must take care of themselves.



_NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE_


The most obvious fact about Hawthorne is that he gave one solution of
the problem what elements of romance are discoverable amongst the harsh
prose of this prosaic age. How is the novelist who, by the inevitable
conditions of his style, is bound to come into the closest possible
contact with facts, who has to give us the details of his hero's
clothes, to tell us what he had for breakfast, and what is the state of
the balance at his banker's--how is he to introduce the ideal element
which must, in some degree, be present in all genuine art? What
precisely is meant by 'ideal' is a question which for the moment I
pretermit. Anyhow a mere photographic reproduction of this muddy,
money-making, bread-and-butter-eating world would be intolerable. At the
very lowest, some effort must be made at least to select the most
promising materials, and to strain out the coarse or the simply prosaic
ingredients. Various attempts have been made to solve the problem since
De Foe founded the modern school of English novelists, by giving us what
is in one sense a servile imitation of genuine narrative, but which is
redeemed from prose by the unique force of the situation. De Foe
painting mere everyday pots and pans is as dull as a modern blue-book;
but when his pots and pans are the resource by which a human being
struggles out of the most appalling conceivable 'slough of despond,'
they become more poetical than the vessels from which the gods drink
nectar in epic poems. Since he wrote, novelists have made many voyages
of discovery, with varying success, though they have seldom had the
fortune to touch upon so marvellous an island as that still sacred to
the immortal Crusoe. They have ventured far into cloud-land, and,
returning to _terra firma_, they have plunged into the trackless and
savage-haunted regions which are girdled by the Metropolitan Railway.
They have watched the magic coruscations of some strange 'Aurora
Borealis' of dim romance, or been content with the domestic gaslight of
London streets. Amongst the most celebrated of all such adventurers were
the band which obeyed the impulse of Sir Walter Scott. For a time it
seemed that we had reached a genuine Eldorado of novelists, where solid
gold was to be had for the asking, and visions of more than earthly
beauty rewarded the labours of the explorer. Now, alas! our opinion is a
good deal changed; the fairy treasures which Scott brought back from his
voyages have turned into dead leaves according to custom; and the
curiosities, upon which he set so extravagant a price, savour more of
Wardour Street than of the genuine mediæval artists. Nay, there are
scoffers, though I am not of them, who think that the tittle-tattle
which Miss Austen gathered at the country-houses of our grandfathers is
worth more than the showy but rather flimsy eloquence of the 'Ariosto of
the North.' Scott endeavoured at least, if with indifferent success, to
invest his scenes with something of

    The light that never was on sea or land,
    The consecration and the poet's dream.

If he too often indulged in mere theatrical devices, and mistook the
glare of the footlights for the sacred glow of the imagination, he
professed, at least, to introduce us to an ideal world. Later novelists
have generally abandoned the attempt, and are content to reflect our
work-a-day life with almost servile fidelity. They are not to be blamed;
and doubtless the very greatest writers are those who can bring their
ideal world into the closest possible contact with our sympathies, and
show us heroic figures in modern frock-coats and Parisian fashions. The
art of story-telling is manifold, and its charm depends greatly upon the
infinite variety of its applications. And yet, for that very reason,
there are moods in which one wishes that the modern story-teller would
more frequently lead us away from the commonplace region of newspapers
and railways to regions where the imagination can have fair play.
Hawthorne is one of the few eminent writers to whose guidance we may in
such moods most safely entrust ourselves; and it is tempting to ask,
what was the secret of his success? The effort, indeed, to investigate
the materials from which some rare literary flavour is extracted is
seldom satisfactory. We are reminded of the automaton chess-player who
excited the wonder of the last generation. The showman, like the critic,
laid bare his inside, and displayed all the cunning wheels and cogs and
cranks by which his motions were supposed to be regulated. Yet, after
all, the true secret was that there was a man inside the machine. Some
such impression is often made by the most elaborate demonstrations of
literary anatomists. We have been mystified, not really entrusted with
any revelation. And yet, with this warning as to the probable success of
our examination, let us try to determine some of the peculiarities to
which Hawthorne owes this strange power of bringing poetry out of the
most unpromising materials.

In the first place, then, he had the good fortune to be born in the most
prosaic of all countries--the most prosaic, that is, in external
appearance, and even in the superficial character of its inhabitants.
Hawthorne himself reckoned this as an advantage, though in a very
different sense from that in which we are speaking. It was as a patriot,
and not as an artist, that he congratulated himself on his American
origin. There is a humorous struggle between his sense of the rawness
and ugliness of his native land and the dogged patriotism befitting a
descendant of the genuine New England Puritans. Hawthorne the novelist
writhes at the discords which torture his delicate sensibilities at
every step; but instantly Hawthorne the Yankee protests that the very
faults are symptomatic of excellence. He is like a sensitive mother,
unable to deny that her awkward hobbledehoy of a son offends against the
proprieties, but tacitly resolved to see proofs of virtues present or to
come even in his clumsiest tricks. He forces his apologies to sound like
boasting. 'No author,' he says, 'can conceive of the difficulty of
writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no
antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but
a commonplace prosperity, as is happily' (it must and shall be happily!)
'the case with my dear native land. It will be very long, I trust,
before romance-writers may find congenial and easily-handled themes
either in the annals of our stalwart republic, or in any characteristic
and probable events of our individual lives. Romance and poetry, ivy,
lichens, and wallflowers need ruins to make them grow.' If, that is, I
am forced to confess that poetry and romance are absent, I will
resolutely stick to it that poetry and romance are bad things, even
though the love of them is the strongest propensity of my nature. To my
thinking, there is something almost pathetic in this loyal
self-deception; and therefore I have never been offended by certain
passages in 'Our Old Home' which appear to have caused some irritation
in touchy Englishmen. There is something, he says by way of apology,
which causes an American in England to take up an attitude of
antagonism. 'These people think so loftily of themselves, and so
contemptuously of everybody else, that it requires more generosity than
I possess to keep always in perfectly good humour with them.' That may
be true; for, indeed, I believe that all Englishmen, whether
ostentatiously cosmopolitan or ostentatiously patriotic, have a peculiar
type of national pride at least as offensive as that of Frenchmen,
Germans, or Americans; and, to a man of Hawthorne's delicate
perceptions, the presence of that sentiment would reveal itself through
the most careful disguises. But that which really caused him to cherish
his antagonism was, I suspect, something else: he was afraid of loving
us too well; he feared to be tempted into a denial of some point of his
patriotic creed; he is always clasping it, as it were, to his bosom, and
vowing and protesting that he does not surrender a single jot or tittle
of it. Hawthorne in England was like a plant suddenly removed to a rich
soil from a dry and thirsty land. He drinks in at every pore the
delightful influences of which he has had so scanty a supply. An old
cottage, an ivy-grown wall, a country churchyard with its quaint
epitaphs, things that are commonplace to most Englishmen and which are
hateful to the sanitary inspector, are refreshing to every fibre of his
soul. He tries in vain to take the sanitary inspector's view. In spite
of himself he is always falling into the romantic tone, though a sense
that he ought to be sternly philosophical just gives a humorous tinge
to his enthusiasm. Charles Lamb could not have improved his description
of the old hospital at Leicester, where the twelve brethren still wear
the badge of the Bear and Ragged Staff. He lingers round it, and gossips
with the brethren, and peeps into the garden, and sits by the cavernous
archway of the kitchen fireplace, where the very atmosphere seems to be
redolent with aphorisms first uttered by ancient monks, and jokes
derived from Master Slender's note-book, and gossip about the wrecks of
the Spanish Armada. No connoisseur could pore more lovingly over an
ancient black-letter volume, or the mellow hues of some old painter's
masterpiece. He feels the charm of our historical continuity, where the
immemorial past blends indistinguishably with the present, to the
remotest recesses of his imagination. But then the Yankee nature within
him must put in a sharp word or two; he has to jerk the bridle for fear
that his enthusiasm should fairly run away with him. 'The trees and
other objects of an English landscape,' he remarks, or, perhaps we
should say, he complains, 'take hold of one by numberless minute
tendrils as it were, which, look as closely as we choose, we never find
in an American scene;' but he inserts a qualifying clause, just by way
of protest, that an American tree would be more picturesque if it had an
equal chance; and the native oak of which we are so proud is summarily
condemned for 'John Bullism'--a mysterious offence common to many things
in England. Charlecote Hall, he presently admits, 'is a most delightful
place.' Even an American is tempted to believe that real homes can only
be produced by 'the slow ingenuity and labour of many successive
generations,' when he sees the elaborate beauty and perfection of a
well-ordered English abode. And yet he persuades himself that even here
he is the victim of some delusion. The impression is due to the old man
which stills lurks even in the polished American, and forces him to look
through his ancestor's spectacles. The true theory, it appears, is that
which Holgrave expresses for him in the 'Seven Gables,' namely, that we
should free ourselves of the material slavery imposed upon us by the
brick-and-mortar of past generations, and learn to change our houses as
easily as our coats. We ought to feel--only we unfortunately can't
feel--that a tent or a wigwam is as good as a house. The mode in which
Hawthorne regards the Englishman himself is a quaint illustration of the
same theory. An Englishwoman, he admits reluctantly and after many
protestations, has some few beauties not possessed by her American
sisters. A maiden in her teens has 'a certain charm of half-blossom and
delicately folded leaves, and tender womanhood shielded by maidenly
reserves, with which, somehow or other, our American girls often fail to
adorn themselves during an appreciable moment.' But he revenges himself
for this concession by an almost savage onslaught upon the full-blown
British matron with her 'awful ponderosity of frame ... massive with
solid beef and streaky tallow,' and apparently composed 'of steaks and
sirloins.' He laments that the English violet should develop into such
an overblown peony, and speculates upon the whimsical problem, whether a
middle-aged husband should be considered as legally married to all the
accretions which have overgrown the slenderness of his bride. Should not
the matrimonial bond be held to exclude the three-fourths of the wife
that had no existence when the ceremony was performed? A question not to
be put without a shudder. The fact is, that Hawthorne had succeeded only
too well in misleading himself by a common fallacy. That pestilent
personage, John Bull, has assumed so concrete a form in our
imaginations, with his top-boots and his broad shoulders and vast
circumference, and the emblematic bulldog at his heels, that for most
observers he completely hides the Englishman of real life. Hawthorne had
decided that an Englishman must and should be a mere mass of transformed
beef and beer. No observation could shake his preconceived impression.
At Greenwich Hospital he encountered the mighty shade of the
concentrated essence of our strongest national qualities; no truer
Englishman ever lived than Nelson. But Nelson was certainly not the
conventional John Bull, and, therefore, Hawthorne roundly asserts that
he was not an Englishman. 'More than any other Englishman he won the
love and admiration of his country, but won them through the efficacy of
qualities that are not English.' Nelson was of the same breed as
Cromwell, though his shoulders were not so broad; but Hawthorne insists
that the broad shoulders, and not the fiery soul, are the essence of
John Bull. He proceeds with amusing unconsciousness to generalise this
ingenious theory, and declares that all extraordinary Englishmen are
sick men, and therefore deviations from the type. When he meets another
remarkable Englishman in the flesh, he applies the same method. Of Leigh
Hunt, whom he describes with warm enthusiasm, he dogmatically declares,
'there was not an English trait in him from head to foot, morally,
intellectually, or physically.' And the reason is admirable. 'Beef, ale,
or stout, brandy or port-wine, entered not at all into his
constitution.' All Englishmen are made of those ingredients, and if not,
why, then, they are not Englishmen. By the same method it is easy to
show that all Englishmen are drunkards, or that they are all
teetotalers; you have only to exclude as irrelevant every case that
contradicts your theory. Hawthorne, unluckily, is by no means solitary
in his mode of reasoning. The ideal John Bull has hidden us from
ourselves as well as from our neighbours, and the race which is
distinguished above all others for the magnificent wealth of its
imaginative literature is daily told--and, what is more, tells
itself--that it is a mere lump of prosaic flesh and blood, with scarcely
soul enough to keep it from stagnation. If we were sensible we should
burn that ridiculous caricature of ourselves along with Guy Fawkes; but
meanwhile we can hardly complain if foreigners are deceived by our own
misrepresentations.

Against Hawthorne, as I have said, I feel no grudge, though a certain
regret that his sympathy with that deep vein of poetical imagination
which underlies all our 'steaks and sirloins' should have been
intercepted by this detestable lay-figure. The poetical humorist must be
allowed a certain license in dealing with facts; and poor Hawthorne, in
the uncongenial atmosphere of the Liverpool Custom-house, had doubtless
much to suffer from a thick-skinned generation. His characteristic
shyness made it a hard task for him to penetrate through our outer
rind--which, to say the truth, is often elephantine enough--to the
central core of heat; and we must not complain if he was too apt to deny
the existence of what to him was unattainable. But the problem
recurs--for everybody likes to ask utterly unanswerable
questions--whether Hawthorne would not have developed into a still
greater artist if he had been more richly supplied with the diet so dear
to his inmost soul? Was it not a thing to weep over, that a man so
keenly alive to every picturesque influence, so anxious to invest his
work with the enchanted haze of romantic association, should be confined
till middle age amongst the bleak granite rocks and the half-baked
civilisation of New England? 'Among ourselves,' he laments, 'there is no
fairy land for the romancer.' What if he had been brought up in the
native home of the fairies--if there had been thrown open to him the
gates through which Shakespeare and Spenser caught their visions of
ideal beauty? Might we not have had an appendix to the 'Midsummer
Night's Dream,' and might not a modern 'Faerie Queen' have brightened
the prosaic wilderness of this nineteenth century? The question, as I
have said, is rigidly unanswerable. We have not yet learnt how to breed
poets, though we have made some progress in regard to pigs. Nobody can
tell, and perhaps, therefore, it is as well that nobody should guess,
what would have been the effect of transplanting Shakespeare to modern
Stratford, or of exiling him to the United States. And yet--for it is
impossible to resist entirely the pleasure of fruitless speculation--we
may guess that there are some reasons why there should be a risk in
transplanting so delicate a growth as the genius of Hawthorne. There are
more ways, so wise men tell us, of killing a cat than choking it with
cream; but it is a very good way. Over-feeding produces atrophy of some
of the vital functions in higher animals than cats, and the imagination
may be enfeebled rather than strengthened by an over-supply of
materials. Hawthorne, if his life had passed where the plough may turn
up an antiquity in every furrow, and the whole face of the country is
enamelled with ancient culture, might have wrought more gorgeous hues
into his tissues, but he might have succumbed to the temptation of
producing mere upholstery. The fairy land for which he longed is full of
dangerous enchantments, and there are many who have lost in it the
vigour which comes from breathing the keen air of everyday life. From
that risk Hawthorne was effectually preserved in his New England home.
Having to abandon the poetry which is manufactured out of mere external
circumstances, he was forced to draw it from deeper sources. With easier
means at hand of enriching his pages, he might have left the mine
unworked. It is often good for us to have to make bricks without straw.
Hawthorne, who was conscious of the extreme difficulty of the problem,
and but partially conscious of the success of his solution of it,
naturally complained of the severe discipline to which he owed his
strength. We who enjoy the results may feel how much he owed to the very
sternness of his education and the niggard hand with which his
imaginative sustenance was dealt out to him. The observation may sound
paradoxical at the first moment, and yet it is supported by analogy. Are
not the best cooks produced just where the raw material is the worst,
and precisely because it is there worst? Now, cookery is the art by
which man is most easily distinguished from beasts, and it requires
little ingenuity to transfer its lessons to literature. At the same time
it may be admitted that some closer inquiry is necessary in order to
make the hypothesis probable, and I will endeavour from this point of
view to examine some of Hawthorne's exquisite workmanship.

The story which perhaps generally passes for his masterpiece is
'Transformation,' for most readers assume that a writer's longest book
must necessarily be his best. In the present case, I think that this
method, which has its conveniences, has not led to a perfectly just
conclusion. In 'Transformation,' Hawthorne has for once the advantage of
placing his characters in a land where 'a sort of poetic or fairy
precinct,' as he calls it, is naturally provided for them. The very
stones of the streets are full of romance, and he cannot mention a name
that has not a musical ring. Hawthorne, moreover, shows his usual tact
in confining his aims to the possible. He does not attempt to paint
Italian life and manners; his actors belong by birth, or by a kind of
naturalisation, to the colony of the American artists in Rome; and he
therefore does not labour under the difficulty of being in imperfect
sympathy with his creatures. Rome is a mere background, and surely a
most felicitous background, to the little group of persons who are
effectually detached from all such vulgarising associations with the
mechanism of daily life in less poetical countries. The centre of the
group, too, who embodies one of Hawthorne's most delicate fancies, could
have breathed no atmosphere less richly perfumed with old romance. In
New York he would certainly have been in danger of a Barnum's museum,
beside Washington's nurse and the woolly horse. It is a triumph of art
that a being whose nature trembles on the very verge of the grotesque
should walk through Hawthorne's pages with such undeviating grace. In
the Roman dreamland he is in little danger of such prying curiosity,
though even there he can only be kept out of harm's way by the admirable
skill of his creator. Perhaps it may be thought by some severe critics
that, with all his merits, Donatello stands on the very outside verge of
the province permitted to the romancer. But without cavilling at what is
indisputably charming, and without dwelling upon certain defects of
construction which slightly mar the general beauty of the story, it has
another weakness which it is impossible quite to overlook. Hawthorne
himself remarks that he was surprised, in re-writing his story, to see
the extent to which he had introduced descriptions of various Italian
objects. 'Yet these things,' he adds, 'fill the mind everywhere in
Italy, and especially in Rome, and cannot be kept from flowing out upon
the page when one writes freely and with self-enjoyment.' The
associations which they called up in England were so pleasant, that he
could not find it in his heart to cancel. Doubtless that is the precise
truth, and yet it is equally true that they are artistically out of
place. There are passages which recall the guide-book. To take one
instance--and, certainly, it is about the worst--the whole party is
going to the Coliseum, where a very striking scene takes place. On the
way they pass a baker's shop.

'"The baker is drawing his loaves out of the oven," remarked Kenyon. "Do
you smell how sour they are? I should fancy that Minerva (in revenge for
the desecration of her temples) had slyly poured vinegar into the batch,
if I did not know that the modern Romans prefer their bread in the
acetous fermentation."'

The instance is trivial, but it is characteristic. Hawthorne had
doubtless remarked the smell of the sour bread, and to him it called up
a vivid recollection of some stroll in Rome; for, of all our senses, the
smell is notoriously the most powerful in awakening associations. But
then what do we who read him care about the Roman taste for bread 'in
acetous fermentation?' When the high-spirited girl is on the way to meet
her tormentor, and to receive the provocation which leads to his murder,
why should we be worried by a gratuitous remark about Roman baking? It
somehow jars upon our taste, and we are certain that, in describing a
New England village, Hawthorne would never have admitted a touch which
has no conceivable bearing upon the situation. There is almost a
superabundance of minute local colour in his American Romances, as, for
example, in the 'House of the Seven Gables;' but still, every touch,
however minute, is steeped in the sentiment and contributes to the
general effect. In Rome the smell of a loaf is sacred to his
imagination, and intrudes itself upon its own merits, and, so far as we
can discover, without reference to the central purpose. If a baker's
shop impresses him unduly because it is Roman, the influence of ancient
ruins and glorious works of art is of course still more distracting. The
mysterious Donatello, and the strange psychological problem which he is
destined to illustrate, are put aside for an interval, whilst we are
called upon to listen to descriptions and meditations, always graceful,
and often of great beauty in themselves, but yet, in a strict sense,
irrelevant. Hawthorne's want of familiarity with the scenery is of
course responsible for part of this failing. Had he been a native Roman,
he would not have been so preoccupied with the wonders of Rome. But it
seems that for a romance bearing upon a spiritual problem, the scenery,
however tempting, is not really so serviceable as the less prepossessing
surroundings of America. The objects have too great an intrinsic
interest. A counter-attraction distorts the symmetry of the system. In
the shadow of the Coliseum and St. Peter's you cannot pay much attention
to the troubles of a young lady whose existence is painfully ephemeral.
Those mighty objects will not be relegated to the background, and
condescend to act as mere scenery. They are, in fact, too romantic for a
romance. The fountain of Trevi, with all its allegorical marbles, may be
a very picturesque object to describe, but for Hawthorne's purposes it
is really not equal to the town-pump at Salem; and Hilda's poetical
tower, with the perpetual light before the Virgin's image, and the doves
floating up to her from the street, and the column of Antoninus looking
at her from the heart of the city, somehow appeals less to our
sympathies than the quaint garret in the House of the Seven Gables, from
which Phoebe Pyncheon watched the singular idiosyncrasies of the
superannuated breed of fowls in the garden. The garret and the pump are
designed in strict subordination to the human figures: the tower and the
fountain have a distinctive purpose of their own. Hawthorne, at any
rate, seems to have been mastered by his too powerful auxiliaries. A
human soul, even in America, is more interesting to us than all the
churches and picture-galleries in the world; and, therefore, it is as
well that Hawthorne should not be tempted to the too easy method of
putting fine description in place of sentiment.

But how was the task to be performed? How was the imaginative glow to be
shed over the American scenery, so provokingly raw and deficient in
harmony? A similar problem was successfully solved by a writer whose
development, in proportion to her means of cultivation, is about the
most remarkable of recent literary phenomena. Miss Brontë's bleak
Yorkshire moors, with their uncompromising stone walls, and the valleys
invaded by factories, are at first sight as little suited to romance as
New England itself, to which, indeed, both the inhabitants and the
country have a decided family resemblance. Now that she has discovered
for us the fountains of poetic interest, we can all see that the region
is not a mere stony wilderness; but it is well worth while to make a
pilgrimage to Haworth, if only to discover how little the country
corresponds to our preconceived impressions, or, in other words, how
much depends upon the eye which sees it, and how little upon its
intrinsic merits. Miss Brontë's marvellous effects are obtained by the
process which enables an 'intense and glowing mind' to see everything
through its own atmosphere. The ugliest and most trivial objects seem,
like objects heated by the sun, to radiate back the glow of passion with
which she has regarded them. Perhaps this singular power is still more
conspicuous in 'Villette,' where she had even less of the raw material
of poetry. An odd parallel may be found between one of the most striking
passages in 'Villette' and one in 'Transformation.' Lucy Snowe in one
novel, and Hilda in the other, are left to pass a summer vacation, the
one in Brussels and the other in pestiferous Rome. Miss Snowe has no
external cause of suffering but the natural effect of solitude upon a
homeless and helpless governess. Hilda has to bear about with her the
weight of a terrible secret, affecting, it may be, even the life of her
dearest friend. Each of them wanders into a Roman Catholic church, and
each, though they have both been brought up in a Protestant home, seeks
relief at the confessional. So far the cases are alike, though Hilda,
one might have fancied, has by far the strongest cause for emotion. And
yet, after reading the two descriptions--both excellent in their
way--one might fancy that the two young ladies had exchanged burdens.
Lucy Snowe is as tragic as the innocent confidante of a murderess;
Hilda's feelings never seem to rise above that weary sense of melancholy
isolation which besieges us in a deserted city. It is needless to ask
which is the best bit of work artistically considered. Hawthorne's style
is more graceful and flexible; his descriptions of the Roman Catholic
ceremonial and its influence upon an imaginative mind in distress are
far more sympathetic, and imply a wider range of intellect. But Hilda
scarcely moves us like Lucy. There is too much delicate artistic
description of picture-galleries and of the glories of St. Peter's to
allow the poor little American girl to come prominently to the surface.
We have been indulging with her in some sad but charming speculations,
and not witnessing the tragedy of a deserted soul. Lucy Snowe has very
inferior materials at her command; but somehow we are moved by a
sympathetic thrill: we taste the bitterness of the awful cup of despair
which, as she tells us, is forced to her lips in the night-watches; and
are not startled when so prosaic an object as the row of beds in the
dormitory of a French school suggests to her images worthy rather of
stately tombs in the aisles of a vast cathedral, and recall dead dreams
of an elder world and a mightier race long frozen in death. Comparisons
of this kind are almost inevitably unfair; but the difference between
the two illustrates one characteristic--we need not regard it as a
defect--of Hawthorne. His idealism does not consist in conferring
grandeur upon vulgar objects by tinging them with the reflection of deep
emotion. He rather shrinks than otherwise from describing the strongest
passions, or shows their working by indirect touches and under a
side-light. An excellent example of his peculiar method occurs in what
is in some respects the most perfect of his works, the 'Scarlet Letter.'
There, again, we have the spectacle of a man tortured by a life-long
repentance. The Puritan Clergyman, reverenced as a saint by all his
flock, conscious of a sin which, once revealed, will crush him to the
earth, watched with a malignant purpose by the husband whom he has
injured, unable to summon up the moral courage to tear off the veil, and
make the only atonement in his power, is a singularly striking figure,
powerfully conceived and most delicately described. He yields under
terrible pressure to the temptation of escaping from the scene of his
prolonged torture with the partner of his guilt. And then, as he is
returning homewards after yielding a reluctant consent to the flight, we
are invited to contemplate the agony of his soul. The form which it
takes is curiously characteristic. No vehement pangs of remorse, or
desperate hopes of escape, overpower his faculties in any simple and
straightforward fashion. The poor minister is seized with a strange
hallucination. He meets a venerable deacon, and can scarcely restrain
himself from uttering blasphemies about the Communion-supper. Next
appears an aged widow, and he longs to assail her with what appears to
him to be an unanswerable argument against the immortality of the soul.
Then follows an impulse to whisper impure suggestions to a fair young
maiden, whom he has recently converted. And, finally, he longs to greet
a rough sailor with a 'volley of good, round, solid, satisfactory, and
heaven-defying oaths.' The minister, in short, is in that state of mind
which gives birth in its victim to a belief in diabolical possession;
and the meaning is pointed by an encounter with an old lady, who, in the
popular belief, was one of Satan's miserable slaves and dupes, the
witches, and is said--for Hawthorne never introduces the supernatural
without toning it down by a supposed legendary transmission--to have
invited him to meet her at the blasphemous Sabbath in the forest. The
sin of endeavouring to escape from the punishment of his sins had
brought him into sympathy with wicked mortals and perverted spirits.

This mode of setting forth the agony of a pure mind, tainted by one
irremovable blot, is undoubtedly impressive to the imagination in a high
degree; far more impressive, we may safely say, than any quantity of
such rant as very inferior writers could have poured out with the
utmost facility on such an occasion. Yet it might possibly be mentioned
that a poet of the highest order would have produced the effect by more
direct means. Remorse overpowering and absorbing does not embody itself
in these recondite and, one may almost say, over-ingenious fancies.
Hawthorne does not give us so much the pure passion as some of its
collateral effects. He is still more interested in the curious
psychological problem than moved by sympathy with the torture of the
soul. We pity poor Mr. Dimmesdale profoundly, but we are also interested
in him as the subject of an experiment in analytical psychology. We do
not care so much for his emotions as for the strange phantoms which are
raised in his intellect by the disturbance of his natural functions. The
man is placed upon the rack, but our compassion is aroused, not by
feeling our own nerves and sinews twitching in sympathy, but by
remarking the strange confusion of ideas produced in his mind, the
singularly distorted aspect of things in general introduced by such an
experience, and hence, if we please, inferring the keenness of the pangs
which have produced them. This turn of thought explains the real meaning
of Hawthorne's antipathy to poor John Bull. That worthy gentleman, we
will admit, is in a sense more gross and beefy than his American cousin.
His nerves are stronger, for we need not decide whether they should be
called coarser or less morbid. He is not, in the proper sense of the
word, less imaginative, for a vigorous grasp of realities is rather a
proof of a powerful than a defective imagination. But he is less
accessible to those delicate impulses which are to the ordinary passions
as electricity to heat. His imagination is more intense and less mobile.
The devils which haunt the two races partake of the national
characteristics. John Bunyan, Dimmesdale's contemporary, suffered under
the pangs of a remorse equally acute, though with apparently far less
cause. The devils who tormented him whispered blasphemies in his ears;
they pulled at his clothes; they persuaded him that he had committed the
unpardonable sin. They caused the very stones in the streets and tiles
on the houses, as he says, to band themselves together against him. But
they had not the refined and humorous ingenuity of the American fiends.
They tempted him, as their fellows tempted Dimmesdale, to sell his soul;
but they were too much in earnest to insist upon queer breaches of
decorum. They did not indulge in that quaint play of fancy which tempts
us to believe that the devils in New England had seduced the 'tricksy
spirit,' Ariel, to indulge in practical jokes at the expense of a nobler
victim than Stephano or Caliban. They were too terribly diabolical to
care whether Bunyan blasphemed in solitude or in the presence of human
respectabilities. Bunyan's sufferings were as poetical, but less
conducive to refined speculation. His were the fiends that haunt the
valley of the shadow of death; whereas Hawthorne's are to be encountered
in the dim regions of twilight, where realities blend inextricably with
mere phantoms, and the mind confers only a kind of provisional existence
upon the 'airy nothings' of its creation. Apollyon does not appear armed
to the teeth and throwing fiery darts, but comes as an unsubstantial
shadow threatening vague and undefined dangers, and only half-detaching
himself from the background of darkness. He is as intangible as Milton's
Death, not the vivid reality which presented itself to mediæval
imaginations.

This special attitude of mind is probably easier to the American than to
the English imagination. The craving for something substantial, whether
in cookery or in poetry, was that which induced Hawthorne to keep John
Bull rather at arm's length. We may trace the working of similar
tendencies in other American peculiarities. Spiritualism and its
attendant superstitions are the gross and vulgar form of the same phase
of thought as it occurs in men of highly-strung nerves but defective
cultivation. Hawthorne always speaks of these modern goblins with the
contempt they deserve, for they shocked his imagination as much as his
reason; but he likes to play with fancies which are not altogether
dissimilar, though his refined taste warns him that they become
disgusting when grossly translated into tangible symbols. Mesmerism, for
example, plays an important part in the 'Blithedale Romance' and the
'House of the Seven Gables,' though judiciously softened and kept in the
background. An example of the danger of such tendencies may be found in
those works of Edgar Poe, in which he seems to have had recourse to
strong stimulants to rouse a flagging imagination. What is exquisitely
fanciful and airy in Hawthorne is too often replaced in his rival by an
attempt to overpower us by dabblings in the charnel-house and prurient
appeals to our fears of the horribly revolting. After reading some of
Poe's stories one feels a kind of shock to one's modesty. We require
some kind of spiritual ablution to cleanse our minds of his disgusting
images; whereas Hawthorne's pure and delightful fancies, though at times
they may have led us too far from the healthy contact of everyday
interests, never leave a stain upon the imagination, and generally
succeed in throwing a harmonious colouring upon some objects in which we
had previously failed to recognise the beautiful. To perform that duty
effectually is perhaps the highest of artistic merits; and though we
may complain of Hawthorne's colouring as too evanescent, its charm
grows upon us the more we study it.

Hawthorne seems to have been slow in discovering the secret of his own
power. The 'Twice-Told Tales,' he tells us, are only a fragmentary
selection from a great number which had an ephemeral existence in
long-forgotten magazines, and were sentenced to extinction by their
author. Though many of the survivors are very striking, no wise reader
will regret that sentence. It could be wished that other authors were as
ready to bury their innocents, and that injudicious admirers might
always abstain from acting as resurrection-men. The fragments which
remain, with all their merits, are chiefly interesting as illustrating
the intellectual development of their author. Hawthorne, in his preface
to the collected edition (all Hawthorne's prefaces are remarkably
instructive) tells us what to think of them. The book, he says,
'requires to be read in the clear brown twilight atmosphere in which it
was written; if opened in the sunshine it is apt to look exceedingly
like a volume of blank pages.' The remark, with deductions on the score
of modesty, is more or less applicable to all his writings. But he
explains, and with perfect truth, that though written in solitude, the
book has not the abstruse tone which marks the written communications of
a solitary mind with itself. The reason is that the sketches 'are not
the talk of a secluded man with his own mind and heart, but his attempts
... to open an intercourse with the world.' They may, in fact, be
compared to Brummel's failures; and, though they do not display the
perfect grace and fitness which would justify him in presenting himself
to society, they were well worth taking up to illustrate the skill of
the master's manipulation. We see him trying various experiments to hit
off that delicate mean between the fanciful and the prosaic, which
shall satisfy his taste and be intelligible to the outside world.
Sometimes he gives us a fragment of historical romance, as in the story
of the stern old regicide who suddenly appears from the woods to head
the colonists of Massachusetts in a critical emergency; then he tries
his hand at a bit of allegory, and describes the search for the mythical
carbuncle which blazes by its inherent splendour on the face of a
mysterious cliff in the depths of the untrodden wilderness, and lures
old and young, the worldly and the romantic, to waste their lives in the
vain effort to discover it--for the carbuncle is the ideal which mocks
our pursuit, and may be our curse or our blessing. Then perhaps we have
a domestic piece--a quiet description of a New England country scene
touched with a grace which reminds us of the creators of Sir Roger de
Coverley or the Vicar of Wakefield. Occasionally there is a fragment of
pure _diablerie_, as in the story of the lady who consults the witch in
the hollow of the three hills; and more frequently he tries to work out
one of those strange psychological problems which he afterwards treated
with more fulness of power. The minister who, for an unexplained reason,
puts on a black veil one morning in his youth, and wears it until he is
laid with it in his grave--a kind of symbolical prophecy of Dimmesdale;
the eccentric Wakefield (whose original, if I remember rightly, is to be
found in 'King's Anecdotes'), who leaves his house one morning for no
particular reason, and though living in the next street, does not reveal
his existence to his wife for twenty years; and the hero of the 'Wedding
Knell,' the elderly bridegroom whose early love has jilted him, but
agrees to marry him when she is an elderly widow and he an old bachelor,
and who appals the marriage party by coming to the church in his
shroud, with the bell tolling as for a funeral--all these bear the
unmistakable stamp of Hawthorne's mint, and each is a study of his
favourite subject, the border-land between reason and insanity. In many
of these stories appears the element of interest, to which Hawthorne
clung the more closely both from early associations and because it is
the one undeniably poetical element in the American character.
Shallow-minded people fancy Puritanism to be prosaic, because the laces
and ruffles of the Cavaliers are a more picturesque costume at a masked
ball than the dress of the Roundheads. The Puritan has become a grim and
ugly scarecrow, on whom every buffoon may break his jest. But the
genuine old Puritan spirit ceases to be picturesque only because of its
sublimity: its poetry is sublimed into religion. The great poet of the
Puritans fails, as far as he fails, when he tries to transcend the
limits of mortal imagination--

    The living throne, the sapphire blaze,
    Where angels tremble as they gaze,
    He saw: but blasted with excess of light,
    Closed his eyes in endless night.

To represent the Puritan from within was not, indeed, a task suitable to
Hawthorne's powers. Carlyle has done that for us with more congenial
sentiment than could have been well felt by the gentle romancer.
Hawthorne fancies the grey shadow of a stern old forefather wondering at
his degenerate son. 'A writer of story-books! What kind of business in
life, what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in
his day and generation, may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as
well have been a fiddler!' And yet the old strain remains, though
strangely modified by time and circumstance. In Hawthorne it would seem
that the peddling element of the old Puritans had been reduced to its
lowest point; the more spiritual element had been refined till it is
probable enough that the ancestral shadow would have refused to
recognise the connection. The old dogmatical framework to which he
attached such vast importance had dropped out of his descendant's mind,
and had been replaced by dreamy speculation, obeying no laws save those
imposed by its own sense of artistic propriety. But we may often
recognise, even where we cannot express in words, the strange family
likeness which exists in characteristics which are superficially
antagonistic. The man of action may be bound by subtle ties to the
speculative metaphysician; and Hawthorne's mind, amidst the most obvious
differences, had still an affinity to his remote forefathers. Their
bugbears had become his playthings; but the witches, though they have no
reality, have still a fascination for him. The interest which he feels
in them, even in their now shadowy state, is a proof that he would have
believed in them in good earnest a century and a half earlier. The
imagination, working in a different intellectual atmosphere, is unable
to project its images upon the external world; but it still forms them
in the old shape. His solitary musings necessarily employ a modern
dialect, but they often turn on the same topics which occurred to
Jonathan Edwards in the woods of Connecticut. Instead of the old Puritan
speculations about predestination and free-will, he dwells upon the
transmission by natural laws of an hereditary curse, and upon the
strange blending of good and evil, which may cause sin to be an
awakening impulse in a human soul. The change which takes place in
Donatello in consequence of his crime is a modern symbol of the fall of
man and the eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. As an
artist he gives concrete images instead of abstract theories; but his
thoughts evidently delight to dwell in the same regions where the daring
speculations of his theological ancestors took their origin. Septimius,
the rather disagreeable hero of his last romance, is a peculiar example
of a similar change. Brought up under the strict discipline of New
England, he has retained the love of musing upon insoluble mysteries,
though he has abandoned the old dogmatic guide-posts. When such a man
finds that the orthodox scheme of the universe provided by his official
pastors has somehow broken down with him, he forms some audacious theory
of his own, and is perhaps plunged into an unhallowed revolt against the
Divine order. Septimius, under such circumstances, develops into a kind
of morbid and sullen Hawthorne. He considers--as other people have
done--that death is a disagreeable fact, but refuses to admit that it is
inevitable. The romance tends to show that such a state of mind is
unhealthy and dangerous, and Septimius is contrasted unfavourably with
the vigorous natures who preserve their moral balance by plunging into
the stream of practical life. Yet Hawthorne necessarily sympathises with
the abnormal being whom he creates. Septimius illustrates the dangers of
the musing temperament, but the dangers are produced by a combination of
an essentially selfish nature with the meditative tendency. Hawthorne,
like his hero, sought refuge from the hard facts of commonplace life by
retiring into a visionary world. He delights in propounding much the
same questions as those which tormented poor Septimius, though, for
obvious reasons, he did not try to compound an elixir of life by means
of a recipe handed down from Indian ancestors. The strange mysteries in
which the world and our nature are shrouded are always present to his
imagination; he catches dim glimpses of the laws which bring out strange
harmonies, but, on the whole, tend rather to deepen than to clear the
mysteries. He loves the marvellous, not in the vulgar sense of the word,
but as a symbol of perplexity which encounters every thoughtful man in
his journey through life. Similar tenants at an earlier period might,
with almost equal probability, have led him to the stake as a dabbler in
forbidden sciences, or have caused him to be revered as one to whom a
deep spiritual instinct had been granted.

Meanwhile, as it was his calling to tell stories to readers of the
English language in the nineteenth century, his power is exercised in a
different sphere. No modern writer has the same skill in so using the
marvellous as to interest without unduly exciting our incredulity. He
makes, indeed, no positive demands on our credulity. The strange
influences which are suggested rather than obtruded upon us are kept in
the background, so as not to invite, nor indeed to render possible, the
application of scientific tests. We may compare him once more to Miss
Brontë, who introduces, in 'Villette,' a haunted garden. She shows us a
ghost who is for a moment a very terrible spectre indeed, and then, very
much to our annoyance, rationalises him into a flesh-and-blood lover.
Hawthorne would neither have allowed the ghost to intrude so forcibly,
nor have expelled him so decisively. The garden in his hands would have
been haunted by a shadowy terror of which we could render no precise
account to ourselves. It would have refrained from actual contact with
professors and governesses; and as it would never have taken bodily
form, it would never have been quite dispelled. His ghosts are confined
to their proper sphere, the twilight of the mind, and never venture into
the broad glare of daylight. We can see them so long as we do not gaze
directly at them; when we turn to examine them they are gone, and we are
left in doubt whether they were realities or an ocular delusion
generated in our fancy by some accidental collocation of half-seen
objects. So in the 'House of the Seven Gables' we may hold what opinion
we please as to the reality of the curse which hangs over the Pyncheons
and the strange connection between them and their hereditary
antagonists; in the 'Scarlet Letter' we may, if we like, hold that there
was really more truth in the witch legends which colour the imaginations
of the actors than we are apt to dream of in our philosophy; and in
'Transformation' we are left finally in doubt as to the great question
of Donatello's ears, and the mysterious influence which he retains over
the animal world so long as he is unstained by bloodshed. In 'Septimius'
alone, it seems to me that the supernatural is left in rather too
obtrusive a shape in spite of the final explanations; though it might
possibly have been toned down had the story received the last touches of
the author. The artifice, if so it may be called, by which this is
effected--and the romance is just sufficiently dipped in the shadow of
the marvellous to be heightened without becoming offensive--sounds, like
other things, tolerably easy when it is explained; and yet the
difficulty is enormous, as may appear on reflection as well as from the
extreme rarity of any satisfactory work in the same style by other
artists. With the exception of a touch or two in Scott's stories, such
as the impressive Bodach Glas, in 'Waverley,' and the apparition in the
exquisite 'Bride of Lammermoor,' it would be difficult to discover any
parallel.

In fact Hawthorne was able to tread in that magic circle only by an
exquisite refinement of taste, and by a delicate sense of humour, which
is the best preservative against all extravagance. Both qualities
combine in that tender delineation of character which is, after all, one
of his greatest charms. His Puritan blood shows itself in sympathy, not
with the stern side of the ancestral creed, but with the feebler
characters upon whom it weighed as an oppressive terror. He resembles,
in some degree, poor Clifford Pyncheon, whose love of the beautiful
makes him suffer under the stronger will of his relatives and the prim
stiffness of their home. He exhibits the suffering of such a character
all the more effectively because, with his kindly compassion there is
mixed a delicate flavour of irony. The more tragic scenes affect us,
perhaps, with less sense of power; the playful, though melancholy, fancy
seems to be less at home when the more powerful emotions are to be
excited; and yet once, at least, he draws one of those pictures which
engrave themselves instantaneously on the memory. The grimmest or most
passionate of writers could hardly have improved the scene where the
body of the magnificent Zenobia is discovered in the river. Every touch
goes straight to the mark. The narrator of the story, accompanied by the
man whose coolness has caused the suicide, and the shrewd, unimaginative
Yankee farmer, who interprets into coarse, downright language the
suspicions which they fear to confess to themselves, are sounding the
depths of the river by night in a leaky punt with a long pole. Silas
Foster represents the brutal, commonplace comments of the outside world,
which jar so terribly on the more sensitive and closely interested
actors in the tragedy. 'Heigho!' he soliloquises, with offensive
loudness, 'life and death together make sad work for us all. Then I was
a boy, bobbing for fish; and now I'm getting to be an old fellow, and
here I be, groping for a dead body! I tell you what, lads, if I thought
anything had really happened to Zenobia, I should feel kind o'
sorrowful.' That is the discordant chorus of the gravediggers in
'Hamlet.' At length the body is found, and poor Zenobia is brought to
the shore with her knees still bent in the attitude of prayer, and her
hands clenched in immitigable defiance. Foster tries in vain to
straighten the dead limbs. As the teller of the story gazes at her, the
grimly ludicrous reflection occurs to him that if Zenobia had foreseen
all 'the ugly circumstances of death--how ill it would become her, the
altogether unseemly aspect which she must put on, and especially old
Silas Foster's efforts to improve the matter--she would no more have
committed the dreadful act than have exhibited herself to a public
assembly in a badly-fitting garment.'



_BALZAC'S NOVELS_


Balzac exacts more attention than most novel-readers are inclined to
give; he is often repulsive, and not unfrequently dull; but the student
who has once submitted to his charm becomes spell-bound. Disgusted for a
moment, he returns again and again to the strange, hideous, grotesque,
but most interesting world to which Balzac alone can introduce him. Like
the opium-eater, he acquires a taste for the visions that are conjured
up before him with so vivid a colouring, that he almost believes in
their objective existence. There are perhaps greater novelists than
Balzac; there are many who preach a purer morality; and many who give a
far greater impression of general intellectual force; but in this one
quality of intense realisation of actors and scenery he is unique.

Balzac, indeed, was apparently himself almost incapable of
distinguishing his dreams from realities. Great wits, we know, are
allied to madness; and the boundaries seem in his case to have been most
shadowy and indistinct. Indeed, if the anecdotes reported of him be
accurate--some of them are doubtless rather overcharged--he must have
lived almost in a state of permanent hallucination. This, for example,
is a characteristic story. He inhabited for some years a house called
_les Jardies_, in the neighbourhood of Paris. He had a difficulty in
providing material furniture, owing to certain debts, which, as some
sceptics insinuated, were themselves a vast mystification. He habitually
ascribed his poverty to a certain 'deficit Kessner,' a loss which
reposed on some trifling foundation of facts, but which assumed
monstrous proportions in his imagination, and recurred perpetually as
the supposed cause of his poverty. In sober reality, however, he was
poor, and found compensation in creating a vast credit, as imaginary as
his liabilities. Upon that bank he could draw without stint. He
therefore inscribed in one place upon the bare walls of his house, 'Ici
un revêtement de marbre de Paros;' in another, 'Ici un plafond peint par
Eugène Delacroix;' in a third, 'Ici des portes, façon Trianon;' and, in
short, revelled in gorgeous decorations made of the same materials as
the dishes of the Barmecides' feast. A minor source of wealth was the
single walnut-tree which really grew in his gardens, and which increased
his dream-revenue by 60_l._ a year. This extraordinary result was due,
not to any merit in the nuts, but to an ancient and imaginary custom of
the village which compelled the inhabitants to deposit round its foot a
material defined by Victor Hugo as 'du guano moins les oiseaux.' The
most singular story, however, and which we presume is to be received
with a certain reserve, tells how he roused two of his intimate friends
at two o'clock one morning, and urged them to start for India without an
hour's delay. The cause of this journey was that a certain German
historian had presented Balzac with a seal, valued by the thoughtless at
the sum of six sous. The ring, however, had a singular history in
Balzac's dreamland. It was impressed with the seal of the Prophet, and
had been stolen by the English from the Great Mogul. Balzac had or had
not been informed by the Turkish ambassador that that potentate would
repurchase it with tons of gold and diamonds, and was benevolent enough
to propose that his friend should share in the stores which would exceed
the dreams of Aladdin.

How far these and other such fancies were a merely humorous protest
against the harsh realities of life, may be a matter of speculation; but
it is less doubtful that the fictitious personages with whom Balzac
surrounded himself lived and moved in his imagination as distinctly as
the flesh-and-blood realities who were treading the pavement of Paris.
He did not so much invent characters and situations as watch his
imaginary world, and compile the memories of its celebrities. All
English readers are acquainted with the little circle of clergymen and
wives who inhabit the town of Barchester. Balzac has carried out the
same device on a gigantic scale. He has peopled not a country town but a
metropolis. There is a whole society, with the members of which we are
intimate, whose family secrets are revealed to us, and who drop in, as
it were, in every novel of a long series, as if they were old friends.
When, for example, young Victurnien d'Esgrignon comes to Paris he makes
acquaintance, we are told, with De Marsay, Maxime de Trailles, Les
Lupeaulx, Rastignac, Vandenesse, Ajuda-Pinto, the Duchesses de
Grandlieu, de Carigliano, de Chaulieu, the Marquises d'Espard,
d'Aiglemont, and De Listomère, Madame Firmiani, the Comtesse de Sérizy,
and various other heads of the fashionable world. Every one of these
special characters has a special history. He or she appears as the hero
or heroine of one story, and plays subsidiary parts in a score of
others. They recall to us innumerable scandalous episodes, with which
anybody who lives in the imaginary society of Balzac's Paris feels it a
duty to be as familiar as a back-stairs politician with the gossip of
the House of Commons. The list just given is a mere fragment of the
great circle to which Balzac introduces us. The history of their
performances is intimately connected with the history of the time; nay,
it is sometimes essential to a full comprehension of recent events.
Bishop Proudie, we fear, would scarcely venture to take an active part
in the Roman Catholic emancipation; he would be dissolved into thin air
by contact with more substantial forms; but if you would appreciate the
intrigues which were going on at Paris during the campaign of Marengo,
you must study the conversations which took place between Talleyrand,
Fouché, Sieyès, Carnot, and Malin, and their relations to that prince of
policemen, the well-known Corentin. De Marsay, we are told, with
audacious precision of time and place, was President of the Council in
1833. There is no tendency on the part of these spectres to shrink from
the light. They rub shoulders with the most celebrated statesmen, and
mingle in every event of the time. One is driven to believe that Balzac
really fancied the banker Nucingen to be as tangible as a Rothschild,
and was convinced that the conversations of Louis XVIII. with Vandenesse
were historic facts. His sister tells us that he discussed the behaviour
of his own creations with the utmost gravity, and was intensely
interested in discovering their fate, and getting the earliest
information as to the alliances which they were about to form. It is a
curious question, upon which I cannot profess to speak positively,
whether this voluminous story ever comes into hopeless conflict with
dates. I have some suspicions that the brilliant journalist, Blondet,
was married and unmarried at the same period; but, considering his very
loose mode of life, the suspicion, if true, is susceptible of
explanation. Such study as I have made has not revealed any case of
inconsistency; and Balzac evidently has the whole secret (for it seems
harsh to call it fictitious) history of the time so completely at his
fingers' ends, that the effect upon the reader is to produce an
unhesitating confidence. If a blunder occurs one would rather believe in
a slip of the pen, such as happens to real historians, not in the
substantial inaccuracy of the narrative. Sir A. Alison, it may be
remembered, brings Sir Peregrine Pickle to the Duke of Wellington's
funeral, which must have occurred after Sir Peregrine's death; and
Balzac's imaginary narrative may not be perfectly free from anachronism.
But, if so, I have not found him out. Everybody must sympathise with the
English lady who is said to have written to Paris for the address of
that most imposing physician, Horace Bianchion.

The startling realisation may be due in part to a mere literary trick.
We meet with artifices like those by which De Foe cheats us into
forgetfulness of his true character. One of the best known is the
insertion of superfluous bits of information, by way of entrapping his
readers into the inference that they could only have been given because
they were true. The snare is more worthy of a writer of begging-letters
than of a genuine artist. Balzac occasionally indulges in somewhat
similar devices; little indirect allusions to his old characters are
thrown in with a calculated nonchalance; we have bits of antiquarian
information as to the history of buildings; superfluous accounts of the
coats-of-arms of the principal families concerned, and anecdotes as to
their ancestry; and, after he has given us a name, he sometimes takes
care to explain that the pronunciation is different from the spelling.
As a rule, however, these irrelevant minutiæ seem to be thrown in, not
by way of tricking us, but because he has so genuine an interest in his
own personages. He is as anxious to set De Marsay or the Père Goriot
distinctly before us, as Carlyle to make us acquainted with Frederick or
Cromwell. Our most vivid painter of historical portraits is not more
charmed to discover a characteristic incident in the life of his heroes,
or to describe the pimples on his face, or the specks of blood on his
collar, than Balzac to do the same duty for the creations of his fancy.
De Foe may be compared to those favourites of showmen who cheat you into
mistaking a flat-wall painting for a bas-relief. Balzac is one of the
patient Dutch artists who exhaust inconceivable skill and patience in
painting every hair on the head and every wrinkle on the face till their
work has a photographic accuracy. The result, it must be confessed, is
sometimes rather trying to the patience. Balzac's artistic instinct,
indeed, renders every separate touch more or less conducive to the
general effect; but he takes an unconscionable time in preparing his
ground. Instead of launching boldly into his story, and leaving his
characters to speak for themselves, he begins, as it were, by taking his
automatons carefully to pieces, and pointing out all their wires and
springs. He leaves nothing unaccounted for. He explains the character of
each actor as he comes upon the stage; and, not content with making
general remarks, he plunges with extraordinary relish into the minutest
personal details. In particular, we know just how much money everybody
has got, and how he has got it. Balzac absolutely revels in elaborate
financial statements. And constantly, just as we hope that the action is
about to begin, he catches us, as it were, by the button-hole, and begs
us to wait a minute to listen to a few more preparatory remarks. In one
or two of the stories, as, for example, in the 'Maison Nucingen,' the
introduction seems to fill the whole book. After expecting some
catastrophe, we gradually become aware that Balzac has thought it
necessary to give us a conscientious explanation of some very dull
commercial intrigues, in order to fill up gaps in other stories of the
cycle. Some one might possibly ask, what was the precise origin of this
great failure of which we hear so much, and Balzac resolves that he
shall have as complete an answer as though he were an accountant drawing
up a balance-sheet. It is said, I know not on what authority, that his
story of 'César Birotteau' has, in fact, been quoted in French courts as
illustrating the law of bankruptcy; and the details given are so ample,
and, to English readers at least, so wearisome, that it really reads
more like a legal statement of a case than a novel. As another example
of this elaborate workmanship I may quote the remarkable story of 'Les
Paysans.' It is intended to illustrate the character of the French
peasant, his profound avarice and cunning, and his bitter jealousy,
which forms a whole district into a tacit conspiracy against the rich,
held together by closer bonds than those of a Fenian lodge. Balzac
resolves that we shall have the whole scene and all the actors
distinctly before us. We have a description of a country-house more
poetical, but far more detailed, than one in an auctioneer's circular;
then we have a photograph of the neighbouring _cabaret_; then a minute
description of its inhabitants, and a detailed statement of their ways
and means. The story here makes a feeble start; but Balzac recollects
that we don't quite know the origin of the quarrel on which it depends,
and, therefore, elaborately describes the former proprietor, points out
precisely how she was cheated by her bailiff, and precisely to what
amount, and throws in descriptions of two or three supplementary
persons. We now make another start in the history of the quarrel; but
this immediately throws us back into a minute description of the old
bailiff's family circumstances, of the characters of several of his
connections, and of the insidious villain who succeeds him. Then we have
a careful financial statement of the second proprietor's losses, and the
commercial system which favours them; this leads to some antiquarian
details concerning the bailiff's house, and to detailed portraits of
each of the four guards who are set to watch over the property. Then
Balzac remarks that we cannot possibly understand the quarrel without
understanding fully the complicated family relations, owing to which the
officials of the department form what in America would be called a
'ring.' By this time we are half-way through the volume, and the
promised story is still in its infancy. Even Balzac makes an apology for
his _longueurs_, and tries to set to work in greater earnest. He is so
much interrupted, however, by the necessity of elaborately introducing
every new actor, and all his or her relations, and the houses in which
they live, and their commercial and social position, that the essence of
the story has at last to be compressed into half-a-dozen pages. In
short, the novel resolves itself into a series of sketches; and reading
it is like turning over a set of photographs, with letterpress
descriptions at intervals. Or we may compare it to one of those novels
of real life, so strange to the English mind, in which a French
indictment sums up the whole previous history of the persons accused,
accumulates every possible bit of information which may or may not throw
light upon the facts, and diverges from the point, as English lawyers
would imagine, into the most irrelevant considerations.

Balzac, it is plain, differs widely from our English authors, who
generally slightly despise their own art, and think that, in providing
amusement for our idle hours, they are rather derogating from their
dignity. Instead of claiming our attention as a right, they try to
entice us into interest by every possible artifice: they give us
exciting glimpses of horrors to come; they are restlessly anxious to get
their stories well under way. Balzac is far more confident in his
position. He never doubts that we shall be willing to study his works
with the seriousness due to a scientific treatise. And occasionally,
when he is seized by a sudden and most deplorable fit of morality, he
becomes as dull as a sermon. The gravity with which he sets before us
all the benevolent schemes of the _médecin de campagne_, and describes
the whole charitable machinery of the district, makes his performance as
dismal as a gigantic religious tract. But when, in his happier and
wickeder moods, he turns this amazing capacity of graphic description to
its true account, the power of his method makes itself manifest. Every
bit of elaborate geographical and financial information has its meaning,
and tells with accumulated force on the final result. I may instance,
for example, the descriptions of Paris, which form the indispensable
background to the majority of his stories, and contribute in no
inconsiderable share to their tragic effect. Balzac had to deal with the
Paris of the Restoration, full of strange tortuous streets and
picturesque corners, of swinging lanterns and defective drainage; the
Paris which inevitably suggested barricades and street massacres, and
was impregnated to the core with old historical associations. It had not
yet lowered itself to the comprehension of New Yorkers, and still
offered such scenery as Gustave Doré has caught in his wonderful
illustrations of the 'Contes Drolatiques.' Its mysterious and not
over-cleanly charm lives in the pages of Balzac, and harmonises with the
strange society which he has created to people its streets. Thus, in one
of his most audacious stories, where the horribly grotesque trembles on
the verge of the ridiculous, he strikes the key-note by an elegant
apostrophe to Paris. There are, he tells us, a few connoisseurs who
enjoy the Parisian flavour like the bouquet of some delicate wine. To
all Paris is a marvel; to them it is a living creature; every man, every
fragment of a house, is 'part of the cellular tissue of this great
courtesan, whose head, heart, and fantastic manners are thoroughly known
to them.' They are lovers of Paris; to them it is a costly luxury to
travel in Paris. They are incessantly arrested before the dramas, the
disasters, the picturesque accidents, which assail one in the midst of
this moving queen of cities. They start in the morning to go to its
extremities, and find themselves still unable to leave its centre at
dinner-time. It is a marvellous spectacle at all times; but, he
exclaims, 'O Paris! qui n'a pas admiré tes sombres paysages, tes
échappées de lumière, tes culs-de-sac profonds et silencieux; qui n'a
pas entendu tes murmures entre minuit et deux heures du matin, ne
connait encore rien de ta vraie poésie, ni de tes bizarres et larges
contrastes.'

In the scenes which follow, we are introduced to a lover watching the
beautiful and virtuous object of his adoration as she descends an
infamous street late in the evening, and enters one of the houses
through a damp, moist, and fetid passage, feebly lighted by a trembling
lamp, beneath which are seen the hideous face and skinny fingers of an
old woman, as fitly placed as the witches in the blasted heath in
'Macbeth.' In this case, however, Balzac is in one of his wildest moods,
and the hideous mysteries of a huge capital become the pretext for a
piece of rather ludicrous melodrama. Paris is full enough of tragedies
without the preposterous beggar Ferragus, who appears at balls as a
distinguished diplomat, and manages to place on a young gentleman's head
of hair a slow poison (invented for the purpose), which brings him to an
early grave. More impressive, because less extravagant, is that Maison
Vauquer, every hole and corner of which is familiar to the real student
of Balzac. It is situated, as everybody should know, in the Rue Neuve
St.-Geneviève, just where it descends so steeply towards the Rue de
l'Arbalète that horses have some trouble in climbing it. We know its
squalid exterior, its creaking bell, the wall painted to represent an
arcade in green marble, the crumbling statue of Cupid, with the
half-effaced inscription--

    'Qui que tu sois, voici ton maître,--
     Il l'est, le fut, ou le doit être.'

We have visited the wretched garden with its scanty pot-herbs and
scarecrow beds, and the green benches in the miserable arbour, where the
lodgers who are rich enough to enjoy such a luxury indulge in a cup of
coffee after dinner. The salon, with its greasy and worn-out furniture,
every bit of which is catalogued, is as familiar as our own studies. We
know the exact geography even of the larder and the cistern. We catch
the odour of the damp, close office, where Madame Vauquer lurks like a
human spider. She is the animating genius of the place, and we know the
exact outline of her figure, and every article of her dress. The
minuteness of her portrait brings out the horrors of the terrible
process by which poor Goriot gradually sinks from one step to another
of the social ladder, and simultaneously ascends from the first floor to
the garrets. We can track his steps and trace his agony. Each station of
that melancholy pilgrimage is painted, down to the minutest details,
with unflinching fidelity.

Paris, says Balzac, is an ocean; however painfully you explore it and
sound its depths, there are still virgin corners, unknown caves with
their flowers, pearls, and monsters, forgotten by literary divers. The
Maison Vauquer is one of these singular monstrosities. No one, at any
rate, can complain that Balzac has not done his best to describe and
analyse the character of the unknown social species which it contains.
It absorbs our interest by the contrast of its vulgar and intensely
commonplace exterior with the terrible passions and sufferings of which
it is the appropriate scene.

The horrors of a great metropolis, indeed, give ample room for tragedy.
Old Sandy Mackaye takes Alton Locke to the entrance of a London alley,
and tells the sentimental tailor to write poetry about that. 'Say how ye
saw the mouth o' hell, and the twa pillars thereof at the entry, the
pawnbroker's shop on the one side and the gin-palace at the other--two
monstrous deevils, eating up men, women, and bairns, body and soul. Look
at the jaws o' the monsters, how they open and open to swallow in
anither victim and anither. Write about that!' The poor tailor complains
that it is unpoetical, and Mackaye replies, 'Hah! is there no the heaven
above them here and the hell beneath them? and God frowning and the
deevil grinning? No poetry there! Is no the verra idee of the classic
tragedy defined to be--man conquered by circumstances? Canna ye see it
here?' But the quotation must stop, for Mackaye goes on to a moral not
quite according to Balzac. Balzac, indeed, was anything but a Christian
socialist, or a Radical reformer; we don't often catch sight in his
pages of God frowning or the devil grinning; his world seems to be
pretty well forgotten by the one, and its inhabitants to be quite able
to dispense with the services of the other. Paris, he tells us in his
most outrageous story, is a hell, which one day may have its Dante. The
prolétaire lives in its lowest circle, and seldom comes into Balzac's
pages except as representing the half-seen horrors of the gulf reserved
for that corrupt and brilliant society whose vices he loves to describe.
A summary of his creed is given by a queer contrast to Mackaye, the
accomplished and able De Marsay. People speak, he says, of the
immorality of certain books; here is a horrible, foul, and corrupt book,
always open and never to be shut; the great book of the world; and
beyond that is another book a thousand times more dangerous, which
consists of all that is whispered by one man to another, or discussed
under ladies' fans at balls. Balzac's pages are flavoured, rather to
excess, with this diabolical spice, composed of dark allusions to, or
audacious revelations of these hideous mysteries. If he is wanting in
the moral elevation necessary for a Dante, he has some of the sinister
power which makes him a fit guide to the horrors of our modern Inferno.

       *       *       *       *       *

Before accepting Balzac's guidance into these mysterious regions, I must
touch upon another peculiarity. Balzac's genius for skilfully-combined
photographic detail explains his strange power of mystification. A word
is wanting to express that faint acquiescence or mimic belief which we
generally grant to a novelist. Dr. Newman has constructed a scale of
assent according to its varying degrees of intensity; and we might,
perhaps, assume that to each degree there corresponds a mock assent
accorded to different kinds of fiction. If Scott, for example, requires
from his readers a shadow of that kind of belief which we grant to an
ordinary historian, Balzac requires a shadow of the belief which Dr.
Pusey gives to the Bible. This still remains distinctly below any
genuine assent; for Balzac never wishes us really to forget, though he
occasionally forgets himself, that his most lifelike characters are
imaginary. But in certain subordinate topics he seems to make a higher
demand on our faith. He is full of more or less fanciful heresies, and
labours hard to convince us either that they are true or that he
seriously holds them. This is what I mean by mystification, and one
fears to draw a line as to which he was probably far from clear himself.
Thus, for example, he is a devout believer in physiognomy, and not only
in its obvious sense; he erects it into an occult science. Lavater and
Gall, he says, 'prove incontestably' that ominous signs exist in our
heads. Take, for example, the chasseur Michu, his white face injected
with blood and compressed like a Calmuck's; his ruddy, crisp hair; his
beard cut in the shape of a fan; the noble forehead which surmounts and
overhangs his sunburnt, sarcastic features; his ears well detached, and
possessing a sort of mobility, like those of a wild animal; his mouth
half open, and revealing a set of fine but uneven teeth; his thick and
glossy whiskers; his hair, close in front, long on the sides and behind,
with its wild, ruddy hue throwing into relief the strange and fatal
character of the physiognomy; his short, thick neck, designed to tempt
the hatchet of the guillotine: these details, so accurately
photographed, not only prove that M. Michu was a resolute, faithful
servant, capable of the profoundest secresy and the most disinterested
attachment, but for the really skilful reader of mystic symbols foretell
his ultimate fate--namely, that he will be the victim of a false
accusation. Balzac, however, ventures into still more whimsical
extremes. He accepts, in all apparent seriousness, the theory of his
favourite, Mr. Shandy, that a man's name influences his character. Thus,
for example, a man called Minoret-Levrault must necessarily be 'un
éléphant sans trompe et sans intelligence,' and the occult meaning of Z.
Marcas requires a long and elaborate commentary. Repeat the word Marcas,
dwelling on the first syllable, and dropping abruptly on the second, and
you will see that the man who bears it must be a martyr. The zigzag of
the initial implies a life of torment. What ill wind, he asks, has blown
upon this letter, which in no language (Balzac's acquaintance with
German was probably limited) commands more than fifty words? The name is
composed of seven letters, and seven is most characteristic of
cabalistic numbers. If M. Gozlan's narrative be authentic, Balzac was
right to value this name highly, for he had spent many hours in seeking
for it by a systematic perambulation of the streets of Paris. He was
rather vexed at the discovery that the Marcas of real life was a tailor.
'He deserved a better fate!' said Balzac pathetically; 'but it shall be
my business to immortalise him.'

Balzac returns to this subject so often and so emphatically that one
half believes him to be the victim of his own mystification. Perhaps he
was the one genuine disciple of Mr. Shandy and Slawkenbergius, and
believed sincerely in the occult influence of names and noses. In more
serious matters it is impossible to distinguish the point at which his
feigned belief passes into real superstition; he stimulates conviction
so elaborately, that his sober opinions shade off imperceptibly into
his fanciful dreamings. For a time he was attracted by mesmerism, and in
the story of Ursule Mirouet he labours elaborately to infect his readers
with a belief in what he calls 'magnetism, the favourite science of
Jesus, and one of the powers transmitted to the apostles.' He assumes
his gravest airs in adducing the cases of Cardan, Swedenborg, and a
certain Duke of Montmorency, as though he were a genuine historical
inquirer. He almost adopts the tone of a pious missionary in describing
how his atheist doctor was led by the revelations of a _clairvoyante_ to
study Pascal's 'Pensées' and Bossuet's sublime 'Histoire des
Variations,' though what those works have to do with mesmerism is rather
difficult to see. He relates the mysterious visions caused by the
converted doctor after his death, not less minutely, though more
artistically, than De Foe described the terrible apparition of Mrs.
Veal, and, it must be confessed, his story illustrates with almost equal
force the doctrine, too often forgotten by spiritualists, that ghosts
should not make themselves too common. When once they begin to mix in
general society, they become intolerably prosaic.

The ostentatious belief which is paraded in this instance is turned to
more artistic account in the wonderful story of the 'Peau de Chagrin.'
Balzac there tries as conscientiously as ever to surmount the natural
revolt of our minds against the introduction of the supernatural into
life. The _peau de chagrin_ is the modern substitute for the
old-fashioned parchment on which contracts were signed with the devil.
M. Valentin, its possessor, is a Faust of the boulevards; but our
prejudices are softened by the circumstance that the _peau de chagrin_
has a false air of scientific authenticity. It is discovered by a
gentleman who spends a spare half-hour before committing suicide in an
old curiosity shop, which occupies a sort of middle standing-ground
between a wizard's laboratory and the ordinary Wardour Street shop.
There is no question of signing with one's blood, but simply of
accepting a curious substance with the property--rather a startling one,
it is true--that its area diminishes in proportion to the amount of
wishes gratified, and vanishes with the death of the possessor. The
steady flesh-and-blood men of science treat it just as we feel certain
that they would do. After smashing a hydraulic press in the attempt to
compress it, and exhausting the power of chemical agents, they agree to
make a joke of it. It is not so much more wonderful than some of those
modern miracles, which leave us to hesitate between the two incredible
alternatives that men of science are fallible, or that mankind in
general, like Sir Walter Scott's grandmother, are 'awfu' leears.' Every
effort is made to reduce the strain upon our credulity to that moderate
degree of intensity which may fairly be required from the reader of a
wild fiction. When the first characteristic wish of the
proprietor--namely, that he may be indulged in a frantic orgie--has been
gratified without any apparent intervention of the supernatural, we are
left just in that proper equilibrium between scepticism and credulity
which is the right mental attitude in presence of a marvellous story.
Balzac, it is true, seems rather to flag in continuing his narrative.
The symbolical meaning begins to part company with the facts. Stories of
this kind require the congenial atmosphere of an ideal world, and the
effort of interpreting such a poetical legend into terms of ordinary
life is perhaps too great for the powers of any literary artist. At any
rate M. Valentin drops after a time from the level of Faust to become
the hero of a rather commonplace Parisian story. The opening scenes,
however, are an admirable specimen of the skill by which our
irrepressible scepticism may be hindered from intruding into a sphere
where it is out of place; or rather--for one can hardly speak of belief
in such a connection--of the skill by which the discord between the
surroundings of the nineteenth century and a story of grotesque
supernaturalism can be converted into a pleasant harmony. A similar
effect is produced in one of Balzac's finest stories, the 'Recherche de
l'Absolu.' Every accessory is provided to induce us, so long as we are
under the spell, to regard the discovery of the philosopher's stone as a
reasonable application of human energy. We are never quite clear whether
Balthazar Claes is a madman or a commanding genius. We are kept
trembling on the verge of a revelation till we become interested in
spite of our more sober sense. A single diamond turns up in a crucible
which was unluckily produced in the absence of the philosopher, so that
he cannot tell what are the necessary conditions of repeating the
process. He is supposed to discover the secret just as he is struck by a
paralysis, which renders him incapable of revealing it, and dies whilst
making desperate efforts to communicate the crowning success to his
family. Balzac throws himself into the situation with such energy that
we are irresistibly carried away by his enthusiasm. The impossibility
ceases to annoy us, and merely serves to give additional dignity to the
story.

       *       *       *       *       *

One other variety of mystification may introduce us to some of Balzac's
most powerful stories. He indulges more frequently than could be wished
in downright melodrama, or what is generally called sensational writing.
In the very brilliant sketch of Nathan in 'Une Fille d'Eve,' he remarks
that 'the mission of genius is to search, through the accidents of the
true, for that which must appear probable to all the world.' The common
saying, that truth is stranger than fiction, should properly be
expressed as an axiom that fiction ought not to be so strange as truth.
A marvellous event is interesting in real life, simply because we know
that it happened. In a fiction we know that it did not happen; and
therefore it is interesting only as far as it is explained. Anybody can
invent a giant or a genius by the simple process of altering figures or
piling up superlatives. The artist has to make the existence of the
giant or the genius conceivable. Balzac, however, often enough forgets
this principle, and treats us to purely preposterous incidents, which
are either grotesque or simply childish. The history of the marvellous
'Thirteen,' for example, that mysterious band which includes statesmen,
beggars, men of fortune, and journalists, and goes about committing the
most inconceivable crimes without the possibility of discovery, becomes
simply ludicrous. Balzac, as usual, labours to reconcile our minds to
the absurdity; but the effort is beyond his powers. The amazing disease
which he invents for the benefit of the villains in the 'Cousine Bette'
can only be accepted as a broad joke. At times, as in the story of the
'Grande Bretêche,' where the lover is bricked up by the husband in the
presence of the wife, he reminds us of Edgar Poe's worst extravagances.
There is, indeed, this much to be said for Balzac in comparison with the
more recent school, who have turned to account all the most refined
methods of breaking the ten commandments and the criminal code; the
fault of the so-called sensation writer is, not that he deals in murder,
bigamy, or adultery--every great writer likes to use powerful
situations--but that he relies upon our interest in startling crimes to
distract our attention from feebly-drawn characters and conventional
details. Balzac does not often fall into that weakness. If his criminals
are frequently of the most outrageous kind, and indulge even in
practices unmentionable, the crime is intended at least to be of
secondary interest. He tries to fix our attention on the passions by
which they are caused, and to attract us chiefly by the legitimate
method of analysing human nature--even, it must be confessed, in some of
its most abnormal manifestations. Macbeth is not interesting because he
commits half-a-dozen murders; but the murders are interesting because
they are committed by Macbeth. We may generally say as much for Balzac's
villains; and it is the only justification for a free use of blood and
brutality. In applying these remarks, we come to the real secret of
Balzac's power, which will demand a fuller consideration.

It is common to say of all great novelists, and of Balzac in particular,
that they display a wonderful 'knowledge of the human heart.' The chief
objection to the phrase is that such knowledge does not exist. Nobody
has as yet found his way through the complexities of that intricate
machine, and described the springs and balances by which its movement is
originated and controlled. Men of vivid imagination are in some respects
less competent for such a work than their neighbours. They have not the
cool, hard, and steady hand required for psychological dissection.
Balzac gave a queer specimen of his own incapacity in an attempt to
investigate the true history of a real murder, celebrated in its day,
and supposed by everybody but Balzac to have been committed by one
Peytel, who was put to death in spite of his pleading. His skill in
devising motives for imaginary atrocities was a positive
disqualification for dealing with facts and legal evidence. The greatest
poet or novelist describes only one person, and that is himself; and he
differs from his inferiors, not necessarily in having a more systematic
knowledge, but in having wider sympathies, and so to speak, possessing a
great number of characters. Cervantes was at once Don Quixote and Sancho
Panza; Shakespeare was Hamlet and Mercutio and Othello and Falstaff;
Scott was at once Dandie Dinmont and the Antiquary and the Master of
Ravenswood; and Balzac embodies his different phases of feeling in
Eugénie Grandet and Vautrin and the Père Goriot. The assertion that he
knew the human heart must be interpreted to mean that he could
sympathise with, and give expression to, a wide range of human passions;
as his supposed knowledge of the world implies merely that he was deeply
impressed by certain phenomena of the social medium in which he was
placed. Nobody, I should be inclined to think, would have given a more
unsound judgment than Balzac as to the characters of the men whom he
met, or formed a less trustworthy estimate of the real condition of
society. He was totally incapable of stripping the bare facts given by
observation of the colouring which they received from his own
idiosyncrasy. But nobody, within certain points, could express more
vividly in outward symbols the effect produced upon keen sympathies and
a powerful imagination by the aspect of the world around him.

The characteristic peculiarities of Balzac's novels may be described as
the intensity with which he expresses certain motives, and the vigour
with which he portrays the real or imaginary corruption of society. Upon
one particular situation, or class of situations, favourable to this
peculiar power, he is never tired of dwelling. He repeats himself
indeed, in a certain sense, as a man must necessarily repeat himself who
writes eighty-five stories, besides doing other work, in less than
twenty years. In this voluminous outpouring of matter the machinery is
varied with wonderful fertility of invention, but one sentiment recurs
very frequently. The great majority of Balzac's novels, including all
the most powerful examples, may thus be described as variations on a
single theme. Each of them is in fact the record of a martyrdom. There
is always a virtuous hero or heroine who is tortured, and most
frequently, tortured to death, by a combination of selfish intrigues.
The commonest case is, of course, that which has become the staple plot
of French novelists, where the interesting young woman is sacrificed to
the brutality of a dull husband: that, for example, is the story of the
'Femme de Trente Ans,' of 'Le Lys dans la Vallée,' and of several minor
performances; then we have the daughter sacrificed to the avaricious
father, as in 'Eugénie Grandet;' the woman sacrificed to the imperious
lover in the 'Duchesse de Langeais;' the immoral beauty sacrificed to
the ambition of her lover in the 'Splendeurs et Misères des
Courtisanes;' the mother sacrificed to the dissolute son in the 'Ménage
de Garçon;' the woman of political ambition sacrificed to the
contemptible intriguers opposed to her in 'Les Employés;' and, indeed,
in one way or other, as subordinate character or as heroine, this figure
of a graceful feminine victim comes into nearly every novel. Virtuous
heroes fare little better. Poor Colonel Chabert is disowned and driven
to beggary by the wife who has committed bigamy; the luckless curé,
Birotteau, is cheated out of his prospects and doomed to a broken heart
by the successful villainy of a rival priest and his accomplices; the
Comte de Manerville is ruined and transported by his wife and his
detestable mother-in-law; Père Goriot is left to starvation by his
daughters; the Marquis d'Espard is all but condemned as a lunatic by the
manoeuvres of his wife; the faithful servant Michu comes to the
guillotine; the devoted notary Chesnel is beggared in the effort to save
his scape-grace of a master; Michaud, another devoted adherent, is
murdered with perfect success by the brutal peasantry, and his wife dies
of the news; Balthazar Claes is the victim of his devotion to science;
and Z. Marcas dies unknown and in the depths of misery as a reward for
trying to be a second Colbert. The old-fashioned canons of poetical
justice are inverted; and the villains are dismissed to live very
happily ever afterwards, whilst the virtuous are slain outright or
sentenced to a death by slow torture. Thackeray, in one or two of his
minor stories, has touched the same note. The history of Mr. Deuceace,
and especially its catastrophe, is much in Balzac's style; but, as a
rule, our English novelists shrink from anything so unpleasant.

Perhaps the most striking example of this method is the 'Père Goriot.'
The general situation may be described in two words, by saying that
Goriot is the modern King Lear. Mesdames de Restaud and de Nucingen are
the representatives of Regan and Goneril; but the Parisian Lear is not
allowed the consolation of a Cordelia; the cup of misery is measured out
to him drop by drop, and the bitterness of each dose is analysed with
chemical accuracy. We watch the poor old broken-down merchant, who has
impoverished himself to provide his daughters' dowries, and has
gradually stripped himself, first of comfort, and then of the
necessaries of life to satisfy the demands of their folly and luxury,
as we might watch a man clinging to the edge of a cliff and gradually
dropping lower and lower, catching feebly at every point of support till
his strength is exhausted, and the inevitable catastrophe follows. The
daughters, allowed to retain some fragments of good feeling and not
quite irredeemably hateful, are gradually yielding to the demoralising
influence of a heartless vanity. They yield, it is true, pretty
completely at last; but their wickedness seems to reveal the influence
of a vague but omnipotent power of evil in the background. There is not
a more characteristic scene in Balzac than that in which Rastignac, the
lover of Madame de Nucingen, overhears the conversation between the
father in his wretched garret and the modern Goneril and Regan. A gleam
of good fortune has just encouraged old Goriot to anticipate an escape
from his troubles. On the morning of the day of expected release Madame
Goneril de Nucingen rushes up to her father's garret to explain to him
that her husband, the rich banker, having engaged all his funds in some
diabolical financial intrigues, refuses to allow her the use of her
fortune; whilst, owing to her own misconduct, she is afraid to appeal to
the law. They have a hideous tacit compact, according to which the wife
enjoys full domestic liberty, whilst the husband may use her fortune to
carry out his dishonest plots. She begs her father to examine the facts
in the light of his financial experience, though the examination must be
deferred, that she may not look ill with the excitement when she meets
her lover at the ball. As the poor father is tormenting his brains,
Madame Regan de Restaud appears in terrible distress. Her lover has
threatened to commit suicide unless he can meet a certain bill, and to
save him she has pledged certain diamonds which were heirlooms in her
husband's family. Her husband has discovered the whole transaction,
and, though not making an open scandal, imposes some severe conditions
upon her future. Old Goriot is raving against the brutality of her
husband, when Regan adds that there is still a sum to be paid, without
which her lover, to whom she has sacrificed everything, will be ruined.
Now old Goriot had employed just this sum--all but the very last
fragment of his fortune--in the service of Goneril. A desperate quarrel
instantly takes place between the two fine ladies over this last scrap
of their father's property. They are fast degenerating into Parisian
Billingsgate, when Goriot succeeds in obtaining silence and proposes to
strip himself of his last penny. Even the sisters hesitate at such an
impiety, and Rastignac enters with some apology for listening, and hands
over to the countess a certain bill of exchange for a sum which he
professes himself to owe to Goriot, and which will just save her lover.
She accepts the paper, but vehemently denounces her sister for having,
as she supposes, allowed Rastignac to listen to their hideous
revelations, and retires in a fury, whilst the father faints away. He
recovers to express his forgiveness, and at this moment the countess
returns, ostensibly to throw herself on her knees and beg her father's
pardon. She apologises to her sister, and a general reconciliation takes
place. But before she has again left the room she has obtained her
father's endorsement to Rastignac's bill. Even her most genuine fury had
left coolness enough for calculation, and her burst of apparent
tenderness was a skilful bit of comedy for squeezing one more drop of
blood from her father and victim. That is a genuine stroke of Balzac.

Hideous as the performance appears when coolly stated, it must be
admitted that the ladies have got into such terrible perplexities from
tampering with the seventh commandment, that there is some excuse for
their breaking the fifth. Whether such an accumulation of horrors is a
legitimate process in art, and whether a healthy imagination would like
to dwell upon such loathsome social sores, is another question. The
comparison suggested with 'King Lear' may illustrate the point. In
Balzac all the subordinate details which Shakespeare throws in with a
very slovenly touch are elaborately drawn, and contribute powerfully to
the total impression. On the other hand, we never reach the lofty
poetical heights of the grandest scenes in 'King Lear.' But the
situation of the two heroes offers an instructive contrast. Lear is
weak, but is never contemptible; he is the ruin of a gallant old king,
is guilty of no degrading compliance, and dies like a man, with his
'good biting falchion' still grasped in his feeble hand. To change him
into Goriot we must suppose that he had licked the hand which struck
him, that he had helped on the adulterous intrigues of Goneril and Regan
from sheer weakness, and that all his fury had been directed against
Cornwall and Albany for objecting to his daughters' eccentric views of
the obligation of the marriage vow. Paternal affection leading a man to
the most trying self-sacrifice is a worthy motive for a great drama or
romance; but Balzac is so anxious to intensify the emotion, that he
makes even paternal affection morally degrading. Everything must be done
to heighten the colouring. Our sympathies are to be excited by making
the sacrifice as complete, and the emotion which prompts it as
overpowering, as possible; until at last the love of children becomes a
monomania. Goriot is not only dragged through the mud of Paris, but he
grovels in it with a will. In short, Balzac wants that highest power
which shows itself by moderation, and commits a fault like that of an
orator who emphasizes every sentence. With less expenditure of horrors,
he would excite our compassion more powerfully. But after all, Goriot
is, perhaps, more really affecting even than King Lear.

Situations of the 'Père Goriot' kind are, in some sense, more
appropriate for heroines than for heroes. Self-sacrifice is, for the
present at least, considered by a large part of mankind as the complete
duty of woman. The feminine martyr can indulge without loss of our
esteem in compliances which would be degrading in a man. Accordingly
Balzac finds the amplest materials for his favourite situation in the
torture of innocent women. The great example of his skill in this
department is Eugénie Grandet, in which the situation of the Père Goriot
is inverted. Poor Eugénie is the victim of a domestic tyrant, who is,
perhaps, Balzac's most finished portrait of the cold-blooded and cunning
miser. The sacrifice of a woman's life to paternal despotism is
unfortunately even commoner in real life than in fiction; and when the
lover, from whom the old miser has divided her during his life, deserts
her after his death, we feel that the mournful catastrophe is demanded
by the sombre prologue. The book may indeed justify, to some extent, one
of the ordinary criticisms upon Balzac, that he showed a special
subtlety in describing the sufferings of women. The question as to the
general propriety of that criticism is rather difficult for a male
critic. I confess to a certain scepticism, founded partly on the general
principle that hardly any author can really describe the opposite sex,
and partly on an antipathy which I cannot repress to Balzac's most
ambitious feminine portraits.

Eugénie Grandet is perhaps the purest of his women; but then Eugénie
Grandet is simply stupid, and interesting from her sufferings rather
than her character. She reminds us of some patient animal of the
agricultural kind, with bovine softness of eyes and bovine obstinacy
under suffering. His other women, though they are not simply courtesans,
after the fashion of some French writers, seem, as it were, to have a
certain perceptible taint; they breathe an unwholesome atmosphere. In
one of his extravagant humours, he tells us that the most perfect
picture of purity in existence is the Madonna of the Genoese painter,
Piola, but that even that celestial Madonna would have looked like a
Messalina by the side of the Duchesse de Manfrigneuse. If the duchess
resembled either personage in character, it was certainly not the
Madonna. And Balzac's best women give us the impression that they are
courtesans acting the character of virgins, and showing admirable
dramatic skill in the performance. They may keep up the part so
obstinately as to let the acting become earnest; but even when they
don't think of breaking the seventh commandment, they are always
thinking about not breaking it. When he has done his best to describe a
thoroughly pure woman, such as Henrietta in the 'Lys dans la Vallée,' he
cannot refrain from spoiling his performance by throwing in a hint at
the conclusion that, after all, she had a strong disposition to go
wrong, which was only defeated by circumstances. Indeed, the ladies who
in his pages have broken loose from all social restraints, differ only
in external circumstances from their more correct sisters. Coralie, in
the 'Illusions Perdues,' is not so chaste in her conduct as the
immaculate Henriette, but is not a whit less delicate in her tastes.
Madame de la Baudraye deserts her husband, and lives for some years with
her disreputable lover at Paris, and does not in the least forfeit the
sympathies of her creator. Balzac's feminine types may be classified
pretty easily. At bottom they are all of the sultana variety--playthings
who occasionally venture into mixing with the serious affairs of life,
but then only on pain of being ridiculous (as in the 'Employés,' or the
'Muse du Département'); but properly confined to their drawing-rooms,
with delicate cajoleries for their policy, and cunning instead of
intellect. Sometimes they are cold-hearted and selfish, and then they
are vicious, making victims of lovers, husbands, or fathers, consuming
fortunes, and spreading ill-will by cunning intrigues; sometimes they
are virtuous, and therefore according to Balzac's logic, pitiable
victims of the world. But their virtue, when it exists, is the effect,
not of lofty principle, but of a certain delicacy of taste corresponding
to a fine organisation. They object to vice, because it is apt to be
coarse; and are perfectly ready to yield, if it can be presented in such
graceful forms as not to shock their sensibilities. Marriage is
therefore a complicated intrigue in which one party is always deceived,
though it may be for his or her good. If you will be loved, says the
judicious lady in the 'Mémoires de Deux Jeunes Mariées,' the secret is
not to love; and the rather flimsy epigram is converted into a great
moral truth. The justification of the lady is, that love is only made
permanent by elaborate intrigue. The wife is to be always on the footing
of a mistress who can only preserve her lover by incessant and
infinitely varied caresses. To do this, she must be herself cool. The
great enemy of matrimonial happiness is satiety, and we are constantly
presented with an affectionate wife boring her husband to death, and
alienating him by over-devotion. If one party is to be cheated, the one
who is freest from passion will be the winner of the game. As a maxim,
after the fashion of Rochefoucauld, this doctrine may have enough truth
to be plausible; but when seriously accepted and made the substantive
moral of a succession of stories, one is reminded less of a really acute
observer than of a lad fresh from college who thinks that wisdom
consists in an exaggerated cynicism. When ladies of this variety break
their hearts, they either die or retire in a picturesque manner to a
convent. They are indeed the raw material of which the genuine _dévote_
is made. The morbid sentimentality directed to the lover passes without
perceptible shock into a religious sentimentality, the object of which
is at least ostensibly different. The graceful but voluptuous mistress
of the Parisian salon is developed without any violent transition into
the equally graceful and ascetic nun. The connection between the
luxurious indulgence of material flirtations and religious mysticism is
curious, but unmistakable.

Balzac's reputation in this respect is founded, not on his little hoard
of cynical maxims, which, to say the truth, are not usually very
original, but on the vivid power of describing the details and scenery
of the martyrdom, and the energy with which he paints the emotion, of
the victim. Whether his women are very lifelike, or very varied in
character, may be doubted; but he has certainly endowed them with an
admirable capacity for suffering, and forces us to listen
sympathetically to their cries of anguish. The peculiar cynicism implied
in this view of feminine existence must be taken as part of his
fundamental theory of society. When Rastignac has seen Goriot buried,
the ceremony being attended only by his daughters' empty carriages, he
climbs to the highest part of the cemetery, and looks over Paris. As he
contemplates the vast buzzing hive, he exclaims solemnly, 'à nous deux
maintenant!' The world is before him; he is to fight his way in future
without remorse. Accordingly, Balzac's view of society is, that it is a
masquerade of devils, engaged in tormenting a few wandering angels. That
society is not what Balzac represents it to be is sufficiently proved by
the fact that society exists; as indeed he is profoundly convinced that
its destruction is only a question of time. It is rotten to the core.
Lust and avarice are the moving forms of the world, while profound and
calculating selfishness has sapped the base of all morality. The type of
a successful statesman is De Marsay, a kind of imaginary Talleyrand, who
rules because he has recognised the intrinsic baseness of mankind, and
has no scruples in turning it to account. Vautrin, who is an open enemy
of society, is simply De Marsay in revolt. The weapons with which he
fights are distinguished from those of greater men, not in their
intrinsic wickedness, but in their being accidentally forbidden by law.
He is less of a hypocrite, and scarcely a greater villain than his more
prosperous rivals. He ultimately recognises the futility of the strife,
agrees to wear a mask like his neighbours, and accepts the congenial
duties of a police agent. The secret of success in all ranks of life is
to be without scruples of morality, but exceedingly careful of breaking
the law. The bankers, Nucingen and Du Tillet, are merely cheats on a
gigantic scale. They ruin their enemies by financiering instead of
picking pockets. Be wicked if you would be successful; if possible let
your wickedness be refined; but, at all events, be wicked.

There is, indeed, a class of unsuccessful villains, to be found chiefly
amongst journalists, for whom Balzac has a special aversion; they live,
he tells us, partly on extortion, and partly on the prostitution of
their talents to gratify political or personal animosities, and are at
the mercy of the longest purse. They fail in life, not because they are
too immoral, but because they are too weak. They are the victims instead
of the accomplices of more resolute evil-doers. Lucien de Rubempré is
the type of this class. Endowed with surpassing genius and personal
beauty, he goes to Paris to make his fortune, and is introduced to the
world as it is. On the one hand is a little knot of virtuous men, called
the _cénacle_, who are working for posterity and meanwhile starving. On
the other is a vast mass of cheats and dupes. After a brief struggle
Lucien yields to temptation, and joins in the struggle for wealth and
power. But he has not strength enough to play his part. His head is
turned by the flattery of pretty actresses and scheming publishers: he
is enticed into thoughtless dissipation, and, after a brilliant start,
finds that he is at the mercy of the cleverer villains who surround him;
that he has been bought and sold like a sheep; that his character is
gone, and his imagination become sluggish; and, finally, he has to
escape from utter ruin by scarcely describable degradation. He writes a
libel on one of his virtuous friends, who is forgiving enough to improve
it and correct it for the press. In order to bury his mistress, who has
been ruined with him, he has to raise money by grovelling in the foulest
depths of literary sewerage. He at last succeeds in crawling back to his
relations in the country, morally and materially ruined. He makes
another effort to rise, backed up by the diabolical arts of Vautrin, and
relying rather on his beauty than his talents. The world is again too
strong for him, and, after being accomplice in the most outrageous
crimes, he ends appropriately by hanging himself in prison. Vautrin, as
we have seen, escapes from the fate of his partner because he retains
coolness enough to practise upon the vices of the governing classes.
The world, in short, is composed of three classes--consistent and,
therefore, successful villains; inconsistent and, therefore,
unsuccessful villains; and virtuous persons, who never have a chance of
success, and enjoy the honours of starvation.

The provinces differ from Paris in the nature of the social warfare, but
not in its morality. Passions are directed to meaner objects; they are
narrower, and more intense. The whole of a man's faculties are
concentrated upon one object; and he pursues it for years with
relentless and undeviating ardour. To supplant a rival, to acquire a few
more acres, to gratify jealousy of a superior, he will labour for a
lifetime. The intensity of his hatred supplies his want of intellect; he
is more cunning, if less far-sighted; and in the contest between the
brilliant Parisian and the plodding provincial we generally have an
illustration of the hare and the tortoise. The blind, persistent hatred
gets the better in the long run of the more brilliant, but more
transitory, passion. The lower nature here, too, gets the better of the
higher; and Balzac characteristically delights in the tragedy produced
by genius which falls before cunning, as virtue almost invariably yields
to vice. It is only when the slow provincial obstinacy happens to be on
the side of virtue that stupidity, doubled with virtue, as embodied for
example in two or three French Caleb Balderstons, generally gets the
worst of it. There are exceptions to this general rule. Even Balzac
sometimes relents. A reprieve is granted at the last moment, and the
martyr is unbound from the stake. But those catastrophes are not only
exceptional, but rather annoying. We have been so prepared to look for a
sacrifice that we are disappointed instead of relieved. If Balzac's
readers could be consulted during the last few pages of a novel, I feel
sure that most thumbs would be turned upwards, and the lions allowed to
have their will of the Christians. Perhaps our appetites have been
depraved; but we are not in the cue for a happy conclusion.

I know not whether it was the cause or the consequence of this sentiment
that Balzac was a thorough legitimist. He does not believe in the
vitality of the old order, any more than he believes in the truth of
Catholicism. But he regrets the extinction of the ancient faiths, which
he admits to be unsuitable; and sees in their representatives the only
picturesque and really estimable elements that still survived in French
society. He heartily despises the modern mediævalists, who try to spread
a thin varnish over a decaying order; the world is too far gone in
wickedness for such a futile remedy. The old chivalrous sentiments of
the genuine noblesse are giving way to the base chicanery of the
bourgeois who supplant them: the peasantry are mean, avaricious, and
full of bitter jealousy; but they are triumphantly rooting out the last
vestiges of feudalism. Democracy and communism are the fine names put
forward to justify the enmity of those who have not, against those who
have. Their success means merely an approaching 'descent of Niagara,'
and the growth of a more debasing and more materialist form of
despotism. But it would be a mistake to assume that this view of the
world implies that Balzac is in a state of lofty moral indignation.
Nothing can be further from the case. The world is wicked; but it is
fascinating. Society is very corrupt, it is true; but intensely and
permanently amusing. Paris is a hell; but hell is the only place worth
living in. The play of evil passions gives infinite subjects for
dramatic interests. The financial warfare is more diabolical than the
old literal warfare, but quite as entertaining. There is really as much
romance connected with bills of exchange as with swords and lances, and
rigging the market is nothing but the modern form of lying in ambush.
Goneril and Regan are triumphant; but we may admire the grace of their
manners and the dexterity with which they cloak their vices. Iago not
only poisons Othello's peace of mind, but, in the world of Balzac, he
succeeds to Othello's place, and is universally respected. The story
receives an additional flavour. In a characteristic passage, Balzac
regrets that Molière did not continue 'Tartufe.' It would then have
appeared how bitterly Orgon regretted the loss of the hypocrite, who, it
is said, made love to his wife, but who, at any rate, had an interest in
making things pleasant. Your conventional catastrophe is a mistake in
art, as it is a misrepresentation of facts. Tartufe has a good time of
it in Balzac: instead of meeting with an appropriate punishment, he
flourishes and thrives, and we look on with a smile not altogether
devoid of complacency. Shall we not take the world as it is, and be
amused at the 'Comédie Humaine,' rather than fruitlessly rage against
it? It will be played out whether we like it or not, and we may as well
adapt our tastes to our circumstances.

Ought we to be shocked at this extravagant cynicism; to quote it, as
respectable English journalists used to do, as a proof of the awful
corruption of French society, or to regard it as semi-humorous
exaggeration? I can't quite sympathise with people who take Balzac
seriously. I cannot talk about the remorseless skill with which he tears
off the mask from the fearful corruptions of modern society, and
penetrates into the most hidden motives of the human heart; nor can I
infer from his terrible pictures of feminine suffering that for every
one of those pictures a woman's heart had been tortured to death. This,
or something like this, I have read; and I can only say that I don't
believe a word of it. Balzac, indeed, as compared with our respectable
romancers, has the merit of admitting passions whose existence we
scrupulously ignore; and the further merit that he takes a far wider
range of sentiment, and does not hold by the theory that the life of a
man or a woman closes at the conventional end of a third volume. But he
is above all things a dreamer, and his dreams resemble nightmares.
Powerfully as his actors are put upon the stage, they seem to me to be,
after all, 'such stuff as dreams are made of.' A genuine observer of
life does not find it so highly spiced, and draws more moderate
conclusions. Balzac's characters run into typical examples of particular
passions rather than genuine human beings; they are generally
monomaniacs. Balthazar Claes, who gives up his life to search for the
philosopher's stone, is closely related to them all; only we must
substitute for the philosopher's stone some pet passion, in which the
whole nature is absorbed. They have the unnatural strain of mind which
marks the approach to madness. It is not ordinary daylight which
illuminates Balzac's dreamland, but some fantastic combination of
Parisian lamps, which tinges all the actors with an unearthly glare, and
distorts their features into extravagant forms. The result has, as I
have said, a strange fascination; but one is half-ashamed of yielding,
because one feels that it is due to the use of rather unholy drugs. The
vapours that rise from his magic caldron and shape themselves into human
forms smell unpleasantly of sulphur, or perhaps of Parisian sewers.

The highest poetry, like the noblest morality, is the product of a
thoroughly healthy mind. A diseased tendency in one respect is certain
to make itself manifest in the other. Now Balzac, though he shows some
powers which are unsurpassed or unequalled, possessed a mind which, to
put it gently, was not exactly well regulated. He took a pleasure in
dwelling upon horrors from which a healthy imagination shrinks, and
rejoiced greatly in gloating over the mysteries of iniquity. I do not
say that this makes his work immoral in the ordinary sense. Probably few
people who are likely to read Balzac would be any the worse for the
study. But, from a purely artistic point of view, he is injured by his
morbid tendencies. The highest triumph of style is to say what everybody
has been thinking in such a way as to make it new; the greatest triumph
of art is to make us see the poetical side of the commonplace life
around us. Balzac's ambition was, doubtless, aimed in that direction. He
wished to show that life in Paris or at Tours was as interesting to the
man of real insight as any more ideal region. In a certain sense, he has
accomplished his purpose. He has discovered food for a dark and powerful
imagination in the most commonplace details of daily life. But he falls
short in so far as he is unable to represent things as they are, and has
a taste for impossible horrors. There are tragedies enough all round us
for him who has eyes to see. Balzac is not content with the materials at
hand, or rather he has a love for the more exceptional and hideous
manifestations. Therefore the 'Comédie Humaine,' instead of being an
accurate picture of human life, and appealing to the sympathies of all
human beings, is a collection of monstrosities, whose vices are
unnatural, and whose virtues are rather like their vices. One feels that
there is something narrow and artificial about his work. It is intensely
powerful, but it is not the highest kind of power. He makes the utmost
of the gossip of a club smoking-room, or the scandal of a drawing-room,
or perhaps of a country public-house; but he represents a special phase
of manners, and that not a particularly pleasant one, rather than the
more fundamental and permanent sentiments of mankind. When shall we see
a writer who can be powerful without being spasmodic, and pierce through
the surface of society without seeking for interest in its foulest
abysses?



_DE QUINCEY_


Little more than fourteen years ago there passed from among us a man who
held a high and very peculiar position in English literature. In 1821 De
Quincey first published the work with which his name is most commonly
associated, and at uncertain intervals he gave tokens to mankind of his
continued presence on earth. What his life may have been in the
intervals seems to have been at times unknown even to his friends. He
began by disappearing from school and from his family, and seems to have
fallen into the habit of temporary eclipses. At one moment he dropped
upon his acquaintance from the clouds; at another he would vanish into
utter darkness for weeks or months together. One day he came to dine
with Christopher North--so we are told in the professor's life--was
detained for the night by a heavy storm of rain, and prolonged his
impromptu visit for a year. During that period his habits must have been
rather amazing to a well-regulated household. His wants, indeed, were
simple, and, in one sense, regular; a particular joint of mutton, cut
according to a certain mathematical formula, and an ounce of laudanum,
made him happy for a day. But in the hours when ordinary beings are
awake he was generally to be found stretched in profound opium-slumbers
upon a rug before the fire, and it was only about two or three in the
morning that he gave unequivocal symptoms of vitality, and suddenly
gushed forth in streams of wondrous eloquence to the supper parties
detained for the purpose of witnessing the display. Between these
irregular apparitions we are lastly given to understand that his life
was so strange that its details would be incredible. What these
incredible details may have been, I have no means of knowing. It is
enough that he was a strange unsubstantial being, flitting uncertainly
about in the twilight regions of society, emerging by fits and starts
into visibility, afflicted with a general vagueness as to the ordinary
duties of mankind, and generally taking much more opium than was good
for him. He tells us, indeed, that he broke off his over-mastering habit
by vigorous efforts; as he also tells us that opium is a cure for most
grievous evils, and especially saved him from an early death by
consumption. It is plain enough, however, that he never really refrained
for any length of time; and perhaps we should congratulate ourselves on
a propensity, unfortunate it may be, for its victim, but leading to the
Confessions as one collateral result.

The life of De Quincey by "H. A. Page," published since this was
written, has removed much of the mystery; and it has also done much to
raise in some respects our estimate of his character. With all his
weaknesses De Quincey undoubtedly was a man who could excite love as
well as pity. Incapable, to a grotesque degree, of anything like
business, he did his best to discharge domestic duties: he had a
punctilious sense of honour, and got himself into difficulties by a
generosity which was certainly not corrected by the virtue of prudence.
But I will not attempt to sum up the facts, for which, as for a higher
estimate than I can subscribe of his intellectual position, I gladly
refer to his biography. I have only to do with the De Quincey of books
which have a singular fascination. De Quincey himself gives thanks for
four circumstances. He rejoices that his lot was cast in a rustic
solitude; that that solitude was in England: that his 'infant feelings
were moulded by the gentlest of sisters,' instead of 'horrid pugilistic
brothers;' and that he and his were members of 'a pure, holy, and' (the
last epithet should be emphasized) 'magnificent Church.' The
thanksgiving is characteristic, for it indicates his naïve conviction
that his admiration was due to the intrinsic merits of the place and
circumstances of his birth, and not to the accident that they were his
own. It would be useless to inquire whether a more bracing atmosphere
and a less retired spot might have been more favourable to his talents;
but we may trace the influence of these conditions of his early life
upon his subsequent career.

       *       *       *       *       *

De Quincey implicitly puts forward a claim which has been accepted by
all competent critics. They declare, and he tacitly assumes, that he is
a master of the English language. He claims a sort of infallibility in
deciding upon the precise use of words and the merits of various styles.
But he explicitly claims something more. He declares that he has used
language for purposes to which it has hardly been applied by any prose
writers. The 'Confessions of an Opium-eater' and the 'Suspiria de
Profundis' are, he tells us, 'modes of impassioned prose, ranging under
no precedents that I am aware of in any literature.' The only
confessions that have previously made any great impression upon the
world are those of St. Augustine and of Rousseau; but, with one short
exception in St. Augustine, neither of those compositions contains any
passion, and, therefore, De Quincey stands absolutely alone as the
inventor and sole performer on a new musical instrument--for such an
instrument is the English language in his hands. He belongs to a genus
in which he is the only individual. The novelty and the difficulty of
the task must be his apology if he fails, and causes of additional glory
if he succeeds. He alone of all human beings who have written since the
world began, has entered a path, which the absence of rivals proves to
be encumbered with some unusual obstacles. The accuracy and value of so
bold a claim require a short examination. After all, every writer,
however obscure, may contrive by a judicious definition to put himself
into a solitary class. He has some peculiarities which distinguish him
from all other mortals. He is the only journalist who writes at a given
epoch from a particular garret in Grub Street, or the only poet who is
exactly six feet high and measures precisely forty-two inches round the
chest. Any difference whatever may be applied to purposes of
classification, and the question is whether the difference is, or is
not, of much importance. By examining, therefore, the propriety of De
Quincey's view of his own place in literature, we shall be naturally led
to some valuation of his distinctive merits. In deciding whether a bat
should be classed with birds or beasts, we have to determine the nature
of the beast and the true theory of his wings. And De Quincey, if the
comparison be not too quaint, is like the bat, an ambiguous character,
rising on the wings of prose to the borders of the true poetical region.

De Quincey, then, announces himself as an impassioned writer, as a
writer in impassioned prose, and, finally, as applying impassioned prose
to confessions. The first question suggested by this assertion concerns
the sense of the word 'impassioned.' There is very little of what one
ordinarily means by passion in the Confessions or elsewhere. There are
no explosions of political wrath, such as animate the 'Letters on a
Regicide Peace,' or of a deep religious emotion, which breathes through
many of our greatest prose writers. The language is undoubtedly a
vehicle for sentiments of a certain kind, but hardly of that burning and
impetuous order which we generally indicate by impassioned. It is deep,
melancholy reverie, not concentrated essence of emotion; and the epithet
fails to indicate any specific difference between himself and many other
writers. The real peculiarity is not in the passion expressed, but in
the mode of expressing it. De Quincey resembles the story-tellers
mentioned by some Eastern travellers. So extraordinary is their power of
face, and so skilfully modulated are the inflections of their voices,
that even a European, ignorant of the language, can follow the narrative
with absorbing interest. One may fancy that if De Quincey's language
were emptied of all meaning whatever, the mere sound of the words would
move us, as the lovely word Mesopotamia moved Whitefield's hearer. The
sentences are so delicately balanced, and so skilfully constructed, that
his finer passages fix themselves in the memory without the aid of
metre. Humbler writers are content if they can get through a single
phrase without producing a decided jar. They aim at keeping up a steady
jog-trot, which shall not give actual pain to the jaws of the reader.
They no more think of weaving whole paragraphs or chapters into complex
harmonies, than an ordinary pedestrian of 'going to church in a galliard
and coming home in a coranto.' Even our great writers generally settle
down to a stately but monotonous gait, after the fashion of Johnson or
Gibbon, or are content with adopting a style as transparent and
inconspicuous as possible. Language, according to the common phrase, is
the dress of thought; and that dress is the best, according to modern
canons of taste, which attracts least attention from its wearer. De
Quincey scorns this sneaking maxim of prudence, and boldly challenges
our admiration by indulgence in what he often calls 'bravura.' His
language deserves a commendation sometimes bestowed by ladies upon rich
garments, that it is capable of standing up by itself. The form is so
admirable that, for purposes of criticism, we must consider it as
something apart from the substance. The most exquisite passages in De
Quincey's writings are all more or less attempts to carry out the idea
expressed in the title of the dream fugue. They are intended to be
musical compositions, in which words have to play the part of notes.
They are impassioned, not in the sense of expressing any definite
sentiment, but because, from the structure and combination of the
sentences, they harmonise with certain phases of emotion.

Briefly, De Quincey is doing in prose what every great poet does in
verse. The specific mark thus indicated is still insufficient to give
him a solitary position among writers. All great rhetoricians, as De
Quincey defines and explains the term, rise to the borders of poetry,
and the art which has recently been cultivated among us under the name
of word-painting may be more fitly described as an attempt to produce
poetical effects without the aid of metre. From most of the writers
described under this rather unpleasant phrase he differs by the
circumstance, that his art is more nearly allied to music than to
painting. Or, if compared to any painters, it must be to those who care
comparatively little for distinct portraiture or dramatic interest. He
resembles rather the school which is satisfied by contemplating
gorgeous draperies, and graceful limbs and long processions of imposing
figures, without caring to interpret the meaning of their works, or to
seek for more than the harmonious arrangement of form and colour. In
other words, his prose-poems should be compared to the paintings which
aim at an effect analogous to that of stately pieces of music. Milton is
the poet whom he seems to regard with the sincerest admiration; and he
apparently wishes to emulate the majestic rhythm of the 'God-gifted
organ-voice of England.' Or we may, perhaps, admit some analogy between
his prose and the poetry of Keats, though it is remarkable that he
speaks with very scant appreciation of his contemporary. The 'Ode to a
Nightingale,' with its marvellous beauty of versification and the dim
associations half-consciously suggested by its language, surpasses,
though it resembles, some of De Quincey's finest passages; and the
'Hyperion' might have been translated into prose as a fitting companion
for some of the opium dreams. It is in the success with which he
produces such effects as these that De Quincey may fairly claim to be
unsurpassed in our language. Pompous (if that word may be used in a good
sense) declamation in prose, where the beauty of the thought is lost in
the splendour of the style, is certainly a rare literary product. Of the
great rhetoricians whom De Quincey quotes in the Essay on Rhetoric just
noticed, such men as Burke and Jeremy Taylor lead us to forget the means
in the end. They sound the trumpet as a warning, not for the mere
delight in its volume of sound. Perhaps his affinity to Sir Thomas
Browne is more obvious; and one can understand the admiration which he
bestows upon the opening bar of a passage in the Urn-burial:--'Now since
these bones have rested quietly in the grave under the drums and
tramplings of three conquests,' &c. 'What a melodious ascent,' he
exclaims, 'as of a prelude to some impassioned requiem breathing from
the pomps of earth and from the sanctities of the grave! What a _fluctus
decumanus_ of rhetoric! Time expounded, not by generations or centuries,
but by vast periods of conquests and dynasties; by cycles of Pharaohs
and Ptolemies, Antiochi and Arsacides! And these vast successions of
time distinguished and figured by the uproars which revolve at their
inaugurations; by the drums and tramplings rolling overhead upon the
chambers of forgotten dead--the trepidations of time and mortality
vexing, at secular intervals, the everlasting sabbaths of the grave!'

The commentator is seeking to eclipse the text, and his words are at
once a description and an example of his own most characteristic
rhetoric. Wordsworth once uttered an aphorism which De Quincey repeats
with great admiration: that language is not, as I have just said, the
dress, but 'the incarnation of thought.' But though accepting and
enforcing the doctrine by showing that the 'mixture is too subtle, the
intertexture too ineffable' to admit of expression, he condemns the
style which is the best illustration of its truth. He is very angry with
the admirers of Swift; De Foe and 'many hundreds' of others wrote
something quite as good; it only wanted 'plain good sense, natural
feeling, unpretendingness, some little scholarly practice in putting
together the clockwork of sentences, and, above all, the advantage of an
appropriate subject.' Could Swift, he asks, have written a pendant to
passages in Sir W. Raleigh, or Sir Thomas Browne, or Jeremy Taylor? He
would have cut the same figure as 'a forlorn scullion from a greasy
eating-house at Rotterdam, if suddenly called away in vision to act as
seneschal to the festival of Belshazzar the King, before a thousand of
his lords.' And what, we may retort, would Taylor, or Browne, or De
Quincey himself, have done, had one of them been wanted to write down
the project of Wood's halfpence in Ireland? He would have resembled a
king in his coronation robes compelled to lead a forlorn hope up the
scaling ladders. The fact is, that Swift required for his style not only
the plain good sense and other rare qualities enumerated, but pungent
humour, quick insight, deep passion, and general power of mind, such as
is given to few men in a century. But, as in his case the thought is
really incarnated in the language we cannot criticise the style
separately from the thoughts, or we can only assign, as its highest
merit, its admirable fitness for producing the desired effect. It would
be wrong to invert De Quincey's censure, and blame him because his
gorgeous robes are not fitted for more practical purposes. To everything
there is a time; for plain English, and for De Quincey's highly-wrought
passages.

It would be difficult or impossible, and certainly it would be
superfluous, to define with any precision the peculiar flavour of De
Quincey's style. A few specimens would do more than any description; and
De Quincey is too well known to justify quotation. It may be enough to
notice that most of his brilliant performances are variations on the
same theme. He appeals to our terror of the infinite, to the shrinking
of the human mind before astronomical distances and geological periods
of time. He paints vast perspectives, opening in long succession, till
we grow dizzy in the contemplation. The cadence of his style suggests
sounds echoing each other, and growing gradually fainter, till they die
away into infinite distance. Two great characteristics, he tells us, of
his opium dreams were a deep-seated melancholy and an exaggeration of
the things of space and time. Nightly he descended 'into chasms and
sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that
he could ever reascend.' He saw buildings and landscapes 'in proportion
so vast as the human eye is not fitted to receive.' He seemed to live
ninety or a hundred years in a night, and even to pass through periods
far beyond the limits of human existence. Melancholy and an awe-stricken
sense of the vast and vague are the emotions which he communicates with
the greatest power; though the melancholy is too dreamy to deserve the
name of passion, and the terror of the infinite is not explicitly
connected with any religious emotion. It is a proof of the fineness of
his taste, that he scarcely ever falls into bombast; we tremble at his
audacity in accumulating gorgeous phrases; but we confess that he is
justified by the result. The only exception that I can remember is the
passage in 'The English Mailcoach,' where his exaggerated patriotism
leads him into what strikes me at least as a rather vulgar bit of
claptrap. If any reader will take the trouble to compare De Quincey's
account of a kind of anticipation of the Balaclava charge at the battle
of Talavera, with Napier's description of the same facts, he will be
amused at the distortion of history; but whatever the accuracy of the
statements, one is a little shocked at finding 'the inspiration of God'
attributed to the gallant dragoons who were cut to pieces on that
occasion, as other gallant men have been before and since. The phrase is
overcharged, and inevitably suggests a cynical reaction of mind. The
ideas of dragoons and inspiration do not coalesce so easily as might be
wished; but, with this exception, I think that his purple patches are
almost irreproachable, and may be read and re-read with increasing
delight. I know of no other modern writer who has soared into the same
regions with so uniform and easy a flight.

The question is often raised how far the attempt to produce by one art
effects specially characteristic of another can be considered as
legitimate; whether, for example, a sculptor, when encroaching upon the
province of the painter, or a prose writer attempting to rival poets,
may not be summarily condemned. The answer probably would be that a
critic who lays down such rules is erecting himself into a legislator,
when he should be a simple observer. Success justifies itself; and when
De Quincey obtains, without the aid of metre, graces which few other
writers have won by the same means, it is all the more creditable to De
Quincey. A certain presumption, however, remains in such cases, that the
failure to adopt the ordinary methods implies a certain deficiency of
power. If we ask why De Quincey, who trenched so boldly upon the
peculiar province of the poet, yet failed to use the poetical form,
there is one very obvious answer. He has one intolerable fault, a fault
which has probably done more than any other to diminish his popularity,
and which is, of all faults, most diametrically opposed to poetical
excellence. He is utterly incapable of concentration. He is, from the
very principles on which his style is constructed, the most diffuse of
writers. Other men will pack half-a-dozen distinct propositions into a
sentence, and care little if they are somewhat crushed and distorted in
the process. De Quincey insists upon putting each of them separately,
smoothing them out elaborately, till not a wrinkle disturbs their
uniform surface, and then presenting each of them for our acceptance
with a placid smile. His commendable desire for lucidity of expression
makes him nervously anxious to avoid any complexity of thought. Each
step of his argument, each shade of meaning, and each fact in his
narrative, must have its own separate embodiment; and every joint and
connecting link must be carefully and accurately defined. The clearness
is won at a price. There is some advantage in this elaborate method of
dissecting out every distinct fibre and ramification of an argument.
But, on the whole, one is apt to remember that life is limited, and that
there are some things in this world which must be taken for granted. If
a man's boyhood fill two volumes, and if one of these (though under
unfavourable circumstances) took six months to revise, it seems probable
that in later years he would have taken longer to record events than to
live them. No autobiography written on such principles could ever reach
even the middle life of the author. Take up, for example, the first
volume of his collected works. Why, on the very first page, having
occasion to mention Christendom in the fifteenth century, should he
provide against some eccentric misconception by telling us that it did
not, at that time, include any part of America? Why should it take
considerably more than a page to explain that when a schoolmaster begins
lessons punctually, and leaves off too late, there will be an
encroachment on the hours of play? Or two pages to describe how a porter
dropped a portmanteau on a flight of stairs, and didn't waken a
schoolmaster? Or two more to account for the fact that he asked a woman
the meaning of the noise produced by the 'bore' in the Dee, instead of
waiting till she spoke to him? Impassioned prose may be a very good
thing; but when its current is arrested by such incessant stoppages, and
the beauty of the English language displayed by showing how many
faultless sentences may be expended on an exhaustive description of
irrelevant trifles, the human mind becomes recalcitrant. A man may
become prolix from the fulness or fervency of his mind; but prolixity
produced by this finical minuteness of language, ends by distressing
one's nerves. It is the same sense of irritation as is produced by
waiting for the tedious completion of an elaborate toilette, and one is
rather tempted to remember Artemus Ward's description of the Fourth of
July oration, which took four hours 'to pass a given point.'

This peculiarity of his style is connected with other qualities upon
which a great deal of eulogy has been bestowed. There are two faculties
in which, so far as my experience goes, no man, woman, or child ever
admits his or her own deficiency. The driest of human beings will boast
of their sense of humour; and the most perplexed, of their logical
acuteness. De Quincey has been highly praised, both as a humorist and as
a logician. He believed in his own powers, and exhibits them rather
ostentatiously. He says, pleasantly enough, but not without a substratum
of real conviction, that he is 'a _doctor seraphicus_, and also
_inexpugnabilis_ upon quillets of logic.' I confess that I am generally
sceptical as to the merits of infallible dialecticians, because I have
observed that a man's reputation for inexorable logic is generally in
proportion to the error of his conclusions. A logician, in popular
estimation, seems to be one who never shrinks from a _reductio ad
absurdum_. His merits are measured, not by the accuracy of his
conclusions, but by the distance which separates them from his
premisses. The explanation doubtless lies in the general impression that
logic is concerned with words and not with things. There is a vague
belief that by skilfully linking syllogisms you can form a chain
sufficiently strong to cross the profoundest abyss, and which will need
no test of observation and verification. A dexterous performer, it is
supposed, might pass from one extremity of the universe to the other
without ever touching ground; and people do not observe that the refusal
to draw an inference may be just as great a proof of logical skill as
ingenuity in drawing it. Now De Quincey's claim to infallibility would
be plausible, if we still believed that to define words accurately is
the same thing as to discover facts, and that binding them skilfully
together is equivalent to reasoning securely. He is a kind of rhetorical
Euclid. He makes such a flourish with his apparatus of axioms and
definitions that you do not suspect any lurking fallacy. He is careful
to show you the minutest details of his argumentative mechanism. Each
step in the process is elaborately and separately set forth; you are not
assumed to know anything, or to be capable of supplying any links for
yourself; it shall not even be taken for granted without due notice that
things which are equal to a third thing are equal to each other; and the
consequence is, that few people venture to question processes which seem
to be so plainly set forth, and to advance by such a careful
development.

When, indeed, De Quincey has a safe guide, he can put an argument with
admirable clearness. The expositions of political economy, for example,
are clear and ingenious, though even here I may quote Mr. Mill's remark,
that he should have imagined a certain principle--obvious enough when
once stated--to have been familiar to all economists, 'if the instance
of Mr. De Quincey did not prove that the complete non-recognition and
implied denial of it are compatible with great intellectual ingenuity
and close intimacy with the subject-matter.'[4] Upon this question, Mr.
Shadworth Hodgson has maintained that De Quincey was in the right as
against Mill, and I cannot here argue the point. I think, however, that
all economists would admit that De Quincey's merits were confined to an
admirable exposition of another man's reasoning, and included no
substantial addition to the inquiry. Certainly he does not count as one
of those whose writings marked any epoch in the development of the
science--if it be a science. Admirable skill of expression is, indeed,
no real safeguard against logical blunders; and I will venture to say
that De Quincey rarely indulges in this ostentatious logical precision
without plunging into downright fallacies. I will take two instances.
The first is trifling, but characteristic. Poor Dr. Johnson used to
reproach himself, as De Quincey puts it, 'with lying too long in bed.'
How absurd! is the comment. The doctor got up at eleven because he went
to bed at three. If he had gone to bed at twelve, could he not easily
have got up at eight? The remark would have been sound in form, though a
quibble in substance, if Johnson had complained of lying in bed 'too
late;' but as De Quincey himself speaks of 'too long' instead of 'too
late,' it is an obvious reply that eight hours are of the same length at
every period of the day. The great logician falls into another
characteristic error in the same paragraph. Dr. Johnson, he says, was
not 'indolent;' but he adds that Johnson 'had a morbid predisposition to
decline labour from his scrofulous habit of body,' which was increased
by over-eating and want of exercise. It is a cruel mode of vindication
to say that you are not indolent, but only predisposed by a bad
constitution and bad habits to decline labour; but the advantage of
accurate definition is, that you can knock a man down with one hand, and
pick him up with the other.

To take a more serious case. De Quincey undertakes to refute Hume's
memorable argument against miracles. There are few better arenas for
intellectual combats, and De Quincey has in it an unusual opportunity
for display. He is obviously on his mettle. He comes forward with a
whole battery of propositions, carefully marshalled in strategical
order, and supported by appropriate 'lemmas.' One of his arguments,
whether cogent or not, is that Hume's objection will not apply to the
evidence of a multitude of witnesses. Now, a conspicuous miracle, he
says, can be produced resting on such evidence, to wit, that of the
thousands fed by a few loaves and fishes. The simplest infidel will, of
course, reply that as these thousands of witnesses cannot be produced,
the evidence open to us reduces itself to that of the Evangelists. De
Quincey recollects this, and replies to it in a note. 'Yes,' he says,
'the Evangelists certainly; and, let us add, all those contemporaries to
whom the Evangelists silently appealed. These make up the "multitude"
contemplated in the case' under consideration. That is, to make up the
multitude, you have to reckon as witnesses all those persons who did not
contradict the 'silent appeal,' or whose contradiction has not reached
us. With such canons of criticism it is hard to say what might not be
proved. When a man with a great reputation for learning and logical
ability tries to put us off with these wretched quibbles, one is fairly
bewildered. He shows an ignorance of the real strength and weakness of
the position, which, but for his reputation, one would summarily explain
by incapacity for reasoning. As it is, we must suppose that, living
apart from the daily battle of life, he had lost that quick instinct
possessed by all genuine logicians for recognising the vital points of
an argument. A day in a court of justice would have taught him more
about evidence than a month spent over Aristotle. He had become fitter
for the parade of the fencing-room than for the real thrust and parry of
a duel in earnest. The mere rhetorical flourish pleases him as much as a
blow at his antagonist's heart. Another glaring instance in the same
paper is his apparent failure to perceive that there is a difference
between proving that such a prophecy as that announcing the fall of
Babylon was fulfilled, and proving that it was supernaturally inspired.
Hume, without a tenth part of the logical apparatus, would have exposed
the fallacy in a sentence. Paley, whom he never tires of treating to
contemptuous abuse, was incapable of such feeble sophistry. De Quincey,
in short, was a very able expositor; but he was not, though under better
discipline he might probably have become, a sound original thinker. He
is an interpreter, not an originator of thought. His skill in setting
forth an argument blinds him to its most palpable defects. If language
is a powerful weapon in his hands, it is only when the direction of the
blow is dictated by some more manly, if less ingenious, understanding.

Let us inquire, and it is a more delicate question, whether he is better
qualified to use it as a plaything. He has a reputation as a humorist.
The Essay on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts is probably the
most popular of his writings. The conception is undoubtedly meritorious,
and De Quincey returns to it more than once in his other works. The
description of the Williams murders is inimitable, and the execution
even in the humorous passages is frequently good. We may praise
particular sentences: such as the well-known remark that 'if a man once
indulges himself in murder, he comes to think little of robbing; and
from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking; and from
that to incivility and procrastination.' One laughs at this whimsical
inversion; but I don't think one laughs very heartily; and certainly one
does not find, as in really deep humour, that the paradox is pregnant
with further meaning, and the laugh a prelude to a more melancholy
smile. Many of the best things ever said are couched in a similar form:
the old remark that the use of language is the concealment of thought;
the saying that the half is greater than the whole, and that two and two
don't always make four, are familiar instances; but each of them really
contains a profound truth expressed in a paradoxical form, which is a
sufficient justification of their extraordinary popularity. But if every
inversion of a commonplace were humorous, we should be able to make
jokes by machinery. There is no humour that I can see in the statement
that honesty is the worst policy, or that procrastination saves time;
and De Quincey's phrase, though I admit that it is amusing as a kind of
summary of his essay, seems to me to rank little higher than an
ingenious pun. It is a clever trick of language, but does not lead any
further.

Here, too, and elsewhere, the humour gives us a certain impression of
thinness. It is pressed too far, and spun out too long. Compare De
Quincey's mode of beating out his one joke through pages of laboured
facetiousness, with Swift's concentrated and pungent irony, as in the
proposal for eating babies, or the argument to prove that the abolition
of Christianity may be attended with some inconveniences. It is the
difference between the stiffest of nautical grogs and the negus provided
by thoughtful parents for a child's evening party. In some parts of the
essay De Quincey sinks far lower. I do not believe that in any English
author of reputation there is a more feeble piece of forced fun, than in
the description of the fight of the amateur in murder with the baker at
Munich. One knows by a process of reasoning that the man is joking; but
one feels inclined to blush, through sympathy with a very clear man so
exposing himself. A blemish of the same kind makes itself unpleasantly
obvious at many points of his writings. He seems to fear that we shall
find his stately and elaborate style rather too much for our nerves. He
is conscious that, as a great master of language, he can play what
tricks he pleases, without danger of remonstrance. And therefore, he
every now and then plunges into slang, not irreverently, as a vulgar
writer might do, but of malice prepense. The shock is almost as great as
if an organist performing a solemn tune should suddenly introduce an
imitation of the mewing of a cat. Now, he seems to say, you can't accuse
me of being dull and pompous. Let me quote an instance or two from his
graver writings. He wishes to argue, in defence of Christianity, that
the ancients were insensible to ordinary duties of humanity. 'Our wicked
friend Kikero, for instance, who _was_ so bad, but _wrote_ so well, who
_did_ such naughty things, but _said_ such pretty things, has himself
noticed in one of his letters, with petrifying coolness, that he knew of
destitute old women in Rome who went without tasting food for one, two,
or even three days. After making such a statement, did Kikero not tumble
downstairs and break at least three of his legs in his hurry to call a
public meeting,' &c., &c. What delicate humour! The grave apologist of
Christianity actually calls Cicero, Kikero, and talks about 'three of
his legs!' Do we not all explode with laughter? A parallel case occurs
in his argument about the Essenes; where he grows so irrepressibly
funny as to call Josephus 'Mr. Joe,' and addresses him as
follows:--'Wicked Joseph, listen to me: you've been telling us a fairy
tale; and for my part, I've no objection to a fairy tale in any
situation, because if one can make no use of it oneself, always one
knows that a child will be thankful for it. But this tale, Mr. Joseph,
happens also to be a lie; secondly, a fraudulent lie; thirdly, a
malicious lie.' I have seen this stuff described as 'scholarlike
badinage;' but the only effect of such exquisite foolery, within my
mind, is to persuade one that a writer assailed by such weapons, and
those weapons used by a man who has the whole resources of the English
language at his command, must probably have been encountering an
inconvenient truth. I will simply refer to the story of Sir Isaac Newton
sitting all day with one stocking on and one off, in the Casuistry of
Roman Meals, as an illustration of the way in which a story ought not to
be told. Its most conspicuous, though not its worst fault, its extreme
length, protects it from quotation.

It is strange to find that a writer, pre-eminently endowed with delicacy
of ear, and boasting of the complex harmonies of his style, should
condescend to such an irritating defect. De Quincey says of one of the
greatest masters of the humorous:--'The gyration within which his
(Lamb's) sentiment wheels, no matter of what kind it may be, is always
the shortest possible. It does not prolong itself, it does not repeat
itself, it does not propagate itself.' And he goes on to connect the
failing with Lamb's utter insensibility to music, and indifference to
'the rhythmical in prose composition.' The criticism is a fine one in
its way, but it may perhaps explain some of De Quincey's shortcomings in
Lamb's peculiar sphere. De Quincey's jokes are apt to repeat and
prolong and propagate themselves, till they become tiresome; and the
delicate touch of the true humorist, just indicating a half-comic,
half-pathetic thought, is alien to De Quincey's more elaborate style.
Yet he had a true and peculiar sense of humour. That faculty may be
predominant or latent; it may form the substance of a whole book, as in
the case of Sterne: or it may permeate every sentence, as in Carlyle's
writings; or it may simply give a faint tinge, rather perceived by
subsequent analysis than consciously felt at the time; and in this
lowest degree it frequently gives a certain charm to De Quincey's
writing. When he tries overt acts of wit, he becomes simply vulgar; when
he directly aims at the humorous, we feel his hand to be rather heavy;
but he is occasionally very happy in that ironical method, of which the
Essay on Murder is the most notorious specimen. The best example, in my
opinion, is the description of his elder brother in the Autobiographical
Sketches. The account of the rival kingdoms of Gombroon and
Tigrasylvania; of poor De Quincey's troubles in getting rid of his
subjects' tails; of his despair at the suggestion that by making them
sit down for six hours a day they might rub them off in the course of
several centuries; of his ingenious plan of placing his unlucky island
at a distance of 75 degrees of latitude from his brother's capital; and
of his dismay at hearing of the 'vast horns and promontories' which run
down from all parts of the hostile dominions towards his unoffending
little territory, are touched with admirable skill. The grave, elaborate
detail of the perplexities of his childish imagination is pleasant, and
at the same time pathetic. When, in short, by simply applying his usual
stateliness of manner to a subject a little beneath it in dignity, he
can produce the desired effect, he is eminently successful. The same
rhetoric which would be appropriate (to use his favourite illustration)
in treating the theme of 'Belshazzar the King giving a great feast to a
thousand of his lords,' has a certain piquancy, when for Belshazzar we
substitute a schoolboy playing at monarchy. He is indulging in a
whimsical masquerade, and the pomp is assumed in sport instead of in
earnest. Nobody can do a little mock majesty so well as he who on
occasion can be seriously majestic. Yet when he altogether abandons his
strong ground, and chooses to tumble and make grimaces before us, like
an ordinary clown, he becomes simply offensive. The great tragedian is
capable on due occasion of pleasant burlesque; but sheer unadulterated
comedy is beyond his powers. De Quincey, in short, can parody his own
serious writing better than anybody, and the capacity is a proof that he
had the faculty of humour; but for a genuine substantive joke--a joke
which, resting on its own merits, instead of being the shadow of his
serious writing, is to be independently humorous--he seems, to me at
least, to be generally insufferable.

De Quincey's final claim to a unique position rests on the fact that his
'impassioned prose' was applied to confessions. He compares himself, as
I have said, to Rousseau and Augustine. The analogy with the last of
these two writers would, I should imagine, be rather difficult to carry
beyond the first part of resemblance; but it is possible to make out a
somewhat closer affinity to Rousseau. In both cases, at least, we have
to deal with men of morbid temperament, ruined or seriously injured by
their utter incapacity for self-restraint. So far, however, as their
confessions derive an interest from the revelation of character,
Rousseau is more exciting almost in the same proportion as he confesses
greater weaknesses. The record of such errors by their chief actor, and
that actor a man of such singular ability, presents us with a strangely
attractive problem. De Quincey has less to confess, and is less anxious
to lay bare his own morbid propensities. His story excites compassion;
and, as in the famous episode of 'Anne,' attracts us by the genuine
tenderness and delicacy of feeling. He was free from the errors which
make some of Rousseau's confessions loathsome, but he was also not the
man to set fire, like Rousseau, to the hearts of a whole generation. His
narrative is a delight to literary students; not a volcanic outburst to
shake the foundations of society. Nearly all that he has to tell us is
that he ran away from school, spent some time in London, for no very
assignable reason, in a semi-starving condition, and then, equally
without reason, surrendered at discretion to the respectabilities and
went to Oxford like an ordinary human being. It is no doubt a proof of
extraordinary literary power that the facts told with De Quincey's
comment of rich meditative eloquence become so fascinating.
Unfortunately, though he managed to write recollections which are, in
their way, unique, he never achieved anything at all comparable to his
autobiographic revelations. Vague thoughts passed through his mind of
composing a great work on Political Economy, or of writing a still more
wonderful treatise on the Emendation of the Human Intellect. But he
never seems to have made any decided steps towards the fulfilment of
such dreams, and remained to the end of his days a melancholy specimen
of wasted force. There is nothing, unfortunately, very uncommon in the
story, except so far as its hero was a man of genius. The history of
Coleridge exemplifies a still higher ambition, resulting, it is true, in
a much greater influence upon the thought of the age, but almost
equally sad. Their lives might be put into tracts for the use of
opium-eaters; and whilst there was still hope of redeeming them, it
might have been worth while to condemn them with severity. Indignation
is now out of place, and we can only grieve and pass by. When thousands
of men are drinking themselves to death every year, there is nothing
very strange or dramatic in the history of one ruined by opium instead
of by gin.

From De Quincey's writings we get the notion of a man amiable, but with
an uncertain temper; with fine emotions, but an utter want of moral
strength; and, in short, of a nature of much delicacy and tenderness
retreating into opium and the Lake district, from a world which was too
rough for him. He uttered in many fragmentary ways his views of
philosophy and politics. Whatever their value, De Quincey has of course
no claim to be an originator. He not only had not strength to stand
alone, but he belonged to a peculiar side-current of English thought. He
was the adjective of which Coleridge was the substantive; and if
Coleridge himself was an unsatisfactory and imperfect thinker, his
imperfections are greatly increased in his friend and disciple. He
shared that belief which some people have not yet abandoned, that the
answer to all our perplexities is to be found in some of the mysteries
of German metaphysics. If we could only be taught to distinguish between
the reason and the understanding, the scales would fall from our eyes,
and we should see that the Thirty-nine Articles contained the plan on
which the universe was framed. He had an acquaintance, which, if his own
opinion were correct, was accurate and profound with Kant's writings,
and had studied Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel. He could talk about
concepts and categories and schematisms without losing his head amongst
those metaphysical heights. He knew how by the theoretic reason to
destroy all proofs of the existence of God, and then, by introducing the
practical reason, to set the existence of God beyond a doubt. He fancied
that he was able to translate the technicalities of Kant into plain
English; and he believed that when so translated, they would prove to
have a real and all important meaning. If German metaphysics be a
science, and not a mere edifice of moonshine; and if De Quincey had
really penetrated the secrets of that science, we have missed a chance
of enlightenment. As it is, we have little left except a collection of
contemptuous prejudices. De Quincey thought himself entitled to treat
Locke as a shallow pretender. The whole eighteenth century was, with one
or two exceptions, a barren wilderness to him. He aspersed its
reasoners, from Locke to Paley; he scorned its poets with all the
bitterness of the school which first broke loose from the rule of Pope;
and its prose-writers, with the exception of Burke, were miserable
beings in his eyes. He would have seen with little regret a holocaust of
all the literature produced in England between the death of Milton and
the rise of Wordsworth. Naturally, he hated an infidel with that kind of
petulant bitterness which possesses an old lady in a country village,
who has just heard that some wicked people dispute the story of Balaam's
ass. And, as a corollary, he combined the whole French people in one
sweeping censure, and utterly despised their morals, manners,
literature, and political principles. He was a John Bull, as far as a
man can be who is of weakly, nervous temperament, and believes in Kant.

One or two illustrations may be given of the force of these effeminate
prejudices; and it is to be remarked with regret that they are
specially injurious in a department where he otherwise had eminent
merits, that, namely, of literary criticism. Any man who lived in the
eighteenth century was _primâ facie_ a fool; if a free thinker, his case
was all but hopeless; but if a French free thinker, it was desperate
indeed. He lets us into the secret of his prejudices, which, indeed, is
tolerably transparent in his statement that he found it hard to
reverence Coleridge when he supposed him to be a Socinian. Now, though a
'liberal man,' he could not hold a Socinian to be a Christian; nor could
he 'think that any man, though he make himself a marvellously clever
disputant, ever could tower upwards into a very great philosopher,
unless he should begin or end with Christianity.' The canon may be
sound, but it at once destroys the pretensions of such men as Hobbes,
Spinoza, Hume, and even, though De Quincey considers him 'a dubious
exception,' Kant. Even heterodoxy is enough to alienate his sympathies.
'Think of a man,' he exclaims about poor Whiston, 'who had brilliant
preferment within his reach, dragging his poor wife and daughter for
half a century through the very mire of despondency and destitution,
because he disapproved of Athanasius, or because the "Shepherd of
Hermas" was not sufficiently esteemed by the Church of England.' To do
him justice, De Quincey admits, in another passage, that this ridicule
of a poor man for sacrificing his interests to his principles was not
quite fair; but then Whiston was only an Arian. When Priestley, who was
a far worse heretic, had his house sacked by a mob and his life
endangered, De Quincey can scarcely restrain his exultation. He admits
in terms that Priestley ought to be pitied, but adds that the fanaticism
of the mob was 'much more reasonable' than the fanaticism of Priestley;
and that those who play at bowls must look out for rubbers. Porson is to
be detested for his letters to Travis, though De Quincey does not dare
to defend the disputed text. He has, however, a pleasant insinuation at
command. Porson, he says, stung like a hornet; 'it may chance that on
this subject Master Porson will get stung through his coffin, before he
is many years deader.' What scholarlike badinage! Political heretics
fare little better. Fox's eloquence was 'ditch-water,' with a shrill
effervescence of 'imaginary gas.' Burnet was a 'gossiper, slanderer, and
notorious falsifier of facts.' That one of his sermons was burnt is 'the
most consolatory fact in his whole worldly career;' and he asks, 'would
there have been much harm in tying his lordship to the sermon?' Junius
was not only a knave who ought to have been transported, but his
literary success rested upon an utter delusion. He had neither
'sentiment, imagination, nor generalisation.' Johnson, though the best
of Tories, lived in the wrong century, and unluckily criticised Milton
with foolish harshness. Therefore 'Johnson, viewed in relation to
Milton, was a malicious, mendacious, and dishonest man.'

Let us turn to greater names. Goethe's best work was 'Werther,' and De
Quincey is convinced that his reputation 'must decline for the next
generation or two, until it reaches its just level.' His merits have
been exaggerated for three reasons--first, his great age; secondly, 'the
splendour of his official rank at the court of Weimar;' thirdly, 'his
enigmatical and unintelligible writing.' But 'in Germany his works are
little read, and in this country not at all.' 'Wilhelm Meister' is
morally detestable, and, artistically speaking, rubbish. Of the author
of the Philosophical Dictionary, of the 'Essai sur les Moeurs,' of
'Candide,' and certain other trifles, his judgment is that Horace
Walpole's reputation is the same in kind, as the _genuine_ reputation of
Voltaire: 'Both are very splendid memoir writers, and of the two, Lord
Orford is the more brilliant.' In the same tone he compares Gibbon to
Southey, giving the advantage to the latter on the score of his poetical
ability; and his view of another great infidel may be inferred from the
following phrase. One of Rousseau's opinions is only known to us through
Cowper, 'for in the unventilated pages of its originator it would have
lurked undisturbed down to this hour of June, 1819.'

Voltaire and Rousseau have the double title to hatred of being Frenchmen
and freethinkers. But even orthodox Frenchmen fare little better. 'The
French Bossuets, Bourdaloues, Fénelons, &c., whatever may be thought of
their meagre and attenuated rhetoric, are one and all the most
commonplace of thinkers.' In fact, the mere mention of France acts upon
him like a red rag on a bull. The French, 'in whom the lower forms of
passion are constantly bubbling up, from the shallow and superficial
character of their feelings,' are incapable of English earnestness.
Their taste is 'anything but good in all that department of wit and
humour'--the department, apparently, of anecdotes--'and the ground lies
in their natural want of veracity;' whereas England bases upon its
truthfulness a well-founded claim to 'a moral pre-eminence among the
nations.' Belgians, French, and Italians attract the inconsiderate by
'facile obsequiousness,' which, however, is a pendent of 'impudence and
insincerity. Want of principle and want of moral sensibility compose the
original _fundus_ of southern manners.' Our faults of style, such as
they are, proceed from our manliness. In France there are no unmarried
women at the age which amongst us gives the insulting name of old maid.
'What striking sacrifices of sexual honour does this one fact argue!'
The French style is remarkable for simplicity--'a strange pretension for
anything French;' but on the whole the intellectual merits of their
style are small, 'chiefly negative,' and 'founded on the accident of
their colloquial necessities.' They are amply compensated, too, by 'the
prodigious defects of the French in all the higher qualities of prose
composition.' Even their handwriting is the 'very vilest form of
scribbling which exists in Europe,' and they and the Germans are 'the
two most gormandising races in Europe.' They display a brutal
selfishness in satisfying their appetites, whereas Englishmen at all
public meals are remarkably conspicuous for 'a spirit of mutual
attention and self-sacrifice.' It is enough to show the real degradation
of their habits, that they use the 'odious gesture' of shrugging their
shoulders, and are fond of the 'vile ejaculation "bah!"' which is as bad
as to puff the smoke of a tobacco-pipe into your companion's face. They
have neither self-respect nor respect for others. French masters are
never dignified, though sometimes tyrannical; French servants are
always, even without meaning it, disrespectfully familiar. Many of their
manners and usages are 'essentially vulgar, and their apparent
affability depends not on kindness of heart, but love of talking.'

The impudence of the assertions is really amusing, though one cannot but
regret that the vulgar prejudice of the old-fashioned John Bull should
have been embodied in the pages of a master of our language. They are
worth notice because they were not special to De Quincey, but
characteristic of one very intelligible tendency of his generation. De
Quincey's prejudices are chiefly the reflection of those of the
Coleridge school in general, though he added to them a few pet aversions
of his own. At times his genuine acuteness of mind raises him above the
teaching of his masters, or at least enables him to detect their
weaknesses. He discovers Coleridge's plagiarisms, though he believes
and, indeed, speaks in the most exaggerated terms of his philosophical
pretensions; whilst, in treating of Wordsworth, he points out with great
skill the fallacy of some of his theories and the inconsistency of his
practice. But whilst keenly observant of some of the failings of his
friends, he reproduces others in even an exaggerated type. He shows to
the full their narrow-minded hatred of the preceding century, of all
forms of excellence which did not correspond to their favourite types,
and of all speculation which did not lead to, or start from their
characteristic doctrines. The error is fully pardonable. We must not
look to men who are leading a revolt against established modes of
thought for a full appreciation of the doctrines of their antagonists;
and if De Quincey could recognise no merit in Voltaire or Rousseau, in
Locke, Paley, or Jeremy Bentham, their followers were quite prepared to
retaliate in kind. One feels, however, that such prejudices are more
respectable when they are the foibles of a strong mind engaged in active
warfare. We can pardon the old campaigner, who has become bitter in an
internecine contest. It is not quite so pleasant to discover the same
bitterness in a gentleman who has looked on from a distance, and never
quite made up his mind to buckle on his armour. De Quincey had not
earned the right of speaking evil of his enemies. If a man chances to be
a Hedonist, he should show the good temper which is the best virtue of
the indolent. To lie on a bed of roses, and snarl at everybody who
contradicts your theories, seems to imply rather testiness of temper
than strength of conviction. De Quincey is a Christian on Epicurean
principles. He dislikes an infidel because his repose is disturbed by
the arguments of freethinkers. He fears that he will be forced to think
conscientiously, and to polish his logical weapons afresh. He mutters
that the man is a fool, and could be easily thrashed if it were worth
while, and then turns back to his opium and his rhetoric and his beloved
Church of England. There is no pleasanter institution for a gentleman
who likes magnificent historical associations, and heartily hates the
rude revolutionists who would turn the world upside down, and thereby
disturb the rest of dreamy metaphysicians.

He is quite pathetic, too, about the British Constitution. 'Destroy the
House of Lords,' he exclaims, 'and henceforward, for people like you and
me, England will be no habitable land.' Here, he seems to say, is one
charming elysium, where no rude hand has swept away the cobwebs or
replaced the good old-fashioned machinery; here we may find rest in the
'pure, holy, and magnificent Church,' whose Articles, interpreted by
Coleridge, may guide us through the most wondrous of metaphysical
labyrinths, and dwell in a grand constitutional edifice, rich in
picturesque memories, and blending into one complex harmony elements
contributed by a long series of centuries. And you, wretched French
revolutionists, with your love of petty precision, and irreverent
radicals and utilitarians, with your grovelling material notions,
propose to level, and destroy, and break in upon my delicious reveries.
No old Hebrew prophet could be more indignant with the enemy who
threatened to break down the carved work of his temples with axes and
hammers. But his complaint is, after all, the voice of the sluggard. Let
me dream a little longer; for much as I love my country and its
institutions, I cannot rouse myself to fight for them. It is enough if I
call their assailants an ugly name or so, and at times begin to write
what might be the opening pages of the preface to some very great work
of the future. Alas! the first digression diverts the thread of the
discourse; the task becomes troublesome, and the labour is abruptly
broken off. And so in a life of seventy-three years De Quincey read
extensively and thought acutely by fits, ate an enormous quantity of
opium, wrote a few pages which revealed new capacities in the language,
and provided a good deal of respectable padding for magazines. It
sounds, and many people will say that it is, a harsh and, perhaps they
will add, a stupid judgment. If so, they may find plenty of admirers who
will supply the eulogistic side here too briefly indicated. I will only
say two things: first, that there are very few writers who have revealed
new capacities in the language, and in English literature they might
almost be counted on the fingers. Secondly, I must confess that I have
often consulted De Quincey in regard to biographic and critical
questions, and that though I have generally found something to admire, I
have always found gross inaccuracies and almost always effeminate
prejudices and mere flippancies draped in elaborate rhetoric. I take
leave, therefore, to insist upon faults which are passed over too easily
by writers of more geniality than I claim to possess.

FOOTNOTES:

[4] It is curious that De Quincey, in his Essay on Style, explains that
political economy, and especially the doctrine of value, is one of those
subjects which cannot be satisfactorily treated in dialogue--the very
form which he chose to adopt for that particular purpose.



_SIR THOMAS BROWNE_


'Let me not injure the felicity of others,' says Sir Thomas Browne in a
suppressed passage of the 'Religio Medici,' 'if I say that I am the
happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty into
riches, adversity into prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than
Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.' Perhaps on second
thoughts, Sir Thomas felt that the phrase savoured of that presumption
which is supposed to provoke the wrath of Nemesis; and at any rate, he,
of all men, is the last to be taken too literally at his word. He is a
humorist to the core, and is here writing dramatically. There are many
things in this book, so he tells us, 'delivered rhetorically, many
expressions therein merely tropical,... and therefore also many things
to be taken in a soft and flexible sense, and not to be called unto the
rigid test of reason.' We shall hardly do wrong in reckoning amongst
them this audacious claim to surpassing felicity, as we may certainly
include his boast that he 'could lose an arm without a tear, and with
few groans be quartered into pieces.' And yet, if Sir Thomas were to be
understood in the most downright literal earnest, perhaps he could have
made out as good a case for his assertion as almost any of the troubled
race of mankind. For, if we set aside external circumstances of life,
what qualities offer a more certain guarantee of happiness than those
of which he is an almost typical example? A mind endowed with an
insatiable curiosity as to all things knowable and unknowable; an
imagination which tinges with poetical hues the vast accumulation of
incoherent facts thus stored in a capacious memory; and a strangely
vivid humour that is always detecting the quaintest analogies, and, as
it were, striking light from the most unexpected collocations of
uncompromising materials: such talents are by themselves enough to
provide a man with work for life, and to make all his work delightful.
To them, moreover, we must add a disposition absolutely incapable of
controversial bitterness; 'a constitution,' as he says of himself, 'so
general that it consorts and sympathises with all things;' an absence of
all antipathies to loathsome objects in nature--to French 'dishes of
snails, frogs, and toadstools,' or to Jewish repasts on 'locusts or
grasshoppers;' an equal toleration--which in the first half of the
seventeenth century is something astonishing--for all theological
systems; an admiration even of our natural enemies, the French, the
Spaniards, the Italians, and the Dutch; a love of all climates, of all
countries; and, in short, an utter incapacity to 'absolutely detest or
hate any essence except the devil.' Indeed, his hatred even for that
personage has in it so little of bitterness, that no man, we may be
sure, would have joined more heartily in the Scotch minister's petition
for 'the puir de'il'--a prayer conceived in the very spirit of his
writings. A man so endowed--and it is not only from his explicit
assertions, but from his unconscious self-revelation, that we may credit
him with closely approaching his own ideal--is admirably qualified to
discover one great secret of human happiness. No man was ever better
prepared to keep not only one, but a whole stableful of hobbies, nor
more certain to ride them so as to amuse himself, without loss of temper
or dignity, and without rude collisions against his neighbours. That
happy art is given to few, and thanks to his skill in it, Sir Thomas
reminds us strongly of the two illustrious brothers Shandy combined in
one person. To the exquisite kindliness and simplicity of Uncle Toby he
unites the omnivorous intellectual appetite and the humorous pedantry of
the head of the family. The resemblance, indeed, may not be quite
fortuitous. Though it does not appear that Sterne, amidst his
multifarious pilferings, laid hands upon Sir Thomas Browne, one may
fancy that he took a general hint or two from so congenial an author.

The best mode of approaching so original a writer is to examine the
intellectual food on which his mind was nourished. He dwelt by
preference in strange literary pastures; and their nature will let us
into some secrets as to his taste and character. We will begin,
therefore, by examining the strange furniture of his mind, as described
in his longest, though not his most characteristic book--the 'Inquiry
into Vulgar Errors.' When we turn over its quaint pages, we feel as
though we were entering one of those singular museums of curiosities
which existed in the pre-scientific ages. Every corner is filled with a
strange, incoherent medley, in which really valuable objects are placed
side by side with what is simply grotesque and ludicrous. The modern man
of science may find some objects of interest; but they are mixed
inextricably with strange rubbish that once delighted the astrologer,
the alchemist, or the dealer in apocryphal relics. And the possessor of
this miscellaneous collection accompanies us with an unfailing flow of
amusing gossip: at one moment pouring forth a torrent of out-of-the-way
learning; at another, making a really passable scientific remark; and
then lapsing into an elaborate discussion of some inconceivable
absurdity; affecting the air of a grave inquirer, and to all appearance
fully believing in his own pretensions, and yet somehow indulging
himself in a half-suppressed smile, which indicates that the humorous
aspect of a question can never be far removed from his mind. Mere
curiosity is not yet differentiated from scientific thirst for
knowledge; and a quaint apologue is as good a reward for the inquirer as
the discovery of a law of nature. The numerous class which insists upon
a joke being as unequivocal as a pistol-shot, and a serious statement as
grave as a Blue-book, should therefore keep clear of Sir Thomas Browne.
His most congenial readers are those who take a simple delight in
following out any quaint train of reflections, careless whether it may
culminate in a smile or a sigh, or in some thought in which the two
elements of the sad and the ludicrous are inextricably blended. Sir
Thomas, however, is in the 'Inquiry' content generally with bringing out
the strange curiosities of his museum, and does not care to draw any
explicit moral. The quaintness of the objects unearthed seems to be a
sufficient recompense for the labour of the search. Fortunately for his
design, he lived in the time when a poet might have spoken without
hyperbole of the 'fairy tales of science.' To us, who have to plod
through an arid waste of painful observation, and slow piecing together
of cautious inferences before reaching the promised land of wondrous
discoveries, the expression sometimes appears to be ironical. Does not
science, we may ask with a _primâ facie_ resemblance of right, destroy
as much poetry as it generates? To him no such doubts could present
themselves, for fairyland was still a province of the empire of science.
Strange beings moved through the pages of natural history, which were
equally at home in the 'Arabian Nights' or in poetical apologues. The
griffin, the phoenix, and the dragon were not yet extinct; the
salamander still sported in flames; and the basilisk slew men at a
distance with his deadly glance. More commonplace animals indulged in
the habits which they had learnt in fables, and of which only some
feeble vestiges now remain in the eloquence of strolling showmen. The
elephant had no joints, and was caught by felling the tree against which
he rested his stiff limbs in sleep; the pelican pierced its breast for
the good of its young; ostriches were regularly painted with a horseshoe
in their bills, to indicate their ordinary diet; storks refused to live
except in republics and free states; the crowing of a cock put lions to
flight, and men were struck dumb in good sober earnest by the sight of a
wolf. The curiosity-hunter, in short, found his game still plentiful,
and, by a few excursions into Aristotle, Pliny, and other more recondite
authors, was able still to display a rich bag for the edification of his
readers. Sir Thomas Browne sets out on that quest with all imaginable
seriousness. He persuaded himself, and he has persuaded some of his
editors, that he was a genuine disciple of Bacon, by one of whose
suggestions the 'Inquiry' is supposed to have been prompted.
Accordingly, as Bacon describes the idols by which the human mind is
misled, Sir Thomas sets out with investigating the causes of error; but
his introductory remarks immediately diverge into strange paths, from
which it is obvious that the discovery of true scientific method was a
very subordinate object in his mind. Instead of telling us by what means
truth is to be attained, his few perfunctory remarks on logic are lost
in an historical narrative given with infinite zest, of the earliest
recorded blunders. The period of history in which he most delighted was
the antediluvian--probably because it afforded the widest field for
speculation. His books are full of references to the early days of the
world. He takes a keen personal interest in our first parents. He
discusses the unfortunate lapse of Adam and Eve from every possible
point of view. It is not without a visible effort that he declines to
settle which of the two was the more guilty, and what would have been
the result if they had tasted the fruit of the Tree of Life before
applying to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then he passes
in review every recorded speech before the Flood, shows that in each of
them, with one exception, there is a mixture of falsehood and error, and
settles to his own satisfaction that Cain showed less 'truth, wisdom,
and reverence' than Satan under similar circumstances. Granting all
which to be true, it is impossible to see how we are advanced in
settling, for example, whether the Ptolemaic or the Copernican system of
astronomy is to be adopted, or in extracting the grains of truth that
may be overlaid by masses of error in the writings of alchemists. Nor do
we really learn much by being told that ancient authorities sometimes
lie, for he evidently enjoys accumulating the fables, and cares little
for showing how to discriminate their degree of veracity. He tells us,
indeed, that Medea was simply a predecessor of certain modern artists,
with an excellent 'recipe to make white hair black;' and that Actæon was
a spirited master of hounds, who, like too many of his ancestors, went
metaphorically, instead of literally, to the dogs. He points out,
moreover, that we must not believe on authority that the sea is the
sweat of the earth, that the serpent, before the Fall, went erect like
man, or that the right eye of a hedgehog, boiled in oil, and preserved
in a brazen vessel, will enable us to see in the dark. Such stories, he
moderately remarks, being 'neither consonant unto reason nor
correspondent unto experiment,' are unto us 'no axioms.' But we may
judge of his scepticism by his remarks on 'Oppianus, that famous
Cilician poet.' Of this writer he says that 'abating the annual mutation
of sexes in the hyæna, the single sex of the rhinoceros, the antipathy
between two drums of a lamb's and a wolf's skin, the informity of cubs,
the venation of centaurs, and some few others, he may be read with
delight and profit.' Obviously we shall find in Sir Thomas Browne no
inexorably severe guide to truth! he will not too sternly reject the
amusing because it happens to be slightly improbable, or doubt an
authority because he sometimes sanctions a mass of absurd fables. Satan,
as he argues at great length, is at the bottom of most errors, from
false religions down to a belief that there is another world in the
moon; but Sir Thomas takes little trouble to provide us with an
Ithuriel's spear, and, indeed, we have a faint suspicion that he will
overlook at times the diabolic agency in sheer enthusiasm at the
marvellous results. The logical design is little more than ostensible;
and Sir Thomas, though he knew it not himself, is really satisfied with
any line of inquiry that will bring him in sight of some freak of nature
or of opinion suitable to his museum of curiosities.

Let us, however, pass from the anteroom, and enter this queer museum. We
pause in sheer bewilderment on the threshold, and despair of classifying
its contents intelligibly within any moderate space. This much, indeed,
is obvious at first sight--that the title 'vulgar errors' is to some
extent a misnomer. It is not given to vulgar brains to go wrong by such
complex methods. There are errors which require more learning and
ingenuity than are necessary for discovering truths; and it is in those
queer freaks of philosophical minds that Sir Thomas specially delights.
Though far, indeed, from objecting to any absurdity which lies on the
common highroad, he rejoices in the true spirit of a collector when he
can discover some grotesque fancy by rambling into less frequented paths
of inquiry. Perhaps it will be best to take down one or two specimens,
pretty much at random, and mark their nature and mode of treatment.
Here, for example, is that quaint old wonder, the phoenix, 'which, after
many hundred years, burneth itself, and from the ashes thereof ariseth
up another.' Sir Thomas carefully discusses the pros and cons of this
remarkable legend. In favour of the phoenix, it may be alleged that he
is mentioned 'not only by human authors,' but also by such 'holy
writers' as Cyril, Epiphanius, and Ambrose. Moreover, allusions are made
to him in Job and the Psalms. 'All which notwithstanding,' the following
grave reasons may be alleged against his existence: First, nobody has
ever seen a phoenix. Secondly, those who mention him speak doubtfully,
and even Pliny, after telling a story about a particular phoenix which
came to Rome in the censorship of Claudius, unkindly turns round and
declares the whole story to be a palpable lie. Thirdly, the name phoenix
has been applied to many other birds, and those who speak unequivocally
of the genuine phoenix contradict each other in the most flagrant way as
to his age and habitat. Fourthly, many writers, such as Ovid, only speak
poetically, and others, as Paracelsus, only mystically, whilst the
remainder speak rhetorically, emblematically, or hieroglyphically.
Fifthly, in the Scriptures, the word translated phoenix means a palm
tree. Sixthly, his existence, if we look closely, is implicitly denied
in the Scriptures, because all fowls entered the ark in pairs, and
animals were commanded to increase and multiply, neither of which
statements is compatible with the solitary nature of the phoenix.
Seventhly, nobody could have known by experience whether the phoenix
actually lived for a thousand years, and, therefore, 'there may be a
mistake in the compute.' Eighthly, and finally, no animals really
spring, or could spring, from the ashes of their predecessors and it is
impossible to believe that they could enter the world in such a fashion.
Having carefully summed up this negative evidence--enough, one would
have fancied, to blow the poor phoenix into summary annihilation--Sir
Thomas finally announces his grave conclusion in these words--'How far
to rely on this tradition we refer unto consideration.' And yet he feels
impelled to add a quaint reflection on the improbability of a statement
made by Plutarch, that 'the brain of a phoenix is a pleasant bit, but
that it causeth the headache.' Heliogabalus, he observes, could not have
slain the phoenix, for it must of necessity be 'a vain design to destroy
any species, or mutilate the great accomplishment of six days.' To which
it is added, by way of final corollary, that after Cain had killed Abel,
he could not have destroyed Eve, supposing her to have been the only
woman in existence; for then there must have been another creation, and
a second rib of Adam must have been animated.

We must not, however, linger too long with these singular speculations,
for it is probable that phoenix-fanciers are becoming rare. It is enough
to say briefly, that if anyone wishes to understand the natural history
of the basilisk, the griffin, the salamander, the cockatrice, or the
amphisboena--if he wishes to know whether a chameleon lives on air, and
an ostrich on horseshoes--whether a carbuncle gives light in the dark,
whether the Glastonbury thorn bore flowers on Christmas-day, whether the
mandrake 'naturally groweth under gallowses,' and shrieks 'upon
eradication,'--on these and many other such points he may find grave
discussions in Sir Thomas Browne's pages. He lived in the period when it
was still held to be a sufficient proof of a story that it was written
in a book, especially if the book were Latin; and some persons, such as
Alexander Ross, whose memory is preserved only by the rhyme in
'Hudibras,' argued gravely against his scepticism.[5] For Sir Thomas, in
spite of his strange excursions into the marvellous, inclines for the
most part to the sceptical side of the question. He was not insensible
to the growing influence of the scientific spirit, though he believed
implicitly in witchcraft, spoke with high respect of alchemy and
astrology, and refused to believe that the earth went round the sun. He
feels that his favourite creatures are doomed to extinction, and though
dealing lovingly with them, speaks rather like an attached mourner at
their funerals than a physician endeavouring to maintain their
flickering vitality. He tries experiments and has a taste for
dissection. He proves by the evidence of his senses, and believes them
in spite of the general report, that a dead kingfisher will not turn its
breast to the wind. He convinced himself that if two magnetic needles
were placed in the centre of rings marked with the alphabet (an odd
anticipation of the electric telegraph, _minus_ the wires), they would
not point to the same letter by an occult sympathy. His arguments are
often to the point, though overlaid with a strange accretion of the
fabulous. In discussing the question of the blackness of negroes, he
may remind benevolent readers of some of Mr. Darwin's recent
speculations. He rejects, and on the same grounds which Mr. Darwin
declares to be conclusive, the hypothesis that the blackness is the
immediate effect of the climate; and he points out, what is important in
regard to 'sexual selection,' that a negro may admire a flat nose as we
admire an aquiline; though, of course, he diverges into extra-scientific
questions when discussing the probable effects of the curse of Ham, and
rather loses himself in a 'digression concerning blackness.' We may
fancy that this problem pleased Sir Thomas rather because it appeared to
be totally insoluble than for any other reason; and in spite of his
occasional gleams of scientific observation, he is always most at home
when on the border-land which divides the purely marvellous from the
region of ascertainable fact. In the last half of his book, indeed,
having exhausted natural history, he plunges with intense delight into
questions which bear the same relation to genuine antiquarianism that
his phoenixes and salamanders bear to scientific inquiry: whether the
sun was created in Libra; what was the season of the year in Paradise;
whether the forbidden fruit was an apple; whether Methuselah was the
longest-lived of all men (a main argument on the other side being that
Adam was created at the perfect age of man, which in those days was
fifty or sixty, and thus had a right to add sixty to his natural years);
what was the nature of St. John the Baptist's camel's-hair garment; what
were the secret motives of the builders of the Tower of Babel; whether
the three kings really lived at Cologne,--these and many other profound
inquiries are detailed with all imaginable gravity, and the interest of
the inquirer is not the less because he generally comes to the
satisfactory and sensible conclusion that we cannot possibly know
anything whatever about it.

The 'Inquiry into Vulgar Errors' was published in 1646, and Sir Thomas's
next publication appeared in 1658. The dates are significant. Whilst all
England was in the throes of the first civil war, Sir Thomas had been
calmly finishing his catalogue of intellectual oddities. This book was
published soon after the crushing victory of Naseby. King, Parliament,
and army, illustrating a very different kind of vulgar error, continued
to fight out their quarrel to the death. Whilst Milton, whose genius was
in some way most nearly akin to his own, was raising his voice in favour
of the liberty of the press, good Sir Thomas was meditating profoundly
on quincunxes. Milton hurled fierce attacks at Salmasius, and meanwhile
Sir Thomas, in his quiet country town, was discoursing on 'certain
sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk.' In the year of Cromwell's
death, the result of his labours appeared in a volume containing 'The
Garden of Cyrus' and the 'Hydriotaphia.'

The first of these essays illustrates Sir Thomas's peculiar mysticism.
The external world was not to him the embodiment of invariable forces,
and therefore capable of revealing a general law in a special instance;
but rather a system of symbols, signatures of the Plastic Nature, to
which mysterious truths were arbitrarily annexed. A Pythagorean doctrine
of numbers was therefore congenial to his mind. He ransacks heaven and
earth, he turns over all his stores of botanical knowledge, he searches
all sacred and profane literature to discover anything that is in the
form of an X, or that reminds him in any way of the number five. From
the garden of Cyrus, where the trees were arranged in this order, he
rambles through the universe, stumbling over quincunxes at every step.
To take, for example, his final, and, of course, his fifth chapter, we
find him modestly disavowing an 'inexcusable Pythagorism,' and yet
unable to refrain from telling us that five was anciently called the
number of justice: that it was also called the divisive number; that
most flowers have five leaves; that feet have five toes; that the cone
has a 'quintuple division;' that there were five wise and five foolish
virgins; that the 'most generative animals' were created on the fifth
day; that the cabalists discovered strange meanings in the number five;
that there were five golden mice; that five thousand persons were fed
with five barley-loaves; that the ancients mixed five parts of water
with wine; that plays have five acts; that starfish have five points;
and that if anyone inquire into the causes of this strange repetition,
'he shall not pass his hours in vulgar speculations.' We, however, must
decline the task, and will content ourselves with a few characteristic
phrases from his peroration. 'The quincunx of heaven,' he says,
referring to the _Hyades_, 'runs low, and 'tis time to close the five
parts of knowledge. We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts
into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precogitations,
making cables of cobwebs, and wildernesses of handsome groves.... Night,
which Pagan theology could make the daughter of chaos, affords no
advantage to the description of order; although no lower than that mass
can we derive its genealogy. All things began in order, so shall they
end, and so shall they begin again; according to the admirer of order
and mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven. Although Somnus, in
Homer, be sent to rouse up Agamemnon, I find no such effects in these
drowsy approaches of night. To keep our eyes open longer were but to
act with our Antipodes. The huntsmen are up in America, and they are
already past their first sleep in Persia. But who can be drowsy at that
hour, which roused us from everlasting sleep? Or have slumbering
thoughts at that hour, when sleep itself must end, and, as some
conjecture, all shall wake again?'

'Think you,' asks Coleridge, commenting upon this passage, 'that there
ever was such a reason given for going to bed at midnight, to wit, that
if we did not, we should be acting the part of our Antipodes?' In truth,
Sir Thomas finishes his most whimsical work whimsically enough. The
passage is a good specimen of the quaint and humorous eloquence in which
he most delights--snatching fine thought from sheer absurdities, and
putting the homeliest truth into a dress of amusing oddity. It may
remind us that it is time to touch upon those higher qualities, which
have led one of the acutest of recent critics[6] to call him 'our most
imaginative mind since Shakspeare.' Everywhere, indeed, his imaginative
writing is, if we may so speak, shot with his peculiar humour. It is
difficult to select any eloquent, passage which does not show this
characteristic interweaving of the two elements. Throw the light from
one side, and it shows nothing but quaint conceits; from the other, and
we have a rich glow of poetic colouring. His humour and his melancholy
are inextricably blended; and his melancholy itself is described to a
nicety in the words of Jaques:--'It is a melancholy of his own,
compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and, indeed,
the sundry contemplation of his travels, in which his often rumination
wraps him in a most humorous sadness.' That most marvellous Jaques,
indeed, is rather too much of a cynic, and shows none of the religious
sentiment of Sir Thomas Browne; but if they could have talked together
in the forest, poor Jaques would have excited a far closer sympathy than
he receives from his very unappreciative companions. The book in which
this 'humorous sadness' finds the fullest expression is the 'Religio
Medici.' The conception of the book apparently resulted from the 'sundry
contemplation of his travels,' and it is written throughout in his
characteristic strain of thought. From his travels he had learnt the
best lesson of a lofty toleration. The furious controversies of that
age, in which the stake, the prison, and the pillory were the popular
theological arguments, produced a characteristic effect on his
sympathies. He did not give in to the established belief, like his
kindly natured contemporary Fuller, who remarks, in a book published
about the same time with the 'Religio Medici,' that even 'the mildest
authors' agree in the propriety of putting certain heretics to death.
Nor, on the other hand, does he share the glowing indignation which
prompted the great protests of Chillingworth and Taylor against the
cruelties practised in the name of religion. Browne has a method of his
own in view of such questions. He shrinks from the hard, practical world
into spiritual meditation. He regards all opinions less as a philosopher
than as a poet. He asks, not whether a dogma is true, but whether it is
amusing or quaint. If his imagination or his fancy can take pleasure in
contemplating it, he is not curious to investigate its scientific
accuracy. And therefore he catches the poetical side of creeds which
differ from his own, and cannot even understand why anybody should grow
savage over their shortcomings. He never could be angry with a man's
judgment 'for not agreeing with me in that from which, perhaps, within
a few days, I should dissent myself.' Travelling in this spirit through
countries where the old faith still prevailed, he felt a lively sympathy
for the Catholic modes of worship. Holy water and crucifixes do not
offend him. He is willing to enter the churches and to pray with the
worshippers of other persuasions. He is naturally inclined, he says, 'to
that which misguided zeal terms superstition,' and would show his
respect rather than his unbelief. In an eloquent passage, which might
teach a lesson to some modern tourists, he remarks:--'At the sight of a
cross or crucifix I can dispense with my hat, but scarce with the
thought and memory of my Saviour. I cannot laugh at, but rather pity,
the fruitless journeys of pilgrims, or contemn the miserable condition
of friars; for though misplaced in circumstances, there is something in
it of devotion. I could never hear the Ave Mary bell without an
elevation; or think it a sufficient warrant, because they erred in one
circumstance, for me to err in all--that is, in silence and dumb
contempt. Whilst, therefore, they directed their devotions to her, I
offered mine to God, and rectified the errors of their prayers by
rightly ordering my own. At a solemn procession I have wept abundantly,
while my consorts, blind with opposition and prejudice, have fallen into
an excess of laughter and scorn.'

Very characteristic, from this point of view, are the heresies into
which he confesses that he has sometimes fallen. Setting aside one
purely fantastical theory, they all imply a desire for toleration even
in the next world. He doubted whether the damned would not ultimately be
released from torture. He felt great difficulty in giving up prayers for
the dead, and thought that to be the object of such prayers, was 'a good
way to be remembered by posterity, and far more noble than a history.'
These heresies, he says, as he never tried to propagate them, or to
dispute over them, 'without additions of new fuel, went out insensibly
of themselves.' Yet he still retained, in spite of its supposed
heterodoxy, some hope for the fate of virtuous heathens. 'Amongst so
many subdivisions of hell,' he says, 'there might have been one limbo
left for these.' With a most characteristic turn, he softens the horror
of the reflection by giving it an almost humorous aspect. 'What a
strange vision will it be,' he exclaims, 'to see their poetical fictions
converted into verities, and their imagined and fancied furies into real
devils! How strange to them will sound the history of Adam, when they
shall suffer for him they never heard of!'

The words may remind us of an often-quoted passage from Tertullian; but
the Father seems to gloat over the appalling doctrines from which the
philosophical humorist shrinks, even though their very horror has a
certain strange fascination for his fancy. Heresies such as these will
not be harshly condemned at the present day. From others of a different
kind, Sir Thomas is shielded by his natural love of the marvellous. He
loves to abandon his thoughts to mysterious contemplations; he even
considers it a subject for complaint that there are 'not impossibilities
enough in religion for an active faith.' 'I love,' he says, 'to lose
myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an _O altitudo_! 'Tis my
solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas
and riddles of the Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection. I can answer
all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd
resolution I learnt of Tertullian, _certum est quia impossibile est_.'
He rejoices that he was not an Israelite at the passage of the Red Sea,
or an early Christian in the days of miracles; for then his faith,
supported by his senses, would have had less merit. He loves to puzzle
and confound his understanding with the thoughts that pass the limits of
our intellectual powers: he rejoices in contemplating eternity, because
nobody can 'speak of it without a solecism,' and to plunge his
imagination into the abysses of the infinite. 'When I cannot satisfy my
reason,' he says, 'I love to recreate my fancy.' He recreates it by
soaring into the regions where the most daring metaphysical logic breaks
down beneath us, and delights in exposing his reason to the rude test of
believing both sides of a contradiction. Here, as everywhere, the
strangest freaks of fancy intrude themselves into his sublime
contemplations. A mystic, when abasing reason in the presence of faith,
may lose sight of earthly objects in the splendour of the beatific
vision. But Sir Thomas, even when he enters the holiest shrine, never
quite loses his grasp of the grotesque. Wonder, whether produced by the
sublime or the simply curious, has equal attraction for him. His mind is
distracted between the loftiest mysteries of Christianity and the
strangest conceits of Talmudists or schoolmen. Thus, for example, whilst
eloquently descanting on the submissiveness of his reason, he informs us
(obviously claiming credit for the sacrifice of his curiosity) that he
can read of the raising of Lazarus, and yet refrain from raising a 'law
case whether his heir might lawfully detain his inheritance bequeathed
unto him by his death, and he, though restored to life, have no plea or
title unto his former possessions.' Or we might take the inverse
transition from the absurd to the sublime, in his meditations upon hell.
He begins by inquiring whether the everlasting fire is the same with
that of our earth. 'Some of our chymicks,' it appears, 'facetiously
affirm that, at the last fire, all shall be crystallised and
reverberated into glass,' but, after playing for some time with this and
other strange fancies, he says in a loftier strain, though still with
his odd touch of humour, 'Men speak too popularly who place it in those
flaming mountains, which, to grosser apprehensions, represent hell. The
heart of men is the place the devils dwell in. I feel sometimes a hell
within myself; Lucifer keeps his courts in my breast; Legion is revived
in me. There was more than one hell in Magdalene, when there were seven
devils; for every devil is a hell unto himself; he holds enough of
torture in his own _ubi_, and needs not the misery of circumference to
afflict him; and thus a distracted conscience here is a shadow or
introduction into hell hereafter.'

Sir Thomas's witticisms are like the grotesque carvings in a Gothic
cathedral. It is plain that in his mind they have not the slightest
tinge of conscious irreverence. They are simply his natural mode of
expression; forbid him to be humorous, and you might as well forbid him
to speak at all. If the severity of our modern taste is shocked at an
intermixture which seemed natural enough to his contemporaries, we may
find an unconscious apology in a singularly fine passage of the 'Religio
Medici.' Justifying his love of church music, he says, 'Even that vulgar
and tavern music, which makes one man merry, another mad, strikes in me
a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the first
composer.' That power of extracting deep devotion from 'vulgar tavern
music' is the great secret of Browne's eloquence. It is not wonderful,
perhaps, that, with our associations, the performance seems of
questionable taste; and that some strains of tavern music mix
unpleasantly in the grander harmonies which they suggest. Few people
find their religious emotions stimulated by the performance of a nigger
melody, and they have some difficulty in keeping pace with a mind which
springs in happy unconsciousness, or rather in keen enjoyment, of the
contrast from the queer or commonplace to the most exalted objects of
human thought.

One other peculiarity shows itself chiefly in the last pages of the
'Religio Medici.' His worthy commentators have laboured to defend Sir
Thomas from the charge of vanity. He expatiates upon his own universal
charity; upon his inability to regard even vice as a fitting object for
satire; upon his warm affection to his friend, whom he already loves
better than himself, and whom yet in a few months he will regard with a
love which will make his present feelings seem indifference; upon his
absolute want of avarice or any kind of meanness; and, which certainly
seems a little odd in the midst of these self-laudations, upon his
freedom from the 'first and father sin, not only of man, but of the
devil, pride.' Good Dr. Watts was shocked at this 'arrogant temerity,'
and Dr. Johnson appears rather to concur in the charge. And certainly,
if we are to interpret his language in a matter-of-fact spirit, it must
be admitted that a gentleman who openly claims for himself the virtues
of charity, generosity, courage, and modesty, might be not unfairly
accused of vanity. To no one, as we have already remarked, is such a
matter-of-fact criticism less applicable. If a humorist was to be denied
the right of saying with a serious face what he does not quite think, we
should make strange work of some of the most charming books in the
world. The Sir Thomas Browne of the 'Religio Medici' is by no means to
be identified with the everyday flesh-and-blood physician of Norwich.
He is the ideal and glorified Sir Thomas, and represents rather what
ought to have been than what was. We all have such doubles who visit us
in our day-dreams and sometimes cheat us into the belief that they are
our real selves, but most of us luckily hide the very existence of such
phantoms; for few of us, indeed, could make them agreeable to our
neighbours. And yet the apology is scarcely needed. Bating some few
touches, Sir Thomas seems to have claimed little that he did not really
possess. And if he was a little vain, why should we be angry? Vanity is
only offensive when it is sullen or exacting. When it merely amounts to
an unaffected pleasure in dwelling on the peculiarities of a man's own
character, it is rather an agreeable literary ingredient. Sir Thomas
defines his point of view with his usual felicity. 'The world that I
regard,' he says in the spirit of the imprisoned Richard II., 'is
myself: it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for
the other, I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for
my recreation.' That whimsical inversion of the natural order is the key
to the 'Religio Medici.' We, for the nonce, are to regard Sir Thomas
Browne as a world, and to study the marvels of his microcosm instead of
the outside wonders. And no one can deny that it is a good and kindly
world--a world full of the strangest combinations, where even the most
sacred are allied with the oddest objects. Yet his imagination
everywhere diffuses a solemn light such as that which falls through
painted windows, and which somehow harmonises the whole quaint
assemblage of images. The sacred is made more interesting instead of
being degraded by its association with the quaint; and on the whole,
after a stay in this microcosm, we feel better, calmer, more tolerant,
and a good deal more amused than when we entered it.

Passing from the portrait to the original, we may recognise, or fancy
that we recognise, the same general features. Sir Thomas assures us that
his life, up to the period of the 'Religio Medici,' was a 'miracle of
thirty years, which to relate were not a history, but a piece of poetry,
and would sound to common ears like a fable.' Johnson, with his usual
sense, observes that it is rather difficult to detect the miraculous
element in any part of the story open to our observation. 'Surely,' he
says, 'a man may visit France and Italy, reside at Montpelier and Padua,
and at last take his degree at Leyden, without anything miraculous.' And
although Southey endeavours to maintain that the miracle consisted in
Browne's preservation from infidelity, it must be admitted that to the
ordinary mind that result seems explicable by natural causes. We must be
content with Johnson's explanation, that, in some sense, 'all life is
miraculous;' and, in short, that the strangeness consists rather in
Browne's view of his own history, than in any unusual phenomena.
Certainly, no man seems on the whole to have slipped down the stream of
life more smoothly. After his travels he settled quietly at Norwich, and
there passed forty-five years of scarcely interrupted prosperity. In the
'Religio Medici' he indulges in some disparaging remarks upon marriage.
'The whole world,' he says, 'was made for man; but the twelfth part of
man for woman. Man is the whole world and the breath of God; woman the
rib and crooked part of man.' He wishes, after the fashion of Montaigne,
that we might grow like the trees, and avoid this foolish and trivial
ceremony; and therefore--for such inferences are perfectly legitimate in
the history of a humorist--he married a lady, of whom it is said that
she was so perfect that 'they seemed to come together by a kind of
natural magnetism,' had ten children, and lived very happily ever
afterwards. It is not difficult, from the fragmentary notices that have
been left to us, to put together some picture of his personal
appearance. He was a man of dignified appearance, with a striking
resemblance, as Southey has remarked, to Charles I., 'always cheerful,
but never merry,' given to unseasonable blushing, little inclined to
talk, but strikingly original when once launched in conversation; sedate
in his dress, and obeying some queer medical crotchets as to its proper
arrangement; always at work in the intervals of his 'drudging practice;'
and generally a sober and dignified physician. From some letters which
have been preserved we catch a view of his social demeanour. He was
evidently an affectionate and liberal father, with good old orthodox
views of the wide extent of the paternal prerogative. One of his sons
was a promising naval officer, and sends home from beyond the seas
accounts of such curiosities as were likely to please the insatiable
curiosity of his parent. In his answers, the good Sir Thomas quotes
Aristotle's definition of fortitude for the benefit of his gallant
lieutenant, and argues elaborately to dissuade him from a practice which
he believes to prevail in 'the king's shipps, when, in desperate cases,
they blow up the same.' He proves by most excellent reasons, and by the
authority of Plutarch, that such self-immolation is an unnecessary
strain of gallantry; yet somehow we feel rather glad that Sir Thomas
could not be a witness to the reception of this sensible, but perhaps
rather superfluous, advice, in the messroom of the 'Marie Rose.' It is
more pleasant to observe the carefulness with which he has treasured up
and repeats all the compliments to the lieutenant's valour and wisdom
which have reached him from trustworthy sources. This son appears to
have died at a comparatively early age; but with the elder son,
Edward--who, like his father, travelled in various parts of Europe, and
then became a distinguished physician--he maintained a long
correspondence, full of those curious details in which his soul
delighted. His son, for example, writes from Prague that 'in the mines
at Brunswick is reported to be a spirit; and another at the tin mine at
Stackenwald, in the shape of a monke, which strikes the miners, playeth
on the bagpipe, and many such tricks.' They correspond, however, on more
legitimate inquiries, and especially on the points to be noticed in the
son's medical lectures. Sir Thomas takes a keen interest in the fate of
an unlucky 'oestridge' which found its way to London in 1681, and was
doomed to illustrate some of the vulgar errors. The poor bird was
induced to swallow a piece of iron weighing two and a-half ounces,
which, strange to say, it could not digest. It soon afterwards died 'of
a soden,' either from the severity of the weather or from the peculiar
nature of its diet.

In one well-known case Sir Thomas's peculiar theories received a more
unfortunate application; he contributed by his evidence to the death of
the witches tried by Hale in 1664; and one could wish that in this case
his love of the wonderful had been more checked by his sense of humour.

The fact that he was knighted by Charles II. in 1671 is now memorable
only for Johnson's characteristic remark. The lexicographer's love of
truth and loyalty to his pet monarch struggle with each other in the
equivocal compliment to Charles's virtue in rewarding excellence 'with
such honorary distinctions at least as cost him nothing.' The good
doctor died in 1682, in the seventy-seventh year of age, and met his
end, as we are assured, in the spirit of his own writings. 'There is,'
he admirably says, 'but one comfort left, that, though it be in the
power of the weakest arm to take away life, it is not in the strongest
to deprive us of death.' Most men, for one reason or another, have at
times been 'half in love with easeful death.' Sir Thomas gives his view
more fully in another passage, in which he says, with his usual quaint
and eloquent melancholy, 'When I take a full view and circle of myself,
without this reasonable moderator and equal piece of justice, death, I
do conceive myself the miserablest person extant. Were there not another
life that I hope for, all the vanities of this world should not entreat
a moment's breath from me. Could the devil work my belief to imagine I
could never die, I could not outlive that very thought. I have so abject
a conceit of this common way of existence, this retaining to the sun and
elements, I cannot think this to be a man, or to have according to the
dignity of humanity. In expectation of a better, I can with patience
embrace this life, yet, in my best meditations, do often defy death.'

What, after all, one is inclined to ask, is the secret of the strange
charm of Sir Thomas's style? Will you be kind enough to give us the old
doctor's literary prescription, that we may produce the same effects at
will? In what proportions shall we mingle humour, imagination, and
learning? How are we to select the language which will be the fittest
vehicle for the thought? or rather, for the metaphor is a little too
mechanical, what were the magic spells with which he sways our
imaginative moods? Like other spells, we must reply, it is
incommunicable: no real answer can be given even by critics who, like
Coleridge and De Quincey, show something of the same power. Coarser
observers can only point to such external peculiarities as the Latinisms
in which he indulges even more freely than most of his contemporaries.
To Johnson they seemed 'pedantic;' to most modern readers they have an
old-world charm; but in any case we know little more of Sir Thomas when
we have observed that he is capable of using for 'hanging' the
periphrasis 'illaqueation or pendulous suffocation.' The perusal of a
page will make us recognise what could not be explained in a whole
volume of analysis. One may, however, hazard a remark upon the special
mood which is clothed or incarnated in his stately rhetoric. The
imagination of Sir Thomas, of course, shows the generic qualities
roughly described as Northern, Gothic, Teutonic, or romantic. He writes
about tombs, and all Englishmen, as M. Taine tells us, like to write
about tombs. When we try to find the specific differences which
distinguish it from other imaginations of similar quality, we should be
inclined to define him as belonging to a very rare intellectual family.
He is a mystic with a sense of humour, or rather, his habitual mood is
determined by an attraction towards the two opposite poles of humour and
mysticism. He concludes two of his treatises (the 'Christian Morals' and
'Urn Burial') in words expressive of one of these tendencies: 'If any
have been so happy as personally to understand Christian annihilation,
ecstacy, exolution, transformation, the kiss of the spouse, and
ingression into the divine shadow according to mystical theology, they
have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the world is in a
manner over, and the earth in ashes unto them.' Many of Sir Thomas's
reflections, his love in spiritualising external emblems, as, for
example, in the reflections on the quincunx, and the almost sensuous
delight in the contemplation of a mystery, show the same bent. The
fully-developed mystic loses sight of the world and its practical duties
in the rapture of formless meditations; facts become shadows, and
emotions the only realities. But the presence of a mystical element is
the mark of all lofty imaginations. The greatest poet is he who feels
most deeply and habitually that our 'little lives are rounded with a
sleep;' that we are but atoms in the boundless abysses of space and
time; that the phenomenal world is but a transitory veil, to be valued
only as its contemplation arouses or disciplines our deepest emotions.
Capacity for passing from the finite to the infinite, for interpreting
the high instincts before which our mortal nature

    'Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised,'

is the greatest endowment of the Shakespeares and Dantes. Mysticism
proper is the abuse of this tendency, which prompts to the impossible
feat of soaring altogether beyond the necessary base of concrete
realities. The mystic temperament is balanced in some great men, as in
Shakespeare, by their intense interest in human passion; in others, as
in Wordsworth, by their profound sense of the primary importance of the
moral law; and in others, as in Jeremy Taylor, by their hold upon the
concrete imagery of a traditional theology; whilst to some, the mystic
vision is strangely blended with an acceptance of the epicurean precept,
Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Sir Thomas Browne seems to
be held back from abandoning himself to the ecstasies of abstract
meditation, chiefly by his peculiar sense of humour. There is a closer
connection than we are always willing to admit between humour and
profanity. Humour is the faculty which always keeps us in mind of the
absurdity which is the shadow of sublimity. It is naturally allied to
intellectual scepticism, as in Rabelais or Montaigne; and Sir Thomas
shared the tendency sufficiently to be called atheist by some wiseacres.
But his humour was too gentle to suggest scepticism of the aggressive
kind. It is almost too free from cynicism. He cannot adopt any dogma
unreservedly, but neither does any dogma repel him. He revels in the
mental attitude of hopeless perplexity, which is simply unendurable to
the commonplace and matter-of-fact intellects. He likes to be balanced
between opposing difficulties; to play with any symbol of worship
without actually worshipping it; to prostrate himself sincerely at many
shrines, and yet with a half smile on his lips. He cannot be a
rhetorician in the ordinary sense of the word; he would have been
hopelessly out of place on the floor of the senate, stirring men's
patriotism or sense of right; for half his sympathy would always be with
the Opposition. He could not have moved the tears or the devotional
ecstasies of a congregation, for he has too vivid a sense that any and
every dogma is but one side of an inevitable antinomy. Strong
convictions are needed for the ordinary controversial successes, and his
favourite point of view is the centre from which all convictions radiate
and all look equally probable. But then, instead of mocking at all, he
sympathises with all, and expresses the one sentiment which may be
extracted from their collision--the sentiment of reverence blended with
scepticism. It is a contradictory sentiment, one may say, in a sense,
but the essence of humour is to be contradictory. The language in which
he utters himself was determined by his omnivorous appetite for every
quaint or significant symbol to be discovered in the whole field of
learning. With no prejudices, nothing comes amiss to him; and the
signature of some mysterious principle may be found in every object of
art or nature. Science in its infancy was still half mystic, and the
facts which he gathered were all tinged with the semi-mythical fancies
of the earliest explorers of the secrets of nature. In an old relic,
recalling 'the drums and tramplings of three conquests,' in a queer
annual, or an ancient fragment of history might be the appropriate
emblem, or something more than the emblem of a truth equally impressive
to the scientific and the poetical imagination. He would have been happy
by the midnight lamp in Milton's 'high lonely tower;' but his humour
would look at the romances which Milton loved rather with the eyes of
Cervantes than of Milton. Their tone of sentiment would be too strained
and highflown; and he would prefer to read of the spirits that are found

    'In fire, air, flood, or underground,'

or to try to penetrate the secret of

    'Every star that heaven doth show,
     And every herb that sips the dew,'

by reading all the nonsense that had been written about them in the dawn
of inquiry. He should be read in a corresponding spirit. One should
often stop to appreciate the full flavour of some quaint allusion, or
lay down the book to follow out some diverging line of thought. So read
in a retired study, or beneath the dusty shelves of an ancient library,
a page of Sir Thomas seems to revive the echoes as of ancient chants in
college chapels, strangely blended with the sonorous perorations of
professors in the neighbouring schools, so that the interferences
sometimes produce a note of gentle mockery and sometimes heighten
solemnity by quaintness.

That, however, is not the spirit in which books are often read in these
days. We have an appetite for useful information, and an appetite for
frivolous sentiment or purely poetical musing. We cannot combine the two
after the quaint fashion of the old physician. And therefore these
charming writings have ceased to suit our modern taste; and Sir Thomas
is already passing under that shadow of mortality which obscures all,
even the greatest, reputations, and with which no one has dwelt more
pathetically or graphically than himself.

If we are disposed to complain, Sir Thomas shall himself supply the
answer, in a passage from the 'Hydriotaphia,' which, though described by
Hallam as the best written of his treatises, is not to my taste so
attractive as the 'Religio Medici.' The concluding chapter, however, is
in his best style, and here are some of his reflections on posthumous
fame. The end of the world, he says, is approaching, and 'Charles V. can
never hope to live within two Methuselahs of Hector.' 'And, therefore,
restless inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories with present
considerations seems a vanity out of date, and a superannuated piece of
folly. We cannot hope to live as long in our names as some have done in
their persons. One face of Janus holds no proportion to the other. 'Tis
too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, or
time may be too short for our designs. To extend our memories by
monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot
hope without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day,
were a contradiction to our beliefs. We, whose generations are ordained
in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such
imaginations; and being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of
futurity, are naturally constituted into thoughts of the next world, and
cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which
maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment.'

If the argument has now been vulgarised in the hands of Dr. Cumming and
his like, the language and the sentiment are worthy of any of our
greatest masters.

FOOTNOTES:

[5] Ross, for example, urges that the invisibility of the phoenix is
sufficiently accounted for by the natural desire of a unique animal to
keep out of harm's way.

[6] Mr. Lowell, in 'Shakspeare Once More,' 'Among My Books.'



_JONATHAN EDWARDS_[7]


Two of the ablest thinkers whom America has yet produced were born in
New England at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The theorists
who would trace all our characteristics to inheritance from some remote
ancestor might see in Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin normal
representatives of the two types from which the genuine Yankee is
derived. Though blended in various proportions, and though one may exist
almost to the exclusion of the other, an element of shrewd mother-wit
and an element of transcendental enthusiasm are to be detected in all
who boast a descent from the pilgrim fathers. Franklin, born in 1706,
represents in its fullest development the more earthly side of this
compound. A thoroughbred utilitarian, full of sagacity, and carrying
into all regions of thought that strange ingenuity which makes an
American the handiest of all human beings, Franklin is best embodied in
his own poor Richard. Honesty is the best policy: many a little makes a
mickle: the second vice is lying, the first is running in debt; and--

    'Get what you can, and what you get hold;
     'Tis the stone that will turn all your lead into gold.'

These and a string of similar maxims are the pith of Franklin's message
to the world. Franklin, however, was not merely a man in whom the
practical intelligence was developed in a very remarkable degree, but
was fortunate in coming upon a crisis admirably suited to his abilities,
and in being generally in harmony with the spirit of his age. He
succeeded, as we know, in snatching lightning from the heavens, and the
sceptre from tyrants; and had his reward in the shape of much
contemporary homage from French philosophers, and lasting renown amongst
his countrymen. Meanwhile, Jonathan Edwards, his senior by three years,
had the fate common to men who are unfitted for the struggles of daily
life, and whose philosophy does not harmonise with the dominant current
of the time. A speculative recluse, with little faculty of literary
expression, and given to utter opinions shocking to the popular mind, he
excited little attention during his lifetime, except amongst the sharers
of his own religious persuasions; and, when noticed after his death, the
praise of his intellectual acuteness has generally been accompanied with
an expression of abhorrence for his supposed moral obtuseness. Mr.
Lecky, for example, whilst speaking of Edwards as 'probably the ablest
defender of Calvinism,' mentions his treatise on Original Sin as 'one of
the most revolting books that have ever proceeded from the pen of man'
('Rationalism,' i. 404). That intense dislike, which is far from
uncommon, for severe reasoning has even made a kind of reproach to
Edwards of what is called his 'inexorable logic.' To condemn a man for
being honestly in the wrong is generally admitted to be unreasonable;
but people are even more unforgiving to the sin of being honestly in the
right. The frankness with which Edwards avowed opinions, not by any
means peculiar to himself, has left a certain stain upon his reputation.
He has also suffered in general repute from a cause which should really
increase our interest in his writings. Metaphysicians, whilst admiring
his acuteness, have been disgusted by his adherence to an outworn
theology; and theologians have cared little for a man who was primarily
a philosophical speculator, and has used his philosophy to bring into
painful relief the most terrible dogmas of the ancient creeds. Edwards,
however, is interesting just because he is a connecting link between two
widely different phases of thought. He connects the expiring Calvinism
of the old Puritan theocracy with what is called the transcendentalism
embodied in the writings of Emerson and other leaders of young America.
He is remarkable, too, as illustrating, at the central point of the
eighteenth century, those speculative tendencies which were most vitally
opposed to the then dominant philosophy of Locke and Hume. And, finally,
there is a still more permanent interest in the man himself, as
exhibiting in high relief the weak and the strong points of the teaching
of which Calvinism represents only one embodiment. His life, in striking
contrast to that of his more celebrated contemporary, ran its course far
away from the main elements of European activity. With the exception of
a brief stay at New York, he lived almost exclusively in the interior of
what was then the thinly-settled colony of Massachusetts.[8] His father
was for nearly sixty years minister of a church in Connecticut, and his
mother's father, the 'celebrated Solomon Stoddard,' for about an equal
time minister of a church at Northampton, Massachusetts. Young Jonathan,
brought up at the feet of these venerable men, after the strictest sect
of the Puritans, was sent to Yale at the age of twelve, took his B.A.
degree at the age of seventeen, and two years afterwards became a
preacher at New York. Thence he returned to a tutorship at Yale, but in
his twenty-fourth year was ordained as colleague of his grandfather
Stoddard, and spent at Northampton the next twenty-three years of his
life. It may be added that he married early a wife of congenial temper,
and had eleven children.[9] One of his daughters,--it is an odd
combination,--was the mother of Aaron Burr, the duellist who killed
Hamilton, and afterwards became the prototype of all Southern
secessionists. The external facts, however, of Edwards' life are of
little interest, except as indicating the influences to which he was
exposed. Puritanism, though growing faint, was still powerful in New
England; it was bred in his bones, and he was drilled from his earliest
years into its sternest dogmas. Some curious fragments of his early life
and letters indicate the nature of his spiritual development. Whilst
still almost a boy, he writes down solemn resolutions, and practises
himself in severe self-inspection. He resolves 'never to do, be, or
suffer anything in soul or body, more or less, but what tends to the
glory of God;' to 'live with all my might while I do live;' 'never to
speak anything that is ridiculous or matter of laughter on the Lord's
Day' (a resolution which we might think rather superfluous, even though
extended to other days); and, 'frequently to renew the dedication of
myself to God, which was made at my baptism, which I solemnly renewed
when I was received into the communion of the Church, and which I have
solemnly ratified this 12th day of January 1723' (i. 18). He pledges
himself, in short, to a life of strict self-examination and absolute
devotion to what he takes for the will of God. Similar resolutions have
doubtless been made by countless young men, brought up under the same
conditions, and diaries of equal value have been published by the
authors of innumerable saintly biographies. In Edwards' mouth, however,
they really had a meaning, and bore corresponding results. An
interesting paper gives an account of those religious 'experiences' to
which his sect attaches so tremendous an importance. From his childhood,
he tells us, his mind had been full of objections to the doctrine of
God's sovereignty. It appeared to him to be a 'horrible doctrine' that
God should choose whom He would, and reject whom He pleased, 'leaving
them eternally to perish and be tormented eternally in hell.' The whole
history of his intellectual development is involved in the process by
which he became gradually reconciled to this appalling dogma. In the
second year of his collegiate course, we are told, which would be about
the fourteenth of his age, he read Locke's Essay with inexpressible
delight. The first glimpse of metaphysical inquiry, it would seem,
revealed to him the natural bent of his mind, and opened to him the path
of speculation in which he ever afterwards delighted. Locke, though
Edwards always mentions him with deep respect, was indeed a thinker of a
very different school. The disciple owed to his master, not a body of
doctrine, but the impulse to intellectual activity. He succeeded in
working out for himself a satisfactory answer to the problem by which he
had been perplexed. His cavils ceased as his reason strengthened. 'God's
absolute sovereignty and justice' seemed to him to be as clear as
anything he saw with his eyes; 'at least,' he adds, 'it is so at times.'
Nay, he even came to rejoice in the doctrine and regard it as
'infinitely pleasant, bright, and sweet' (i. 33). The Puritan
assumptions were so ingrained in his nature that the agony of mind which
they caused never led him to question their truth, though it animated
him to discover a means of reconciling them to reason; and the
reconciliation is the whole burden of his ablest works. The effect upon
his mind is described in terms which savour of a less stern school of
faith. God's glory was revealed to him throughout the whole creation,
and often threw him into ecstasies of devotion (i. 33). 'God's
excellency, His wisdom, His purity, and love seemed to appear in
everything: in the sun, moon, and stars: in the clouds and blue sky; in
the grass, flowers, and trees; in the water and all nature, which used
greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for
continuance, and in the day spent much time in viewing the clouds and
sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the meantime
singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and
Redeemer.' Thunder, he adds, had once been terrible to him; 'now scarce
anything in all the works of nature' was so sweet (i. 36). It seemed as
if the 'majestic and awful voice of God's thunder' was in fact the voice
of its Creator. Thunder and lightning, we know, suggested
characteristically different contemplations to Franklin. Edwards'
utterances are as remarkable for their amiability as for their
non-scientific character. We see in him the gentle mystic rather than
the stern divine who consigned helpless infants to eternal torture
without a question of the goodness of their Creator. This vein of
meditation, however, continued to be familiar to him. He spent most of
his time reflecting on Divine things, and often walking in solitary
places and woods to enjoy uninterrupted soliloquies and converse with
God. At New York he often retired to a quiet spot--now, one presumes,
seldom used for such purposes--on the banks of the Hudson river, to
abandon himself to his quiet reveries, or to 'converse on the things of
God' with one Mr. John Smith. To the end of his life he indulged in the
same habit. His custom was to rise at four o'clock in the morning, to
spend thirteen hours daily in his study, and to ride out after dinner to
some lonely grove, where he dismounted and walked by himself, with a
notebook ready at hand for the arrest of stray thoughts. Evidently he
possessed one of those rare temperaments to which the severest
intellectual exercise is a source of the keenest enjoyment; and though
he must often have strayed in to the comparatively dreary labyrinths of
metaphysical puzzles, his speculations had always an immediate reference
to what he calls 'Divine things.' Once, he tells us, as he rode into the
woods, in 1737, and alighted according to custom 'to walk in Divine
contemplation and prayer,' he had so extraordinary a view of the glory
of the Son of God, and His wonderful grace, that he remained for about
an hour 'in a flood of tears and weeping aloud.' This intensity of
spiritual vision was frequently combined with a harrowing sense of his
own corruption. 'My wickedness,' he says, 'as I am in myself has long
appeared to me perfectly ineffable; like an infinite deluge or mountains
over my head.' Often, for many years, he has had in his mind and his
mouth the words 'Infinite upon infinite!' His heart looks to him like
'an abyss infinitely deeper than hell;' and yet, he adds, it seems to
him that 'his conviction of sin is exceedingly small.' Whilst weeping
and crying for his sins, he seemed to know that 'his repentance was
nothing to his sin' (i. 41). Extravagant expressions of this kind are
naturally rather shocking to the outsider; and, to those who are
incapable of sympathising, they may even appear to be indications of
hypocrisy. Nobody was more alive than Edwards himself to the danger of
using such phrases mechanically. When you call yourself the worst of
men, he says, be careful that you do not think highly of yourself just
because you think so meanly. And if you reply, 'No, I have not a high
opinion of my humility; it seems to me I am as proud as the devil;' ask
again, 'whether on this very account that you think yourself as proud as
the devil, you do not think yourself to be very humble' (iv. 282). That
is a characteristic bit of subtilising, and it indicates the danger of
all this excessive introspection. Edwards would not have accepted the
moral that the best plan is to think about yourself as little as
possible; for from his point of view this constant cross-examination of
all your feelings, this dissection of emotion down to its finest and
most intricate convolutions, was of the very essence of religion. No
one, however, can read his account of his own feelings, even when he
runs into the accustomed phraseology, without perceiving the ring of
genuine feeling. He is morbid, it may be, but he is not insincere; and
even his strained hyperboles are scarcely unintelligible when considered
as the expression of the sentiment produced by the effort of a human
being to live constantly in presence of the absolute and the infinite.

The event which most powerfully influenced Edwards' mind during his life
at Northampton was one of those strange spiritual storms which then, as
now, swept periodically across the Churches. Protestants generally call
them revivals; in Catholic countries they impel pilgrims to some
devotional shrine; Edwards and his contemporaries described such a
phenomenon as 'a remarkable outpouring of God's Holy Spirit.' He has
carefully described the symptoms of one such commotion, in which he was
a main agent; and two or three later treatises, discussing some of the
problems suggested by the scenes he witnessed, testify to the
profoundness of the impression upon his mind. In fact, as we shall
presently see, Edwards' whole philosophical system was being put to a
practical test by these events. Was the excitement, as modern observers
would say, due to a mere moral epidemic, or was it actually produced by
the direct interposition in human affairs of the Almighty Ruler?
Unhesitatingly recognising the hand of the God the very thought of whom
crushed him into self-annihilation, Edwards is unconsciously troubled by
the strange contrast between the effect and the stupendous cause
assigned for it. When the angel of the Lord comes down to trouble the
waters, one would expect rather to see oceans upheaved than a trifling
ripple in an insignificant pond. There is something almost pathetic in
his eagerness to magnify the proportions of the event. He boasts that in
six months 'more than three hundred souls were savingly brought home to
Christ in this town' (iii. 23). The town itself, it may be observed,
though then one of the most populous in the country, was only of
eighty-two years' standing, and reckoned about two hundred families, the
era of Chicagos not having yet dawned upon the world. The conversion,
however, of this village appeared to some 'divines and others' to herald
the approach of the 'conflagration' (iii. 59); and though Edwards
disavows this rash conjecture, he anticipates with some confidence the
approach of the millennium. The 'isles and ships of Tarshish,'
mentioned in Isaiah, are plainly meant for America, which is to be 'the
firstfruits of that glorious day' (iii. 154); and he collects enough
accounts of various revivals of an analogous kind which had taken place
in Salzburg, Holland, and several of the British Colonies, to justify
the anticipation 'that these universal commotions are the forerunners of
something exceeding glorious approaching' (iii. 414). The limited area
of the disturbance perhaps raised less difficulty than the equivocal
nature of many of the manifestations. In Edwards' imagination, Satan was
always on the watch to produce an imitation, and, it would seem, a
curiously accurate imitation, of the Divine impulses. As De Foe says, in
a different sense--

    Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
    The devil always builds a chapel there.

And some people were unkind enough to trace in the diseases and other
questionable products of the revival a distinct proof of the 'operation
of the evil spirit' (iii. 96). Edwards felt the vital importance of
distinguishing between the two classes of supernatural agency, so
different in their source, and yet so thoroughly similar in their
effects. There is something rather touching, though at times our
sympathy is not quite unequivocal, in the simplicity with which he
traces distinct proofs of the Divine hand in the familiar phenomena of
religious conversions. The stories seem stale and profitless to us which
he accepted with awe-stricken reverence as a demonstrative testimony to
the Divinity of the work. He gives, for example, an anecdote of a young
woman, who, being jealous of another conversion, resolved to bring about
her own by the rather naïf expedient of reading the Bible straight
through. Having begun her task on Monday, the desired effect was
produced on Thursday, and she felt it possible to skip at once to the
New Testament. The crisis ran through its usual course, ending in a
state of rapture, during which she enjoyed for days 'a kind of beatific
vision of God.' The poor girl was very ill, and expressed 'great
longings to die.' When her brother read in Job about worms feeding on
the dead body, she 'appeared with a pleasant smile, and said it was
sweet to her to think of her being in such circumstances' (iii. 69). The
longing was speedily gratified, and she departed, perhaps not to find in
another world that the universe had been laid out precisely in
accordance with the theories of Mr. Jonathan Edwards, but at least
leaving behind her--so we are assured--memories of touching humility and
spirituality. If Abigail Hutchinson strikes us as representing, on the
whole, rather a morbid type of human excellence, what are we to say to
Phebe Bartlet, who had just passed her fourth birthday in April 1735?
(iii. 70). This infant of more than Yankee precocity was converted by
her brother, who had just gone through the same process at the age of
eleven. She took to 'secret prayer,' five or six times a day, and would
never suffer herself to be interrupted. Her experiences are given at
great length, including a refusal to eat plums, 'because it was sin;'
her extreme interest in a thought suggested to her by a text from the
Revelation, about 'supping with God;' and her request to her father to
replace a cow which a poor man had lost. She took great delight in
'private religious meetings,' and was specially edified by the sermons
of Mr. Edwards, for whom she professed, as he records, with perhaps some
pardonable complacency, the warmest affection. The grotesque side of the
story of this detestable infant is, however, blended with something more
shocking. The poor little wretch was tormented by the fear of
hell-fire; and her relations and pastor appear to have done their best
to stimulate this, as well as other religious sentiments. Edwards boasts
at a subsequent period that 'hundreds of little children' had testified
to the glory of God's work (iii. 146). He afterwards remarks
incidentally that many people had considered as 'intolerable' the
conduct of the ministers in 'frightening poor innocent little children
with talk of hell-fire and eternal damnation' (iii. 200). And indeed we
cannot deny that when reading some of the sermons to which poor Phebe
Bartlet must have listened, and remembering the nature of the audience,
the fingers of an unregenerate person clench themselves involuntarily as
grasping an imaginary horsewhip. The answer given by Edwards does not
diminish the impression. Innocent as children may seem to be, he
replies, 'yet if they are out of Christ, they are not so in God's sight,
but are young vipers, and are infinitely more hateful than vipers, and
are in a most miserable condition as well as grown persons; and they are
naturally very senseless and stupid, being _born as the wild ass's
colt_, and need much to awaken them' (iii. 200). Doubtless they got it,
and if we will take Edwards' word for it, the awakening process never
did harm in any one instance. Here we are touching the doctrines which
naturally excite a fierce revolt of the conscience against the most
repulsive of all theological dogmas, though unfortunately a revolt which
is apt to generate an indiscriminating hostility.

The revival gradually spent its force; and, as usual, the more
unpleasant symptoms began to assume greater prominence as the more
spiritual impulse decayed. In Edwards' phraseology, 'it began to be very
sensible that the Spirit of God was gradually withdrawing from us, and
after this time Satan seemed to be set more loose, and raged in a
dreadful manner' (iii. 77). From the beginning of the excitement, the
usual physical manifestation, leapings, and roarings and convulsions
(iii. 131, 205), had shown themselves; and Edwards labours to show that
in this case they were genuine marks of a Divine impulse, and not of
mere enthusiasm, as in the externally similar cases of the Quakers, the
French prophets, and others (iii. 109). Now, however, more startling
phenomena presented themselves. Satan persuaded a highly respectable
citizen to cut his throat. Others saw visions, and had fancied
inspirations; whilst from some hints it would seem probable that grosser
outrages on morality resulted from indiscriminate gatherings of frenzied
enthusiasts (iii. 284). Finally, people's minds were diverted by the
approach of his Excellency the Governor to settle an Indian treaty, and
the building of a new meeting-house altered the channel of enthusiasm
(iii. 79). Northampton settled down into its normal tranquillity.

Some years passed, and, as religious zeal cooled, Edwards became
involved in characteristic difficulties. The pastor, it may easily be
supposed, was not popular with the rising generation. He had, as he
confesses with his usual candour, 'a constitution in many respects
peculiarly unhappy, attended with flaccid solids; vapid, sizy, and
scarce fluids; and a low tide of spirits; often occasioning a kind of
childish weakness and contemptibleness of speech, presence and
demeanour; with a disagreeable dulness and stiffness, much unfitting me
for conversation, but more especially for the government of a college,'
which he was requested to undertake (i. 86). He was, says his admiring
biographer, 'thorough in the government of his children,' who
consequently 'reverenced, esteemed, and loved him.' He adopted the
plan, less popular now than then, and even more decayed in America than
in England, of 'thoroughly subduing' his children as soon as they showed
any tendency to self-will. He was a 'great enemy' to all 'vain
amusements;' and even after his children had grown up, he enforced their
abstinence from such 'pernicious practice,' and never allowed them to be
out after nine at night. Any gentleman, we are happy to add, was given
proper opportunities for courting his daughters after consulting their
parents, but on condition of conforming strictly to the family
regulations (i. 52, 53). This Puritan discipline appears to have
succeeded with Edwards' own family; but a gentleman with flaccid solids,
vapid fluids, and a fervent belief in hell-fire is seldom appreciated by
the youth even of a Puritan village.

Accordingly, Edwards got into trouble by endeavouring to force his own
notions of discipline amongst certain young people, belonging to
'considerable families,' who were said to indulge in loose conversation
and equivocal books. They possibly preferred 'Pamela,' which had then
just revealed a new source of amusement to the world, to awakening
sermons; and Edwards' well-meant efforts to suppress the evil set the
town 'in a blaze' (i. 64). A more serious quarrel followed. Edwards
maintained the doctrine, which had been gradually dying out amongst the
descendants of the Puritans, that converted persons alone should be
admitted to the Lord's Supper. The practice had been different at
Northampton; and when Edwards announced his intention of enforcing the
test of professed conversion, a vigorous controversy ensued. The dispute
lasted for some years, with much mutual recrimination. A kind of
ecclesiastical council, formed from the neighbouring churches, decided
by a majority of one that he should be dismissed if his people desired
it; and the people voted for his dismissal by a majority of more than
200 to 20 (i. 69).

Edwards was thus a martyr to his severe sense of discipline. His
admirers have lamented over the sentence by which the ablest of American
thinkers was banished in a kind of disgrace. Impartial readers will be
inclined to suspect that those who suffered under so rigorous a
spiritual ruler had perhaps some reason on their side. However that may
be, and I do not presume to have any opinion upon a question involving
such complex ecclesiastical disputes, the result to literature was
fortunate. In 1751 Edwards was appointed to a mission for Indians,
founded at Stockbridge, in the remotest corner of Massachusetts, where a
few remnants of the aborigines were settled on a township granted by the
colony. There were great hopes, we are told, of the probable influence
of the mission, which were destined to frustration from accidental
causes. The hopes can hardly have rested on the character of the
preacher. It is difficult to imagine a more grotesque relation between a
minister and his congregation than that which must have subsisted
between Edwards and his barbarous flock. He had remarked pathetically in
one of his writings on the very poor prospect open to the Houssatunnuck
Indians, if their salvation depended on the study of the evidences of
Christianity (iv. 245). And if Edwards preached upon the topics of which
his mind was fullest, their case would have been still harder. For it
was in the remote solitudes of this retired corner that he gave himself
up to those abstruse meditations on free-will and original sin which
form the substance of his chief writings. A sermon in the Houssatunnuck
language, if Edwards ever acquired that tongue, upon predestination, the
differences between the Arminian and the Calvinist schemes, Liberty of
Indifference, and other such doctrines, would hardly be an improving
performance. If, however, his labours in this department 'were attended
with no remarkable visible success' (i. 83), he thought deeply and wrote
much. The publication of his treatise on the Freedom of the Will
followed in 1754, and upon the strength of the reputation which it won
for him, he was appointed President of New Jersey College in the end of
1757, only to die of small-pox in the following March. His death cut
short some considerable literary schemes, not, however, of a kind
calculated to add to his reputation. Various remains were published
after his death, and we have ample materials for forming a comprehensive
judgment of his theories. In one shape or another he succeeded in giving
utterance to his theory upon the great problems of life; and there is
little cause for regret that he did not succeed in completing that
'History of the Work of Redemption' which was to have been his _opus
magnum_. He had neither the knowledge nor the faculties for making much
of a Puritan view of universal history, and he has left a sufficient
indication of his general conception of such a book.

The book upon the Freedom of the Will, which is his main title to
philosophical fame, bears marks of the conditions under which it was
composed, and which certainly did not tend to confer upon an abstruse
treatise any additional charm. Edwards' style is heavy and languid; he
seldom indulges in an illustration, and those which he gives are far
from lively; it is only at rare intervals that his logical ingenuity in
stating some intricate argument clothes his thought in language of
corresponding neatness. He has, in fact, the faults natural to an
isolated thinker. He gives his readers credit for being familiar with
the details of the labyrinth in which he had wandered till every
intricacy was plainly mapped out in his own mind, and frequently dwells
at tiresome length upon some refinement which probably never occurred to
anyone but himself. A writer who, like Hume, is at once an acute thinker
and a great literary artist, is content to aim a decisive blow at the
vital points of the theory which he is opposing, and leaves to his
readers the task of following out more remote consequences; Edwards,
after winning the decisive victory, insists upon attacking his adversary
in every position in which he might conceivably endeavour to entrench
himself. It seems to be his aim to answer every objection which could
possibly be suggested, and, of course, he answers many objections which
no one would raise, whilst probably omitting others of which no
forethought could warn him. The book reads like a verbatim report of
those elaborate dialogues which he was in the habit of holding with
himself in his solitary ramblings. There is some truth in Goldsmith's
remark upon the ease of gaining an argumentative victory when you are at
once opponent and respondent. It must be added, however, that any man
who is at all fond of speculation finds in his second self the most
obstinate and perplexing of antagonists. No one else raises such a
variety of empty and vexatious quibbles, and splits hairs with such
surprising versatility. It is true that your double often shows a
certain discretion, and whilst obstinately defending certain untenable
positions contrives to glide over some weak places, which come to light
with provoking unexpectedness when you are encountered by an external
enemy. Edwards, indeed, guards himself with extreme care by an elaborate
system of logical divisions and subdivisions against the possibility of
so unpleasant a surprise; but no man can dispense with the aid of a
living antagonist, free from all suspicion of being a man of straw. The
opponents against whom he labours most strenuously were unfortunately
very feeble creatures for the most part; such as poor Chubb, the Deist,
and the once well-known Dr. Whitby, who had changed sides in more than
one controversy with more credit to his candour than to his force of
mind. Certain difficulties may, therefore, have evaded the logical
network in which he tried to enclose them; but, on the whole, he is
rather over than under anxious to stop every conceivable loophole.
Condensation, with a view to placing the vital points of his doctrine in
more salient relief, would have greatly improved his treatise. But the
fault is natural in a philosophical recluse, more intent upon thorough
investigation than upon lucid exposition.

Without following his intricate reasonings, the main position may be
indicated in a few words. The doctrine, in fact, which Edwards asserted
may be said to be simply that everything has a cause, and that human
volitions are no more an exception to this universal law than any other
class of phenomena. This belief in the universality of causation rests
with him upon a primary intuition (v. 55), and not upon experience; and
his whole argument pursues the metaphysical method instead of appealing,
as a modern school would appeal, to the results of observation. The
Arminian opponent of necessity must, as he argues, either deny this
self-evident principle, or be confined to statements purely irrelevant
to the really important question. The book is occupied in hunting down
all the evasions by which these conclusions may be escaped, and in
showing that the true theory, when rightly understood, is obnoxious to
no objections on the score of morality. The ordinary mode of meeting
the argument is by appealing to consciousness. We know that we are free,
as Dr. Johnson said, and there's an end on't. Edwards argues at great
length, and in many forms, that this summary reply involves a confusion
between the two very different propositions: 'We can do what we will,'
and 'We can will what we will.' Consciousness really testifies that, if
we desire to raise our right hand, our right hand will rise in the
absence of external compulsion. It does not show that the desire itself
may either exist or not exist, independently of any preceding causes
either external or internal. The ordinary definition of free-will
assumes an infinite series of volitions, each determining all that has
gone before; or, to let Edwards speak for himself, and it will be a
sufficient specimen of his style, he says in a passage which sums up the
whole argument, that the assertion of free-will either amounts to the
merely verbal proposition that you have power to will what you have
power to will; 'or the meaning must be that a man has power to will as
he pleases or chooses to will; that is, he has power by one act of
choice to choose another; by an antecedent act of will to choose a
consequent act, and therein to execute his own choice. And if this be
their meaning, it is nothing but shuffling with those they dispute with,
and baffling their own reason. For still the question returns, wherein
lies man's liberty in that antecedent act of will which chose the
consequent act? The answer, according to the same principle, must be,
that his liberty lies also in his willing as he would, or as he chose,
or agreeably to another act of choice preceding that. And so the
question returns _in infinitum_ and again _in infinitum_. In order to
support their opinion there must be no beginning, but free acts of the
will must have been chosen by foregoing acts of will in the soul of
every man without beginning, and so before he had a beginning.'

The heads of most people begin to swim when they have proceeded but a
short way into such argumentation; but Edwards delights in applying
similar logical puzzles over and over again to confute the notions of a
'self-determining power in the will,' or of a 'liberty of indifferency;'
of the power of suspending the action even if the judgment has
pronounced its verdict; of Archbishop King's ingenious device of putting
the cart before the horse, and declaring that our delight is not the
cause but the consequence of our will; or Clarke's theory of liberty, as
consisting in agency which seems to erect an infinite number of
subsidiary first causes in the wills of all created beings. A short cut
to the same conclusions consists in simply denying the objective reality
of chance or contingency; but Edwards has no love of short cuts in such
matters, or rather cannot refuse himself the pleasure of following the
circuitous route as well as explaining the more direct method.

This main principle established, Edwards has of course no difficulty in
showing that the supposed injury to morality rests on a misconception of
the real doctrine. If volitions, instead of being caused, are the
products of arbitrary chance, morality becomes meaningless. We approve
or disapprove of an action precisely because it implies the existence of
motives, good or bad. Punishment and reward would be useless if actions
were after all a matter of chance; and if merit implied the existence of
free-will, the formation of virtuous habits would detract from a man's
merit in so far as they tend to make virtue necessary. So far, in short,
as you admit the existence of an element of pure chance, you restrict
the sphere of law; and therefore morality, so far from excluding,
necessarily involves an invariable connection between motives and
actions.

Arguments of this kind, sufficiently familiar to all students of the
subject, are combined with others of a more doubtful character. Edwards
has no hesitation about dealing with the absolute and the infinite. He
dwells, for example, with great ingenuity upon the difficulty of
reconciling the Divine prescience with the contingency of human actions,
and has no scruple in inferring the possibility of reconciling virtue
with necessity from the fact that God is at once the type of all
perfection, and is under a necessity to be perfect. If such arguments
would be rejected as transcending the limits of human intelligence by
many who agree with his conclusions, others, equally characteristic, are
as much below the dignity of a metaphysician. Edwards draws his proofs
with the same equanimity from the most abstruse speculations as from a
child-like belief in the literal inspiration of the Scriptures. He
'proves,' for example, God's foreknowledge of human actions from such
facts as Micaiah's prophecy of Ahab's sin, and Daniel's acquaintance
with the 'horrid wickedness' about to be committed by Antiochus
Epiphanes. It is a pleasant supposition that a man who did not believe
that God could foretell events, would be awed by the authority of a
text; but Edwards' polemic is almost exclusively directed against the
hated Arminians, and he appears to be unconscious of the existence of a
genuine sceptic. He observes that he has never read Hobbes (v. 260); and
though in another work he makes a brief allusion to Hume, he never
refers to him in these speculations, whilst covering the same ground as
one of the admirable _Essays_.

This simplicity is significant of Edwards' unique position. The doctrine
of Calvinism, by whatever name it may be called, is a mental tonic of
tremendous potency. Whether in its theological dress, as attributing all
events to the absolute decrees of the Almighty, or in its metaphysical
dress, as declaring that some abstract necessity governs the world, or
in the shape more familiar to modern thinkers, in which it proclaims the
universality of what has been called the reign of law, it conquers or
revolts the imagination. It forces us to conceive of all phenomena as so
many links

          In the eternal chain
    Which none can break, nor slip, nor overreach;

and can, therefore, be accepted only by men who possess the rare power
of combining their beliefs into a logical whole. Most people contrive to
shirk the consequences, either by some of those evasions which, as
Edwards showed, amount to asserting the objective existence of chance,
or more commonly by forbidding their reason to follow the chain of
inferences through more than a few links. The axiom that the cause of a
cause is also the cause of the thing caused, though verbally admitted,
is beyond the reach of most intellects. People are willing to admit that
A is irrevocably joined to B, B to C, and so on to the end of the
alphabet, but they refuse to realise the connection between A and Z. The
annoyance excited by Mr. Buckle's enunciation of some very familiar
propositions, is a measure of the reluctance of the popular imagination
to accept a logical conclusion. When the dogma is associated with a
belief in eternal damnation, the consequences are indeed terrible; and
therefore it was natural that Calvinism should have become an almost
extinct creed, and the dogma have been left to the freethinkers who had
not that awful vision before their eyes. Hobbes, Collins, and Hume, the
three writers with whom the opinion was chiefly associated in English
literature, were also the three men who were regarded as most
emphatically the devil's advocates. In the latter part of the eighteenth
century, it was indeed adopted by Hartley, by his disciple Priestley,
and by Abraham Tucker, all of whom were Christians after a fashion. But
they reconciled themselves to the belief by peculiar forms of optimism.
Tucker maintained the odd fancy that every man would ultimately receive
a precisely equal share of happiness, and thought that a few thousand
years of damnation would be enough for all practical purposes. If I
remember rightly, he roughly calculated the amount of misery to be
endured by human beings at about two minutes' suffering in a century.
Hartley maintained the still more remarkable thesis that, in some
non-natural sense, 'all individuals are always and actually infinitely
happy.' But Edwards, though an optimist in a very different sense, was
alone amongst contemporary writers of any speculative power in asserting
at once the doctrine that all events are the result of the Divine will,
and the doctrine of eternal damnation. His mind, acute as it was, yet
worked entirely in the groove provided for it. The revolting
consequences to which he was led by not running away from his premisses,
never for an instant suggested to him that the premisses might
conceivably be false. He accepts a belief in hell-fire, interpreted
after the popular fashion, without a murmur, and deduces from it all
those consequences which most theologians have evaded or covered with a
judicious veil.

Edwards was luckily not an eloquent man, for his sermons would in that
case have been amongst the most terrible of human compositions. But if
ever he warms into something like eloquence, it is when he is
endeavouring to force upon the imaginations of his hearers the horrors
of their position. Perhaps the best specimen of his powers in this
department is a sermon which we are told produced a great effect at the
time of revivals, and to which, we may as well remember, Phebe Bartlet
may probably have listened. Read that sermon (vol. vii., sermon xv.) and
endeavour to picture the scene of its original delivery. Imagine the
congregation of rigid Calvinists, prepared by previous scenes of frenzy
and convulsion, and longing for the fierce excitement which was the only
break in the monotony of their laborious lives. And then imagine Edwards
ascending the pulpit, with his flaccid solids and vapid fluids, and the
pale drawn face, in which we can trace an equal resemblance to the stern
Puritan forefathers and to the keen sallow New Englander of modern
times. He gives out as his text, 'Sinners shall slide in due time,' and
the title of his sermon is, 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.' For
a full hour he dwells with unusual vehemence on the wrath of the Creator
and the sufferings of the creature. His sentences, generally languid and
complex, condense themselves into short, almost gasping asseverations.
God is angry with the wicked; as angry with the living wicked as 'with
many of those miserable creatures that He is now tormenting in hell.'
The devil is waiting: the fire is ready; the furnace is hot; the
'glittering sword is whet and held over them, and the pit hath opened
her mouth to receive them.' The unconverted are walking on a rotten
covering, where there are innumerable weak places, and those places not
distinguishable. The flames are 'gathering and lashing about' the
sinner, and all that preserves him for a moment is 'the mere arbitrary
will and uncovenanted unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.' But
does not God love sinners? Hardly in a comforting sense. 'The God that
holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some
other loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully
provoked; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast
into the fire;... you are ten thousand times as abominable in His eyes
as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.' The comparison of
man to a loathsome viper is one of the metaphors to which Edwards most
habitually recurs (_e.g._ vii. 167, 179, 182, 198, 344, 496). No relief
is possible; Edwards will have no attempt to explain away the eternity
of which he speaks; there will be no end to the 'exquisite horrible
misery' of the damned. You, when damned, 'will know certainly that you
must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and
conflicting with this Almighty merciless vengeance: and then when you
have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this
manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains.' Nor
might his hearers fancy that, as respectable New England Puritans, they
had no personal interest in the question. It would be awful, he says, if
we could point to one definite person in this congregation as certain to
endure such torments. 'But, alas! instead of one, how many is it likely
will remember this discourse in hell? It would be a wonder if some that
are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, before this
year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons that now sit here
in some seats of this meeting-house in health, and quiet and secure,
should be there before to-morrow morning.'

With which blessing he dismissed the congregation to their dinners, with
such appetites as might be left to them. The strained excitement which
marks this pleasing production could not be maintained; but Edwards
never shrank in cold blood from the most appalling consequences of his
theories. He tells us, with superlative coolness, that the 'bulk of
mankind do throng' to hell (vii. 226). He sentences infants to hell
remorselessly. The imagination, he admits, may be relieved by the
hypothesis that infants suffer only in this world, instead of being
doomed to eternal misery. 'But it does not at all relieve one's reason;'
and that is the only faculty which he will obey (vi. 461). Historically
the doctrine is supported by the remark that God did not save the
children in Sodom, and that He actually commanded the slaughter of the
Midianitish infants. 'Happy shall he be,' it is written of Edom, 'that
taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones' (vi. 255).
Philosophically he remarks that 'a young viper has a malignant nature,
though incapable of doing a malignant action' (vi. 471), and quotes with
approval the statement of a Jewish Rabbi, that a child is wicked as soon
as born, 'for at the same time that he sucks the breasts he follows his
lust' (vi. 482), which is perhaps the superlative expression of the
theory that all natural instincts are corrupt. Finally, he enforces the
only doctrine which can equal this in horror, namely, that the saints
rejoice in the damnation of the wicked. In a sermon called 'Wicked Men
useful in their Destruction only' (vol. viii., sermon xxi.), he declares
that 'the view of the doleful condition of the damned will make them
(the saints in heaven) more prize their own blessedness.' They will
realise the wonderful grace of God, who has made so great a difference
between them and others of the same species, 'who are no worse by nature
than they, and have deserved no worse of God than they.' 'When they
shall look upon the damned,' he exclaims, 'and see their misery, how
will heaven ring with the praises of God's justice towards the wicked,
and His grace towards the saints! And with how much greater enlargement
of heart will they praise Jesus Christ their Redeemer, that ever He was
pleased to set His love upon them, His dying love!'

Was the man who could utter such blasphemous sentiments--for so they
undoubtedly appear to us--a being of ordinary flesh and blood? One would
rather have supposed his solids to be of bronze, and his fluids of
vitriol, than have attributed to them the character which he describes.
That he should have been a gentle, meditative creature, around whose
knees had clung eleven 'young vipers' of his own begetting, is certainly
an astonishing reflection. And yet, to do Edwards justice, we must
remember two things. In the first place, the responsibility for such
ghastly beliefs cannot be repudiated by anyone who believes in the
torments of hell. Catholics and Protestants must share the opprobrium
due to the assertion of this tremendous doctrine. Nor does Arminianism
really provide more than a merely verbal escape from the difficulty.
Jeremy Taylor, for example, draws a picture of hell quite as fearful and
as material as Edwards', and, if animated by a less fanatical spirit,
adorned by an incomparably more vivid fancy. He specially improves upon
Edwards' description by introducing the sense of smell. The tyrant who
fastened the dead to the living invented an exquisite torment; 'but what
is this in respect of hell, when each body of the damned is more
loathsome and unsavoury than a million of dead dogs, and all those
pressed and crowded together in so strait a compass? Bonaventure goes so
far as to say that if one only of the damned were brought into this
world, it were sufficient to infect the whole earth. Neither shall the
devils send forth a better smell; for, although they are spirits, yet
those fiery bodies unto which they are fastened and confined shall be of
a more pestilential flavour.' It is vain to attempt an extenuation of
the horror, by relieving the Almighty from the responsibility of this
fearful prison-house. The dogma of free-will is a transparent mockery.
It simply enables the believer to retain the hideous side of his creed
by abandoning the rational side. To pass over the objection that by
admitting the existence of chance it really destroys all intelligible
measures of merit and of justice, the really awful dogma remains. You
still believe that God has made man too weak to stand alone, that He has
placed him amidst temptations where his fall, if not rigidly certain in
a given case, is still inevitable for the mass, and then torments him
eternally for his wickedness. Whether a man is slain outright, or merely
placed without help to wander at random through innumerable pitfalls,
makes no real difference in the character of the action. Theologians
profess horror at the doctrine of infantile damnation, though they
cannot always make up their minds to disavow it explicitly, but they
will find it easier to condemn the doctrine than effectually to
repudiate all responsibility. To the statement that it follows logically
from the dogma of original sin, they reply that logic is out of place in
such questions. But, if this be granted, do they not maintain doctrines
as hideous, when calmly examined? It is blasphemous, we are told, to say
with Edwards, that God holds the 'little vipers,' whom we call 'helpless
innocents,' suspended over the pit of hell, and drops millions of them
into ruthless torments. Certainly it is blasphemous. But is an infant
really more helpless than the poor savage of Australia or St. Giles,
surrounded from his birth with cruel and brutal natures, and never
catching one glimpse of celestial light? Nay, when the question is
between God and man, does not the difference between the infant and the
philosopher or the statesman vanish into nothing? All, whatever figment
of free-will may be set up, are equally helpless in face of the
surrounding influences which mould their characters and their fate.
Young children, the heterodox declare, are innocent. But the theologian
replies with unanswerable truth, that God looks at the heart and not at
the actions, and that science and theology are at one in declaring that
in the child are the germs of the adult man. If human nature is corrupt
and therefore hateful to God, Edwards is quite right in declaring that
the bursting bud must be as hateful as the full-grown tree. To beings of
a loftier order, to say nothing of a Being of infinite power and wisdom,
the petty race of man would appear as helpless as insects appear to us,
and the distinction between the children or the ignorant, and the wise
and full-grown, an irrelevant refinement.

It is of course true that the patient reception of this and similar
doctrines would indicate at the present day a callous heart or a
perverted intellect. Though, in the sphere of abstract speculation, we
cannot draw any satisfactory line between the man and the infant, there
is a wide gap to the practical imagination. A man ought to be shocked
when confronted with this fearfully concrete corollary to his theories.
But the blame should be given where it is due. The Calvinist is not to
blame for the theory of universal law which he shares with the
philosopher, but for the theory of damnation which he shares with the
Arminian. The hideous dogma is the existence of the prison-house, not
the belief that its inmates are sent there by God's inscrutable decree,
instead of being drafted into it by lot. And here we come to the second
fact which must be remembered in Edwards' favour. The living truths in
his theory are chained to dead fancies, and the fancies have an odour as
repulsive as Taylor's 'million of dead dogs.' But on the truths is
founded a religious and moral system which, however erroneous it may
appear to some thinkers, is conspicuous for its vigour and loftiness.
Edwards often shows himself a worthy successor of the great men who led
the moral revolt of the Reformation. Amongst some very questionable
metaphysics and much outworn--sometimes repulsive--superstition, he
grasps the central truths on which all really noble morality must be
based. The mode in which they presented themselves to his mind may be
easily traced. Calvinism, logically developed, leads to Pantheism. The
absolute sovereignty of God, the doctrine to which Edwards constantly
returns, must be extended over all nature as well as over the fate of
the individual human soul. The peculiarity of Edwards' mind was, that
the doctrine had thus expanded along particular lines of thought,
without equally affecting others. He is a kind of Spinoza-Mather; he
combines, that is, the logical keenness of the great metaphysician with
the puerile superstitions of the New England divine; he sees God in all
nature, and yet believes in the degrading supernaturalism of the Salem
witches. The object of his faith, in short, is the 'infinite Jehovah'
(vi. 170), the God to whose all-pervading power none can set a limit,
and who is yet the tutelary deity of a petty clan; and there is
something almost bewildering in the facility with which he passes from
one conception to the other without the smallest consciousness of any
discontinuity. Of his coincidence in the popular theories, and
especially in the doctrine of damnation, I have already given instances.
His utterances derived from a loftier source are given with equal
emphasis. At the age of fifteen or sixteen he had said 'God and real
existence are the same; God is, and there is none else.'[10] The same
doctrine is the foundation of the theories expounded in his treatises on
Virtue and on the End of God in Creation. In the last of these, for
example, he uses the argument (depending upon a conception familiar to
the metaphysicians of the previous age), that benevolence, consisting in
regard to 'Being in general,' must be due to any being in proportion to
the degree of existence (ii. 401). Now 'all other being is as nothing in
comparison of the Divine Being.' God is 'the foundation and fountain of
all being and all perfection, from whom all is perfectly derived, and on
whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; whose being and
beauty is, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and
excellence, much more than the sun is the fountain and summary
comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day' (ii. 405). As
he says in the companion treatise, 'the eternal and infinite Being is,
in effect, being in general, and comprehends universal existence' (vi.
59). The only end worthy of God must, therefore, be his own glory. This
is not to attribute selfishness to God, for 'in God, the love of Himself
and the love of the public are not to be distinguished as in man,
because God's being, as it were, comprehends all' (vi. 53). In
communicating His fulness to His creatures, He is of necessity the
ultimate end; but it is a fallacy to make God and the creature in this
affair of the emanation of the Divine fulness, 'the opposite parts of a
disjunction' (vi. 55). The creature's love of God and complacence in the
Divine perfections are the same thing as the manifestation of the Divine
glory. 'They are all but the emanations of God's glory, or the excellent
brightness and fulness of the Divinity diffused, overflowing, and, as it
were, enlarged; or, in one word, existing _ad extra_' (vi. 117). In more
familiar dialect, our love to God is but God's goodness making itself
objective. The only knowledge which deserves the name is the knowledge
of God, and virtue is but the knowledge of God under a different name.

Without dwelling upon the relations of this doctrine to modern forms of
Pantheism, I must consider this last proposition, which is of vital
importance in Edwards' system, and of which the theological and the
metaphysical element is curiously blended. God is to the universe--to
use Edwards' own metaphor--what the sun is to our planet; and the
metaphor would have been more adequate if he had been acquainted with
modern science. The sun's action is the primary cause of all the
infinitely complex play of forces which manifest themselves in the fall
of a raindrop or in the operations of a human brain. But as some bodies
may seem to resist the action of the sun's rays, so may some created
beings set themselves in opposition to the Divine Will. To a
thoroughgoing Pantheist, indeed, such an opposition must appear to be
impossible if we look deep enough, and sin, in this sense, be merely an
illusion, caused by our incapacity of taking in the whole design of the
Almighty. Edwards, however, though dimly aware of the difficulty, is not
so consistent in his Pantheism as to be much troubled with it. He admits
that, by some mysterious process, corruption has intruded itself into
the Divine universe. The all-pervading harmony is marred by a discord
due, in his phraseology, to the fall of man. Over the ultimate cause of
this discord lies a veil which can never be withdrawn to mortal
intelligence. Assuming its existence, however, virtue consists, if one
may so speak, in that quality which fits a man to be a conducting
medium, and vice in that which makes him a non-conducting medium to the
solar forces. This proposition is confounded in Edwards' mind, as in
that of most metaphysicians, with the very different proposition that
virtue consists in recognising the Divine origin of those forces. It is
characteristic, in fact, of his metaphysical school, to identify the
logical with the causal connection, and to assume that the definition of
a thing necessarily constitutes its essence. 'Virtue,' says Edwards, 'is
the union of heart to being in general, or to God, the Being of beings'
(ii. 421), and thus consists in the intellectual apprehension of Deity,
and in the emotion founded upon and necessarily involving the
apprehension. The doctrine that whatever is done so as to promote the
glory of God is virtuous, is with him identified with the doctrine that
whatever is done consciously in order to promote the glory of God is
virtuous. The major premiss of the syllogism which proves an action to
be virtuous must be actually present to the mind of the agent. This, in
utilitarian phraseology, is to confound between the criterion and the
motive. If it is, as Edwards says, the test of a virtuous action that it
should tend to 'the highest good of being in general,' it does not
follow that an action is only virtuous when done with a conscious
reference to that end. But Edwards overlooks or denies the distinction,
and assumes, for example, as an evident corollary, that a love of
children or friends is only virtuous in so far as it is founded on a
desire for the general good, which, in his sense, is a desire for the
glory of God (ii. 428). He judges actions, that is, not by their
tendency, but by their nature; and their nature is equivalent to their
logic.

His metaphysical theory coincides precisely with his theological view,
and is generally expressed in theological language. The love of 'Being
in general' is the love of God. The intellectual intuition is the
reflection of the inward light, and the recognition of a mathematical
truth is but a different phase of the process which elsewhere produces
conversion. Intuition is a kind of revelation and revelation is a
special intuition.

One of his earliest published sermons is devoted to prove the existence
of 'a Divine and supernatural light, immediately imparted to the soul by
the Spirit of God' (vol. viii., sermon xxvii.). On that fundamental
doctrine his whole theological system is based; as his metaphysical
system rests on the existence of absolute _à priori_ truths. The
knowledge of God sums up all true beliefs, and justifies all virtuous
emotions, as the power of God supports all creation at every instant.
'It is by a Divine influence that the laws of nature are upheld, and a
constant concurrence of Divine power is necessary in order to our being,
moving, or having a being' (v. 419). To be constantly drawing sustenance
from the eternal power which everywhere underlies the phenomena of the
world is the necessary condition of spiritual life, as to breathe the
air is the condition of physical life. The force which this conception,
whether true or false, exercises over the imagination, and the depth
which it gives to Edwards' moral views, are manifest at every turn.
Edwards rises far above those theories, recurring in so many different
forms, which place the essence of religion in some outward observances,
or in a set of propositions not vitally connected with the spiritual
constitution. Edwards' contemporaries, such as Lardner or Sherlock,
thought that to be a Christian was to accept certain results of
antiquarian research. With a curious _naïveté_ they sometimes say that a
ploughman or a cobbler could summarily answer the problems which have
puzzled generations of critics. Edwards sees the absurdity of hoping
that a genuine faith can ever be based on such balancing of historical
probabilities. The cobbler was to be awed by the learned man; but how
could he implicitly trust a learned man when his soul was at stake, and
when learned men differed? To convince the ignorant or the Houssatunnuck
Indian, God's voice must speak through a less devious channel. The
transcendent glory of Divine things proves their Divinity intuitively;
the mind does not indeed discard argument, but it does not want any
'long chain of argument; the argument is but one and the evidence
direct; the mind ascends to the truth of the Gospel but by one step, and
that is its Divine glory.' The moral theory of the contemporary
rationalists was correlative to their religious theory. To be religious
was to believe that certain facts had once happened; to be moral was to
believe that under certain circumstances you would at some future time
go to hell. Virtue of that kind was not to Edwards' taste, though few
men have been less sparing in using the appeal to damnation. But threats
of hell-fire were only meant to startle the sinner from his repose. His
morality could be framed from no baser material than love to the Divine
perfections. 'What thanks are due to you for not loving your own misery,
and for being willing to take some pains to escape burning in hell to
all eternity? There is ne'er a devil in hell but would gladly do the
same' (viii. 145).

The strength, however, and the weakness of Edwards as a moralist are
best illustrated from the two treatises on the Religious Affections and
on Original Sin. The first, which was the fruit of his experiences at
Northampton, may be described as a system of religious diagnostics. By
what symptoms are you to distinguish--that was the problem which forced
itself upon him--the spiritual state produced by the Divine action from
that which is but a hollow mockery? After his mode of judging in
concrete cases, as already indicated, we are rather surprised by the
calm and sensible tone of his argument. The deep sense of the vast
importance of the events to which he was a witness makes him the more
scrupulous in testing their real character. He resists the temptation to
dwell upon those noisy and questionable manifestations in which the
vulgar thirst for the wonderful found the most appropriate testimony to
the work. Roman Catholic archbishops at the present day can exhort their
hearers to put their faith in a silly story of a vision, on the express
ground that the popularity of the belief amongst Catholics proves its
Divine origin. That is wonderfully like saying that a successful lie
should be patronised so long as it is on the side of the Church.
Edwards, brought up in a manlier school, deals with such phenomena in a
different spirit. Suppose, he says, that a person terrified by threats
of hell-fire has a vision 'of a person with a beautiful countenance,
smiling on him with arms open and with blood dropping down,' whom he
supposes to be Christ come to promise him eternal life, are we to assume
that this vision and the consequent transports infallibly indicate
supernatural agency? No, he replies, with equal sense and honesty; 'he
must have but slightly considered human nature who thinks such things
cannot arise in this manner without any supernatural excitement of
Divine power' (iv. 72). Many mischievous delusions have their origin in
this error. 'It is a low, miserable notion of spiritual sense' to
suppose that these 'external ideas' (ideas, that is, such as enter by
the senses) are proofs of Divine interference. Ample experience has
shown that they are proofs not of the spiritual health which comes from
communion with God, but of 'weakness of body and mind and distempers of
body' (iv. 143). Experience has supplied exemplary confirmations of
Edwards' wisdom. Neither bodily convulsions, nor vehement excitement of
mind, nor even revelations of things to come (iv. 158), are sufficient
proofs of that mysterious change of soul which is called conversion. No
external test, in fact, can be given. Man cannot judge decisively, but
the best symptoms are such proofs as increased humility, a love of
Christ for His own sake, without reference to heaven or hell, a sense of
the infinite beauty of Divine things, a certain 'symmetry and
proportion' between the affections themselves (iv. 314), a desire for
higher perfection, and a rich harvest of the fruit of Christian
practice.

So far, Edwards is unassailable from his own point of view. Our theory
of religion may differ from his; but at least he fully realises how
profound is the meaning of the word, and aims at conquering all human
faculties, not at controlling a few external manifestations. But his
further applications of the theory lead him into more doubtful
speculations. That Being, a union with whom constitutes true holiness,
is not only to be the ideal of perfect goodness, but He must be the God
of the Calvinists, who fulfils the stipulations of a strange legal
bargain, and the God of the Jews, who sentences whole nations to
massacre for the crimes of their ancestors. Edwards has hitherto been
really protesting against that lower conception of God which is latent
in at least the popular versions of Catholic or Arminian theology, and
to which Calvinism opposes a loftier view. God, on this theory, is not
really almighty, for the doctrine of free-will places human actions and
their results beyond His control. He is scarcely omniscient, for, like
human rulers, He judges by actions, not by the intrinsic nature of the
soul, and therefore distributes His rewards and punishments on a system
comparable to that of mere earthly jurisprudence. He is at most the
infallible judge of actions, not the universal ordainer of events and
distributor of life and happiness. Edwards' profound conviction of the
absolute sovereignty of God leads him to reject all such feeble
conceptions. But he has now to tell us where the Divine influence has
actually displayed itself; and his view becomes strangely narrowed.
Instead of confessing that all good gifts come from God, he infers that
those which do not come from his own God must be radically vicious.
Already, as we have seen, in virtue of his leading principle, he has
denied to all natural affections the right to be truly virtuous. Unless
they involve a conscious reference to God, they are but delusive
resemblances of the reality. He admits that the natural man can in
various ways produce very fair imitations of true virtue. By help of
association of ideas, for example, or by the force of sympathy, it is
possible that benevolence may become pleasing and malevolence
displeasing, even when our own interest is not involved (ii. 436). Nay,
there is a kind of moral sense natural to man, which consists in a
certain preception of the harmony between sin and punishment, and which
therefore does not properly spring from self-love. This moral sense may
even go so far as to recognise the propriety of yielding all to the God
from whom we receive everything (ii. 443), and the justice of the
punishment of sinners. And yet this natural conscience does not imply
the existence of a 'truly virtuous taste or determination of the mind to
relish and delight in the essential beauty of true virtue, arising from
a virtuous benevolence of the heart' (ii. 445). God has bestowed such
instincts upon men for their preservation here; but they will disappear
in the next world, where no such need for them exists. He is driven,
indeed, to make some vague concessions (against which his enlightened
commentators protest), to the effect that 'these things [the natural
affections] have something of the general nature of virtue, which is
love' (ii. 456); but no such uncertain affinity can make them worthy to
be reckoned with that union with God which is the effect of the Divine
intervention alone.

Edwards is thus in the singular position of a Pantheist who yet regards
all nature as alienated from God; and in the treatise on Original Sin he
brings out the more revolting consequences of that view by help of the
theological dogma of corruption. He there maintains in its fullest sense
the terrible thesis, that all men are naturally in a state of which the
inevitable issue is their 'utter eternal perdition, as being finally
accursed of God and the subjects of His remediless wrath through sin'
(vi. 137). The evidence of this appalling statement is made up, with a
simplicity which would be amusing if employed in a less fearful cause,
of various texts from Scripture, quoted, of course, after the most
profoundly unhistorical fashion; of inferences from the universality of
death, regarded as the penalty incurred by Adam; of general reflections
upon the heathen world and the idolatry of the Jews; and of the
sentences pronounced by Jehovah against the Canaanites. In one of his
sermons, of portentous length and ferocity (vol. vii., sermon iii.), he
expands the doctrine that natural men--which includes all men who have
not gone through the mysterious process of conversion--are God's
enemies. Their heart, he says, 'is like a viper, hissing and spitting
poison at God;' and God requites their ill-will with undying enmity and
never-ceasing torments. Their unconsciousness of that enmity, and even
their belief that they are rightly affected towards God, is no proof
that the enmity does not exist. The consequences may be conceived. 'God
who made you has given you a capacity to bear torment; and He has that
capacity in His hands; and He can enlarge it and make you capable of
more misery, as much as He will. If God hates anyone and sets Himself
against him as His enemy, what cannot He do with him? How dreadful it
must be to fall into the hands of such an enemy!' (vii. 201). How
dreadful, we add, is the conception of the universe which implies that
God is such an enemy of the bulk of His creatures; and how strangely it
combines with the mild Pantheism which traces and adores the hand of God
in all natural objects! The doctrine, it is to be observed, which is
expanded through many pages of the book on Original Sin, is not merely
that men are legally guilty, as being devoid of 'true virtue,' though
possessed of a certain factitious moral sense, but that they are
actually for the most part detestably wicked. One illustration of his
method may be sufficient. The vileness of man is proved by the remark
(not peculiar to Edwards), that men who used to live 1,000 years now
live only 70; whilst throughout Christendom their life does not average
more than 40 or 50 years; so that 'sensuality and debauchery' have
shortened our days to a twentieth part of our former allowance.

Thus the Divine power, which is in one sense the sole moving force of
the universe, is limited, so far as its operation upon men's hearts is
concerned, to that small minority who have gone through the process of
conversion as recognised by Edwards' sect. All others, heathens,
infants, and the great mass of professed Christians, are sentenced to
irretrievable perdition. The simplicity with which he condemns all other
forms even of his own religion is almost touching. He incidentally
remarks, for example, that external exercises may not show true virtue,
because they have frequently proceeded from false religion. Members of
the Romish Church and many ancient 'hermits and anchorites' have been
most energetic in such exercises, and Edwards once lived next to a Jew
who appeared to him 'the devoutest person that he ever saw in his life'
(iv. 90); but, as he quietly assumes, all such appearances must of
course be delusive.

Once more, then, we are brought back to the question, How could any man
hold such doctrines without going mad? or, as experience has reconciled
us to that phenomenon, How could a man with so many elevated conceptions
of the truth reconcile these ghastly conclusions to the nobler part of
his creed? Edwards' own explanations of the difficulty--such as they
are--do not help us very far. The argument by which he habitually
defends the justice of the Almighty sounds very much like a poor quibble
in his mouth, though it is not peculiar to him. Our obligation towards
God, he says, must be in proportion to His merits; therefore it is
infinite. Now there is no merit in paying a debt which we owe; and hence
the fullest discharge of our duty deserves no reward. On the other hand,
there is demerit in refusing to pay a debt; and therefore any
short-coming deserves an infinite penalty (vi. 155). Without examining
whether our duty is proportional to the perfection of its object, and is
irrespective of our capacities, there is one vital objection to this
doctrine, which Edwards had adopted from less coherent reasoners. His
theory, as I have said, so far from destroying virtue, gives it the
fullest possible meaning. There can be no more profound distinction than
between the affections which harmonise with the Divine will and those
which are discordant, though it might puzzle a more consistent Pantheist
to account for the existence of the latter. That, however, is a primary
doctrine with Edwards. But if virtue remains, it is certain that his
theory seems to be destructive both of merit and demerit as between man
and God. If we are but clay in the hands of the potter, there is no
intelligible meaning in our deserving from him either good or evil. We
are as He has made us. Edwards explains, indeed, that the sense of
desert implies a certain natural congruity between evil-doing and
punishment (ii. 430). But the question recurs, how in such a case the
congruity arises? It is one of the illusions which should disappear when
we rise to the sphere of the absolute and infinite. The metaphor about a
debt and its payment, though common in vulgar Calvinism, is quite below
Edwards' usual level of thought. And, if we try to restate the argument
in a more congenial form, its force disappears. The love of God, even
though imperfect, should surely imply some conformity to His nature; and
even an imperfect love should hardly be confounded, one might fancy,
with an absolute enmity to the Creator. Though the argument, which is
several times repeated, appears to have satisfied Edwards, it would have
been more in harmony with his principles to declare that, as between man
and his God, there could be no question of justice. The absolute
sovereignty of the Creator is the only, and to him it should be the
conclusive, answer to such complaints. But, whatever may be the fate of
this apology, the one irremovable difficulty remains behind. If God be
the one universal cause of all things, is He not the cause of evil as
well as good? Do you not make God, in short, the author of sin?

With this final difficulty, which, indeed, besets all such theories,
Edwards struggles long and with less than his usual vigour. He tries to
show, and perhaps successfully, that the difficulty concerns his
opponents as much as himself. They can, at least, escape only by
creating a new kind of necessity, under the name of contingency; for God
is, on this theory, like a mariner who has constantly to shape his
course to meet unforeseen and uncontrollable gusts of wind (v. 298); and
to make the best of it. He insists upon the difference, not very
congenial to his scheme, between ordering and permitting evil. The sun,
he says (v. 293), causes light, but is only the occasion of darkness.
If, however, the sun voluntarily retired from the world, it could
scarcely evade the responsibility of its absence. And, finally, he makes
the ordinary distinction, and that which is perhaps the best answer to
be made to an unanswerable difficulty. Christ's crucifixion, he says,
was so far bad as it was brought about by malignant murderers: but as
considered by God, with a view to all its glorious consequences, it was
not evil, but good (v. 297). And thus any action may have two aspects;
and that which appears to us, whose view is necessarily limited, as
simply evil, may, when considered by an infinite intelligence, as part
of the general order of things, be absolutely good. God does not will
sin as sin, but as a necessary part of a generally perfect system.

Here, however, in front of that ultimate mystery which occurs in all
speculation, I must take leave of this singular thinker. In a
frequently-quoted passage, Mackintosh speaks of his 'power of subtle
argument, perhaps unmatched, certainly unsurpassed amongst men.' The
eulogy seems to be rather overstrained, unless we measure subtlety of
thought rather by the complexity and elaboration of its embodiment than
by the keenness of the thought itself. But that Edwards possessed
extraordinary acuteness is as clear as it is singular that so acute a
man should have suffered his intellectual activity to be restrained
within such narrow fetters. Placed in a different medium, under the same
circumstances, for example, as Hume or Kant, he might have developed a
system of metaphysics comparable in its effect upon the history of
thought to the doctrines of either of those thinkers. He was, one might
fancy, formed by nature to be a German professor, and accidentally
dropped into the American forests. Far away from the main currents of
speculation, ignorant of the conclusions reached by his most cultivated
contemporaries, and deriving his intellectual sustenance chiefly from an
obsolete theology, with some vague knowledge of the English followers of
Locke, his mind never expanded itself freely. Yet, even after making
allowance for his secluded life, we are astonished at the powerful grasp
which Calvinism, in its expiring age, had laid upon so penetrating an
intellect. The framework of dogma was so powerful, that the explosive
force of Edwards' speculations, instead of destroying his early
principles by its recoil, expended its whole energy along the line in
which orthodox opinion was not injured. Most bold speculators, indeed,
suffer from a kind of colour-blindness, which conceals from them a whole
order of ideas, sufficiently familiar to very inferior minds. Edwards'
utter unconsciousness of the aspect which his doctrines would present to
anyone who should have passed beyond the charmed circle of orthodox
sentiment is, however, more surprising than the similar defect in any
thinker of nearly equal acuteness. In the middle of the eighteenth
century, he is still in bondage to the dogmas of the Pilgrim Fathers; he
is as indifferent to the audacious revolt of the deists and Hume as if
the old theological dynasty were still in full vigour; and the fact,
whatever else it may prove, proves something for the enduring vitality
of the ideas which had found an imperfect expression in Calvinism.
Clearing away the crust of ancient superstition, we may still find in
Edwards' writings a system of morality as ennobling, and a theory of the
universe as elevated, as can be discovered in any theology. That the
crust was thick and hard, and often revolting in its composition, is,
indeed, undeniable; but the genuine metal is there, no less unmistakably
than the refuse.

FOOTNOTES:

[7] The Works of President Edwards. Worcester (Mass.), 1808.

[8] The population of Massachusetts is stated at 164,000 inhabitants in
1742, and 240,000 in 1761.--_See_ Holmes' Annals.

[9] These early New England patriarchs were blessed with abundant
families. Edwards' father had eleven children, his paternal grandfather
thirteen, and his maternal grandfather had twelve children by a lady who
had already three children by a previous marriage.

[10] See an interesting article in the 'American Cyclopedia,' which has,
however, this odd peculiarity, that it never mentions hell in discussing
the theories of Edwards.



_HORACE WALPOLE_


The history of England, throughout a very large segment of the
eighteenth century, is simply a synonym for the works of Horace Walpole.
There are, indeed, some other books upon the subject. Some good stories
are scattered up and down the 'Annual Register,' the 'Gentleman's
Magazine,' and Nichols' 'Anecdotes.' There is a speech or two of Burke's
not without merit, and a readable letter may be disinterred every now
and then from beneath the piles of contemporary correspondence. When the
history of the times comes to be finally written in the fashion now
prevalent, in which some six portly octavos are allotted to a year, and
an event takes longer to describe than to occur, the industrious will
find ample mines of waste paper in which they may quarry to their
heart's content. Though Hansard was not, and newspapers were in their
infancy, the shelves of the British Museum and other repositories groan
beneath mountains of State papers, law reports, pamphlets, and chaotic
raw materials, from which some precious ore may be smelted down. But
these amorphous masses are attractive chiefly to the philosophers who
are too profound to care for individual character, or to those
praiseworthy students who would think the labour of a year well rewarded
by the discovery of a single fact tending to throw a shade of additional
perplexity upon the secret of Junius. Walpole's writings belong to the
good old-fashioned type of history, which aspires to be nothing more
than the quintessence of contemporary gossip. If the opinion be
pardonable in these days, history of that kind has not only its charm,
but its serious value. If not very profound or comprehensive, it
impresses upon us the fact--so often forgotten--that our grandfathers
were human beings. The ordinary historian reduces them to mere
mechanical mummies; in Walpole's pages they are still living flesh and
blood. Turn over any of the proper decorous history books, mark every
passage where, for a moment, we seem to be transported to the past--to
the thunders of Chatham, the drivellings of Newcastle, or the prosings
of George Grenville, as they sounded in contemporary ears--and it will
be safe to say that, on counting them up, a good half will turn out to
be reflections from the illuminating flashes of Walpole. Excise all that
comes from him, and the history sinks towards the level of the solid
Archdeacon Coxe; add his keen touches, and, as in the 'Castle of
Otranto,' the portraits of our respectable old ancestors, which have
been hanging in gloomy repose upon the wall, suddenly step from their
frames, and, for some brief space, assume a spectral vitality.

It is only according to rule that a writer who has been so useful should
have been a good deal abused. No one is so amusing and so generally
unpopular as a clever retailer of gossip. Yet it does seem rather hard
that Walpole should have received such hard measure from Macaulay,
through whose pages so much of his light has been transfused. The
explanation, perhaps, is easy. Macaulay dearly loved the paradox that a
man wrote admirably precisely because he was a fool, and applied it to
the two greatest portrait painters of the times--Walpole and Boswell.
There is something which hurts our best feelings in the success of a
man whom we heartily despise. It seems to imply, which is intolerable,
that our penetration has been at fault, or that merit--that is to say,
our own conspicuous quality--is liable to be out-stripped in this world
by imposture. It is consoling if we can wrap ourselves in the belief
that good work can be extracted from bad brains, and that shallowness,
affectation, and levity can, by some strange chemistry, be transmuted
into a substitute for genius. Do we not all, if we have reached middle
age, remember some idiot (of course he was an idiot!) at school or
college who has somehow managed to slip past us in the race of life, and
revenge ourselves by swearing that he is an idiot still, and that idiocy
is a qualification for good fortune? Swift somewhere says that a
paper-cutter does its work all the better when it is blunt, and converts
the fact into an allegory of human affairs showing that decorous dulness
is an over-match for genius. Macaulay was incapable, both in a good and
bad sense, of Swift's trenchant misanthropy. His dislike to Walpole was
founded not so such upon posthumous jealousy--though that passion is not
so rare as absurd--as on the singular contrast between the character and
intellect of the two men. The typical Englishman, with his rough, strong
sense, passing at times into the narrowest insular prejudice, detested
the Frenchified fine gentleman who minced his mother tongue and piqued
himself on cosmopolitan indifference to patriotic sentiment: the
ambitious historian was irritated by the contempt which the dilettante
dabbler in literature affected for their common art; and the
thoroughgoing Whig was scandalised by the man who, whilst claiming that
sacred name, and living face to face with Chatham and Burke and the
great Revolution families in all their glory, ventured to intimate his
opinion that they, like other idols, had a fair share of clay and
rubbish in their composition, and who, after professing a kind of sham
republicanism, was frightened by the French Revolution into a paroxysm
of ultra-Toryism. 'You wretched fribble!' exclaims Macaulay; 'you
shallow scorner of all that is noble! You are nothing but a heap of
silly whims and conceited airs! Strip off one mask of affectation from
your mind, and we are still as far as ever from the real man. The very
highest faculty that can be conceded to you is a keen eye for oddities,
whether in old curiosity shops or in Parliament; and to that you owe
whatever just reputation you have acquired.' Macaulay's fervour of
rebuke is amusing, though, by righteous Nemesis, it includes a species
of blindness as gross as any that he attributes to Walpole. The summary
decision that the chief use of France is to interpret England to Europe,
is a typical example of that insular arrogance for which Matthew Arnold
popularised the name of Philistinism.

Yet criticism of this one-sided kind has its value. At least it suggests
a problem. What is the element left out of account? Folly is never the
real secret of a literary reputation, or what noble harvests of genius
we should produce! If we patiently take off all the masks we must come
at last to the animating principle beneath. Even the great clothes
philosophers did not hold that a mere Chinese puzzle of mask within mask
could enclose sheer vacancy; there must be some kernel within, which may
be discovered by sufficient patience. And in the first place, it may be
asked, why did poor Walpole wear a mask at all? The answer seems to be
obvious. The men of that age may be divided by a line which, to the
philosophic eye, is of far more importance than that which separated
Jacobites from loyal Whigs or Dissenters from High Churchmen. It
separated the men who could drink two bottles of port after dinner from
the men who could not. To men of delicate digestions the test imposed by
the jovial party in ascendency must have been severer than those due to
political or ecclesiastical bigotry. They had to choose between social
disabilities on the one side, and on the other indigestion for
themselves and gout for their descendants. Thackeray, in a truly
pathetic passage, partly draws the veil from their sufferings. Almost
all the wits of Queen Anne's reign, he observes, were fat: 'Swift was
fat; Addison was fat; Gay and Thomson were preposterously fat; all that
fuddling and punch-drinking, that club and coffee-house boosing,
shortened the lives and enlarged the waistcoats of men of that age.'
Think of the dinner described, though with intentional exaggeration, in
Swift's 'Polite Conversation,' and compare the bill of fare with the
_menu_ of a modern London dinner. The very report of such
conviviality--before which Christopher North's performances in the
'Noctes Ambrosianæ' sink into insignificance--is enough to produce
nightmares in the men of our degenerate times, and may help us to
understand the peevishness of feeble invalids such as Pope and Lord
Hervey in the elder generation, or Walpole in that which was rising.
Amongst these Gargantuan consumers, who combined in one the attributes
of 'gorging Jack and guzzling Jemmy,' Sir Robert Walpole was celebrated
for his powers, and seems to have owed to them no small share of his
popularity. Horace writes piteously from the paternal mansion, to which
he had returned in 1743, not long after his tour in Italy, to one of his
artistic friends: 'Only imagine,' he exclaims, 'that I here every day
see men who are mountains of roast beef, and only seem just roughly
hewn out into outlines of human form, like the giant rock at Pratolino!
I shudder when I see them brandish their knives in act to carve, and
look on them as savages that devour one another. I should not stare at
all more than I do if yonder alderman at the lower end of the table were
to stick his fork into his neighbour's jolly cheek, and cut a brave
slice of brown and fat. Why, I'll swear I see no difference between a
country gentleman and a sirloin; whenever the first laughs or the second
is cut, there run out just the same streams of gravy! Indeed, the
sirloin does not ask quite so many questions.' What was the style of
conversation at these tremendous entertainments had better be left to
the imagination. Sir R. Walpole's theory on that subject is upon record;
and we can dimly guess at the feelings of a delicate young gentleman who
had just learnt to talk about Domenichinos and Guidos, and to buy
ancient bronzes, when plunged into the coarse society of these mountains
of roast beef. As he grew up manners became a trifle more refined, and
the customs described so faithfully by Fielding and Smollett belonged to
a lower social stratum. Yet we can fancy Walpole's occasional visit to
his constituents, and imagine him forced to preside at one of those
election feasts which still survive on Hogarth's canvas. Substitute him
for the luckless fine gentleman in a laced coat, who represents the
successful candidate in the first picture of the series. A drunken voter
is dropping lighted pipe ashes upon his wig; a hideous old hag is
picking his pockets; a boy is brewing oceans of punch in a mash-tub; a
man is blowing bagpipes in his ear; a fat parson close by is gorging the
remains of a haunch of venison; a butcher is pouring gin on his
neighbour's broken head; an alderman--a very mountain of roast beef--is
sinking back in a fit, whilst a barber is trying to bleed him; brickbats
are flying in at the windows; the room reeks with the stale smell of
heavy viands and the fresh vapours of punch and gin, whilst the very air
is laden with discordant howls and thick with oaths and ribald songs.
Only think of the smart young candidate's headache next morning in the
days when soda-water was not invented! And remember too that the
representatives were not entirely free from sympathy with the coarseness
of their constituents. Just at the period of Hogarth's painting,
Walpole, when speaking of the feeling excited by a Westminster election,
has occasion to use this pleasing 'new fashionable proverb'--'We spit in
his hat on Thursday, and wiped it off on Friday.' It owed its origin to
a feat performed by Lord Cobham at an assembly given at his own house.
For a bet of a guinea he came behind Lord Hervey, who was talking to
some ladies, and made use of his hat as a spittoon. The point of the
joke was that Lord Hervey--son of Pope's 'mere white curd of asses'
milk,' and related, as the scandal went, rather too closely to Horace
Walpole himself--was a person of effeminate appearance, and therefore
considered unlikely--wrongly, as it turned out--to resent the insult. We
may charitably hope that the assailants, who thus practically
exemplified the proper mode of treating milksops, were drunk. The
two-bottle men who lingered till our day were surviving relics of the
type which then gave the tone to society. Within a short period there
was a prime minister who always consoled himself under defeats and
celebrated triumphs with his bottle; a chancellor who abolished evening
sittings on the ground that he was always drunk in the evening; and even
an archbishop--an Irish archbishop, it is true--whose jovial habits
broke down his constitution. Scratch those jovial toping aristocrats,
and you everywhere find the Squire Western. A man of squeamish tastes
and excessive sensibility jostled amongst that thick-skinned,
iron-nerved generation, was in a position with which anyone may
sympathise who knows the sufferings of a delicate lad at a public school
in the old (and not so very old) brutal days. The victim of that tyranny
slunk away from the rough horseplay of his companions to muse, like
Dobbin, over the 'Arabian Nights' in a corner, or find some amusement
which his tormentors held to be only fit for girls. So Horace Walpole
retired to Strawberry Hill and made toys of Gothic architecture, or
heraldry, or dilettante antiquarianism. The great discovery had not then
been made, we must remember, that excellence in field-sports deserved to
be placed on a level with the Christian virtues. The fine gentlemen of
the Chesterfield era speak of fox-hunting pretty much as we speak of
prize-fighting and bull-baiting. When all manly exercises had an
inseparable taint of coarseness, delicate people naturally mistook
effeminacy for refinement. When you can only join in male society on
pain of drinking yourself under the table, the safest plan is to retire
to tea-tables and small talk. For many years, Walpole's greatest
pleasure seems to have been drinking tea with Lady Suffolk, and
carefully piecing together bits of scandal about the Courts of the first
two Georges. He tells us, with all the triumph of a philosopher
describing a brilliant scientific induction, how he was sometimes able,
by adding his bits of gossip to hers, to unravel the secret of some
wretched intrigue which had puzzled two generations of quidnuncs. The
social triumphs on which he most piqued himself were of a congenial
order. He sits down to write elaborate letters to Sir Horace Mann, at
Florence, brimming over with irrepressible triumph when he has
persuaded some titled ladies to visit his pet toy, the printing-press,
at Strawberry Hill, and there, of course to their unspeakable surprise,
his printer draws off a copy of verses composed in their honour in the
most faded style of old-fashioned gallantry. He is intoxicated by his
appointment to act as poet-laureate on the occasion of a visit of the
Princess Amelia to Stowe. She is solemnly conducted to a temple of the
Muses and Apollo, and there finds one of his admirable effusions,--

    T'other day with a beautiful frown on her brow,
    To the rest of the gods said the Venus of Stowe:

and so on. 'She was really in Elysium,' he declares, and visited the
arch erected in her honour three or four times a day.

It is not wonderful, we must confess, that burly ministers and jovial
squires laughed horse-laughs at this mincing dandy, and tried in their
clumsy fashion to avenge themselves for the sarcasms which, as they
instinctively felt, lay hid beneath this mask of affectation. The enmity
between the lapdog and the mastiff is an old story. Nor, as we must
confess again, were these tastes redeemed by very amiable qualities
beneath the smooth external surface. There was plenty of feminine spite
as well as feminine delicacy. To the marked fear of ridicule natural to
a sensitive man Walpole joined a very happy knack of quarrelling. He
could protrude a feline set of claws from his velvet glove. He was a
touchy companion and an intolerable superior. He set out by quarrelling
with Gray, who, as it seems, could not stand his dandified airs of
social impertinence, though it must be added in fairness that the bond
which unites fellow travellers is, perhaps, the most trying known to
humanity. He quarrelled with Mason after twelve years of intimate
correspondence; he quarrelled with Montagu after a friendship of some
forty years; he always thought that his dependants, such as Bentley,
were angels for six months, and made their lives a burden to them
afterwards; he had a long and complex series of quarrels with all his
near relations. Sir Horace Mann escaped any quarrel during forty-five
years of correspondence; but Sir Horace never left Florence and Walpole
never reached it. Conway alone remained intimate and immaculate to the
end, though there is a bitter remark or two in the Memoirs against the
perfect Conway. With ladies, indeed, Walpole succeeded better; and
perhaps we may accept, with due allowance for the artist's point of
view, his own portrait of himself. He pronounces himself to be a
'boundless friend, a bitter but placable enemy.' Making the necessary
corrections, we should translate this into 'a bitter enemy, a warm but
irritable friend.' Tread on his toes, and he would let you feel his
claws, though you were his oldest friend; but so long as you avoided his
numerous tender points, he showed a genuine capacity for kindliness and
even affection; and in his later years he mellowed down into an amiable
purring old gentleman, responding with eager gratitude to the caresses
of the charming Miss Berrys. Such a man, skinless and bilious, was ill
qualified to join in the rough game of politics. He kept out of the
arena where the hardest blows were given and taken, and confined his
activity to lobbies and backstairs, where scandal was to be gathered and
the hidden wires of intrigue to be delicately manipulated. He chuckles
irrepressibly when he has confided a secret to a friend, who has let it
out to a minister, who communicates it to a great personage, who
explodes into inextinguishable wrath, and blows a whole elaborate plot
into a thousand fragments. To expect deep and settled political
principle from such a man would be to look for grapes from thorns and
figs from thistles; but to do Walpole justice, we must add that it would
be equally absurd to exact settled principle from any politician of that
age. We are beginning to regard our ancestors with a strange mixture of
contempt and envy. We despise them because they cared nothing for the
thoughts which for the last century have been upheaving society into
strange convulsions; we envy them because they enjoyed the delicious
calm which was the product of that indifference. Wearied by the
incessant tossing and boiling of the torrent which carries us away, we
look back with fond regret to the little backwater so far above Niagara,
where scarcely a ripple marks the approaching rapids. There is a charm
in the great solid old eighteenth-century mansions, which London is so
rapidly engulfing, and even about the old red brick churches with
'sleep-compelling' pews. We take imaginary naps amongst our grandfathers
with no railways, no telegraphs, no mobs in Trafalgar Square, no
discussions about ritualism or Dr. Colenso, and no reports of
parliamentary debates. It is to our fancies an 'island valley of
Avilion,' or, less magniloquently, a pleasant land of Cockaine, where we
may sleep away the disturbance of battle, and even read through
'Clarissa Harlow.' We could put up with an occasional highwayman in Hyde
Park, and perhaps do not think that our comfort would be seriously
disturbed by a dozen executions in a morning at Tyburn. In such
visionary glances through the centuries we have always the advantage of
selecting our own position in life, and perhaps there are few that for
such purposes we should prefer to Walpole's. We should lap ourselves
against eating cares in the warm folds of a sinecure of 6,000_l._ a year
bestowed because our father was a Prime Minister. There are many
immaculate persons at the present day to whom truth would be truth even
when seen through such a medium. There are--we have their own authority
for believing it--men who would be republicans, though their niece was
married to a royal duke. Walpole, we must admit, was not of the number.
He was an aristocrat to the backbone. He was a gossip by nature and
education, and had lived from infancy in the sacred atmosphere of court
intrigue; every friend he possessed in his own rank either had a place,
or had lost a place, or was in want of a place, and generally combined
all three characters; professed indifference to place was only a cunning
mode of angling for a place, and politics was a series of
ingeniously-contrived manoeuvres in which the moving power of the
machinery was the desire of sharing the spoils. Walpole's talk about
Magna Charta and the execution of Charles I. could, it is plain, imply
but a skin-deep republicanism. He could not be seriously displeased with
a state of things of which his own position was the natural out-growth.
His republicanism was about as genuine as his boasted indifference to
money--a virtue which is not rare in bachelors who have more than they
can spend. So long as he could buy as much bric-a-brac, as many
knicknacks, and old books and bronzes and curious portraits and odd
gloves of celebrated characters as he pleased; add a new tower and a set
of battlements to Strawberry Hill every few years; keep a comfortable
house in London, and have a sufficiency of carriages and horses; treat
himself to an occasional tour, and keep his press steadily at work; he
was not the man to complain of poverty. He was a republican, too, as
long as that word implied that he and his father and uncles and cousins
and connections by marriage and their intimate friends were to have
everything precisely their own way; but if a vision could have shown him
the reformers of a coming generation who would inquire into civil lists
and object to sinecures--to say nothing of cutting off the heads of the
first families--he would have prayed to be removed before the evil day.
Republicanism in his sense was a word exclusive of revolution. Was it,
then, a mere meaningless mask intended only to conceal the real man?
Before passing such a judgment we should remember that the names by
which people classify their opinions are generally little more than
arbitrary badges; and even in these days, when practice treads so
closely on the heels of theory, some persons profess to know extreme
radicals who could be converted very speedily by a bit of riband.
Walpole has explained himself with unmistakable frankness, and his
opinion was at least intelligible. He was not a republican after the
fashion of Robespierre, or Jefferson, or M. Gambetta; but he had some
meaning. When a duke in those days proposed annual parliaments and
universal suffrage, we may assume that he did not realise the probable
effect of those institutions upon dukes; and when Walpole applauded the
regicides, he was not anxious to send George III. to the block. He
meant, however, that he considered George III. to be a narrow-minded and
obstinate fool. He meant, too, that the great Revolution families ought
to distribute the plunder and the power without interference from the
Elector of Hanover. He meant, again, that as a quick and cynical
observer, he found the names of Brutus and Algernon Sidney very
convenient covers for attacking the Duke of Newcastle and the Earl of
Bute. But beyond all this, he meant something more, which gives the
real spice to his writings. It was something not quite easy to put into
formulas; but characteristic of the vague discomfort of the holders of
sinecures in those halcyon days arising from the perception that the
ground was hollow under their feet. To understand him we must remember
that the period of his activity marks precisely the lowest ebb of
political principle. Old issues had been settled, and the new ones were
only just coming to the surface. He saw the end of the Jacobites and the
rise of the demagogues. His early letters describe the advance of the
Pretender to Derby; they tell us how the British public was on the whole
inclined to look on and cry, 'Fight dog, fight bear;' how the Jacobites
who had anything to lose left their battle to be fought by half-starved
cattle-stealers, and contented themselves with drinking to the success
of the cause; and how the Whig magnates, with admirable presence of
mind, raised regiments, appointed officers, and got the expenses paid by
the Crown. His later letters describe the amazing series of blunders by
which we lost America in spite of the clearest warnings from almost
every man of sense in the kingdom. The interval between these
disgraceful epochs is filled--if we except the brief episode of
Chatham--by a series of struggles between different connections--one
cannot call them parties--which separate and combine, and fight and make
peace, till the plot of the drama becomes too complicated for human
ingenuity to unravel. Lads just crammed for a civil service examination
might possibly bear in mind all the shifting combinations which resulted
from the endless intrigues of Pelhams and Grenvilles and Bedfords and
Rockinghams; yet even those omniscient persons could hardly give a
plausible account of the principles which each party conceived itself
to be maintaining. What, for example, were the politics of a Rigby, or a
Bubb Dodington? The diary in which the last of these eminent persons
reveals his inmost soul is perhaps the most curious specimen of
unconscious self-analysis extant. His utter baseness and venality, his
disgust at the 'low venal wretches' to whom he had to give bribes; his
creeping and crawling before those from whom he sought to extract
bribes; his utter incapacity to explain a great man except on the
hypothesis of insanity; or to understand that there is such a thing as
political morality, derive double piquancy from the profound conviction
that he is an ornament to society, and from the pious aspirations which
he utters with the utmost simplicity. Bubb wriggled himself into a
peerage, and differed from innumerable competitors only by superior
frankness. He is the fitting representative of an era from which
political faith has disappeared, as Walpole is its fitting satirist. All
political virtue, it is said, was confined, in Walpole's opinion, to
Conway and the Marquis of Hertford. Was he wrong? or, if he was wrong,
was it not rather in the exception than the rule? The dialect in which
his sarcasms are expressed is affected, but the substance is hard to
dispute. The world, he is fond of saying, is a tragedy to those who
feel, a comedy to those who think. He preferred the comedy view. 'I have
never yet seen or heard,' he says, 'anything serious that was not
ridiculous. Jesuits, Methodists, philosophers, politicians, the
hypocrite Rousseau, the scoffer Voltaire, the encyclopædists, the Humes,
the Lytteltons, the Grenvilles, the atheist tyrant of Prussia, and the
mountebank of history, Mr. Pitt, are all to me but impostors in their
various ways. Fame or interest is their object, and after all their
parade, I think a ploughman who sows, reads his almanack, and believes
that the stars are so many farthing candles created to prevent his
falling into a ditch as he goes home at night, a wiser and more rational
being, and I am sure an honester, than any of them. Oh! I am sick of
visions and systems that shove one another aside, and come again like
figures in a moving picture.' Probably Walpole's belief in the ploughman
lasted till he saw the next smock-frock; but the bitterness clothed in
the old-fashioned cant is serious and is justifiable enough. Here is a
picture of English politics in the time of Wilkes. 'No government, no
police, London and Middlesex distracted, the colonies in rebellion,
Ireland ready to be so, and France arrogant and on the point of being
hostile! Lord Bute accused of all, and dying in a panic; George
Grenville wanting to make rage desperate; Lord Rockingham and the
Cavendishes thinking we have no enemies but Lord Bute, and that five
mutes and an epigram can set everything to rights; the Duke of Grafton
(then Prime Minister) like an apprentice, thinking the world should be
postponed to a horse-race; and the Bedfords not caring what disgraces we
undergo while each of them has 3,000_l._ a year and three thousand
bottles of claret and champagne!' And every word of this is true--at
least, so far as epigrams need be true. It is difficult to put into more
graphic language the symptoms of an era just ripe for revolution. If
frivolous himself, Walpole can condemn the frivolity of others. 'Can one
repeat common news with indifference,' he asks, just after the surrender
of Yorktown, 'while our shame is writing for future history by the pens
of all our numerous enemies? When did England see two whole armies lay
down their arms and surrender themselves prisoners?... These are
thoughts I cannot stifle at the moment that expresses them; and, though
I do not doubt that the same dissipation that has swallowed up all our
principles will reign again in ten days with its wonted sovereignty, I
had rather be silent than vent my indignation. Yet I cannot talk, for I
cannot think, on any other subject. It was not six days ago that, in the
height of four raging wars (with America, France, Spain, and Holland), I
saw in the papers an account of the opera and of the dresses of the
company, and hence the town, and thence, of course, the whole nation,
were informed that Mr. Fitzpatrick had very little powder in his hair.'
Walpole sheltered himself behind the corner of a pension to sneer at the
tragi-comedy of life; but if his feelings were not profound, they were
quick and genuine, and, affectation for affectation, his cynical
coxcombry seems preferable to the solemn coxcombry of the men who
shamelessly wrangled for plunder, while they talked solemn platitudes
about sacred Whig principles and the thrice blessed British
Constitution.

Walpole, in fact, represents a common creed amongst comfortable but
clear-headed men of his time. It was the strange mixture of scepticism
and conservatism which is exemplified in such men as Hume and Gibbon. He
was at heart a Voltairian, and, like his teacher, confounded all
religions and political beliefs under the name of superstition. Voltaire
himself did not anticipate the Revolution to which he, more than any
man, had contributed. Walpole, with stronger personal reasons than
Voltaire for disliking a catastrophe, was as furious as Burke when the
volcano burst forth. He was a republican so far as he disbelieved in the
divine right of kings, and hated enthusiasm and loyalty generally. He
wished the form to survive and the spirit to disappear. Things were
rotten, and he wished them to stay rotten. The ideal to which he is
constantly recurring was the pleasant reign of his father, when nobody
made a fuss or went to war, or kept principles except for sale. He
foresaw, however, far better than most men, the coming crash. If
political sagacity be fairly tested by a prophetic vision of the French
Revolution, Walpole's name should stand high. He visited Paris in 1765,
and remarks that laughing is out of fashion. 'Good folks, they have no
time to laugh. There is God and the King to be pulled down first, and
men and women, one and all, are devoutly employed in the demolition.
They think me quite profane for having any belief left.' Do you know, he
asks presently, who are the philosophers? 'In the first place, it
comprehends almost everybody, and in the next it means men who, avowing
war against Papacy, aim, many of them, at the destruction of regal
power. The philosophers,' he goes on, 'are insupportable, superficial,
overbearing, and fanatic. They preach incessantly, and their avowed
doctrine is atheism--you could not believe how openly. Don't wonder,
therefore, if I should return a Jesuit. Voltaire himself does not
satisfy them. One of their lady devotees said of him, "_Il est bigot,
c'est un déiste!_"' French politics, he professes a few years
afterwards, must end in 'despotism, a civil war, or assassination,' and
he remarks that the age will not, as he had always thought, be an age of
abortion, but rather 'the age of seeds that are to produce strange crops
hereafter.' The next century, he says at a later period, 'will probably
exhibit a very new era, which the close of this has been, and is,
preparing.' If these sentences had been uttered by Burke, they would
have been quoted as proofs of remarkable sagacity. As it is, we may
surely call them shrewd glances for a frivolous coxcomb.

Walpole regarded these symptoms in the true epicurean spirit, and would
have joined in the sentiment, _après moi le déluge_. He was on the whole
for remedying grievances, and is put rather out of temper by cruelties
which cannot be kept out of his sight. He talks with disgust of the old
habit of stringing up criminals by the dozen; he denounces the
slave-trade with genuine fervour; there is apparent sincerity in his
platitudes against war; and he never took so active a part in politics
as in the endeavour to prevent the judicial murder of Byng. His
conscience generally discharged itself more easily by a few pungent
epigrams, and though he wished the reign of reason and humanity to dawn,
he would rather that it should not come at all than be ushered in by a
tempest. His whole theory is given forcibly and compactly in an answer
which he once made to the republican Mrs. Macaulay, and was fond of
repeating:--'Madam, if I had been Luther, and could have known that for
the _chance_ of saving a million of souls I should be the cause of a
million of lives, at least, being sacrificed before my doctrines could
be established, it must have been a most palpable angel, and in a most
heavenly livery, before he should have set me at work.' We will not ask
what angel would have induced him to make the minor sacrifice of six
thousand a year to establish any conceivable doctrine. Whatever may be
the merit of these opinions, they contain Walpole's whole theory of
life. I know, he seems to have said to himself, that loyalty is folly,
that rank is contemptible, that the old society in which I live is
rotten to the core, and that explosive matter is accumulating beneath
our feet. Well! I am not made of the stuff for a reformer: I am a bit of
a snob, though, like other snobs, I despise both parties to the bargain.
I will take the sinecures the gods provide me, amuse myself with my
toys at Strawberry Hill, despise kings and ministers, without
endangering my head by attacking them, and be over-polite to a royal
duke when he visits me on condition of laughing at him behind his back
when he is gone. Walpole does not deserve a statue; he was not a
Wilberforce or a Howard, and as little of a Burke or a Chatham. But his
faults, as well as his virtues, qualified him to be the keenest of all
observers of a society unconsciously approaching a period of tremendous
convulsions.

To claim for him that, even at his best, he is a profound observer of
character, or that he gives any consistent account of his greatest
contemporaries, would be too much. He is full of whims, and moreover,
full of spite. He cannot be decently fair to anyone who deserted his
father, or stood in Conway's light. He reflects at all times the
irreverent gossip current behind the scenes. To know the best and the
worst that can be said of any great man, the best plan is to read the
leading article of his party newspaper, and then to converse in private
with its writer. The eulogy and the sarcasm may both be sincere enough;
only it is pleasant, after puffing one's wares to the public, to glance
at their seamy side in private. Walpole has a decided taste for that
last point of view. The littleness of the great, the hypocrisy of the
virtuous, and the selfishness of statesmen in general, is his ruling
theme, illustrated by an infinite variety of brilliant caricatures
struck off at the moment with a quick eye and a sure hand. Though he
elaborates no grand historical portrait, like Burke or Clarendon, he has
a whole gallery of telling vignettes which are often as significant as
far more pretentious works. Nowhere, for example, can we find more
graphic sketches of the great man who stands a head and shoulders above
the whole generation of dealers in power and place. Most of Chatham's
contemporaries repaid his contempt with intense dislike. Some of them
pronounced him mad, and others thought him a knave. Walpole, who at
times calls him a mountebank and an impostor, does not go further than
Burke, who, in a curious comment, speaks of him as the 'grand artificer
of fraud,' who never conversed but with 'a parcel of low toad-eaters;'
and asks whether all this 'theatrical stuffing' and these 'raised heels'
could be necessary to the character of a great man. Walpole, of course,
has a keen eye to the theatrical stuffing. He takes the least
complimentary view of the grand problem, which still puzzles some
historians, as to the genuineness of Chatham's gout. He smiles
complacently when the great actor forgets that his right arm ought to be
lying helpless in a sling and flourishes it with his accustomed vigour.
But Walpole, in spite of his sneers and sarcasms, can recognise the
genuine power of the man. He is the describer of the striking scene
which occurred when the House of Commons was giggling over some
delicious story of bribery and corruption--the House of Commons was
frivolous in those benighted days; he tells how Pitt suddenly stalked
down from the gallery and administered his thundering reproof; how
Murray, then Attorney-General, 'crouched, silent and terrified,' and the
Chancellor of the Exchequer faltered out an humble apology for the
unseemly levity. It is Walpole who best describes the great debate when
Pitt, 'haughty, defiant, conscious of injury and supreme abilities,'
burst out in that tremendous speech--tremendous if we may believe the
contemporary reports, of which the only tolerably preserved fragment is
the celebrated metaphor about the confluence of the Rhône and the
Saône. Alas! Chatham's eloquence has all gone to rags and tatters;
though, to say the truth, it has only gone the way of nine-tenths of our
contemporary eloquence. We have, indeed, what are called accurate
reports of spoken pamphlets, dried specimens of rhetoric from which the
life has departed as completely as it is strained out of the specimens
in a botanical collection. If there is no Walpole amongst us, we shall
know what our greatest living orator has said; but how he said it, and
how it moved his audience, will be as obscure as if the reporters'
gallery were still unknown. Walpole--when he was not affecting
philosophy, or smarting from the failure of an intrigue, or worried by
the gout, or disappointed of a bargain at a sale--could throw electric
flashes of light on the figure he describes which reveal the true man.
He errs from petulancy, but not from stupidity. He can appreciate great
qualities by fits, though he cannot be steadily loyal to their
possessor. And if he wrote down most of our rulers as knaves and fools,
we have only to lower those epithets to selfish and blundering, to get a
very fair estimate of their characters. To the picturesque historian his
services are invaluable; though no single statement can be accepted
without careful correction.

Walpole's social, as distinguished from his political, anecdotes do in
one sense what Leech's drawings have done for this generation. But the
keen old man of the world puts a far bitterer and deeper meaning into
his apparently superficial scratches than the kindly modern artist,
whose satire was narrowed, if purified, by the decencies of modern
manners. Walpole reflects in a thousand places that strange combination
of brutality and polish which marked the little circle of fine ladies
and gentlemen who then constituted society, and played such queer
pranks in quiet unconsciousness of the revolutionary elements that were
seething below. He is the best of commentators on Hogarth, and gives us
'Gin Lane' on one side and the 'Marriage à la mode' on the other. As we
turn over the well-known pages we come at every turn upon characteristic
scenes of the great tragi-comedy that was being played out. In one page
a highwayman puts a bullet through his hat, and on the next we read how
three thousand ladies and gentlemen visited the criminal in his cell, on
the Sunday before his execution, till he fainted away twice from the
heat; then we hear how Lord Lovat's buffooneries made the whole
brilliant circle laugh as he was being sentenced to death; and how
Balmerino pleaded 'not guilty,' in order that the ladies might not be
deprived of their sport; how the House of Commons adjourned to see a
play acted by persons of quality, and the gallery was hung round with
blue ribands; how the Gunnings had a guard to protect them in the park;
what strange pranks were played by the bigamous Miss Chudleigh; what
jokes--now, alas! very faded and dreary--were made by George Selwyn, and
how that amiable favourite of society went to Paris in order to see the
cruel tortures inflicted upon Damiens, and was introduced to the chief
performer on the scaffold as a distinguished amateur in executions. One
of the best of all these vignettes portrays the funeral of George II.,
and is a worthy pendant to Lord Hervey's classic account of the Queen's
death. It opens with the solemn procession to the torch-lighted Abbey,
whose 'long-drawn aisles and fretted vault' excite the imagination of
the author of the 'Castle of Otranto.' Then the comic element begins to
intrude; the procession jostles and falls into disorder at the entrance
of Henry the Seventh's Chapel; the bearers stagger under the heavy
coffin and cry for help; the bishop blunders in the prayers, and the
anthem, as fit, says Walpole, for a wedding as a funeral, becomes
immeasurably tedious. Against this tragi-comic background are relieved
two characteristic figures. The 'butcher' Duke of Cumberland, the hero
of Culloden, stands with the obstinate courage of his race gazing into
the vault where his father is being buried, and into which he is soon to
descend. His face is distorted by a recent stroke of paralysis, and he
is forced to stand for two hours on a bad leg. To him enters the
burlesque Duke of Newcastle, who begins by bursting into tears and
throwing himself back in a stall whilst the Archbishop 'hovers over him
with a smelling-bottle.' Then curiosity overcomes him, and he runs about
the chapel with a spyglass in one hand to peer into the faces of the
company, 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.'
What a perch to select! Imagine the contrast of the two men, and
remember that the Duke of Newcastle was for an unprecedented time the
great dispenser of patronage, and so far the most important personage in
the government. Walpole had reason for some of his sneers.

The literary power implied in these brilliant sketches is remarkable,
and even if Walpole's style is more Gallicised than is evident to me, it
must be confessed that with a few French idioms he has caught something
of that unrivalled dexterity and neatness of touch in which the French
are our undisputed masters. His literary character is of course marked
by an affectation analogous to that which debases his politics. Walpole
was always declaring with doubtful sincerity--(that is one of the
matters in which a man is scarcely bound to be quite sincere)--that he
has no ambition for literary fame, and that he utterly repudiates the
title of 'learned gentleman.' There is too much truth in his disavowals
to allow us to write them down as mere mock-modesty; but doubtless his
principal motive was a dislike to entering the arena of open criticism.
He has much of the feeling which drove Pope into paroxysms of unworthy
fury on every mention of Grub Street. The anxiety of men in that day to
disavow the character of professional authors must be taken with the
fact that professional authors were then an unscrupulous, scurrilous,
and venal race. Walpole feared collision with them as he feared
collision with the 'mountains of roast beef.' Though literature was
emerging from the back lanes and alleys, the two greatest potentates of
the day, Johnson and Warburton, had both a decided cross of the bear in
their composition. Walpole was nervously anxious to keep out of their
jurisdiction, and to sit at the feet of such refined lawgivers as Mason
and Gray, or the feebler critics of polite society. In such courts there
naturally passes a good deal of very flimsy flattery between persons who
are alternately at the bar or on the bench. We do not quite believe that
Lady Di Beauclerk's drawings were unsurpassable by 'Salvator Rosa and
Guido,' or that Lady Ailesbury's 'landscape in worsteds' was a work of
high art; and we doubt whether Walpole believed it; nor do we fancy that
he expected Sir Horace Mann to believe that when sitting in his room at
Strawberry Hill, he was in the habit of apostrophising the setting sun
in such terms as these: 'Look at yon sinking beams! His gaudy reign is
over; but the silver moon above that elm succeeds to a tranquil
horizon,' &c. Sweeping aside all this superficial rubbish, as a mere
concession to the faded taste of the age of hoops and wigs, Walpole has
something to say for himself. He has been condemned for the absurdity of
his criticisms, and it is undeniable that he sometimes blunders
strangely. It would, indeed, be easy to show, were it worth while, that
he is by no means so silly in his contemporary verdicts as might be
supposed from scattered passages in his letters. But what are we to say
to a man who compares Dante to 'a Methodist parson in Bedlam'? The first
answer is that, in this instance, Walpole was countenanced by greater
men. Voltaire, with all his faults the most consummate literary artist
of the century, says with obvious disgust that there are people to be
found who force themselves to admire 'feats of imagination as stupidly
extravagant and barbarous' as those of the 'Divina Commedia.' Walpole
must be reckoned as belonging both in his faults and his merits to the
Voltairian school of literature, and amongst other peculiarities common
to the master and his disciple, may be counted an incapacity for
reverence and an intense dislike to being bored. For these reasons he
hates all epic poets, from Dante to Blackmore; he detests all didactic
poems, including those of Thomson and Akenside; and he is utterly
scandalised by the French enthusiasm for Richardson. In these last
judgments, at least nine-tenths of the existing race of mankind agree
with him; though few people have the courage to express their agreement
in print. We may be thankful that Walpole is as incapable of boring as
of enduring bores. He is one of the few Englishmen who share the quality
sometimes ascribed to the French as a nation, and certainly enjoyed by
his teacher, Voltaire; namely, that though they may be frivolous,
blasphemous, indecent, and faulty in every other way, they can never
for a single moment be dull. His letters show that crisp, sparkling
quality of style which accompanies this power, and which is so
unattainable to most of his countrymen. The quality is less conspicuous
in the rest of his works, and the light verses and essays in which we
might expect him to succeed are disappointingly weak. Xoho's letter to
his countrymen is now as dull as the work of most imaginary travellers,
and the essays in 'The World' are remarkably inferior to the
'Spectator,' to say nothing of the 'Rambler.'[11] Yet Walpole's place in
literature is unmistakable, if of equivocal merit. Byron called him the
author of the last tragedy and the first romance in our language. The
tragedy, with Byron's leave, is revolting (perhaps the reason why Byron
admired it), and the romance passes the borders of the burlesque. And
yet the remark hits off a singular point in Walpole's history. A
thorough child of the eighteenth century, we might have expected him to
share Voltaire's indiscriminating contempt for the Middle Ages. One
would have supposed that in his lips, as in those of all his generation,
Gothic would have been synonymous with barbaric, and the admiration of
an ancient abbey as ridiculous as admiration of Dante. So far from
which, Walpole is almost the first modern Englishman who found out that
our old cathedrals were really beautiful. He discovered that a most
charming toy might be made of mediævalism. Strawberry Hill, with all its
gimcracks, its pasteboard battlements, and stained-paper carvings, was
the lineal ancestor of the new law-courts. The restorers of churches,
the manufacturers of stained glass, the modern decorators and
architects of all vanities, the Ritualists and the High Church party,
should think of him with kindness. It cannot be said that they should
give him a place in their calendar, for he was not of the stuff of which
saints are made. It was a very thin veneering of mediævalism which
covered his modern creed; and the mixture is not particularly edifying.
Still he undoubtedly found out that charming plaything which, in other
hands, has been elaborated and industriously constructed till it is all
but indistinguishable from the genuine article. We must hold, indeed,
that it is merely a plaything, when all has been said and done, and
maintain that when the root has once been severed, the tree can never
again be made to grow. Walpole is so far better than some of his
successors, that he did not make a religion out of these flimsy
materials. However that may be, Walpole's trifling was the first
forerunner of much that has occupied the minds of much greater artists
ever since. And thus his initiative in literature has been as fruitful
as his initiative in art. The 'Castle of Otranto' and the 'Mysterious
Mother' were the progenitors of Mrs. Radcliffe's romances, and probably
had a strong influence upon the author of 'Ivanhoe.' Frowning castles
and gloomy monasteries, knights in armour, and ladies in distress, and
monks and nuns and hermits, all the scenery and the characters that have
peopled the imagination of the romantic school, may be said to have had
their origin on the night when Walpole lay down to sleep, his head
crammed full of Wardour Street curiosities, and dreamt that he saw a
gigantic hand in armour resting on the banister of his staircase. In
three months from that time he had elaborated a story, the object of
which, as defined by himself, was to combine the charms of the old
romance and the modern novel, and which, to say the least, strikes us
now like an exaggerated caricature of the later school. Scott criticises
'The Castle of Otranto' seriously, and even Macaulay speaks of it with a
certain respect. Absurd as the burlesque seems, our ancestors found it
amusing, and, what is stranger, awe-inspiring. Excitable readers
shuddered when a helmet of more than gigantic size fell from the clouds,
in the first chapter, and crushed the young baron to atoms on the eve of
his wedding, as a trap smashes a mouse. This, however, was merely a
foretaste of a series of unprecedented phenomena. At one moment the
portrait of Manfred's grandfather, without the least premonitory
warning, utters a deep sigh, and heaves its breast, after which it
descends to the floor with a grave and melancholy air. Presently the
menials catch sight of a leg and foot in armour to match the helmet, and
apparently belonging to a ghost which has lain down promiscuously in the
picture gallery. Most appalling, however, of all is the adventure which
happened to Count Frederick in the oratory. Kneeling before the altar
was a tall figure in a long cloak. As he approached it rose, and,
turning round, disclosed to him the fleshless jaws and empty eye-sockets
of a skeleton. The ghost disappeared, as ghosts generally do, after
giving a perfectly unnecessary warning and the catastrophe is soon
reached by the final appearance of the whole suit of armour with the
ghost inside it, who bursts the castle to bits like an egg-shell, and,
towering towards the sky, exclaims, 'Theodore is the true heir of
Alphonso!' This proceeding fortunately made a lawsuit unnecessary, and
if the castle was ruined at once, it is not quite impossible that the
same result might have been attained more slowly by litigation. The
whole machinery strikes us as simply babyish, unless we charitably
assume the whole to be intentionally burlesque. The intention is pretty
evident in the solemn scene in the chapel, which closes thus:--'As he
spake these words, three drops of blood fell from the nose of Alphonso's
statue' (Alphonso is the spectre in armour). 'Manfred turned pale, and
the princess sank on her knees. "Behold!" said the friar, "mark this
miraculous indication that the blood of Alphonso will never mix with
that of Manfred!"' Nor can we think that the story is rendered much more
interesting by Walpole's simple expedient of introducing into the midst
of these portents a set of waiting-maids and peasants, who talk in the
familiar style of the smart valets in Congreve's or Sheridan's comedies.

Yet, babyish as this mass of nursery tales may appear to us, it is
curious that the theory which Walpole advocated has been exactly carried
out. He wished to relieve the prosaic realism of the school of Fielding
and Smollett by making use of romantic associations, without altogether
taking leave of the language of common life. He sought to make real men
and women out of mediæval knights and ladies, or, in other words, he
made a first experimental trip into the province afterwards occupied by
Scott. The 'Mysterious Mother' is in the same taste; and his interest in
Ossian, in Chatterton, and in Percy's Relics, is another proof of his
anticipation of the coming change of sentiment. He was an arrant
trifler, it is true; too delicately constituted for real work in
literature and politics, and inclined to take a cynical view of his
contemporaries generally, he turned for amusement to antiquarianism, and
was the first to set modern art and literature masquerading in the
antique dresses. That he was quite conscious of the necessity for more
serious study, appears in his letters, in one of which, for example, he
proposes a systematic history of Gothic architecture, such as has since
been often enough executed. It does not, it may be said, require any
great intellect, or even any exquisite taste, for a fine gentleman to
strike out a new line of dilettante amusement. In truth Walpole has no
pretensions whatever to be regarded as a great original creator, or even
as one of the few infallible critics. The only man of his time who had
some claim to that last title was his friend Gray, who shared his Gothic
tastes with greatly superior knowledge. But he was indefinitely superior
to the great mass of commonplace writers, who attain a kind of bastard
infallibility by always accepting the average verdict of the time;
which, on the principle of the _vox populi_, is more often right than
that of any dissenter. There is an intermediate class of men who are
useful as sensitive barometers to foretell coming changes of opinion.
Their intellects are mobile if shallow; and, perhaps, their want of
serious interest in contemporary intellects renders them more accessible
to the earliest symptoms of superficial shiftings of taste. They are
anxious to be at the head of the fashions in thought as well as in
dress, and pure love of novelty serves to some extent in place of
genuine originality. Amongst such men Walpole deserves a high place; and
it is not easy to obtain a high place even amongst such men. The people
who succeed best at trifles are those who are capable of something
better. In spite of Johnson's aphorism, it is the colossus who, when he
tries, can cut the best heads upon cherry-stones, as well as hew statues
out of rock. Walpole was no colossus; but his peevish anxiety to affect
even more frivolity than was really natural to him, has blinded his
critics to the real power of a remarkably acute, versatile, and original
intellect. We cannot regard him with much respect, and still less with
much affection; but the more we examine his work, the more we shall
admire his extreme cleverness.

FOOTNOTES:

[11] It is odd that in one of these papers Walpole proposes, in jest,
precisely our modern system of postage cards, only charging a penny
instead of a halfpenny.


END OF THE FIRST VOLUME.

PRINTED BY
SPOTTISWOODE AND CO., NEW-STREET SQUARE
LONDON

       *       *       *       *       *

  +------------------------------------------------------------+
  | Transcriber's Notes:                                       |
  |                                                            |
  | Page 8: Closing quote added                                |
  | Page 145: Shakspeare amended to Shakespeare                |
  | Page 181: Mismatched single and double quotes amended      |
  | Page 215: orgie _sic_                                      |
  | Page 295: Shakspeares amended to Shakespeares              |
  | Page 301: comtemporary amended to contemporary             |
  | Page 333: Full stop added after parentheses (vol. viii.,   |
  |   sermon xxvii.)                                           |
  | Page 349: boosing _sic_                                    |
  | Page 373: helmit amended to helmet                         |
  |                                                            |
  | Italicisation and hyphenation have been standardised.      |
  | However, where there is an equal number of instances of    |
  | a hyphenated and unhyphenated word, both have been         |
  | retained: back-stairs/backstairs; life-like/lifelike;      |
  | note-book/notebook; now-a-days/nowadays.                   |
  |                                                            |
  +------------------------------------------------------------+

       *       *       *       *       *





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