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Title: Hours in a Library - New Edition, with Additions. Vol. II (of 3)
Author: Stephen, Leslie, 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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[_All rights reserved_]





DR. JOHNSON'S WRITINGS                                     1

CRABBE                                                    33

WILLIAM HAZLITT                                           67

DISRAELI'S NOVELS                                        106

MASSINGER                                                141

FIELDING'S NOVELS                                        177

COWPER AND ROUSSEAU                                      208

THE FIRST EDINBURGH REVIEWERS                            241

WORDSWORTH'S ETHICS                                      270

LANDOR'S IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS                         308

MACAULAY                                                 343



A book appeared not long ago of which it was the professed object to
give to the modern generation of lazy readers the pith of Boswell's
immortal biography. I shall, for sufficient reasons, refrain from
discussing the merits of the performance. One remark, indeed, may be
made in passing. The circle of readers to whom such a book is welcome
must, of necessity, be limited. To the true lovers of Boswell it is, to
say the least, superfluous; the gentlest omissions will always mangle
some people's favourite passages, and additions, whatever skill they may
display, necessarily injure that dramatic vivacity which is one of the
great charms of the original. The most discreet of cicerones is an
intruder when we open our old favourite, and, without further magic,
retire into that delicious nook of eighteenth-century society. Upon
those, again, who cannot appreciate the infinite humour of the original,
the mere excision of the less lively pages will be thrown away. There
remains only that narrow margin of readers whose appetites, languid but
not extinct, can be titillated by the promise that they shall not have
the trouble of making their own selection. Let us wish them good
digestions, and, in spite of modern changes of fashion, more robust
taste for the future. I would still hope that to many readers Boswell
has been what he has certainly been to some, the first writer who gave
them a love of English literature, and the most charming of all
companions long after the bloom of novelty has departed. I subscribe
most cheerfully to Mr. Lewes's statement that he estimates his
acquaintances according to their estimate of Boswell. A man, indeed, may
be a good Christian, and an excellent father of a family, without loving
Johnson or Boswell, for a sense of humour is not one of the primary
virtues. But Boswell's is one of the very few books which, after many
years of familiarity, will still provoke a hearty laugh even in the
solitude of a study; and the laughter is of that kind which does one

I do not wish, however, to pronounce one more eulogy upon an old friend,
but to say a few words on a question which he sometimes suggests.
Macaulay's well-known but provoking essay is more than usually lavish in
overstrained paradoxes. He has explicitly declared that Boswell wrote
one of the most charming of books because he was one of the greatest of
fools. And his remarks suggest, if they do not implicitly assert, that
Johnson wrote some of the most unreadable of books, although, if not
because, he possessed one of the most vigorous intellects of the time.
Carlyle has given a sufficient explanation of the first paradox; but the
second may justify a little further inquiry. As a general rule, the talk
of a great man is the reflection of his books. Nothing is so false as
the common saying that the presence of a distinguished writer is
generally disappointing. It exemplifies a very common delusion. People
are so impressed by the disparity which sometimes occurs, that they
take the exception for the rule. It is, of course, true that a man's
verbal utterances may differ materially from his written utterances. He
may, like Addison, be shy in company; he may, like many retired
students, be slow in collecting his thoughts; or he may, like Goldsmith,
be over-anxious to shine at all hazards. But a patient observer will
even then detect the essential identity under superficial differences;
and in the majority of cases, as in that of Macaulay himself, the
talking and the writing are palpably and almost absurdly similar. The
whole art of criticism consists in learning to know the human being who
is partially revealed to us in his spoken or his written words. Whatever
the means of communication, the problem is the same. The two methods of
inquiry may supplement each other; but their substantial agreement is
the test of their accuracy. If Johnson, as a writer, appears to us to be
a mere windbag and manufacturer of sesquipedalian verbiage, whilst, as a
talker, he appears to be one of the most genuine and deeply feeling of
men, we may be sure that our analysis has been somewhere defective. The
discrepancy is, of course, partly explained by the faults of Johnson's
style; but the explanation only removes the difficulty a degree further.
'The style is the man' is a very excellent aphorism, though some eminent
writers have lately pointed out that Buffon's original remark was_ le
style c'est de l'homme_. That only proves that, like many other good
sayings, it has been polished and brought to perfection by the process
of attrition in numerous minds, instead of being struck out at a blow by
a solitary thinker. From a purely logical point of view, Buffon may be
correct; but the very essence of an aphorism is that slight exaggeration
which makes it more biting whilst less rigidly accurate. According to
Buffon, the style might belong to a man as an acquisition rather than to
natural growth. There are parasitical writers who, in the old phrase,
have 'formed their style,' by the imitation of accepted models, and who
have, therefore, possessed it only by right of appropriation. Boswell
has a discussion as to the writers who may have served Johnson in this
capacity. But, in fact, Johnson, like all other men of strong
idiosyncrasy, formed his style as he formed his legs. The peculiarities
of his limbs were in some degree the result of conscious efforts in
walking, swimming, and 'buffeting with his books.' This development was
doubtless more fully determined by the constitution which he brought
into the world, and the circumstances under which he was brought up. And
even that queer Johnsonese, which Macaulay supposes him to have adopted
in accordance with a more definite literary theory, will probably appear
to be the natural expression of certain innate tendencies, and of the
mental atmosphere which he breathed from youth. To appreciate fairly the
strangely cumbrous form of his written speech, we must penetrate more
deeply than may at first sight seem necessary beneath the outer rind of
this literary Behemoth. The difficulty of such spiritual dissection is,
indeed, very great; but some little light may be thrown upon the subject
by following out such indications as we possess.

The talking Johnson is sufficiently familiar to us. So far as Boswell
needs an interpreter, Carlyle has done all that can be done. He has
concentrated and explained what is diffused, and often unconsciously
indicated in Boswell's pages. When reading Boswell, we are half ashamed
of his power over our sympathies. It is like turning over a portfolio
of sketches, caricatured, inadequate, and each giving only some
imperfect aspect of the original. Macaulay's smart paradoxes only
increase our perplexity by throwing the superficial contrasts into
stronger relief. Carlyle, with true imaginative insight, gives us at
once the essence of Johnson; he brings before our eyes the luminous body
of which we had previously been conscious only by a series of imperfect
images refracted through a number of distorting media. To render such a
service effectually is the highest triumph of criticism; and it would be
impertinent to say again in feebler language what Carlyle has expressed
so forcibly. We may, however, recall certain general conclusions by way
of preface to the problem which he has not expressly considered, how far
Johnson succeeded in expressing himself through his writings.

The world, as Carlyle sees it, is composed, we all know, of two classes:
there are 'the dull millions, who, as a dull flock, roll hither and
thither, whithersoever they are led,' and there are a few superior
natures who can see and can will. There are, in other words, the heroes,
and those whose highest wisdom is to be hero-worshippers. Johnson's
glory is that he belonged to the sacred band, though he could not claim
within it the highest, or even a very high, rank. In the current
dialect, therefore, he was 'nowise a clothes-horse or patent digester,
but a genuine man.' Whatever the accuracy of the general doctrine, or of
certain corollaries which are drawn from it, the application to Johnson
explains one main condition of his power. Persons of colourless
imagination may hold--nor will we dispute their verdict--that Carlyle
overcharges his lights and shades, and brings his heroes into too
startling a contrast with the vulgar herd. Yet it is undeniable that
the great bulk of mankind are transmitters rather than originators of
spiritual force. Most of us are necessarily condemned to express our
thoughts in formulas which we have learnt from others and can but
slightly tinge with our feeble personality. Nor, as a rule, are we even
consistent disciples of any one school of thought. What we call our
opinions are mere bundles of incoherent formulæ, arbitrarily stitched
together because our reasoning faculties are too dull to make
inconsistency painful. Of the vast piles of books which load our
libraries, ninety-nine hundredths and more are but printed echoes: and
it is the rarest of pleasures to say, Here is a distinct record of
impressions at first hand. We commonplace beings are hurried along in
the crowd, living from hand to mouth on such slices of material and
spiritual food as happen to drift in our direction, with little more
power of taking an independent course, or of forming any general theory,
than the polyps which are carried along by an oceanic current. Ask any
man what he thinks of the world in which he is placed: whether, for
example, it is on the whole a scene of happiness or misery, and he will
either answer by some cut-and-dried fragments of what was once wisdom,
or he will confine himself to a few incoherent details. He had a good
dinner to-day and a bad toothache yesterday, and a family affliction or
blessing the day before. But he is as incapable of summing up his
impressions as an infant of performing an operation in the differential
calculus. It is as rare as it is refreshing to find a man who can stand
on his own legs and be conscious of his own feelings, who is sturdy
enough to react as well as to transmit action, and lofty enough to raise
himself above the hurrying crowd and have some distinct belief as to
whence it is coming and whither it is going. Now Johnson, as one of the
sturdiest of mankind, had the power due to a very distinct sentiment, if
not to a very clear theory, about the world in which he lived. It had
buffeted him severely enough, and he had formed a decisive estimate of
its value. He was no man to be put off with mere phrases in place of
opinions, or to accept doctrines which were not capable of expressing
genuine emotion. To this it must be added that his emotions were as deep
and tender as they were genuine. How sacred was his love for his old and
ugly wife; how warm his sympathy wherever it could be effective; how
manly the self-respect with which he guarded his dignity through all the
temptations of Grub Street, need not be once more pointed out. Perhaps,
however, it is worth while to notice the extreme rarity of such
qualities. Many people, we think, love their fathers. Fortunately, that
is true; but in how many people is filial affection strong enough to
overpower the dread of eccentricity? How many men would have been
capable of doing penance in Uttoxeter market years after their father's
death for a long-passed act of disobedience? Most of us, again, would
have a temporary emotion of pity for an outcast lying helplessly in the
street. We should call the police, or send her in a cab to the
workhouse, or, at least, write to the _Times_ to denounce the defective
arrangements of public charity. But it is perhaps better not to ask how
many good Samaritans would take her on their shoulders to their own
homes, care for her wants, and put her into a better way of life.

In the lives of most eminent men we find much good feeling and
honourable conduct; but it is an exception, even in the case of good
men, when we find that a life has been shaped by other than the ordinary
conventions, or that emotions have dared to overflow the well-worn
channels of respectability. The love which we feel for Johnson is due
to the fact that the pivots upon which his life turned are invariably
noble motives, and not mere obedience to custom. More than one modern
writer has expressed a fraternal affection for Addison, and it is
justified by the kindly humour which breathes through his 'Essays.' But
what anecdote of that most decorous and successful person touches our
hearts or has the heroic ring of Johnson's wrestlings with adverse
fortune? Addison showed how a Christian could die--when his life has run
smoothly through pleasant places, secretaryships of state, and marriages
with countesses, and when nothing--except a few overdoses of port
wine--has shaken his nerves or ruffled his temper. A far deeper emotion
rises at the deathbed of the rugged old pilgrim, who has fought his way
to peace in spite of troubles within and without, who has been jeered in
Vanity Fair and has descended into the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
and escaped with pain and difficulty from the clutches of Giant Despair.
When the last feelings of such a man are tender, solemn, and simple, we
feel ourselves in a higher presence than that of an amiable gentleman
who simply died, as he lived, with consummate decorum.

On turning, however, from Johnson's life to his writings, from Boswell
to the 'Rambler,' it must be admitted that the shock is trying to our
nerves. The 'Rambler' has, indeed, high merits. The impression which it
made upon his own generation proves the fact; for the reputation,
however temporary, was not won by a concession to the fashions of the
day, but to the influence of a strong judgment uttering itself through
uncouth forms. The melancholy which colours its pages is the melancholy
of a noble nature. The tone of thought reminds us of Bishop Butler,
whose writings, defaced by a style even more tiresome, though less
pompous than Johnson's, have owed their enduring reputation to a
philosophical acuteness in which Johnson was certainly very deficient.
Both of these great men, however, impress us by their deep sense of the
evils under which humanity suffers, and their rejection of the
superficial optimism of the day. Butler's sadness, undoubtedly, is that
of a recluse, and Johnson's that of a man of the world; but the
sentiment is fundamentally the same. It may be added, too, that here, as
elsewhere, Johnson speaks with the sincerity of a man drawing upon his
own experience. He announces himself as a scholar thrust out upon the
world rather by necessity than choice; and a large proportion of the
papers dwell upon the various sufferings of the literary class. Nobody
could speak more feelingly of those sufferings, as no one had a closer
personal acquaintance with them. But allowing to Johnson whatever credit
is due to the man who performs one more variation on the old theme,
_Vanitas vanitatum_, we must in candour admit that the 'Rambler' has the
one unpardonable fault: it is unreadable.

What an amazing turn it shows for commonplaces! That life is short, that
marriages from mercenary motives produce unhappiness, that different men
are virtuous in different degrees, that advice is generally ineffectual,
that adversity has its uses, that fame is liable to suffer from
detraction;--these and a host of other such maxims are of the kind upon
which no genius and no depth of feeling can confer a momentary interest.
Here and there, indeed, the pompous utterance invests them with an
unlucky air of absurdity. 'Let no man from this time,' is the comment in
one of his stories, 'suffer his felicity to depend on the death of his
aunt.' Every actor, of course, uses the same dialect. A gay young
gentleman tells us that he used to amuse his companions by giving them
notice of his friends' oddities. 'Every man,' he says, 'has some
habitual contortion of body, or established mode of expression, which
never fails to excite mirth if it be pointed out to notice. By
premonition of these particularities, I secured our pleasantry.' The
feminine characters, Flirtillas, and Cleoras, and Euphelias, and
Penthesileas, are, if possible, still more grotesque. Macaulay remarks
that he wears the petticoat with as ill a grace as Falstaff himself. The
reader, he thinks, will cry out with Sir Hugh, 'I like not when a 'oman
has a great peard! I spy a great peard under her muffler.' Oddly enough
Johnson gives the very same quotation; and goes on to warn his supposed
correspondents that Phyllis must send no more letters from the Horse
Guards; and that Belinda must 'resign her pretensions to female elegance
till she has lived three weeks without hearing the politics of Button's
Coffee House.' The Doctor was probably sensible enough of his own
defects. And yet there is a still more wearisome set of articles. In
emulation of the precedent set by Addison, Johnson indulges in the
dreariest of allegories. Criticism, we are told, was the eldest daughter
of Labour and Truth, but at last resigned in favour of Time, and left
Prejudice and False Taste to reign in company with Fraud and Mischief.
Then we have the genealogy of Wit and Learning, and of Satire, the Son
of Wit and Malice, and an account of their various quarrels, and the
decision of Jupiter. Neither are the histories of such semi-allegorical
personages as Almamoulin, the son of Nouradin, or of Anningait and Ayut,
the Greenland lovers, much more refreshing to modern readers. That
Johnson possessed humour of no mean order, we know from Boswell; but no
critic could have divined his power from the clumsy gambols in which he
occasionally recreates himself. Perhaps his happiest effort is a
dissertation upon the advantage of living in garrets; but the humour
struggles and gasps dreadfully under the weight of words. 'There are,'
he says, 'some who would continue blockheads' (the Alpine Club was not
yet founded), 'even on the summit of the Andes or the Peak of Teneriffe.
But let not any man be considered as unimprovable till this potent
remedy has been tried; for perhaps he was found to be great only in a
garret, as the joiner of Aretæus was rational in no other place but his
own shop.'

How could a man of real power write such unendurable stuff? Or how,
indeed, could any man come to embody his thoughts in the style of which
one other sentence will be a sufficient example? As it is afterwards
nearly repeated, it may be supposed to have struck his fancy. The
remarks of the philosophers who denounce temerity are, he says, 'too
just to be disputed and too salutary to be rejected; but there is
likewise some danger lest timorous prudence should be inculcated till
courage and enterprise are wholly repressed and the mind congested in
perpetual inactivity by the fatal influence of frigorifick wisdom.' Is
there not some danger, we ask, that the mind will be benumbed into
perpetual torpidity by the influence of this soporific sapience? It is
still true, however, that this Johnsonese, so often burlesqued and
ridiculed, was, as far as we can judge, a genuine product. Macaulay says
that it is more offensive than the mannerism of Milton or Burke, because
it is a mannerism adopted on principle and sustained by constant effort.
Facts do not confirm the theory. Milton's prose style seems to be the
result of a conscious effort to run English into classical moulds.
Burke's mannerism does not appear in his early writings, and we can
trace its development from the imitation of Bolingbroke to the last
declamation against the Revolution. But Johnson seems to have written
Johnsonese from his cradle. In his first original composition, the
preface to Father Lobo's 'Abyssinia,' the style is as distinctive as in
the 'Rambler.' The Parliamentary reports in the 'Gentleman's Magazine'
make Pitt and Fox[1] express sentiments which are probably their own in
language which is as unmistakably Johnson's. It is clear that his style,
good or bad, was the same from his earliest efforts. It is only in his
last book, the 'Lives of the Poets,' that the mannerism, though equally
marked, is so far subdued as to be tolerable. What he himself called his
habit of using 'too big words and too many of them' was no affectation,
but as much the result of his special idiosyncrasy as his queer
gruntings and twitchings. Sir Joshua Reynolds indeed maintained, and we
may believe so attentive an observer, that his strange physical
contortions were the result of bad habit, not of actual disease.
Johnson, he said, could sit as still as other people when his attention
was called to it. And possibly, if he had tried, he might have avoided
the fault of making 'little fishes talk like whales.' But how did the
bad habits arise? According to Boswell, Johnson professed to have
'formed his style' partly upon Sir W. Temple, and on 'Chambers's
Proposal for his Dictionary.' The statement was obviously
misinterpreted: but there is a glimmering of truth in the theory that
the 'style was formed'--so far as those words have any meaning--on the
'giants of the seventeenth century,' and especially upon Sir Thomas
Browne. Johnson's taste, in fact, had led him to the study of writers
in many ways congenial to him. His favourite book, as we know, was
Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy.' The pedantry of the older school did
not repel him; the weighty thought rightly attracted him; and the more
complex structure of sentence was perhaps a pleasant contrast to an ear
saturated with the Gallicised neatness of Addison and Pope. Unluckily,
the secret of the old majestic cadence was hopelessly lost. Johnson,
though spiritually akin to the giants, was the firmest ally and subject
of the dwarfish dynasty which supplanted them. The very faculty of
hearing seems to change in obedience to some mysterious law at different
stages of intellectual development; and that which to one generation is
delicious music is to another a mere droning of bagpipes or the grinding
of monotonous barrel-organs.

Assuming that a man can find perfect satisfaction in the versification
of the 'Essay on Man,' we can understand his saying of 'Lycidas,' that
'the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers
unpleasing.' In one of the 'Ramblers' we are informed that the accent in
blank verse ought properly to rest upon every second syllable throughout
the whole line. A little variety must, he admits, be allowed to avoid
satiety; but all lines which do not go in the steady jog-trot of
alternate beats as regularly as the piston of a steam engine, are more
or less defective. This simple-minded system naturally makes wild work
with the poetry of the 'mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies.' Milton's
harsh cadences are indeed excused on the odd ground that he who was
'vindicating the ways of God to man' might have been condemned for
'lavishing much of his attention upon syllables and sounds.' Moreover,
the poor man did his best by introducing sounding proper names, even
when they 'added little music to his poem:' an example of this feeble,
though well-meant expedient, being the passage about the moon, which--

                  The Tuscan artist views,
    At evening, from the top of Fiesole
    Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands, &c.

This profanity passed at the time for orthodoxy. But the misfortune was,
that Johnson, unhesitatingly subscribing to the rules of Queen Anne's
critics, is always instinctively feeling after the grander effects of
the old school. Nature prompts him to the stateliness of Milton, whilst
Art orders him to deal out long and short syllables alternately, and to
make them up in parcels of ten, and then tie the parcels together in
pairs by the help of a rhyme. The natural utterance of a man of strong
perceptions, but of unwieldy intellect, of a melancholy temperament, and
capable of very deep, but not vivacious emotions, would be in stately
and elaborate phrases. His style was not more distinctly a work of art
than the style of Browne or Milton, but, unluckily, it was a work of bad
art. He had the misfortune, not so rare as it may sound, to be born in
the wrong century; and is, therefore, a giant in fetters; the amplitude
of stride is still there, but it is checked into mechanical regularity.
A similar phenomenon is observable in other writers of the time. The
blank verse of Young, for example, is generally set to Pope's tune with
the omission of the rhymes, whilst Thomson, revolting more or less
consciously against the canons of his time, too often falls into mere
pompous mouthing. Shaftesbury, in the previous generation, trying to
write poetical prose, becomes as pedantic as Johnson, though in a
different style; and Gibbon's mannerism is a familiar example of a
similar escape from a monotonous simplicity into awkward complexity.
Such writers are like men who have been chilled by what Johnson would
call the 'frigorifick' influence of the classicism of their fathers, and
whose numbed limbs move stiffly and awkwardly in a first attempt to
regain the old liberty. The form, too, of the 'Rambler' is unfortunate.
Johnson has always Addison before his eyes; to whom it was formerly the
fashion to compare him for the same excellent reason which has recently
suggested comparisons between Dickens and Thackeray--namely, that their
works were published in the same external shape. Unluckily, Johnson gave
too much excuse for the comparison by really imitating Addison. He has
to make allegories, and to give lively sketches of feminine
peculiarities, and to ridicule social foibles of which he was, at most,
a distant observer. The inevitable consequence is, that though here and
there we catch a glimpse of the genuine man, we are, generally, too much
provoked by the awkwardness of his costume to be capable of enjoying, or
even reading him.

In many of his writings, however, Johnson manages, almost entirely, to
throw off these impediments. In his deep capacity for sympathy and
reverence, we recognise some of the elements that go to the making of a
poet. He is always a man of intuitions rather than of discursive
intellect; often keen of vision, though wanting in analytical power. For
poetry, indeed, as it is often understood now, or even as it was
understood by Pope, he had little enough qualification. He had not the
intellectual vivacity implied in the marvellously neat workmanship of
Pope, and still less the delight in all natural and artistic beauty
which we generally take to be essential to poetic excellence. His
contempt for 'Lycidas' is sufficiently significant upon that head. Still
more characteristic is the incapacity to understand Spenser, which
comes out incidentally in his remarks upon some of those imitations,
which even in the middle of the eighteenth century showed that
sensibility to the purest form of poetry was not by any means extinct
amongst us. But there is a poetry, though we sometimes seem to forget
it, which is the natural expression of deep moral sentiment; and of this
Johnson has written enough to reveal very genuine power. The touching
verses upon the death of Levett are almost as pathetic as Cowper; and
fragments of the two imitations of Juvenal have struck deep enough to be
not quite forgotten. We still quote the lines about pointing a moral and
adorning a tale, which conclude a really noble passage. We are too often
reminded of his melancholy musings over the

    Fears of the brave and follies of the wise,

and a few of the concluding lines of the 'Vanity of Human Wishes,' in
which he answers the question whether man must of necessity

    Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate,

in helplessness and ignorance, may have something of a familiar ring. We
are to give thanks, he says,

    For love, which scarce collective man can fill;
    For patience, sovereign o'er transmuted ill;
    For faith, that, panting for a happier seat,
    Counts death kind nature's signal for retreat;
    These goods for man, the laws of heaven ordain,
    These goods He grants, who grants the power to gain,
    With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
    And makes the happiness she does not find.

These lines, and many others which might be quoted, are noble in
expression, as well as lofty and tender in feeling. Johnson, like
Wordsworth, or even more deeply than Wordsworth, had felt all the
'heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world;' and,
though he stumbles a little in the narrow limits of his versification,
he bears himself nobly, and manages to put his heart into his poetry.
Coleridge's paraphrase of the well-known lines, 'Let observation with
extensive observation, observe mankind from China to Peru,' would
prevent us from saying that he had thrown off his verbiage. He has not
the felicity of Goldsmith's 'Traveller,' though he wrote one of the best
couplets in that admirable poem; but his ponderous lines show genuine
vigour, and can be excluded from poetry only by the help of an arbitrary

The fullest expression, however, of Johnson's feeling is undoubtedly to
be found in 'Rasselas.' The inevitable comparison with Voltaire's
'Candide,' which, by an odd coincidence, appeared almost simultaneously,
suggests some curious reflections. The resemblance between the moral of
the two books is so strong that, as Johnson remarked, it would have been
difficult not to suppose that one had given a hint to the other but for
the chronological difficulty. The contrast, indeed, is as marked as the
likeness. 'Candide' is not adapted for family reading, whereas
'Rasselas' might be a textbook for young ladies studying English in a
convent. 'Candide' is a marvel of clearness and vivacity; whereas to
read 'Rasselas' is about as exhilarating as to wade knee-deep through a
sandy desert. Voltaire and Johnson, however, the great sceptic and the
last of the true old Tories, coincide pretty well in their view of the
world, and in the remedy which they suggest. The world is, they agree,
full of misery, and the optimism which would deny the reality of the
misery is childish. _Il faut cultiver notre jardin_ is the last word of
'Candide,' and Johnson's teaching, both here and elsewhere, may be
summed up in the words 'Work, and don't whine.' It need not be
considered here, nor, perhaps, is it quite plain, what speculative
conclusions Voltaire meant to be drawn from his teaching. The
peculiarity of Johnson is, that he is apparently indifferent to any such
conclusion. A dogmatic assertion, that the world is on the whole a scene
of misery, may be pressed into the service of different philosophies.
Johnson asserted the opinion resolutely, both in writing and in
conversation, but apparently never troubled himself with any inferences
but such as have a directly practical tendency. He was no
'speculatist'--a word which now strikes us as having an American twang,
but which was familiar to the lexicographer. His only excursion to the
borders of such regions was in the very forcible review of Soane Jenyns,
who had made a jaunty attempt to explain the origin of evil by the help
of a few of Pope's epigrams. Johnson's sledge-hammer smashes his flimsy
platitudes to pieces with an energy too good for such a foe. For
speculation, properly so called, there was no need. The review, like
'Rasselas,' is simply a vigorous protest against the popular attempt to
make things pleasant by a feeble dilution of the most watery kind of
popular teaching. He has no trouble in remarking that the evils of
poverty are not alleviated by calling it 'want of riches,' and that
there is a poverty which involves want of necessaries. The offered
consolation, indeed, came rather awkwardly from the elegant country
gentleman to the poor scholar who had just known by experience what it
was to live upon fourpence-halfpenny a day. Johnson resolutely looks
facts in the face, and calls ugly things by their right names. Men, he
tells us over and over again, are wretched, and there is no use in
denying it. This doctrine appears in his familiar talk, and even in the
papers which he meant to be light reading. He begins the prologue to a
comedy with the words--

    Pressed with the load of life, the weary mind
    Surveys the general toil of human kind.

In the 'Life of Savage' he makes the common remark that the lives of
many of the greatest teachers of mankind have been miserable. The
explanation to which he inclines is that they have not been more
miserable than their neighbours, but that their misery has been more
conspicuous. His melancholy view of life may have been caused simply by
his unfortunate constitution; for everybody sees in the disease of his
own liver a disorder of the universe; but it was also intensified by the
natural reaction of a powerful nature against the fluent optimism of the
time, which expressed itself in Pope's aphorism, Whatever is, is right.
The strongest men of the time revolted against that attempt to cure a
deep-seated disease by a few fine speeches. The form taken by Johnson's
revolt is characteristic. His nature was too tender and too manly to
incline to Swift's misanthropy. Men might be wretched, but he would not
therefore revile them as filthy Yahoos. He was too reverent and cared
too little for abstract thought to share the scepticism of Voltaire. In
this miserable world the one worthy object of ambition is to do one's
duty, and the one consolation deserving the name is to be found in
religion. That Johnson's religious opinions sometimes took the form of
rather grotesque superstition may be true; and it is easy enough to
ridicule some of its manifestations. He took the creed of his day
without much examination of the evidence upon which its dogmas rested;
but a writer must be thoughtless indeed who should be more inclined to
laugh at his superficial oddities, than to admire the reverent spirit
and the brave self-respect with which he struggled through a painful
life. The protest of 'Rasselas' against optimism is therefore widely
different from the protest of Voltaire. The deep and genuine feeling of
the Frenchman is concealed under smart assaults upon the dogmas of
popular theology; the Englishman desires to impress upon us the futility
of all human enjoyments, with a view to deepen the solemnity of our
habitual tone of thought. It is true, indeed, that the evil is dwelt
upon more forcibly than the remedy. The book is all the more impressive.
We are almost appalled by the gloomy strength which sees so forcibly the
misery of the world and rejects so unequivocally all the palliatives of
sentiment and philosophy. The melancholy is intensified by the ponderous
style, which suggests a man weary of a heavy burden. The air seems to be
filled with what Johnson once called 'inspissated gloom.' 'Rasselas,'
one may say, has a narrow escape of being a great book, though it is ill
calculated for the hasty readers of to-day. Indeed, the defects are
serious enough. The class of writing to which it belongs demands a
certain dramatic picturesqueness to point the moral effectively. Not
only the long-winded sentences, but the slow evolution of thought and
the deliberation with which he works out his pictures of misery, make
the general effect dull beside such books as 'Candide' or 'Gulliver's
Travels.' A touch of epigrammatic exaggeration is very much needed; and
yet anybody who has the courage to read it through will admit that
Johnson is not an unworthy guide into those gloomy regions of
imagination which we all visit sometimes, and which it is as well to
visit in good company.

After his fashion, Johnson is a fair representative of Greatheart. His
melancholy is distinguished from that of feebler men by the strength of
the conviction that 'it will do no good to whine.' We know his view of
the great prophet of the Revolutionary school. 'Rousseau,' he said, to
Boswell's astonishment, 'is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a
sentence for his transportation than that of any felon who has gone from
the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in
the plantations.' That is a fine specimen of the good Johnsonese
prejudices of which we hear so much; and, of course, it is easy to infer
that Johnson was an ignorant bigot, who had not in any degree taken the
measure of the great moving forces of his time. Nothing, indeed, can be
truer than that Johnson cared very little for the new gospel of the
rights of man. His truly British contempt for all such fancies ('for
anything I see,' he once said, 'foreigners are fools') is one of his
strongest characteristics. Now, Rousseau and his like took a view of the
world as it was quite as melancholy as Johnson's. They inferred that it
ought to be turned upside down, assured that the millennium would begin
as soon as a few revolutionary dogmas were accepted. All their remedies
appeared to the excellent Doctor as so much of that cant of which it was
a man's first duty to clear his mind. The evils of life were far too
deeply seated to be caused or cured by kings or demagogues. One of the
most popular commonplaces of the day was the mischief of luxury. That we
were all on the high road to ruin on account of our wealth, our
corruption, and the growth of the national debt, was the text of any
number of political agitators. The whole of this talk was, to his mind,
so much whining and cant. Luxury did no harm, and the mass of the
people, as indeed was in one sense obvious enough, had only too little
of it. The pet 'state of nature' of theorists was a silly figment. The
genuine savage was little better than an animal; and a savage woman,
whose contempt for civilised life had prompted her to escape to the
forest, was simply a 'speaking cat.' The natural equality of mankind was
mere moonshine. So far is it from being true, he says, that no two
people can be together for half an hour without one acquiring an evident
superiority over the other. Subordination is an essential element of
human happiness. A Whig stinks in his nostrils because to his eye modern
Whiggism is 'a negation of all principles.' As he said of Priestley's
writings, it unsettles everything and settles nothing. 'He is a cursed
Whig, a _bottomless_ Whig as they all are now,' was his description
apparently of Burke. Order, in fact, is a vital necessity; what
particular form it may take matters comparatively little; and therefore
all revolutionary dogmas were chimerical as an attack upon the
inevitable conditions of life, and mischievous so far as productive of
useless discontent. We need not ask what mixture of truth and falsehood
there may be in these principles. Of course, a Radical, or even a
respectable Whig, like Macaulay, who believed in the magical efficacy of
the British Constitution, might shriek or laugh at such doctrine.
Johnson's political pamphlets, besides the defects natural to a writer
who was only a politician by accident, advocate the most retrograde
doctrines. Nobody at the present day thinks that the Stamp Act was an
admirable or justifiable measure; or would approve of telling the
Americans that they ought to have been grateful for their long exemption
instead of indignant at the imposition. 'We do not put a calf into the
plough; we wait till he is an ox'--was not a judicious taunt. He was
utterly wrong; and, if everybody who is utterly wrong in a political
controversy deserves unmixed contempt, there is no more to be said for
him. We might indeed argue that Johnson was in some ways entitled to the
sympathy of enlightened people. His hatred of the Americans was
complicated by his hatred of slave-owners. He anticipated Lincoln in
proposing the emancipation of the negroes as a military measure. His
uniform hatred for the slave trade scandalised poor Boswell, who held
that its abolition would be equivalent to 'shutting the gates of mercy
on mankind.' His language about the blundering tyranny of the English
rule in Ireland would satisfy Mr. Froude, though he would hardly have
loved a Home Ruler. He denounces the frequency of capital punishment and
the harshness of imprisonment for debt, and he invokes a compassionate
treatment of the outcasts of our streets as warmly as the more
sentimental Goldsmith. His conservatism may be at times obtuse, but it
is never of the cynical variety. He hates cruelty and injustice as
righteously as he hates anarchy. Indeed, Johnson's contempt for mouthing
agitators of the Wilkes and Junius variety is one which may be shared by
most thinkers who would not accept his principles. There is a vigorous
passage in the 'False Alarm' which is scarcely unjust to the patriots of
the day. He describes the mode in which petitions are generally got up.
They are sent from town to town, and the people flock to see what is to
be sent to the king. 'One man signs because he hates the Papists;
another because he has vowed destruction to the turnpikes; one because
it will vex the parson; another because he owes his landlord nothing;
one because he is rich; another because he is poor; one to show that he
is not afraid, and another to show that he can write.' The people, he
thinks, are as well off as they are likely to be under any form of
government; and grievances about general warrants or the rights of
juries in libel cases are not really felt so long as they have enough to
eat and drink and wear. The error, we may probably say, was less in the
contempt for a very shallow agitation than in the want of perception
that deeper causes of discontent were accumulating in the background.
Wilkes in himself was a worthless demagogue; but Wilkes was the straw
carried by the rising tide of revolutionary sentiment, to which Johnson
was entirely blind. Yet whatever we may think of his political
philosophy, the value of these solid sturdy prejudices is undeniable. To
the fact that Johnson was the typical representative of a large class of
Englishmen, we owe it that the Society of Rights did not develop into a
Jacobin Club. The fine phrases on which Frenchmen became intoxicated
never turned the heads of men impervious to abstract theories and
incapable of dropping substances for shadows. There are evils in each
temperament; but it is as well that some men should carry into politics
that rooted contempt for whining which lay so deep in Johnson's nature.
He scorned the sickliness of the Rousseau school as, in spite of his
constitutional melancholy, he scorned valetudinarianism whether of the
bodily or the spiritual order. He saw evil enough in the world to be
heartily, at times too roughly, impatient of all fine ladies who made a
luxury of grief or of demagogues who shrieked about theoretical
grievances which did not sensibly affect the happiness of one man in a
thousand. The lady would not have time to nurse her sorrows if she had
been a washerwoman; the grievances with which the demagogues yelled
themselves hoarse could hardly be distinguished amidst the sorrows of
the vast majority condemned to keep starvation at bay by unceasing
labour. His incapacity for speculation makes his pamphlets worthless
beside Burke's philosophical discourses; but the treatment, if wrong and
defective on the theoretical side, is never contemptible. Here, as
elsewhere, he judges by his intuitive aversions. He rejects too hastily
whatever seems insipid or ill-flavoured to his spiritual appetite. Like
all the shrewd and sensible part of mankind he condemns as mere
moonshine what may be really the first faint dawn of a new daylight. But
then his intuitions are noble, and his fundamental belief is the vital
importance of order, of religion, and of morality, coupled with a
profound conviction, surely not erroneous, that the chief sources of
human suffering lie far deeper than any of the remedies proposed by
constitution-mongers and fluent theorists. The literary version of these
prejudices or principles is given most explicitly in the 'Lives of the
Poets'--the book which is now the most readable of Johnson's
performances, and which most frequently recalls his conversational
style. Indeed, it is a thoroughly admirable book, and but for one or two
defects might enjoy a much more decided popularity. It is full of shrewd
sense and righteous as well as keen estimates of men and things. The
'Life of Savage,' written in earlier times, is the best existing
portrait of that large class of authors who, in Johnson's phrase, 'hung
loose upon society' in the days of the Georges. The Lives of Pope,
Dryden, and others have scarcely been superseded, though much fuller
information has since come to light; and they are all well worth
reading. But the criticism, like the politics, is woefully out of date.
Johnson's division between the shams and the realities deserves all
respect in both cases, but in both cases he puts many things on the
wrong side of the dividing line. His hearty contempt for sham pastorals
and sham love-poetry will be probably shared by modern readers. 'Who
will hear of sheep and goats and myrtle bowers and purling rivulets
through five acts? Such scenes please barbarians in the dawn of
literature, and children in the dawn of life, but will be for the most
part thrown away as men grow wise and nations grow learned.' But
elsewhere he blunders into terrible misapprehensions. Where he errs by
simply repeating the accepted rules of the Pope school, he for once
talks mere second-hand nonsense. But his independent judgments are
interesting even when erroneous. His unlucky assault upon 'Lycidas,'
already noticed, is generally dismissed with a pitying shrug of the
shoulders. 'Among the flocks and copses and flowers appear the heathen
deities; Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Æolus, with a long train of
mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies. Nothing can
less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a
shepherd has lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone; how
one god asks another god what has become of Lycidas, and how neither god
can tell. He who thus grieves can excite no sympathy; he who thus
praises will confer no honour.'

Of course every tyro in criticism has his answer ready; he can discourse
about the æsthetic tendencies of the _Renaissance_ period, and explain
the necessity of placing one's self at a writer's point of view, and
entering into the spirit of the time. He will add, perhaps, that
'Lycidas' is a test of poetical feeling, and that he who does not
appreciate its exquisite melody has no music in his soul. The same
writer who will tell us all this, and doubtless with perfect truth,
would probably have adopted Pope or Johnson's theory with equal
confidence if he had lived in the last century. 'Lycidas' repelled
Johnson by incongruities, which, from his point of view, were certainly
offensive. Most modern readers, I will venture to suggest, feel the same
annoyances, though they have not the courage to avow them freely. If
poetry is to be judged exclusively by the simplicity and force with
which it expresses sincere emotion, 'Lycidas' would hardly convince us
of Milton's profound sorrow for the death of King, and must be condemned
accordingly. To the purely pictorial or musical effects of a poem
Johnson was nearly blind; but that need not suggest a doubt as to the
sincerity of his love for the poetry which came within the range of his
own sympathies. Every critic is in effect criticising himself as well as
his author; and I confess that to my mind an obviously sincere record of
impressions, however one-sided they may be, is infinitely refreshing, as
revealing at least the honesty of the writer. The ordinary run of
criticism generally implies nothing but the extreme desire of the author
to show that he is open to the very last new literary fashion. I should
welcome a good assault upon Shakespeare which was not prompted by a love
of singularity; and there are half-a-dozen popular idols--I have not the
courage to name them--a genuine attack upon whom I could witness with
entire equanimity, not to say some complacency. If Johnson's blunder in
this case implied sheer stupidity, one can only say that honest
stupidity is a much better thing than clever insincerity or fluent
repetition of second-hand dogmas. But, in fact, this dislike of
'Lycidas,' and a good many instances of critical incapacity might be
added, is merely a misapplication of a very sound principle. The hatred
of cant and humbug and affectation of all vanity is a most salutary
ingredient even in poetical criticism. Johnson, with his natural
ignorance of that historical method, the exaltation of which threatens
to become a part of our contemporary cant, made the pardonable blunder
of supposing that what would have been gross affectation in Gray must
have been affectation in Milton. His ear had been too much corrupted by
the contemporary school to enable him to recognise beauties which would
even have shone through some conscious affectation. He had the rare
courage--for, even then, Milton was one of the tabooed poets--to say
what he thought as forcibly as he could say it; and he has suffered the
natural punishment of plain speaking. It must, of course, be admitted
that a book embodying such principles is doomed to become more or less
obsolete, like his political pamphlets. And yet, as significant of the
writer's own character, as containing many passages of sound judgment,
expressed in forcible language, it is still, if not a great book, really
impressive within the limits of its capacity.

After this imperfect survey of Johnson's writings, it only remains to be
noticed that all the most prominent peculiarities are the very same
which give interest to his spoken utterances. The doctrine is the same,
though the preacher's manner has changed. His melancholy is not so
heavy-eyed and depressing in his talk, for we catch him at moments of
excitement; but it is there, and sometimes breaks out emphatically and
unexpectedly. The prospect of death often clouds his mind, and he bursts
into tears when he thinks of his past sufferings. His hearty love of
truth, and uncompromising hatred of cant in all its innumerable
transmutations, prompt half his most characteristic sayings. His queer
prejudices take a humorous form, and give a delightful zest to his
conversation. His contempt for abstract speculation comes out when he
vanquishes Berkeley, not with a grin, but by 'striking his foot with
mighty force against a large stone.' His arguments, indeed, never seem
to have owed much to such logic as implies systematic and continuous
thought. He scarcely waits till his pistol misses fire to knock you down
with the butt-end. The merit of his best sayings is not that they
compress an argument into a phrase, but that they are vivid expressions
of an intuitive judgment. In other words, they are always humorous
rather than witty. He holds his own belief with so vigorous a grasp that
all argumentative devices for loosening it seem to be thrown away. As
Boswell says, he is through your body in an instant without any
preliminary parade; he gives a deadly lunge, but cares little for skill
of fence. 'We know we are free and there's an end of it,' is his
characteristic summary of a perplexed bit of metaphysics; and he would
evidently have no patience to wander through the labyrinths in which men
like Jonathan Edwards delighted to perplex themselves. We should have
been glad to see a fuller report of one of those conversations in which
Burke 'wound into a subject like a serpent,' and contrast his method
with Johnson's downright hitting. Boswell had not the power, even if he
had the will, to give an adequate account of such a 'wit combat.'

That such a mind should express itself most forcibly in speech is
intelligible enough. Conversation was to him not merely a contest, but a
means of escape from himself. 'I may be cracking my joke,' he said to
Boswell,'and cursing the sun: Sun, how I hate thy beams!' The phrase
sounds exaggerated, but it was apparently his settled conviction that
the only remedy for melancholy, except indeed the religious remedy, was
in hard work or in the rapture of conversational strife. His little
circle of friends called forth his humour as the House of Commons
excited Chatham's eloquence; and both of them were inclined to mouth too
much when deprived of the necessary stimulus. Chatham's set speeches
were as pompous as Johnson's deliberate writing. Johnson and Chatham
resemble the chemical bodies which acquire entirely new properties when
raised beyond a certain degree of temperature. Indeed, we frequently
meet touches of the conversational Johnson in his controversial writing.
'Taxation no Tyranny' is at moments almost as pithy as Swift, though the
style is never so simple. The celebrated Letter to Chesterfield, and the
letter in which he tells MacPherson that he will not be 'deterred from
detecting what he thinks a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian,' are as
good specimens of the smashing repartee as anything in Boswell's
reports. Nor, indeed, does his pomposity sink to mere verbiage so often
as might be supposed. It is by no means easy to translate his ponderous
phrases into simple words without losing some of their meaning. The
structure of the sentences is compact, though they are too elaborately
balanced and stuffed with superfluous antitheses. The language might be
simpler, but it is not a mere sham aggregation of words. His written
style, however faulty in other respects, is neither slipshod nor
ambiguous, and passes into his conversational style by imperceptible
degrees. The radical identity is intelligible, though the superficial
contrast is certainly curious. We may perhaps say that his century,
unfavourable to him as a writer, gave just what he required for talking.
If, as is sometimes said, the art of conversation is disappearing, it is
because society has become too large and diffuse. The good talker, as
indeed the good artist of every kind, depends upon the tacit
co-operation of the social medium. The chorus, as Johnson has himself
shown very well in one of the 'Ramblers,' is quite as essential as the
main performer. Nobody talks well in London, because everybody has
constantly to meet a fresh set of interlocutors, and is as much put out
as a musician who has to be always learning a new instrument. A literary
dictator has ceased to be a possibility, so far as direct personal
influence is concerned. In the club, Johnson knew how every blow would
tell, and in the rapid thrust and parry dropped the heavy style which
muffled his utterances in print. He had to deal with concrete
illustrations, instead of expanding into platitudinous generalities. The
obsolete theories which impair the value of his criticism and his
politics, become amusing in the form of pithy sayings, though they weary
us when asserted in formal expositions. His greatest literary effort,
the 'Dictionary,' has of necessity become antiquated in use, and, in
spite of the intellectual vigour indicated, can hardly be commended for
popular reading. And thus but for the inimitable Boswell, it must be
admitted that Johnson would probably have sunk very deeply into
oblivion. A few good sayings would have been preserved by Mrs. Thrale
and others, or have been handed down by tradition, and doubtless
assigned in process of time to Sydney Smith and other conversational
celebrities. A few couplets from the 'Vanity of Human Wishes' would not
yet have been submerged, and curious readers would have recognised the
power of 'Rasselas,' and been delighted with some shrewd touches in the
'Lives of the Poets.' But with all desire to magnify critical insight,
it must be admitted that that man would have shown singular penetration,
and been regarded as an eccentric commentator, who had divined the
humour and the fervour of mind which lay hid in the remains of the huge
lexicographer. And yet when we have once recognised his power, we can
see it everywhere indicated in his writings, though by an unfortunate
fatality the style or the substance was always so deeply affected by the
faults of the time, that the product is never thoroughly sound. His
tenacious conservatism caused him to cling to decaying materials for the
want of anything better, and he has suffered the natural penalty. He was
a great force half wasted, so far as literature was concerned, because
the fashionable costume of the day hampered the free exercises of his
powers, and because the only creeds to which he could attach himself
were in the phase of decline and inanition. A century earlier or later
he might have succeeded in expressing himself through books as well as
through his talk; but it is not given to us to choose the time of our
birth, and some very awkward consequences follow.


[1] See, for example, the great debate on February 13, 1741.


It is nearly a century since George Crabbe, then a young man of
five-and-twenty, put three pounds in his pocket and started from his
native town of Aldborough, with a box of clothes and a case of surgical
instruments, to make his fortune in London. Few men have attempted that
adventure with less promising prospects. Any sensible adviser would have
told him to prefer starvation in his native village to starvation in the
back lanes of London. The adviser would, perhaps, have been vexed, but
would not have been confuted, by Crabbe's good fortune. We should still
recommend a youth not to jump into a river, though, of a thousand who
try the experiment, one may happen to be rescued by a benevolent
millionaire, and be put in the road to fortune. The chances against
Crabbe were enormous. Literature, considered as a trade, is a good deal
better at the present day than it was towards the end of the last
century, and yet anyone who has an opportunity of comparing the failures
with the successes, would be more apt to quote Chatterton than Crabbe as
a precedent for youthful aspirants. Crabbe, indeed, might say for
himself that literature was the only path open to him. His father was
collector of salt duties at Aldborough, a position, as one may imagine,
of no very great emolument. He had, however, given his son the chance of
acquiring a smattering of 'scholarship,' in the sense in which that
word is used by the less educated lower classes. To the slender store of
learning acquired in a cheap country school, the lad managed to add such
medical training as could be picked up during an apprenticeship in an
apothecary's shop. With this provision of knowledge he tried to obtain
practice in his native town. He failed to get any patients of the paying
variety. Crabbe was clumsy and absent-minded to the end of his life. He
had, moreover, a taste for botany, and the shrewd inhabitants of
Aldborough, with that perverse tendency to draw inferences which is
characteristic of people who cannot reason, argued that as he picked up
his samples in the ditches, he ought to sell the medicines presumably
compounded from them for nothing. In one way or other, poor Crabbe had
sunk to the verge of distress. Of course, under these circumstances, he
had fallen in love and engaged himself at the age of eighteen to a young
lady, apparently as poor as himself. Of course, too, he called Miss Elmy
'Mira,' and addressed her in verses which occasionally appeared in the
poet's corner of a certain 'Wheble's Magazine.' My Mira, said the young
surgeon, in a style which must have been rather antiquated even in

    My Mira, shepherds, is as fair
      As sylvan nymphs who haunt the vale;
    As sylphs who dwell in purest air,
      As fays who skim the dusky dale.

Moreover, he won a prize for a poem on Hope, and composed an
'Allegorical Fable' and a piece called 'The Atheist reclaimed;' and, in
short, added plentifully to the vast rubbish-heap of old-world verses,
now decayed beyond the industry of the most persevering of Dryasdusts.
Nay, he even succeeded by some mysterious means in getting one of his
poems published separately. It was called 'Inebriety,' and was an
unblushing imitation of Pope. Here is a couplet by way of sample:--

    Champagne the courtier drinks the spleen to chase,
    The colonel Burgundy, and Port his Grace.

From the satirical the poet diverges into the mock heroic:--

    See Inebriety! her wand she waves,
    And lo! her pale, and lo! her purple slaves.

The interstices of the box of clothing which went with him from
Aldborough to London were doubtless crammed with much waste paper
scribbled over with these feeble echoes of Pope's Satires, and with
appeals to nymphs, muses, and shepherds. Crabbe was one of those men who
are born a generation after their natural epoch, and was as little
accessible to the change of fashion in poetry as in costume. When,
therefore, he finally resolved to hazard his own fate and Mira's upon
the results of his London adventure, the literary goods at his disposal
were already somewhat musty in character. The year 1780, in which he
reached London, marks the very nadir of English poetry. From the days of
Elizabeth to our own there has never been so absolutely barren a period.
People had become fairly tired of the jingle of Pope's imitators, and
the new era had not dawned. Goldsmith and Gray, both recently dead,
serve to illustrate the condition in which the most exquisite polish and
refinement of language has been developed until there is a danger of
sterility. The 'Elegy' and the 'Deserted Village' are in their way
inimitable poems: but we feel that the intellectual fibre of the poets
has become dangerously delicate. The critical faculty could not be
stimulated further without destroying all spontaneous impulse. The
reaction to a more masculine and passionate school was imminent; and if
the excellent Crabbe could have put into his box a few of Burns's
lyrics, or even a copy of Cowper's 'Task,' one might have augured better
for his prospects. But what chance was there for a man who could still
be contentedly invoking the muse and stringing together mechanic echoes
of Pope's couplets? How could he expect to charm the jaded faculties of
a generation which was already beginning to heave and stir with a
longing for some fresh excitement? For a year the fate which has
overtaken so many rash literary adventurers seemed to be approaching
steadily. One temporary gleam of good fortune cheered him for a time. He
persuaded an enterprising publisher to bring out a poem called 'The
Candidate,' which had some faint success, though ridiculed by the
reviewers. Unluckily the publisher became bankrupt and Crabbe was thrown
upon his resources--the poor three pounds and box of surgical
instruments aforesaid. How he managed to hold out for a year is a
mystery. It was lucky for him, as he intimates, that he had never heard
of the fate of Chatterton, who had poisoned himself just ten years
before. A Journal which he wrote for Mira is published in his Life, and
gives an account of his feelings during three months of his cruel
probation. He applies for a situation as amanuensis offered in an
advertisement, and comforts himself on failing with the reflection that
the advertiser was probably a sharper. He writes piteous letters to
publishers, and gets, of course, the stereotyped reply with which the
most amiable of publishers must damp the ardour of aspiring genius. The
disappointment is not much softened by the publisher's statement that
'he does not mean by this to insinuate any want of merit in the poem,
but rather a want of attention in the public.' Bit by bit his surgical
instruments go to the pawnbroker. When one publisher sends his polite
refusal poor Crabbe has only sixpence-farthing in the world, which, by
the purchase of a pint of porter, is reduced to fourpence-halfpenny. The
exchequer fills again by the disappearance of his wardrobe and his
watch; but ebbs under a new temptation. He buys some odd volumes of
Dryden for three-and-sixpence, and on coming home tears his only coat,
which he manages to patch tolerably with a borrowed needle and thread,
pretending, with a pathetic shift, that they are required to stitch
together manuscripts instead of broadcloth. And so for a year the wolf
creeps nearer the door, whilst Crabbe gallantly keeps up appearances and
spirits, and yet he tries to preserve a show of good spirits in the
Journal to Mira, and continues to labour at his versemaking. Perhaps,
indeed, it may be regarded as a bad symptom that he is reduced to
distracting his mind by making an analysis of a dull sermon. 'There is
nothing particular in it,' he admits, but at least it is better, he
thinks, to listen to a bad sermon than to the blasphemous rant of
deistical societies. Indeed, Crabbe's spirit was totally unlike the
desperate pride of Chatterton. He was of the patient enduring tribe, and
comforts himself by religious meditations, which are, perhaps, rather
commonplace in expression, but when read by the light of the distresses
he was enduring, show a brave unembittered spirit, not to be easily
respected too highly. Starvation seemed to be approaching; or, at least,
the only alternative was the abandonment of his ambition, and
acceptance, if he could get it, of the post of druggist's assistant. He
had but one resource left; and that not of the most promising kind.
Crabbe, amongst his other old-fashioned notions, had a strong belief in
the traditional patron. Johnson might have given him some hints upon the
subject; but luckily, as it turned out, he pursued what Chesterfield's
correspondent would have thought the most hopeless of all courses. He
wrote to Lord North, who was at that moment occupied in contemplating
the final results of the ingenious policy by which America was lost to
England, and probably consigned Crabbe's letter to the waste-paper
basket. Then he tried the effect of a copy of verses, beginning:--

    Ah! Shelburne, blest with all that's good or great,
    T' adorn a rich or save a sinking State.

He added a letter saying that, as Lord North had not answered him, Lord
Shelburne would probably be glad to supply the needs of a starving
apothecary turned poet. Another copy of verses was enclosed, pointing
out that Shelburne's reputed liberality would be repaid in the usual

    Then shall my grateful strains his ear rejoice,
    His name harmonious thrilled on Mira's voice;
    Round the reviving bays new sweets shall spring,
    And Shelburne's fame through laughing valleys ring!

Nobody can blame North and Shelburne for not acting the part of Good
Samaritans. He, at least, may throw the first stone who has always taken
the trouble to sift the grain from the chaff amidst all the begging
letters which he has received, and who has never lamented that his
benevolence outran his discretion. But there was one man in England at
the time who had the rare union of qualities necessary for Crabbe's
purpose. Burke is a name never to be mentioned without reverence; not
only because Burke was incomparably the greatest of all English
political writers, and a standing refutation of the theory which couples
rhetorical excellence with intellectual emptiness, but also because he
was a man whose glowing hatred of all injustice and sympathy for all
suffering never evaporated in empty words. His fine literary perception
enabled him to detect the genuine excellence which underlay the
superficial triviality of Crabbe's verses. He discovered the genius
where men like North and Shelburne might excusably see nothing but the
mendicant versifier; and a benevolence still rarer than his critical
ability forbade him to satisfy his conscience by the sacrifice of a
five-pound note. When, by the one happy thought of his life, Crabbe
appealed to Burke's sympathy, the poet was desperately endeavouring to
get a poem through the press. But he owed fourteen pounds, and every
application to friends as poor as himself, and to patrons upon whom he
had no claims, had been unsuccessful. Nothing but ruin was before him.
After writing to Burke he spent the night in pacing Westminster Bridge.
The letter on which his fate hung is the more pathetic because it is
free from those questionable poetical flourishes which had failed to
conciliate his former patrons. It tells his story frankly and forcibly.
Burke, however, was not a rich man, and was at one of the most exciting
periods of his political career. His party was at last fighting its way
to power by means of the general resentment against the gross
mismanagement of their antagonists. A perfunctory discharge of the duty
of charity would have been pardonable; but from the moment when Crabbe
addressed Burke the poor man's fortune was made. Burke's glory rests
upon services of much more importance to the world at large than even
the preservation to the country of a man of genuine power. Yet there
are few actions on which he could reflect with more unalloyed
satisfaction; and the case is not a solitary one in Burke's history. A
political triumph may often be only hastened a year or two by the
efforts of even a great leader; but the salvage of a genius which would
otherwise have been hopelessly wrecked in the deep waters of poverty is
so much clear gain to mankind. One circumstance may be added as oddly
characteristic of Crabbe. He always spoke of his benefactor with
becoming gratitude: and many years afterwards Moore and Rogers thought
that they might extract some interesting anecdotes of the great author
from the now celebrated poet. Burke, as we know, was a man whom you
would discover to be remarkable if you stood with him for five minutes
under a haystack in a shower. Crabbe stayed in his house for months
under circumstances most calculated to be impressive. Burke was at the
height of his power and reputation; he was the first man of any
distinction whom the poet had ever seen; the two men had long and
intimate conversations, and Crabbe, it may be added, was a very keen
observer of character. And yet all that Rogers and Moore could extract
from him was a few 'vague generalities.' Moore suggests some
explanation; but the fact seems to be that Crabbe was one of those
simple, homespun characters, whose interests are strictly limited to
their own peculiar sphere. Burke, when he pleased, could talk of oxen as
well as politics, and doubtless adapted his conversation to the taste of
the young poet. Probably, much more was said about the state of Burke's
farm than about the prospects of the Whig party. Crabbe's powers of
vision were as limited as they were keen, and the great qualities to
which Burke owed his reputation could only exhibit themselves in a
sphere to which Crabbe never rose. His attempt to draw a likeness of
Burke under the name of 'Eugenius,' in the 'Borough,' is open to the
objection that it would be nearly as applicable to Wilberforce, Howard,
or Dr. Johnson. It is a mere complimentary daub, in which every
remarkable feature of the original is blurred or altogether omitted.

The inward Crabbe remained to the end of his days what nature and
education had already made him; the outward Crabbe, by the help of
Burke, rapidly put on a more prosperous appearance. His poems were
published and achieved success. He took orders and found patrons.
Thurlow gave him £100, and afterwards presented him to two small
livings, growling out with an oath that he was 'as like Parson Adams as
twelve to a dozen.' The Duke of Rutland appointed him chaplain, a
position in which he seems to have been singularly out of his element.
Further patronage, however, made him independent, and he married his
Mira and lived very happily ever afterwards. Perhaps, with his
old-fashioned ideas, he would not quite have satisfied some clerical
critics of the present day. His views about non-residence and
pluralities seem to have been lax for the time; and his hearty dislike
for dissent was coupled with a general dislike for enthusiasm of all
kinds. He liked to ramble about after flowers and fossils, and to hammer
away at his poems in a study where chaos reigned supreme. For twenty-two
years after his first success as an author, he never managed to get a
poem into a state fit for publication, though periodical conflagrations
of masses of manuscript--too vast to be burnt in the chimney--testified
to his continuous industry. His reappearance seems to have been caused
chiefly by his desire to send a son to the University. His success was
repeated, though a new school had arisen which knew not Pope. The youth
who had been kindly received by Burke, Reynolds, and Johnson, came back
from his country retreat to be lionised at Holland House, and be petted
by Brougham and Moore, and Rogers and Campbell, and all the rising
luminaries. He paid a visit to Scott contemporaneously with George IV.,
and pottered about the queer old wynds and closes of Edinburgh, which he
preferred to the New Town, and apparently to Arthur's Seat, with a
judicious _caddie_ following to keep him out of mischief. A more
tangible kind of homage was the receipt of £3,000 from Murray for his
'Tales of the Hall,' which so delighted him that he insisted on carrying
the bills loose in his pocket till he could show them 'to his son John'
in the country.[2] There, no doubt, he was most at home; and his
parishioners gradually became attached to their 'Parson Adams,' in spite
of his quaintnesses and some manful defiance of their prejudices. All
women and children loved him, and he died at a good old age in 1832,
having lived into a new order in many things, and been as little
affected by the change as most men. The words with which he concludes
the sketch of the Vicar in his 'Borough' are not inappropriate to

    Nor one so old has left this world of sin
    More like the being that he entered in.

The peculiar homeliness of Crabbe's character and poetry is excellently
hit off in the 'Rejected Addresses,' and the lines beginning

    John Richard William Alexander Dwyer
    Was footman to Justinian Stubbs, Esquire,

are probably more familiar to the present generation than any of the
originals. 'Pope in the worsted stockings' is the title hit off for him
by Horace Smith, and has about the same degree of truth as most smart
sayings of the kind. The 'worsted stockings' at least are
characteristic. Crabbe's son and biographer indicates some of the
surroundings of his father's early life in a description of the uncle, a
Mr. Tovell, with whom the poet's wife, the Mira of his Journal, passed
her youth. He was a sturdy yeoman, living in an old house with a moat, a
rookery, and fishponds. The hall was paved with black and white marble,
and the staircase was of black oak, slippery as ice, with a chiming
clock and a barrel-organ on the landing-places. The handsome
drawing-room and dining-rooms were only used on grand occasions, such as
the visit of a neighbouring peer. Mrs. Tovell jealously reserved for
herself the duty of scrubbing these state apartments, and sent any
servant to the right-about who dared to lay unhallowed hands upon them.
The family sat habitually in the old-fashioned kitchen, by a huge open
chimney, where the blaze of a whole pollard sometimes eclipsed the
feeble glimmer of the single candle in an iron candlestick, intended to
illuminate Mrs. Tovell's labours with the needle. Masters and servants,
with any travelling tinker or ratcatcher, all dined together, and the
nature of their meals has been described by Crabbe himself:--

    But when the men beside their station took,
    The maidens with them, and with these the cook;
    When one huge wooden bowl before them stood,
    Filled with huge balls of farinaceous food;
    With bacon, mass saline, where never lean
    Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen;
    When from a single horn the party drew
    Their copious draughts of heavy ale and new;

then, the poet goes on to intimate, squeamish persons might feel a
little uncomfortable. After dinner followed a nap of precisely one hour.
Then bottles appeared on the table, and neighbouring farmers, with faces
rosy with brandy, drifted in for a chat. One of these heroes never went
to bed sober, but scandalised all teetotallers by retaining all his
powers and coursing after he was ninety. Bowl after bowl of punch was
emptied, and the conversation took so convivial a character that Crabbe
generally found it expedient to withdraw, though his son, who records
these performances, was held to be too young to be injured, and the
servants were too familiar for their presence to be a restraint.

It was in this household that the poet found his Mira. Crabbe's own
father was apparently at a lower point of the social scale; and during
his later years took to drinking and to flinging dishes about the room
whenever he was out of temper. Crabbe always drew from the life; most of
his characters might have joined in his father's drinking bouts, or told
stories over Mr. Tovell's punchbowls. Doubtless a social order of the
same kind survived till a later period in various corners of the island.
The Tovells of to-day get their fashions from London, and their
labourers, instead of dining with them in their kitchen, have taken to
forming unions and making speeches about their rights. If, here and
there, in some remote nooks we find an approximation to the coarse,
hearty patriarchal mode of life, we regard it as a naturalist regards a
puny modern reptile, the representative of gigantic lizards of old
geological epochs. A sketch or two of its peculiarities, sufficiently
softened and idealised to suit modern tastes, forms a picturesque
background to a modern picture. Some of Miss Brontë's rough
Yorkshiremen would have drunk punch with Mr. Tovell; and the farmers in
the 'Mill on the Floss' are representatives of the same race, slightly
degenerate, in so far as they are just conscious that a new cause of
disturbance is setting into the quiet rural districts. Dandie Dinmont
again is a relation of Crabbe's heroes, though the fresh air of the
Cheviots and the stirring traditions of the old border life have
conferred upon him a more poetical colouring. To get a realistic picture
of country life as Crabbe saw it, we must go back to Squire Western, or
to some of the roughly-hewn masses of flesh who sat to Hogarth. Perhaps
it may be said that Miss Austen's delicate portrait of the more polished
society, which took the waters at Bath, and occasionally paid a visit to
London, implies a background of coarser manners and more brutal
passions, which lay outside her peculiar province. The question
naturally occurs to social philosophers, whether the improvement in the
external decencies of life and the wider intellectual horizon of modern
days prove a genuine advance over the rude and homely plenty of an
earlier generation. I refer to such problems only to remark that Crabbe
must be consulted by those who wish to look upon the seamy side of the
time which he describes. He very soon dropped his nymphs and shepherds,
and ceased to invoke the idyllic muse. In his long portrait gallery
there are plenty of virtuous people, and some people intended to be
refined; but features indicative of coarse animal passions, brutality,
selfishness, and sensuality are drawn to the life, and the development
of his stories is generally determined by some of the baser elements of
human nature. 'Jesse and Colin' are described in one of the Tales; but
they are not the Jesse and Colin of Dresden china. They are such rustics
as ate fat bacon and drank 'heavy ale and new;' not the imaginary
personages who exchanged amatory civilities in the old-fashioned
pastorals ridiculed by Pope and Gay.

Crabbe's rough style is indicative of his general temper. It is in
places at least the most slovenly and slipshod that was ever adopted by
any true poet. The authors of the 'Rejected Addresses' had simply to
copy, without attempting the impossible task of caricaturing. One of
their familiar couplets, for example, runs thus:--

    Emmanuel Jennings brought his youngest boy
    Up as a corn-cutter, a safe employ!

And here is the original Crabbe:--

    Swallow, a poor attorney, brought his boy
    Up at his desk, and gave him his employ.

When boy cannot be made to rhyme with employ, Crabbe is very fond of
dragging in a hoy. In the 'Parish Register' he introduces a narrative
about a village grocer and his friend in these lines:--

    Aged were both, that Dawkins, Ditchem this,
    Who much of marriage thought and much amiss.

Or to quote one more opening of a story:--

    Counter and Clubb were men in trade, whose pains,
    Credit, and prudence, brought them constant gains;
    Partners and punctual, every friend agreed
    Counter and Clubb were men who must succeed.

But of such gems anyone may gather as many as he pleases by simply
turning over Crabbe's pages. In one sense, they are rather pleasant than
otherwise. They are so characteristic and put forward with such absolute
simplicity that they have the same effect as a good old provincialism in
the mouth of a genuine countryman. It must, however, be admitted that
Crabbe's careful study of Pope had not initiated him in some of his
master's secrets. The worsted stockings were uncommonly thick. If Pope's
brilliance of style savours too much of affectation, Crabbe never
manages to hit off an epigram in the whole of his poetry. The language
seldom soars above the style which would be intelligible to the merest
clodhopper; and we can understand how, when in his later years Crabbe
was introduced to wits and men of the world, he generally held his
peace, or, at most, let fall some bit of dry quiet humour. At rare
intervals he remembers that a poet ought to indulge in a figure of
speech, and laboriously compounds a simile which appears in his poetry
like a bit of gold lace on a farmer's homespun coat. He confessed as
much in answer to a shrewd criticism of Jeffrey's, saying that he
generally thought of such illustrations and inserted them after he had
finished his tale. Here is one of these deliberately-concocted
ornaments, intended to explain the remark that the difference between
the character of two brothers came out when they were living together

    As various colours in a painted ball,
    While it has rest are seen distinctly all;
    Till, whirl'd around by some exterior force,
    They all are blended in the rapid course;
    So in repose and not by passion swayed
    We saw the difference by their habits made;
    But, tried by strong emotions, they became
    Filled with one love, and were in heart the same.

The conceit is ingenious enough in one sense, but painfully ingenious.
It requires some thought to catch the likeness suggested, and then it
turns out to be purely superficial. The resemblance of such a writer to
Pope obviously does not go deep. Crabbe imitates Pope because everybody
imitated him at that day. He adopted Pope's metre because it had come to
be almost the only recognised means of poetical expression. He stuck to
it after his contemporaries had introduced new versification, partly
because he was old-fashioned to the backbone and partly because he had
none of those lofty inspirations which naturally generate new forms of
melody. He seldom trusts himself to be lyrical, and when he does his
versification is nearly as monotonous as it is in his narrative poetry.
We must not expect to soar with Crabbe into any of the loftier regions;
to see the world 'apparelled in celestial light,' or to descry

    Such forms as glitter in the muses' ray,
    With orient hues, unborrowed of the sun.

We shall find no vehement outbursts of passion, breaking loose from the
fetters of sacred convention. Crabbe is perfectly content with the
British Constitution, with the Thirty-nine Articles, and all
respectabilities in Church and State, and therefore he is quite content
also with the good old jogtrot of the recognised metres; his language,
halting invariably, and for the most part clumsy enough, is sufficiently
differentiated from prose by the mould into which it is run, and he
never wants to kick over the traces with his more excitable

                The good old rule
    Sufficeth him, the simple plan

that each verse should consist of ten syllables, with an occasional
Alexandrine to accommodate a refractory epithet, and should rhyme
peaceably with its neighbour.

From all which it may be too harshly inferred that Crabbe is merely a
writer in rhyming prose, and deserving of no attention from the more
enlightened adherents of a later school. The inference, I say, would be
hasty, for it is impossible to read Crabbe patiently without receiving a
very distinct and original impression. If some pedants of æsthetic
philosophy should declare that we ought not to be impressed because
Crabbe breaks all their rules, we can only reply they are mistaking
their trade. The true business of the critic is to discover from
observation what are the conditions under which a book appeals to our
sympathies, and, if he finds an apparent exception to his rules, to
admit that he has made an oversight, and not to condemn the facts which
persist in contradicting his theories. It may, indeed, be freely granted
that Crabbe has suffered seriously by his slovenly methods and his
insensibility to the more exquisite and ethereal forms of poetical
excellence. But however he may be classified, he possesses the essential
mark of genius, namely, that his pictures, however coarse the
workmanship, stamp themselves on our minds indelibly and
instantaneously. His pathos is here and there clumsy, but it goes
straight to the mark. His characteristic qualities were first distinctly
shown in the 'Village,' which was partly composed under Burke's eye, and
was more or less touched by Johnson. It was, indeed, a work after
Johnson's own heart, intended to be a pendant, or perhaps a corrective,
to Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village.' It is meant to give the bare blank
facts of rural life, stripped of all sentimental gloss. To read the two
is something like hearing a speech from an optimist landlord and then
listening to the comments of Mr. Arch. Goldsmith, indeed, was far too
exquisite an artist to indulge in mere conventionalities about
agricultural bliss. If his 'Auburn' is rather idealised, the most
prosaic of critics cannot object to the glow thrown by the memory of the
poet over the scene of now ruined happiness, and, moreover, Goldsmith's
delicate humour guards him instinctively from laying on his rose-colour
too thickly. Crabbe, however, will have nothing to do with rose-colour,
thick or thin. There is one explicit reference in the poem to his
predecessor's work, and it is significant. Everybody remembers, or ought
to remember, Goldsmith's charming pastor, to whom it can only be
objected that he has not the fear of political economists before his
eyes. This is Crabbe's retort after describing a dying pauper in need of
spiritual consolation:--

    And does not he, the pious man, appear,
    He, 'passing rich with forty pounds a year?'
    Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock,
    And far unlike him, feeds this little flock:
    A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday's task
    As much as God or man can fairly ask;
    The rest he gives to loves and labours light,
    To fields the morning, and to feasts the night.
    None better skilled the noisy pack to guide,
    To urge their chase, to cheer them, or to chide;
    A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
    And, skilled at whist, devotes the night to play.

This fox-hunting parson (of whom Cowper has described a duplicate) lets
the pauper die as he pleases; and afterwards allows him to be buried
without attending, performing the funerals, it seems, in a lump upon
Sundays. Crabbe admits in a note that such negligence was uncommon, but
adds that it is not unknown. The flock is, on the whole, worthy of the
shepherd. The old village sports have died out in favour of smuggling
and wrecking. The poor are not, as rich men fancy, healthy and well fed.
Their work makes them premature victims to ague and rheumatism; their
food is

    Homely, not wholesome, plain, not plenteous, such
    As you who praise would never deign to touch.

The ultimate fate of the worn-out labourer is the poorhouse, described
in lines of which it is enough to say that Scott and Wordsworth learnt
them by heart, and the melancholy deathbed already noticed. Are we
reading a poem or a Blue Book done into rhyme? may possibly be the
question of some readers. The answer should perhaps be that a good many
Blue Books contain an essence which only requires to be properly
extracted and refined to become genuine poetry. If Crabbe's verses
retain rather too much of the earthly elements, he is capable of
transmuting his minerals into genuine gold, as well as of simply
collecting them. Nothing, for example, is more characteristic than the
mode in which the occasional descriptions of nature are harmoniously
blended with the human life in his poetry. Crabbe is an ardent lover of
a certain type of scenery, to which justice has not often been done. We
are told how, after a long absence from Suffolk, he rode sixty miles
from his house to have a dip in the sea. Some of his poems appear to be
positively impregnated with a briny, or rather perhaps a tarry, odour.
The sea which he loved was by no means a Byronic sea. It has no grandeur
of storm, and still less has it the Mediterranean blue. It is the
sluggish muddy element which washes the flat shores of his beloved
Suffolk. He likes even the shelving beach, with fishermen's boats and
decaying nets and remnants of stale fish. He loves the dreary estuary,
where the slow tide sways backwards and forwards, and whence

    High o'er the restless deep, above the reach
    Of gunner's hope, vast flocks of wildfowl stretch.

The coming generation of poets took to the mountains; but Crabbe
remained faithful to the dismal and yet, in his hands, the impressive
scenery of his native salt-marshes. His method of description suits the
country. His verses never become melodramatic, nor does he ever seem to
invest nature with the mystic life of Wordsworth's poetry. He gives the
plain prosaic facts which impress us because they are in such perfect
harmony with the sentiment. Here, for example, is a fragment from the
'Village,' which is simply a description of the neighbourhood of

    Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,
    Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor;
    From thence a length of burning sand appears,
    Where the thin harvest waves its withered ears;
    Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
    Reign o'er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
    There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
    And to the ragged infant threaten war;
    There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil;
    There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
    Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
    The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf;
    O'er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
    And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

The writer is too obviously a botanist; but the picture always remains
with us as the only conceivable background for the poverty-stricken
population whom he is about to describe. The actors in the 'Borough' are
presented to us in a similar setting; and it may be well to put a
sea-piece beside this bit of barren common. Crabbe's range of
descriptive power is pretty well confined within the limits so defined.
He is scarcely at home beyond the tide-marks:--

    Be it the summer noon; a sandy space
    The ebbing tide has left upon its place;
    Then just the hot and stony beach above,
    Light twinkling streams in bright confusion move;

           *       *       *       *       *

    There the broad bosom of the ocean keeps
    An equal motion; swelling as it sleeps,
    Then slowly sinking; curling to the strand,
    Faint lazy waves o'ercreep the ridgy sand,
    Or tap the tarry boat with gentle blow,
    And back return in silence, smooth and slow.
    Ships in the calm seem anchored: for they glide
    On the still sea, urged slowly by the tide:
    Art thou not present, this calm scene before
    Where all beside is pebbly length of shore,
    And far as eye can reach, it can discern no more?

I have omitted a couplet which verges on the scientific; for Crabbe is
unpleasantly anxious to leave nothing unexplained. The effect is, in its
way, perfect. Anyone who pleases may compare it with Wordsworth's calm
in the verses upon Peele Castle, where the sentiment is given without
the minute statement of facts, and where, too, we have the inevitable
quotation about the 'light that never was on sea or land,' and is pretty
nearly as rare in Crabbe's poetry. What he sees we can all see, though
not so intensely, and his art consists in selecting the precise elements
that tell most forcibly towards bringing us into the required frame of
mind. To enjoy Crabbe fully, we ought perhaps to be acclimatised on the
coast of the Eastern Counties; we should become sensitive to the
plaintive music of the scenery, which is now generally drowned by the
discordant sounds of modern watering-places, and would seem insipid to a
generation which values excitement in scenery as in fiction. Readers,
who measure the beauty of a district by its average height above the
sea-level, and who cannot appreciate the charm of a 'waste enormous
marsh,' may find Crabbe uncongenial.

The human character is determined, as Mr. Buckle and other philosophers
have assured us, by the climate and the soil. A little ingenuity, such
as those philosophers display in accommodating facts to theory, might
discover a parallel between the type of Crabbe's personages and the
fauna and flora of his native district. Declining a task which might
lead to fanciful conclusions, I may assume that the East Anglian
character is sufficiently familiar, whatever the causes by which it has
been determined. To define Crabbe's poetry we have simply to imagine
ourselves listening to the stories of his parishioners, told by a
clergyman brought up amongst the lower rank of the middle classes,
scarcely elevated above their prejudices, and not willingly leaving
their circle of ideas. We must endow him with that simplicity of
character which gives us frequent cause to smile at its proprietor, but
which does not disqualify him from seeing a great deal further into his
neighbours than they are apt to give him credit for doing. Such insight,
in fact, is due not to any great subtlety of intellect, but to the
possession of deep feeling and sympathy. Crabbe saw little more of Burke
than would have been visible to an ordinary Suffolk farmer. When
transplanted to a ducal mansion, he only drew the pretty obvious
inference, embodied in a vigorous poem, that a patron is a very
disagreeable and at times a very mischievous personage. The joys and
griefs which really interest him are of the very tangible and solid kind
which affect men and women to whom the struggle for existence is a stern
reality. Here and there his good-humoured but rather clumsy ridicule may
strike some lady to whom some demon has whispered 'have a taste;' and
who turns up her nose at the fat bacon on Mr. Tovell's table. He pities
her squeamishness, but thinks it rather unreasonable. He satirises too
the heads of the rustic aristocracy; the brutal squire who bullies his
nephew the clergyman for preaching against his vices, and corrupts the
whole neighbourhood; or the speculative banker who cheats old maids
under pretence of looking after their investments. If the squire does
not generally appear in Crabbe in the familiar dramatic character of a
rural Lovelace, it is chiefly because Crabbe has no great belief in the
general purity of the inferior ranks of rural life. But his most
powerful stories deal with the tragedies--only too life-like--of the
shop and the farm. He describes the temptations which lead the small
tradesman to adulterate his goods, or the parish clerk to embezzle the
money subscribed in the village church, and the evil influence of
dissenting families in fostering a spiritual pride which leads to more
unctuous hypocrisy; for, though he says of the wicked squire that

    His worship ever was a Churchman true,
    And held in scorn the Methodistic crew,

the scorn is only objectionable to him in so far as it is a cynical
cloak for scorn of good morals. He tells how boys run away to sea, or
join strolling players, and have in consequence to beg their bread at
the end of their days. The almshouse or the county gaol is the natural
end of his villains, and he paints to the life the evil courses which
generally lead to such a climax. Nobody describes better the process of
going to the dogs. And most of all, he sympathises with the village
maiden who has listened too easily to the voice of the charmer, in the
shape of a gay sailor or a smart London footman, and has to reap the
bitter consequences of her too easy faith. Most of his stories might be
paralleled by the experience of any country clergyman who has entered
into the life of his parishioners. They are as commonplace and as
pathetic as the things which are happening round us every day, and which
fill a neglected paragraph in a country newspaper. The treatment varies
from the purely humorous to the most deep and genuine pathos; though it
never takes us into the regions of the loftier imagination.

The more humorous of these performances may be briefly dismissed. Crabbe
possesses the faculty, but not in any eminent degree; his hand is a
little heavy, and one must remember that Mr. Tovell and his like were of
the race who require to have a joke driven into their heads with a
sledge-hammer. Once or twice we come upon a sketch which may help to
explain Miss Austen's admiration. There is an old maid devoted to Mira,
and rejoicing in stuffed puppies and parrots, who might have been
ridiculed by Emma Woodhouse, and a parson who would have suited the
Eltons admirably:--

    Fiddling and fishing were his arts; at times
    He altered sermons and he aimed at rhymes;
    And his fair friends, not yet intent on cards,
    Oft he amused with riddles and charades.

Such sketches are a pleasant relief to his more sombre portraiture; but
it is in the tragic elements that his true power comes out. The motives
of his stories may be trivial, but never the sentiment. The deep manly
emotion makes us forget not only the frequent clumsiness of his style
but the pettiness of the incident, and what is more difficult, the
rather bread-and-butter tone of morality. If he is a little too fond of
bringing his villains to the gallows, he is preoccupied less by the
external consequences than by the natural working of evil passions. With
him sin is not punished by being found out, but by disintegrating the
character and blunting the higher sensibilities. He shows--and the
moral, if not new, is that which possesses the really intellectual
interest--how evil-doers are tortured by the cravings of desires that
cannot be satisfied, and the lacerations inflicted by ruined
self-respect. And therefore there is a truth in Crabbe's delineations
which is quite independent of his more or less rigid administration of
poetical justice. His critics used to accuse him of having a low opinion
of human nature. It is quite true that he assigns to selfishness and
brutal passion a very large part in carrying on the machinery of the
world. Some readers may infer that he was unlucky in his experience, and
others that he loved facts too unflinchingly. His stories sometimes
remind one of Balzac's in the descriptions of selfishness triumphant
over virtue. One, for example, of his deeply pathetic poems is called
'The Brothers;' and repeats the old contrast given in Fielding's Tom
Jones and Blifil. The shrewd sly hypocrite has received all manner of
kindnesses from the generous and simple sailor, and when, at last, the
poor sailor is ruined in health and fortune, he comes home expecting to
be supported by the gratitude of the brother, who has by this time made
money and is living at his ease. Nothing can be more pathetic or more in
the spirit of some of Balzac's stories than the way in which the rich
man receives his former benefactor; his faint recognition of fraternal
feelings gradually cools down under the influence of a selfish wife;
till at last the poor old sailor is driven from the parlour to the
kitchen, and from the kitchen to the loft, and finally deprived of his
only comfort, his intercourse with a young nephew not yet broken into
hardness of heart, on the plea that the lad is not to be corrupted by
the coarse language of his poor old uncle. The rich brother suspects
that the sailor has broken this rule, and is reviling him for his
ingratitude, when suddenly he discovers that he is abusing a corpse.
The old sailor's heart is broken at last; and his brother repents too
late. He tries to comfort his remorse by cross-examining the boy, who
was the cause of the last quarrel:--

    'Did he not curse me, child?' 'He never cursed,
    But could not breathe, and said his heart would burst.'
    'And so will mine'----'But, father, you must pray;
    My uncle said it took his pains away.'

Praying, however, cannot bring back the dead; and the fratricide, for
such he feels himself to be, is a melancholy man to the end of his days.
In Balzac's hands repentance would have had no place, and selfishness
have been finally triumphant and unabashed. We need not ask which would
be the most effective or the truest treatment; though I must put in a
word for the superior healthiness of Crabbe's mind. There is nothing
morbid about him. Still it would be absurd to push such a comparison
far. Crabbe's portraits are only spirited vignettes compared with the
elaborate full-lengths drawn by the intense imagination of the French
novelist; and Crabbe's whole range of thought is incomparably narrower.
The two writers have a real resemblance only in so far as in each case a
powerful accumulation of life-like details enables them to produce a
pathos, powerful by its vivid reality.

The singular power of Crabbe is in some sense more conspicuous in the
stories where the incidents are almost audaciously trifling. One of them
begins with this not very impressive and very ungrammatical couplet:--

    With our late Vicar, and his age the same,
    His clerk, hight Jachin, to his office came.

Jachin is a man of oppressive respectability; so oppressive, indeed,
that some of the scamps of the borough try to get him into scrapes by
temptations of a very inartificial kind, which he is strong enough to
resist. At last, however, it occurs to Jachin that he can easily
embezzle part of the usual monthly offerings while saving his character
in his own eyes by some obvious sophistry. He is detected and dismissed,
and dies after coming upon the parish. These materials for a tragic poem
are not very promising; and I do not mean to say that the sorrows of
poor Jachin affect us as deeply as those of Gretchen or Desdemona. The
parish clerk is perhaps a fit type of all that was least poetical in the
old social order of the country, and virtue which succumbs to the
temptation of taking two shillings out of a plate scarcely wants a
Mephistopheles to overcome it. We may perhaps think that the apologetic
note which the excellent Crabbe inserts at the end of his poem, to the
effect that he did not mean by it to represent mankind as 'puppets of an
overpowering destiny,' or 'to deny the doctrine of seducing spirits,' is
a little superfluous. The fact that a parish-clerk has taken to petty
pilfering can scarcely justify those heterodox conclusions. But when we
have smiled at Crabbe's philosophy, we begin to wonder at the force of
his sentiment. A blighted human soul is a pathetic object, however
paltry the temptation to which it has succumbed. Jachin has the dignity
of despair, though he is not quite a fallen archangel; and Crabbe's
favourite scenery harmonises with his agony.

    In each lone place, dejected and dismayed,
    Shrinking from view, his wasting form he laid,
    Or to the restless sea and roaring wind
    Gave the strong yearnings of a ruined mind;
    On the broad beach, the silent summer day,
    Stretched on some wreck, he wore his life away;
    Or where the river mingles with the sea,
    Or on the mud-bank by the elder tree,
    Or by the bounding marsh-dyke, there was he.

Nor would he have been a more pitiable object if he had betrayed a
nation or sold his soul for a Garter instead of the pillage of a
subscription plate. Poor old Jachin's story may seem to be borrowed from
a commonplace tract; but the detected pilferer, though he has only lost
the respect of the parson, the overseer, and the beadle, touches us as
deeply as the Byronic hero who has fallen out with the whole system of
the world.

If we refuse to sympathise with the pang due to so petty a
catastrophe--though our sympathy should surely be proportioned to the
keenness of the suffering rather than the absolute height of the
fall--we may turn to tragedy of a deeper dye. Peter Grimes, as his name
indicates, was a ruffian from his infancy. He once knocked down his poor
old father, who warned him of the consequences of his brutality:--

    On an inn-settle, in his maudlin grief,
    This he revolved, and drank for his relief.

Adopting such a remedy, he sank from bad to worse, and gradually became
a thief, a smuggler, and a social outlaw. In those days, however, as is
proved by the history of Mrs. Brownrigg, parish authorities practised
the 'boarding-out system' after a reckless fashion. Peter was allowed to
take two or three apprentices in succession, whom he bullied, starved,
and maltreated, and who finally died under suspicious circumstances. The
last was found dead in Peter's fishing-boat after a rough voyage: and
though nothing could be proved, the Mayor told him that he should have
no more slaves to belabour. Peter, pursuing his trade in solitude,
gradually became morbid and depressed. The melancholy estuary became
haunted by ghostly visions. He had to groan and sweat with no vent for
his passion:--

    Thus by himself compelled to live each day,
    To wait for certain hours the tide's delay;
    At the same time the same dull views to see,
    The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree;
    The water only, when the tides were high,
    When low, the mud half-covered and half-dry;
    The sun-burnt tar that blisters on the planks,
    And bank-side stakes in their uneven ranks;
    Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
    As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.

Peter grew more sullen, and the scenery became more weird and
depressing. The few who watched him remarked that there were three
places where Peter seemed to be more than usually moved. For a time he
hurried past them, whistling as he rowed; but gradually he seemed to be
fascinated. The idle loungers in the summer saw a man and boat lingering
in the tideway, apparently watching the gliding waves without casting a
net or looking at the wildfowl. At last his delirium becoming stronger,
he is carried to the poorhouse, and tells his story to the clergyman.
Nobody has painted with greater vigour that kind of externalised
conscience which may still survive in a brutalised mind. Peter Grimes,
of course, sees his victims' spirits and hates them. He fancies that his
father torments him out of spite, characteristically forgetting that the
ghost had some excuse for his anger:--

    'Twas one hot noon, all silent, still, serene,
    No living being had I lately seen;
    I paddled up and down and dipped my net,
    But (such his pleasure) I could nothing get--
    A father's pleasure, when his toil was done,
    To plague and torture thus an only son!
    And so I sat and looked upon the stream,
    How it ran on, and felt as in a dream;
    But dream it was not; no!--I fixed my eyes
    On the mid stream and saw the spirits rise;
    I saw my father on the water stand,
    And hold a thin pale boy in either hand;
    And there they glided ghastly on the top
    Of the salt flood, and never touched a drop;
    I would have struck them, but they knew the intent,
    And smiled upon the oar, and down they went.

Remorse in Peter's mind takes the shape of bitter hatred for his
victims; and with another characteristic confusion, he partly attributes
his sufferings to some evil influence intrinsic in the locality:--

    There were three places, where they ever rose--
    The whole long river has not such as those--
    Places accursed, where, if a man remain,
    He'll see the things which strike him to the brain.

And then the malevolent ghosts forced poor Peter to lean on his oars,
and showed him visions of coming horrors. Grimes dies impenitent, and
fancying that his tormentors are about to seize him. Of all haunted men
in fiction, it is not easy to think of a case where the horror is more
terribly realised. The blood-boulter'd Banquo tortured a noble victim,
but scarcely tortured him more effectually. Peter Grimes was doubtless a
close relation of Peter Bell. Bell having the advantage of Wordsworth's
interpretation, leads us to many thoughts which lie altogether beyond
Crabbe's reach; but, looking simply at the sheer tragic force of the two
characters, Grimes is to Bell what brandy is to small beer. He would
never have shown the white feather like his successor, who,

    After ten months' melancholy,
    Became a good and honest man.

If, in some sense, Peter Grimes is the most effective of Crabbe's
heroes, he would, if taken alone, give a very distorted impression of
the general spirit of the poetry. It is only at intervals that he
introduces us to downright criminals. There is, indeed, a description of
a convicted felon, which, according to Macaulay, has made 'many a rough
and cynical reader cry like a child,' and which, if space were
unlimited, would make a striking pendant to the agony of the burdened
Grimes. But, as a rule, Crabbe can find motives enough for tenderness in
sufferings which have nothing to do with the criminal law, and of which
the mere framework of the story is often interesting enough. His
peculiar power is best displayed in so presenting to us the sorrows of
commonplace characters as to make us feel that a shabby coat and a
narrow education, and the most unromantic of characters, need not cut
off our sympathies with a fellow-creature; and that the dullest
tradesman who treads on our toes in an omnibus may want only a power of
articulate expression to bring before us some of the deepest of all
problems. The parish clerk and the grocer--or whatever may be the
proverbial epitome of human dulness--may swell the chorus of lamentation
over the barrenness and the hardships and the wasted energies and the
harsh discords of life which is always 'steaming up' from the world, and
to which it is one, though perhaps not the highest, of the poet's
functions to make us duly sensible. Crabbe, like all realistic writers,
must be studied at full length, and therefore quotations are necessarily
unjust. It will be sufficient if I refer--pretty much at random--to the
short story of 'Phoebe Dawson' in the 'Parish Register,' to the more
elaborate stories of 'Edward Shore' and the 'Parting Hour' in the
'Tales,' or to the story of 'Ruth' in the 'Tales of the Hall,' where
again the dreary pathos is strangely heightened by Crabbe's favourite
seaport scenery, to prove that he might be called as truly as Goldsmith
_affectuum potens_, though scarcely _lenis, dominator_.

It is time, however, to conclude with a word or two as to Crabbe's
peculiar place in the history of English literature. I said that, unlike
his contemporaries, Cowper and Burns, he adhered rigidly to the form of
the earlier eighteenth-century school, and partly for this reason
excited the wayward admiration of Byron, who always chose to abuse the
bridge which carried him to fame. But Crabbe's clumsiness of expression
makes him a very inadequate successor of Pope or of Goldsmith, and his
claims are really founded on the qualities which led Byron to call him
'nature's sternest painter, yet her best.' On this side he is connected
with some tendencies of the school which supplanted his early models. So
far as Wordsworth and his followers represented the reaction from the
artificial to a love of unsophisticated nature, Crabbe is entirely at
one with them. He did not share that unlucky taste for the namby-pamby
by which Wordsworth annoyed his contemporaries, and spoilt some of his
earlier poems. Its place was filled in Crabbe's mind by an even more
unfortunate disposition for the simply humdrum and commonplace, which,
it must be confessed, makes it almost as hard to read a good many of his
verses as to consume large quantities of suet pudding, and has probably
destroyed his popularity with the present generation. Still, Crabbe's
influence was powerful as against the old conventionality. He did not,
like his predecessors, write upon the topics which interested 'persons
of quality,' and never gives us the impression of having composed his
rhymes in a full-bottomed wig or even in a Grub Street garret. He has
gone out into country fields and village lanes, and paints directly from
man and nature, with almost a cynical disregard of the accepted code of
propriety. But the points on which he parts company with his more
distinguished contemporaries is equally obvious. Mr. Stopford Brooke has
lately been telling us with great eloquence what is the theology which
underlies the poetical tendencies of the last generation of poets. Of
that creed, a sufficiently vague one, it must be admitted, Crabbe was by
no means an apostle. Rather one would say he was as indifferent as a
good old-fashioned clergyman could very well be to the existence of any
new order of ideas in the world. The infidels, whom he sometimes
attacks, read Bolingbroke, and Chubb, and Mandeville, and have only
heard by report even of the existence of Voltaire. The Dissenters, whom
he so heartily detests, have listened to Whitefield and Wesley, or
perhaps to Huntington, S.S.--that is, as it may now be necessary to
explain, Sinner Saved. Every newer development of thought was still far
away from the quiet pews of Aldborough, and the only form of Church
restoration of which he has heard is the objectionable practice of
painting a new wall to represent a growth of lichens. Crabbe appreciates
the charm of the picturesque, but has never yet heard of our elaborate
methods of creating modern antiques. Lapped in such ignorance, and with
a mind little given to speculation, it is only in character that Crabbe
should be totally insensible to the various moods of thought represented
by Wordsworth's pantheistic conceptions of nature, or by Shelley's
dreamy idealism, or Byron's fierce revolutionary impulses. Still less,
if possible, could he sympathise with that love of beauty, pure and
simple, of which Keats was the first prophet. He might, indeed, be
briefly described by saying that he is at the very opposite pole from
Keats. The more bigoted admirers of Keats--for there are bigots in
matters of taste or poetry as well as in science or theology or
politics--would refuse the title of poet to Crabbe altogether on the
strength of the absence of this element from his verses. Like his most
obvious parallels in painting, he is too fond of boors and pothouses to
be allowed the quality of artistic perception. I will not argue the
point, which is, perhaps, rather a question of classification than of
intrinsic merit; but I will venture to suggest a test which will, I
think, give Crabbe a very firm, though, it may be, not a very lofty
place. Though I should be unwilling to be reckoned as one of Macaulay's
'rough and cynical readers,' I admit that I can read the story of the
convicted felon, or of Peter Grimes, without indulging in downright
blubbering. Most readers, I fear, can in these days get through pathetic
poems and novels without absolutely using their pocket-handkerchiefs.
But though Crabbe may not prompt such outward and visible signs of
emotion, I think that he produces a more distinct tendency to tears than
almost any poet of his time. True, he does not appeal to emotions,
accessible only through the finer intellectual perceptions, or to the
thoughts which 'lie too deep for tears.' That prerogative belongs to men
of more intense character, greater philosophical power, and more
delicate instincts. But the power of touching readers by downright
pictures of homespun griefs and sufferings is one which, to my mind,
implies some poetical capacity, and which clearly belongs to Crabbe.


[2] It seems, one is sorry to add, that Murray made a very bad bargain
in this case.


There are few great books or great men that do not sadden us by a sense
of incompleteness. The writer, we feel, is better than his work. His
full power only reveals itself by flashes. There are blemishes in his
design, due to mere oversight or indolence; his energy has flagged, or
he has alloyed his pure gold to please the mob; or some burst of wayward
passion has disturbed the fair proportions of his work, and the man
himself is a half-finished or half-ruined fragment. The rough usage of
the world leaves its mark on the spiritual constitution of even the
strongest and best amongst us; and perhaps the finest natures suffer
more than others in virtue of their finer sympathies. 'Hamlet' is a
pretty good performance, if we make allowances; but what would it have
been if Shakespeare could have been at his highest level all through,
and if every element of strength in him had been purified from every
weakness? What would it have been, shall we say, if he could have had
the advantage of reading a few modern lectures on æsthetics? We may,
perhaps, be content with Shakespeare as circumstances left him; but in
reading our modern poets, the sentiment of regret is stronger. If Byron
had not been driven into his wild revolt against the world; if Shelley
had been judiciously treated from his youth; if Keats had had healthier
lungs; if Wordsworth had not grown rusty in his solitude; if Scott had
not been tempted into publisher's speculations; if Coleridge had never
taken to opium--what great poems might not have opened the new era of
literature, where now we have but incomplete designs, and listen to
harmonies half destroyed by internal discord? The regret, however, is
less when a man has succeeded in uttering the thought that was in him,
though it may never have found a worthy expression. Wordsworth could
have told us little more, though the 'Excursion' had been as complete a
work as 'Paradise Lost;' and if Scott might have written more
'Waverleys' and 'Antiquaries' and 'Old Mortalities,' he could hardly
have written better ones. But the works of some other writers suggest
possibilities which never even approached fulfilment. If the opinion
formed by his contemporaries of Coleridge be anywhere near the truth, we
lost in him a potential philosopher of a very high order, as we more
clearly lost a poet of singular fascination. Coleridge naturally
suggests the name of De Quincey, whose works are as often tantalising as
satisfying. And to make, it is true, a considerable drop from the
greatest of these names, we often feel when we take up one of Hazlitt's
glowing Essays, that here, too, was a man who might have made a far more
enduring mark as a writer of English prose. At their best, his writings
are admirable; they have the true stamp; the thought is masculine and
the expression masterly; phrases engrave themselves on the memory; and
we catch glimpses of a genuine thinker and no mere manufacturer of
literary commonplace. On a more prolonged study, it is true, we become
conscious of many shortcomings, and the general effect is somehow rather
cloying, though hardly from an excess of sweetness. And yet he deserves
the study both of the critic and the student of character.

The story of Hazlitt's life has been told by his grandson; but there is
a rather curious defect of materials for so recent a biography. He kept,
it seems, no letters,--a weakness, if it be a weakness, for which one is
rather apt to applaud him in these days: but, on the other hand, nobody
ever indulged more persistently in the habit of washing his dirty linen
in public. Not even his idol Rousseau could be more demonstrative of his
feelings and recollections. His Essays are autobiographical, sometimes
even offensively; and after reading them we are even more familiar than
his contemporaries with many points of his character. He loved to pour
himself out in his Essays

                              as plain
    As downright Shippen or as old Montaigne.

He has laid bare for the most careless reader the main elements of his
singular composition. Like some others of his revolutionary friends,
Godwin, for example, Leigh Hunt, and Tom Paine, he represents the old
dissenting spirit in a new incarnation. The grandfather a stern
Calvinist, the father a Unitarian, the son a freethinker; those were the
gradations through which more than one family passed during the closing
years of the last century and the opening of this. One generation still
clung to the old Puritan traditions and Jonathan Edwards; the next
followed Priestley; and the third joined the little band of radicals who
read Cobbett, scorned Southey as a deserter, and refused to be
frightened by the French Revolution. The outside crust of opinion may be
shed with little change to the inner man. Hazlitt was a dissenter to his
backbone. He was born to be in a minority; to be a living protest
against the dominant creed and constitution. He recognised and
denounced, but he never shook off, the faults characteristic of small
sects. A want of wide intellectual culture, and a certain sourness of
temper, cramped his powers and sometimes marred his writing. But from
his dissenting forefathers Hazlitt inherited something better. Beside
the huge tomes of controversial divinity on his father's shelves, the
'Patres Poloni,' Pripscovius, Crellius and Cracovius, Lardner and
Doddridge, and Baxter and Bates, and Howe, were the legends of the
Puritan hagiology. The old dissenters, he tells us, had Neale's 'History
of the Puritans' by heart, and made their children read Calamy's account
of the 2,000 ejected ministers along with the stories of Daniel in the
Lion's Den and Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego. Sympathy for the
persecuted, unbending resistance to the oppressor, was the creed which
had passed into their blood. 'This covenant they kept as the stars keep
their courses; this principle they stuck by, for want of knowing better,
as it sticks by them to the last. It grew with their growth, it does not
wither in their decay.... It glimmers with the last feeble eyesight,
smiles in the faded cheek like infancy, and lights a path before them to
the grave. This'--for in Hazlitt lies a personal application in all his
moralising--'This is better than the whirligig life of a court
poet'--such, for example, as Robert Southey.

But Hazlitt's descent was not pure. If we could trace back the line of
his ancestry we should expect to find that by some freak of fortune, one
of the rigid old Puritans had married a descendant of some great Flemish
or Italian painter. Love of graceful forms and bright colouring and
voluptuous sensations had been transmitted to their descendants, though
hitherto repressed by the stern discipline of British nonconformity. As
the discipline relaxed, the Hazlitts reverted to the ancestral type.
Hazlitt himself, his brother and his sister, were painters by instinct.
The brother became a painter of miniatures by profession; and Hazlitt to
the end of his days revered Titian almost as much as he revered his
great idol Napoleon. An odd pair of idols, one thinks, for a youth
brought up upon Pripscovius and his brethren! A keen delight in all
artistic and natural beauty was an awkward endowment for a youth
intended for the ministry. Keats was scarcely more out of place in a
surgery than Hazlitt would have been in a Unitarian pulpit of those
days, and yet from that pulpit, oddly enough, came the greatest impulse
to Hazlitt. It came from a man who, like Hazlitt himself, though in a
higher degree than Hazlitt, combined the artistic and the philosophic
temperament. Coleridge, as Hazlitt somewhere says, threw a great stone
into the standing pool of contemporary thought; and it was in January
1798--one of the many dates in his personal history to which he recurs
with unceasing fondness--that Hazlitt rose before daylight and walked
ten miles in the mud to hear Coleridge preach. He has told, in his
graphic manner, how the voice of the preacher 'rose like a stream of
rich distilled perfumes;' how he launched into his subject, after giving
out the text, 'like an eagle dallying with the wind;' and how his young
hearer seemed to be listening to the music of the spheres, to see the
union of poetry and philosophy; and behold truth and genius embracing
under the eye of religion. His description of the youthful Coleridge has
a fit pendant in the wonderful description of the full-blown philosopher
in Carlyle's 'Life of Sterling;' where, indeed, one or two touches are
taken from Hazlitt's Essays. It is Hazlitt who remarked, even at this
early meeting, that the dreamy poet philosopher could never decide on
which side of the footpath he should walk; and Hazlitt, who struck out
the epigram that Coleridge was an excellent talker if allowed to start
from no premisses and come to no conclusion. The glamour of Coleridge's
theosophy never seems to have fascinated Hazlitt's stubborn intellect.
At this time, indeed, Coleridge had not yet been inoculated with German
mysticism. In after years, the disciple, according to his custom,
renounced his master and assailed him with half-regretful anger. But the
intercourse and kindly encouragement of so eminent a man seem to have
roused Hazlitt's ambition. His poetical and his speculative intellect
were equally stirred. The youth was already longing to write a
philosophical treatise. The two elements of his nature thus roused to
action led him along a 'strange diagonal.' He would be at once a painter
and a metaphysician. Some eight years of artistic labour convinced him
that he could not be a Titian or a Raphael, and he declined to be a mere
Hazlitt junior. His metaphysical studies, on the contrary, convinced him
that he might be a Hume or a Berkeley; but unluckily they convinced
himself alone. The tiny volume which contained their results was
neglected by everybody but the author, who, to the end of his days,
loved it with the love of a mother for a deformed child. It is written,
to say the truth, in a painful and obscure style; it is the work of a
man who has brooded over his own thoughts in solitude till he cannot
appreciate the need of a clear exposition. The narrowness of his reading
had left him in ignorance of the new aspects under which the eternal
problems were presenting themselves to the new generation; and a
metaphysical discussion in antiquated phraseology is as useless as a
lady's dress in the last year's fashion. Hazlitt, in spite of this
double failure, does not seem to have been much disturbed by
impecuniosity; but the most determined Bohemian has to live. For some
years he strayed about the purlieus of literature, drudging,
translating, and doing other cobbler's work. Two of his performances,
however, were characteristic; he wrote an attack upon Malthus, and he
made an imprudent marriage. Even Malthusians must admit that imprudent
marriages may have some accidental good consequences. When a man has
fairly got his back to the wall, he is forced to fight; and Hazlitt, at
the age of thirty-four, with a wife and a son, at last discovered the
great secret of the literary profession, that a clever man can write
when he has to write or starve. To compose had been labour and grief to
him, so long as he could potter round a thought indefinitely; but with
the printer's devil on one side and the demands of a family on the
other, his ink began to flow freely, and during the last fifteen or
seventeen years of his life he became a voluminous though fragmentary
author. Several volumes of essays, lectures, and criticisms, besides his
more ambitious 'Life of Napoleon,' and a great deal of anonymous
writing, attest his industry. He died in 1830, at the age of fifty-two;
leaving enough to show that he could have done more and a good deal of a
rare, if not of the highest kind of excellence.

Hazlitt, as I have said, is everywhere autobiographical. Besides that
secret, that a man can write if he must, he had discovered the further
secret that the easiest of all topics is his own feelings. It is an
apparent paradox, though the explanation is not far to seek, that
Hazlitt, though shy with his friends, was the most unreserved of
writers. Indeed he takes the public into his confidence with a facility
which we cannot easily forgive. Biographers of late have been guilty of
flagrant violations of the unwritten code which should protect the
privacies of social life from the intrusions of public curiosity. But
the most unscrupulous of biographers would hardly have dared to tear
aside the veil so audaciously as Hazlitt, in one conspicuous instance at
least, chose to do for himself. His idol Rousseau had indeed gone
further; but when Rousseau told the story of his youth, it was at least
seen through a long perspective of years, and his own personality might
seem to be scarcely interested. Hazlitt chose, in the strange book
called the 'New Pygmalion,' or 'Liber Amoris,' to invite the British
public at large to look on at a strange tragi-comedy, of which the last
scene was scarcely finished. Hazlitt had long been unhappy in his family
life. His wife appears to have been a masculine woman, with no talent
for domesticity; completely indifferent to her husband's pursuits, and
inclined to despise him for so fruitless an employment of his energies.
They had already separated, it seems, when Hazlitt fell desperately in
love with Miss Sarah Walker, the daughter of his lodging-house keeper.
The husband and wife agreed to obtain a divorce under the Scotch law,
after which they might follow their own paths, and Sarah Walker become
the second Mrs. Hazlitt. Some months had to be spent by Mr. and Mrs.
Hazlitt in Edinburgh, with a view to this arrangement. The lady's
journal records her impressions; which, it would seem, strongly
resembled those of a tradesman getting rid of a rather flighty and
imprudent partner in business. She is extremely precise as to all
pecuniary and legal details; she calls upon her husband now and then,
takes tea with him, makes an off-hand remark or two about some
picture-gallery which he had been visiting, and tells him that he has
made a fool of himself, with the calmness of a lady dismissing a
troublesome servant, or a schoolmaster parting from an ill-behaved
pupil. And meanwhile, in queer contrast, Hazlitt was pouring out to his
friends letters which seem to be throbbing with unrestrainable passion.
He is raving as Romeo at Mantua might have raved about Juliet. To hear
Miss Walker called his wife will be music to his ears, such as they
never heard. But it seems doubtful whether, after all, his Juliet will
have him. He shrieks mere despair and suicide. Nothing is left in the
world to give him a drop of comfort. The breeze does not cool him nor
the blue sky delight him. He will never lie down at night nor rise up of
a morning in peace, nor even behold his little boy's face with pleasure,
unless he is restored to her favour. And Mrs. Hazlitt reports, after
acknowledging the receipt of £10, that Mr. Hazlitt was so much
'enamoured' of one of these letters that he pulled it out of his pocket
twenty times a day, wanted to read it to his companions, and ranted and
gesticulated till people took him for a madman. The 'Liber Amoris' is
made out of these letters--more or less altered and disguised, with some
reports of conversations with the lovely Sarah. 'It was an explosion of
frenzy,' says De Quincey; his reckless mode of relieving his bosom of
certain perilous stuff, with little care whether it produced scorn or
sympathy. A passion which urges its victim to such improprieties should
be, at least, deep and genuine. One would have liked him better if he
had not taken his frenzy to market. The 'Liber Amoris' tells us
accordingly that the author, Hazlitt's imaginary double, died abroad,
'of disappointment preying on a sickly frame and morbid state of mind.'
The hero, in short, breaks his heart when the lady marries somebody
else. Hazlitt's heart was more elastic. Miss Sarah Walker married, and
Hazlitt next year married a widow lady 'of some property,' made a tour
with her on the Continent, and then--quarrelled with her also. It is not
a pretty story. Hazlitt's biographer informs us, by way of excuse, that
his grandfather was 'physically incapable'--whatever that may mean--'of
fixing his affection upon a single object.' He 'comprehended,' indeed,
'the worth of constancy' and other virtues as well as most men, and
could have written about them better than most men; but somehow 'a
sinister influence or agency,' a periphrasis for a sensuous temperament,
was perpetually present, which confined his virtues to the sphere of
theory. An apology sometimes is worse than a satire. The case, however,
seems to be sufficiently plain. We need not suspect that Hazlitt was
consciously acting a part and nursing his 'frenzy' because he thought
that it would make a startling book. He was an egotist and a man of
impulse. His impressions were for the time overpowering; but they were
transient. His temper was often stronger than his passions. A gust of
anger would make him quarrel with his oldest friends. Every emotion
justified itself for the time, because it was his. He always did well,
whether it pleased him for the moment to be angry, to be in love, to be
cynical, or to be furiously indignant. The end, therefore, of his life
exhibits a series of short impetuous fits of passionate endeavour,
rather than devotion to a single overruling purpose; and all his
writings are brief outbursts of eloquent feeling, where neither the
separate fragments nor the works considered as a whole obey any law of
logical development. And yet, in some ways, Hazlitt boasted, and boasted
plausibly enough, of his constancy. He has the same ideas to the end of
his life that he had at fourteen. He would, he remarks, be an excellent
man on a jury; he would say little, but would starve the eleven other
obstinate fellows out. Amongst politicians he was a faithful Abdiel,
when all others had deserted the cause. He loved the books of his
boyhood, the fields where he had walked, the gardens where he had drunk
tea, and, to a rather provoking extent, the old quotations and old
stories which he had used from his first days of authorship. The
explanation of the apparent paradox gives the clue to Hazlitt's singular

What I have called Hazlitt's egotism is more euphemistically and perhaps
more accurately described by Talfourd,[3] 'an intense consciousness of
his own individual being.' The word egotism in our rough estimates of
character is too easily confounded with selfishness. Hazlitt might have
been the person who, as one making a strange confession, assured a
friend that he took a deep interest in his own concerns. He was, one
would say, decidedly unselfish, if by selfishness is meant a disposition
to feather one's own nest without regard for other people's wants. Still
less was he selfish in the sense of preferring solid bread and butter to
the higher needs of mind and spirit. His sentiments are always generous,
and if scorn is too familiar a mood, it is scorn of the base and
servile. But his peculiarity is that these generous feelings are always
associated with some special case. He sees every abstract principle by
the concrete instance. He hates insolence in the abstract, but his
hatred flames into passion when it is insolence to Hazlitt. He resembles
that good old lady who wrote on the margin of her 'Complete Duty of Man'
the name of that neighbour who most conspicuously sinned against the
precept in the opposite text. Tyranny with Hazlitt is named Pitt, party
spite is Gifford, apostasy is Southey, and fidelity may be called
Cobbett or Godwin; though he finds names for the vices much more easily
than for the virtues. And thus, if he cannot be condemned for
selfishness, one must be charitable not to put down a good many of his
offences to its sister jealousy. The personal and the public sentiments
are so invariably blended in his mind that neither he nor anybody else
could have analysed their composition. He was apt to be the more moody
and irritable because his resentments clothed themselves spontaneously
in the language of some nobler emotion. If his friends are cold, he
bewails the fickleness of humanity; if they are successful, it is not
envy that prompts his irritation, but the rarity of the correspondence
between merit and reward. Such a man is more faithful to his dead than
to his living friends. The dead cannot change; they always come back to
his memory in their old colours; their names recall the old tender
emotion placed above all change and chance. But who can tell that our
dearest living friend may not come into awkward collision with us before
he has left the room? It is as well to be on our guard! It is curious
how the two feelings alternate in Hazlitt's mind in regard to the
friends who are at once dead and living; how fondly he dwells upon the
Coleridge of Wem and Nether Stowey where he first listened to the
enchanter's voice, and with what bitterness, which is yet but soured
affection, he turns upon the Coleridge who defended war-taxes in the
'Friend.' He hacks and hews at Southey through several furious Essays,
and ends with a groan. 'We met him unexpectedly the other day in St.
Giles's,' he says, 'were sorry we had passed him without speaking to an
old friend, turned and looked after him for some time as to a tale of
other days--sighing, as we walked on, Alas, poor Southey!' He fancies
himself to be in the mood of Brutus murdering Cæsar. It is patriotism
struggling with old associations of friendship; if there is any personal
element in the hostility, no one is less conscious of it than the
possessor. To the whole Lake school his attitude is always the
same--justice done grudgingly in spite of anger, or satire tempered by
remorse. No one could say nastier things of that very different egotist,
Wordsworth; nor could anyone, outside the sacred clique, pay him
heartier compliments. Nobody, indeed, can dislike egotism like an
egotist. 'Wordsworth,' says Hazlitt, 'sees nothing but himself and the
universe; he hates all greatness and all pretensions to it but his own.
His egotism is in this respect a madness, for he scorns even the
admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption in anyone to suppose
that he has taste or sense enough to understand him. He hates all
science and all art: he hates chemistry, he hates conchology, he hates
Sir Isaac Newton, he hates logic, he hates metaphysics,' and so on
through a long list of hatreds, ending with the inimitable Napoleon,
whom Wordsworth hates, it seems, 'to get rid of the idea of anything
greater, or thought to be greater, than himself.' Hazlitt might have
made out a tolerable list of his own antipathies; though, to do him
justice, of antipathies balanced by ardent enthusiasm, especially for
the dead or the distant.

Hazlitt, indeed, was incapable of the superlative self-esteem here
attributed to Wordsworth. His egotism is a curious variety of that
Protean passion, compounded as skilfully as the melancholy of Jaques. It
is not the fascinating and humorous egotism of Lamb, who disarms us
beforehand by a smile at his own crotchets. Hazlitt is too serious to be
playful. Nor is it like the amusing egotism of Boswell, combined with a
vanity which evades our contempt, because it asks so frankly for
sympathy. Hazlitt is too proud and too bitter. Neither is it the
misanthropic egotism of Byron, which, through all its affectation,
implies a certain aristocratic contempt of the world and its laws.
Hazlitt has not the sweep and continuity of Byron's passion. His
egotism--be it said without offence--is dashed with something of the
feeling common amongst his dissenting friends. He feels the awkwardness
which prevails amongst a clique branded by a certain social stigma, and
despises himself for his awkwardness. He resents neglect and scorns to
ask for patronage. His egotism is a touchy and wayward feeling which
takes the mask of misanthropy. He is always meditating upon his own
qualities, but not in the spirit of the conceited man who plumes himself
upon his virtues, nor of the ascetic who broods over his vices. He
prefers the apparently self-contradictory attitude (but human nature is
illogical) of meditating with remorse upon his own virtues. What in
others is complacency, becomes with him, ostensibly at least,
self-reproach. He affects--but it is hard to say where the affectation
begins--to be annoyed by the contemplation of his own merits. He is
angry with the world for preferring commonplace to genius, and rewarding
stupidity by success; but in form at least, he mocks at his own folly
for expecting better things. If he is vain at bottom, his vanity shows
itself indirectly by depreciating his neighbours. He is too proud to
dwell upon his own virtues, but he has been convinced by impartial
observation that the world at large is in a conspiracy against merit.
Thus he manages to transform his self-consciousness into the semblance
of proud humility, and extracts a bitter and rather morbid pleasure from
dwelling upon his disappointments and failures. Half-a-dozen of his best
Essays give expression to this mood, which is rather bitter than
querulous. He enlarges cordially on the 'disadvantages of intellectual
superiority.' An author--Hazlitt, to wit--is not allowed to relax into
dulness; if he is brilliant he is not understood, and if he professes an
interest in common things it is assumed that then he must be a fool. And
yet in the midst of these grumblings he is forced to admit a touch of
weakness, and tells us how it pleases him to hear a man ask in the Fives
Court, 'Which is Mr. Hazlitt?' He, the most idiosyncratic of men, and
most proud of it at bottom, declares how 'he hates his style to be
known, as he hates all idiosyncrasy.' At the next moment he purrs with
complacency at the recollection of having been forced into an avowal of
his authorship of an article in the 'Edinburgh Review.' Most generally
he eschews these naïve lapses into vanity. He dilates on the old text of
the 'shyness of scholars.' The learned are out of place in competition
with the world. They are not and ought not to fancy themselves fitted
for the vulgar arena. They can never enjoy their old privileges. 'Fool
that it (learning) was, ever to forego its privileges and loosen the
strong hold it had on opinion in bigotry and superstition!' The same
tone of disgust pronounces itself more cynically in an Essay 'on the
pleasure of hating.' Hatred is, he admits, a poisonous ingredient in all
our passions, but it is that which gives reality to them. Patriotism
means hatred of the French, and virtue is a hatred of other people's
faults to atone for our own vices. All things turn to hatred. 'We hate
old friends, we hate old books, we hate old opinions, and at last we
come to hate ourselves.' Summing up all his disappointments, the broken
friendships, and disappointed ambitions, and vanished illusions, he
asks, in conclusion, whether he has not come to hate and despise
himself? 'Indeed, I do,' he answers, 'and chiefly for not having hated
and despised the world enough.'

This is an outbreak of temporary spleen. Nobody loved his old books and
old opinions better. Hazlitt is speaking in the character of Timon,
which indeed fits him rather too easily. But elsewhere the same strain
of cynicism comes out in more natural and less extravagant form. Take,
for example, the Essay on the 'Conduct of Life.' It is a piece of _bonâ
fide_ advice addressed to his boy at school, and gives in a sufficiently
edifying form the commonplaces which elders are accustomed to address to
their juniors. Honesty, independence, diligence, and temperance are
commended in good set terms, though with an earnestness which, as is
often the case with Hazlitt, imparts some reality to outworn formulæ.
When, however, he comes to the question of marriage, the true man breaks
out. Don't trust, he says, to fine sentiments: they will make no more
impression on these delicate creatures than on a piece of marble. Love
in women is vanity, interest, or fancy. Women care nothing about talents
or virtue--about poets or philosophers or politicians. They judge by the
eye. 'No true woman ever regarded anything but her lover's person and
address.' The author has no chance; for he lives in a dream, he feels
nothing spontaneously, his metaphysical refinements are all thrown away.
'Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the colour in your cheek and the
fire in your eye; adorn your person; maintain your health, your beauty,
and your animal spirits; for if you once lapse into poetry and
philosophy you will want an eye to show you, a hand to guide you, a
bosom to love--and will stagger into your grave old before your time,
unloved and unlovely.' 'A spider,' he adds, 'the meanest creature that
crawls or lives, has its mate or fellow, but a scholar has no mate or
fellow.' Mrs. Hazlitt, Miss Sarah Walker, and several other ladies,
thought Hazlitt surly and cared nothing for his treatise on human
nature. Therefore (it is true Hazlittian logic) no woman cares for
sentiment. The sex which despised him must be despicable. Equally
characteristic is his profound belief that his failure in another line
is owing to the malignity of the world at large. In one of his most
characteristic Essays he asks whether genius is conscious of its powers.
He writes what he declares to be a digression about his own experience,
and we may believe as much as we please of his assertion that he does
not quote himself as an example of genius. He has spoken, he declares,
with freedom and power, and will not cease because he is abused for not
being a Government tool. He wrote a charming character of Congreve's
Millamant, but it was unnoticed because he was not a Government tool.
Gifford would not relish his account of Dekkar's Orlando
Friscobaldo--because he was not a Government tool. He wrote admirable
table-talks--for once, as they are nearly finished, he will venture to
praise himself. He could swear (were they not his) that the thoughts in
them were 'founded as the rock, free as the air, the hue like an Italian
picture.' But, had the style been like polished steel, as firm and as
bright, it would have availed him nothing, for he was not a Government
tool. The world hated him, we see, for his merits. It is a bad world, he
says; but don't think that it is my vanity which has taken offence, for
I am remarkable for modesty, and therefore I know that my virtues are
faults of which I ought to be ashamed. Is this pride or vanity, or
humility, or cynicism, or self-reproach for wasted talents, or an
intimate blending of passions for which there is no precise name? Who
can unravel the masks within masks of a cunning egotism?

To one virtue, however, that of political constancy, Hazlitt lays claim
in the most emphatic terms. If he quarrels with all his friends--'most
of the friends I have seen have turned out the bitterest enemies, or
cold, uncomfortable acquaintance'--it is, of course, their fault. A
thoroughgoing egotist must think himself the centre of gravity of the
world, and all change of relations must mean that others have moved away
from him. Politically, too, all who have given up his opinions are
deserters, and generally from the worst of motives. He accuses Burke of
turning against the Revolution from--of all motives in the
world!--jealousy of Rousseau; a theory still more impossible than Mr.
Buckle's hypothesis of madness. Court favour supplies in most cases a
simpler explanation of the general demoralisation. Hazlitt could not
give credit to men like Southey and Coleridge for sincere alarm at the
French Revolution. Such a sentiment would be too unreasonable, for he
had not been alarmed himself. His constancy, indeed, would be admirable
if it did not suggest doubts of his wisdom. A man whose opinions at
fifty are his opinions at fourteen has opinions of very little value. If
his intellect has developed properly, or if he has profited by
experience, he will modify, though he need not retract, his early views.
To claim to have learnt nothing from 1792 to 1830 is almost to write
yourself down as hopelessly impenetrable. The explanation is, that what
Hazlitt called his opinions were really his feelings. He could argue
very ingeniously, as appears from his remarks on Coleridge and Malthus,
but his logic was the slave, not the ruler, of his emotions. His
politics were simply the expression, in a generalised form, of his
intense feeling of personality. They are a projection upon the modern
political world of that heroic spirit of individual self-respect which
animated his Puritan forefathers. One question, and only one question,
he frequently tells us, is of real importance. All the rest is mere
verbiage. The single dogma worth attacking or defending is the divine
right of kings. Are men, in the old phrase, born saddled and bridled,
and other men ready booted and spurred, or are they not? That is the
single shibboleth which distinguishes true men from false. Others, he
says, bowed their heads to the image of the beast. 'I spit upon it, and
buffeted it, and pointed at it, and drew aside the veil that then half
concealed it.' This passionate denial of the absolute right of men over
their fellows is but vicarious pride, if you please to call it so, or a
generous recognition of the dignity of human nature translated into
political terms. Hazlitt's character did not change, however much his
judgment of individuals might change; and therefore the principles which
merely reflected his character remained rooted and unshaken. And yet his
politics changed curiously enough in another sense. The abstract truth,
in Hazlitt's mind, must always have a concrete symbol. He chose to
regard Napoleon as the antithesis to the divine right of kings. That was
the vital formula of Napoleon, his essence, and the true meaning of his
policy. The one question in abstract politics was typified for Hazlitt
by the contrast between Napoleon and the Holy Alliance. To prove that
Napoleon could trample on human rights as roughly as any legitimate
sovereign was for him mere waste of time. Napoleon's tyranny meant a
fair war against the evil principle. Had Hazlitt lived in France, and
come into collision with press laws, it is likely enough that his
sentiments would have changed. But Napoleon was far enough off to serve
as a mere poetical symbol; his memory had got itself entwined in those
youthful associations on which Hazlitt always dwelt so fondly; and,
moreover, to defend 'Boney' was to quarrel with most of his countrymen,
and even of his own party. What more was wanted to make him one of
Hazlitt's superstitions? No more ardent devotee of the Napoleonic legend
ever existed, and Hazlitt's last years were employed in writing a book
which is a political pamphlet as much as a history. He worships the
eldest Napoleon with the fervour of a corporal of the Old Guard, and
denounces the great conspiracy of kings and nobles with the energy of
Cobbett; but he had none of the special knowledge which alone could give
permanent value to such a performance. He seems to have consulted only
the French authorities; and it is refreshing for once to find an
Englishman telling the story of Waterloo entirely from the French side,
and speaking, for example, of left and right as if he had been--as in
imagination he was--by the side of Napoleon instead of Wellington. Even
M. Victor Hugo can see more merit in the English army and its commander.
A radical, who takes Napoleon for his polar star, must change some of
his theories, though he disguises the change from himself; but a change
of a different kind came over Hazlitt as he grew older.

The enthusiasm of the Southeys and Wordsworths for the French Revolution
changed--whatever their motives--into enthusiasm for the established
order. Hazlitt's enthusiasm remained, but became the enthusiasm of
regret instead of hope. As one by one the former zealots dropped off he
despised them as renegades, and clasped his old creed the more firmly to
his bosom. But the change did not draw him nearer to the few who
remained faithful. They perversely loved the wrong side of the right
cause, or loved it for the wrong reason. He liked the Whigs no better
than the Tories; the 'Edinburgh' and the 'Quarterly' were opposition
coaches, making a great dust and spattering each other with mud, but
travelling by the same road to the same end. A Whig, he said, was a
trimmer who dared neither to be a rogue nor an honest man, but was 'a
sort of whiffling, shuffling, cunning, silly, contemptible, unmeaning
negation of the two.' And the true genuine radical reformers? To them,
as represented by the school of Bentham, Hazlitt entertained an aversion
quite as hearty as his aversion for Whigs and Tories. If, he says, the
Whigs are too finical to join heartily with the popular advocates, the
Reformers are too cold. They hated literature, poetry, and romance;
nothing gives them pleasure that does not give others pain;
utilitarianism means prosaic, hard-hearted, narrow-minded dogmatism.
Indeed, his pet essay on the principles of human nature was simply an
assault on what he took to be their fundamental position. He fancied
that the school of Bentham regarded man as a purely selfish and
calculating animal; and his whole philosophy was an attempt to prove the
natural disinterestedness of man, and to indicate for the imagination
and the emotions their proper place beside the calculating faculty. Few
were those who did not come under one or other clause of this sweeping
denunciation. He assailed Shelley, who was neither Whig, Tory, nor
Utilitarian, so cuttingly as to provoke a dispute with Leigh Hunt, and
had some of his sharp criticisms for his friend Godwin. His general
moral, indeed, is the old congenial one. The reformer is as unfit for
this world as the scholar. He is the only wise man, but, as things go,
wisdom is the worst of follies. The reformer, he says, is necessarily a
marplot; he does not know what he would be at; if he did, he does not
much care for it; and, moreover, he is 'governed habitually by a spirit
of contradiction, and is always wise beyond what is practicable.' Upon
this text Hazlitt dilates with immense spirit, satirising the crotchety
and impracticable race, and contrasting them with the disciplined
phalanx of Toryism, brilliantly and bitterly enough to delight Gifford;
and yet he is writing a preface to a volume of radical Essays. He is
consoling himself for being in a minority of one by proving that two
virtuous men must always disagree. Hazlitt is no genuine democrat. He
hates 'both mobs,' or, in other words, the great mass of the human race.
He would sympathise with Coriolanus more easily than with the Tribunes.
He laughs at the perfectibility of the species, and holds that 'all
things move, not in progress but in a ceaseless round.' The glorious
dream is fled:

    The radiance which was once so bright
    Is now for ever taken from our sight;

and his only consolation is to live over in memory the sanguine times of
his youth, before Napoleon had fallen and the Holy Alliance restored the
divine right of kings; to cherish eternal regret for the hopes that have
departed, and hatred and scorn equally enduring for those who blasted
them. 'Give me back,' he exclaims, 'one single evening at Boxhill, after
a stroll in the deep empurpled woods, before Bonaparte was yet beaten,
with "wine of Attic taste," when wit, beauty, friendship presided at
the board.' The personal blends with the political regret.

Hazlitt, the politician, was soured. He fed his morbid egotism by
indignantly chewing the cud of disappointment, and scornfully rejecting
comfort. He quarrelled with his wife and with most of his friends, even
with the gentle Lamb, till Lamb regained his affections by the brief
quarrel with Southey. Certainly, he might call himself, with some
plausibility, 'the king of good haters.' But, after all, Hazlitt's
cynicism is the souring of a generous nature; and when we turn from the
politician to the critic and the essayist, our admiration for his powers
is less frequently jarred by annoyance at their wayward misuse. His
egotism--for he is still an egotist--here takes a different shape. His
criticism is not of the kind which is now most popular. He lived before
the days of philosophers who talk about the organism and its
environment, and of the connoisseurs who boast of an eclectic taste for
all the delicate essences of art. He never thought of showing that a
great writer was only the product of his time, race, and climate; and he
had not learnt to use such terms of art as 'supreme,' 'gracious,'
'tender,' 'bitter,' and 'subtle,' in which a good deal of criticism now
consists. Lamb, says Hazlitt, tried old authors 'on his palate as
epicures taste olives;' and the delicacy of discrimination which makes
the process enjoyable is perhaps the highest qualification of a good
critic. Hazlitt's point of view was rather different, nor can we ascribe
to him without qualification that exquisite appreciation of purely
literary charm which is so rare and so often affected. Nobody, indeed,
loved some authors more heartily or understood them better; his love is
so hearty that he cannot preserve the true critical attitude. Instead of
trying them on his palate, he swallows them greedily. His judgment of
an author seems to depend upon two circumstances. He is determined in
great measure by his private associations, and in part by his sympathy
for the character of the writer. His interest in this last sense is, one
may say, rather psychological than purely critical. He thinks of an
author not as the exponent of a particular vein of thought or emotion,
nor as an artistic performer on the instrument of language, but as a
human being to be loved or hated, or both, like Napoleon or Gifford or

Hazlitt's favourite authors were, for the most part, the friends of his
youth. He had pored over their pages till he knew them by heart; their
phrases were as familiar to his lips as texts of Scripture to preachers
who know but one book; the places where he had read them became sacred
to him, and a glory of his early enthusiasm was still reflected from the
old pages. Rousseau was his beloved above all writers. They had a
natural affinity. What Hazlitt says of Rousseau may be partly applied to
himself. Of Hazlitt it might be said almost as truly as of Rousseau,
that 'he had the most intense consciousness of his own existence. No
object that had once made an impression upon him was ever after
effaced.' In Rousseau's 'Confessions' and 'Nouvelle Héloïse,' Hazlitt
saw the reflections of his own passions. He spent, he declares, two
whole years in reading these two books; and they were the happiest years
of his life. He marks with a white stone the days on which he read
particular passages. It was on April 10, 1798--as he tells us some
twenty years later--that he sat down to a volume of the 'New Héloïse,'
at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken. He
tells us which passage he read and what was the view before his bodily
eyes. His first reading of 'Paul and Virginia' is associated with an inn
at Bridgewater; and at another old-fashioned inn he tells how the rustic
fare and the quaint architecture gave additional piquancy to Congreve's
wit. He remembers, too, the spot at which he first read Mrs. Inchbald's
'Simple Story;' how he walked out to escape from one of the tenderest
parts, in order to return again with double relish.

'An old crazy hand-organ,' he adds, 'was playing "Robin Adair," a summer
shower dropped manna on my head, and slaked my feverish thirst of
happiness.' He looks back to his first familiarity with his favourites
as an old man may think of his honeymoon. The memories of his own
feelings, of his author's poetry, and of the surrounding scenery, are
inextricably fused together. The sight of an old volume, he says,
sometimes shakes twenty years off his life; he sees his old friends
alive again, the place where he read the book, the day when he got it,
the feeling of the air, the fields, the sky. To these old favourites he
remained faithful, except that he seems to have tired of the glitter of
Junius. Burke's politics gave him some severe twinges. He says, in one
place, that he always tests the sense and candour of a Liberal by his
willingness to admit the greatness of Burke. He adds, as a note to the
Essay in which this occurs, that it was written in a 'fit of extravagant
candour,' when he thought that he could be more than just to an enemy
without betraying a cause. He oscillates between these views as his
humour changes. He is absurdly unjust to Burke the politician; but he
does not waver in his just recognition of the marvellous power of the
greatest--I should almost say the only great--political writer in the
language. The first time he read a passage from Burke, he said, This is
true eloquence. Johnson immediately became shelved, and Junius 'shrunk
up into little antithetic points and well-tuned sentences. But Burke's
style was forked and playful like the lightning, crested like the
serpent.' He is never weary of Burke, as he elsewhere says; and, in
fact, he is man enough to recognise genuine power when he meets it. To
another great master he yields with a reluctance which is an involuntary
compliment. The one author whom he admitted into his Pantheon after his
youthful enthusiasm had cooled was unluckily the most consistent of
Tories. Who is there, he asks, that admires the author of 'Waverley'
more than I do? Who is there that despises Sir Walter Scott more? The
Scotch novels, as they were then called, fairly overpowered him. The
imaginative force, the geniality and the wealth of picturesque incident
of the greatest of novelists, disarmed his antipathy. It is curious to
see how he struggles with himself. He blesses and curses in a breath. He
applies to Scott Pope's description of Bacon, 'the greatest, wisest,
meanest of mankind,' and asks--

    Who would not laugh if such a man there be?
    Who would not weep if "Waverley" were he?

He crowns a torrent of abuse by declaring that Scott has encouraged the
lowest panders of a venal press, 'deluging and nauseating the public
mind with the offal and garbage of Billingsgate abuse and vulgar slang;'
and presently he calls Scott--by way, it is true, of lowering
Byron--'one of the greatest teachers of morality that ever lived.' He
invents a theory, to which he returns more than once, to justify the
contrast. Scott, he says, is much such a writer as the Duke of
Wellington (the hated antithesis of Napoleon, whose 'foolish face' he
specially detests) is a general. The one gets 100,000 men together, and
'leaves it to them to fight out the battle, for if he meddled with it
he might spoil sport; the other gets an innumerable quantity of facts
together, and lets them tell their story as they may. The facts are
stubborn in the last instance as the men are in the first, and in
neither case is the broth spoiled by the cook.' Both heroes show modesty
and self-knowledge, but 'little boldness or inventiveness of genius.' On
the strength of this doctrine he even compares Scott disadvantageously
with Godwin and Mrs. Inchbald, who had, it seems, more invention though
fewer facts. Hazlitt was not bound to understand strategy, and devoutly
held that Wellington's armies succeeded because their general only
looked on. But he should have understood his own trade a little better.
Putting aside this grotesque theory, he feels Scott's greatness truly,
and admits it generously. He enjoys the broth, to use his own phrase,
though he is determined to believe that it somehow made itself.

Lamb said that Hazlitt was a greater authority when he praised than when
he abused, a doctrine which may be true of others than Hazlitt. The true
distinction is rather that Hazlitt, though always unsafe as a judge, is
admirable as an advocate in his own cause, and poor when merely speaking
from his brief. Of Mrs. Inchbald I must say what Hazlitt shocked his
audience by saying of Hannah More; that she has written a good deal
which I have not read, and I therefore cannot deny that her novels might
have been written by Venus; but I cannot admit that Wycherley's brutal
'Plain-dealer' is as good as ten volumes of sermons. 'It is curious to
see,' says Hazlitt, rather naïvely, 'how the same subject is treated by
two such different authors as Shakespeare and Wycherley.' Macaulay's
remark about the same coincidence is more to the point. 'Wycherley
borrows Viola,' says that vigorous moralist, 'and Viola forthwith
becomes a pander of the basest sort.' That is literally true. Indeed,
Hazlitt's love for the dramatists of the Restoration is something of a
puzzle, except so far as it is explained by early associations. Even
then it is hard to explain the sympathy which Hazlitt, the lover of
Rousseau and sentiment, feels for Congreve, whose speciality it is that
a touch of sentiment is as rare in his painfully-witty dialogues as a
drop of water in the desert. Perhaps a contempt for the prejudices of
respectable people gave zest to Hazlitt's enjoyment of a literature,
representative of a social atmosphere, most propitious to his best
feelings. And yet, though I cannot take Hazlitt's judgment, I would
frankly admit that Hazlitt's enthusiasm brings out Congreve's real
merits with a force of which a calmer judge would be incapable. His warm
praises of 'The Beggar's Opera,' his assault upon Sidney's 'Arcadia,'
his sarcasms against Tom Moore, are all excellent in their way, whether
we do or do not agree with his final result. Whenever Hazlitt writes
from his own mind, in short, he writes what is well worth reading.
Hazlitt learnt something in his later years from Lamb. He prefers, he
says, those papers of Elia in which there is the least infusion of
antiquated language; and, in fact, Lamb never inoculated him with his
taste for the old English literature. Hazlitt gave a series of lectures
upon the Elizabethan dramatists, and carelessly remarks some time
afterwards that he has only read about a quarter of Beaumont and
Fletcher's plays, and intends to read the rest when he has a chance. It
is plain, indeed, that the lectures, though written at times with great
spirit, are the work of a man who has got them up for the occasion. And
in his more ambitious and successful essays upon Shakespeare the same
want of reading appears in another way. He is more familiar with
Shakespeare's text than many better scholars. His familiarity is proved
by a habit of quotation of which it has been disputed whether it is a
merit or a defect. What phrenologists would call the adhesiveness of
Hazlitt's mind, its extreme retentiveness for any impression which has
once been received, tempts him to a constant repetition of familiar
phrases and illustrations. He has, too, a trick of working in patches of
his old essays, which he expressly defends on the ground that a book
which has not reached a second edition may be considered by its author
as manuscript. This self-plagiarism sometimes worries us, as we are
worried by a man whose conversation runs in ruts. But his quotations
from other authors, where used in moderation, often give a pleasant
richness to his style. Shakespeare, in particular, seems to be a
storehouse into which he can always dip for an appropriate turn of
phrase, and his love of Shakespeare is of a characteristic kind. He has
not counted syllables nor weighed various readings. He does not throw a
new light upon delicate indications of thought and sentiment, nor
philosophise after the manner of Coleridge and the Germans, nor regard
Shakespeare as the representative of his age according to the sweeping
method of M. Taine. Neither does he seem to love Shakespeare himself as
he loves Rousseau or Richardson. He speaks contemptuously of the Sonnets
and Poems, and, though I respect his sincerity, I think that such a
verdict necessarily indicates indifference to the most Shakespearian
parts of Shakespeare. The calm assertion that the qualities of the Poems
are the reverse of the qualities of the plays is unworthy of Hazlitt's
general acuteness. That which really attracts Hazlitt is sufficiently
indicated by the title of his book; he describes the characters of
Shakespeare's plays. It is Iago, and Timon, and Coriolanus, and Anthony,
and Cleopatra, who really interest him. He loves and hates them as if
they were his own contemporaries; he gives the main outlines of their
character with a spirited touch. And yet one somehow feels that Hazlitt
is not at his best in Shakespearian criticism; his eulogies savour of
commonplace, and are wanting in spontaneity. There is not that warm glow
of personal feeling which gives light and warmth to his style whenever
he touches upon his early favourites. Perhaps he is a little daunted by
the greatness of his task, and perhaps there is something in the
Shakespearian width of sympathy and in the Shakespearian humour which
lies beyond Hazlitt's sphere. His criticism of Hamlet is feeble; he does
not do justice to Mercutio or to Jaques; but he sympathises more
heartily with the tremendous passion of Lear and Othello, and finds
something congenial to his taste in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. It
is characteristic, too, that he evidently understands Shakespeare better
on the stage than in the closet. When he can associate Iago and Shylock
with the visible presence of Kean, he can introduce that personal
element which is so necessary to his best writing.

The best, indeed, of Hazlitt's criticisms--if the word may be so far
extended--are his criticisms of living men. The criticism of
contemporary portraits called the 'Spirit of the Age' is one of the
first of those series which have now become popular, as it is certainly
one of the very best. The descriptions of Bentham, and Godwin, and
Coleridge, and Horne Tooke are masterpieces in their way. They are, of
course, unfair; but that is part of their charm. One would no more take
for granted Hazlitt's valuation of Wordsworth than Timon's judgment of
Alcibiades. Hazlitt sees through coloured glasses, but his vision is not
the less penetrating. The vulgar satirist is such a one as Hazlitt
somewhere mentioned who called Wordsworth a dunce. Hazlitt was quite
incapable of such a solecism. He knew, nobody better, that a telling
caricature must be a good likeness. If he darkens the shades, and here
and there exaggerates an ungainly feature, we still know that the shade
exists and that the feature is not symmetrical. De Quincey reports the
saying of some admiring friend of Hazlitt, who confessed to a shudder
whenever Hazlitt used his habitual gesture of placing his hand within
his waistcoat. The hand might emerge armed with a dagger. Whenever, said
the same friend (Heaven preserve us from our friends!), Hazlitt had been
distracted for a moment from the general conversation, he looked round
with a mingled air of suspicion and defiance, as though some
objectionable phrase might have evaded his censure in the interval. The
traits recur to us when we read Hazlitt's descriptions of the men he had
known. We seem to see the dark sardonic man, watching the faces and
gestures of his friends, ready to take sudden offence at any affront to
his cherished prejudices, and yet hampered by a kind of nervous timidity
which makes him unpleasantly conscious of his own awkwardness. He
remains silent, till somebody unwittingly contradicts his unspoken
thoughts--the most irritating kind of contradiction to some people!--and
perhaps heaps indiscriminating praise on an old friend, a term nearly
synonymous with an old enemy. Then the dagger suddenly flashes out, and
Hazlitt strikes two or three rapid blows, aimed with unerring accuracy
at the weak points of the armour which he knows so well. And then, as he
strikes, a relenting comes over him; he remembers old days with a
sudden gush of fondness, and puts in a touch of scorn for his allies or
himself. Coleridge may deserve a blow, but the applause of Coleridge's
enemies awakes his self-reproach. His invective turns into panegyric,
and he warms for a time into hearty admiration, which proves that his
irritation arises from an excess, not from a defect, of sensibility; but
finding that he has gone a little too far, he lets his praise slide into
equivocal description, and, with some parting epigram, he relapses into
silence. The portraits thus drawn are never wanting in piquancy nor in
fidelity. Brooding over his injuries and his desertions, Hazlitt has
pondered almost with the eagerness of a lover upon the qualities of his
intimates. Suspicion, unjust it may be, has given keenness to his
investigation. He has interpreted in his own fashion every mood and
gesture. He has watched his friends as a courtier watches a royal
favourite. He has stored in his memory, as we fancy, the good retorts
which his shyness or unreadiness smothered at the propitious moment, and
brings them out in the shape of a personal description. When such a man
sits at our tables, silent and apparently self-absorbed, and yet shrewd
and sensitive, we may well be afraid of the dagger, though it may not be
drawn till after our death, and may write memoirs instead of piercing
flesh. And yet Hazlitt is no mean assassin of reputations; nor is his
enmity as a rule more than the seamy side of friendship. Gifford,
indeed, and Croker, 'the talking potato,' are treated as outside the
pale of human rights.

Excellent as Hazlitt can be as a dispenser of praise and blame, he seems
to me to be at his best in a different capacity. The first of his
performances which attracted much attention was the Round Table,
designed by Leigh Hunt (who contributed a few papers), on the old
'Spectator' model. In the essays afterwards collected in the volumes
called 'Table Talk' and the 'Plain Speaker,' he is still better, because
more certain of his position. It would, indeed, be difficult to name any
writer, from the days of Addison to those of Lamb, who has equalled
Hazlitt's best performances of this kind. Addison is too unlike to
justify a comparison; and, to say the truth, though he has rather more
in common with Lamb, the contrast is much more obvious than the
resemblance. Each wants the other's most characteristic vein; Hazlitt
has hardly a touch of humour, and Lamb is incapable of Hazlitt's caustic
scorn for the world and himself. They have indeed in common, besides
certain superficial tastes, a love of pathetic brooding over the past.
But the sentiment exerted is radically different. Lamb forgets himself
when brooding over an old author or summing up the 'old familiar faces.'
His melancholy and his mirth cast delightful cross-lights upon the
topics of which he converses, and we do not know, until we pause to
reflect, that it is not the intrinsic merit of the objects, but Lamb's
own character, which has caused our pleasure. They would be dull, that
is, in other hands; but the feeling is embodied in the object described,
and not made itself the source of our interest. With Hazlitt, it is the
opposite. He is never more present than when he is dwelling upon the
past. Even in criticising a book or a man, his favourite mode is to tell
us how he came to love or to hate him; and in the non-critical Essays he
is always appealing to us, directly or indirectly, for sympathy with his
own personal emotions. He tells us how passionately he is yearning for
the days of his youth; he is trying to escape from his pressing
annoyances; wrapping himself in sacred associations against the fret
and worry of surrounding cares; repaying himself for the scorn of women
or Quarterly Reviewers by retreating into some imaginary hermitage; and
it is the delight of dreaming upon which he dwells more than upon the
beauty of the visions revealed to his inward eye. The force with which
this sentiment is presented gives a curious fascination to some of his
essays. Take, for example, the essay in 'Table Talk,' 'On Living to
One's self,'--an essay written, as he is careful to tell us, on a mild
January day in the country, whilst the fire is blazing on the hearth and
a partridge getting ready for his supper. There he expatiates in happy
isolation on the enjoyments of living as 'a silent spectator of the
mighty scheme of things;' as being in the world, and not of it; watching
the clouds and the stars, poring over a book, or gazing at a picture
without a thought of becoming an author or an artist. He has drifted
into a quiet little backwater, and congratulates himself in all
sincerity on his escape from the turbulent stream outside. He drinks in
the delight of rest at every pore; reduces himself for the time to the
state of a polyp drifting on the warm ocean stream, and becomes a
voluptuous hermit. He calls up the old days when he acted up to his
principles, and found pleasure enough in endless meditation and quiet
observation of nature. He preaches most edifyingly on the
disappointments, the excitements, the rough impacts of hard facts upon
sensitive natures, which haunt the world outside, and declares, in all
sincerity, 'this sort of dreaming existence is the best; he who quits it
to go in search of realities generally barters repose for repeated
disappointments and vain regrets.' He is sincere, and therefore
eloquent; and we need not, unless we please, add the remark that he
enjoys rest because it is a relief from toil; and that he will curse the
country as heartily as any man if doomed to entire rest. This meditation
on the phenomena of his own sensations leads him often into interesting
reflections of a psychological kind. He analyses his own feelings with
constant eagerness, as he analyses the character of his enemies. A good
specimen is the essay 'On Antiquity' in the 'Plain Speaker,' which
begins with some striking remarks on the apparently arbitrary mode in
which some objects and periods seem older to us than others, in defiance
of chronology. The monuments of the Middle Ages seem more antique than
the Greek statues and temples with their immortal youth. 'It is not the
full-grown, articulated, thoroughly accomplished periods of the world
that we regard with the pity or reverence due to age, so much as those
imperfect, unformed, uncertain periods which seem to totter on the verge
of non-existence, to shrink from the grasp of our feeble imagination, as
they crawl out of, or retire into the womb of time, of which our utmost
assurance is to doubt whether they ever were or not.' And then, as
usual, he passes to his own experience, and meditates on the changed
aspect of the world in youth and maturer life. The petty, personal
emotions pass away, whilst the grand and ideal 'remains with us
unimpaired in its lofty abstraction from age to age.' Therefore, though
the inference is not quite clear, he can never forget the first time he
saw Mrs. Siddons act, or the appearance of Burke's 'Letter to a Noble
Lord.' And then, in a passage worthy of Sir Thomas Browne, he describes
the change produced as our minds are stereotyped, as our most striking
thoughts become truisms, and we lose the faculty of admiration. In our
youth 'art woos us; science tempts us with her intricate labyrinths;
each step presents unlooked-for vistas, and closes upon us our backward
path. Our onward road is strange, obscure, and infinite. We are
bewildered in a shadow, lost in a dream. Our perceptions have the
brightness and indistinctness of a trance. Our continuity of
consciousness is broken, crumbles, and falls to pieces. We go on
learning and forgetting every hour. Our feelings are chaotic, confused,
strange to each other and ourselves.' But in time we learn by rote the
lessons which we had to spell out in our youth. 'A very short period
(from 15 to 25 or 30) includes the whole map and table of contents of
human life. From that time we may be said to live our lives over again,
repeat ourselves--the same thoughts return at stated intervals, like the
tunes of a barrel-organ; and the volume of the universe is no more than
a form of words, a book of reference.'

From such musings Hazlitt can turn to describe any fresh impression
which has interested him, in spite of his occasional weariness, with a
freshness and vivacity which proves that his eye had not grown dim, nor
his temperament incapable of enjoyment. He fell in love with Miss Sarah
Wilson at the tolerably ripe age of 43; and his desire to live in the
past is not to be taken more seriously than his contempt for his
literary reputation. It lasts only till some vivid sensation occurs in
the present. In congenial company he could take a lively share in
conversation, as is proved not only by external evidence, but by his
very amusing book of conversations with Northcote--an old cynic out of
whom it does not seem that anybody else could strike many sparks,--or
from the essay, partly historical, it is to be supposed, in which he
records his celebrated discussion with Lamb, on persons whom one would
wish to have seen. But perhaps some of his most characteristic
performances in this line are those in which he anticipates the modern
taste for muscularity. His wayward disposition to depreciate ostensibly
his own department of action, leads him to write upon the 'disadvantages
of intellectual superiority,' and to maintain the thesis that the glory
of the Indian jugglers is more desirable than that of a statesman. And
perhaps the same sentiment, mingled with sheer artistic love of the
physically beautiful, prompts his eloquence upon the game of fives--in
which he praises the great player Cavanagh as warmly, and describes his
last moments as pathetically, as if he were talking of Rousseau--and
still more his immortal essay on the fight between the Gasman and Bill
Neate. Prize-fighting is fortunately fallen into hopeless decay, and we
are pretty well ashamed of the last flicker of enthusiasm created by
Sayers and Heenan. We may therefore enjoy without remorse the prose-poem
in which Hazlitt kindles with genuine enthusiasm to describe the fearful
glories of the great battle. Even to one who hates the most brutalising
of amusements, the spirit of the writer is impressibly contagious. We
condemn, but we applaud; we are half disposed for the moment to talk the
old twaddle about British pluck; and when Hazlitt's companion on his way
home pulls out of his pocket a volume of the 'Nouvelle Héloïse,' admit
for a moment that 'Love of the Fancy is,' as the historian assures us,
'compatible with a cultivation of sentiment.' If Hazlitt had thrown as
much into his description of the Battle of Waterloo, and had taken the
English side, he would have been a popular writer. But even Hazlitt
cannot quite embalm the memories of Cribb, Belcher, and Gully.

It is time, however, to stop. More might be said by a qualified writer
of Hazlitt's merits as a judge of pictures or of the stage. The same
literary qualities mark all his writings. De Quincey, of course,
condemns Hazlitt, as he does Lamb, for a want of 'continuity.' 'No man
can be eloquent,' he says, 'whose thoughts are abrupt, insulated,
capricious, and nonsequacious.' But then De Quincey will hardly allow
that any man is eloquent except Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, and
Thomas De Quincey. Hazlitt certainly does not belong to their school;
nor, on the other hand, has he the plain homespun force of Swift and
Cobbett. And yet readers who do not insist upon measuring all prose by
the same standard, will probably agree that if Hazlitt is not a great
rhetorician, if he aims at no gorgeous effects of complex harmony, he
has yet an eloquence of his own. It is indeed an eloquence which does
not imply quick sympathy with many moods of feeling, or an intellectual
vision at once penetrating and comprehensive. It is the eloquence
characteristic of a proud and sensitive nature, which expresses a very
keen if narrow range of feeling, and implies a powerful grasp of one, if
only one side of the truth. Hazlitt harps a good deal upon one string;
but that string vibrates forcibly. His best passages are generally an
accumulation of short, pithy sentences, shaped in strong feeling, and
coloured by picturesque association; but repeating, rather than
corroborating, each other. The last blow goes home, but each falls on
the same place. He varies the phrase more than the thought; and
sometimes he becomes obscure, because he is so absorbed in his own
feelings that he forgets the very existence of strangers who require
explanation. Read through Hazlitt, and this monotony becomes a little
tiresome; but dip into him at intervals, and you will often be
astonished that so vigorous a writer has not left some more enduring
monument of his remarkable powers.


[3] In the excellent Essay prefixed to 'Hazlitt's Literary Remains.'


It is a commonplace with men of literary eminence to extol the man of
deeds above the man of words. Scott was half ashamed of scribbling
novels whilst Wellington was winning battles; and, if Carlyle be a true
prophet, the most brilliant writer is scarcely worthy to unloose the
shoe's latchet of the silent heroes of action. Perhaps it is graceful in
masters of the art to depreciate their own peculiar function. People who
have less personal interest in the matter need not be so modest. I will
confess, at any rate, to preferring the men who have sown some new seed
of thought above the heroes whose names mark epochs in history. I would
rather make the nation's ballads than give its laws, dictate principles
than carry them into execution, and leaven a country with new ideas than
translate them into facts, inevitably mangling and distorting them in
the process. And therefore I would rather have written 'Hamlet' than
defeated the Spanish Armada; or 'Paradise Lost,' than have turned out
the Long Parliament; or 'Gray's Elegy,' than have stormed the heights of
Abram; or the Waverley Novels, than have won Waterloo or even Trafalgar.
I would rather have been Voltaire or Goethe than Frederick or Napoleon;
and I suspect that when the poor historian of the nineteenth century
begins his superhuman work, he will, as a thorough philosopher,
attribute more importance to two or three recent English writers than to
all the English statesmen who have been strutting and fretting their
little hour at Westminster. And therefore, too, I wish that Disraeli
could have stuck to his novels instead of rising to be Prime Minister of
England. This opinion is, of course, entirely independent of any
judgment which may be passed upon Disraeli's political career. Granting
that his cause has always been the right one, granting that he has
rendered it essential services, I should still wish that his brilliant
literary ability had been allowed to ripen undisturbed by all the
worries and distractions of parliamentary existence. Persons who think
the creation of a majority in the House of Commons a worthy reward for
the labours of a lifetime will, of course, differ from this conclusion.
Disraeli, at any rate, ought to have agreed. No satirist has ever struck
off happier portraits of the ordinary British legislator, or been more
alive to the stupefying influences of a parliamentary career. We have
gone through a peaceful revolution since Disraeli first sketched Rigby
and Taper and Tadpole from the life; but the influences which they
embodied are still as powerful, and a parliamentary atmosphere as little
propitious to the pure intellect, as ever. Coningsby, if he still
survives, must have lost many illusions; he must have herded with the
Tapers and Tadpoles, and prompted Rigby to write slashing articles on
his behalf in the quarterlies. He must have felt that his intellect was
cruelly wasted in talking claptrap and platitude to suit the thick
comprehensions of his party; and the huge dead weight of the invincible
impenetrability to ideas of ordinary mankind must have lain heavy upon
his soul. How many Tadpoles, one would like to know, still haunt the
Carlton Club, or throng the ministerial benches, and how many Rigbys
have forced their way into the Cabinet? That is one of the state secrets
which will hardly be divulged by the only competent observer. But at any
rate it is sad that the critic, who applied the lash so skilfully,
should have been so unequally yoked with the objects of his contempt.
Disraeli's talents for entertaining fiction may not indeed have been
altogether wasted in his official career; but he at least may pardon
admirers of his writing, who regret that he should have squandered
powers of imagination, capable of true creative work, upon that
alternation of truckling and blustering which is called governing the

The qualities which are of rather equivocal value in a minister of state
may be admirable in the domain of literature. It is hardly desirable
that the followers of a political leader should be haunted by an
ever-recurring doubt as to whether his philosophical utterances express
deep convictions, or the extemporised combinations of a fertile fancy,
and be uncertain whether he is really putting their clumsy thoughts into
clearer phrases, or foisting showy nonsense upon them for his own
purposes, or simply laughing at them in his sleeve. But, in a purely
literary sense, this ambiguous hovering between two meanings, this
oscillation between the ironical and the serious, is always amusing, and
sometimes delightful. Some simple-minded people are revolted, even in
literature, by the ironical method; and tell the humorist, with an air
of moral disapproval, that they never know whether he is in jest or in
earnest. To such matter-of-fact persons Disraeli's novels must be a
standing offence; for it is his most characteristic peculiarity that
the passage from one phase to the other is imperceptible. He has moments
of obvious seriousness; at frequent intervals comes a flash of downright
sarcasm, as unmistakable in its meaning as the cut of a whip across your
face; and elsewhere we have passages which aim unmistakably, and
sometimes with unmistakable success, at rhetorical excellence. But,
between the two, there is a wide field where we may interpret his
meaning as we please. The philosophical theory may imply a genuine
belief, or may be a mere bit of conventional filling in, or perhaps a
parody of his friends or himself. The gorgeous passages may be
intentionally over-coloured, or may really represent his most sincere
taste. His homage may be genuine or a biting mockery. His extravagances
are kept precisely at such a pitch that it is equally fair to argue that
a satirist must have meant them to be absurd, or to argue only that he
would have seen their absurdity in anybody else. The unfortunate critic
feels himself in a position analogous to that of the suitors in the
'Merchant of Venice.' He may blunder grievously, whatever alternative he
selects. If he pronounces a passage to be pure gold, it may turn out to
be merely the mask of a bitter sneer; or he may declare it to be
ingenious burlesque when put forward in the most serious earnest; or may
ridicule it as overstrained bombast, and find that it was never meant to
be anything else. It is wiser to admit that perhaps the author was not
very clear himself, or possibly enjoyed that ambiguous attitude which
might be interpreted according to the taste of his readers and the
development of events. A man who deals in oracular utterances acquires
instinctively a mode of speech which may shift its colour with every
change of light. The texture of Disraeli's writings is so ingeniously
shot with irony and serious sentiment that each tint may predominate by
turns. It is impossible to suppose that the weaver of so cunning a web
should never have intended the effects which he produces; but
frequently, too, they must be the spontaneous and partly unconscious
results of a peculiar intellectual temperament. Delight in blending the
pathetic with the ludicrous is the characteristic of the true humorist.
Disraeli is not exactly a humorist, but something for which the rough
nomenclature of critics has not yet provided a distinctive name. His
pathos is not sufficiently tender, nor his laughter quite genial enough.
The quality which results is homologous to, though not identical with,
genuine humour: for the smile we must substitute a sneer, and the
element which enters into combination with the satire is something more
distantly allied to poetical unction than to glittering rhetoric. The
Disraelian irony thus compounded is hitherto a unique product of
intellectual chemistry.

Most of Disraeli's novels are intended to set forth what, for want of a
better name, must be called a religious or political creed. To grasp its
precise meaning, or to determine the precise amount of earnestness with
which it is set forth, is of course hopeless. Its essence is to be
mysterious, and half the preacher's delight is in tantalising his
disciples. At moments he cannot quite suppress the amusement with which
he mocks their hopeless bewilderment. When Coningsby is on the point of
entering public life, he reads a speech of one of the initiated,
'denouncing the Venetian constitution, to the amazement of several
thousand persons, apparently not a little terrified by this unknown
danger, now first introduced to their notice.' What more amusing than
suddenly to reveal to good easy citizens that what they took for
wholesome food is deadly poison, and to watch their hopeless incapacity
to understand whether you are really announcing a truth or launching an

Disraeli, undoubtedly, has certain fixed beliefs which underlie and
which, indeed, explain the superficial versatility of his teaching.
Amongst the various doctrines with which he plays more or less
seriously, two at least are deeply rooted in his mind. He holds, with a
fervour in every way honourable, a belief in the marvellous endowments
of his race, and connected with this belief is an almost romantic
admiration for every manifestation of intellectual power. Vivian Grey,
in a bit of characteristic bombast, describes himself as 'one who has
worshipped the empire of the intellect;' and his career is simply an
attempt to act out the principle that the world belongs of right to the
cleverest. Of Sidonia, after every superlative in the language has been
lavished upon his marvellous acquirements, we are told that 'the only
human quality that interested him was intellect.' Intellect is equally,
if not quite as exclusively, interesting to the creator of Sidonia. He
admires it in all its forms--in a Jesuit or a leader of the
International, in a charlatan or a statesman, or perhaps even more in
one who combines the two characters; but the most interesting of all
objects to Disraeli, if one may judge from his books, is a precocious
youth, whose delight in the sudden consciousness of great abilities has
not yet been dashed by experience. In some other writers we may learn
the age of the author by the age of his hero. A novelist who adopts the
common practice of painting from himself naturally finds out the merits
of middle age in his later works. But in every one of Disraeli's works,
from 'Vivian Grey' to 'Lothair,' the central figure is a youth, who is
frequently a statesman at school, and astonishes the world before he has
reached his majority. The change in the author's position is, indeed,
equally marked in a different way. The youthful heroes of Disraeli's
early novels are creative; in his later they become chiefly receptive.
Vivian Grey and Contarini Fleming show their genius by insubordination;
Coningsby and Tancred learn wisdom by sitting at the feet of Sidonia;
and Lothair reduces himself so completely to a mere 'passive bucket' to
be pumped into by every variety of teacher, that he is unpleasantly like
a fool. Disraeli still loves ingenuous youth; but he has gained quite a
new perception of the value of docility. Here and there, of course,
there is a gentle gibe at juvenile vanity. 'My opinions are already
formed on every subject,' says Lothair; 'that is, on every subject of
importance; and, what is more, they will never change.' But such vanity
has nothing offensive. The audacity with which a lad of twenty solves
all the problems of the universe, excites in Disraeli genuine and really
generous sympathy. Sidonia converts the sentiment into a theory.
Experience, he says, is less than nothing to a creative mind. 'Almost
everything that is great has been done by youth.' The greatest captains,
the greatest poets, artists, statesmen, and religious reformers of the
world, have done their best work by middle life. All theories upon all
subjects can be proved from history; and the great Sidonia is not to be
pinned down by too literal an interpretation. But at least he is
expressing Disraeli's admiration for intellect which has the fervour,
rapidity, and reckless audacity of youth, which trusts its intuitions
instead of its calculations, and takes its crudest guesses for flashes
of inspiration. The exuberant buoyancy of his youthful heroes gives a
certain contagious charm to Disraeli's pages, which is attractive even
when verging upon extravagance. Our popular novelists have learned to
associate high spirits with muscularity; their youthful heroes are
either athletes destined to put on flesh in later days, or premature
prigs with serious convictions and a tendency to sermons and blue-books.
After a course of such books, Disraeli's genuine love of talent is
refreshing. He dwells fondly upon the effervescence of genius which
drives men to kick over the traces of respectability and strike out
short cuts to fame. If at bottom his heroes are rather eccentric than
original, they have at least a righteous hatred of all bores and
Philistines, and despise orthodoxy, political economy, and sound
information generally. They can provide you with new theories of
politics and history, as easily as Mercutio could pour out a string of
similes; and we have scarcely the heart to ask whether this vivacious
ebullition implies the process of fermentation by which a powerful mind
clears its crude ideas, or only an imitation of the process by which
superlative cleverness apes true genius. Intellect, as it becomes
sobered by middle age and by scholastic training, is no longer so
charming. When its guesses ossify into fixed opinions, and its arrogance
takes the airs of scientific dogmatism, it is always a tiresome and may
be a dangerous quality. Some indication of what Disraeli means by
intellect may be found in the preface to 'Lothair.' Speaking of the
conflict between science and the old religions, he says that it is a
most flagrant fallacy to suppose that modern ages have a monopoly of
scientific discovery. The greatest discoveries are not those of modern
ages. 'No one for a moment can pretend that printing is so great a
discovery as writing, or algebra, or language. What are the most
brilliant of our chemical discoveries compared with the invention of
fire and the metals?' Hipparchus ranks with the Keplers and Newtons; and
Copernicus was but the champion of Pythagoras. To say nothing of the
characteristic assumption that somebody 'discovered' language and fire
in the same sense as modern chemists discovered spectrum analysis, the
argument is substantially that, because Hipparchus was as great a genius
as Newton, the views of the ancients upon religious or historical
questions deserve just as much respect as those of the moderns. In other
words, the accumulated knowledge of ages has taught us nothing. 'What is
conveniently called progress' is merely a polite name for change; and
one clever man's guess is as good as another, whatever the period at
which he lived. This theory is the correlative of Sidonia's assertion,
that experience is useless to the man of genius. The experience of the
race is just as valueless. Modern criticism is nothing but an
intellectual revolt of the Teutonic races against the Semitic
revelation, as the French revolution was a political revolt of the
Celtic races. The disturbance will pass away; and we shall find that
Abraham and Moses knew more about the universe than Hegel or Comte. The
prophets of the sacred race were divinely endowed with an esoteric
knowledge concealed from the vulgar behind mystic symbols and
ceremonies. If the old oracles are dumb, some gleams of the same power
still remain, and in the language of mere mortals are called genius. We
find it in perfection only amongst the Semites, whose finer
organisation, indicated by their musical supremacy, enables them to
catch the still small voice inaudible to our grosser ears. The Aryans,
indeed, have some touches of a cognate power, but it is dulled by a more
sensuous temperament. They can enter the court of the Gentiles; but
their mortal vesture is too muddy for admission into the holy of holies.
If ever they catch a glimpse of the truth, it is in their brilliant
youth, when, still uncorrupted by worldly politics, they can induce some
Sidonia partly to draw aside the veil.

The intellect, then, as Disraeli conceives it, is not the faculty
denounced by theologians, which delights in systematic logical inquiry,
and hopes to attain truth by the unrestricted conflict of innumerable
minds. It is an abnormal power of piercing mysteries granted only to a
few distinguished seers. It does not lead to an earthly science,
expressible in definite formulas, and capable of being taught in Sunday
schools. The knowledge cannot be fully communicated to the profane, and
is at most to be shadowed forth in dim oracular utterances. Disraeli's
instinctive affinity for some kind of mystic teaching is indicated by
Vivian Grey's first request to his father. 'I wish,' he exclaims, 'to
make myself master of the latter Platonists. I want Plotinus and
Porphyry, and Iamblichus, and Syrianus, and Mosanius Tyrius, and
Pericles, and Hierocles, and Sallustius, and Damasenis!' But Vivian
Grey, as we know, wanted also to conquer the Marquis of Carabas; and the
odd combination between a mystic philosopher and a mere political
charlatan displays Disraeli's peculiar irony. Intellect with him is a
double-edged weapon: it is at once the faculty which reads the dark
riddle of the universe, and the faculty which makes use of Tapers and
Tadpoles. Our modern Daniel is also a shrewd electioneering agent.
Cynics, indeed, have learned in these later days to regard mystery as
too often synonymous with nonsense. The difficulty of interpreting
esoteric doctrines to the vulgar generally consists in this--that the
doctrines are mere collections of big words which collapse, instead of
becoming lucid, when put into plain English. The mystagogue is but too
closely allied to the charlatan. He may be straining to utter some
secret too deep for human utterance, or he is looking wise to conceal
absolute vacuity of thought. And at other times he must surely be
laughing at the youthful audacity which fancies that speculation is to
be carried on by a series of sudden inspirations, instead of laborious
accumulation of rigorously-tested reasonings.

The three novels, 'Coningsby,' 'Sybil,' and 'Tancred,' published from
1844 to 1847, form, as their author has told us, a trilogy intended to
set forth his views of political, social, and religious problems. Each
of them exhibits, in one form or other, this peculiar train of thought.
'Coningsby,' if I am not mistaken, is by far the ablest, and probably
owes its pre-eminence to the simple fact that it deals with the topics
in which its author felt the keenest interest. The social speculations
of 'Sybil' savour too much of the politician getting up a telling case;
and the religious speculations of 'Tancred' are pushed to the extreme
verge of the grotesque. But 'Coningsby' wants little but a greater
absence of purpose to be a first-rate novel. If Disraeli had confined
himself to the merely artistic point of view, he might have drawn a
picture of political society worthy of comparison with 'Vanity Fair.'
Lord Monmouth is evidently related to the Marquis of Steyne; and Rigby
is a masterpiece, though perhaps rather too suggestive of a direct study
from nature. Lord Monmouth is the ideal type of the 'Venetian'
aristocracy; and Rigby, like his historical namesake, of the corrupt
wire-pullers who flourished under their shade. The consistent
Epicureanism of the noble, in whom a sense of duty is only represented
by a vague instinct that he ought to preserve his political influence as
part of his personal splendour, and as an insurance against possible
incendiarism, is admirably contrasted by the coarser selfishness of
Rigby, who relieves his patron of all dirty work on consideration of
feathering his own nest, and fancying himself to be a statesman. The
whole background, in short, is painted with inimitable spirit and
fidelity. The one decided failure amongst the subsidiary characters is
Lucian Grey, the professional parasite, who earns his dinners by his
witty buffoonery. Somehow, his fun is terribly dreary on paper; perhaps
because, as a parasite, he is not allowed to indulge in the cutting
irony which animates all Disraeli's best sayings. The simple buffoonery
of exuberant animal spirits is not in Disraeli's line. When he can
neither be bitter nor rhetorical, he is apt to drop into mere mechanical
flatness. But nobody has described more vigorously all the meaner forms
of selfishness, stupidity, and sycophancy engendered under 'that fatal
drollery,' as Tancred describes it, 'called a parliamentary government.'
The pompous dulness which affects philosophical gravity, the appetite
for the mere dry husks and bran of musty constitutional platitude which
takes the airs of political wisdom, the pettifogging cunning which
supposes the gossips of lobbies and smoking-rooms to be the embodiment
of statesmanship, the selfishness which degrades political warfare into
a branch of stock-jobbing, and takes a great principle to be useful in
suggesting electioneering cries, as Telford thought that navigable
rivers were created to feed canals,--these and other tendencies favoured
by party government are hit off to the life. 'The man they called Dizzy'
can despise a miserable creature having the honour to be as heartily as
Carlyle himself, and, if his theories are serious, sometimes took our
blessed Constitution to be a mere shelter for such vermin as the Tapers
and Tadpoles. Two centuries of a parliamentary monarchy and a
parliamentary Church, says Coningsby, have made government detested, and
religion disbelieved. 'Political compromises,' says the omniscient
Sidonia, 'are not to be tolerated except at periods of rude transition.
An educated nation recoils from the imperfect vicariat of what is called
representative government. Your House of Commons, that has absorbed all
other powers in the State, will in all probability fall more rapidly
than it rose.' In short, the press will take its place. This is one of
those impromptu theories of history which are not to be taken too
literally. Indeed, the satirical background is intended to throw into
clearer relief a band of men of genius to whom has been granted some
insight into the great political mystery. Who, then, are the true
antithesis to the Tapers and Tadpoles? Should we compare them with a
Cromwell, who has a creed as well as a political platform; and contrast
'our young Queen and our old institutions' with some new version of the
old war cry, 'The sword of the Lord and of Gideon'? Or may we at least
have a glimpse of a Chatham, wakening the national spirit to sweep aside
the Newcastles and Bubb Dodingtons of the present day? Or, if Cromwells
and Chathams be too old-fashioned, and translate the Semitic principle
into a narrow English Protestantism, may we not have some genuine
revolutionary fanatic, a Cimourdain or a Gauvain, to burn up all this
dry chaff of mouldy politics with the fire of a genuine human passion?
Such a contrast, however effective, would have been a little awkward in
the year 1844. Young England had an ideal standard of its own, and
Disraeli must be the high priest of its peculiar hero-worship. Whether,
in this case, political trammels injured his artistic sense, or whether
his peculiar artistic tendencies injured his political career, is a
question rather for the historian than the critic.

Certain it is, at any rate, that the _cénacle_ of politicians, whose
interests are to be thrown in relief against this mass of grovelling
corruption, forms but a feeble contrast, even in the purely artistic
sense. We have no right to doubt that Disraeli thought that Coningsby
and his friends represented the true solution of the difficulty; yet if
anybody had wished to demonstrate that a genuine belief might sometimes
make a man more contemptible than hypocritical selfishness, he could
scarcely have defended the paradox more ingeniously. 'Unconscious
cerebration' has become a popular explanation of many phenomena; and it
would hardly be fanciful to assume that one lobe of Disraeli's brain is
in the habit of secreting bitter satire unknown to himself, and
cunningly inserting it behind the thin veil of sentiment unconsciously
elaborated by the other. We are prepared, indeed, to accept the new
doctrine, as cleverly as Balzac could have inoculated us with a
provisional belief in animal magnetism, to heighten our interest in a
thrilling story of wonder. We have judicious hints of esoteric political
doctrine, which has been partially understood by great men at various
periods of our history. The whole theory is carefully worked out in the
opening pages of 'Sybil.' The most remarkable thing about our popular
history, so Disraeli tells us, is, that it is 'a complete
mystification;' many of the principal characters never appear, as, for
example, Major Wildman, who was 'the soul of English politics from 1640
to 1688.' It is not surprising, therefore, that two of our three chief
statesmen in later times should be systematically depreciated. The
younger Pitt, indeed, has been extolled, though on wrong grounds. But
Bolingbroke and Shelburne, our two finest political geniuses, are passed
over with contempt by ordinary historians. A historian might amuse
himself by tracing the curious analogy between the most showy
representatives of the old race of statesmen and the modern successor
who delights to sing his praises. The Patriot King is really to some
extent an anticipation of Disraeli's peculiar democratic Toryism. But
the chief merit of Shelburne would seem to be that the qualities which
earned for him the nickname of Malagrida made him convenient as a
hypothetical depository of some esoteric scheme of politics. For the
purposes of fiction, at any rate, we may believe that English politics
are a riddle of which only three men have guessed the true solution
since the 'financial' revolution of 1688. Pitt was only sound so far as
he was the pupil of Shelburne; but Bolingbroke, Shelburne, and Disraeli
possessed the true key, and fully understood, for example, that Charles
I. was the 'holocaust of direct taxation.' But frankly to expound this
theory would be to destroy its charm, and to cast pearls before
political economists. And, therefore, its existence is dimly adumbrated
rather than its meaning revealed; and we have hints that there are
wheels within wheels, and that in the lowest deep of mystery there is a
yet deeper mystery. Coningsby and his associates, the brilliant
Buckhurst and the rich Catholic country gentleman, Eustace Lyle, are but
unripe neophytes, feeling after the true doctrine, but not yet fully
initiated. The superlative Sidonia, the man who by thirty has exhausted
all the sources of human knowledge, become master of the learning of
every nation, of all tongues, dead or living, and of every literature,
western and oriental; who has pursued all the speculations of science to
their last term; who has lived in all orders of society, and observed
man in every phase of civilisation; who has a penetrative intellect
which enables him to follow as by intuition the most profound of all
questions, and a power of communicating with precision the most abstruse
ideas; whose wealth would make Monte Cristo seem a pauper; who is so far
above his race that woman seems to him a toy, and man a machine,--this
thrice miraculous Sidonia, who can yet stoop from his elevation to win a
steeplechase from the Gentiles, or return their hospitality by an
exquisite dinner, is the fitting depository of the precious secret. No
one can ever accuse Disraeli of a want of audacity. He does not, like
weaker men, shrink from introducing men of genius because he is afraid
that he will not be able to make them talk in character; and when, in
'Venetia,' he introduces Byron and Shelley, he is kind enough to write
poetry for them, which produces as great an effect as the original.

And now having a true prophet, having surrounded him with a band of
disciples, so that the transmitted rays of wisdom may be bearable to our
mortal eyes, we expect some result worthy of this startling machinery.
Let the closed casket open, and the magic light stream forth to dazzle
the gazing world. We know, alas! too well that our expectation cannot be
satisfied. There is not any secret doctrine in politics. Bolingbroke may
have been a very clever man, but he could not see through a stone wall.
The whole hypothesis is too extravagant to admit of any downright
prosaic interpretation. But something might surely be done for the
imagination, if not for the reason. Some mystic formula might be
pronounced which might pass sufficiently well for an oracle so long as
we are in the charmed world of fiction. Let Sidonia only repeat some
magniloquent gnome from Greek, or Hebrew, or German philosophers, give
us a scrap of Hegel, or of the Talmud, and we will willingly take it to
be the real thing for imaginative purposes, as we allow ourselves to
believe that some theatrical goblet really contains a fluid of magical
efficacy. Unluckily, however, and the misfortune illustrates the
inconvenience of combining politics with fiction, Disraeli had something
to say, and still more unluckily that something was a mere nothing. It
was the creed of Young England; and even greater imaginative power might
have failed in the effort to instil the most temporary vitality into
that flimsy collection of sham beliefs. A mere sentimentalist might
possibly have introduced it in such a way as to impress us at least with
his own sincerity. But how is such doctrine to be uttered by lips which
are, at the same time, pouring out the shrewdest of sarcasms against
politicians who, if more pachydermatous, were at least more manly? In a
newfangled church, amidst incense and genuflexions and ecclesiastical
millinery, one may listen patiently to a ritualist sermon; but no mortal
skill could make ritualism sound plausible in regions to which the outer
air of common sense is fairly admitted. The only mode of escape is by
slurring over the doctrine, or by proclaiming it with an air of
burlesque. Disraeli keeps most dexterously in the region of the
ambiguous. He does at last produce his political wares with a certain
_aplomb_; but a doubtful smile about his lips encourages some of the
spectators to fancy that he estimates their value pretty accurately. His
last book of 'Coningsby' opens with a Christmas scene worthy of an
illustrated keepsake. We have buttery-hatches, and beef, and ale, and
red cloaks, and a lord of misrule, and a hobby-horse, and a boar's head
with a canticle.

    Caput apri defero,
    Reddens laudes Domino,

sing the noble ladies, and we are left to wonder whether Disraeli
blushed or sneered as he wrote. Certainly we find it hard to recognise
the minister who proposed to put down ritualism by an Act of Parliament.
He does his very best to be serious, and anticipates critics by a
passing blow at the utilitarians; but we have a shrewd suspicion that
the blow is mere swagger, to keep up his courage, or perhaps a covert
hint that though he can at times fool his friends, he is not a man to be
trifled with by his enemies. What, we must ask, would Sidonia say to
this dreariest of all shams? When Coningsby meets Sidonia in the forest,
and expresses a wish to see Athens, the mysterious stranger replies,
'The age of ruins is past; have you seen Manchester?' It would, indeed,
be absurd to infer that Disraeli does not see the weak side of
Manchester. After dilating, in 'Tancred,' upon the vitality of Damascus,
he observes, 'As yet the disciples of progress have not been able
exactly to match this instance; but it is said that they have great
faith in the future of Birkenhead.' Perhaps the true sentiment is that
the Semitic races, the unchanging depositaries of eternal principles,
look with equal indifference upon the mushroom growths of Aryan
civilisation, whether an Athens or a Birkenhead be the product, but
admit that the living has so far an advantage over the dead. To find the
moral of 'Coningsby' may be impracticable and is at any rate irrelevant.
The way to enjoy it is to look at the world through the eyes of
Sidonia. The world--at least the Gentile world--is a farce. Ninety-nine
men out of a hundred are fools. Some are prosy and reasoning fools, and
make excellent butts for stinging sarcasms; others are flighty and
imaginative fools, and can best be ridiculed by burlesquing their folly.
As for the hundredth man--the youthful Coningsby or Tancred--his
enthusiasm is refreshing, and his talent undeniable; let us watch his
game, applaud his talents, and always remember that great talent is
almost as necessary for consummate folly as for consummate success.
Adopting such maxims, we can enjoy 'Coningsby' throughout; for we need
not care whether we are laughing at the author or with him. We may
heartily enjoy his admirable flashes of wit, and, when he takes a
serious tone, may oscillate agreeably between the beliefs that he is in
solemn earnest, or in his bitterest humour; only we must not quite
forget that the farce has a touch in it of tragedy, and that there is a
real mystery somewhere. Satire, pure and simple, becomes wearisome. If a
latent sense of humour is necessary to prevent a serious man from
becoming a bore, it is still more true that some serious creed, however
misty and indefinite, is required to raise the mere mocker into a
genuine satirist. That is the use of Sidonia. He is ostensibly but a
subordinate figure, and yet, if we struck him out, the whole composition
would be thrown out of harmony. Looking through his eyes, we can laugh,
but we laugh with that sense of dignity which arises out of the
consciousness of a secret wisdom, shadowy and indefinite in the highest
degree, perilously apt to sound like nonsense if cramped by a definite
utterance, but yet casting over the whole picture a kind of magical
colouring, which may be mere trickery or may be a genuine illumination,
but which, whilst we are not too exacting, brings out pleasant and
perplexing effects. The lights and shadows fluctuate, and solid forms
melt provokingly into mist; but we must learn to enjoy the uncertain
twilight which prevails on the border-land between romance and reality,
if we would enjoy the ambiguities and the ironies and the mysteries of

The other two parts of the trilogy show the same qualities, but in
different proportions. 'Sybil' is chiefly devoted to what its author
calls 'an accurate and never-exaggerated picture of a remarkable period
in our social history.' We need not inquire into the accuracy. It is
enough to say that in this particular department Disraeli shows himself
capable of rivalling in force and vivacity the best of those novelists
who have tried to turn blue-books upon the condition of the people into
sparkling fiction. If he is distinctly below the few novelists of truer
purpose who have put into an artistic shape a profound and first-hand
impression of those social conditions which statisticians try to
tabulate in blue-books,--if he does not know Yorkshiremen in the sense
in which Miss Brontë knew them, and still less in the sense in which
Scott knew the Borderers--he can write a disguised pamphlet upon the
effects of trades' unions in Sheffield with a brilliancy which might
excite the envy of Mr. Charles Reade. But in 'Tancred' we again come
upon the true vein of mystery in which is Disraeli's special
idiosyncrasy; and the effect is still more bewildering than in
'Coningsby.' Giving our hands to our singular guide, we are to be led
into the most secret place, and be initiated into the very heart of the
mystery. Tancred is Coningsby once more, but Coningsby no longer
satisfied with the profound political teaching of Bolingbroke, and eager
to know the very last word of that riddle which, once solved, all
theological and social and political difficulties will become plain. He
is exalted to the pitch of enthusiasm at which even supernatural
machinery may be introduced without a sense of discord. And yet,
intentionally or from the inevitable conditions of the scheme, the
satire deepens with the mystery; and the more solemn become the words
and gestures of our high priest, the more marked becomes his ambiguous
air of irony. Good, innocent Tancred fancies that his doubts may be
solved by an English bishop; and Disraeli revels in the ludicrous
picture of a young man of genius taking a bishop seriously. Yet it must
be admitted that Tancred's own theory sounds to the vulgar Saxon even
more nonsensical than the episcopal doctrine. His notion is that
'inspiration is not only a divine but a local quality,' and that God can
only speak to man upon the soil of Palestine--a theory which has
afterwards to be amended by the hypothesis, that even in Palestine, God
can only speak to a man of Semitic race. Lest we should fancy that this
belief contains an element of irony, it is approved by the great
Sidonia; but even Sidonia is not worthy of the deep mysteries before us.
He intimates to Tancred that there is one from whose lips even he
himself has derived the sacred knowledge. The Spanish priest, Alonzo
Lara, Jewish by race, but, as a Catholic prelate, imbued with all the
later learning--a member of that Church which was founded by a Hebrew,
and still retains some of the 'magnetic influence'--this great man, in
whom all influences thus centre, is the only worthy hierophant. And
thus, after a few irresistible blows at London society, we find
ourselves fairly on the road to Palestine, and listen for the great
revelation. We scorn the remark of the simple Lord Milford, that there
is 'absolutely no sport of any kind' near Jerusalem; and follow Tancred
where his ancestors have gone before him. We bend in reverence before
the empty tomb of the Divine Prince of the house of David, and fall into
ecstasies in the garden of Bethany. Solace comes, but no inspiration.
Though the marvellous Lara is briefly introduced, and though a beautiful
young woman comes straight out of the 'Arabian Nights,' and asks the
insoluble question, What would have become of the Atonement, if the Jews
had not persuaded the Romans to crucify Jesus? we are still tantalised
by the promised revelation, which melts before us like a mirage. Once,
indeed, on the sacred mountain of Sinai, a vision greets the weary
pilgrim, in which a guardian angel talks in the best style of Sidonia or
Disraeli. But we are constantly distracted by our guide's irresistible
propensity for a little political satire. A Syrian Vivian Grey is
introduced to us, whose intrigues are as audacious and futile as those
of his English parallel, but whose office seems to be the purely
satirical one of interpreting Tancred's lofty dreams into political
intrigues suited to a shrewd but ignorant Oriental. Once we are
convinced that the promise is to be fulfilled. Tancred reaches the
strange tribe of the Ansarey, shrouded in a more than Chinese seclusion.
Can they be the guardians of the 'Asian mystery'? To our amazement it
turns out that they are of the faith of Mr. Phoebus of 'Lothair.' They
have preserved the old gods of paganism; and their hopes, which surely
cannot be those of Disraeli, are that the world will again fall
prostrate before Apollo (who has a striking likeness to Tancred) or
Astarte. What does it all mean? or does it all mean anything? The most
solemn revelation has been given by that mysterious figure which
appeared in Sinai, in 'the semblance of one who, though not young, was
still untouched by time; a countenance like an Oriental night, dark yet
lustrous, mystical yet clear. Thought, rather than melancholy, spoke
from the pensive passion of his eyes; while on his lofty forehead
glittered a star that threw a solemn radiance on the repose of his
majestic forehead.' After explaining that he was the Angel of Arabia,
this person told Tancred to 'announce the sublime and solacing doctrine
of Theocratic Equality.' But when Tancred, after his startling
adventures, got back to Jerusalem, he found his anxious parents, the
Duke and Duchess of Bellamont, accompanied by the triumvirate of
bear-leaders which their solicitude had appointed to look after
him--Colonel Brace, the Rev. Mr. Bernard, and Dr. Roby. And thus the
novel ends like the address of Miss Hominy. 'Out laughs the stern
philosopher,' or, shall we say, the incarnation of commonplace, 'What,
ho! arrest me that wandering agency; and so, the vision fadeth.'
Theocratic equality has not yet taken its place as an electioneering

Has our guide been merely blowing bubbles for our infantile amusement?
Surely he has been too solemn. We could have sworn that some of the
passages were written, if not with tears in his eyes, at least with a
genuine sensibility to the solemn and romantic elements of life. Or was
he carried away for a time into real mysticism for which he seeks to
apologise by adopting the tone of the man of the world? Surely his
satire is too keen, even when it causes the collapse of his own fancies.
Even Coningsby and Lord Marney, the heroes of the former novels, appear
in 'Tancred' as shrewd politicians, and obviously Tancred will accept
the family seat when he gets back to his paternal mansion. We can only
solve the problem, if we are prosaic enough to insist upon a solution,
by accepting the theory of a double consciousness, and resolving to
pray with the mystic, and sneer with the politician, as the fit takes
us. It is an equal proof of intellectual dulness to be dead to either
aspect of things. Let us agree that a brief sojourn in the world of
fancy or in the world of blue-books is a qualification for a keener
enjoyment of the other, and not brutally attempt to sever them by fixed
lines. Each is best seen in the light reflected from the other, and we
had best admit the fact without asking awkward questions; but they are
blended after a perfectly original fashion in the strange phantasmagoria
of 'Tancred.' Let the images of crusaders and modern sportsmen, Hebrew
doctors and classical artists, mediæval monks and Anglican bishops,
perform their strange antics before us, and the scenery shift from
Manchester to Damascus, or Pall Mall to Bethany, in obedience to laws
dictated by the fancy instead of the reason; let each of the motley
actors be alternately the sham and the reality, and our moods shift as
arbitrarily from grave to gay, from high-strung enthusiasm to mocking
cynicism, and we shall witness a performance which is always amusing and
original, and sometimes even poetical, and of which only the harshest
realist will venture to whisper that, after all, it is a mere

But it is time to leave stories in which the critic, however anxious to
observe the purely literary aspect, is constantly tempted to diverge
into the political or theological theories suggested. The 'trilogy' was
composed after Disraeli had become a force in politics, and the didactic
tendency is constantly obtruding itself. In the period between 'Vivian
Grey' (1826-7) and 'Coningsby' (1844) he had published several novels in
which the prophet is lost, or nearly lost, in the artist. Of the
'Wondrous Tale of Alroy' it is enough to say that it is a very spirited
attempt to execute an impossible task. All historical novels--except
Scott's and Kingsley's--are a weariness to the flesh, and when the
history is so remote from any association with modern feeling, even Mr.
Disraeli's vivacity is not able to convert shadows into substances. An
opposite error disturbs one's appreciation of 'Venetia.' Byron and
Shelley were altogether too near to the writer to be made into heroes of
fiction. The portraits are pale beside the originals; and though Lord
Cadurcis and Marmion Herbert may have been happier men than their
prototypes, they are certainly not so interesting. 'Henrietta Temple'
and 'Contarini Fleming' may count as Mr. Disraeli's most satisfactory
performances. He has worked without any secondary political purpose, and
has, therefore, produced more harmonious results. The aim is ambitious,
but consistent. 'Contarini Fleming' is the record of the development of
a poetic nature--a theme, as we are told, 'virgin in the imaginative
literature of every country.' The praises of Goethe, of Beckford, and of
Heine gave a legitimate satisfaction to its author. 'Henrietta Temple'
professes to be a love-story pure and simple. Love and poetry are
certainly themes worthy of the highest art; and if Disraeli's art be not
the highest, it is more effective when freed from the old alloy. The
same intellectual temperament is indeed perceptible, though in this
different field it does not produce quite the same results. One
prominent tendency connects all his stories. When 'Lothair' made its
appearance, critics were puzzled, not only by the old problem as to the
seriousness of the writer, but by the extraordinary love of glitter.
Were the palaces and priceless jewels and vast landed estates,
distributed with such reckless profusion amongst the characters,
intended as a covert satire upon the vulgar English worship of wealth,
or did they imply a genuine instinct for the sumptuous? Disraeli would
apparently parody the old epitaph, and write upon the monument of every
ducal millionaire, 'Of such are the kingdom of heaven.' Vast landed
estates and the Christian virtues, according to him, naturally go
together; and he never dismisses a hero without giving him such a letter
of credit as Sidonia bestowed upon Tancred. 'If the youth who bears this
requires advances, let him have as much gold as would make the
right-hand lion, on the first step of the throne of Solomon the king;
and if he wants more, let him have as much as would form the lion that
is on the left; and so on through every stair of the royal seat.' The
theory that so keen a satirist of human follies must have been more or
less ironical in his professed admiration for boundless wealth, though
no doubt tempting, is probably erroneous. The simplest explanation is
most likely to be the truest. Disraeli has a real, unfeigned delight in
simple splendour, in 'ropes of pearls,' in priceless diamonds, gorgeous
clothing, and magnificent furniture. The phenomenon is curious, but not
uncommon. One may sometimes find an epicure who stills retains an
infantile taste for sweetmeats, and is not afraid to avow it. Experience
of the world taught Disraeli the hollowness of some objects of his early
admiration, but it never so dulled his palate as to make pure splendour
insipid to his taste. It is as easy to call this love of glitter vulgar,
as to call his admiration for dukes snobbish; but the passion is too
sincere to deserve any harsh name. Why should not a man have a taste for
the society of dukes, or take a child's pleasure in bright colours for
their own sake? There is nothing intrinsically virtuous in preferring a
dinner of herbs to the best French cookery. So long as the taste is
thoroughly genuine, and is not gratified at the cost of unworthy
concessions, it ought not to be offensive.

Disraeli's pictures may be, or rather they certainly are, too gaudy in
their colouring, but his lavish splendour is evidently prompted by a
frank artistic impulse, and certainly implies no grovelling before the
ordinary British duke. It is this love of splendour, it may be said
parenthetically, combined with his admiration for the non-scientific
type of intellect, which makes the Roman Catholic Church so strangely
fascinating for Disraeli. His most virtuous heroes and heroines are
members of old and enormously rich Catholic families. His poet,
Contarini Fleming, falls prostrate before the splendid shrines of a
Catholic chapel, all his senses intoxicated by solemn music and sweet
incense and perfect pictures. Lothair, wanting a Sidonia, only escaped
by a kind of miracle from the attractions of Rome. The sensibility to
such influences has a singular effect upon Disraeli's modes of
representing passion. He has frankly explained his theory. The
peasant-noble of Wordsworth had learnt to know love 'in huts where poor
men lie,' and a long catena of poetical authorities might be adduced in
support of the principle. That is not Disraeli's view. 'Love,' he says,
'that can illumine the dark hovel and the dismal garret, that sheds a
ray of enchanting light over the close and busy city, seems to mount
with a lighter and more glittering pinion in an atmosphere as bright as
its own plumes. Fortunate the youth, the romance of whose existence is
placed in a scene befitting its fair and marvellous career; fortunate
the passion that is breathed in palaces, amid the ennobling creations
of surrounding art, and quits the object of its fond solicitude amidst
perfumed gardens and in the shade of green and silent woods'--woods,
that is, which ornament the stately parks of the aforesaid palaces. All
Disraeli's passionate lovers--and they are very passionate--are provided
with fitting scenery. The exquisite Sybil is allowed, by way of
exception, to present herself for a moment in the graceful character of
a sister of charity relieving a poor family in their garret; but we can
detect at once the stamp of noble blood in every gesture, and a coronet
is ready to descend upon her celestial brow. Everywhere else we make
love in gilded palaces, to born princesses in gorgeous apparel; terraced
gardens, with springing fountains and antique statues, are in the
background; or at least an ancestral castle, with long galleries filled
with the armour borne by our ancestors to the Holy Land, rises in cheery
state, waiting to be restored on a scale of unprecedented magnificence
by the dower of our affianced brides. And, of course, the passion is
suitable to such accessories. 'There is no love but at first sight,'[5]
says Disraeli; and, indeed, love at first sight is alone natural to such
beings, on whom beauty and talent have been poured out as lavishly as
wealth, and who need never condescend to thoughts of their natural
needs. It is the love of Romeo and Juliet amidst the gardens of Verona;
or rather the love of Aladdin of the wondrous lamp for some incomparable
beauty, deserving to be enshrined in a palace erected by the hands of
genii. The passion of the lover must be vivid and splendid enough to
stand out worthily against so gorgeous a background; and it must flash
and glitter, and dazzle our commonplace intellects.

In the 'Arabian Nights' the lover repeats a passage of poetry and then
faints from emotion, and Disraeli's lovers are apt to be as
demonstrative and ungovernable in their behaviour. Their happy audacity
makes us forget some little defects in their conduct. Take, for example,
the model love-story in 'Henrietta Temple.' Told by a cold and
unimaginative person, it would run to the following effect:--Ferdinand
Armine was the heir of a decayed Catholic family. Going into the army,
he raised great sums, like other thoughtless young men, on the strength
of his expectations from his maternal grandfather, a rich nobleman. The
grandfather, dying, left his property to Armine's cousin, Katherine
Grandison. Armine instantly made up his mind to marry his cousin and the
property, and his creditors were quieted by news of his engagement.
Meanwhile he met Henrietta Temple, and fell in love with her at first
sight. In spite of his judicious reticence, Miss Temple heard of his
engagement to Miss Grandison, and naturally broke off the match. She
fell into a consumption, and he into a brain fever. The heroes of novels
are never the worse for a brain fever or two, and young Armine, though
Miss Grandison becomes aware of the Temple episode, has judgment enough
to hide it from everybody else, and the first engagement is not
ostensibly broken off. Nay, Armine still continues to raise loans on the
strength of it--a proceeding which sounds very like obtaining money on
false pretences. His creditors, however, become more pressing, and at
last he gets into a sponging-house. Meanwhile Miss Temple has been cured
of her consumption by the heir to a dukedom, and herself becomes the
greatest heiress in England by an unexpected bequest. She returns from
Italy, engaged to her new lover, and hears of her old lover's
misfortunes. And then a 'happy thought' occurs to the two pairs of
lovers. If Miss Temple's wealth had come earlier, she might have married
Armine at first: why should she not do it now? It only requires an
exchange of lovers, which is instantly effected. The heir to the dukedom
marries the rich Miss Grandison; the rich Miss Temple marries Ferdinand
Armine; and everybody lives in the utmost splendour ever afterwards. The
moral to this edifying narrative appears to be given by the waiter at
the sponging-house. 'It is only poor devils nabbed for their fifties and
their hundreds that are ever done up,' says this keen observer. 'A nob
was never nabbed for the sum you are, sir, and never went to the wall.
Trust my experience, I never knowed such a thing.'

This judicious observation, translated into the language of art, gives
Disraeli's secret. His 'nobs' are so splendid in their surroundings,
such a magical light of wealth, magnificence, and rhetoric is thrown
upon all their doings, that we are cheated into sympathy. Who can be
hard upon a young man whose behaviour to his creditors may be
questionable, but who is swept away in such a torrent of gorgeous hues?
The first sight of Miss Temple is enough to reveal her dazzling
complexion, her violet-tinted eyes, her lofty and pellucid brow, her
dark and lustrous locks. Love for such a being is the 'transcendent and
surpassing offspring of sheer and unpolluted sympathy.' It is a rapture
and a madness; it is to the feelings of the ordinary mortal what
sunlight is to moonlight, or wine to water. What wonder that Armine,
'pale and trembling, withdrew a few paces from the overwhelming
spectacle, and leant against a tree in a chaos of emotion? A delicious
and maddening impulse thrilled his frame; a storm raged in his soul; a
big drop quivered on his brow; and a slight foam played upon his lip.'
But 'the tumult of his mind gradually subsided; the fleeting memories,
the saddening thoughts, that for a moment had coursed about in such wild
order, vanished and melted away, and a feeling of bright serenity
succeeded--a sense of beauty and joy, and of hovering and circumambient
happiness.' In short, he asked the lady in to lunch. That is the love
which can only be produced in palaces. Your Burns may display some
warmth of feeling about a peasant-girl, and Wordsworth cherish the
domestic affections in a cottage; but for the dazzling, brilliant forms
of passion we must enter the world of magic, where diamonds are as
plentiful as blackberries, and all surrounding objects are turned to
gold by the alchemy of an excited imagination. The only difference is
that, while other men assume that the commonest things will take a
splendid colour as seen through a lover's eyes, Disraeli takes care that
whatever his lovers see shall have a splendid colouring.

Once more, if we consent for the time to take our author's view--and
that is the necessary condition for enjoying most literature--we must
admit the vivacity and, at times, the real eloquence of Disraeli's
rhetoric. In 'Contarini Fleming' he takes a still more ambitious flight,
and with considerable success. Fleming, the embodiment of the poetic
character, is, we might almost say, to other poets what Armine is to
other lovers. He has the same love of brilliant effects, and the same
absence of genuine tenderness. But one other qualification must be made.
We feel some doubts as to his being a poet at all. He has indeed that
amazing vitality with which Disraeli endows all his favourite heroes,
and in which we may recognise the effervescence of youthful genius. But
his genius is so versatile that we doubt its true destination. His
first literary performance is to write a version of 'Vivian Grey,' a
reckless and successful satire; his most remarkable escapade is to put
himself at the head of a band of students, apparently inspired by
Schiller's Robbers to emulate the career of Moor; his greatest feat is a
sudden stroke of diplomacy which enables him to defeat the plans of more
veteran statesmen. And when he has gone through his initiation, wooed
and won his marvellous beauty, and lost her in an ideal island, the
final shape of his aspirations is curiously characteristic. Having
become rich quite unexpectedly--for he did not know that he was to be
the hero of one of Disraeli's novels--he resolved to 'create a
paradise.' He bought a Palladian pile, with a large estate and beautiful
gardens. In this beautiful scene he intends to erect a Saracenic palace
full of the finest works of modern and ancient art; and in time he hopes
to 'create a scene which may rival in beauty and variety, though not in
extent, the villa of Hadrian, whom I have always considered the most
accomplished and sumptuous character of antiquity.' He has already laid
the foundation of a tower which is to rise to a height of at least a
hundred and fifty feet, and is to equal in solidity and design the most
celebrated works of antiquity. Certainly the scheme is magnificent; but
it is scarcely the ambition which one might have expected from a poet.
Rather it is the design of a man endowed with a genuine artistic
temperament, but with a strange desire to leave some showy and tangible
memorial of his labours. His ambition is not to stir men's souls with
profound thought, or to soften by some new harmonies the weary
complaints of suffering humanity, but to startle the world by the
splendid embodiment in solid marble of the most sumptuous dreams of a
cultivated imagination. Contarini Fleming, indeed, as he shows by a
series of brilliant travellers' sketches, is no mean master of what may
be called poetical prose. His pictures of life and scenery are
vivacious, rapid, and decisive. In later years, the habit of
parliamentary oratory seems to have injured Disraeli's style. In
'Lothair' there is a good deal of slipshod verbiage. But in these
earlier stories the style is generally excellent till it becomes too
ambitious. It has a kind of metallic glitter, brilliant, sparkling with
numerous flashes of wit and fancy, and never wanting in sharpness of
effect, though it may be deficient in delicacy. Yet the author, who is
of necessity to be partly identified with the hero of 'Contarini
Fleming,' is distinctly not a poet; and the incapacity is most evident
when he endeavours to pass the inexorable limits. The distinction
between poetry and rhetoric is as profound as it is undefinable. A true
poet, as possessing an exquisite sensibility to the capacities of his
instrument, does not try to get the effects of metre when he is writing
without its restrictions and its advantages. Disraeli shows occasionally
a want of this delicacy of perception by breaking into a kind of
compromise between the two which can only be called Ossianesque. The
effect, for example, of such a passage as the following is, to my taste
at least, simply grotesque:--

'Still the courser onward rushes; still his mighty heart supports him.
Season and space, the glowing soil, the burning ray, yield to the
tempest of his frame, the thunder of his nerves, and lightning of his

'Food or water they have none. No genial fount, no graceful tree, rise
with their pleasant company. Never a beast or bird is there, in that
hoary desert bare. Nothing breaks the almighty stillness. Even the
jackal's felon cry might seem a soothing melody. A grey wild cat, with
snowy whiskers, out of a withered bramble stealing, with a youthful
snake in its ivory teeth, in the moonlight gleams with glee. This is
their sole society.'

And so on. Some great writers have made prose as melodious as verse; and
Disraeli can at times follow their example successfully. But one likes
to know what one is reading; and the effect of this queer expression is
as if, in the centre of a solemn march, were incorporated a few
dancing-steps, _à propos_ to nothing, and then subsiding into a regular
pace. Milton wrote grand prose and grand verse; but you are never
uncertain whether a fragment of 'Paradise Lost' may or may not have been
inserted by mere accident in the 'Areopagitica.'

Not to dwell upon such minor defects, nobody can read 'Contarini
Fleming' or 'Henrietta Temple' without recognising the admirable talent
and exuberant vitality of the author. They have the faults of juvenile
performances; they are too gaudy; the author has been tempted to turn
aside too frequently in search of some brilliant epigram; he has
mistaken bombast for eloquence, and mere flowery brilliance for warmth
of emotion. But we might hope that longer experience and more earnest
purpose might correct such defects. Alas! in the year of their
publication, Disraeli first entered Parliament. His next works comprised
the trilogy, where the artistic aim has become subordinate to the
political or biological; and some thirty years of parliamentary labours
led to 'Lothair,' of which it is easiest to assume that it is a
practical joke on a large scale, or a prolonged burlesque upon
Disraeli's own youthful performances. May one not lament the degradation
of a promising novelist into a Prime Minister?


[4] Perhaps I ought to substitute 'Lord Beaconsfield' for Disraeli; but
I am writing of the author of 'Coningsby,' rather than of the author of
'Endymion:' and I will therefore venture to preserve the older name.

[5] 'He never loved that loved not at first sight,' says Marlowe, and
Shakespeare after him. I cannot say whether this be an undesigned
literary coincidence or an appropriation. Disraeli, we know, was skilful
in the art of annexation. One or two instances may be added. Here is a
clear case of borrowing. Fuller says in the character of the good
sea-captain in the 'Holy State'--'Who first taught the water to imitate
the creatures on land, so that the sea is the stable of horse-fishes,
the stye of hog-fishes, the kennel of dog-fishes, and in all things, the
sea is the ape of the land?' Essper George, in 'Vivian Grey,' says to
the sea: 'O thou indifferent ape of earth, what art thou, O bully ocean,
but the stable of horse-fishes, the stall of cow-fishes, the stye of
hog-fishes, and the kennel of dog-fishes?' Other cases may be more
doubtful. On one occasion, Disraeli spoke of the policy of his opponents
as a combination of 'blundering and plundering.' The jingle was thought
to be adapted from a previous epigram about 'meddling and muddling;' but
here is the identical phrase: Coleridge wrote in the 'Courier:' 'The
writer, whilst abroad, was once present when most bitter complaints were
made of the ----government. "Government!" exclaimed a testy old captain
of a Mediterranean trading-vessel, "call it _blunderment_ or
_plunderment_ or what you like--only not a _government_!"'--Coleridge's
'Essays on his own Times,' p. 893. Disraeli is sometimes credited with
the epigram in 'Lothair' about critics being authors who have failed. I
know not who said this first; but it was certainly not Disraeli. Landor
makes Porson tell Southey: 'Those who have failed as writers turn
reviewers.' The classical passage is in Sainte-Beuve. Balzac, he says,
said somewhere of a sculptor who had become discouraged: 'Redevenu
artiste _in partibus_, il avait beaucoup de succès dans les salons, il
était consulté par beaucoup d'amateurs; _il passa critique comme tous
les impuissants qui mentent à leurs débuts_.' Sainte-Beuve, naturally
indignant at a phrase aimed against his craft, if not against himself,
says that this may be true of a sculptor or painter who deserts his art
in order to talk; 'mais, dans l'ordre de la pensée, cette parole de M.
de Balzac qui revient souvent sous la plume de toute une école de jeunes
littérateurs, est à la fois (je leur en demande pardon) une injustice et
une erreur.'--'Causeries du Lundi,' vol. ii. p. 455. A very similar
phrase is to be found in a book where one would hardly look for such
epigrams, Marryat's 'King's Own.' But to trace such witticisms to their
first source is a task for 'Notes and Queries.'


In one of the best of his occasional essays, Kingsley held a brief for
the plaintiffs in the old case of Puritans _versus_ Playwrights. The
litigation in which this case represents a minor issue has lasted for a
period far exceeding that of the most pertinacious lawsuit, and is not
likely to come to an end within any assignable limits of time. When the
discussion is pressed home, it is seen to involve fundamentally
different conceptions of human life and its purposes; and it can only
cease when we have discovered the grounds of a permanent conciliation
between the ethical and the æsthetic elements of human nature. The
narrower controversy between the stage and the Church has itself a long
history. It has left some curious marks upon English literature. The
prejudice which uttered itself through the Puritan Prynne was inherited,
in a later generation, by the High-Churchmen Collier and William Law.
The attack, it is true, may be ostensibly directed--as in Kingsley's
essay--against the abuse of the stage rather than against the stage
itself. Kingsley pays the usual tribute to Shakespeare whilst denouncing
the whole literature of which Shakespeare's dramas are the most
conspicuous product. But then, everybody always distinguishes in terms
between the use and the abuse; and the line of demarcation generally
turns out to be singularly fluctuating and uncertain. You can hardly
demolish Beaumont and Fletcher without bringing down some of the
outlying pinnacles, if not shaking the very foundations, of the temple
sacred to Shakespeare.

It would be regrettable, could one stop to regret the one-sided and
illogical construction of the human mind, that a fair judgment in such
matters seems to require incompatible qualities. Your impartial critic
or historian is generally a man who leaves out of account nothing but
the essential. His impartiality means sympathy with the commonplace, and
incapacity for understanding heroic faith and overpowering enthusiasm.
He fancies that a man or a book can be judged by balancing a list of
virtues and vices as if they were separate entities lying side by side
in a box, instead of different aspects of a vital force. On the other
hand, the vivid imagination which restores dead bones to life makes its
possessor a partisan in extinct quarrels, and as short-sighted and
unfair a partisan as the original actors. Roundheads and Cavaliers have
been dead these two centuries.

    Dumb are those names erewhile in battle loud;
    Dreamfooted as the shadow of a cloud,
    They flit across the ear.

Yet few even amongst modern writers are capable of doing justice to both
sides without first making both sides colourless. Hallam judges men in
the throes of a revolution as though they were parties in a lawsuit to
be decided by precedents and parchments, and Carlyle cannot appreciate
Cromwell's magnificent force of character without making him all but
infallible and impeccable. Critics of the early drama are equally
one-sided. The exquisite literary faculty of Charles Lamb revelled in
detecting beauties which had been covered with the dust of oblivion
during the reign of Pope. His appreciation was intensified by that charm
of discovery which finds its typical utterance in Keats's famous sonnet.
He was scarcely a more impartial judge of Fletcher or Ford than 'Stout
Cortes' of the new world revealed by his enterprise. We may willingly
defer to his judgment of the relative value of the writers whom he
discusses, but we must qualify his judgment of their intrinsic
excellence by the recollection that he speaks as a lover. To him and
other thoroughgoing admirers of the old drama the Puritanical onslaught
upon the stage presented itself as the advent of a gloomy superstition,
ruthlessly stamping out all that was beautiful in art and literature.
Kingsley, an admirable hater, could perceive only the opposite aspect of
the phenomena. To him the Puritan protest appears as the voice of the
enlightened conscience; the revolution means the troubling of the turbid
waters at the descent of the angel; Prynne's 'Histriomastix' is the
blast of the trumpet at which the rotten and polluted walls of Jericho
are to crumble into dust. The stage, which represented the tone of
aristocratic society, rightfully perished with the order which it
flattered. Courtiers had learnt to indulge in a cynical mockery of
virtue, or to find an unholy attraction in the accumulation of
extravagant horrors. The English drama, in short, was one of those evil
growths which are fostered by deeply-seated social corruption, and are
killed off by the breath of a purer air. That such phenomena occur at
times is undeniable. Mr. Symonds has recently shown us, in his history
of the Renaissance, how the Italian literature to which our English
dramatists owed so many suggestions was the natural fruit of a society
poisoned at the roots. Nor, when we have shaken off that spirit of
slavish adulation in which modern antiquarians and critics have regarded
the so-called Elizabethan dramatists, can we deny that there are
symptoms of a similar mischief in their writings. Some of the most
authoritative testimonials have a suspicious element. Praise has been
lavished upon the most questionable characteristics of the old drama.
Apologists have been found, not merely for its daring portrayal of human
passion, but for its wanton delight in the grotesque and the horrible
for its own sake; and some critics have revenged themselves for the
straitlaced censures of Puritan morality by praising work in which the
author strives to atone for imaginative weakness by a choice of
revolting motives. Such adulation ought to have disappeared with the
first fervour of rehabilitation. Much that has been praised in the old
drama is rubbish, and some of it disgusting rubbish.

The question, however, remains, how far we ought to adopt either view of
the situation? Are we bound to cast aside the later dramas of the school
as simply products of corruption? It may be of interest to consider the
light thrown upon this question by the works of Massinger, nearly the
last of the writers who can really claim a permanent position in
literature. Massinger, born in 1584, died in 1639. His surviving works
were composed, with one exception, after 1620. They represent,
therefore, the tastes of the playgoing classes during the rapid
development of the great struggle which culminated in the rebellion. In
a literary sense it is the period when the imaginative impulse
represented by the great dramatists was running low. It is curious to
reflect that, if Shakespeare had lived out his legitimate allowance of
threescore years and ten, he might have witnessed the production, not
only of the first, but of nearly all the best works of his school; had
his life been prolonged for ten years more, he would have witnessed its
final extinction. Within these narrow limits of time the drama had
undergone a change corresponding to the change in the national mood. The
difference, for example, between Marlowe and Massinger at the opening
and the close of the period--though their births were separated by only
twenty years--corresponds to the difference between the temper of the
generation which repelled the Armada and the temper of the generation
which fretted under the rule of the first Stuarts. The misnomer of
Elizabethan as applied to the whole school indicates an implicit
perception that its greater achievements were due to the same impulse
which took for its outward and visible symbol the name of the great
Queen. But it has led also to writers being too summarily classed
together who really represent very different phases in a remarkable
evolution. After making all allowances for personal idiosyncrasies, we
can still see how profoundly the work of Massinger is coloured by the
predominant sentiment of the later epoch.

As little is known of Massinger's life as of the lives of most of the
contemporary dramatists who had the good or ill fortune to be born
before the days of the modern biographical mania. It is known that he,
like most of his brethren, suffered grievously from impecuniosity; and
he records in one of his dedications his obligations to a patron without
whose bounty he would for many years have 'but faintly subsisted.' His
father had been employed by Henry, Earl of Pembroke; but Massinger,
though acknowledging a certain debt of gratitude to the Herbert family,
can hardly have received from them any effective patronage. Whatever
their relations may have been, it has been pointed out by Professor
Gardiner[6] that Massinger probably sympathised with the political views
represented by the two sons of his father's patron, who were
successively Earls of Pembroke during the reigns of the first James and
Charles. On two occasions he got into trouble with the licenser for
attacks, real or supposed, upon the policy of the Government. More than
one of his plays contain, according to Professor Gardiner, references to
the politics of the day as distinct as those conveyed by a cartoon in
'Punch.' The general result of his argument is to show that Massinger
sympathised with the views of an aristocratic party who looked with
suspicion upon the despotic tendencies of Charles's Government, and
thought that they could manage refractory parliaments by adopting a more
spirited foreign policy. Though in reality weak and selfish enough, they
affected to protest against the materialising and oppressive policy of
the extreme Royalists. How far these views represented any genuine
convictions, and how far Massinger's adhesion implied a complete
sympathy with them, or might indicate that kind of delusion which often
leads a mere literary observer to see a lofty intention in the schemes
of a selfish politician, are questions which I am incompetent to
discuss, and which obviously do not admit of a decided answer. They
confirm, as far as they go, the general impression as to Massinger's
point of view which we should derive from his writings without special
interpretation. 'Shakespeare,' says Coleridge, 'gives the permanent
politics of human nature' (whatever they may be!), 'and the only
predilection which appears shows itself in his contempt of mobs and the
populace. Massinger is a decided Whig; Beaumont and Fletcher
high-flying, passive-obedience Tories.' The author of 'Coriolanus,' one
would be disposed to say, showed himself a thoroughgoing aristocrat,
though in an age when the popular voice had not yet given utterance to
systematic political discontent. He was still a stranger to the
sentiments symptomatic of an approaching revolution, and has not
explicitly pronounced upon issues hardly revealed even to

                            The prophetic soul
    Of the wide world dreaming of things to come.

The sense of national unity evolved in the great struggle with Spain had
not yet been lost in the discord of the rising generation. The other
classifications may be accepted with less reserve. The dramatists
represented the views of their patrons. The drama reflected in the main
the sentiments of an aristocratic class alarmed by the growing vigour of
the Puritanical citizens. Fletcher is, as Coleridge says, a
thoroughgoing Tory; his sentiments in 'Valentinian' are, to follow the
same guidance, so 'very slavish and reptile' that it is a trial of
charity to read them. Nor can we quite share Coleridge's rather needless
surprise that they should emanate from the son of a bishop, and that the
duty to God should be the supposed basis. A servile bishop in those days
was not a contradiction in terms, and still less a servile son of a
bishop; and it must surely be admitted that the theory of Divine Right
may lead, illogically or otherwise, to reptile sentiments. The
difference between Fletcher and Massinger, who were occasional
collaborators and apparently close friends (Massinger, it is said, was
buried in Fletcher's grave), was probably due to difference of
temperament as much as to the character of Massinger's family
connection. Massinger's melancholy is as marked as the buoyant gaiety of
his friend and ally. He naturally represents the misgivings which must
have beset the more thoughtful members of his party, as Fletcher
represented the careless vivacity of the Cavalier spirit. Massinger is
given to expatiating upon the text that

                        Subjects' lives
    Are not their prince's tennis-balls, to be bandied
    In sport away.

The high-minded Pulcheria, in the 'Emperor of the East,' administers a
bitter reproof to a slavish 'projector' who

                                  Roars out
    All is the King's, his will above the laws;

who whispers in his ear that nobody should bring a salad from his garden
without paying 'gabel,' or kill a hen without excise; who suggests that,
if a prince wants a sum of money, he may make impossible demands from a
city and exact arbitrary fines for its non-performance.

                            Is this the way
    To make our Emperor happy? Can the groans
    Of his subjects yield him music? Must his thresholds
    Be wash'd with widows' and wrong'd orphans' tears,
    Or his power grow contemptible?

Professor Gardiner tells us that at the time at which these lines were
written they need not have been taken as referring to Charles. But the
vein of sentiment which often occurs elsewhere is equally significant of
Massinger's view of the political situation of the time. We see what
were the topics that were beginning to occupy men's minds.

Dryden made the remark, often quoted for purposes of indignant
reprobation by modern critics, that Beaumont and Fletcher 'understood
and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better' (than
Shakespeare); 'whose wild debaucheries and quickness of wit in repartees
no poet can ever paint as they did.' It is, of course, easy enough to
reply that in the true sense of the word 'gentleman' Shakespeare's
heroes are incomparably superior to those of his successors; but then
this is just the sense in which Dryden did not use the word. His real
meaning indicates a very sound piece of historical criticism. Fletcher
describes a new social type; the 'King's Young Courtier' who is
deserting the good old ways of his father, the 'old courtier of the
Queen.' The change is but one step in that continuous process which has
substituted the modern gentleman for the old feudal noble; but the step
taken at that period was great and significant. The chivalrous type,
represented in Sidney's life and Spenser's poetry, is beginning to be
old-fashioned and out of place as the industrial elements of society
become more prominent. The aristocrat in the rising generation finds
that his occupation is going. He takes to those 'wild debaucheries'
which Dryden oddly reckons among the attributes of a true gentleman; and
learns the art of 'quick repartee' in the courtly society which has time
enough on its hands to make a business of amusement. The euphuism and
allied affectations of the earlier generation had a certain grace, as
the external clothing of a serious chivalrous sentiment; but it is
rapidly passing into a silly coxcombry to be crushed by Puritanism or
snuffed out by the worldly cynicism of the new generation. Shakespeare's
Henry or Romeo may indulge in wild freaks or abandon themselves to the
intense passions of vigorous youth; but they will settle down into good
statesmen and warriors as they grow older. Their love-making is a phase
in their development, not the business of their lives. Fletcher's heroes
seem to be not only occupied for the moment, but to make a permanent
profession of what with their predecessors was a passing phase of
youthful ebullience. It is true that we have still a long step to make
before we sink to the mere _roué_, the shameless scapegrace and cynical
man about town of the Restoration. To make a Wycherley you must distil
all the poetry out of a Fletcher. Fletcher is a true poet; and the
graceful sentiment, though mixed with a coarse alloy, still repels that
unmitigated grossness which, according to Burke's famous aphorism, is
responsible for half the evil of vice. He is still alive to generous and
tender emotions, though it can scarcely be said that his morality has
much substance in it. It is a sentiment, not a conviction, and covers
without quenching many ugly and brutal emotions.

In Fletcher's wild gallants, still adorned by a touch of the chivalrous;
reckless, immoral, but scarcely cynical; not sceptical as to the
existence of virtue, but only admitting morality by way of parenthesis
to the habitual current of their thoughts, we recognise the kind of
stuff from which to frame the Cavaliers who will follow Rupert and be
crushed by Cromwell. A characteristic sentiment which occurs constantly
in the drama of the period represents the soldier out of work. We are
incessantly treated to lamentations upon the ingratitude of the
comfortable citizens who care nothing for the men to whom they owed
their security. The political history of the times explains the
popularity of such complaints. Englishmen were fretting under their
enforced abstinence from the exciting struggles on the Continent. There
was no want of Dugald Dalgettys returning from the wars to afford models
for the military braggart or the bluff honest soldier, both of whom go
swaggering through so many of the plays of the time. Clarendon in his
Life speaks of the temptations which beset him from mixing with the
military society of the time. There was a large and increasing class,
no longer finding occupation in fighting Spaniards and searching for
Eldorado, and consequently, in the Yankee phrase, 'spoiling for a
fight.' When the time comes, they will be ready enough to fight
gallantly, and to show an utter incapacity for serious discipline. They
will meet the citizens, whom they have mocked so merrily, and find that
reckless courage and spasmodic chivalry do not exhaust the
qualifications for military success.

Massinger represents a different turn of sentiment which would be
encouraged in some minds by the same social conditions. Instead of
abandoning himself frankly to the stream of youthful sentiment, he feels
that it has a dangerous aspect. The shadow of coming evils was already
dark enough to suggest various forebodings. But he is also a moraliser
by temperament. Mr. Ward says that his strength is owing in a great
degree to his appreciation of the great moral forces; and the remark is
only a confirmation of the judgment of most of his critics. It is, of
course, not merely that he is fond of adding little moral tags of
questionable applicability to the end of his plays. 'We are taught,' he
says in the 'Fatal Dowry,'

    By this sad precedent, how just soever
    Our reasons are to remedy our wrongs,
    We are yet to leave them to their will and power
    That to that purpose have authority.

But it is, to say the least, doubtful whether anybody would have that
judicious doctrine much impressed upon him by seeing the play itself.
Nor can one rely much upon the elaborate and very eloquent defence of
his art in the 'Roman Actor.' Paris, the actor, sets forth very
vigorously that the stage tends to lay bare the snares to which youth is
exposed and to inflame a noble ambition by example. If the discharge of
such a function deserves reward from the Commonwealth--

    Actors may put in for as large a share
    As all the sects of the philosophers;--
    They with cold precepts--perhaps seldom read--
    Deliver what an honourable thing
    The active virtue is; but does that fire
    The blood, or swell the veins with emulation
    To be both good and great, equal to that
    Which is presented in our theatres?

Massinger goes on to show, after the fashion of Jaques in 'As You Like
It,' that the man who chooses to put on the cap is responsible for the
application of the satire. He had good reasons, as we have seen, for
feeling sensitive as to misunderstandings--or, rather, too thorough
understandings--of this kind.

To some dramatists of the time, who should put forward such a plea, one
would be inclined to answer in the sensible words of old Fuller. 'Two
things,' he says, 'are set forth to us in stage plays; some grave
sentences, prudent counsels, and punishment of vicious examples: and
with these desperate oaths, lustful talk, and riotous acts, are so
personated to the life, that wantons are tickled with delight, and feed
their palates upon them. It seems the goodness is not portrayed with
equal accents of liveliness as the wicked things are; otherwise men
would be deterred from vicious courses, with seeing the woful success
which follows them'--a result scarcely to be claimed by the actors of
the day. Massinger, however, shows more moral feeling than is expended
in providing sentiments to be tacked on as an external appendage, or
satisfied by an obedience to the demands of poetic justice. He is not
content with knocking his villains on the head--a practice in which he,
like his contemporaries, indulges with only too much complacency. The
idea which underlies most of his plays is a struggle of virtue assailed
by external or inward temptations. He is interested by the ethical
problems introduced in the play of conflicting passions, and never more
eloquent than in uttering the emotions of militant or triumphant virtue.
His view of life, indeed, is not only grave, but has a distinct
religious colouring. From various indications, it is probable that he
was a Roman Catholic. Some of these are grotesque enough. The
'Renegado,' for example, not only shows that Massinger was, for dramatic
purposes at least, an ardent believer in baptismal regeneration, but
includes--what one would scarcely have sought in such a place--a
discussion as to the validity of lay-baptism. The first of his surviving
plays, the 'Virgin Martyr' (in which he was assisted by Dekker), is
simply a dramatic version of an ecclesiastical legend. Though it seems
to have been popular at the time, the modern reader will probably think
that, in this case at least, the religious element is a little out of
place. An angel and a devil take an active part in the performance;
miracles are worked on the stage; the unbelievers are so shockingly
wicked, and the Christians so obtrusively good, that we--the
worldly-minded--are sensible of a little recalcitration, unless we are
disarmed by the simplicity of the whole performance. Religious tracts of
all ages and in all forms are apt to produce this ambiguous effect.
Unless we are quite in harmony with their assumptions, we feel that they
deal too much in conventional rose-colour. The angelic and diabolic
elements are not so clearly discriminated in this world, and should show
themselves less unequivocally on the stage, which ought to be its
mirror. Such art was not congenial to the English atmosphere; it might
be suitable in Madrid; but when forcibly transplanted to the London
stage, we feel that the performance has not the simple earnestness by
which alone it can be justified. The sentiment has a certain unreality,
and the _naïveté_ suggests affectation. The implied belief is got up for
the moment and has a hollow ring. And therefore, the whole work, in
spite of some eloquence, is nothing better than a curiosity, as an
attempt at the assimilation of a heterogeneous form of art.

A similar vein of sentiment, though not showing itself in so undiluted a
form, runs through most of Massinger's plays. He is throughout a
sentimentalist and a rhetorician. He is not, like the greatest men,
dominated by thoughts and emotions which force him to give them external
embodiment in life-like symbols. He is rather a man of much real feeling
and extraordinary facility of utterance, who finds in his stories
convenient occasions for indulging in elaborate didactic utterances upon
moral topics. It is probably this comparative weakness of the higher
imaginative faculty which makes Lamb speak of him rather disparagingly.
He is too self-conscious and too anxious to enforce downright moral
sentiments to satisfy a critic by whom spontaneous force and direct
insight were rightly regarded as the highest poetic qualities. A single
touch in Shakespeare, or even in Webster or Ford, often reveals more
depth of feeling than a whole scene of Massinger's facile and often
deliberately forensic eloquence. His temperament is indicated by the
peculiarities of his style. It is, as Coleridge says, poetry
differentiated by the smallest possible degree from prose. The greatest
artists of blank verse have so complete a mastery of their language that
it is felt as a fibre which runs through and everywhere strengthens the
harmony, and is yet in complete subordination to the sentiment. With a
writer of the second order, such as Fletcher, the metre becomes more
prominent, and at times produces a kind of monotonous sing-song, which
begins to remind us unpleasantly of the still more artificial tone
characteristic of the rhymed tragedies of the next generation. Massinger
diverges in the opposite direction. The metre is felt enough and only
just enough to give a more stately step to rather florid prose. It is
one of his marks that a line frequently ends by some insignificant 'of'
or 'from,' so as to exclude the briefest possible pause in reading.
Thus, to take an example pretty much at random, the following instance
might be easily read without observing that it was blank verse at all:--

'Your brave achievements in the war, and what you did for me, unspoken,
because I would not force the sweetness of your modesty to a blush, are
written here; and that there might be nothing wanting to sum up my
numerous engagements (never in my hopes to be cancelled), the great
duke, our mortal enemy, when my father's country lay open to his fury
and the spoil of the victorious army, and I brought into his power, hath
shown himself so noble, so full of honour, temperance, and all virtues
that can set off a prince; that, though I cannot render him that respect
I would, I am bound in thankfulness to admire him.'

Such a style is suitable to a man whose moods do not often hurry him
into impetuous, or vivacious, or epigrammatic utterance. As the Persian
poet says of his country: his warmth is not heat, and his coolness is
not cold. He flows on in a quiet current, never breaking into foam or
fury, but vigorous, and invariably lucid. As a pleader before a
law-court--the character in which, as Mr. Ward observes, he has a
peculiar fondness for presenting himself--he would carry his audience
along with him, but scarcely hold them in spell-bound astonishment or
hurry them into fits of excitement. Melancholy resignation or dignified
dissatisfaction will find in him a powerful exponent, but scarcely
despair, or love, or hatred, or any social phase of pure unqualified

The natural field for the display of such qualities is the romantic
drama, which Massinger took from the hands of Beaumont and Fletcher, and
endowed with greater dignity and less poetic fervour. For the vigorous
comedy of real life, as Jonson understood it, he has simply no capacity;
and in his rare attempts at humour, succeeds only in being at once dull
and dirty. His stage is generally occupied with dignified lords and
ladies, professing the most chivalrous sentiments, which are
occasionally too high-flown and overstrained to be thoroughly effective,
but which are yet uttered with sufficient sincerity. They are not mere
hollow pretences, consciously adopted to conceal base motives; but one
feels the want of an occasional infusion of the bracing air of common
sense. It is the voice of a society still inspired with the traditional
sentiments of honour and self-respect, but a little afraid of contact
with the rough realities of life. Its chivalry is a survival from a past
epoch, not a spontaneous outgrowth of the most vital elements of
contemporary development. In another generation, such a tone will be
adopted by a conscious and deliberate artifice, and be reflected in mere
theatrical rant. In the past, it was the natural expression of a
high-spirited race, full of self-confidence and pride in its own
vigorous audacity. In this transitional period it has a certain hectic
flush, symptomatic of approaching decay; anxious to give a wide berth
to realities, and most at home in the border land where dreams are only
half dispelled by the light of common day. 'Don Quixote' had sounded the
knell of the old romance, but something of the old spirit still lingers,
and can tinge with an interest, not yet wholly artificial, the lives and
passions of beings who are thus hovering on the outskirts of the living
world. The situations most characteristic of Massinger's tendency are in
harmony with this tone of sentiment. They are romances taken from a
considerable variety of sources, developed in a clearly connected series
of scenes. They are wanting in the imaginative unity of the great plays,
which show that a true poet has been profoundly moved by some profound
thought embodied in a typical situation. He does not, like Shakespeare,
seize his subject by the heart, because it has first fascinated his
imagination; nor, on the other hand, have we that bewildering complexity
of motives and intricacy of plot which shows at best a lawless and
wandering fancy, and which often fairly puzzles us in many English
plays, and enforces frequent reference to the list of personages in
order to disentangle the crossing threads of the action. Massinger's
plays are a gradual unravelling of a series of incidents, each following
intelligibly from the preceding situation, and suggestive of many
eloquent observations, though not developments of one master-thought. We
often feel that, if external circumstances had been propitious, he would
have expressed himself more naturally in the form of a prose romance
than in a drama. Nor, again, does he often indulge in those exciting and
horrible situations which possess such charms for his contemporaries.
There are occasions, it is true, in which this element is not wanting.
In the 'Unnatural Combat,' for example, we have a father killing his son
in a duel, by the end of the second act; and when, after a succession
of horrors of the worst kind, we are treated to a ghost, 'full of
wounds, leading in the shadow of a lady, her face leprous,' and the
worst criminal is killed by a flash of lightning, we feel that we were
fully entitled to such a catastrophe. We can only say, in Massinger's

                  May we make use of
    This great example, and learn from it that
    There cannot be a want of power above
    To punish murder and unlawful love!

The 'Duke of Milan' again culminates with a horrible scene, rivalling,
though with less power, the grotesque horrors of Webster's 'Duchess of
Malfi.' Other instances might be given of concessions to that
blood-and-thunder style of dramatic writing for which our ancestors had
a never-failing appetite. But, as a rule, Massinger inclines, as far as
contemporary writers will allow him, to the side of mercy. Instead of
using slaughter so freely that a new set of actors has to be introduced
to bury the old--a misfortune which sometimes occurs in the plays of the
time--he generally tends to a happy solution, and is disposed not only
to dismiss his virtuous characters to felicity, but even to make his
villains virtuous. We have not been excited to that pitch at which our
passions can only be harmonised by an effusion of blood, and a mild
solution is sufficient for the calmer feelings which have been aroused.

This tendency illustrates Massinger's conception of life in another
sense. Nothing is more striking in the early stage than the vigour of
character of most of these heroes. Individual character, as it is said,
takes the place in the modern of fate in the ancient drama. Every man is
run in a mould of iron, and may break, but cannot bend. The fitting
prologue to the whole literature is provided by Marlowe's Tamburlaine,
with his superhuman audacity and vast bombastic rants, the incarnation
of a towering ambition which scorns all laws but its own devouring
passion. Faustus, braving all penalties, human and divine, is another
variety of the same type: and when we have to do with a weak character
like Edward II., we feel that it is his natural destiny to be confined
in a loathsome dungeon, with mouldy bread to eat and ditch-water to
drink. The world is for the daring; and though daring may be pushed to
excess, weakness is the one unpardonable offence. A thoroughgoing
villain is better than a trembling saint. If Shakespeare's instinctive
taste revealed the absurdity of the bombastic exaggeration of such
tendencies, his characters are equally unbending. His villains die, like
Macbeth and Iago, with their teeth set, and scorn even a deathbed
repentance. Hamlet exhibits the unfitness for a world of action of the
man who is foolish enough to see two sides to every question. So again,
Chapman, the writer who in fulness and fire of thought approaches most
nearly to Shakespeare, is an ardent worshipper of pure energy of
character. His Bussy d'Ambois cannot be turned from his purpose even by
the warnings of the ghost of his accomplice, and a mysterious spirit
summoned expressly to give advice. An admirably vigorous phrase from one
of the many declamations of his hero Byron--another representative of
the same haughty strength of will--gives his theory of character:--

    Give me a spirit that on this life's rough sea
    Loves t' have his sail filled with a lusty wind,
    Even till his sailyards tremble, his masts crack,
    And his rapt ship run on her side so low
    That she drinks water, and her keel plows air.

Pure, undiluted energy, stern force of will, delight in danger for its
own sake, contempt for all laws but the self-imposed, those are the
cardinal virtues, and challenge our sympathy even when they lead their
possessor to destruction. The psychology implied in Jonson's treating of
'humour' is another phase of the same sentiment. The side by which
energetic characters lend themselves to comedy is the exaggeration of
some special trait which determines their course as tyrannically as
ambition governs the character suited for tragedy.

When we turn to Massinger, this boundless vigour has disappeared. The
blood has grown cool. The tyrant no longer forces us to admiration by
the fulness of his vitality, and the magnificence of his contempt for
law. Whether for good or bad, he is comparatively a poor creature. He
has developed an uneasy conscience, and even whilst affecting to defy
the law, trembles at the thought of an approaching retribution. His
boasts have a shrill, querulous note in them. His creator does not fully
sympathise with his passion. Massinger cannot throw himself into the
situation; and is anxious to dwell upon the obvious moral considerations
which prove such characters to be decidedly inconvenient members of
society for their tamer neighbours. He is of course the more in
accordance with a correct code of morality, but fails correspondingly in
dramatic force and brilliance of colour. To exhibit a villain truly,
even to enable us to realise the true depth of his villainy, one must be
able for a moment to share his point of view, and therefore to
understand the true law of his being. It is a very sound rule in the
conduct of life, that we should not sympathise with scoundrels. But the
morality of the poet, as of the scientific psychologist, is founded upon
the unflinching veracity which sets forth all motives with absolute
impartiality. Some sort of provisional sympathy with the wicked there
must be, or they become mere impossible monsters or the conventional
scarecrows of improving tracts.

This is Massinger's weakest side. His villains want backbone, and his
heroes are deficient in simple overmastering passion, or supplement
their motives by some overstrained and unnatural crotchet. Impulsiveness
takes the place of vigour, and indicates the want of a vigorous grasp of
the situation. Thus, for example, the 'Duke of Milan,' which is
certainly amongst the more impressive of Massinger's plays, may be
described as a variation upon the theme of 'Othello.' To measure the
work of any other writer by its relation to that masterpiece is, of
course, to apply a test of undue severity. Of comparison, properly
speaking, there can be no question. The similarity of the situation,
however, may bring out Massinger's characteristics. The Duke, who takes
the place of Othello, is, like his prototype, a brave soldier. The most
spirited and effective passage in the play is the scene in which he is
brought as a prisoner before Charles V., and not only extorts the
admiration of his conqueror, but wins his liberty by a dignified avowal
of his previous hostility, and avoidance of any base compliance. The
Duke shows himself to be a high-minded gentleman, and we are so far
prepared to sympathise with him when exposed to the wiles of
Francisco--the Iago of the piece. But, unfortunately, the scene is not
merely a digression in a constructive sense, but involves a
psychological inconsistency. The gallant soldier contrives to make
himself thoroughly contemptible. He is represented as excessively
uxorious, and his passion takes the very disagreeable turn of posthumous
jealousy. He has instructed Francisco to murder the wife whom he adores,
in case of his own death during the war, and thus to make sure that she
could not marry anybody else. On his return, the wife, who has been
informed by the treachery of Francisco of this pleasant arrangement, is
naturally rather cool to him; whereupon he flies into a rage and swears
that he will

    Never think of curs'd Marcelia more.

His affection returns in another scene, but only in order to increase
his jealousy, and on hearing Francisco's slander he proceeds to stab his
wife out of hand. It is the action of a weak man in a passion, not of a
noble nature tortured to madness. Finding out his mistake, he of course
repents again, and expresses himself with a good deal of eloquence which
would be more effective if we could forget the overpowering pathos of
the parallel scene in 'Othello.' Much sympathy, however, is impossible
for a man whose whole conduct is so flighty, and so obviously determined
by the immediate demands of successive situations of the play, and not
the varying manifestation of a powerfully conceived character. Francisco
is a more coherent villain, and an objection made by Hazlitt to his
apparent want of motive is at least equally valid against Iago; but he
is of course but a diluted version of that superlative villain, as
Marcelia is a rather priggish and infinitely less tender Desdemona. The
failure, however, of the central figure to exhibit any fixity of
character is the real weakness of the play; and the horrors of the last
scene fail to atone for the want of the vivid style which reveals an
'intense and gloomy mind.'

This kind of versatility and impulsiveness of character is revealed by
the curious convertibility--if one may use the word--of his characters.
They are the very reverse of the men of iron of the previous generation.
They change their state of mind as easily as the characters of the
contemporary drama put on disguises. We are often amazed at the
simplicity which enables a whole family to suppose the brother and
father to whom they have been speaking ten minutes before to be an
entire stranger, because he has changed his coat or talks broken
English. The audience must have been easily satisfied in such cases; but
it requires almost equal simplicity to accept some of Massinger's
transformations. In such a play as the 'Virgin Martyr,' a religious
conversion is a natural part of the scheme. Nor need we be surprised at
the amazing facility with which a fair Mohammedan is converted in the
'Renegado' by the summary assertion that the 'juggling Prophet' is a
cheat, and taught a pigeon to feed in his ear. Can there be strength, it
is added, in that religion which allows us to fear death? 'This is
unanswerable,' exclaims the lady, 'and there is something tells me I err
in my opinion.' This is almost as good as the sudden thought of swearing
eternal friendship in the 'Anti-Jacobin.' The hardened villain of the
first act in the same play falls into despair in the third, and, with
the help of an admirable Jesuit, becomes a most useful and exemplary
convert by the fifth. But such catastrophes may be regarded as more or
less miraculous. The versatility of character is more singular when
religious conversions are not in question. 'I am certain,' says Philanax
in the 'Emperor of the East,'

    'A prince so soon in his disposition altered
    Was never heard nor read of.'

That proves that Philanax was not familiar with Massinger's plays. The
disposition of princes and of subjects is there constantly altered with
the most satisfactory result. It is not merely that, as often happens
elsewhere, the villains are summarily forced to repent at the end of a
play, like Angelo in 'Measure for Measure,' in order to allow the
curtain to fall upon a prospect of happiness. Such forced catastrophes
are common, if clumsy enough. But there is something malleable in the
very constitution of Massinger's characters. They repent half-way
through the performance, and see the error of their ways with a facility
which we could wish to be imitated in common life. The truth seems to be
that Massinger is subject to an illusion natural enough to a man who is
more of the rhetorician than the seer. He fancies that eloquence must be
irresistible. He takes the change of mood produced by an elevated appeal
to the feelings for a change of character. Thus, for example, in the
'Picture'--a characteristic, though not a very successful play--we have
a story founded upon the temptations of a separated husband and wife.
The husband carries with him a magical picture, which grows dark or
bright according to the behaviour of the wife, whom it represents. The
husband is tempted to infidelity by a queen, herself spoilt by the
flatteries of an uxorious husband; and the wife by a couple of
courtiers, who have all the vices of Fletcher's worst heroes without any
of their attractions. The interest of the play, such as it is, depends
upon the varying moods of the chief actors, who become so eloquent under
a sense of wrong or a reflection upon the charms of virtue, that they
approach the bounds of vice, and then gravitate back to respectability.
Everybody becomes perfectly respectable before the end of the play is
reached, and we are to suppose that they will remain respectable ever
afterwards. They avoid tragic results by their want of the overmastering
passions which lead to great crimes or noble actions. They are really
eloquent, but even more moved by their eloquence than the spectators can
be. They form the kind of audience which would be most flattering to an
able preacher, but in which a wise preacher would put little confidence.
And, therefore, besides the fanciful incident of the picture, they give
us an impression of unreality. They have no rich blood in their veins;
and are little better than lay figures taking up positions as it may
happen, in order to form an effective tableau illustrative of an
unexceptionable moral.

There is, it is true, one remarkable exception to the general weakness
of Massinger's characters. The vigour with which Sir Giles Overreach is
set forth has made him the one well-known figure in Massinger's gallery,
and the 'New Way to Pay Old Debts' showed, in consequence, more vitality
than any of his other plays. Much praise has been given, and not more
than enough, to the originality and force of the conception. The
conventional miser is elevated into a great man by a kind of inverse
heroism, and made terrible instead of contemptible. But it is equally
plain that here, too, Massinger fails to project himself fairly into his
villain. His rants are singularly forcible, but they are clearly what
other people would think about him, not what he would really think,
still less what he would say, of himself. Take, for example, the very
fine speech in which he replies to the question of the virtuous
nobleman, whether he is not frightened by the imprecations of his

                          Yes, as rocks are
    When foaming billows split themselves against
    Their flinty sides; or as the moon is moved
    When wolves, with hunger pined, howl at her brightness.
    I am of a solid temper, and, like these,
    Steer on a constant course; with mine own sword,
    If called into the field, I can make that right
    Which fearful enemies murmur at as wrong.
    Now, for those other piddling complaints
    Breath'd out in bitterness, as when they call me
    Extortioner, tyrant, cormorant, or intruder
    On my poor neighbour's rights or grand incloser
    Of what was common to my private use,
    Nay, when my ears are pierced with widows' cries,
    And undone orphans wash with tears my threshold,
    I only think what 'tis to have my daughter
    Right honourable; and 'tis a powerful charm
    Makes me insensible to remorse or pity,
    Or the least sting of conscience.

Put this into the third person; read 'he' for 'I,' and 'his' for 'my,'
and it is an admirable bit of denunciation of a character probably
intended as a copy from life. It is a description of a wicked man from
outside; and wickedness seen from outside is generally unreasonable and
preposterous. When it is converted, by simple alteration of pronouns,
into the villain's own account of himself, the internal logic which
serves as a pretext disappears, and he becomes a mere monster. It is for
this reason that, as Hazlitt says, Massinger's villains--and he was
probably thinking especially of Overreach and Luke in 'A City
Madam'--appear like drunkards or madmen. His plays are apt to be a
continuous declamation, cut up into fragments, and assigned to the
different actors; and the essential unfitness of such a method to
dramatic requirements needs no elaborate demonstration. The villains
will have to denounce themselves, and will be ready to undergo
conversion at a moment's notice, in order to spout openly on behalf of
virtue as vigorously as they have spouted in transparent disguise on
behalf of vice.

There is another consequence of Massinger's romantic tendency, which is
more pleasing. The chivalrous ideal of morality involves a reverence for
women, which may be exaggerated or affected, but which has at least a
genuine element in it. The women on the earlier stage have comparatively
a bad time of it amongst their energetic companions. Shakespeare's women
are undoubtedly most admirable and lovable creatures; but they are
content to take a subordinate part, and their highest virtue generally
includes entire submission to the will of their lords and masters. Some,
indeed, have an abundant share of the masculine temperament, like
Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth; but then they are by no means model
characters. Iago's description of the model woman is a cynical version
of the true Shakespearian theory. Women's true sphere, according to him,
or according to the modern slang, is domestic life; and if circumstances
force a Cordelia, an Imogen, a Rosalind, or a Viola, to take a more
active share in life, they take good care to let us know that they have
a woman's heart under their man's doublet. The weaker characters in
Massinger give a higher place to women, and justify it by a sentiment of
chivalrous devotion. The excess, indeed, of such submissiveness is often
satirised. In the 'Roman Actor,' the 'Emperor of the East,' the 'Duke of
Milan,' the 'Picture,' and elsewhere, we have various phases of uxorious
weakness, which suggest a possible application to the Court of Charles
I. Elsewhere, as in the 'Maid of Honour' and the 'Bashful Lover,' we are
called upon to sympathise with manifestations of a highflown devotion to
feminine excellence. Thus, the bashful lover, who is the hero of one of
his characteristic dramatic romances, is a gentleman who thinks himself
scarcely worthy to touch his mistress's shoe-string. On the sight of her
he exclaims--

                    As Moors salute
    The rising sun with joyful superstition,
    I could fall down and worship.--O my heart!
    Like Phoebe breaking through an envious cloud,
    Or something which no simile can express,
    She shows to me; a reverent fear, but blended
    With wonder and astonishment, does possess me.

When she condescends to speak to him, the utmost that he dares to ask is
liberty to look at her, and he protests that he would never aspire to
any higher privilege. It is gratifying to add that he follows her
through many startling vicissitudes of fortune in a spirit worthy of
this exordium, and of course is finally persuaded that he may allow
himself a nearer approach to his goddess. The Maid of Honour has two
lovers, who accept a rather similar position. One of them is unlucky
enough to be always making mischief by well-meant efforts to forward her
interest. He, poor man, is rather ignominiously paid off in downright
cash at the end of the piece. His more favoured rival listens to the
offers of a rival duchess, and ends by falling between two stools. He
resigns himself to the career of a Knight of Malta, whilst the Maid of
Honour herself retires into a convent. Mr. Gardiner compares this
catastrophe unfavourably with that of 'Measure for Measure,' and holds
that it is better for a lady to marry a duke than to give up the world
as, on the whole, a bad business. A discussion of that question would
involve some difficult problems. If, however, Isabella is better
provided for by Shakespeare than Camiola, 'the Maid of Honour,' by
Massinger, we must surely agree that the Maid of Honour has the
advantage of poor Mariana, whose reunion with her hypocritical husband
certainly strikes one as a questionable advantage. Her fate seems to
intimate that marriage with a hypocritical tyrant ought to be regarded
as better than no marriage at all. Massinger's solution is, at any rate,
in harmony with the general tone of chivalrous sentiment. A woman who
has been placed upon a pinnacle by overstrained devotion, cannot,
consistently with her dignity, console herself like an ordinary creature
of flesh and blood. When her worshippers turn unfaithful she must not
look out for others. She may permit herself for once to return the
affection of a worthy lover; but, when he fails, she must not condescend
again to love. That would be to admit that love was a necessity of her
life, not a special act of favour for some exceptional proofs of
worthiness. Given the general tone of sentiment, I confess that, to my
taste, Massinger's solution has the merit, not only of originality, but
of harmony. It may, of course, be held that a jilted lady should, in a
perfectly healthy state of society, have some other alternative besides
a convent or an unworthy marriage. Some people, for example, may hold
that she should be able to take to active life as a lawyer or a
professor of medicine; or they may hold that love ought not to hold so
prominent a part even in a woman's life that disappointed passion should
involve, as a necessary consequence, the entire abandonment of the
world. But, taking the romantic point of view, of which it is the very
essence to set an extravagant value upon love, and remembering that
Massinger had not heard of modern doctrines of woman's rights, one must
admit, I think, that he really shows, by the best means in his power, a
strong sense of the dignity of womanhood, and that his catastrophe is
more satisfactory than the violent death or the consignment to an
inferior lover which would have commended themselves to most Elizabethan

The same vein of chivalrous sentiment gives a fine tone to some of
Massinger's other plays; to the 'Bondman,' for example, and the 'Great
Duke of Florence,' in both of which the treatment of lover's devotion
shows a higher sense of the virtue of feminine dignity and purity than
is common in the contemporary stage. There is, of course, a want of
reality, an admission of extravagant motives, and an absence of dramatic
concentration, which indicate an absence of high imaginative power.
Chivalry, at its best, is not very reconcilable with common-sense; and
the ideal hero is divided, as Cervantes shows, by very narrow
distinctions from the downright madman. What was absurd in the more
vigorous manifestations of the spirit does not vanish when its energy is
lowered, and the rhetorician takes the place of the poet. But the
sentiment is still genuine, and often gives real dignity to Massinger's
eloquent speeches. It is true that, in apparent inconsistency with this
excellence, passages of Massinger are even more deeply stained than
usual with revolting impurities. Not only are his bad men and women apt
to be offensive beyond all bearable limits, but places might be pointed
out in which even his virtuous women indulge in language of the
indescribable variety. The inconsistency of course admits of an easy
explanation. Chivalrous sentiment by no means involves perfect purity,
nor even a lofty conception of the true meaning of purity. Even a strong
religious feeling of a certain kind is quite compatible with
considerable laxity in this respect. Charles I. was a virtuous monarch,
according to the admission of his enemies; but, as Kingsley remarks, he
suggested a plot to Shirley which would certainly not be consistent with
the most lax modern notions of decency. The Court of which he was the
centre certainly included a good many persons who might have at once
dictated Massinger's most dignified sentiments and enjoyed his worst
ribaldry. Such, for example, if Clarendon's character of him be
accurate, would have been the supposed 'W. H.,' the elder of the two
Earls of Pembroke, with whose family Massinger was so closely connected.
But it is only right to add that Massinger's errors in this kind are
superficial, and might generally be removed without injury to the
structure of his plays.

I have said enough to suggest the general nature of the answer which
would have to be made to the problem with which I started. Beyond all
doubt, it would be simply preposterous to put down Massinger as a simple
product of corruption. He does not mock at generous, lofty instincts, or
overlook their influence as great social forces. Mr. Ward quotes him as
an instance of the connection between poetic and moral excellence. The
dramatic effectiveness of his plays is founded upon the dignity of his
moral sentiment; and we may recognise in him 'a man who firmly believes
in the eternal difference between right and wrong.' I subscribe most
willingly to the truth of Mr. Ward's general principle, and, with a
certain reservation, to the correctness of this special illustration.
But the reservation is an important one. After all, can anybody say
honestly that he is braced and invigorated by reading Massinger's plays?
Does he perceive any touch of what we feel when we have been in company,
say, with Sir Walter Scott; a sense that our intellectual atmosphere is
clearer than usual, and that we recognise more plainly than we are apt
to do the surpassing value of manliness, honesty, and pure domestic
affection? Is there not rather a sense that we have been all the time
in an unnatural region, where, it is true, a sense of honour and other
good qualities come in for much eloquent praise, but where, above
everything, there is a marked absence of downright wholesome
common-sense? Of course the effect is partly due to the region in which
the old dramatists generally sought for their tragic situations. We are
never quite at home in this fictitious cloudland, where the springs of
action are strange, unaccountable, and altogether different from those
with which we have to do in the workaday world. A great poet, indeed,
weaves a magic mirror out of these dream-like materials, in which he
shows us the great passions, love, and jealousy, and ambition, reflected
upon a gigantic scale. But, in weaker hands, the characters become
eccentric instead of typical: his vision simply distorts instead of
magnifying the fundamental truths of human nature. The liberty which
could be used by Shakespeare becomes dangerous for his successors.
Instead of a legitimate idealisation, we have simply an abandonment of
any basis in reality.

The admission that Massinger is moral must therefore be qualified by the
statement that he is unnatural; or, in other words, that his morality is
morbid. The groundwork of all the virtues, we are sometimes told, is
strength. A strong nature may be wicked, but a weak one cannot attain
any high moral level. The correlative doctrine in literature is, that
the foundation of all excellence, artistic or moral, is a vivid
perception of realities and a masculine grasp of facts. A man who has
that essential quality will not blink the truths which we see
illustrated every day around us. He will not represent vice as so ugly
that it can have no charms, so foolish that it can never be plausible,
or so unlucky that it can never be triumphant. The robust moralist
admits that vice is often pleasant, and that wicked men flourish like a
green bay-tree. He cannot be over-anxious to preach, for he feels that
the intrinsic charm of high qualities can dispense with any artificial
attempts to bolster them up by sham rhetoric, or to slur over the hard
facts of life. He will describe Iago as impartially as Desdemona, and,
having given us the facts, leave us to make what we please of them. It
is the mark of a more sickly type of morality, that it must always be
distorting the plain truth. It becomes sentimental, because it wishes to
believe that what is pleasant must be true. It makes villains condemn
themselves, because such a practice would save so much trouble to judges
and moralists. Not appreciating the full force of passions, it allows
the existence of grotesque and eccentric motives. It fancies that a
little rhetoric will change the heart as well as the passing mood, and
represents the claims of virtue as perceptible on the most superficial
examination. The morality which requires such concessions becomes
necessarily effeminate; it is unconsciously giving up its strongest
position by implicitly admitting that the world in which virtue is
possible is a very different one from our own.

The decline of the great poetic impulse does not yet reveal itself by
sheer blindness to moral distinctions, or downright subservience to
vice. A lowered vitality does not necessarily imply disease, though it
is favourable to the development of vicious germs. The morality which
flourishes in an exhausted soil is not a plant of hardy growth and tough
fibre, nourished by rough common-sense, flourishing amongst the fierce
contests of vigorous passions, and delighting in the open air and the
broad daylight. It loves the twilight of romance, and creates heroes
impulsive, eccentric, extravagant in their resolves, servile in their
devotion, and whose very natures are more or less allied to weakness and
luxurious self-indulgence. Massinger, indeed, depicts with much sympathy
the virtues of the martyr and the penitent; he can illustrate the
paradox that strength can be conquered by weakness, and violence by
resignation. His good women triumph by softening the hearts of their
persecutors. Their purity is more attractive than the passions of their
rivals. His deserted King shows himself worthy of more loyalty than his
triumphant persecutors. His Roman actor atones for his weakness by
voluntarily taking part in his own punishment.

Such passive virtues are undoubtedly most praiseworthy; but they may
border upon qualities not quite so praiseworthy. It is a melancholy
truth that your martyr is apt to be a little sanctimonious, and that a
penitent is generally a bit of a sneak. Resignation and self-restraint
are admirable qualities, but admirable in proportion to the force of the
opposing temptation. The strong man curbing his passions, the weak woman
finding strength in patient suffering, are deserving of our deepest
admiration; but in Massinger we feel that the triumph of virtue implies
rather a want of passion than a power of commanding it, and that
resignation is comparatively easy when it connotes an absence of active
force. The general lowering of vitality, the want of rigid dramatic
colouring, deprive his martyrs of that background of vigorous reality
against which their virtues would be forcibly revealed. His pathos is
not vivid and penetrating. Truly pathetic power is produced only when we
see that it is a sentiment wrung from a powerful intellect by keen
sympathy with the wrongs of life. We are affected by the tears of a
strong man; but the popular preacher who enjoys weeping produces in us
nothing but contempt. Massinger's heroes and heroines have not, we may
say, backbone enough in them to make us care very deeply for their
sorrows. And they moralise rather too freely. We do not want sermons,
but sympathy, when we are in our deepest grief; and we do not feel that
anyone feels very keenly who can take his sorrows for a text, and preach
in his agony upon the vanity of human wishes or the excellence of

Massinger's remarkable flow of genuine eloquence, his real dignity of
sentiment, his sympathy for virtuous motive, entitle him to respect; but
we cannot be blind to the defect which keeps his work below the level of
his greatest contemporaries. It is, in one word, a want of vital force.
His writing is pitched in too low a key. He is not invigorating,
stimulating, capable of fascinating us by the intensity of his
conceptions. His highest range is a dignified melancholy or a certain
chivalrous recognition of the noble side of human nature. The art which
he represents is still a genuine and spontaneous growth instead of an
artificial manufacture. He is not a mere professor of deportment, or
maker of fine phrases. The days of mere affection have not yet arrived;
but, on the other hand, there is an absence of that grand vehemence of
soul which breathes in the spontaneous, if too lawless, vigour of the
older race. There is something hollow under all this stately rhetoric;
there are none of those vivid phrases which reveal minds moved by strong
passions and excited by new aspects of the world. The sails of his verse
are not, in Chapman's phrase, 'filled with a lusty wind,' but moving at
best before a steady breath of romantic sentiment, and sometimes
flapping rather ominously for want of true impulse. High thinking may
still be there, but it is a little self-conscious, and in need of
artificial stimulant. The old strenuous spirit has disappeared, or gone
elsewhere--perhaps to excite a Puritan imagination, and create another
incarnation of the old type of masculine vigour in the hero of 'Paradise


[6] _Contemporary Review_ for August 1876.


A double parallel has often been pointed out between the two pairs of
novelists who were most popular in the middle of our own and of the
preceding century. The intellectual affinity which made Smollett the
favourite author of Dickens is scarcely so close as that which commended
Fielding to Thackeray. The resemblance between 'Pickwick' and 'Humphrey
Clinker,' or between 'David Copperfield' and 'Roderick Random,' consists
chiefly in the exuberance of animal spirits, the keen eye for external
oddity, the consequent tendency to substitute caricature for portrait,
and the vivid transformation of autobiography into ostensible fiction,
which are characteristic of both authors. Between Fielding and Thackeray
the resemblance is closer. The peculiar irony of 'Jonathan Wild' has its
closest English parallel in 'Barry Lyndon.' The burlesque in 'Tom Thumb'
of the Lee and Dryden school of tragedy may remind us of Thackeray's
burlesques of Scott and Dumas. The characters of the two authors belong
to the same family. 'Vanity Fair' has grown more decent since the days
of Lady Bellaston, but the costume of the actors has changed more than
their nature. Rawdon Crawley would not have been surprised to meet
Captain Booth in a spunging-house; Shandon and his friends preserved the
old traditions of Fielding's Grub Street; Lord Steyne and Major
Pendennis were survivals from the more congenial period of Lord Fellamar
and Colonel James; and the two Amelias represent cognate ideals of
female excellence. Or, to take an instance of similarity in detail,
might not this anecdote from 'The Covent Garden Journal' have rounded
off a paragraph in the 'Snob Papers?' A friend of Fielding saw a dirty
fellow in a mud-cart lash another with his whip, saying, with an oath,
'I will teach you manners to your betters.' Fielding's friend wondered
what could be the condition of this social inferior of a mud-cart
driver, till he found him to be the owner of a dust-cart driven by
asses. The great butt of Fielding's satire is, as he tells us,
affectation; the affectation which he specially hates is that of
straitlaced morality; Thackeray's satire is more generally directed
against the particular affectation called snobbishness; but the evil
principle attacked by either writer is merely one avatar of the demon
assailed by the other.

The resemblance, which extends in some degree to style, might perhaps be
shown to imply a very close intellectual affinity. I am content,
however, to notice the literary genealogy as illustrative of the fact
that Fielding was the ancestor of one great race of novelists. 'I am,'
he says expressly in 'Tom Jones,' 'the founder of a new province of
writing.' Richardson's 'Clarissa'[7] and Smollett's 'Roderick Random'
were indeed published before 'Tom Jones;' but the provinces over which
Richardson and Smollett reigned were distinct from the contiguous
province of which Fielding claimed to be the first legislator. Smollett
(who comes nearest) professed to imitate 'Gil Blas' as Fielding
professed to imitate Cervantes. Smollett's story inherits from its
ancestry a reckless looseness of construction. It is a series of
anecdotes strung together by the accident that they all happen to the
same person. 'Tom Jones,' on the contrary, has a carefully constructed
plot, if not, as Coleridge asserts, one of the three best plots in
existence (its rivals being 'Oedipus Tyrannus' and 'The Alchemist'). Its
excellence depends upon the skill with which it is made subservient to
the development of character and the thoroughness with which the working
motives of the persons involved have been thought out. Fielding
claims--even ostentatiously--that he is writing a history, not a
romance; a history not the less true because all the facts are
imaginary, for the fictitious incidents serve to exhibit the most
general truths of human character. It is by this seriousness of purpose
that his work is distinguished from the old type of novel, developed by
Smollett, which is but a collection of amusing anecdotes; or from such
work as De Foe's, in which the external facts are given with an almost
provoking indifference to display of character and passion. Fielding's
great novels have a true organic unity as well as a consecutive story,
and are intended in our modern jargon as genuine studies in
psychological analysis.[8]

Johnson, no mean authority when in his own sphere and free from personal
bias, expressly traversed this claim; he declared that there was more
knowledge of the human heart in a letter of 'Clarissa' than in the whole
of 'Tom Jones;' and said more picturesquely, that Fielding could tell
the hour by looking at the dial-plate, whilst Richardson knew how the
clock was made.[9] It is tempting to set this down as a Johnsonian
prejudice, and to deny or retort the comparison. Fielding, we might say,
paints flesh and blood; whereas Richardson consciously constructs his
puppets out of frigid abstractions. Lovelace is a bit of mechanism; Tom
Jones a human being. In fact, however, such comparisons are misleading.
Nothing is easier than to find an appropriate ticket for the objects of
our criticism, and summarily pigeon-hole Richardson as an idealist and
Fielding as a realist; Richardson as subjective and morbid, Fielding as
objective and full of coarse health; or to attribute to either of them
the deepest knowledge of the human heart. These are the mere banalities
of criticism; and I can never hear them without a suspicion that a
professor of æsthetics is trying to hoodwink me by a bit of technical
platitude. The cant phrases which have been used so often by panegyrists
too lazy to define their terms, have become almost as meaningless as the
complimentary formulæ of society.

Knowledge of the human heart in particular is a phrase which covers very
different states of mind. It may mean that power by which the novelist
or dramatist identifies himself with his characters; sees through their
eyes and feels with their senses; it is the product of a rich nature, a
vivid imagination, and great powers of sympathy, and draws a
comparatively small part of its resources from external experience. The
novelist knows how his characters would feel under given conditions,
because he feels it himself; he sees from within, not from without; and
is almost undergoing an actual experience instead of condensing his
observations on life. This is the power in which Shakespeare is supreme;
which Richardson proved himself, in his most powerful passages, to
possess in no small degree; and which in Balzac seems to have generated
fits of absolute hallucination.

Fielding's novels are not without proof of this power, as no great
imaginative work can be possible without it; but the knowledge for which
he is specially conspicuous differs almost in kind. This knowledge is
drawn from observation rather than intuitive sympathy. It consists in
great part of those weighty maxims which a man of keen powers of
observation stores up in his passage through a varied experience. It is
the knowledge of Ulysses, who has known

                          Cities of men
    And manners, climates, councils, governments;

the knowledge of a Machiavelli, who has looked behind the screen of
political hypocrisies; the knowledge of which the essence is distilled
in Bacon's 'Essays;' or the knowledge of which Polonius seems to have
retained many shrewd scraps even when he had fallen into his dotage.
In reading 'Clarissa' or 'Eugénie Grandet' we are aware that the soul
of Richardson or Balzac has transmigrated into another shape; that the
author is projected into his character, and is really giving us one
phase of his own sentiments. In reading Fielding we are listening to
remarks made by a spectator instead of an actor; we are receiving the
pithy recollections of the man about town; the prodigal who has been
with scamps in gambling-houses, and drunk beer in pothouses and punch
with country squires; the keen observer who has judged all characters,
from Sir Robert Walpole down to Betsy Canning;[10] who has fought the
hard battle of life with unflagging spirit, though with many falls;
and who, in spite of serious stains, has preserved the goodness of his
heart and the soundness of his head. The experience is generally given
in the shape of typical anecdotes rather than in explicit maxims; but
it is not the less distinctly the concentrated essence of observation,
rather than the spontaneous play of a vivid imagination. Like Balzac,
Fielding has portrayed the 'Comédie Humaine;' but his imagination has
never overpowered the coolness of his judgment. He shows a superiority
to his successor in fidelity almost as marked as his inferiority in
vividness. And, therefore, it may be said in passing, it is refreshing
to read Fielding at a time when this element of masculine observation
is the one thing most clearly wanting in modern literature. Our novels
give us the emotions of young ladies, which, in their way, are very
good things; they reflect the sentimental view of life, and the
sensational view, and the commonplace view, and the high philosophical
view. One thing they do not tell us. What does the world look like to
a shrewd police-magistrate, with a keen eye in his head and a sound
heart in his bosom? It might be worth knowing. Perhaps (who can tell?)
it would still look rather like Fielding's world.

The peculiarity is indicated by Fielding's method. Scott, who, like
Fielding, generally describes from the outside, is content to keep
himself in the background. 'Here,' he says to his readers, 'are the
facts; make what you can of them.' Fielding will not efface himself; he
is always present as chorus; he tells us what moral we ought to draw; he
overflows with shrewd remarks, given in their most downright shape,
instead of obliquely suggested through the medium of anecdotes; he likes
to stop us as we pass through his portrait gallery; to take us by the
button-hole and expound his views of life and his criticisms on things
in general. His remarks are often so admirable that we prefer the
interpolations to the main current of narrative. Whether this plan is
the best must depend upon the idiosyncrasy of the author; but it goes
some way to explain one problem, over which Scott puzzles
himself--namely, why Fielding's plays are so inferior to his novels.
There are other reasons, external and internal; but it is at least clear
that a man who can never retire behind his puppets is not in the
dramatic frame of mind. He is always lecturing where a dramatist must be
content to pull the wires. Shakespeare is really as much present in his
plays as Fielding in his novels; but he does not let us know it; whereas
the excellent Fielding seems to be quite incapable of hiding his broad
shoulders and lofty stature behind his little puppet-show.

There are, of course, actors in Fielding's world who can be trusted to
speak for themselves. Tom Jones, at any rate, who is Fielding in his
youth, or Captain Booth, who is the Fielding of later years, are drawn
from within. Their creator's sympathy is so close and spontaneous that
he has no need of his formulæ and precedents. But elsewhere he betrays
his method by his desire to produce his authority. You will find the
explanation of a certain line of conduct, he says, in 'human nature,
page almost the last.' He is a little too fond of taking down that
volume with a flourish; of exhibiting his familiarity with its pages,
and referring to the passages which justify his assertions. Fielding has
an odd touch of the pedant. He is fond of airing his classical
knowledge; and he is equally fond of quoting this imaginary code which
he has had to study so thoroughly and painfully. The effect, however, is
to give an air of artificiality to some of his minor characters. They
show the traces of deliberate composition too distinctly, though the
blemish may be forgiven in consideration of the genuine force and
freshness of his thinking. If manufactured articles, they are not
second-hand manufactures. His knowledge, unlike that of the good Parson
Adams, comes from life, not books.

The worldly wisdom for which Fielding is so conspicuous had indeed been
gathered in doubtful places, and shows traces of its origin. He had been
forced, as he said, to choose between the positions of a hackney
coachman and of a hackney writer. 'His genius,' said Lady M. W. Montagu,
who records the saying, 'deserves a better fate.' Whether it would have
been equally fertile, if favoured by more propitious surroundings, is
one of those fruitless questions which belong to the boundless history
of the might-have-beens. But one fact requires to be emphasised.
Fielding's critics and biographers have dwelt far too exclusively upon
the uglier side of his Bohemian life. They have presented him as
yielding to all the temptations which can mislead keen powers of
enjoyment, when the purse is one day at the lowest ebb and the next
overflowing with the profits of some lucky hit at the theatre. Those
unfortunate yellow liveries which contributed to dissipate his little
fortune have scandalised posterity as they scandalised his country
neighbours.[11] But it is essential to remember that the history of the
Fielding of later years, of the Fielding to whom we owe the novels, is
the record of a manful and persistent struggle to escape from the mire
of Grub Street. During that period he was studying the law with the
energy of a young student; redeeming the office of magistrate from the
discredit into which it had fallen in the hands of fee-hunting
predecessors; considering seriously, and making practical proposals to
remedy, the evils which then made the lowest social strata a hell upon
earth; sacrificing his last chances of health and life to put down with
a strong hand the robbers who infested the streets of London; and
clinging with affection to his wife and children. He never got fairly
clear of that lamentable slough of despond into which his follies had
plunged him. His moral tone lost what delicacy it had once possessed; he
had not the strength which enabled Johnson to gain elevation even from
the temptations which then beset the unlucky 'author by profession.'
Some literary hacks of the day escaped only by selling themselves, body
and soul; others sank into misery and vice, like poor Boyce, a fragment
of whose poem has been preserved by Fielding, and who appears in
literary history scribbling for pay in a sack arranged to represent a
shirt. Fielding never let go his hold of the firm land, though he must
have felt through life like one whose feet are always plunging into a
hopeless quagmire. To describe him as a mere reckless Bohemian, is to
overlook the main facts of his story. He was manly to the last, not in
the sense in which man means animal; but with the manliness of one who
struggles bravely to redeem early errors, and who knows the value of
independence, purity, and domestic affection. The scanty anecdotes which
do duty for his biography reveal little of his true life. We know,
indeed, from a spiteful and obviously exaggerated story of Horace
Walpole's, that he once had a very poor supper in doubtful company; and
from another anecdote, of slightly apocryphal flavour, that he once gave
to 'friendship' the money which ought to have been given to the
collector of rates. But really to know the man, we must go to his books.

What did Fielding learn of the world which had treated him so roughly?
That the world must be composed of fools because it did not bow before
his genius, or of knaves because it did not reward his honesty? Men of
equal ability have drawn both those and the contradictory conclusions
from experience. Human nature, as philosophers assure us, varies little
from age to age; but the pictures drawn by the best observers vary so
strangely as to convince us that a portrait depends as much upon the
artist as upon the sitter. One can see nothing but the baser, and
another nothing but the nobler, passions. To one the world is like a
masque representing the triumph of vice; and another placidly assures us
that virtue is always rewarded by peace of mind, and that even the
temporary prosperity of the wicked is an illusion. On one canvas we see
a few great heroes stand out from a multitude of pygmies; on its rival,
giants and dwarfs appear to have pretty much the same stature. The world
is a scene of unrestrained passions impelling their puppets into
collision or alliance without intelligible design; or a scene of
domestic order, where an occasional catastrophe interferes as little
with ordinary lives as a comet with the solar system. Blind fate governs
one world of the imagination, and beneficent Providence another. The
theories embodied in poetry vary as widely as the philosophies on which
they are founded; and to philosophise is to declare the fundamental
assumptions of half the wise men of the world to be transparent

We need not here attempt to reconcile these apparent contradictions. As
little need we attempt to settle Fielding's philosophy, for it resembles
the snakes in Iceland. It seems to have been his opinion that philosophy
is, as a rule, a fine word for humbug. That was a common conviction of
his day; but his acceptance of it doubtless indicates the limits of his
power. In his pages we have the shrewdest observation of man in his
domestic relations; but we scarcely come into contact with man as he
appears in presence of the infinite, and therefore with the deepest
thoughts and loftiest imaginings of the great poets and philosophers.
Fielding remains inflexibly in the regions of common-sense and everyday
experience. But he has given an emphatic opinion of that part of the
world which was visible to him, and it is one worth knowing. In a
remarkable conversation, reported in Boswell, Burke and Johnson, two of
the greatest of Fielding's contemporaries, seem to have agreed that they
had found men less just and more generous than they could have imagined.
People begin by judging the world from themselves, and it is therefore
natural that two men of great intellectual power should have expected
from their fellows a more than average adherence to settled principles.
Thus Johnson and Burke discovered that reason, upon which justice
depends, has less influence than a young reasoner is apt to fancy. On
the other hand, they discovered that the blind instincts by which the
mass is necessarily guided are not so bad as they are represented by the
cynics. The Rochefoucauld or Mandeville who passes off his smart
sayings upon the public as serious, knows better than anybody that a man
must be a fool to take them literally. The wisdom which he affects is
very easily learnt, and is more often the product of the premature
sagacity dear to youth than of a ripened judgment. Good-hearted men, at
least, like Johnson and Burke, shake off cynicism whilst others are
acquiring it.

Fielding's verdict seems to differ at first sight. He undoubtedly lays
great stress upon the selfishness of mankind. He seldom admits of an
apparently generous action without showing its alloy of selfish motive,
and sometimes showing that it is a mere cloak for selfish motives. In a
characteristic passage of his 'Voyage to Lisbon' he applies his theory
to his own case. When the captain falls on his knees, he will not suffer
a brave man and an old man to remain for a moment in that posture, but
forgives him at once. He hastens, however, utterly to disclaim all
praise, on the ground that his true motive was simply the convenience of
forgiveness. 'If men were wiser,' he adds, 'they would be oftener
influenced by that motive.' This kind of inverted hypocrisy, which may
be graceful in a man's own case (for nobody will doubt that Fielding was
less guided by calculation than he asserts), is not so graceful when
applied to his neighbours. And perhaps some readers may hold that
Fielding pitches the average strain of human motive too low. I should
rather surmise that he substantially agrees with Johnson and Burke. The
fact that most men attend a good deal to their own interests is one of
the primary data of life. It is a thing at which we have no more right
to be astonished than at the fact that even saints and martyrs have to
eat and drink like other persons, or that a sound digestion is the
foundation of much moral excellence. It is one of those facts which
people of a romantic turn of mind may choose to overlook, but which no
honest observer of life can seriously deny. Our conduct is determined
through some thirty points of the compass by our own interest; and,
happily, through at least nine-and-twenty of those points is rightfully
so determined. Each man is forced, by an unavoidable necessity, to look
after his own and his children's bread and butter, and to spend most of
his efforts on that innocent end. So long as he does not pursue his
interests wrongfully, nor remain dead to other calls when they happen,
there is little cause for complaint, and certainly there is none for

Fielding recognises, but never exaggerates, this homely truth. He has a
hearty and generous belief in the reality of good impulses, and the
existence of thoroughly unselfish men. The main actors in his world are
not, as in Balzac's, mere hideous incarnations of selfishness. The
superior sanity of his mind keeps him from nightmares, if its calmness
is unfavourable to lofty visions. With Balzac, women like Lady Bellaston
become the rule instead of the exception, and their evil passions are
the dominant forces in society. Fielding, though he recognises their
existence, tells us plainly that they are exceptional. Society, he says,
is as moral as ever it was, and given more to frivolity than to
vice[12]--a statement judiciously overlooked by some of the critics who
want to make graphic history out of his novels. Fielding's mind had
gathered coarseness, but it had not been poisoned. He sees how many ugly
things are covered by the superficial gloss of fashion, but he does not
condescend to travesty the facts in order to gratify a morbid taste for
the horrible. When he wants a good man or woman he knows where to find
them, and paints from Allen or his own wife with obvious sincerity and
hearty sympathy. He is less anxious to exhibit human selfishness than to
show us that an alloy of generosity is to be found even amidst base
motives. Some of his happiest touches are illustrations of this
doctrine. His villains (with a significant exception) are never
monsters. They have some touch of human emotion. No desert, according to
him, is so bare but that some sweet spring blends with its brackish
waters. His grasping landladies have genuine movements of sympathy; and
even the scoundrelly Black George, the game-keeper, is anxious to do Tom
Jones a good turn, without risk, of course, to his own comfort, by way
of compensation for previous injuries. It is this impartial insight into
the ordinary texture of human motive that gives a certain solidity and
veracity to Fielding's work. We are always made to feel that the actions
spring fairly and naturally from the character of his persons, not from
the exigencies of his story or the desire to be effective. The one great
difficulty in 'Tom Jones' is the assumption that the excellent Allworthy
should have been deceived for years by the hypocrite Blifil, and blind
to the substantial kindliness of his ward. Here we may fancy that
Fielding has been forced to be unnatural by his plot. Yet he suggests a
satisfactory solution with admirable skill. Allworthy is prejudiced in
favour of Blifil by the apparently unjust prejudice of Blifil's mother
in favour of the jovial Tom. A generous man may easily become blind to
the faults of a supposed victim of maternal injustice; and even here
Fielding fairly escapes from the blame due to ordinary novelists, who
invent impossible misunderstandings in order to bring about intricate

Blifil is perhaps the one case (for 'Jonathan Wild' is a satire, not a
history, or, as M. Taine fancies, a tract) in which Fielding seems to
lose his unvarying coolness of judgment; and the explanation is obvious.
The one fault to which he is, so to speak, unjust, is hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy, indeed, cannot well be painted too black, but it should not
be made impossible. When Fielding has to deal with such a character, he
for once loses his self-command, and, like inferior writers, begins to
be angry with his creatures. Instead of analysing and explaining, he
simply reviles and leaves us in presence of a moral anomaly. Blifil is
not more wicked than Iago, but we seem to understand the psychical
chemistry by which an Iago is compounded; whereas Blifil can only be
regarded as a devil (if the word be not too dignified) who does not
really belong to this world at all. The error, though characteristic of
a man whose great intellectual merit is his firm grasp of realities, and
whose favourite virtue is his downright sincerity, is not the less a
blemish. Hatred of pedantry too easily leads to hatred of culture, and
hatred of hypocrisy to distrust of the more exalted virtues. Fielding
cannot be just to motives lying rather outside his ordinary sphere of
thought. He can mock heartily and pleasantly enough at the affectation
of philosophy, as in the case where Parson Adams, urging poor Joseph
Andrews, by considerations drawn from the Bible and from Seneca, to be
ready to resign his Fanny 'peaceably, quietly, and contentedly,'
suddenly hears of the supposed loss of his own little child, and is
called upon to act instead of preaching. But his satire upon all
characters and creeds which embody the more exalted strains of feeling
is apt to be indiscriminate. A High Churchman, according to him, is a
Pharisee who prefers orthodoxy to virtue; a Methodist a mere
mountebank, who counterfeits spiritual raptures to impose upon dupes; a
Freethinker is a man who weaves a mask of fine phrases, under which to
cover his aversion to the restraints of religion. Fielding's religion
consists chiefly of a solid homespun morality, and he is more suspicious
of an excessive than of a defective zeal. Similarly he is a hearty Whig,
but no revolutionist. He has as hearty a contempt for the cant about
liberty[13] as Dr. Johnson himself, and has very stringent remedies to
propose for regulating the mob. The bailiff in 'Amelia,' who, whilst he
brutally maltreats the unlucky prisoners for debt, swaggers about the
British Constitution, and swears that he is 'all for liberty,' recalls
the boatman who ridiculed French slavery to Voltaire, and was carried
off next day by a pressgang. Fielding, indeed, is no fanatical adherent
of our blessed Constitution, which, as he says, has been pronounced by
some of our wisest men to be too perfect to be altered in any
particular, and which a number of the said wisest men have been mending
ever since. He hates cant on all sides impartially, though, as a sound
Whig, he specially hates Papists and Jacobites as the most offensive of
all Pharisees, marked for detestation by their taste for frogs and
French wine in preference to punch and roast beef. He is a patriotic
Briton, whose patriotism takes the genuine shape of a hearty growl at
English abuses, with a tacit assumption that things are worse elsewhere.

The reflection of this quality of solid good sense, absolutely scorning
any ailment except that of solid facts, is the so-called realism of
Fielding's novels. He is, indeed, as hearty a realist as Hogarth, whose
congenial art he is never tired of praising with all the cordiality of
his nature, and to whom he refers his readers for portraits of several
characters in 'Tom Jones.' His scenery is as realistic as a photograph.
Tavern kitchens, spunging-house parlours, the back-slums of London
streets, are drawn from the realities with unflinching vigour. We see
the stains of beer-pots and smell the fumes of stale tobacco as
distinctly as in Hogarth's engravings. He shrinks neither from the
coarse nor the absolutely disgusting. It is enough to recall the female
boxing or scratching matches which are so frequent in his pages. On one
such occasion his language seems to imply that he had watched such
battles in the spirit of a connoisseur in our own day watching less
inexpressibly disgusting prize-fights. Certainly we could wish that, if
such scenes were to be depicted, there might have been a clearer proof
that the artist had a nose and eyes capable of feeling offence.

But the nickname 'realist' slides easily into another sense. The realist
is sometimes supposed to be more shallow as well as more prosaic than
the idealist; to be content with the outside where the idealist pierces
to the heart. He gives the bare fact, where his rival gives the idea
symbolised by the fact, and therefore rendering it attractive to the
higher intellect. Fielding's view of his own art is instructive in this
as in other matters. Poetic invention, he says, is generally taken to be
a creative faculty; and if so, it is the peculiar property of the
romance-writers, who frankly take leave of the actual and possible.
Fielding disavows all claim to this faculty; he writes histories, not
romances. But, in his sense, poetic invention means, not creation, but
'discovery;' that is, 'a quick, sagacious penetration into the true
essence of all objects of our contemplation.' Perhaps we may say that it
is chiefly a question of method whether a writer should portray men or
angels--the beings, that is, of everyday life--or beings placed under a
totally different set of circumstances. The more vital question is
whether, by one method or the other, he shows us a man's heart or only
his clothes; whether he appeals to our intellects or imaginations, or
amuses us by images which do not sink below the eye. In scientific
writings a man may give us the true law of a phenomenon, whether he
exemplifies it in extreme or average cases, in the orbit of a comet or
the fall of an apple. The romance-writer should show us what real men
would be in dreamland, the writer of 'histories' what they are on the
knifeboard of an omnibus. True insight may be shown in either case, or
may be absent in either, according as the artist deals with the deepest
organic laws or the more external accidents. The 'Ancient Mariner' is an
embodiment of certain simple emotional phases and moral laws amidst the
phantasmagoric incidents of a dream, and De Foe does not interpret them
better because he confines himself to the most prosaic incidents. When
romance becomes really arbitrary, and is parted from all basis of
observation, it loses its true interest and deserves Fielding's
condemnation. Fielding conscientiously aims at discharging the highest
function. He describes, as he says in 'Joseph Andrews,' 'not men, but
manners; not an individual, but a species.' His lawyer, he tells us, has
been alive for the last four thousand years, and will probably survive
four thousand more. Mrs. Tow-wouse lives wherever turbulent temper,
avarice, and insensibility are united; and her sneaking husband wherever
a good inclination has glimmered forth, eclipsed by poverty of spirit
and understanding. But the type which shows best the force and the
limits of Fielding's genius is Parson Adams. He belongs to a
distinguished family, whose members have been portrayed by the greatest
historians. He is a collateral descendant of Don Quixote, for whose
creation Fielding felt a reverence exceeded only by his reverence for
Shakespeare.[14] The resemblance is, of course, distant, and consists
chiefly in this, that the parson, like the knight, lives in an ideal
world, and is constantly shocked by harsh collision with facts. He
believes in his sermons instead of his sword, and his imagination is
tenanted by virtuous squires and model parsons instead of Arcadian
shepherds, or knight-errants and fair ladies. His imagination is not
exalted beyond the limits of sanity, but only colours the prosaic
realities in accordance with the impulses of a tranquil benevolence. If
the theme be fundamentally similar, it is treated with a far less daring

Adams is much more closely related to Sir Roger de Coverley, the Vicar
of Wakefield, or Uncle Toby. Each of these lovable beings invites us at
once to sympathise with and to smile at the unaffected simplicity which,
seeing no evil, becomes half ludicrous and half pathetic in this corrupt
world. Adams stands out from his brethren by his intense reality. If he
smells too distinctly of beer and tobacco, we believe in him more firmly
than in the less full-blooded creations of Sterne and Goldsmith. Parson
Adams, indeed, has a startling vigour of organisation. Not merely the
hero of a modern ritualist novel, but Amyas Leigh or Guy Livingstone
himself, might have been amazed at his athletic prowess. He stalks ahead
of the stage-coach (favoured doubtless by the bad roads of the period)
as though he had accepted the modern principle about fearing God and
walking a thousand miles in a thousand hours. His mutton fist and the
crabtree cudgel which swings so freely round his clerical head would
have daunted the contemporary gladiators, Slack and Broughton. He shows
his Christian humility not merely by familiarity with his poorest
parishioners, but in sitting up whole nights in tavern kitchens,
drinking unlimited beer, smoking inextinguishable pipes, and revelling
in a ceaseless flow of gossip. We smile at the good man's intense
delight in a love-story, at the simplicity which makes him see a good
Samaritan in Parson Trulliber, at the absence of mind which makes him
pitch his Æschylus into the fire, or walk a dozen miles in profound
oblivion of the animal which should have been between his knees; but his
contemporaries were provoked to a horse-laugh, and when we remark the
tremendous practical jokes which his innocence suggests to them, we
admit that he requires his whole athletic vigour to bring so tender a
heart safely through so rough a world.

If the ideal hero is always to live in fancy-land and talk in blank
verse, Adams has clearly no right to the title; nor, indeed, has Don
Quixote. But the masculine portraiture of the coarse realities is not
only indicative of intellectual vigour, but artistically appropriate.
The contrast between the world and its simple-minded inhabitant is the
more forcible in proportion to the firmness and solidity of Fielding's
touch. Uncle Toby proves that Sterne had preserved enough tenderness to
make an exquisite plaything of his emotions. The Vicar of Wakefield
proves that Goldsmith had preserved a childlike innocence of
imagination, and could retire from duns and publishers to an idyllic
world of his own. Joseph Andrews proves that Fielding was neither a
child nor a sentimentalist, but that he had learnt to face facts as they
are, and set a true value on the best elements of human life. In the
midst of vanity and vexation of spirit he could find some comfort in
pure and strong domestic affection. He can indulge his feelings without
introducing the false note of sentimentalism, or condescending to tone
his pictures with rose-colour. He wants no illusions. The exemplary Dr.
Harrison in 'Amelia' held no action unworthy of him which could protect
an innocent person or 'bring a rogue to the gallows.' Good Parson Adams
could lay his cudgel on the back of a villain with hearty goodwill. He
believes too easily in human goodness, but there is not a maudlin fibre
in his whole body. He would not be the man to cry over a dead donkey
whilst children are in want of bread. He would be slower than the
excellent Dr. Primrose to believe in the reformation of a villain by
fine phrases, and if he fell into such a weakness, his biographer would
not, like Goldsmith, be inclined to sanction the error. A villain is
induced to reform, indeed, by the sight of Amelia's excellence, but
Fielding is careful to tell us that the change was illusory, and that
the villain ended on a gallows. We are made sensible that if Adams had
his fancies they were foibles, and therefore sources of misfortune. We
are to admire the childlike character, but not to share its illusions.
The world is not made of moonshine. Hypocrisy, cruelty, avarice, and
lust have to be stamped out by hard blows, not cured by delicate
infusion of graceful sentimentalisms.

So far Fielding's portrait of an ideal character is all the better for
his masculine grasp of fact. It must, however, be admitted that he fails
a little on the other side of the contrast. He believes in a good heart,
but scarcely in very lofty motive. He tells us in 'Tom Jones'[15] that
he has painted no perfect character, because he never happened to meet
one. His stories, like 'Vanity Fair,' may be described as novels without
a hero. It is not merely that his characters are imperfect, but that
they are deficient in the finer ingredients which go to make up the
nearest approximations of our imperfect natures to heroism. Colonel
Newcome was not perhaps so good a man as Parson Adams, but he had a
certain delicacy of sentiment which led him, as we may remember, to be
rather hard upon Tom Jones, and which Fielding (as may be gathered from
Bath in 'Amelia') would have been inclined to ridicule. Parson Adams is
simple enough to become a laughing-stock to the brutal, but he never
consciously rebels against the dictates of the plainest common-sense.
His theology comes from Tillotson and Hoadly; he has no eye for the
romantic side of his creed, and would be apt to condemn a mystic as
simply a fool. His loftiest aspiration is not to reform the world or any
part of it, but to get a modest bit of preferment (he actually receives
it, we are happy to think, in 'Amelia'), enough to pay for his tobacco
and his children's schooling. Fielding's dislike to the romantic makes
him rather blind to the elevated. He will not only start from the
actual, but does not conceive the possibility of an infusion of loftier
principles. The existing standard of sound sense prescribes an
impassable limit to his imagination. Parson Adams is an admirable
incarnation of certain excellent and honest impulses. He sets forth the
wisdom of the heart and the beauty of the simple instincts of an
affectionate nature. But we are forced to admit that he is not the
highest type conceivable, and might, for example, learn something from
his less robust colleague Dr. Primrose.

This remark suggests the common criticism, expounded with his usual
brilliancy by M. Taine. Fielding, he tells us, loves nature, but he does
not love it 'like the great impartial artists, Shakespeare and Goethe.'
He moralises incessantly--which is wrong. Moreover, his morality appears
to be very questionable. It consists in preferring instinct to reason.
The hero is the man who is born generous as a dog is born affectionate.
And this, says M. Taine, might be all very well were it not for a great
omission. Fielding has painted nature, but nature without refinement,
poetry and chivalry. He can only describe the impetuosity of the senses,
not the nervous exaltation and the poetic rapture. Man is with him 'a
good buffalo; and perhaps he is the hero required by a people which is
itself called John Bull.' In all which there is an undoubted vein of
truth. Fielding's want of refinement, for example, is one of those
undeniable facts which must be taken for granted. But, without seeking
to set right some other statements implied in M. Taine's judgment, it is
worth while to consider a little more fully the moral aspect of
Fielding's work. Much has been said upon this point by some who, with M.
Taine, take Fielding for a mere 'buffalo,' and by others who, like
Coleridge--a safer and more sympathetic critic--hold 'Tom Jones' to be,
on the whole, a sound exposition of healthy morality.

Fielding, on the 'buffalo' view, is supposed to be simply taking one
side in one of those perpetual controversies which has occupied many
generations and never approaches a settlement. He prefers nature to law,
instinct to reasoned action; he is on the side of Charles as against
Joseph Surface; he admires the publican, and condemns the Pharisee
without reserve; he loves the man who is nobody's enemy but his own, and
despises the prudent person whose charity ends at his own doorstep. Such
a doctrine--so absolutely stated--is rather a negation of all morality
than a lax morality. If it implies a love of generous instincts, it
denies that a man should have any regard for moral rules, which are
needed precisely in order to control our spontaneous instincts. Virtue
is amiable, but ceases to be meritorious. Nothing would be easier than
to quote passages in which Fielding expressly repudiates such a theory;
but, of course, a writer's morality must be judged by the conceptions
embodied in his work, not by the maxims scattered through it. Nor, for
the same reason, can we pay much attention to Fielding's express
assertion that he is writing in the interests of virtue; for Smollett,
and less scrupulous writers than Smollett, have found their account in
similar protestations. Yet anybody, I think, who will compare 'Joseph
Andrews' with that intentionally most moral work, 'Pamela,' will admit
that Fielding's morality goes deeper than this. Fielding at least makes
us love virtue, and is incapable of the solecism which Richardson
commits in substantially preaching that virtue means standing out for a
higher price. That Fielding's reckless heroes have a genuine sensibility
to the claims of virtue, appears still more unmistakably when we compare
them with the heartless fine gentlemen of the Congreve school and of his
own early plays, or put the faulty Captain Booth beside such an
unredeemed scamp as Peregrine Pickle.

It is clear, in short, that the aim of Fielding (whether he succeeds or
not) is the very reverse of that attributed to him by M. Taine. 'Tom
Jones' and 'Amelia' have, ostensibly at least, a most emphatic moral
attached to them; and not only attached to them, but borne in mind and
even too elaborately preached throughout. That moral is the one which
Fielding had learnt in the school of his own experience. It is the moral
that dissipation bears fruit in misery. The remorse, it is true, which
was generated in Fielding and in his heroes was not the remorse which
drives a man to a cloister, or which even seriously poisons his
happiness. The offences against morality are condoned too easily, and
the line between vice and virtue drawn in accordance with certain
distinctions which even Parson Adams could scarcely have approved. Vice,
he seems to say, is altogether objectionable only when complicated by
cruelty or hypocrisy. But if Fielding's moral sense is not very
delicate, it is vigorous. He hates most heartily what he sees to be
wrong, though his sight might easily be improved in delicacy of
discrimination. The truth is simply that Fielding accepted that moral
code which the better men of the world in his time really acknowledged,
as distinguished from that by which they affected to be bound. That so
wide a distinction should generally exist between these codes is a
matter for deep regret. That Fielding in his hatred for humbug should
have condemned purity as puritanical is clearly lamentable. The
confusion, however, was part of the man, and, as already noticed, shows
itself in one shape or other throughout his work. But it would be unjust
to condemn him upon that ground as antagonistic or indifferent to
reasonable morality. His morality is at the superior antipodes from the
cynicism of a Wycherley; and far superior to the prurient sentimentalism
of Sterne or the hot-pressed priggishness of Richardson, or even the
reckless Bohemianism of Smollett.

There is a deeper question, however, beneath this discussion. The
morality of those 'great impartial artists' of whom M. Taine speaks
differs from Fielding's in a more serious sense. The highest morality of
a great work of art depends upon the power with which the essential
beauty and ugliness of virtue and vice are exhibited by an impartial
observer. The morality, for example, of Goethe and Shakespeare appears
in the presentation of such characters as Iago and Mephistopheles. The
insight of true genius shows us by such examples what is the true
physiology of vice; what is the nature of the man who has lost all faith
in virtue and all sympathy with purity and nobility of character. The
artist of inferior rank tries to make us hate vice by showing that it
comes to a bad end precisely because he has an adequate perception of
its true nature. He can see that a drunkard generally gets into debt or
incurs an attack of _delirium tremens_, but he does not exhibit the
moral disintegration which is the underlying cause of the misfortune,
and which may be equally fatal, even if it happens to evade the penalty.
The distinction depends upon the power of the artist to fulfil
Fielding's requirement of penetrating to the essence of the objects of
his contemplation. It corresponds to the distinction in philosophy
between a merely prudential system of ethics--the system of the gallows
and the gaol--and the system which recognises the deeper issues
perceptible to a fine moral sense.

Now, in certain matters, Fielding's morality is of the merely prudential
kind. It resembles Hogarth's simple doctrine that the good apprentice
will be Lord Mayor and the bad apprentice get into Newgate. So shrewd an
observer was indeed well aware, and could say very forcibly,[16] that
virtue in this world might sometimes lead to poverty, contempt, and
imprisonment. He does not, like some novelists, assume the character of
a temporal Providence, and knock his evildoers on the head at the end of
the story. He shows very forcibly that the difficulties which beset poor
Jones and Booth are not to be fairly called accidents, but are the
difficulties to which bad conduct generally leads a man, and which are
all the harder when not counterbalanced by a clear conscience. He can
even describe with sympathy such a character as poor Atkinson in
'Amelia,' whose unselfish love brings him more blows than favours of
fortune. But it is true that he is a good deal more sensible to what are
called the prudential sanctions of virtue, at least of a certain
category of virtues, than to its essential beauty. So far the want of
refinement of which M. Taine speaks does, in fact, lower, and lower very
materially, his moral perception. A man of true delicacy could never
have dragged Tom Jones into his lowest degradation without showing more
forcibly his abhorrence of his loose conduct. This is, as Colonel
Newcome properly points out, the great and obvious blot upon the story,
which no critics have missed, and we cannot even follow the leniency of
Coleridge, who thinks that a single passage introduced to express
Fielding's real judgment would have remedied the mischief. It is too
obvious to be denied without sophistry that Tom, though he has many good
feelings, and can preach very edifying sermons to his less scrupulous
friend Nightingale, requires to be cast in a different mould. His whole
character should have been strung to a higher pitch to make us feel that
such degradation would not merely have required punishment to restore
his self-complacency, but have left a craving for some thorough moral

Granting unreservedly all that may be urged upon this point, we may
still agree with the judgment pronounced by the most congenial critics.
Fielding's pages reek too strongly of tobacco; they are apt to turn
delicate stomachs; but the atmosphere is, on the whole, healthy and
bracing. No man can read them without prejudice and fail to recognise
the fact that he has been in contact with something much higher than a
'good buffalo.' He has learnt to know a man, not merely full of animal
vigour, not merely stored with various experience of men and manners,
but also in the main sound and unpoisoned by the mephitic vapours which
poisoned the atmosphere of his police-office. If the scorn of hypocrisy
is too fully emphasised, and the sensitiveness to ugly and revolting
objects too much deadened by a rough life, yet nobody could be more
heartily convinced of the beauty and value of those solid domestic
instincts on which human happiness must chiefly depend. Put Fielding
beside the modern would-be satirists who make society--especially French
society[17]--a mere sink of nastiness, or beside the more virtuous
persons whose favourite affectation is simplicity, and who labour most
spasmodically to be masculine, and his native vigour, his massive
common-sense, his wholesome views of men and manners, stand out in solid
relief. Certainly he was limited in perception, and not so elevated in
tone as might be desired; but he is a fitting representative of the
stalwart vigour and the intellectual shrewdness evident in the best men
of his time. The English domestic life of the period was certainly far
from blameless, and anything but refined; but if we have gained in some
ways, we are hardly entitled to look with unqualified disdain upon the
rough vigour of our beer-drinking, beef-eating ancestors.

We have felt, indeed, the limitations of Fielding's art more clearly
since English fiction found a new starting-point in Scott. Scott made us
sensible of many sources of interest to which Fielding was naturally
blind. He showed us especially that a human being belonged to a society
going through a long course of historical development, and renewed the
bonds with the past which had been rudely snapped in Fielding's period.
Fielding only deals, it may be roughly said, with men as members of a
little family circle, whereas Scott shows them as members of a nation
rich in old historical traditions, related to the past and the future,
and to the external nature in which it has been developed. A wider set
of forces is introduced into our conception of humanity, and the
romantic element, which Fielding ignored, comes again to life. Scott,
too, was a greater man than Fielding, of wider sympathy, loftier
character, and, not the least, with an incomparably keener ear for the
voices of the mountains, the sea, and the sky. The more Scott is
studied, the higher, I believe, the opinion that we shall form of some
of his powers. But in one respect Fielding is his superior. It is a kind
of misnomer which classifies all Scott's books as novels. They are
embodied legends and traditions, descriptions of men, and races, and
epochs of history; but many of them are novels, as it were, by accident,
and modern readers are often disappointed because the name suggests
misleading associations. They expect to sympathise with Scott's heroes,
whereas the heroes are generally dropped in from without, just to give
ostensible continuity to the narrative. The apparent accessories are
really the main substance. The Jacobites and not Waverley, the
Borderers, not Mr. Van Beest Brown, the Covenanters, not Morton or Lord
Evandale, are the real subject of Scott's best romances. Now Fielding is
really a novelist in the more natural sense. We are interested, that is,
by the main characters, though they are not always the most attractive
in themselves. We are really absorbed by the play of their passions and
the conflict of their motives, and not merely taking advantage of the
company to see the surrounding scenery or phases of social life. In this
sense Fielding's art is admirable, and surpassed that of all his English
predecessors as of most of his successors. If the light is concentrated
in a narrow focus, it is still healthy daylight. So long as we do not
wish to leave his circle of ideas, we see little fault in the vigour
with which he fulfils his intention. And therefore, whatever Fielding's
other faults, he is beyond comparison the most faithful and profound
mouthpiece of the passions and failings of a society which seems at once
strangely remote and yet strangely near to us. When seeking to solve
that curious problem which is discussed in one of Hazlitt's best
essays--what characters one would most like to have met?--and running
over the various claims of a meeting at the Mermaid with Shakespeare and
Jonson, a 'neat repast of Attic taste' with Milton, a gossip at Button's
with Addison and Steele, a club-dinner with Johnson and Burke, a supper
with Lamb, or (certainly the least attractive) an evening at Holland
House, I sometimes fancy that, after all, few things would be pleasanter
than a pipe and a bowl of punch with Fielding and Hogarth. It is true
that for such a purpose I provide myself in imagination with a new set
of sturdy nerves, and with a digestion such as that which was once equal
to the horrors of an undergraduates' 'wine party.' But, having made that
trifling assumption, I fancy that there would be few places where one
would hear more good motherwit, shrewder judgments of men and things, or
a sounder appreciation of those homely elements of which human life is
in fact chiefly composed. Common-sense in the highest degree--whether we
choose to identify it or contrast it with genius--is at least one of the
most enduring and valuable of qualities in literature as everywhere
else; and Fielding is one of its best representatives. But perhaps one
is unduly biassed by the charm of a complete escape in imagination from
the thousand and one affectations which have grown up since Fielding
died and we have all become so much wiser and more learned than all
previous generations.


[7] Richardson wrote the first part of 'Pamela' between November 10,
1739, and January 10, 1740. 'Joseph Andrews' appeared in 1742. The first
four volumes of 'Clarissa Harlowe' and 'Roderick Random' appeared in the
beginning of 1748; 'Tom Jones' in 1749.

[8] See some appreciative remarks upon this in Scott's preface to the

[9] It is rather curious that Richardson uses the same comparison to
Miss Fielding. He assures her that her brother only knew the outside of
a clock, whilst she knew all the finer springs and movements of its
inside. See _Richardson's Correspondence_, ii. 105.

[10] Fielding blundered rather strangely in the celebrated Betsy Canning
case, as Balzac did in the 'Affaire Peytel'; but the story is too long
for repetition in this place. The trials of Miss Canning and her
supposed kidnappers are amongst the most amusing in the great collection
of State Trials. See vol. xix. of the 8vo edition. Fielding's defence of
his own conduct in the matter is reprinted in his 'Miscellanies and
Poems,' being the supplementary volume of the last collected edition of
his works.

[11] They were really the property not of Fielding but of the once
famous '_beau_ Fielding.' See _Dictionary of National Biography_.

[12] See _Tom Jones_, book xiv. chap. i.

[13] See _Voyage to Lisbon_ (July 21) for some very good remarks upon
this word, which, as he says, no two men understand in the same sense.

[14] In his interesting Life of Godwin, Mr. Paul claims for his hero (I
dare say rightly) that he was the first English writer to give a
'lengthy and appreciative notice' of 'Don Quixote.' But when he infers
that Godwin was also the first English writer who recognised in
Cervantes a great humourist, satirist, moralist, and artist, he seems to
me to overlook Fielding and others. So Warton in his essay on 'Pope'
calls 'Don Quixote' the 'most original and unrivalled work of modern
times.' The book must have been popular in England from its publication,
as we know from the preface to Beaumont and Fletcher's 'Knight of the
Burning Castle'; and numerous translations and imitations show that
Cervantes was always enjoyed, if not criticised. Fielding's frequent
references to 'Don Quixote' (to say nothing of his play, 'Don Quixote in
England') imply an admiration fully as warm as that of Godwin. 'Don
Quixote,' says Fielding, is more worthy the name of history than
Mariana, and he always speaks of Cervantes in the tone of an
affectionate disciple. Fielding, I will add, seems to me to have admired
Shakespeare more heartily and intelligently than ninety-nine out of a
hundred modern supporters of Shakespeare societies; though these
gentlemen are never happier than when depreciating English
eighteenth-century critics to exalt vapid German philosophising.
Fielding's favourite play seems from his quotations to have been

[15] Book x. chap. i.

[16] _Tom Jones_, book xv. chap. i.

[17] For Fielding's view of the French novels of his day see _Tom
Jones_, book xiii. chap. ix.


Sainte-Beuve's Essay on Cowper--considered as the type of domestic
poets--has recently been translated for the benefit of English readers.
It is interesting to know on the highest authority what are the
qualities which may recommend a writer, so strongly tinged by local
prejudices, to the admiration of a different race and generation. The
gulf which separates the Olney of a century back from modern Paris is
wide enough to give additional value to the generous appreciation of the
critic. I have not the presumption to supplement or correct any part of
his judgment. It is enough to remark briefly that Cowper's immediate
popularity was, as is usually the case, due in part to qualities which
have little to do with his more enduring reputation. Sainte-Beuve dwells
with special fondness upon his pictures of domestic and rural life. He
notices, of course, the marvellous keenness of his pathetic poems; and
he touches, though with some hint that national affinity is necessary to
its full appreciation, upon the playful humour which immortalised John
Gilpin, and lights up the poet's most charming letters. Something,
perhaps, might still be said by a competent critic upon the singular
charm of Cowper's best style. A poet, for example, might perhaps tell
us, though a prosaic person cannot, what is the secret of the impression
made by such a poem as the 'Wreck of the Royal George.' Given an
ordinary newspaper paragraph about wreck or battle, turn it into the
simplest possible language, do not introduce a single metaphor or figure
of speech, indulge in none but the most obvious of all reflections--as,
for example, that when a man is once drowned he won't win any more
battles--and produce as the result a copy of verses which nobody can
ever read without instantly knowing them by heart. How Cowper managed to
perform such a feat, and why not one poet even in a hundred can perform
it, are questions which might lead to some curious critical speculation.

The qualities, however, which charm the purely literary critic do not
account for the whole of Cowper's influence. A great part of his
immediate, and some part of his more enduring success, have been clearly
owing to a different cause. On reading Johnson's 'Lives,' Cowper
remarked, rather uncharitably, that there was scarcely one good man
amongst the poets. Few poets, indeed, shared those religious views which
commended him more than any literary excellence to a large class of
readers. Religious poetry is generally popular out of all proportion to
its æsthetic merits. Young was but a second-rate Pope in point of
talent; but probably the 'Night Thoughts' have been studied by a dozen
people for one who has read the 'Essay on Man' or the 'Imitations of
Horace.' In our own day, nobody, I suppose, would hold that the
popularity of the 'Christian Year' has been strictly proportioned to its
poetical excellence; and Cowper's vein of religious meditation has
recommended him to thousands who, if biassed at all, were quite
unconsciously biassed by the admirable qualities which endeared him to
such a critic as Sainte-Beuve. His own view was frequently and
unequivocally expressed. He says over and over again--and his entire
sincerity lifts him above all suspicion of the affected
self-depreciation of other writers--that he looked upon his poetical
work as at best innocent trifling, except so far as his poems were
versified sermons. His intention was everywhere didactic--sometimes
annoyingly didactic--and his highest ambition was to be a useful
auxiliary to the prosaic exhortations of Doddridge, Watts, or his friend
Newton. His religion, said some people, drove him mad. Even a generous
critic like Mr. Stopford Brooke cannot refrain from hinting that his
madness was in some part due to the detested influence of Calvinism. In
fact, it may be admitted that Newton--who is half inclined to boast that
he has a name for driving people mad--scarcely showed his judgment in
setting a man who had already been in confinement to write hymns which
at times are the embodiment of despair. But it is obviously contrary to
the plainest facts to say that Cowper was driven mad by his creed. His
first attack preceded his religious enthusiasm; and a gentleman who
tries to hang himself because he has received a comfortable appointment
for life, is in a state of mind which may be explained without reference
to his theological views. It would be truer to say that when Cowper's
intellect was once unhinged, he found a congenial expression for the
tortures of his soul in the imagery provided by the sternest of
Christian sects. But neither can this circumstance be alleged as in
itself disparaging to the doctrines thus misapplied. A religious belief
which does not provide language for the darkest moods of the human mind,
for profound melancholy, torturing remorse and gloomy foreboding, is a
religion not calculated to lay a powerful grasp upon the imaginations of
mankind. Had Cowper been a Roman Catholic, the same anguish of mind
might have driven him to seek relief in the recesses of some austere
monastery. Had he, like Rousseau, been a theoretical optimist, he would,
like Rousseau, have tortured himself with the conflict between theory
and fact--between the world as it might be and the corrupt and tyrannous
world as it is--and have held that all men were in a conspiracy to rob
him of his peace. The chief article of Rousseau's rather hazy creed was
the duty of universal philanthropy, and Rousseau fancied himself to be
the object of all men's hatred. Similarly, Cowper, who held that the
first duty of man was the love of God, fancied that some mysterious
cause had made him the object of the irrevocable hatred of his Creator.
With such fancies, reason and creeds which embody reason have nothing to
do except to give shape to the instruments of self-torture. The cause of
the misery is the mind diseased. You can no more raze out its rooted
troubles by arguing against the reality of the phantoms which it
generates than cure any other delirium by the most irrefragable logic.

Sainte-Beuve makes some remarks upon this analogy between Rousseau and
Cowper. The comparison suggests some curious considerations as to the
contrast and likeness of the two cases represented. Some personal
differences are, of course, profound and obvious. Cowper was as
indisputably the most virtuous man, as Rousseau the greatest
intellectual power. Cowper's domestic life was as beautiful as
Rousseau's was repulsive. Rousseau, moreover, was more decidedly a
sentimentalist than Cowper, if by sentimentalism we mean that
disposition which makes a luxury of grief, and delights in poring over
its own morbid emotions. Cowper's tears are always wrung from him by
intense anguish of soul, and never, as is occasionally the case with
Rousseau, suggests that the weeper is proud of his excessive tenderness.
Nevertheless, it is probably true, as Mr. Lowell says, that Cowper is
the nearest congener of Rousseau in our language. The two men, of
course, occupy in one respect an analogous literary position. We
habitually assign to Cowper an important place--though of course a
subordinate place to Rousseau--in bringing about the reaction against
the eighteenth-century code of taste and morality. In each case it would
generally be said that the change indicated was a return to nature and
passion from the artificial coldness of the dominant school. That
reaction, whatever its precise nature, took characteristically different
forms in England and in France; and it is as illustrating one of the
most important distinctions that I propose to say a few words upon the
contrast thus exhibited.

Return to Nature! That was the war-cry which animated the Lake school in
their assault upon the then established authority. Pope, as they held,
had tied the hands of English poets by his jingling metres and frigid
conventionalities. The muse--to make use of the old-fashioned
phrase--had been rouged and bewigged, and put into high-heeled boots,
till she had lost the old majestic freedom of gait and energy of action.
Let us go back to our ancient school, to Milton and Shakespeare and
Spenser and Chaucer, and break the ignoble fetters imported from the
pseudo-classicists of France. These and similar phrases, repeated and
varied in a thousand forms, have become part of the stock-in-trade of
literary historians, and are put forward so fluently that we sometimes
forget to ask what it is precisely that they mean. Down to Milton, it is
assumed, we were natural; then we became artificial; and with the
Revolution we became natural again. That a theory so generally received
and so consciously adopted by the leaders of the new movement must have
in it a considerable amount of truth, is not to be disputed. But it is
sometimes not easy to interpret it into very plain language. The method
of explaining great intellectual and social movements by the phrase
'reaction' is a very tempting one, for the simple reason that it enables
us to effect a great saving of thought. The change is made to explain
itself. History becomes a record of oscillations; we are always swinging
backwards and forwards, pendulum fashion, from one extreme to another.
The courtiers of Charles II. were too dissolute because the Puritans
were too strict; Addison and Steele were respectable because Congreve
and Wycherley were licentious; Wesley was zealous because the Church had
become indifferent; the Revolution of 1789 was a reaction against the
manners of the last century, and the Revolution in running its course
set up a reaction against itself. Now it is easy enough to admit that
there is some truth in this theory. Every great man who moves his race
profoundly is of necessity protesting against the worst evils of the
time, and it is as true as a copy-book that zeal leads to extremes, and
one extreme to its opposite. A river flowing through a nearly level
plain turns its concavity alternately to the east and west, and we may
fairly explain each bend by the fact that the previous bend was in the
opposite direction. But that does not explain why the river flows
down-hill, nor show which direction tends downwards. We may account for
trifling oscillations, not for the main current. Nor does it seem at
first a self-evident proposition that vice, for example, necessarily
generates over-strictness. A man is not always a Pharisee because his
father has been a sinner. In fact, the people who talk so fluently about
reaction fall back whenever it suits them upon the inverse theory. If a
process happens to be continuous, the reason is as simple and
satisfactory as in the opposite case. A man is dissolute, they will tell
us, because his father was dissolute; just as they will tell us, in the
opposite case, that he was dissolute because his father was strict.
Obviously, the mere statement of a reaction is not by itself
satisfactory. We want to know why there should have been a reaction; why
the code of morals which satisfied one generation did not satisfy its
successors; why the coming man was repelled rather than attracted; what
it was that made Pope array himself in a wig instead of appreciating the
noble freedom of his predecessors; and why, again, at a given period men
became tired of the old wig business. When we have solved, or
approximated to a solution of, that problem, we shall generally find, I
suspect, that the action and reaction are generally more superficial
phenomena than we suppose, and that the great processes of evolution are
going on beneath the surface comparatively undisturbed by the changes
which first attract our notice. Every man naturally exaggerates the
share of his education due to himself. He fancies that he has made a
wonderful improvement upon his father's views, perhaps by reversing the
improvement made by the father on the grandfather's. He does not see,
what is plain enough to a more distant generation, that in reality each
generation is most closely bound to its nearest predecessors.

There is, too, a special source of ambiguity in the catchword used by
the revolutionary school. They spoke of a return to nature. What, to ask
once more a very troublesome question, is meant by nature? Does it mean
inanimate nature? If so, is a love of nature clearly good or 'natural?'
Was Wordsworth justifiable _primâ facie_ for telling us to study
mountains rather than Pope for announcing that

    The proper study of mankind is man?

Is it not more natural to be interested in men than in mountains? Does
nature include man in his natural state? If so, what is the natural
state of man? Is the savage the man of nature, or the unsophisticated
peasant, or the man whose natural powers are developed to the highest
pitch? Is a native of the Andaman Islands the superior of Socrates? If
you admit that Socrates is superior to the savage, where do you draw the
line between the natural and the artificial? If a coral reef is natural
and beautiful because it is the work of insects, and a town artificial
and ugly because made by man, we must reject as unnatural all the best
products of the human race. If you distinguish between different works
of man, the distinction becomes irrelevant, for the products to which we
most object are just as natural, in any assignable sense of the word, as
those which we most admire. The word natural may indeed be used as
equivalent simply to beneficial or healthy; but then it loses all value
as an implicit test of what is and what is not beneficial. Probably,
indeed, some such sense was floating before the minds of most who have
used the term. We shall generally find a vague recognition of the fact
that there is a continuous series of integrating and disintegrating
processes; that some charges imply a normal development of the social or
individual organism leading to increased health and strength, whilst
others are significant of disease and ultimate obliteration or decay of
structure. Thus the artificial style of the Pope school, the appeals to
the muse, the pastoral affectation, and so forth, may be called
unnatural, because the philosophy of that style is the retention of
obsolete symbols after all vitality has departed, and when they
consequently become mere obstructions, embarrassing the free flow of
emotion which they once stimulated.

But, however this may be, it is plain that the very different senses
given to the word nature by different schools of thought were
characteristic of profoundly different conceptions of the world and its
order. There is a sense in which it may be said with perfect accuracy
that the worship of nature, so far from being a fresh doctrine of the
new school, was the most characteristic tenet of the school from which
it dissented. All the speculative part of the English literature in the
first half of the eighteenth century is a prolonged discussion as to the
meaning and value of the law of nature, the religion of nature, and the
state of nature. The deist controversy, which occupied every one of the
keenest thinkers of the time, turned essentially upon this problem:
granting that there is an ascertainable and absolutely true religion of
nature, what is its relation to revealed religion? That, for example, is
the question explicitly discussed in Butler's typical book, which gives
the pith of the whole orthodox argument, and the same speculation
suggested the theme of Pope's 'Essay on Man,' which, in its occasional
strength and its many weaknesses, is perhaps the most characteristic,
though far from the most valuable product of the time. The religion of
nature undoubtedly meant something very different with Butler or Pope
from what it would have meant with Wordsworth or Coleridge--something so
different, indeed, that we might at first say that the two creeds had
nothing in common but the name. But we may see from Rousseau that there
was a real and intimate connection. Rousseau's philosophy, in fact, is
taken bodily from the teaching of his English predecessors. His
celebrated profession of faith through the lips of the Vicaire Savoyard,
which delighted Voltaire and profoundly influenced the leaders of the
French Revolution, is in fact the expression of a deism identical with
that of Pope's essay.[18] The political theories of the Social Contract
are founded upon the same base which served Locke and the English
political theorists of 1688; and are applied to sanction the attempt to
remodel existing societies in accordance with what they would have
called the law of nature. It is again perfectly true that Rousseau drew
from his theory consequences which inspired Robespierre, and would have
made Locke's hair stand on end; and that Pope would have been
scandalised at the too open revelation of his religious tendencies. It
is also true that Rousseau's passion was of infinitely greater
importance than his philosophy. But it remains true that the logical
framework into which his theories were fitted came to him straight from
the same school of thought which was dominant in England during the
preceding period. The real change effected by Rousseau was that he
breathed life into the dead bones. The English theorists, as has been
admirably shown by Mr. Morley in his 'Rousseau,' acted after their
national method. They accepted doctrines which, if logically developed,
would have led to a radical revolution, and therefore refused to develop
them logically. They remained in their favourite attitude of compromise,
and declined altogether to accommodate practice to theory. Locke's
political principles fairly carried out implied universal suffrage, the
absolute supremacy of the popular will, and the abolition of class
privileges. And yet it never seems to have occurred to him that he was
even indirectly attacking that complex structure of the British
Constitution, rooted in history, marked in every detail by special
conditions of growth, and therefore anomalous to the last degree when
tried by _à priori_ reasoning, of which Burke's philosophical eloquence
gives the best explanation and apology. Similarly, Clarke's theology is
pure deism, embodied in a series of propositions worked out on the model
of a mathematical text-book, and yet in his eyes perfectly consistent
with an acceptance of the orthodox dogmas which repose upon traditional
authority. This attitude of mind, so intelligible on this side of the
Channel, was utterly abhorrent to Rousseau's logical instincts.
Englishmen were content to keep their abstract theories for the closet
or the lecture-room, and dropped them as soon as they were in the pulpit
or in Parliament. Rousseau could give no quarter to any doctrine which
could not be fitted into a symmetrical edifice of abstract reasoning. He
carried into actual warfare the weapons which his English teachers had
kept for purposes of mere scholastic disputation. A monarchy, an order
of privileged nobility, a hierarchy claiming supernatural authority,
were not logically justifiable on the accepted principles. Never mind,
was the English answer, they work very well in practice; let us leave
them alone. Down with them to the ground! was Rousseau's passionate
retort. Realise the ideal; force practice into conformity with theory;
the voice of the poor and the oppressed is crying aloud for vengeance;
the divergence of the actual from the theoretical is no mere trifle to
be left to the slow action of time; it means the misery of millions and
the corruption of their rulers. The doctrine which had amused
philosophers was to become the war-cry of the masses; the men of '89
were at no loss to translate into precepts suited for the immediate
wants of the day the doctrines which found their first utterance in the
glow of his voluminous eloquence; and the fall of the Bastille showed
the first vibrations of the earthquake which is still shaking the soil
of Europe.

It is easy, then, to give a logical meaning to Rousseau's return to
nature. The whole inanimate world, so ran his philosophy, is perfect,
and shows plainly the marks of the Divine workmanship. All evil really
comes from man's abuse of freewill. Mountains, and forests, and seas,
all objects which have not suffered from his polluting touch, are
perfect and admirable. Let us fall down and worship. Man, too, himself,
as he came from his Creator's hands, is perfect. His 'natural'--that is,
original--impulses are all good; and in all men, in all races and
regions of the earth, we find a conscience which unerringly
distinguishes good from evil, and a love of his fellows which causes man
to obey the dictates of his conscience. And yet the world, as we see it,
is a prison or a lazar-house. Disease and starvation make life a burden,
and poison the health of the coming generations; those whom fortune has
placed above the masses make use of their advantages to harden their
hearts, and extract means of selfish enjoyment from the sufferings of
their fellow-creatures. What is the source of this heartrending discord?
The abuse of men's freewill; that is, of the mysterious power which
enables us to act contrary to the dictates of nature. What is the best
name for the disease which it generates? Luxury and corruption--the two
cant objects of denunciations which were as popular in the
pre-revolutionary generation as attacks upon sensationalism and
over-excitement at the present day. And what, then, is the mode of
cure? The return to nature. We are to make history run backwards, to
raze to its foundations the whole social and intellectual structure that
has been erected by generations of corrupt and selfish men. Everything
by which the civilised man differs from some theoretical pretension is
tainted with a kind of original sin. Political institutions, as they
exist, are conveniences for enabling the rich to rob the poor, and
churches contrivances by which priests make ignorance and superstition
play into the hands of selfish authority. Level all the existing order,
and build up a new one on principles of pure reason; give up all the
philosophical and theological dogmas, which have been the work of
designing priests and bewildered speculators, and revert to that pure
and simple religion which is divinely implanted in the heart of every
uncorrupted human being. The Savoyard vicar, if you have any doubts,
will tell you what is the true creed; and if you don't believe it, is
Rousseau's rather startling corollary, you ought to be put to death.

That final touch shows the arbitrary and despotic spirit characteristic
of the relentless theorist. I need not here inquire what relation may be
borne by Rousseau's theories to any which could now be accepted by
intelligent thinkers. It is enough to say that there would be, to put it
gently, some slight difficulty in settling the details of this pure
creed common to all unsophisticated minds, and in seeing what would be
left when we had destroyed all institutions alloyed by sin and
selfishness. The meaning, however, in this connection of his love of
nature, taking the words in their mere common-sense, is in harmony with
his system. The mountains, whose worship he was the first to adumbrate,
if not actually to institute, were the symbols of the great natural
forces free from any stain of human interference. Greed and cruelty had
not stained the pure waters of his lovely lake, or dimmed the light to
which his vicar points as in the early morning it grazes the edges of
the mighty mountain buttresses. Whatever symbolism may be found in the
Alps, suggesting emotions of awe, wonder, and softened melancholy, came
unstained by the association with the vices of a complex civilisation.
If poets and critics have not quite analysed the precise nature of our
modern love of mountain scenery, the sentiment may at least be
illustrated by a modern parallel. The most eloquent writer who, in our
day, has transferred to his pages the charm of Alpine beauties, shares
in many ways Rousseau's antipathy for the social order. Mr. Ruskin would
explain better than anyone why the love of the sublimest scenery should
be associated with a profound conviction that all things are out of
joint, and that society can only be regenerated by rejecting all the
achievements upon which the ordinary optimist plumes himself. After all,
it is not surprising that those who are most sick of man as he is should
love the regions where man seems smallest. When Swift wished to express
his disgust for his race, he showed how absurd our passions appear in a
creature six inches high; and the mountains make us all Liliputians. In
other mouths Rousseau's sentiment, more fully interpreted, became
unequivocally misanthropical. Byron, if any definite logical theory were
to be fixed upon him, excluded the human race at large from his
conception of nature. He loved, or talked as though he loved, the
wilderness precisely because it was a wilderness; the sea because it
sent men 'shivering to their gods,' and the mountains because their
avalanches crush the petty works of human industry. Rousseau was less
anti-social than his disciple. The mountains with him were the great
barriers which kept civilisation and all its horrors at bay. They were
the asylums for liberty and simplicity. There the peasant, unspoilt as
yet by _trinkgelds_, not oppressed by the great, nor corrupted by the
rich, could lead that idyllic life upon which his fancy delighted. In a
passage quoted, as Sainte-Beuve notices, by Cowper, Rousseau describes,
with his usual warmth of sentiment, the delightful _matinée anglaise_
passed in sight of the Alps by the family which had learnt the charms of
simplicity, and regulated its manners and the education of its children
by the unsophisticated laws of nature. It is doubtless a charming
picture, though the virtuous persons concerned are a little
over-conscious of their virtue, and it indicates a point of coincidence
between the two men. Rousseau, as Mr. Morley says, could appreciate as
well as Cowper the charms of a simple and natural life. Nobody could be
more eloquent on the beauty of domesticity; no one could paint better
the happiness of family life, where the main occupation was the
primitive labour of cultivating the ground, where no breath of
unhallowed excitement penetrated from the restless turmoil of the
outside world, where the mother knew her place, and kept to her placid
round of womanly duties, and where the children were taught with a
gentle firmness which developed every germ of reason and affection,
without undue stimulus or undue repression. And yet one must doubt
whether Cowper would have felt himself quite at ease in the family of
the Wolmars. The circle which gathered round the hearth at Olney to
listen for the horn of the approaching postman, and solaced itself with
cups 'that cheer but not inebriate,'[19] would have been a little
scandalised by some of the sentiments current in the Vaudois paradise,
and certainly by some of the antecedents of the party assembled. Cowper
and Mrs. Unwin, and even their more fashionable friend, Lady Austen,
would have felt their respectable prejudices shocked by contact with the
new Héloïse; and the views of life taken by their teacher, the converted
slaveholder, John Newton, were as opposite as possible to those of
Rousseau's imaginary vicar. Indeed, Rousseau's ideal families have that
stain of affectation from which Cowper is so conspicuously free. The
rose-colour is laid on too thickly. They are too fond of taking credit
for universal admiration of the fine feelings which invariably animate
their breasts; their charitable sentiments are apt to take the form of
very easy condonation of vice; and if they repudiate the world, we
cannot believe that they are really unconscious of its existence.
Perhaps this dash of self-consciousness was useful in recommending them
to the taste of the jaded and weary society, sickening of a strange
disease which it could not interpret to itself, and finding for the
moment a new excitement in the charms of ancient simplicity. The real
thing might have palled upon it. But Rousseau's artificial and
self-conscious simplicity expressed that vague yearning and spirit of
unrest which could generate a half-sensual sentimentalism, but could be
repelled by genuine sentiment. Perhaps it not uncommonly happens that
those who are more or less tainted with a morbid tendency can denounce
it most effectually. The most effective satirist is the man who has
escaped with labour and pains, and not without some grievous stains,
from the slough in which others are still mired. The perfectly pure has
sometimes too little sympathy with his weaker brethren to place himself
at their point of view. Indeed, as we shall have occasion to remark,
Cowper is an instance of a thinker too far apart from the great world to
apply the lash effectually.

Rousseau's view of the world and its evils was thus coherent enough,
however unsatisfactory in its basis, and was a development of, not a
reaction against, the previously dominant philosophy; and, though using
a different dialect and confined by different conditions, Cowper's
attack upon the existing order harmonises with much of Rousseau's
language. The first volume of poems, in which he had not yet discovered
the secret of his own strength, is in form a continuation of the satires
of the Pope school, and in substance a religious version of Rousseau's
denunciations of luxury. Amongst the first symptoms of the growing
feeling of uneasy discontent had been the popularity of Brown's
now-forgotten 'Estimate.'

    The inestimable estimate of Brown
    Rose like a paper kite, and charmed the town,

says Cowper; and he proceeds to show that, though Chatham's victorious
administration had for a moment restored the self-respect of the
country, the evils denounced by Brown were symptoms of a profound and
lasting disease. The poems called the 'Progress of Error,'
'Expostulation,' 'Truth,' 'Hope,' 'Charity,' and 'Conversation,' all
turn upon the same theme. Though Cowper is for brief spaces playful or
simply satirical, he always falls back into his habitual vein of
meditation. For the ferocious personalities of Churchill, the
coarse-fibred friend of his youth, we have a sad strain of lamentation
over the growing luxury and effeminacy of the age. It is a continued
anticipation of the lines in the 'Task,' which seem to express his most
serious and sincere conviction.

    The course of human ills, from good to ill,
    From ill to worse, is fatal, never fails.
    Increase of power begets increase of wealth,
    Wealth luxury, and luxury excess:
    Excess the scrofulous and itchy plague,
    That seizes first the opulent, descends
    To the next rank contagious, and in time
    Taints downwards all the graduated scale
    Of order, from the chariot to the plough.

That is his one unvariable lesson, set in different lights, but
associated more or less closely with every observation. The world is
ripening or rotting; and, as with Rousseau, luxury is the most
significant name of the absorbing evil. That such a view should commend
itself to a mind so clouded with melancholy would not be at any time
surprising, but it fell in with a widely spread conviction. Cowper had
not, indeed, learnt the most effective mode of touching men's hearts.
Separated by a retirement of twenty years from the world, with which he
had never been very familiar, and at which he only 'peeped through the
loopholes of retreat,' his satire wanted the brilliance, the quickness
of illustration from actual life, which alone makes satire readable. His
tone of feeling too frequently suggests that the critic represents the
querulous comments of old ladies gossiping about the outside world over
their tea-cups, easily scandalised by very simple things. Mrs. Unwin was
an excellent old lady, and Newton a most zealous country clergyman.
Probably they were intrinsically superior to the fine ladies and
gentlemen who laughed at them. But a mind acclimatised to the atmosphere
which they breathed inevitably lost its nervous tone. There was true
masculine vigour underlying Cowper's jeremiads; but it was natural that
many people should only see in him an amiable valetudinarian, not
qualified for a censorship of statesmen and men of the world. The man
who fights his way through London streets can't stop to lament over
every splash and puddle which might shock poor Cowper's nervous

The last poem of the series, however, 'Retirement,' showed that Cowper
had a more characteristic and solacing message to mankind than a mere
rehearsal of the threadbare denunciations of luxury. The 'Task' revealed
his genuine power. There appeared those admirable delineations of
country scenery and country thoughts which Sainte-Beuve detaches so
lovingly from the mass of serious speculation in which they are
embedded. What he, as a purely literary critic, passed over as
comparatively uninteresting, gives the exposition of Cowper's
intellectual position. The poem is in fact a political, moral, and
religious disquisition interspersed with charming vignettes, which,
though not obtrusively moralised, illustrate the general thesis. The
poetical connoisseur may separate them from their environment, as a
collector of engravings might cut out the illustrations from the now
worthless letterpress. The poor author might complain that the most
important moral was thus eliminated from his book. But the author is
dead, and his opinions don't much matter. To understand Cowper's mind,
however, we must take the now obsolete meditation with the permanently
attractive pictures. To know why he so tenderly loved the slow windings
of the sinuous Ouse, we must see what he thought of the great Babel
beyond. It is the distant murmur of the great city that makes his little
refuge so attractive. The general vein of thought which appears in every
book of the poem is most characteristically expressed in the fifth,
called 'A Winter Morning Walk.' Cowper strolls out at sunrise in his
usual mood of tender playfulness, smiles at the vast shadow cast by the
low winter sun, as he sees upon the cottage wall the

    Preposterous sight! the legs without the man.

He remarks, with a passing recollection of his last sermon, that we are
all shadows; but turns to note the cattle cowering behind the fences;
the labourer carving the haystack; the woodman going to work, followed
by his half-bred cur, and cheered by the fragrance of his short pipe. He
watches the marauding sparrows, and thinks with tenderness of the fate
of less audacious birds; and then pauses to examine the strange fretwork
erected at the mill-dam by the capricious freaks of the frost. Art, it
suggests to him, is often beaten by Nature; and his fancy goes off to
the winter palace of ice erected by the Russian empress. His friend
Newton makes use of the same easily allegorised object in one of his
religious writings; though I know not whether the poet or the divine
first turned it to account. Cowper, at any rate, is immediately diverted
into a meditation on 'human grandeur and the courts of kings.' The
selfishness and folly of the great give him an obvious theme for a
dissertation in the true Rousseau style. He tells us how 'kings were
first invented'--the ordinary theory of the time being that
political--deists added religious--institutions were all somehow
'invented' by knaves to impose upon fools. 'War is a game,' he says, in
the familiar phrase,

          'Which were their subjects wise
    Kings would not play at.'

But, unluckily, their subjects are fools. In England indeed--for Cowper,
by virtue of his family traditions, was in theory a sound Whig--we know
how far to trust our kings; and he rises into a warmth on behalf of
liberty for which he thinks it right to make a simple-minded apology in
a note. The sentiment suggests a vigorous and indeed prophetic
denunciation of the terrors of the Bastille, and its 'horrid towers and

    There's not an English heart that would not leap
    To hear that ye were fallen at last!

Within five or six years English hearts were indeed welcoming the event
thus foretold as the prospect of a new era of liberty. Liberty, says
Cowper, is the one thing which makes England dear. Were that boon lost,

    I would at least bewail it under skies
    Milder, amongst a people less austere;
    In scenes which, having never known me free,
    Would not reproach me with the loss I felt.[20]

So far Cowper was but expressing the sentiments of Rousseau, omitting,
of course, Rousseau's hearty dislike for England. But liberty suggests
to Cowper a different and more solemn vein of thought. There are worse
dungeons, he remembers, than the Bastille, and a slavery compared with
which that of the victims of French tyranny is a trifle--

    There is yet a liberty unsung
    By poets, and by senators unpraised,
    Which monarchs cannot grant, nor all the power
    Of earth and hell confederate take away.

The patriot is lower than the martyr, though more highly prized by the
world; and Cowper changes his strain of patriotic fervour into a
prolonged devotional comment upon the text,

    He is the freeman whom the truth makes free,
    And all are slaves besides.

Who would have thought that we could glide so easily into so solemn a
topic from looking at the quaint freaks of morning shadows? But the
charm of the 'Task' is its sincerity; and in Cowper's mind the most
trivial objects really are connected by subtle threads of association
with the most solemn thoughts. He begins with mock heroics on the sofa,
and ends with a glowing vision of the millennium. No dream of human
perfectibility, but the expected advent of the true Ruler of the earth,
is the relief to the palpable darkness of the existing world. The
'Winter Walk' traces the circle of thought through which his mind
invariably revolves.

It would be a waste of labour to draw out in definite formula the
systems adopted, from emotional sympathy, rather than from any logical
speculation, by Cowper and Rousseau. Each in some degree owed his
power--though Rousseau in a far higher degree than Cowper--to his
profound sensitiveness to the heavy burden of the time. Each of them
felt like a personal grief, and exaggerated in a distempered
imagination, the weariness and the forebodings more dimly present to
contemporaries. In an age when old forms of government had grown rigid
and obsolete, when the stiffened crust of society was beginning to heave
with new throes, when ancient faiths had left mere husks of dead formulæ
to cramp the minds of men, when even superficial observers were startled
by vague omens of a coming crash, or expected some melodramatic
regeneration of the world, it was perhaps not strange that two men,
tottering on the verge of madness, should be amongst the most
impressive prophets. The truth of Butler's speculation, that nations,
like individuals, might go mad, was about to receive an apparent
confirmation. Cowper, like Rousseau, might see the world through the
distorting haze of a disordered fancy, but the world at large was itself
strangely disordered, and the smouldering discontent of the inarticulate
masses found an echo in their passionate utterances. Their voices were
like the moan of a coming earthquake.

The difference, however, so characteristic of the two countries, is
reflected by the national representatives. Nobody could be less of a
revolutionist than Cowper. His whiggism was little more than a
tradition. Though he felt bound to denounce kings, to talk about Hampden
and Sidney, and to sympathise with Mrs. Macaulay's old-fashioned
republicanism, there was not a more loyal subject of George III., or one
more disposed, when he could turn his mind from his pet hares to the
concerns of the empire, to lament the revolt of the American colonies.
The awakening of England from the pleasant slumbers of the eighteenth
century--for it seems pleasant in these more restless times--took place
in a curiously sporadic and heterogeneous fashion. In France the
spiritual and temporal were so intricately welded together, the
interests of the State were so deeply involved in maintaining the faith
of the Church, that conservatism and orthodoxy naturally went together.
Philosophers rejected with equal fervour the established religious and
the political creed. The new volume of passionate feeling, no longer
satisfied with the ancient barriers, poured itself in both cases into
the revolutionary channel. In England no such plain and simple issue
existed. We had our usual system of compromises in practice, and hybrid
combinations of theory. There were infidel conservatives and radical
believers. The man who more than any other influenced English history
during that century was John Wesley. Wesley was to the full as deeply
impressed as Rousseau with the moral and social evils of the time. We
may doubt whether Cowper's denunciations of luxury owed most to
Rousseau's sentimental eloquence or to the matter-of-fact vigour of
Wesley's 'Appeals.' Cowper's portrait of Whitefield--'Leuconomus,' as he
calls him, to evade the sneers of the cultivated--and his frequent
references to the despised sect of Methodists reveal the immediate
source of much of his indignation. So far as those evils were caused by
the intellectual and moral conditions common to Europe at large, Wesley
and Rousseau might be called allies. Both of them gave satisfaction to
the need for a free play of unsatisfied emotions. Their solutions of the
problem were of course radically different; and Cowper only speaks the
familiar language of his sect when he taunts the philosopher with his
incapacity to free man from his bondage:

                  Spend all the powers
    Of rant and rhapsody in virtue's praise,
    Be most sublimely good, verbosely grand,
    And with poetic trappings grace thy prose
    Till it outmantle all the pride of verse;

where he was possibly, as Sainte-Beuve suggests, thinking of Rousseau,
though Shaftesbury was the more frequent butt of such denunciations. The
difference in the solution of the great problem of moral regeneration
was facilitated by the difference of the environment. Rousseau, though
he shows a sentimental tenderness for Christianity, could not be
orthodox without putting himself on the side of the oppressors. Wesley,
though feeling profoundly the social discords of the time, could take
the side of the poor without the need of breaking in pieces a rigid
system of class-privilege. The evil which he had to encounter did not
present itself as tyranny oppressing helplessness, but as a general
neglect of reciprocal duties verging upon license. On the whole,
therefore, he took the conservative side of political questions. When
the American war gave the first signal of coming troubles, the
combinations of opinion were significant of the general state of mind.
Wesley and Johnson denounced the rebels from the orthodox point of view
with curious coincidence of language. The only man of equal intellectual
calibre who took the same side unequivocally was the arch-infidel
Gibbon. The then sleepy Established Church was too tolerant or too
indifferent to trouble him: why should he ally himself with Puritans and
enthusiasts to attack the Government which at once supported and tied
its hands? On the other side, we find such lovers of the established
religious order as Burke associated with free-thinkers like Tom Paine
and Horne Tooke. Tooke might agree with Voltaire in private, but he
could not air his opinions to a party which relied in no small measure
on the political zeal of sound dissenters. Dissent, in fact, meant
something like atheism combined with radicalism in France; in England it
meant desire for the traditional liberties of Englishmen, combined with
an often fanatical theological creed.

Cowper, brought up amidst such surroundings, had no temptation to adopt
Rousseau's sweeping revolutionary fervour. His nominal whiggism was not
warmed into any subversive tendency. The labourers with whose sorrows he
sympathised might be ignorant, coarse, and drunken; he saw their faults
too clearly to believe in Rousseau's idyllic conventionalities, and
painted the truth as realistically as Crabbe: they required to be kept
out of the public-house, not to be liberated from obsolete feudal
disqualifications; a poacher, such as he described, was not the victim
of a brutal aristocracy, but simply a commonplace variety of thief. And,
on the other hand, when he denounces the laziness and selfishness of the
Establishment, the luxurious bishops, the sycophantic curates, the
sporting and the fiddling and the card-playing parson, he has no thought
of the enmity to Christianity which such satire would have suggested to
a French reformer, but is mentally contrasting the sleepiness of the
bishops with the virtues of Newton or Whitefield.

    'Where dwell these matchless saints?' old Curio cries.
    'Even at your side, sir, and before your eyes,
    The favour'd few, the enthusiasts you despise.'

And whatever be thought of Cowper's general estimate of the needs of his
race, it must be granted that in one respect his philosophy was more
consequent than Rousseau's. Rousseau, though a deist in theory, rejected
the deist conclusion, that whatever is, is right; and consequently the
problem of how it can be that men, who are naturally so good, are in
fact so vile, remained a difficulty, only slurred over by his fluent
metaphysics about freewill. Cowper's belief in the profound corruption
of human nature supplied him with a doctrine less at variance with his
view of facts. He has no illusions about the man of nature. The savage,
he tells us, was a drunken beast till rescued from his bondage by the
zeal of the Moravian missionaries; and the poor are to be envied, not
because their lives are actually much better, but because they escape
the temptations and sophistries of the rich and learned.

But how should this sentiment fit in with Cowper's love of nature? In
the language of his sect, nature is generally opposed to grace. It is
applied to a world in which not only the human inhabitants, but the
whole creation, is tainted with a mysterious evil. Why should Cowper
find relief in contemplating a system in which waste and carnage play so
conspicuous a part? Why, when he rescued his pet hares from the general
fate of their race, did he not think of the innumerable hares who
suffered not only from guns and greyhounds, but from the general
annoyances incident to the struggle for existence? Would it not have
been more logical if he had placed his happiness altogether in another
world, where the struggles and torments of our everyday life are
unknown? Indeed, though Cowper, as an orthodox Protestant, held that
ascetic practices ministered simply to spiritual conceit, was he not
bound to a sufficiently galling form of asceticism? His friends
habitually looked askance upon all those pleasures of the intellect and
the imagination which are not directly subservient to the religious
emotions. They had grave doubts of the expediency of his studies of the
pagan Homer. They looked with suspicion upon the slightest indulgence in
social amusements. And Cowper fully shared their sentiments. A taste for
music, for example, generally suggests to him a parson fiddling when he
ought to be praying; and following once more the lead of Newton, he
remarks upon the Handel celebration as a piece of grotesque profanity.
The name of science calls up to him a pert geologist, declaring after an
examination of the earth

    That He who made it, and revealed its date
    To Moses, was mistaken in its age.

Not only is the great bulk of his poetry directly religious or
devotional, but on publishing the 'Task' he assures Newton that he has
admitted none but Scriptural images, and kept as closely as possible to
Scriptural language. Elsewhere he quotes Swift's motto, _Vive la
bagatelle!_ as a justification of 'John Gilpin.' Fox is recorded to have
said that Swift must have been fundamentally a good-natured man because
he wrote so much nonsense. To me the explanation seems to be very
different. Nothing is more melancholy than Swift's elaborate triflings,
because they represent the efforts of a powerful intellect passing into
madness under enforced inaction, to kill time by childish occupation.
And the diagnosis of Cowper's case is similar. He trifles, he says,
because he is reduced to it by necessity. His most ludicrous verses have
been written in his saddest mood. It would be, he adds, 'but a shocking
vagary' if the sailors on a ship in danger relieved themselves 'by
fiddling and dancing; yet sometimes much such a part act I.' His love of
country sights and pleasures is so intense because it is the most
effectual relief. 'Oh!' he exclaims, 'I could spend whole days and
nights in gazing upon a lovely prospect! My eyes drink the rivers as
they flow.' And he adds, in his characteristic vein of thought, 'if
every human being upon earth could feel as I have done for many years,
there might perhaps be many miserable men among them, but not an
unawakened one could be found from the Arctic to the Antarctic circle.'
The earth and the sun itself are, he says, but 'baubles;' but they are
the baubles which alone can distract his attention from more awful
prospects. His little garden and greenhouse are playthings lent to him
for a time, and soon to be left. He 'never framed a wish or formed a
plan,' as he says in the 'Task,' of which the scene was not laid in the
country; and when the gloomiest forebodings unhinged his mind, his love
became a passion. He is like his own prisoner in the Bastille playing
with spiders. All other avenues of delight are closed to him; he
believes, whenever his dark hour of serious thought returns, that he is
soon to be carried off to unspeakable torments; all ordinary methods of
human pleasure seem to be tainted with some corrupting influence; but
whilst playing with his spaniel, or watching his cucumbers, or walking
with Mrs. Unwin in the fields, he can for a moment distract his mind
with purely innocent pleasures. The awful background of his visions,
never quite absent, though often, we may hope, far removed from actual
consciousness, throws out these hours of delight into more prominent
relief. The sternest of his monitors, John Newton himself, could hardly
grudge this cup of cold water presented, as it were, to the lips of a
man in a self-made purgatory.

This is the peculiar turn which gives so characteristic a tone to
Cowper's loving portraits of scenery. He is like the Judas seen by St.
Brandan on the iceberg; he is enjoying a momentary relaxation between
the past of misery and the future of anticipated torment. Such a
sentiment must, fortunately, be in some sense exceptional and
idiosyncratic. And yet, once more, it fell in with the prevailing
current of thought. Cowper agrees with Rousseau in finding that the
contemplation of scenery, unpolluted by human passion, and the enjoyment
of a calm domestic life is the best anodyne for a spirit wearied with
the perpetual disorders of a corrupt social order. He differs from him,
as we have seen, in the conviction that a deeper remedy is wanting than
any mere political change; in a more profound sense of human wickedness,
and, on the other hand, in a narrower estimate of the conditions of
human life. His definition of Nature, to put it logically, would exclude
that natural man in whose potential existence Rousseau more or less
believed. The passionate love of scenery was enough to distinguish him
from the poets of the preceding school, whose supposed hatred of Nature
meant simply that they were thoroughly immersed in the pleasures of a
society then first developed in its modern form, and not yet undermined
by the approach of a new revolution. The men of Pope and Addison's time
looked upon country squires as bores incapable of intellectual pleasure,
and, therefore, upon country life as a topic for gentle ridicule, or
more frequently as an unmitigated nuisance. Probably their estimate was
a very sound one. When a true poet like Thomson really enjoyed the fresh
air, his taste did not become a passion, and the scenery appeared to him
as a pleasant background to his Castle of Indolence. Cowper's peculiar
religious views prevented him again from anticipating the wider and more
philosophical sentiment of Wordsworth. Like Pope and Wordsworth, indeed,
he occasionally uses language which has a pantheistic sound. He
expresses his belief that

                There lives and works
    A soul in all things, and that soul is God.

But when Pope uses a similar phrase, it is the expression of a decaying
philosophy which never had much vitality, or passed from the sphere of
intellectual speculation to affect the imagination and the emotions. It
is a dogma which he holds sincerely, it may be, but not firmly enough to
colour his habitual sentiments. With Wordsworth, whatever its precise
meaning, it is an expression of an habitual and abiding sentiment, which
rises naturally to his lips whenever he abandons himself to his
spontaneous impulses. With Cowper, as is the case with all Cowper's
utterances, it is absolutely sincere for the time; but it is a doctrine
not very easily adapted to his habitual creed, and which drops out of
his mind whenever he passes from external nature to himself or his
fellows. The indwelling divinity whom he recognises in every 'freckle,
streak, or stain' on his favourite flowers, seems to be hopelessly
removed from his own personal interests. An awful and mysterious decree
has separated him for ever from the sole source of consolation.

This is not the place to hint at any judgment upon Cowper's theology, or
to inquire how far a love of nature, in his sense of the words, can be
logically combined with a system based upon the fundamental dogma of the
corruption of man. Certainly a similar anticipation of the poetical
pantheism of Wordsworth may be found in that most logical of Calvinists,
Jonathan Edwards. Cowper, too, could be at no loss for scriptural
precedents, when recognising the immediate voice of God in thunder and
earthquakes, or in the calmer voices of the waterbrooks and the meadows.
His love of nature, at any rate, is at once of a narrower and sincerer
kind than that which Rousseau first made fashionable. He has no tendency
to the misanthropic or cynical view which induces men of morbid or
affected minds to profess a love of savage scenery simply because it is
savage. Neither does he rise to the more philosophical view which sees
in the seas and the mountains the most striking symbols of the great
forces of the universe to which we must accommodate ourselves, and which
might therefore rightfully be associated by a Wordsworth with the
deepest emotions of reverential awe. Nature is to him but a collection
of 'baubles,' soon to be taken away, and he seeks in its contemplation
a temporary relief from anguish, not a permanent object of worship. He
would dread that sentiment as a deistical form of idolatry; and he is
equally far from thinking that the natural man, wherever that vague
person might be found, could possibly be a desirable object of
imitation. His love of nature, in short, keen as it might be, was not
the reflection of any philosophical, religious, or political theory. But
it was genuine enough to charm many who might regard his theological
sentiments as a mere recrudescence of an obsolete form of belief. Mr.
Mill tells us how Wordsworth's poetry, little as he sympathised with
Wordsworth's opinions, solaced an intellect wearied with premature Greek
and over-doses of Benthamism. Such a relief must have come to many
readers of Cowper, who would put down his religion as rank fanaticism,
and his satire as anile declamation. Men suffered even then--though
Cowper was a predecessor of Miss Austen--from existing forms of 'life at
high pressure.' If life was not then so overcrowded, the evils under
which men were suffering appeared to be even more hopeless. The great
lesson of the value of intervals of calm retreat, of silence and
meditation, was already needed, if it is now still more pressing. Cowper
said, substantially, Leave the world, as Rousseau said, Upset the world.
The reformer, to say nothing of his greater intellectual power,
naturally interested the world which he threatened more than the recluse
whom it frightened. Limited within a narrower circle of ideas, and
living in a society where the great issues of the time were not
presented in so naked a form, Cowper's influence ran in a more confined
channel. He felt the incapacity of the old order to satisfy the
emotional wants of mankind, but was content to revive the old forms of
belief instead of seeking a more radical remedy in some subversive or
reconstructive system of thought. But the depth and sincerity of feeling
which explains his marvellous intensity of pathos is sometimes a
pleasant relief to the sentimentalism of his greater predecessor. Nor is
it hard to understand why his passages of sweet and melancholy musing by
the quiet Ouse should have come like a breath of fresh air to the jaded
generation waiting for the fall of the Bastille--and of other things.


[18] Rousseau himself seems to refer to Clarke, the leader of the
English rationalising school, as the best expounder of his theory, and
defended Pope's Essay against the criticisms of Voltaire.

[19] A phrase by the way, which Cowper, though little given to
borrowing, took straight from Berkeley's 'Siris.'

[20] Lord Tennyson suggests the same consolation in the lines ending--

    Yet waft me from the harbour-mouth,
      Wild winds, I seek a warmer sky;
      And I will see before I die
    The palms and temples of the South.


When browsing at random in a respectable library, one is pretty sure to
hit upon the early numbers of the 'Edinburgh Review,' and prompted in
consequence to ask oneself the question, What are the intrinsic merits
of writing which produced so great an effect upon our grandfathers? The
'Review,' we may say, has lived into a third generation. The last
survivor of the original set has passed away; and there are but few
relics even of that second galaxy of authors amongst whom Macaulay was
the most brilliant star. One may speak, therefore, without shocking
existing susceptibilities, of the 'Review' in its first period, when
Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and Brougham were the most prominent names. A man
may still call himself middle-aged and yet have a distinct memory of
Brougham courting, rather too eagerly, the applause of the Social
Science Association; or Jeffrey, as he appeared in his kindly old age,
when he could hardly have spoken sharply of a Lake poet; and even of the
last outpourings of the irrepressible gaiety of Sydney Smith. But the
period of their literary activity is already so distant as to have
passed into the domain of history. It is the same thing to say that it
already belongs in some degree to the neighbouring or overlapping domain
of fiction.

There is, in fact, already a conventional history of the early
'Edinburgh Review,' repeated without hesitation in all literary
histories and assumed in a thousand allusions, which becomes a little
incredible when we take down the dusty old volumes, where dingy calf has
replaced the original splendours of the blue and yellow, and which have
inevitably lost much of their savour during more than half a century's
repose. The story of the original publication has been given by the
chief founders. Edinburgh, at the beginning of the century, was one of
those provincial centres of intellectual activity which have an
increasing difficulty in maintaining themselves against metropolitan
attractions. In the last half of the eighteenth century, such
philosophical activity as existed in the country seemed to have taken
refuge in the northern half of the island. A set of brilliant young men,
living in a society still proud of the reputation of Hume, Adam Smith,
Reid, Robertson, Dugald Stewart, and other northern luminaries, might
naturally be susceptible to the stimulus of literary ambition. In
politics the most rampant Conservatism, rendered bitter by the recent
experience of the French Revolution, exercised a sway in Scotland more
undisputed and vigorous than it is now easy to understand. The younger
men who inclined to Liberalism were naturally prepared to welcome an
organ for the expression of their views. Accordingly a knot of clever
lads (Smith was 31, Jeffrey 29, Brown 24, Horner 24, and Brougham 23)
met in the third (not, as Smith afterwards said, the 'eighth or ninth')
story of a house in Edinburgh and started the journal by acclamation.
The first number appeared in October 1802, and produced, we are told, an
'electrical' effect. Its old humdrum rivals collapsed before it. Its
science, its philosophy, its literature were equally admired. Its
politics excited the wrath and dread of Tories and the exultant delight
of Whigs. It was, says Cockburn, a 'pillar of fire,' a far-seen beacon,
suddenly lighted in a dark place. Its able advocacy of political
principles was as striking as its judicial air of criticism,
unprecedented in periodical literature. To appreciate its influence, we
must remember, says Sydney Smith, that in those days a number of
reforms, now familiar to us all, were still regarded as startling
innovations. The Catholics were not emancipated, nor the game-laws
softened, nor the Court of Chancery reformed, nor the slave-trade
abolished. Cruel punishment still disgraced the criminal code, libel was
put down with vindictive severity, prisoners were not allowed counsel in
capital cases, and many other grievances now wholly or partially
redressed were still flourishing in full force.

Were they put down solely by the 'Edinburgh Review?' That, of course,
would not be alleged by its most ardent admirers; though Sydney Smith
certainly holds that the attacks of the 'Edinburgh' were amongst the
most efficient causes of the many victories which followed. I am not
concerned to dispute the statement; nor in fact do I doubt that it
contains much truth. But if we look at the 'Review' simply as literary
connoisseurs, and examine its volumes expecting to be edified by such
critical vigour and such a plentiful outpouring of righteous indignation
in burning language as might correspond to this picture of a great organ
of liberal opinion, we shall, I fear, be cruelly disappointed. Let us
speak the plain truth at once. Everyone who turns from the periodical
literature of the present day to the original 'Edinburgh Review' will be
amazed at its inferiority. It is generally dull, and, when not dull,
flimsy. The vigour has departed; the fire is extinct. To some extent, of
course, this is inevitable. Even the magnificent eloquence of Burke has
lost some of its early gloss. We can read, comparatively unmoved,
passages that would have once carried us off our legs in the exuberant
torrent of passionate invective. But, making all possible allowance for
the fading of all things human, I think that every reader who is frank
will admit his disappointment. Here and there, of course, amusing
passages illuminated by Sydney Smith's humour or Jeffrey's slashing and
swaggering retain a few sparks of fire. The pertness and petulance of
the youthful critics are amusing, though hardly in the way intended by
themselves. But, as a rule, one may most easily characterise the
contents by saying that few of the articles would have a chance of
acceptance by the editor of a first-rate periodical to-day; and that the
majority belong to an inferior variety of what is now called
'padding'--mere perfunctory bits of work, obviously manufactured by the
critic out of the book before him.

The great political importance of the 'Edinburgh Review' belongs to a
later period. When the Whigs began to revive after the long reign of
Tory principles, and such questions as Roman Catholic Emancipation and
Parliamentary Reform were seriously coming to the front, the 'Review'
grew to be a most effective organ of the rising party. Even in earlier
years, it was doubtless a matter of real moment that the ablest
periodical of the day should manifest sympathies with the cause then so
profoundly depressed. But in those years there is nothing of that
vehement and unsparing advocacy of Whig principles which we might expect
from a band of youthful enthusiasts. So far indeed was the 'Review' from
unhesitating partisanship that the sound Tory Scott contributed to its
pages for some years; and so late as the end of 1807 invited Southey,
then developing into fiercer Toryism, as became a 'renegade' or a
'convert,' to enlist under Jeffrey. Southey, it is true, was prevented
from joining by scruples shared by his correspondent, but it was not for
another year that the breach became irreparable. The final offence was
given by the 'famous article upon Cevallos,' which appeared in October
1808. Even at that period Scott understood some remarks of Jeffrey's as
an offer to suppress the partisan tendencies of his 'Review.' Jeffrey
repudiated this interpretation; but the statement is enough to show
that, for six years after its birth, the 'Review' had not been conducted
in such a way as to pledge itself beyond all redemption in the eyes of
staunch Tories.[21]

The Cevallos article, the work in uncertain proportions of Brougham and
Jeffrey, was undoubtedly calculated to give offence. It contained an
eloquent expression of foreboding as to the chances of the war in
Spain. The Whigs, whose policy had been opposed to the war, naturally
prophesied its ill-success, and, until this period, facts had certainly
not confuted their auguries. It was equally natural that their opponents
should be scandalised by their apparent want of patriotism. Scott's
indignation was characteristic. The 'Edinburgh Review,' he says, 'tells
you coolly, "We foresee a revolution in this country as well as Mr.
Cobbett;" and, to say the truth, by degrading the person of the
sovereign, exalting the power of the French armies and the wisdom of
their counsels, holding forth that peace (which they allow can only be
purchased by the humiliating prostration of our honour) is indispensable
to the very existence of this country, I think that for these two years
past they have done their utmost to hasten the fulfilment of their own
prophecy.' Yet, he adds, 9,000 copies are printed quarterly, 'no genteel
family _can_ pretend to be without it,' and it contains the only
valuable literary criticism of the day. The antidote was to be supplied
by the foundation of the 'Quarterly.' The Cevallos article, as Brougham
says, 'first made the Reviewers conspicuous as Liberals.'

Jeffrey and his friends were in fact in the very difficult position of
all middle parties during a period of intense national and patriotic
excitement. If they attacked Perceval or Canning or Castlereagh in one
direction, they were equally opposed to the rough-and-ready democracy of
Cobbett or Burdett, and to the more philosophical radicalism of men like
Godwin or Bentham. They were generally too young to have been infected
by the original Whig sympathy for the French Revolution, or embittered
by the reaction. They condemned the principles of '89 as decidedly if
not as heartily as the Tories. The difference, as Sydney Smith said to
his imaginary Tory, Abraham Plymley, is 'in the means, not in the end.
We both love the Constitution, respect the King, and abhor the French.'
Only, as the difference about the means was diametrical, Tories
naturally held them to be playing into the hands of destructives, though
more out of cowardice than malignity. In such a position it is not
surprising if the Reviewers generally spoke in apologetic terms and with
bated breath. They could protest against the dominant policy as rash and
bigoted, but could not put forwards conflicting principles without
guarding themselves against the imputation of favouring the common
enemy. The Puritans of Radicalism set down this vacillation to a total
want of fixed principle, if not to baser motives. The first volume of
the 'Westminster Review' (1824) contains a characteristic assault upon
the 'see-saw' system of the 'Edinburgh' by the two Mills. The
'Edinburgh' is sternly condemned for its truckling to the aristocracy,
its cowardice, political immorality, and (of all things!) its
sentimentalism. In after years J. S. Mill contributed to its pages
himself; but the opinion of his fervid youth was that of the whole
Bentham school.[22] It is plain, however, that the 'Review,' even when
it had succeeded, did not absorb the activities of its contributors so
exclusively as is sometimes suggested. They rapidly dispersed to enter
upon different careers. Even before the first number appeared, Jeffrey
complains that almost all his friends are about to emigrate to London;
and the prediction was soon verified. Sydney Smith left to begin his
career as a clergyman in London; Horner and Brougham almost immediately
took to the English bar, with a view to pushing into public life; Allen
joined Lord Holland; Charles Bell set up in a London practice; two other
promising contributors took offence, and deserted the 'Review' in its
infancy; and Jeffrey was left almost alone, though still a centre of
attraction to the scattered group. He himself only undertook the
editorship on the understanding that he might renounce it as soon as he
could do without it; and always guarded himself most carefully against
any appearance of deserting a legal for a literary career. Although the
Edinburgh _cénacle_ was not dissolved, its bonds were greatly loosened;
the chief contributors were in no sense men who looked upon literature
as a principal occupation; and Jeffrey, as much as Brougham and Horner,
would have resented, as a mischievous imputation, the suggestion that
his chief energies were devoted to the 'Review.' In some sense this
might be an advantage. An article upon politics or philosophy is, of
course, better done by a professed statesman and thinker than by a
literary hack; but, on the other hand, a man who turns aside from
politics or philosophy to do mere hackwork, does it worse than the
professed man of letters. Work, taken up at odd hours to satisfy
editorial importunity or add a few pounds to a narrow income, is apt to
show the characteristic defects of all amateur performances. A very
large part of the early numbers is amateurish in this objectionable
sense. It is mere hand-to-mouth information, and is written, so to
speak, with the left hand. A clever man has turned over the last new
book of travels or poetry, or made a sudden incursion into foreign
literature or into some passage of history entirely fresh to him, and
has given his first impressions with an audacity which almost disarms
one by its extraordinary _naïveté_. The standard of such disquisitions
was then so low that writing which would now be impossible passed muster
without an objection. When, in later years, Macaulay discussed Hampden
or Chatham, the book which he ostensibly reviewed was a mere pretext for
producing the rich stores of a mind trained by years of previous
historical study. Jeffrey wrote about Mrs. Hutchinson's 'Memoirs' and
Pepys's 'Diary' as though the books had for the first time revealed to
him the existence of Puritans or of courtiers under the Restoration. The
author of an article upon German metaphysics at the present day would
think it necessary to show that if he had not the portentous learning
which Sir William Hamilton embodied in his 'Edinburgh' articles, he had
at least read the book under review, and knew something of the language.
The author (Thomas Brown--a man who should have known better) of a
contemptuous review of Kant, in an early number of the 'Edinburgh,'
makes it even ostentatiously evident that he has never read a line of
the original, and that his whole knowledge is derived from what (by his
own account) is a very rambling and inadequate French essay. The young
gentlemen who wrote in those days have a jaunty mode of pronouncing upon
all conceivable topics without even affecting to have studied the
subject, which is amusing in its way, and which fully explains the
flimsy nature of their performance.

The authors, in fact, regarded these essays, at the time, as purely
ephemeral. The success of the 'Review' suggested republication long
afterwards. The first collection of articles was, I presume, Sydney
Smith's in 1839; Jeffrey's and Macaulay's followed in 1843; and at that
time even Macaulay thought it necessary to explain that the
republication was forced upon him by the Americans. The plan of passing
even the most serious books through the pages of a periodical has become
so common that such modesty would now imply the emptiest affectation.
The collections of Jeffrey and Sydney Smith will give a sufficient
impression of the earlier numbers of the 'Review.' The only contributors
of equal reputation were Horner and Brougham. Horner, so far as one can
judge, was a typical representative of those solid, indomitable
Scotchmen whom one knows not whether to respect for their energy or to
dread as the most intolerable of bores. He plodded through legal,
metaphysical, scientific, and literary studies like an elephant forcing
his way through a jungle; and laboured as resolutely and systematically
to acquire graces of style as to master the intricacies of the 'dismal
science.' At an early age, and with no advantages of position, he had
gained extraordinary authority in Parliament. Sydney Smith said of him
that he had the Ten Commandments written on his face, and looked so
virtuous that he might commit any crime with impunity. His death
probably deprived us of a most exemplary statesman and first-rate
Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it can hardly have been a great loss to
literature. Passages from Horner's journals, given in his 'Memoirs,' are
quaint illustrations of the frame of mind generally inculcated in
manuals for the use of virtuous young men. At the age of twenty-eight,
he resolves one day to meditate upon various topics, distributed under
nine heads, including the society to be frequented in the metropolis;
the characters to be studied; the scale of intimacies; the style of
conversation; the use of other men's minds in self-education; the
regulation of ambition, of political sentiments, connections, and
conduct; the importance of 'steadily systematising all plans and aims
of life, and so providing against contingencies as to put happiness at
least out of the reach of accident,' and the cultivation of moral
feelings by 'dignified sentiments and pleasing associations' derived
from poets, moralists, or actual life. Sydney Smith, in a very lively
portrait, says that Horner was the best, kindest, simplest, and most
incorruptible of mankind; but intimates sufficiently that his
impenetrability to the facetious was something almost unexampled. A jest
upon an important subject was, it seems, the only affliction which his
strength of principle would not enable him to bear with patience. His
contributions gave some solid economical speculation to the 'Review,'
but were neither numerous nor lively. Brougham's amazing vitality wasted
itself in a different way. His multifarious energy, from early boyhood
to the borders of old age, would be almost incredible, if we had not the
good fortune to be contemporaries of Mr. Gladstone. His share in the
opening numbers of the 'Review' is another of the points upon which
there is an odd conflict of testimony.[23] But from a very early period
he was the most voluminous and, at times, the most valuable of
contributors. It has been said that he once wrote a whole number,
including articles upon lithotomy and Chinese music. It is more
authentic that he contributed six articles to one number at the very
crisis of his political career, and at the same period he boasts of
having written a fifth of the whole 'Review' to that time. He would sit
down in a morning and write off twenty pages at a single effort. Jeffrey
compares his own editorial authority to that of a feudal monarch over
some independent barons. When Jeffrey gave up the 'Review,' this 'baron'
aspired to something more like domination than independence. He made the
unfortunate editor's life a burden to him. He wrote voluminous letters,
objurgating, entreating, boasting of past services, denouncing rival
contributors, declaring that a regard for the views of any other man was
base subservience to a renegade Ministry, or foolish attention to the
hints of understrappers; threatening, if he was neglected, to set up a
rival Review, and generally hectoring, bullying, and declaiming in a
manner which gives one the highest opinion of the diplomatic skill of
the editor, who managed, without truckling, to avoid a breach with his
tremendous contributor. Brougham, indeed, was not quite blind to the
fact that the 'Review' was as useful to him as he could be to the
'Review,' and was therefore more amenable than might have been expected,
in the last resort. But he was in every relation one of those men who
are nearly as much hated and dreaded by their colleagues as by the
adversary--a kind of irrepressible rocket, only too easy to discharge,
but whose course defied prediction.

It is, however, admitted by everyone that the literary results of this
portentous activity were essentially ephemeral. His writings are
hopelessly commonplace in substance and slipshod in style. His garden
offers a bushel of potatoes instead of a single peach. Much of
Brougham's work was up to the level necessary to give effect to the
manifesto of an active politician. It was a forcible exposition of the
arguments common at the time; but it has nowhere that stamp of
originality in thought or brilliance in expression which could confer
upon it a permanent vitality.

Jeffrey and Sydney Smith deserve more respectful treatment. Macaulay
speaks of his first editor with respectful enthusiasm. He says of the
collected contributions that the 'variety and fertility of Jeffrey's
mind' seem more extraordinary than ever. Scarcely could any three men
have produced such 'diversified excellence.' 'When I compare him with
Sydney and myself, I feel, with humility perfectly sincere, that his
range is immeasurably wider than ours. And this is only as a writer. But
he is not only a writer, he has been a great advocate, and he is a great
judge. Take him all in all, I think him more nearly an universal genius
than any man of our time; certainly far more nearly than Brougham, much
as Brougham affects the character.' Macaulay hated Brougham, and was,
perhaps, a little unjust to him. But what are we to say of the writings
upon which this panegyric is pronounced?

Jeffrey's collected articles include about eighty out of two hundred
reviews, nearly all contributed to the 'Edinburgh' within its first
period of twenty-five years. They fill four volumes, and are distributed
under the seven heads--general literature, history, poetry, metaphysics,
fiction, politics, and miscellaneous. Certainly there is versatility
enough implied in such a list, and we may be sure that he has ample
opportunity for displaying whatever may be in him. It is, however, easy
to dismiss some of these divisions. Jeffrey knew history as an English
gentleman of average cultivation knew it; that is to say, not enough to
justify him in writing about it. He knew as much of metaphysics as a
clever lad was likely to pick up at Edinburgh during the reign of Dugald
Stewart; his essays in that kind, though they show some aptitude and
abundant confidence, do not now deserve serious attention. His chief
speculative performance was an essay upon Beauty contributed to the
'Encyclopædia Britannica,' of which his biographer says quaintly that it
is 'as sound as the subject admits of.' It is crude and meagre in
substance. The principal conclusion is the rather unsatisfactory one for
a professional critic, that there are no particular rules about beauty,
and consequently that one taste is about as good as another. Nobody,
however, could be less inclined to apply this over-liberal theory to
questions of literary taste. There, he evidently holds there is most
decidedly a right and wrong, and everybody is very plainly in the wrong
who differs from himself.

Jeffrey's chief fame--or, should we say, notoriety?--was gained, and his
merit should be tested by his success in this department. The greatest
triumph that a literary critic can win is the early recognition of
genius not yet appreciated by his contemporaries. The next test of his
merit is his capacity for pronouncing sound judgment upon controversies
which are fully before the public; and, finally, no inconsiderable merit
must be allowed to any critic who has a vigorous taste of his own--not
hopelessly eccentric or silly--and expresses it with true literary
force. If not a judge, he may in that case be a useful advocate.

What can we say for Jeffrey upon this understanding? Did he ever
encourage a rising genius? The sole approach to such a success is an
appreciative notice of Keats, which would be the more satisfactory if
poor Keats had not been previously assailed by the Opposition journal.
The other judgments are for the most part pronounced upon men already
celebrated; and the single phrase which has survived is the celebrated
'This will never do,' directed against Wordsworth's 'Excursion.' Every
critic has a sacred and inalienable right to blunder at times: but
Jeffrey's blundering is amazingly systematic and comprehensive. In the
last of his poetical critiques (October 1829) he sums up his critical
experience. He doubts whether Mrs. Hemans, whom he is reviewing at the
time, will be immortal. 'The tuneful quartos of Southey,' he says, 'are
already little better than lumber; and the rich melodies of Keats and
Shelley, and the fantastical emphasis of Wordsworth, and the plebeian
pathos of Crabbe, are melting fast from the field of vision. The novels
of Scott have put out his poetry. Even the splendid strains of Moore are
fading into distance and dimness, except where they have been married to
immortal music; and the blazing star of Byron himself is receding from
its place of pride.' Who survive this general decay? Not Coleridge, who
is not even mentioned; nor is Mrs. Hemans secure. The two who show least
marks of decay are--of all people in the world--Rogers and Campbell! It
is only to be added that this summary was republished in 1843, by which
time the true proportions of the great reputations of the period were
becoming more obvious to an ordinary observer. It seems almost
incredible now that any sane critic should pick out the poems of Rogers
and Campbell as the sole enduring relics from the age of Wordsworth,
Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Byron.

Doubtless a critic should rather draw the moral of his own fallibility
than of his superiority to Jeffrey. Criticism is a still more perishable
commodity than poetry. Jeffrey was a man of unusual intelligence and
quickness of feeling; and a follower in his steps should think twice
before he ventures to cast the first stone. If all critics who have
grossly blundered are therefore to be pronounced utterly incompetent, we
should, I fear, have to condemn nearly everyone who has taken up the
profession. Not only Dennis and Rymer, but Dryden, Pope, Addison,
Johnson, Gray, Wordsworth, Byron, and even Coleridge, down to the last
new critic in the latest and most fashionable journals, would have to be
censured. Still there are blunders and blunders; and some of Jeffrey's
sins in that kind are such as it is not very easy to forgive. If he
attacked great men, it has been said in his defence, he attacked those
parts of their writings which were really objectionable. And, of course,
nobody will deny that (for example) Wordsworth's wilful and ostentatious
inversion of accepted rules presented a very tempting mark to the
critic. But--to say nothing of Jeffrey's failure to discharge adequately
the correlative duty of generous praise--it must be admitted that his
ridicule seems to strike pretty much at random. He picks out Southey,
certainly the least eminent of the so-called school of Wordsworth,
Coleridge, and Lamb, as the one writer of the set whose poetry deserves
serious consideration; and, besides attacking Wordsworth's faults, his
occasional flatness and childishness, selects some of his finest poems
(e.g. the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality) as flagrant specimens
of the hopelessly absurd.

The 'White Doe of Rylstone' may not be Wordsworth's best work, but a man
who begins a review of it by proclaiming it to be 'the very worst poem
ever imprinted in a quarto volume,' who follows up this remark by
unmixed and indiscriminating abuse, and who publishes the review
twenty-eight years later as expressing his mature convictions, is
certainly proclaiming his own gross incompetence. Or, again, Jeffrey
writes about 'Wilhelm Meister' (in 1824), knowing its high reputation in
Germany, and finds in it nothing but a text for a dissertation upon the
amazing eccentricity of national taste which can admire 'sheer
nonsense,' and at length proclaims himself tired of extracting 'so much
trash.' There is a kind of indecency, a wanton disregard of the general
consensus of opinion, in such treatment of a contemporary classic (then
just translated by Carlyle, and so brought within Jeffrey's sphere)
which one would hope to be now impossible. It is true that Jeffrey
relents a little at the end, admits that Goethe has 'great talent,' and
would like to withdraw some of his censure. Whilst, therefore, he
regards the novel as an instance of that diversity of national taste
which makes a writer idolised in one country who would not be tolerated
in another, he would hold it out rather as an object of wonder than
contempt. Though the greater part 'would not be endured, and, indeed,
could not have been written in England,' there are many passages of
which any country might naturally be proud. Truly this is an
illustration of Jeffrey's fundamental principle, that taste has no laws,
and is a matter of accidental caprice.

It may be said that better critics have erred with equal recklessness.
De Quincey, who could be an admirable critic where his indolent
prejudices were not concerned, is even more dead to the merits of
Goethe. Byron's critical remarks are generally worth reading, in spite
of his wilful eccentricity; and he spoke of Wordsworth and Southey still
more brutally than Jeffrey, and admired Rogers as unreasonably. In such
cases we may admit the principle already suggested, that even the most
reckless criticism has a kind of value when it implies a genuine (even
though a mistaken) taste. So long as a man says sincerely what he
thinks, he tells us something worth knowing.

Unluckily, this is just where Jeffrey is apt to fail; though he affects
to be a dictator, he is really a follower of the fashion. He could put
up with Rogers's flattest 'correctness,' Moore's most intolerable
tinsel, and even Southey's most ponderous epic poetry, because
admiration was respectable. He could endorse, though rather coldly, the
general verdict in Scott's favour, only guarding his dignity by some not
too judicious criticism; preferring, for example, the sham romantic
business of the 'Lay' to the incomparable vigour of the rough

    Who sought the beeves that made their broth
    In Scotland and in England both--

terribly undignified lines, as Jeffrey thinks. So far, though his
judicial swagger strikes us now as rather absurd, and we feel that he is
passing sentence on bigger men than himself, he does fairly enough. But,
unluckily, the 'Edinburgh' wanted a butt. All lively critical journals,
it would seem, resemble the old-fashioned squires who kept a badger
ready to be baited whenever a little amusement was desirable. The rising
school of Lake poets, with their austere professions and real
weaknesses, was just the game to show a little sport; and, accordingly,
poor Jeffrey blundered into grievous misapprehensions, and has survived
chiefly by his worst errors. The simple fact is, that he accepted
whatever seemed to a hasty observer to be the safest opinion, that which
was current in the most orthodox critical circles, and expressed it with
rather more point than his neighbours. But his criticism implies no
serious thought or any deeper sentiment than pleasure at having found a
good laughing-stock. The most unmistakable bit of genuine expression of
his own feelings in Jeffrey's writings is, I think, to be found in his
letters to Dickens. 'Oh! my dear, dear Dickens!' he exclaims, 'what a
No. 5' (of 'Dombey and Son') 'you have now given us. I have so cried and
sobbed over it last night and again this morning, and felt my heart
purified by those tears, and blessed and loved you for making me shed
them; and I never can bless and love you enough. Since that divine Nelly
was found dead on her humble couch, beneath the snow and ivy, there has
been nothing like the actual dying of that sweet Paul in the summer
sunshine of that lofty room.' The emotion is a little senile, and most
of us think it exaggerated; but at least it is genuine. The earlier
thunders of the 'Edinburgh Review' have lost their terrors, because they
are in fact mere echoes of commonplace opinion. They are often clever
enough, and have all the air of judicial authority, but we feel that
they are empty shams, concealing no solid core of strong personal
feeling even of the perverse variety. The critic has been asking
himself, not 'What do I feel?' but 'What is the correct remark to make?'

Jeffrey's political writing suggests, I think, in some respects a higher
estimate of his merits. He has not, it is true, very strong convictions,
but his sentiments are liberal in the better sense of the word, and he
has a more philosophical tone than is usual with English publicists. He
appreciates the truths, now become commonplace, that the political
constitution of the country should be developed so as to give free play
for the underlying social forces without breaking abruptly with the old
traditions. He combats with dignity the narrow prejudices which led to a
policy of rigid repression, and which, in his opinion, could only lead
to revolution. But the effect of his principles is not a little marred
by a certain timidity both of character and intellect. Hopefulness
should be the mark of an ardent reformer, and Jeffrey seems to be always
decided by his fears. His favourite topic is the advantage of a strong
middle party, for he is terribly afraid of a collision between the two
extremes; he can only look forward to despotism if the Tories triumph,
and a sweeping revolution if they are beaten. Meanwhile, for many years
he thinks it most probable that both parties will be swallowed up by the
common enemy. Never was there such a determined croaker. In 1808 he
suspects that Bonaparte will be in Dublin in about fifteen months, when
he, if he survives, will try to go to America. In 1811 he expects
Bonaparte to be in Ireland in eighteen months, and asks how England can
then be kept, and whether it would be worth keeping? France is certain
to conquer the Continent, and our interference will only 'exasperate and
accelerate.' Bonaparte's invasion of Russia in 1813 made him still more
gloomy. He rejoiced at the French defeat as one delivered from a great
terror, but the return of the Emperor dejects him again. All he can say
of the war (just before Waterloo) is that he is 'mortally afraid of it,'
and that he hates Bonaparte 'because he makes me more afraid than
anybody else.' In 1829 he anticipates 'tragical scenes' and a sanguinary
revolution; in 1821 he thinks as ill as ever 'of the state and prospects
of the country,' though with less alarm of speedy mischief; and in 1822
he looks forward to revolutionary wars all over the Continent, from
which we may possibly escape by reason of our 'miserable poverty;'
whilst it is probable that our old tyrannies and corruptions will last
for some 4,000 or 5,000 years longer.

A stalwart politician, Whig or Tory, is rarely developed out of a Mr.
Much-Afraid or a Mr. Despondency; they are too closely related to Mr.
Facing-both-Ways. Jeffrey thinks it generally a duty to conceal his
fears and affect a confidence which he does not feel; but perhaps the
best piece of writing in his essays is that in which he for once gives
full expression to his pessimist sentiment. It occurs in a review of a
book in which Madame de Staël maintains the doctrine of human
perfectibility. Jeffrey explains his more despondent view in a really
eloquent passage. He thinks that the increase of educated intelligence
will not diminish the permanent causes of human misery. War will be as
common as ever, wealth will be used with at least equal selfishness,
luxury and dissipation will increase, enthusiasm will diminish,
intellectual originality will become rarer, the division of labour will
make men's lives pettier and more mechanical, and pauperism grow with
the development of manufactures. When republishing his essays Jeffrey
expresses his continued adherence to these views, and they are more
interesting than most of his work, because they have at least the merits
of originality and sincerity. Still, one cannot help observing that if
the 'Edinburgh Review' was an efficient organ of progress, it was not
from any ardent faith in progress entertained by its chief conductor.

It is a relief to turn from Jeffrey to Sydney Smith. The highest epithet
applicable to Jeffrey is 'clever,' to which we may prefix some modest
intensitive. He is a brilliant, versatile, and at bottom liberal and
kindly man of the world; but he never gets fairly beyond the border-line
which irrevocably separates lively talent from original power. There are
dozens of writers who could turn out work on the same pattern and about
equally good. Smith, on the other hand, stamps all his work with his
peculiar characteristics. It is original and unmistakable; and in a
certain department--not, of course, a very high one--he has almost
unique merits. I do not think that the 'Plymley Letters' can be
surpassed by anything in the language as specimens of the terse,
effective treatment of a great subject in language suitable for popular
readers. Of course they have no pretence to the keen polish of Junius,
or the weight of thought of Burke, or the rhetorical splendours of
Milton; but their humour, freshness, and spirit are inimitable. The
'Drapier Letters,' to which they have often been compared, were more
effective at the moment; but no fair critic can deny, I think, that
Sydney Smith's performance is now more interesting than Swift's.

The comparison between the Dean and the Canon is an obvious one, and has
often been made. There is a likeness in the external history of the two
clergymen who both sought for preferment through politics, and were
both, even by friends, felt to have sinned against professional
proprieties, and were put off with scanty rewards in consequence. Both,
too, were masters of a vigorous style, and original humourists. But the
likeness does not go very deep. Swift had the most powerful intellect
and the strongest passion as undeniably as Smith had the sweetest
nature. The admirable good-humour with which Smith accepted his position
and devoted himself to honest work in an obscure country parish, is the
strongest contrast with Swift's misanthropical seclusion; and nothing
can be less like than Smith's admirable domestic history and the
mysterious love affairs with Stella and Vanessa. Smith's character
reminds us more closely of Fuller, whose peculiar humour is much of the
same stamp; and who, falling upon hard times, and therefore tinged by a
more melancholy sentiment, yet showed the same unconquerable
cheerfulness and intellectual vivacity.

Most of Sydney Smith's 'Edinburgh' articles are of a very slight
texture, though the reader is rewarded by an occasional turn of
characteristic quaintness. The criticism is of the most simple-minded
kind; but here and there crops up a comment which is irresistibly comic.
Here, for example, is a quaint passage from a review of Waterton's

     How astonishing are the freaks and fancies of nature! To
     what purpose, we say, is a bird placed in the woods of
     Cayenne, with a bill a yard long, making a noise like a
     puppy-dog, and laying eggs in hollow trees? To be sure, the
     toucan might retort, To what purpose were gentlemen in Bond
     Street created? To what purpose were certain members of
     Parliament created, pestering the House of Commons with
     their ignorance and folly, and impeding the business of the
     country? There is no end of such questions. So we will not
     enter into the metaphysics of the toucan.

Smith's humour is most aptly used to give point to the vigorous logic of
a thoroughly healthy nature, contemptuous of all nonsense, full of
shrewd common-sense, and righteously indignant in the presence of all
injustice and outworn abuse. It would be difficult to find anywhere a
more brilliant assault upon the prejudices which defend established
grievances than the inimitable 'Noodle's Oration,' into which Smith has
compressed the pith of Bentham's 'Book of Fallacies.' There is a certain
resemblance between the logic of Smith and Macaulay, both of whom, it
must be admitted, are rather given to proving commonplaces and inclined
to remain on the surface of things. Smith, like Macaulay, fully
understands the advantage of putting the concrete for the abstract, and
hammering obvious truths into men's heads by dint of homely
explanation. Smith's memory does not supply so vast a store of parallels
as that upon which Macaulay could draw so freely; but his humorous
illustrations are more amusing and effective. There could not be a
happier way of putting the argument for what may be called the lottery
system of endowments than the picture of the respectable baker driving
past Northumberland House to St. Paul's Churchyard, and speculating on
the chance of elevating his 'little muffin-faced son' to a place among
the Percies or the highest seat in the Cathedral. Macaulay would have
enforced his reasoning by a catalogue of successful ecclesiastics. The
folly of alienating Catholic sympathies, during our great struggle, by
maintaining the old disabilities, is brought out with equal skill by the
apologue in the 'Plymley Letters' of the orthodox captain of a frigate
in a dangerous action, securing twenty or thirty of his crew, who
happened to be Papists, under a Protestant guard; reminding his sailors,
in a bitter harangue, that they are of different religions; exhorting
the Episcopal gunner to distrust the Presbyterian quartermaster; rushing
through blood and brains to examine his men in the Thirty-nine Articles,
and forbidding anyone to spunge or ram who has not taken the sacrament
according to the rites of the Church of England. It is quite another
question whether Smith really penetrates to the bottom of the dispute;
but the only fault to be found with his statement of the case, as he saw
it, is that it makes it rather too clear. The arguments are never all on
one side in any political question, and the writer who sees absolutely
no difficulty, suggests to a wary reader that he is ignoring something
relevant. Still, this is hardly an objection to a popular advocate, and
it is fair to add that Smith's logic is not more admirable than the
hearty generosity of his sympathy with the oppressed Catholic. The
appeal to cowardice is lost in the appeal to true philanthropic

With all his merits, there is a less favourable side to Smith's
advocacy. When he was condemned as being too worldly and facetious for a
priest, it was easy to retort that humour is not of necessity
irreligious. It might be added that in his writings it is strictly
subservient to solid argument. In a London party he might throw the
reins upon the neck of his fancy and go on playing with a ludicrous
image till his audience felt the agony of laughter to be really painful.
In his writings he aims almost as straight at his mark as Swift, and is
never diverted by the spirit of pure fun. The humour always illuminates
well-strung logic. But the scandal was not quite groundless. When he
directs his powers against sheer obstruction and antiquated
prejudice--against abuses in prisons, or the game-laws, or education--we
can have no fault to find; nor is it fair to condemn a reviewer because
in all these questions he is a follower rather than a leader. It is
enough if he knows a good cause when he sees it, and does his best to
back up reformers in the press, though hardly a working reformer, and
certainly not an originator of reform. But it is less easy to excuse his
want of sympathy for the reformers themselves.

If there is one thing which Sydney Smith dreads and dislikes, it is
enthusiasm. Nobody would deny, at the present day, that the zeal which
supplied the true leverage for some of the greatest social reforms of
the time was to be found chiefly amongst the so-called Evangelicals and
Methodists. For them Smith has nothing but the heartiest aversion. He is
always having a quiet jest at the religious sentiments of Perceval or
Wilberforce, and his most prominent articles in the 'Review' were a
series of inexcusably bitter attacks upon the Methodists. He is
thoroughly alarmed and disgusted by their progress. He thinks them
likely to succeed, and says that, if they succeed, 'happiness will be
destroyed, reason degraded, and sound religion banished from the world,'
and that a reign of fanaticism will be succeeded by 'a long period of
the grossest immorality, atheism, and debauchery.' He is not sure that
any remedy or considerable palliative is possible, but he suggests, as
hopeful, the employment of ridicule, and applies it himself most
unsparingly. When the Methodists try to convert the Hindoos, he attacks
them furiously for endangering the empire. They naturally reply that a
Christian is bound to propagate his belief. The answer, says Smith, is
short: 'It is not Christianity which is introduced (into India), but the
debased nonsense and mummery of the Methodists, which has little more to
do with the Christian religion than it has to do with the religion of
China.' The missionaries, he says, are so foolish, 'that the natives
almost instinctively duck and pelt them,' as, one cannot help
remembering, missionaries of an earlier Christian era had been ducked
and pelted. He pronounces the enterprise to be hopeless and cruel, and
clenches his argument by a statement which sounds strangely enough in
the mouth of a sincere Christian:--

     Let us ask (he says), if the Bible is universally diffused
     in Hindostan, what must be the astonishment of the natives
     to find that we are forbidden to rob, murder, and steal--we
     who, in fifty years, have extended our empire from a few
     acres about Madras over the whole peninsula and sixty
     millions of people, and exemplified in our public conduct
     every crime of which human nature is capable? What matchless
     impudence, to follow up such practice with such precepts! If
     we have common prudence, let us keep the gospel at home, and
     tell them that Machiavel is our prophet and the god of the
     Manichæans our god.

We are to make our practice consistent by giving up our virtues instead
of our vices. Of course, Smith ends his article by a phrase about 'the
slow, solid, and temperate introduction of Christianity;' but the
Methodists might well feel that the 'matchless impudence' was not all on
their side, and that this Christian priest, had he lived some centuries
earlier, would have sympathised a good deal more with Gallio than with
St. Paul.

It is a question which I need not here discuss how far Smith could be
justified in his ridicule of men who, with all their undeniable
absurdity, were at least zealous believers in the creed which he--as is
quite manifest--held in all sincerity. But one remark is obvious; the
Edinburgh Reviewers justify, to a certain point, the claim put forward
by Sydney Smith; they condemned many crying abuses, and condemned them
heartily. They condemned them, as thoroughly sensible men of the world,
animated partly by a really generous sentiment, partly by a tacit
scepticism as to the value of the protected interests, and above all by
the strong conviction that it was quite essential for the middle
party--that is, for the bulk of the respectable well-bred classes--to
throw overboard gross abuses which afforded so many points of attack to
thoroughgoing radicals. On the other hand, they were quite indifferent
or openly hostile to most of the new forces which stirred men's minds.
They patronised political economy because Malthus began by opposing the
revolutionary dreams of Godwin and his like. But every one of the great
impulses of the time was treated by them in an antagonistic spirit. They
savagely ridiculed Coleridge, the great seminal mind of one
philosophical school; they fiercely attacked Bentham and James Mill, the
great leaders of the antagonist school; they were equally opposed to
the Evangelicals who revered Wilberforce, and, in later times, to the
religious party, of which Dr. Newman was the great ornament: in poetry
they clung, as long as they could, to the safe old principles
represented by Crabbe and Rogers: they, covered Wordsworth and Coleridge
with almost unmixed ridicule, ignored Shelley, and were only tender to
Byron and Scott because Scott and Byron were fashionable idols. The
truth is, that it is a mistake to suppose that the eighteenth century
ended with the year 1800. It lasted in the upper currents of opinion
till at least 1832. Sydney Smith's theology is that of Paley and the
common-sense divines of the previous period. Jeffrey's politics were but
slightly in advance of the true old Whigs, who still worshipped
according to the tradition of their fathers in Holland House. The ideal
of the party was to bring the practice of the country up to the theory
whose main outlines had been accepted in the Revolution of 1688; and
they studiously shut their eyes to any newer intellectual and social

I do not say this by way of simple condemnation; for we have daily more
reason to acknowledge the immense value of calm, clear common-sense,
which sees the absurd side of even the best impulses. But it is
necessary to bear the fact in mind when estimating such claims as those
put forward by Sydney Smith. The truth seems to be that the 'Edinburgh
Review' enormously raised the tone of periodical literature at the time,
by opening an arena for perfectly independent discussion. Its great
merit, at starting, was that it was no mere publisher's organ, like its
rivals, and that it paid contributors well enough to attract the most
rising talent of the day. As the 'Review' progressed, its capacities
became more generally understood, and its writers, as they rose to
eminence and attracted new allies, put more genuine work into articles
certain to obtain a wide circulation and to come with great authority.
This implies a long step towards the development of the present system,
whose merits and defects would deserve a full discussion--the system
according to which much of the most solid and original work of the time
first appears in periodicals. The tone of periodicals has been
enormously raised, but the effect upon general literature may be more
questionable. But the 'Edinburgh' was not in its early years a journal
with a mission, or the organ of an enthusiastic sect. Rather it was the
instrument used by a number of very clever young men to put forward the
ideas current in the more liberal section of the upper classes, with
much occasional vigour and a large infusion of common-sense, but also
with abundant flippancy and superficiality, and, in a literary sense,
without that solidity of workmanship which is essential for enduring


[21] Scott's letter, stating that this overture had been made by Jeffrey
under terror of the 'Quarterly,' was first published in Lockhart's 'Life
of Scott.' Jeffrey denied that he could ever have made the offer, both
because his contributors were too independent and because he had always
considered politics to be (as he remembered to have told Scott) the
'right leg' of the 'Review.' Undoubtedly, though Scott's letter was
written at the time and Jeffrey's contradiction many years afterwards,
it seems that Scott must have exaggerated. And yet in Horner's 'Memoirs'
we find a letter from Jeffrey which goes far to show that there was more
than might be supposed to confirm Scott's statement. Jeffrey begs for
Horner's assistance in the 'day of need,' caused by the Cevallos article
and the threatened 'Quarterly.' He tells Horner that he may write upon
any subject he pleases--'only no party politics, and nothing but
exemplary moderation and impartiality on all politics. I have allowed
too much mischief to be done from my mere indifference and love of
sport; but it would be inexcusable to spoil the powerful instrument we
have got hold of for the sake of teasing and playing tricks.'--Horner's
_Memoirs_, i. 439. It was on the occasion of the Cevallos article that
the Earl of Buchan solemnly kicked the 'Review' from his study into the
street--a performance which he supposed would be fatal to its

[22] See Mill's _Autobiography_, p. 92, for an interesting account of
these articles.

[23] It would appear, from one of Jeffrey's statements, that Brougham
selfishly hung back till after the third number of the 'Review,' and its
'assured success' (Horner's _Memoirs_, i. p. 186, and Macvey Napier's
_Correspondence_, p. 422); from another, that Brougham, though anxious
to contribute, was excluded by Sydney Smith, from prudential motives. On
the other hand, Brougham in his autobiography claims (by name) seven
articles in the first number, five in the second, eight in the third,
and five in the fourth; in five of which he had a collaborator. His
hesitation, he says, ended before the appearance of the first number,
and was due to doubts as to Jeffrey's possession of sufficient editorial


Under every poetry, it has been said, there lies a philosophy. Rather,
it may almost be said, every poetry is a philosophy. The poet and the
philosopher live in the same world and are interested in the same
truths. What is the nature of man and the world in which he lives, and
what, in consequence, should be our conduct? These are the great
problems, the answers to which may take a religious, a poetical, a
philosophical, or an artistic form. The difference is that the poet has
intuitions, while the philosopher gives demonstrations; that the thought
which in one mind is converted into emotion, is in the other resolved
into logic; and that a symbolic representation of the idea is
substituted for a direct expression. The normal relation is exhibited in
the case of the anatomist and the sculptor. The artist intuitively
recognises the most perfect form; the man of science analyses the
structural relations by which it is produced. Though the two provinces
are concentric, they are not coincident. The reasoner is interested in
many details which have no immediate significance for the man of
feeling; and the poetic insight, on the other hand, is capable of
recognising subtle harmonies and discords of which our crude instruments
of weighing and measuring are incapable of revealing the secret. But the
connection is so close that the greatest works of either kind seem to
have a double nature. A philosophy may, like Spinoza's, be apparelled
in the most technical and abstruse panoply of logic, and yet the total
impression may stimulate a religious sentiment as effectively as any
poetic or theosophic mysticism. Or a great imaginative work, like
Shakespeare's, may present us with the most vivid concrete symbols, and
yet suggest, as forcibly as the formal demonstrations of a
metaphysician, the idealist conviction that the visible and tangible
world is a dream-woven tissue covering infinite and inscrutable
mysteries. In each case the highest intellectual faculty manifests
itself in the vigour with which certain profound conceptions of the
world and life have been grasped and assimilated. In each case that man
is greatest who soars habitually to the highest regions and gazes most
steadily upon the widest horizons of time and space. The logical
consistency which frames all dogmas into a consistent whole, is but
another aspect of the imaginative power which harmonises the strongest
and subtlest emotions excited.

The task, indeed, of deducing the philosophy from the poetry, of
inferring what a man thinks from what he feels, may at times perplex the
acutest critic. Nor, if it were satisfactorily accomplished, could we
infer that the best philosopher is also the best poet. Absolute
incapacity for poetical expression may be combined with the highest
philosophic power. All that can safely be said is that a man's thoughts,
whether embodied in symbols or worked out in syllogisms, are more
valuable in proportion as they indicate greater philosophical insight;
and therefore that, _ceteris paribus_, that man is the greater poet
whose imagination is most transfused with reason; who has the deepest
truths to proclaim as well as the strongest feelings to utter.

Some theorists implicitly deny this principle by holding substantially
that the poet's function is simply the utterance of a particular mood,
and that, if he utters it forcibly and delicately, we have no more to
ask. Even so, we should not admit that the thoughts suggested to a wise
man by a prospect of death and eternity are of just equal value, if
equally well expressed, with the thoughts suggested to a fool by the
contemplation of a good dinner. But, in practice, the utterance of
emotions can hardly be dissociated from the assertion of principles.
Psychologists have shown, ever since the days of Berkeley, that when a
man describes (as he thinks) a mere sensation, and says, for example, 'I
see a house,' he is really recording the result of a complex logical
process. A great painter and the dullest observer may have the same
impressions of coloured blotches upon their retina. The great man infers
the true nature of the objects which produce his sensations, and can
therefore represent the objects accurately. The other sees only with his
eyes, and can therefore represent nothing. There is thus a logic implied
even in the simplest observation, and one which can be tested by
mathematical rules as distinctly as a proposition in geometry.

When we have to find a language for our emotions instead of our
sensations, we generally express the result of an incomparably more
complex set of intellectual operations. The poet, in uttering his joy or
sadness, often implies, in the very form of his language, a whole
philosophy of life or of the universe. The explanation is given at the
end of Shakespeare's familiar passage about the poet's eye:--

    Such tricks hath strong imagination,
    That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
    It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
    Or in the night, imagining some fear,
    How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The _ap_prehension of the passion, as Shakespeare logically says, is a
_com_prehension of its cause. The imagination reasons. The bare faculty
of sight involves thought and feeling. The symbol which the fancy
spontaneously constructs, implies a whole world of truth or error, of
superstitious beliefs or sound philosophy. The poetry holds a number of
intellectual dogmas in solution; and it is precisely due to these
general dogmas, which are true and important for us as well as for the
poet, that his power over our sympathies is due. If his philosophy has
no power in it, his emotions lose their hold upon our minds, or interest
us only as antiquarians and lovers of the picturesque. But in the
briefest poems of a true thinker we read the essence of the life-long
reflections of a passionate and intellectual nature. Fears and hopes
common to all thoughtful men have been coined into a single phrase. Even
in cases where no definite conviction is expressed or even implied, and
the poem is simply, like music, an indefinite utterance of a certain
state of the emotions, we may discover an intellectual element. The
rational and the emotional nature have such intricate relations that one
cannot exist in great richness and force without justifying an inference
as to the other. From a single phrase, as from a single gesture, we can
often go far to divining the character of a man's thoughts and feelings.
We know more of a man from five minutes' talk than from pages of what is
called 'psychological analysis.' From a passing expression on the face,
itself the result of variations so minute as to defy all analysis, we
instinctively frame judgments as to a man's temperament and habitual
modes of thought and conduct. Indeed, such judgments, if erroneous,
determine us only too exclusively in the most important relations of

Now the highest poetry is that which expresses the richest, most
powerful, and most susceptible emotional nature, and the most versatile,
penetrative, and subtle intellect. Such qualities may be stamped upon
trifling work. The great artist can express his power within the limits
of a coin or a gem. The great poet will reveal his character through a
sonnet or a song. Shakespeare, or Milton, or Burns, or Wordsworth can
express his whole mode of feeling within a few lines. An ill-balanced
nature reveals itself by a discord, as an illogical mind by a fallacy. A
man need not compose an epic on a system of philosophy to write himself
down an ass. And, inversely, a great mind and a noble nature may show
itself by impalpable but recognisable signs within the 'sonnet's scanty
plot of ground.' Once more, the highest poetry must be that which
expresses not only the richest but the healthiest nature. Disease means
an absence or a want of balance of certain faculties, and therefore
leads to false reasoning or emotional discord. The defect of character
betrays itself in some erroneous mode of thought or baseness of
sentiment. And since morality means obedience to those rules which are
most essential to the spiritual health, vicious feeling indicates some
morbid tendency, and is so far destructive of the poetical faculty. An
immoral sentiment is the sign either of a false judgment of the world
and of human nature, or of a defect in the emotional nature which shows
itself by a discord or an indecorum, and leads to a cynicism or
indecency which offends the reason through the taste. What is called
immorality does not indeed always imply such defects. Sound moral
intuitions may be opposed to the narrow code prevalent at the time; or a
protest against puritanical or ascetic perversions of the standard may
hurry the poet into attacks upon true principles. And, again, the keen
sensibility which makes a man a poet, undoubtedly exposes him to certain
types of disease. He is more likely than his thick-skinned neighbour to
be vexed by evil, and to be drawn into distorted views of life by an
excess of sympathy or indignation. Injudicious admirers prize the
disease instead of the strength from which it springs; and value the
cynicism or the despair instead of the contempt for heartless
commonplace or the desire for better things with which it was
unfortunately connected. A strong moral sentiment has a great value,
even when forced into an unnatural alliance. Nay, even when it is, so to
speak, inverted, it often receives a kind of paradoxical value from its
efficacy against some opposite form of error. It is only a complete
absence of the moral faculty which is irredeemably bad. The poet in whom
it does not exist is condemned to the lower sphere, and can only deal
with the deepest feelings on penalty of shocking us by indecency or
profanity. A man who can revel in 'Epicurus' stye' without even the
indirect homage to purity of remorse and bitterness, can do nothing but
gratify our lowest passions. They, perhaps, have their place, and the
man who is content with such utterances may not be utterly worthless.
But to place him on a level with his betters is to confound every sound
principle of criticism.

It follows that a kind of collateral test of poetical excellence may be
found by extracting the philosophy from the poetry. The test is, of
course, inadequate. A good philosopher may be an execrable poet. Even
stupidity is happily not inconsistent with sound doctrine, though
inconsistent with a firm grasp of ultimate principles. But the vigour
with which a man grasps and assimilates a deep moral doctrine is a test
of the degree in which he possesses one essential condition of the
higher poetical excellence. A continuous illustration of this principle
is given in the poetry of Wordsworth, who, indeed, has expounded his
ethical and philosophical views so explicitly, one would rather not say
so ostentatiously, that great part of the work is done to our hands.
Nowhere is it easier to observe the mode in which poetry and philosophy
spring from the same root and owe their excellence to the same
intellectual powers. So much has been said by the ablest critics of the
purely poetical side of Wordsworth's genius, that I may willingly
renounce the difficult task of adding or repeating. I gladly take for
granted--what is generally acknowledged--that Wordsworth in his best
moods reaches a greater height than any other modern Englishman. The
word 'inspiration' is less forced when applied to his loftiest poetry
than when used of any of his contemporaries. With defects too obvious to
be mentioned, he can yet pierce furthest behind the veil; and embody
most efficiently the thoughts and emotions which come to us in our most
solemn and reflective moods. Other poetry becomes trifling when we are
making our inevitable passages through the Valley of the Shadow of
Death. Wordsworth's alone retains its power. We love him the more as we
grow older and become more deeply impressed with the sadness and
seriousness of life; we are apt to grow weary of his rivals when we have
finally quitted the regions of youthful enchantment. And I take the
explanation to be that he is not merely a melodious writer, or a
powerful utterer of deep emotion, but a true philosopher. His poetry
wears well because it has solid substance. He is a prophet and a
moralist, as well as a mere singer. His ethical system, in particular,
is as distinctive and capable of systematic exposition as that of
Butler. By endeavouring to state it in plain prose, we shall see how the
poetical power implies a sensitiveness to ideas which, when extracted
from the symbolical embodiment, fall spontaneously into a scientific
system of thought.

There are two opposite types to which all moral systems tend. They
correspond to the two great intellectual families to which every man
belongs by right of birth. One class of minds is distinguished by its
firm grasp of facts, by its reluctance to drop solid substance for the
loveliest shadows, and by its preference of concrete truths to the most
symmetrical of theories. In ethical questions the tendency of such minds
is to consider man as a being impelled by strong but unreasonable
passions towards tangible objects. He is a loving, hating, thirsting,
hungering--anything but a reasoning--being. As Swift--a typical example
of this intellectual temperament--declared, man is not an _animal
rationale_, but at most _capax rationis_. At bottom, he is a machine
worked by blind instincts. Their tendency cannot be deduced by _à
priori_ reasoning, though reason may calculate the consequences of
indulging them. The passions are equally good, so far as equally
pleasurable. Virtue means that course of conduct which secures the
maximum of pleasure. Fine theories about abstract rights and
correspondence to eternal truths are so many words. They provide decent
masks for our passions; they do not really govern them, or alter their
nature, but they cover the ugly brutal selfishness of mankind, and
soften the shock of conflicting interests. Such a view has something in
it congenial to the English love of reality and contempt for shams. It
may be represented by Swift or Mandeville in the last century; in poetry
it corresponds to the theory attributed by some critics to Shakespeare;
in a tranquil and reasoning mind it leads to the utilitarianism of
Bentham; in a proud, passionate, and imaginative mind it manifests
itself in such a poem as 'Don Juan.' Its strength is in its grasp of
fact; its weakness, in its tendency to cynicism. Opposed to this is the
school which starts from abstract reason. It prefers to dwell in the
ideal world, where principles may be contemplated apart from the
accidents which render them obscure to vulgar minds. It seeks to deduce
the moral code from eternal truths without seeking for a groundwork in
the facts of experience. If facts refuse to conform to theories, it
proposes that facts should be summarily abolished. Though the actual
human being is, unfortunately, not always reasonable, it holds that pure
reason must be in the long run the dominant force, and that it reveals
the laws to which mankind will ultimately conform. The revolutionary
doctrine of the 'rights of man' expressed one form of this doctrine, and
showed in the most striking way a strength and weakness, which are the
converse of those exhibited by its antagonist. It was strong as
appealing to the loftier motives of justice and sympathy; and weak as
defying the appeal to experience. The most striking example in English
literature is in Godwin's 'Political Justice.' The existing social order
is to be calmly abolished because founded upon blind prejudice; the
constituent atoms called men are to be rearranged in an ideal order as
in a mathematical diagram. Shelley gives the translation of this theory
into poetry. The 'Revolt of Islam' or the 'Prometheus Unbound,' with all
its unearthly beauty, wearies the imagination which tries to soar into
the thin air of Shelley's dreamworld; just as the intellect, trying to
apply the abstract formulæ of political metaphysics to any concrete
problem, feels as though it were under an exhausted receiver. In both
cases we seem to have got entirely out of the region of real human
passions and senses into a world, beautiful perhaps, but certainly

The great aim of moral philosophy is to unite the disjoined element, to
end the divorce between reason and experience, and to escape from the
alternative of dealing with empty but symmetrical formulæ or concrete
and chaotic facts. No hint can be given here as to the direction in
which a final solution must be sought. Whatever the true method,
Wordsworth's mode of conceiving the problem shows how powerfully he
grasped the questions at issue. If his doctrines are not systematically
expounded, they all have a direct bearing upon the real difficulties
involved. They are stated so forcibly in his noblest poems that we might
almost express a complete theory in his own language. But, without
seeking to make a collection of aphorisms from his poetry, we may
indicate the cardinal points of his teaching.[24]

The most characteristic of all his doctrines is that which is embodied
in the great ode upon the 'Intimations of Immortality.' The doctrine
itself--the theory that the instincts of childhood testify to the
pre-existence of the soul--sounds fanciful enough; and Wordsworth took
rather unnecessary pains to say that he did not hold it as a serious
dogma. We certainly need not ask whether it is reasonable or orthodox to
believe that 'our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.' The fact
symbolised by the poetic fancy--the glory and freshness of our childish
instincts--is equally noteworthy, whatever its cause. Some modern
reasoners would explain its significance by reference to a very
different kind of pre-existence. The instincts, they would say, are
valuable, because they register the accumulated and inherited experience
of past generations. Wordsworth's delight in wild scenery is regarded by
them as due to the 'combination of states that were organised in the
race during barbarous times, when its pleasurable activities were
amongst the mountains, woods, and waters.' In childhood we are most
completely under the dominion of these inherited impulses. The
correlation between the organism and its medium is then most perfect,
and hence the peculiar theme of childish communion with nature.

Wordsworth would have repudiated the doctrine with disgust. He would
have been 'on the side of the angels.' No memories of the savage and the
monkey, but the reminiscences of the once-glorious soul could explain
his emotions. Yet there is this much in common between him and the men
of science whom he denounced with too little discrimination. The fact of
the value of these primitive instincts is admitted, and admitted for the
same purpose. Man, it is agreed, is furnished with sentiments which
cannot be explained as the result of his individual experience. They may
be intelligible, according to the evolutionist, when regarded as
embodying the past experience of the race; or, according to Wordsworth,
as implying a certain mysterious faculty imprinted upon the soul. The
scientific doctrine, whether sound or not, has modified the whole mode
of approaching ethical problems; and Wordsworth, though with a very
different purpose, gives a new emphasis to the facts, upon a
recognition of which, according to some theorists, must be based the
reconciliation of the great rival schools--the intuitionists and the
utilitarians. The parallel may at first sight seem fanciful; and it
would be too daring to claim for Wordsworth the discovery of the most
remarkable phenomenon which modern psychology must take into account.
There is, however, a real connection between the two doctrines, though
in one sense they are almost antithetical. Meanwhile we observe that the
same sensibility which gives poetical power is necessary to the
scientific observer. The magic of the ode, and of many other passages in
Wordsworth's poetry, is due to his recognition of this mysterious
efficacy of our childish instincts. He gives emphasis to one of the most
striking facts of our spiritual experience, which had passed with little
notice from professed psychologists. He feels what they afterwards tried
to explain.

The full meaning of the doctrine comes out as we study Wordsworth more
thoroughly. Other poets--almost all poets--have dwelt fondly upon
recollections of childhood. But not feeling so strongly, and therefore
not expressing so forcibly, the peculiar character of the emotion, they
have not derived the same lessons from their observation. The Epicurean
poets are content with Herrick's simple moral--

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may--

and with his simple explanation--

    That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer.

Others more thoughtful look back upon the early days with the passionate
regret of Byron's verses:

    There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away,
    When the glow of early thought declines in feeling's dull decay;
    'Tis not on youth's smooth cheek the blush alone which fades so fast,
    But the tender bloom of heart is gone, ere youth itself be past.

Such painful longings for the 'tender grace of a day that is dead' are
spontaneous and natural. Every healthy mind feels the pang in proportion
to the strength of its affections. But it is also true that the regret
resembles too often the maudlin meditation of a fast young man over his
morning's soda-water. It implies, that is, a non-recognition of the
higher uses to which the fading memories may still be put. A different
tone breathes in Shelley's pathetic but rather hectic moralisings, and
his lamentations over the departure of the 'spirit of delight.' Nowhere
has it found more exquisite expression than in the marvellous 'Ode to
the West Wind.' These magical verses--his best, as it seems to
me--describe the reflection of the poet's own mind in the strange stir
and commotion of a dying winter's day. They represent, we may say, the
fitful melancholy which oppresses a noble spirit when it has recognised
the difficulty of forcing facts into conformity with the ideal. He still
clings to the hope that his 'dead thoughts' may be driven over the

    Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth.

But he bows before the inexorable fate which has cramped his energies:

    A heavy weight of years has chained and bowed
    One too like thee; tameless and swift and proud.

Neither Byron nor Shelley can see any satisfactory solution, and
therefore neither can reach a perfect harmony of feeling. The world
seems to them to be out of joint, because they have not known how to
accept the inevitable, nor to conform to the discipline of facts. And,
therefore, however intense the emotion, and however exquisite its
expression, we are left in a state of intellectual and emotional
discontent. Such utterances may suit us in youth, when we can afford to
play with sorrow. As we grow older we feel a certain emptiness in them.
A true man ought not to sit down and weep with an exhausted debauchee.
He cannot afford to confess himself beaten with the idealist who has
discovered that Rome was not built in a day, nor revolutions made with
rose-water. He has to work as long as he has strength; to work in spite
of, even by strength of, sorrow, disappointment, wounded vanity, and
blunted sensibilities; and therefore he must search for some profounder
solution for the dark riddle of life.

This solution it is Wordsworth's chief aim to supply. In the familiar
verses which stand as a motto to his poems--

    The child is father to the man,
    And I could wish my days to be
    Bound each to each by natural piety--

the great problem of life, that is, as he conceives it, is to secure a
continuity between the period at which we are guided by half-conscious
instincts, and that in which a man is able to supply the place of these
primitive impulses by reasoned convictions. This is the thought which
comes over and over again in his deepest poems, and round which all his
teaching centred. It supplies the great moral, for example, of the

    My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
      As if life's business were a summer mood:
    As if all needful things would come unsought
      To genial faith still rich in genial good.

When his faith is tried by harsh experience, the leech-gatherer comes,

    Like a man from some far region sent
    To give me human strength by apt admonishment;

for he shows how the 'genial faith' may be converted into permanent
strength by resolution and independence. The verses most commonly
quoted, such as--

    We poets in our youth begin in gladness,
    But thereof come in the end despondency and sadness,

give the ordinary view of the sickly school. Wordsworth's aim is to
supply an answer worthy not only of a poet, but a man. The same
sentiment again is expressed in the grand 'Ode to Duty,' where the

    Stern daughter of the voice of God

is invoked to supply that 'genial sense of youth' which has hitherto
been a sufficient guidance; or in the majestic morality of the 'Happy
Warrior;' or in the noble verses on 'Tintern Abbey;' or, finally, in the
great ode which gives most completely the whole theory of that process
by which our early intuitions are to be transformed into settled
principles of feeling and action.

Wordsworth's philosophical theory, in short, depends upon the asserted
identity between our childish instincts and our enlightened reason. The
doctrine of a state of pre-existence, as it appears in other
writers--as, for example, in the Cambridge Platonists[25]--was connected
with an obsolete metaphysical system, and the doctrine--exploded in its
old form--of innate ideas. Wordsworth does not attribute any such
preternatural character to the 'blank misgivings' and 'shadowy
recollections' of which he speaks. They are invaluable data of our
spiritual experience; but they do not entitle us to lay down dogmatic
propositions independently of experience. They are spontaneous products
of a nature in harmony with the universe in which it is placed, and
inestimable as a clear indication that such a harmony exists. To
interpret and regulate them belongs to the reasoning faculty and the
higher imagination of later years. If he does not quite distinguish
between the province of reason and emotion--the most difficult of
philosophical problems--he keeps clear of the cruder mysticism, because
he does not seek to elicit any definite formulæ from those admittedly
vague forebodings which lie on the border-land between the two sides of
our nature. With his invariable sanity of mind, he more than once
notices the difficulty of distinguishing between that which nature
teaches us and the interpretations which we impose upon nature.[26] He
carefully refrains from pressing the inference too far.

The teaching, indeed, assumes that view of the universe which is implied
in his pantheistic language. The Divinity really reveals Himself in the
lonely mountains and the starry heavens. By contemplating them we are
able to rise into that 'blessed mood' in which for a time the burden of
the mystery is rolled off our souls, and we can 'see into the life of
things.' And here we must admit that Wordsworth is not entirely free
from the weakness which generally besets thinkers of this tendency. Like
Shaftesbury in the previous century, who speaks of the universal harmony
as emphatically though not as poetically as Wordsworth, he is tempted to
adopt a too facile optimism. He seems at times to have overlooked that
dark side of nature which is recognised in theological doctrines of
corruption, or in the scientific theories about the fierce struggle for
existence. Can we in fact say that these early instincts prove more than
the happy constitution of the individual who feels them? Is there not a
teaching of nature very apt to suggest horror and despair rather than a
complacent brooding over soothing thoughts? Do not the mountains which
Wordsworth loved so well, speak of decay and catastrophe in every line
of their slopes? Do they not suggest the helplessness and narrow
limitations of man, as forcibly as his possible exaltation? The awe
which they strike into our souls has its terrible as well as its amiable
side; and in moods of depression the darker aspect becomes more
conspicuous than the brighter. Nay, if we admit that we have instincts
which are the very substance of all that afterwards becomes ennobling,
have we not also instincts which suggest a close alliance with the
brutes? If the child amidst his newborn blisses suggests a heavenly
origin, does he not also show sensual and cruel instincts which imply at
least an admixture of baser elements? If man is responsive to all
natural influences, how is he to distinguish between the good and the
bad, and, in short, to frame a conscience out of the vague instincts
which contain the germs of all the possible developments of the future?

To say that Wordsworth has not given a complete answer to such
difficulties, is to say that he has not explained the origin of evil. It
may be admitted, however, that he does to a certain extent show a
narrowness of conception. The voice of nature, as he says, resembles an
echo; but we 'unthinking creatures' listen to 'voices of two different
natures.' We do not always distinguish between the echo of our lower
passions and the 'echoes from beyond the grave.' Wordsworth sometimes
fails to recognise the ambiguity of the oracle to which he appeals. The
'blessed mood' in which we get rid of the burden of the world, is too
easily confused with the mood in which we simply refuse to attend to it.
He finds lonely meditation so inspiring that he is too indifferent to
the troubles of less self-sufficing or clear-sighted human beings. The
ambiguity makes itself felt in the sphere of morality. The ethical
doctrine that virtue consists in conformity to nature becomes ambiguous
with him, as with all its advocates, when we ask for a precise
definition of nature. How are we to know which natural forces make for
us and which fight against us?

The doctrine of the love of nature, generally regarded as Wordsworth's
great lesson to mankind, means, as interpreted by himself and others, a
love of the wilder and grander objects of natural scenery; a passion for
the 'sounding cataract,' the rock, the mountain, and the forest; a
preference, therefore, of the country to the town, and of the simpler to
the more complex forms of social life. But what is the true value of
this sentiment? The unfortunate Solitary in the 'Excursion' is beset by
three Wordsworths; for the Wanderer and the Pastor are little more (as
Wordsworth indeed intimates) than reflections of himself, seen in
different mirrors. The Solitary represents the anti-social lessons to be
derived from communion with nature. He has become a misanthrope, and has
learnt from 'Candide' the lesson that we clearly do not live in the best
of all possible worlds. Instead of learning the true lesson from nature
by penetrating its deeper meanings, he manages to feed

    Pity and scorn and melancholy pride

by accidental and fanciful analogies, and sees in rock pyramids or
obelisks a rude mockery of human toils. To confute this sentiment, to
upset 'Candide,'

    This dull product of a scoffer's pen,

is the purpose of the lofty poetry and versified prose of the long
dialogues which ensue. That Wordsworth should call Voltaire dull is a
curious example of the proverbial blindness of controversialists; but
the moral may be equally good. It is given most pithily in the lines--

    We live by admiration, hope, and love;
    And even as these are well and wisely fused,
    The dignity of being we ascend.

'But what is Error?' continues the preacher; and the Solitary replies by
saying, 'somewhat haughtily,' that love, admiration, and hope are 'mad
fancy's favourite vassals.' The distinction between fancy and
imagination is, in brief, that fancy deals with the superficial
resemblances, and imagination with the deeper truths which underlie
them. The purpose, then, of the 'Excursion,' and of Wordsworth's poetry
in general, is to show how the higher faculty reveals a harmony which we
overlook when, with the Solitary, we

    Skim along the surfaces of things.

The rightly prepared mind can recognise the divine harmony which
underlies all apparent disorder. The universe is to its perceptions like
the shell whose murmur in a child's ear seems to express a mysterious
union with the sea. But the mind must be rightly prepared. Everything
depends upon the point of view. One man, as he says in an elaborate
figure, looking upon a series of ridges in spring from their northern
side, sees a waste of snow, and from the south a continuous expanse of
green. That view, we must take it, is the right one which is illuminated
by the 'ray divine.' But we must train our eyes to recognise its
splendour; and the final answer to the Solitary is therefore embodied
in a series of narratives, showing by example how our spiritual vision
may be purified or obscured. Our philosophy must be finally based, not
upon abstract speculation and metaphysical arguments, but on the
diffused consciousness of the healthy mind. As Butler sees the universe
by the light of conscience, Wordsworth sees it through the wider
emotions of awe, reverence, and love, produced in a sound nature.

The pantheistic conception, in short, leads to an unsatisfactory
optimism in the general view of nature, and to an equal tolerance of all
passions as equally 'natural.' To escape from this difficulty we must
establish some more discriminative mode of interpreting nature. Man is
the instrument played upon by all impulses, good or bad. The music which
results may be harmonious or discordant. When the instrument is in tune,
the music will be perfect; but when is it in tune, and how are we to
know that it is in tune? That problem once solved, we can tell which are
the authentic utterances and which are the accidental discords. And by
solving it, or by saying what is the right constitution of human beings,
we shall discover which is the true philosophy of the universe, and what
are the dictates of a sound moral sense. Wordsworth implicitly answers
the question by explaining, in his favourite phrase, how we are to build
up our moral being.

The voice of nature speaks at first in vague emotions, scarcely
distinguishable from mere animal buoyancy. The boy, hooting in mimicry
of the owls, receives in his heart the voice of mountain torrents and
the solemn imagery of rocks, and woods, and stars. The sportive girl is
unconsciously moulded into stateliness and grace by the floating clouds,
the bending willow, and even by silent sympathy with the motions of the
storm. Nobody has ever shown, with such exquisite power as Wordsworth,
how much of the charm of natural objects in later life is due to early
associations, thus formed in a mind not yet capable of contemplating its
own processes. As old Matthew says in the lines which, however familiar,
can never be read without emotion--

    My eyes are dim with childish tears,
      My heart is idly stirred;
    For the same sound is in my ears
      Which in those days I heard.

And the strangely beautiful address to the cuckoo might be made into a
text for a prolonged commentary by an æsthetic philosopher upon the
power of early association. It curiously illustrates, for example, the
reason of Wordsworth's delight in recalling sounds. The croak of the
distant raven, the bleat of the mountain lamb, the splash of the leaping
fish in the lonely tarn, are specially delightful to him, because the
hearing is the most spiritual of our senses; and these sounds, like the
cuckoo's cry, seem to convert the earth into an 'unsubstantial fairy
place.' The phrase 'association' indeed implies a certain arbitrariness
in the images suggested, which is not quite in accordance with
Wordsworth's feeling. Though the echo depends partly upon the hearer,
the mountain voices are specially adapted for certain moods. They have,
we may say, a spontaneous affinity for the nobler affections. If some
early passage in our childhood is associated with a particular spot, a
house or a street will bring back the petty and accidental details: a
mountain or a lake will revive the deeper and more permanent elements of
feeling. If you have made love in a palace, according to Mr. Disraeli's
prescription, the sight of it will recall the splendour of the object's
dress or jewellery; if, as Wordsworth would prefer, with a background of
mountains, it will appear in later days as if they had absorbed, and
were always ready again to radiate forth, the tender and hallowing
influences which then for the first time entered your life. The
elementary and deepest passions are most easily associated with the
sublime and beautiful in nature.

    The primal duties shine aloft like stars;
    The charities that soothe, and heal, and bless,
    Are scattered at the feet of man like flowers.

And, therefore, if you have been happy enough to take delight in these
natural and universal objects in the early days, when the most permanent
associations are formed, the sight of them in later days will bring back
by pre-ordained and divine symbolism whatever was most ennobling in your
early feelings. The vulgarising associations will drop off of
themselves, and what was pure and lofty will remain.

From this natural law follows another of Wordsworth's favourite
precepts. The mountains are not with him a symbol of anti-social
feelings. On the contrary, they are in their proper place as the
background of the simple domestic affections. He loves his native hills,
not in the Byronic fashion, as a savage wilderness, but as the
appropriate framework in which a healthy social order can permanently
maintain itself. That, for example, is, as he tells us, the thought
which inspired the 'Brothers,' a poem which excels all modern idylls in
weight of meaning and depth of feeling, by virtue of the idea thus
embodied. The retired valley of Ennerdale, with its grand background of
hills, precipitous enough to be fairly called mountains, forces the two
lads into closer affection. Shut in by these 'enormous barriers,' and
undistracted by the ebb and flow of the outside world, the mutual love
becomes concentrated. A tie like that of family blood is involuntarily
imposed upon the little community of dalesmen. The image of sheep-tracks
and shepherds clad in country grey is stamped upon the elder brother's
mind, and comes back to him in tropical calms; he hears the tones of his
waterfalls in the piping shrouds; and when he returns, recognises every
fresh scar made by winter storms on the mountain sides, and knows by
sight every unmarked grave in the little churchyard. The fraternal
affection sanctifies the scenery, and the sight of the scenery brings
back the affection with overpowering force upon his return. This is
everywhere the sentiment inspired in Wordsworth by his beloved hills. It
is not so much the love of nature pure and simple, as of nature seen
through the deepest human feelings. The light glimmering in a lonely
cottage, the one rude house in the deep valley, with its 'small lot of
life-supporting fields and guardian rocks,' are necessary to point the
moral and to draw to a definite focus the various forces of sentiment.
The two veins of feeling are inseparably blended. The peasant noble, in
the 'Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle,' learns equally from men and

    Love had he found in huts where poor men lie;
      His daily teachers had been woods and hills,
    The silence that is in the starry skies,
      The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

Without the love, the silence and the sleep would have had no spiritual
meaning. They are valuable as giving intensity and solemnity to the
positive emotion.

The same remark is to be made upon Wordsworth's favourite teaching of
the advantages of the contemplative life. He is fond of enforcing the
doctrine of the familiar lines, that we can feed our minds 'in a wise
passiveness,' and that

    One impulse from the vernal wood
      Can teach you more of man,
    Of moral evil and of good,
      Than all the sages can.

And, according to some commentators, this would seem to express the
doctrine that the ultimate end of life is the cultivation of tender
emotions without reference to action. The doctrine, thus absolutely
stated, would be immoral and illogical. To recommend contemplation in
preference to action is like preferring sleeping to waking; or saying,
as a full expression of the truth, that silence is golden and speech
silvern. Like that familiar phrase, Wordsworth's teaching is not to be
interpreted literally. The essence of such maxims is to be one-sided.
They are paradoxical in order to be emphatic. To have seasons of
contemplation, of withdrawal from the world and from books, of calm
surrendering of ourselves to the influences of nature, is a practice
commended in one form or other by all moral teachers. It is a sanitary
rule, resting upon obvious principles. The mind which is always occupied
in a multiplicity of small observations, or the regulation of practical
details, loses the power of seeing general principles and of associating
all objects with the central emotions of 'admiration, hope, and love.'
The philosophic mind is that which habitually sees the general in the
particular, and finds food for the deepest thought in the simplest
objects. It requires, therefore, periods of repose, in which the
fragmentary and complex atoms of distracted feeling which make up the
incessant whirl of daily life may have time to crystallise round the
central thoughts. But it must feed in order to assimilate; and each
process implies the other as its correlative. A constant interest,
therefore, in the joys and sorrows of our neighbours is as essential as
quiet, self-centred rumination. It is when the eye 'has kept watch o'er
man's mortality,' and by virtue of the tender sympathies of 'the human
heart by which we live,' that to us

    The meanest flower which blows can give
    Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

The solitude which implies severance from natural sympathies and
affections is poisonous. The happiness of the heart which lives alone,

    Housed in a dream, an outcast from the kind,

           *       *       *       *       *

    Is to be pitied, for 'tis surely blind.

Wordsworth's meditations upon flowers or animal life are impressive
because they have been touched by this constant sympathy. The sermon is
always in his mind, and therefore every stone may serve for a text. His
contemplation enables him to see the pathetic side of the small pains
and pleasures which we are generally in too great a hurry to notice.
There are times, of course, when this moralising tendency leads him to
the regions of the namby-pamby or sheer prosaic platitude. On the other
hand, no one approaches him in the power of touching some rich chord of
feeling by help of the pettiest incident. The old man going to the
fox-hunt with a tear on his cheek, and saying to himself,

    The key I must take, for my Helen is dead;

or the mother carrying home her dead sailor's bird; the village
schoolmaster, in whom a rift in the clouds revives the memory of his
little daughter; the old huntsman unable to cut through the stump of
rotten wood--touch our hearts at once and for ever. The secret is given
in the rather prosaic apology for not relating a tale about poor Simon

    O reader! had you in your mind
      Such stores as silent thought can bring,
    O gentle reader! you would find
      A tale in everything.

The value of silent thought is so to cultivate the primitive emotions
that they may flow spontaneously upon every common incident, and that
every familiar object becomes symbolic of them. It is a familiar remark
that a philosopher or man of science who has devoted himself to
meditation upon some principle or law of nature, is always finding new
illustrations in the most unexpected quarters. He cannot take up a novel
or walk across the street without hitting upon appropriate instances.
Wordsworth would apply the principle to the building up of our 'moral
being.' Admiration, hope, and love should be so constantly in our
thoughts, that innumerable sights and sounds which are meaningless to
the world should become to us a language incessantly suggestive of the
deepest topics of thought.

This explains his dislike to science, as he understood the word, and his
denunciations of the 'world.' The man of science is one who cuts up
nature into fragments, and not only neglects their possible significance
for our higher feelings, but refrains on principle from taking it into
account. The primrose suggests to him some new device in classification,
and he would be worried by the suggestion of any spiritual significance
as an annoying distraction. Viewing all objects 'in disconnection, dead
and spiritless,' we are thus really waging

    An impious warfare with the very life
    Of our own souls.

We are putting the letter in place of the spirit, and dealing with
nature as a mere grammarian deals with a poem. When we have learnt to
associate every object with some lesson

    Of human suffering or of human joy;

when we have thus obtained the 'glorious habit,'

        By which sense is made
    Subservient still to moral purposes,
    Auxiliar to divine;

the 'dull eye' of science will light up; for, in observing natural
processes, it will carry with it an incessant reference to the spiritual
processes to which they are allied. Science, in short, requires to be
brought into intimate connection with morality and religion. If we are
forced for our immediate purpose to pursue truth for itself, regardless
of consequences, we must remember all the more carefully that truth is a
whole, and that fragmentary bits of knowledge become valuable as they
are incorporated into a general system. The tendency of modern times to
specialism brings with it a characteristic danger. It requires to be
supplemented by a correlative process of integration. We must study
details to increase our knowledge; we must accustom ourselves to look at
the detail in the light of the general principles in order to make it

The influence of that world which 'is too much with us late and soon' is
of the same kind. The man of science loves barren facts for their own
sake. The man of the world becomes devoted to some petty pursuit without
reference to ultimate ends. He becomes a slave to money, or power, or
praise, without caring for their effect upon his moral character. As
social organisation becomes more complete, the social unit becomes a
mere fragment instead of being a complete whole in himself. Man becomes

    The senseless member of a vast machine,
    Serving as doth a spindle or a wheel.

The division of labour, celebrated with such enthusiasm by Adam
Smith,[27] tends to crush all real life out of its victims. The soul of
the political economist may rejoice when he sees a human being devoting
his whole faculties to the performance of one subsidiary operation in
the manufacture of a pin. The poet and the moralist must notice with
anxiety the contrast between the old-fashioned peasant who, if he
discharged each particular function clumsily, discharged at least many
functions, and found exercise for all the intellectual and moral
faculties of his nature, and the modern artisan doomed to the incessant
repetition of one petty set of muscular expansions and contractions, and
whose soul, if he has one, is therefore rather an encumbrance than
otherwise. This is the evil which is constantly before Wordsworth's
eyes, as it has certainly not become less prominent since his time. The
danger of crushing the individual is a serious one according to his
view; not because it implies the neglect of some abstract political
rights, but from the impoverishment of character which is implied in the
process. Give every man a vote, and abolish all interference with each
man's private tastes, and the danger may still be as great as ever. The
tendency to 'differentiation'--as we call it in modern phraseology--the
social pulverisation, the lowering and narrowing of the individual's
sphere of action and feeling to the pettiest details, depends upon
processes underlying all political changes. It cannot, therefore, be
cured by any nostrum of constitution-mongers, or by the negative remedy
of removing old barriers. It requires to be met by profounder moral and
religious teaching. Men must be taught what is the really valuable part
of their natures, and what is the purest happiness to be extracted from
life, as well as allowed to gratify fully their own tastes; for who can
say that men encouraged by all their surroundings and appeals to the
most obvious motives to turn themselves into machines, will not
deliberately choose to be machines? Many powerful thinkers have
illustrated Wordsworth's doctrine more elaborately, but nobody has gone
more decisively to the root of the matter.

One other side of Wordsworth's teaching is still more significant and
original. Our vague instincts are consolidated into reason by
meditation, sympathy with our fellows, communion with nature, and a
constant devotion to 'high endeavours.' If life run smoothly, the
transformation may be easy, and our primitive optimism turn
imperceptibly into general complacency. The trial comes when we make
personal acquaintance with sorrow, and our early buoyancy begins to
fail. We are tempted to become querulous or to lap ourselves in
indifference. Most poets are content to bewail our lot melodiously, and
admit that there is no remedy unless a remedy be found in 'the luxury of
grief.' Prosaic people become selfish, though not sentimental. They
laugh at their old illusions, and turn to the solid consolations of
comfort. Nothing is more melancholy than to study many biographies, and
note--not the failure of early promise, which may mean merely an aiming
above the mark--but the progressive deterioration of character which so
often follows grief and disappointment. If it be not true that most men
grow worse as they grow old, it is surely true that few men pass
through the world without being corrupted as much as purified.

Now Wordsworth's favourite lesson is the possibility of turning grief
and disappointment into account. He teaches in many forms the necessity
of 'transmuting' sorrow into strength. One of the great evils is a lack
of power,

    An agonising sorrow to transmute.

The Happy Warrior is, above all, the man who in face of all human
miseries can

                            Exercise a power
    Which is our human nature's highest dower;
    Controls them, and subdues, transmutes, bereaves
    Of their bad influence, and their good receives;

who is made more compassionate by familiarity with sorrow, more placable
by contest, purer by temptation, and more enduring by distress.[28] It
is owing to the constant presence of this thought, to his sensibility to
the refining influence of sorrow, that Wordsworth is the only poet who
will bear reading in times of distress. Other poets mock us by an
impossible optimism, or merely reflect the feelings which, however we
may play with them in times of cheerfulness, have now become an
intolerable burden. Wordsworth suggests the single topic which, so far
at least as this world is concerned, can really be called consolatory.
None of the ordinary commonplaces will serve, or serve at most as
indications of human sympathy. But there is some consolation in the
thought that even death may bind the survivors closer, and leave as a
legacy enduring motives to noble action. It is easy to say this; but
Wordsworth has the merit of feeling the truth in all its force, and
expressing it by the most forcible images. In one shape or another the
sentiment is embodied in most of his really powerful poetry. It is
intended, for example, to be the moral of the 'White Doe of Rylstone.'
There, as Wordsworth says, everything fails so far as its object is
external and unsubstantial; everything succeeds so far as it is moral
and spiritual. Success grows out of failure; and the mode in which it
grows is indicated by the lines which give the keynote of the poem.
Emily, the heroine, is to become a soul

    By force of sorrows high
    Uplifted to the purest sky
    Of undisturbed serenity.

The 'White Doe' is one of those poems which make many readers inclined
to feel a certain tenderness for Jeffrey's dogged insensibility; and I
confess that I am not one of its warm admirers. The sentiment seems to
be unduly relaxed throughout; there is a want of sympathy with heroism
of the rough and active type, which is, after all, at least as worthy of
admiration as the more passive variety of the virtue; and the defect is
made more palpable by the position of the chief actors. These rough
borderers, who recall William of Deloraine and Dandie Dinmont, are
somehow out of their element when preaching the doctrines of quietism
and submission to circumstances. But, whatever our judgment of this
particular embodiment of Wordsworth's moral philosophy, the inculcation
of the same lesson gives force to many of his finest poems. It is
enough to mention the 'Leech-gatherer,' the 'Stanzas on Peele Castle,'
'Michael,' and, as expressing the inverse view of the futility of idle
grief, 'Laodamia,' where he has succeeded in combining his morality with
more than his ordinary beauty of poetical form. The teaching of all
these poems falls in with the doctrine already set forth. All moral
teaching, I have sometimes fancied, might be summed up in the one
formula, 'Waste not.' Every element of which our nature is composed may
be said to be good in its proper place; and therefore every vicious
habit springs out of the misapplication of forces which might be turned
to account by judicious training. The waste of sorrow is one of the most
lamentable forms of waste. Sorrow too often tends to produce bitterness
or effeminacy of character. But it may, if rightly used, serve only to
detach us from the lower motives, and give sanctity to the higher. That
is what Wordsworth sees with unequalled clearness, and he therefore sees
also the condition of profiting. The mind in which the most valuable
elements have been systematically strengthened by meditation, by
association of deep thought with the most universal presences, by
constant sympathy with the joys and sorrows of its fellows, will be
prepared to convert sorrow into a medicine instead of a poison. Sorrow
is deteriorating so far as it is selfish. The man who is occupied with
his own interests makes grief an excuse for effeminate indulgence in
self-pity. He becomes weaker and more fretful. The man who has learnt
habitually to think of himself as part of a greater whole, whose conduct
has been habitually directed to noble ends, is purified and strengthened
by the spiritual convulsion. His disappointment, or his loss of some
beloved object, makes him more anxious to fix the bases of his
happiness widely and deeply, and to be content with the consciousness of
honest work, instead of looking for what is called success.

But I must not take to preaching in the place of Wordsworth. The whole
theory is most nobly summed up in the grand lines already noticed on the
character of the Happy Warrior. There Wordsworth has explained in the
most forcible and direct language the mode in which a grand character
can be formed; how youthful impulses may change into manly purpose; how
pain and sorrow may be transmuted into new forces; how the mind may be
fixed upon lofty purposes; how the domestic affections--which give the
truest happiness--may also be the greatest source of strength to the man
who is

    More brave for this, that he has much to lose;

and how, finally, he becomes indifferent to all petty ambition--

    Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;
    And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
    His breath in confidence of Heaven's applause.
        This is the Happy Warrior, this is he
        Whom every man in arms should wish to be.

We may now see what ethical theory underlies Wordsworth's teaching of
the transformation of instinct into reason. We must start from the
postulate that there is in fact a Divine order in the universe; and that
conformity to this order produces beauty as embodied in the external
world, and is the condition of virtue as regulating our character. It is
by obedience to the 'stern lawgiver,' Duty, that flowers gain their
fragrance, and that 'the most ancient heavens' preserve their freshness
and strength. But this postulate does not seek for justification in
abstract metaphysical reasoning. The 'Intimations of Immortality' are
precisely imitations, not intellectual intuitions. They are vague and
emotional, not distinct and logical. They are a feeling of harmony, not
a perception of innate ideas. And, on the other hand, our instincts are
not a mere chaotic mass of passions, to be gratified without considering
their place and function in a certain definite scheme. They have been
implanted by the Divine hand, and the harmony which we feel corresponds
to a real order. To justify them we must appeal to experience, but to
experience interrogated by a certain definite procedure. Acting upon the
assumption that the Divine order exists, we shall come to recognise it,
though we could not deduce it by an _à priori_ method.

The instrument, in fact, finds itself originally tuned by its Maker, and
may preserve its original condition by careful obedience to the stern
teaching of life. The buoyancy common to all youthful and healthy
natures then changes into a deeper and more solemn mood. The great
primary emotions retain the original impulse, but increase their volume.
Grief and disappointment are transmuted into tenderness, sympathy, and
endurance. The reason, as it develops, regulates, without weakening, the
primitive instincts. All the greatest, and therefore most common, sights
of nature are indelibly associated with 'admiration, hope, and love;'
and all increase of knowledge and power is regarded as a means for
furthering the gratification of our nobler emotions. Under the opposite
treatment, the character loses its freshness, and we regard the early
happiness as an illusion. The old emotions dry up at their source. Grief
produces fretfulness, misanthropy, or effeminacy. Power is wasted on
petty ends and frivolous excitement, and knowledge becomes barren and
pedantic. In this way the postulate justifies itself by producing the
noblest type of character. When the 'moral being' is thus built up, its
instincts become its convictions, we recognise the true voice of nature,
and distinguish it from the echo of our passions. Thus we come to know
how the Divine order and the laws by which the character is harmonised
are the laws of morality.

To possible objections it might be answered by Wordsworth that this mode
of assuming in order to prove is the normal method of philosophy. 'You
must love him,' as he says of the poet,

                    Ere to you
    He will seem worthy of your love.

The doctrine corresponds to the _crede ut intelligas_ of the divine; or
to the philosophic theory that we must start from the knowledge already
constructed within us by instincts which have not yet learnt to reason.
And, finally, if a persistent reasoner should ask why--even admitting
the facts--the higher type should be preferred to the lower, Wordsworth
may ask, Why is bodily health preferable to disease? If a man likes weak
lungs and a bad digestion, reason cannot convince him of his error. The
physician has done enough when he has pointed out the sanitary laws
obedience to which generates strength, long life, and power of
enjoyment. The moralist is in the same position when he has shown how
certain habits conduce to the development of a type superior to its
rivals in all the faculties which imply permanent peace of mind and
power of resisting the shocks of the world without disintegration. Much
undoubtedly remains to be said. Wordsworth's teaching, profound and
admirable as it may be, has not the potency to silence the scepticism
which has gathered strength since his day, and assailed fundamental--or
what to him seemed fundamental--tenets of his system. No one can yet
say what transformation may pass upon the thoughts and emotions for
which he found utterance in speaking of the Divinity and sanctity of
nature. Some people vehemently maintain that the words will be emptied
of all meaning if the old theological conceptions to which he was so
firmly attached should disappear with the development of new modes of
thought. Nature, as regarded by the light of modern science, will be the
name of a cruel and wasteful, or at least of a purely neutral and
indifferent power, or perhaps as merely an equivalent for the
Unknowable, to which the conditions of our intellect prevent us from
ever attaching any intelligible predicate. Others would say that in
whatever terms we choose to speak of the mysterious darkness which
surrounds our little island of comparative light, the emotion generated
in a thoughtful mind by the contemplation of the universe will remain
unaltered or strengthen with clearer knowledge; and that we shall
express ourselves in a new dialect without altering the essence of our
thought. The emotions to which Wordsworth has given utterance will
remain, though the system in which he believed should sink into
oblivion; as, indeed, all human systems have found different modes of
symbolising the same fundamental feelings. But it is enough vaguely to
indicate considerations not here to be developed.

It only remains to be added once more that Wordsworth's poetry derives
its power from the same source as his philosophy. It speaks to our
strongest feelings because his speculation rests upon our deepest
thoughts. His singular capacity for investing all objects with a glow
derived from early associations; his keen sympathy with natural and
simple emotions; his sense of the sanctifying influences which can be
extracted from sorrow, are of equal value to his power over our
intellects and our imaginations. His psychology, stated systematically,
is rational; and, when expressed passionately, turns into poetry. To be
sensitive to the most important phenomena is the first step equally
towards a poetical or a scientific exposition. To see these truly is the
condition of making the poetry harmonious and the philosophy logical.
And it is often difficult to say which power is most remarkable in
Wordsworth. It would be easy to illustrate the truth by other than moral
topics. His sonnet, noticed by De Quincey, in which he speaks of the
abstracting power of darkness, and observes that as the hills pass into
twilight we see the same sight as the ancient Britons, is impressive as
it stands, but would be equally good as an illustration in a
metaphysical treatise. Again, the sonnet beginning

    With ships the sea was sprinkled far and wide,

is at once, as he has shown in a commentary of his own, an illustration
of a curious psychological law--of our tendency, that is, to introduce
an arbitrary principle of order into a random collection of
objects--and, for the same reason, a striking embodiment of the
corresponding mood of feeling. The little poem called 'Stepping
Westward' is in the same way at once a delicate expression of a specific
sentiment and an acute critical analysis of the subtle associations
suggested by a single phrase. But such illustrations might be multiplied
indefinitely. As he has himself said, there is scarcely one of his poems
which does not call attention to some moral sentiment, or to a general
principle or law of thought, of our intellectual constitution.

Finally, we might look at the reverse side of the picture, and endeavour
to show how the narrow limits of Wordsworth's power are connected with
certain moral defects; with the want of quick sympathy which shows
itself in his dramatic feebleness, and the austerity of character which
caused him to lose his special gifts too early and become a rather
commonplace defender of conservatism; and that curious diffidence (he
assures us that it was 'diffidence') which induced him to write many
thousand lines of blank verse entirely about himself. But the task would
be superfluous as well as ungrateful. It was his aim, he tells us, 'to
console the afflicted; to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy
happier; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to
think, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous;'
and, high as was the aim he did much towards its accomplishment.


[24] J. S. Mill and Whewell were, for their generation, the ablest
exponents of two opposite systems of thought upon such matters. Mill has
expressed his obligations to Wordsworth in his 'Autobiography,' and
Whewell dedicated to Wordsworth his 'Elements of Morality' in
acknowledgment of his influence as a moralist.

[25] The poem of Henry Vaughan, to which reference is often made in this
connection, scarcely contains more than a pregnant hint.

[26] As, for example, in the _Lines on Tintern Abbey_: 'If this be but a
vain belief.'

[27] See Wordsworth's reference to the _Wealth of Nations_, in the
_Prelude_, book xiii.

[28] So, too, in the _Prelude_:--

    Then was the truth received into my heart,
    That, under heaviest sorrow earth can bring,
    If from the affliction somewhere do not grow
    Honour which could not else have been, a faith,
    An elevation, and a sanctity;
    If new strength be not given, nor old restored,
    The fault is ours, not Nature's.


When Mr. Forster brought out the collected edition of Landor's works,
the critics were generally embarrassed. They evaded for the most part
any committal of themselves to an estimate of their author's merits, and
were generally content to say that we might now look forward to a
definitive judgment in the ultimate court of literary appeal. Such an
attitude of suspense was natural enough. Landor is perhaps the most
striking instance in modern literature of a radical divergence of
opinion between the connoisseurs and the mass of readers. The general
public have never been induced to read him, in spite of the lavish
applauses of some self-constituted authorities. One may go further. It
is doubtful whether those who aspire to a finer literary palate than is
possessed by the vulgar herd are really so keenly appreciative as the
innocent reader of published remarks might suppose. Hypocrisy in matters
of taste--whether of the literal or metaphorical kind--is the commonest
of vices. There are vintages, both material and intellectual, which are
more frequently praised than heartily enjoyed. I have heard very good
judges whisper in private that they have found Landor dull; and the rare
citations made from his works often betray a very perfunctory study of
them. Not long ago, for example, an able critic quoted a passage from
one of the 'Imaginary Conversations' to prove that Landor admired
Milton's prose, adding the remark that it might probably be taken as an
expression of his real sentiments, although put in the mouth of a
dramatic person. To anyone who has read Landor with ordinary attention,
it seems as absurd to speak in this hypothetical manner as it would be
to infer from some incidental allusion that Mr. Ruskin admires Turner.
Landor's adoration for Milton is one of the most conspicuous of his
critical propensities. There are, of course, many eulogies upon Landor
of undeniable weight. They are hearty, genuine, and from competent
judges. Yet the enthusiasm of such admirable critics as Mr. Emerson and
Mr. Lowell may be carped at by some who fancy that every American enjoys
a peculiar sense of complacency when rescuing an English genius from the
neglect of his own countrymen. If Mr. Browning and Mr. Swinburne have
been conspicuous in their admiration, it might be urged that neither of
them has too strong a desire to keep to that beaten highroad of the
commonplace, beyond which even the best guides meet with pitfalls.
Southey's praises of Landor were sincere and emphatic; but it must be
added that they provoke a recollection of one of Johnson's shrewd
remarks. 'The reciprocal civility of authors,' says the Doctor, 'is one
of the most risible scenes in the farce of life.' One forgives poor
Southey indeed for the vanity which enabled him to bear up so bravely
against anxiety and repeated disappointment; and if both he and Landor
found that 'reciprocal civility' helped them to bear the disregard of
contemporaries, one would not judge them harshly. It was simply a tacit
agreement to throw their harmless vanity into a common stock. Of Mr.
Forster, Landor's faithful friend and admirer, one can only say that in
his writing about Landor, as upon other topics, we are distracted
between the respect due to his strong feeling for the excellent in
literature, and the undeniable facts that his criticisms have a very
blunt edge, and that his eulogies are apt to be indiscriminate.

Southey and Wordsworth had a simple method of explaining the neglect of
a great author. According to them, contemporary neglect affords a
negative presumption in favour of permanent reputation. No lofty poet
has honour in his own generation. Southey's conviction that his
ponderous epics would make the fortune of his children is a pleasant
instance of self-delusion. But the theory is generally admitted in
regard to Wordsworth; and Landor accepted and defended it with
characteristic vigour. 'I have published,' he says in the conversation
with Hare, 'five volumes of "Imaginary Conversations:" cut the worst of
them through the middle, and there will remain in the decimal fraction
enough to satisfy my appetite for fame. I shall dine late; but the
dining-room will be well lighted, the guests few and select.' He recurs
frequently to the doctrine. 'Be patient!' he says, in another character.
'From the higher heavens of poetry it is long before the radiance of the
brightest star can reach the world below. We hear that one man finds out
one beauty, another man finds out another, placing his observatory and
instruments on the poet's grave. The worms must have eaten us before we
rightly know what we are. It is only when we are skeletons that we are
boxed and ticketed and prized and shown. Be it so! I shall not be tired
of waiting.' Conscious, as he says in his own person, that in 2,000
years there have not been five volumes of prose (the work of one author)
equal to his 'Conversations,' he could indeed afford to wait: if
conscious of earthly things, he must be waiting still.

This superlative self-esteem strikes one, to say the truth, as part of
Landor's abiding boyishness. It is only in schoolboy themes that we are
still inclined to talk about the devouring love of fame. Grown-up men
look rightly with some contempt upon such aspirations. What work a man
does is really done in, or at least through, his own generation; and the
posthumous fame which poets affect to value means, for the most part,
being known by name to a few antiquarians, schoolmasters, or secluded
students. When the poet, to adopt Landor's metaphor, has become a
luminous star, his superiority to those which have grown dim by distance
is indeed for the first time clearly demonstrated. We can still see him,
though other bodies of his system have vanished into the infinite depths
of oblivion. But he has also ceased to give appreciable warmth or light
to ordinary human beings. He is a splendid name, but not a living
influence. There are, of course, exceptions and qualifications to any
such statements, but I have a suspicion that even Shakespeare's chief
work may have been done in the Globe Theatre, to living audiences, who
felt what they never thought of criticising, and were quite unable to
measure; and that, spite of all æsthetic philosophers and minute
antiquarians and judicious revivals, his real influence upon men's minds
has been for the most part declining as his fame has been spreading. To
defend or fully expound this heretical dogma would take too much space.
The 'late-dinner' theory, however, as held by Wordsworth and Landor, is
subject to one less questionable qualification. It is an utterly
untenable proposition that great men have been generally overlooked in
their own day.

If we run over the chief names of our literature, it would be hard to
point to one which was not honoured, and sometimes honoured to excess,
during its proprietor's lifetime. It is, indeed, true that much
ephemeral underwood has often hidden in part the majestic forms which
now stand out as sole relics of the forest. It is true also that the
petty spite and jealousy of contemporaries, especially of their ablest
contemporaries, has often prevented the full recognition of great men.
And there have been some whose fame, like that of Bunyan and De Foe, has
extended amongst the lower sphere of readers before receiving the
ratification of constituted judges. But such irregularities in the
distribution of fame do not quite meet the point. I doubt whether one
could mention a single case in which an author, overlooked at the time
both by the critics and the mass, has afterwards become famous; and the
cases are very rare in which a reputation once decayed has again taken
root and shown real vitality. The experiment of resuscitation has been
tried of late years with great pertinacity. The forgotten images of our
seventeenth-century ancestors have been brought out of the lumber-room
amidst immense flourishes of trumpets, but they are terribly worm-eaten;
and all efforts to make their statues once more stand firmly on their
pedestals have generally failed. Landor himself refused to see the
merits of the mere 'mushrooms,' as he somewhere called them, which grew
beneath the Shakespearian oak; and though such men as Chapman, Webster,
and Ford have received the warmest eulogies of Lamb and other able
successors, their vitality is spasmodic and uncertain. We generally read
them, if we read them, at the point of the critic's bayonet.

The case of Wordsworth is no precedent for Landor. Wordsworth's fame
was for a long time confined to a narrow sect, and he did all in his
power to hinder its spread by wilful disregard of the established
canons--even when founded in reason. A reformer who will not court the
prejudices even of his friends is likely to be slow in making converts.
But it is one thing to be slow in getting a hearing, and another in
attracting men who are quite prepared to hear. Wordsworth resembled a
man coming into a drawing-room with muddy boots and a smock-frock. He
courted disgust, and such courtship is pretty sure of success. But
Landor made his bow in full court-dress. In spite of the difficulty of
his poetry, he had all the natural graces which are apt to propitiate
cultivated readers. His prose has merits so conspicuous and so dear to
the critical mind, that one might have expected his welcome from the
connoisseurs to be warm even beyond the limit of sincerity. To praise
him was to announce one's own possession of a fine classical taste, and
there can be no greater stimulus to critical enthusiasm. One might have
guessed that he would be a favourite with all who set up for a
discernment superior to that of the vulgar; though the causes which must
obstruct a wide recognition of his merits are sufficiently obvious. It
may be interesting to consider the cause of his ill-success with some
fulness; and it is a comfort to the critic to reflect that in such a
case even obtuseness is in some sort a qualification; for it will enable
one to sympathise with the vulgar insensibility to the offered delicacy,
if only to substitute articulate rejection for simple stolid silence.

I do not wish, indeed, to put forward such a claim too unreservedly. I
will merely take courage to confess that Landor very frequently bores
me. So do a good many writers whom I thoroughly admire. If any courage
be wanted for such a confession, it is certainly not when writing upon
Landor that one should be reticent for want of example. Nobody ever
spoke his mind more freely about great reputations. He is, for example,
almost the only poet who ever admitted that he could not read Spenser
continuously. Even Milton in Landor's hands, in defiance of his known
opinions, is made to speak contemptuously of 'The Faery Queen.' 'There
is scarcely a poet of the same eminence,' says Porson, obviously
representing Landor in this case, 'whom I have found it so delightful to
read in, and so hard to read through.' What Landor here says of Spenser,
I should venture to say of Landor. There are few books of the kind into
which one may dip with so great a certainty of finding much to admire as
the 'Imaginary Conversations,' and few of any high reputation which are
so certain to become wearisome after a time. And yet, upon thinking of
the whole five volumes so emphatically extolled by their author, one
feels the necessity of some apology for this admission of inadequate
sympathy. There is a vigour of feeling, an originality of character, a
fineness of style which makes one understand, if not quite agree to, the
audacious self-commendation. Part of the effect is due simply to the
sheer quantity of good writing. Take any essay separately, and one must
admit that--to speak only of his contemporaries--there is a greater
charm in passages of equal length by Lamb, De Quincey, or even Hazlitt.
None of them gets upon such stilts, or seems so anxious to keep the
reader at arm's length. But, on the other hand, there is something
imposing in so continuous a flow of stately and generally faultless
English, with so many weighty aphorisms rising spontaneously, without
splashing or disturbance, to the surface of talk, and such an easy
felicity of theme unmarred by the flash and glitter of the modern
epigrammatic style. Lamb is both sweeter and more profound, to say
nothing of his incomparable humour; but then Lamb's flight is short and
uncertain. De Quincey's passages of splendid rhetoric are too often
succeeded by dead levels of verbosity and laboured puerilities which
make annoyance alternate with enthusiasm. Hazlitt is often spasmodic,
and his intrusive egotism is pettish and undignified. But so far at
least as his style is concerned, Landor's unruffled abundant stream of
continuous harmony excites one's admiration the more the longer one
reads. Hardly anyone who has written so much has kept so uniformly to a
high level, and so seldom descended to empty verbosity or to downright
slipshod. It is true that the substance does not always correspond to
the perfection of the form. There are frequent discontinuities of
thought where the style is smoothest. He reminds one at times of those
Alpine glaciers where an exquisitely rounded surface of snow conceals
yawning crevasses beneath; and if one stops for a moment to think, one
is apt to break through the crust with an abrupt and annoying jerk.

The excellence of Landor's style has, of course, been universally
acknowledged, and it is natural that it should be more appreciated by
his fellow-craftsmen than by general readers less interested in
technical questions. The defects are the natural complements of its
merits. When accused of being too figurative, he had a ready reply.
'Wordsworth,' he says in one of his 'Conversations,' 'slithers on the
soft mud, and cannot stop himself until he comes down. In his poetry
there is as much of prose as there is of poetry in the prose of Milton.
But prose on certain occasions can bear a great deal of poetry; on the
other hand, poetry sinks and swoons under a moderate weight of prose,
and neither fan nor burnt feather can bring her to herself again.' The
remark about the relations of prose and poetry was originally made in a
real conversation with Wordsworth in defence of Landor's own luxuriance.
Wordsworth, it is said, took it to himself, and not without reason, as
appears by its insertion in this 'Conversation.' The retort, however
happy, is no more conclusive than other cases of the _tu quoque_. We are
too often inclined to say to Landor as Southey says to Porson in another
place: 'Pray leave these tropes and metaphors.' His sense suffers from a
superfetation of figures, or from the undue pursuit of a figure, till
the 'wind of the poor phrase is cracked.' In the phrase just quoted, for
example, we could dispense with the 'fan and burnt feather,' which have
very little relation to the thought. So, to take an instance of the
excessively florid, I may quote the phrase in which Marvell defends his
want of respect for the aristocracy of his day. 'Ever too hard upon
great men, Mr. Marvell!' says Bishop Parker; and Marvell replies:--

     Little men in lofty places, who throw long shadows because
     our sun is setting; the men so little and the places so
     lofty that, casting my pebble, I only show where they stand.
     They would be less contented with themselves, if they had
     obtained their preferment honestly. Luck and dexterity
     always give more pleasure than intellect and knowledge;
     because they fill up what they fall on to the brim at once;
     and people run to them with acclamations at the splash.
     Wisdom is reserved and noiseless, contented with hard
     earnings, and daily letting go some early acquisition to
     make room for better specimens. But great is the exultation
     of a worthless man when he receives for the chips and
     raspings of his Bridewell logwood a richer reward than the
     best and wisest for extensive tracts of well-cleared truths!
     Even he who has sold his  country--

'Forbear, good Mr. Marvell,' says Bishop Parker; and one is inclined to
sympathise with the poor man drowned under this cascade of tropes. It is
certainly imposing, but I should be glad to know the meaning of the
metaphor about 'luck and dexterity.' Passages occur, again, in which we
are tempted to think that Landor is falling into an imitation of an
obsolete model. Take, for example, the following:--

     A narrow mind cannot be enlarged, nor can a capacious one be
     contracted. Are we angry with a phial for not being a flask;
     or do we wonder that the skin of an elephant sits uneasily
     on a squirrel?

Or this, in reference to Wordsworth:--

     Pastiness and flatness are the qualities of a pancake, and
     thus far he attained his aim: but if he means it for me, let
     him place the accessories on the table, lest what is insipid
     and clammy ... grow into duller accretion and moister
     viscidity the more I masticate it.

Or a remark given to Newton:--

     Wherever there is vacuity of mind, there must either be
     flaccidity or craving; and this vacuity must necessarily be
     found in the greater part of princes, from the defects of
     their education, from the fear of offending them in its
     progress by interrogations and admonitions, from the habit
     of rendering all things valueless by the facility with which
     they are obtained, and transitory by the negligence with
     which they are received and holden.

Should we not remove the names of Porson and Newton from these
sentences, and substitute Sam Johnson? The last passage reads very like
a quotation from the 'Rambler.' Johnson was, in my opinion and in
Landor's, a great writer in spite of his mannerism; but the mannerism is
always rather awkward, and in such places we seem to see--certainly not
a squirrel--but, say, a thoroughbred horse invested with the skin of an

These lapses into the inflated are of course exceptional with Landor.
There can be no question of the fineness of his perception in all
matters of literary form. To say that his standard of style is classical
is to repeat a commonplace too obvious for repetition, except to add a
doubt whether he is not often too ostentatious and self-conscious in his
classicism. He loves and often exhibits a masculine simplicity, and
speaks with enthusiasm of Locke and Swift in their own departments.
Locke is to be 'revered;' he is 'too simply grand for admiration;' and
no one, he thinks, ever had such a power as Swift of saying forcibly and
completely whatever he meant to say. But for his own purposes he
generally prefers a different model. The qualities which he specially
claims seem to be summed up in the conversation upon Bacon's Essays
between Newton and Barrow. Cicero and Bacon, says Barrow, have more
wisdom between them than all the philosophers of antiquity. Newton's
review of the Essays, he adds, 'hath brought back to my recollection so
much of shrewd judgment, so much of rich imagery, such a profusion of
truths so plain as (without his manner of exhibiting them) to appear
almost unimportant, that in various high qualities of the human mind I
must acknowledge not only Cicero, but every prose writer among the
Greeks, to stand far below him. Cicero is least valued for his highest
merits, his fulness, and his perspicuity. Bad judges (and how few are
not so!) desire in composition the concise and obscure; not knowing that
the one most frequently arises from paucity of materials, and the other
from inability to manage and dispose them.' Landor aims, like Bacon, at
rich imagery, at giving to thoughts which appear plain more value by
fineness of expression, and at compressing shrewd judgments into weighty
aphorisms. He would equally rival Cicero in fulness and perspicuity;
whilst a severe rejection of everything slovenly or superfluous would
save him from ever deviating into the merely florid. So far as style can
be really separated from thought, we may admit unreservedly that he has
succeeded in his aim, and has attained a rare harmony of tone and

There may, indeed, be some doubt as to his perspicuity. Southey said
that Landor was obscure, whilst adding that he could not explain the
cause of the obscurity. Causes enough may be suggested. Besides his
incoherency, his love of figures which sometimes become half detached
from the underlying thought, and an over-anxiety to avoid mere smartness
which sometimes leads to real vagueness, he expects too much from his
readers, or perhaps despises them too much. He will not condescend to
explanation if you do not catch his drift at half a word. He is so
desirous to round off his transitions gracefully, that he obliterates
the necessary indications of the main divisions of the subject. When
criticising Milton or Dante, he can hardly keep his hand off the finest
passages in his desire to pare away superfluities. Treating himself in
the same fashion, he leaves none of those little signs which, like the
typographical hand prefixed to a notice, are extremely convenient,
though strictly superfluous. It is doubtless unpleasant to have the hard
framework of logical divisions showing too distinctly in an argument, or
to have a too elaborate statement of dates and places and external
relations in a romance. But such aids to the memory may be removed too
freely. The building may be injured in taking away the scaffolding.
Faults of this kind, however, will not explain Landor's failure to get a
real hold upon a large body of readers. Writers of far greater obscurity
and much more repellent blemishes of style to set against much lower
merits, have gained a far wider popularity. The want of sympathy between
so eminent a literary artist and his time must rest upon some deeper
divergence of sentiment. Landor's writings present the same kind of
problem as his life. We are told, and we can see for ourselves, that he
was a man of many very high and many very amiable qualities. He was full
of chivalrous feeling; capable of the most flowing and delicate
courtesy; easily stirred to righteous indignation against every kind of
tyranny and bigotry; capable, too, of a tenderness pleasantly contrasted
with his outbursts of passing wrath; passionately fond of children, and
a true lover of dogs. But with all this, he could never live long at
peace with anybody. He was the most impracticable of men, and every
turning-point in his career was decided by some vehement quarrel. He had
to leave school in consequence of a quarrel, trifling in itself, but
aggravated by 'a fierce defiance of all authority and a refusal to ask
forgiveness.' He got into a preposterous scrape at Oxford, and forced
the authorities to rusticate him. This branched out into a quarrel with
his father. When he set up as a country gentleman at Llanthony Abbey, he
managed to quarrel with his neighbours and his tenants, until the
accumulating consequences to his purse forced him to go to Italy. On the
road thither he began the first of many quarrels with his wife, which
ultimately developed into a chronic quarrel and drove him back to
England. From England he was finally dislodged by another quarrel which
drove him back to Italy. Intermediate quarrels of minor importance are
intercalated between those which provoked decisive crises. The
lightheartedness which provoked all these difficulties is not more
remarkable than the ease with which he threw them off his mind. Blown
hither and thither by his own gusts of passion, he always seems to fall
on his feet, and forgets his trouble as a schoolboy forgets yesterday's
flogging. On the first transitory separation from his wife, he made
himself quite happy by writing Latin verses; and he always seems to have
found sufficient consolation in such literary occupation for vexations
which would have driven some people out of their mind. He would not, he
writes, encounter the rudeness of a certain lawyer to save all his
property; but he adds, 'I have chastised him in my Latin poetry now in
the press.' Such a mode of chastisement seems to have been as completely
satisfactory to Landor as it doubtless was to the lawyer.

His quarrels do not alienate us, for it is evident that they did not
proceed from any malignant passion. If his temper was ungovernable, his
passions were not odious, or, in any low sense, selfish. In many, if not
all, of his quarrels he seems to have had at least a very strong show of
right on his side, and to have put himself in the wrong by an excessive
insistence upon his own dignity. He was one of those ingenious people
who always contrive to be punctilious in the wrong place. It is amusing
to observe how Scott generally bestows upon his heroes so keen a sense
of honour that he can hardly save them from running their heads against
stone walls; whilst to their followers he gives an abundance of shrewd
sense which fully appreciates Falstaff's theory of honour. Scott himself
managed to combine the two qualities; but poor Landor seems to have had
Hotspur's readiness to quarrel on the tenth part of a hair without the
redeeming touch of common-sense. In a slightly different social sphere,
he must, one would fancy, have been the mark of a dozen bullets before
he had grown up to manhood; it is not quite clear how, even as it was,
he avoided duels, unless because he regarded the practice as a Christian
barbarism to which the ancients had never condescended.

His position and surroundings tended to aggravate his incoherencies of
statement. Like his own Peterborough, he was a man of aristocratic
feeling, with a hearty contempt for aristocrats. The expectation that he
would one day join the ranks of the country gentlemen unsettled him as a
scholar; and when he became a landed proprietor he despised his fellow
'barbarians' with a true scholar's contempt. He was not forced into the
ordinary professional groove, and yet did not fully imbibe the
prejudices of the class who can afford to be idle, and the natural
result is an odd mixture of conflicting prejudices. He is classical in
taste and cosmopolitan in life, and yet he always retains a certain
John-Bull element. His preference of Shakespeare to Racine is associated
with, if not partly prompted by, a mere English antipathy to foreigners.
He never becomes Italianised so far as to lose his contempt for men
whose ideas of sport rank larks with the orthodox partridge. He abuses
Castlereagh and poor George III. to his heart's content, and so far
flies in the face of British prejudice; but it is by no means as a
sympathiser with foreign innovations. His republicanism is strongly
dashed with old-fashioned conservatism, and he is proud of a doubtful
descent from old worthies of the true English type. Through all his
would-be paganism we feel that at bottom he is after all a true-born
and wrong-headed Englishman. He never, like Shelley, pushed his quarrel
with the old order to the extreme, but remained in a solitary cave of
Adullam. 'There can be no great genius,' says Penn to Peterborough,
'where there is not profound and continued reasoning.' The remark is too
good for Penn; and yet it would be dangerous in Landor's own mouth; for
certainly the defect which most strikes us, both in his life and his
writings, is just the inconsistency which leaves most people as the
reasoning powers develop. His work was marred by the unreasonableness of
a nature so impetuous and so absorbed by any momentary gust of passion
that he could never bring his thoughts or his plans to a focus, or
conform them to a general scheme. His prejudices master him both in
speculation and practice. He cannot fairly rise above them, or govern
them by reference to general principles or the permanent interests of
his life. In the vulgar phrase, he is always ready to cut off his nose
to spite his face. He quarrels with his schoolmaster or his wife. In an
instant he is all fire and fury, runs amuck at his best friends, and
does irreparable mischief. Some men might try to atone for such offences
by remorse. Landor, unluckily for himself, could forget the past as
easily as he could ignore the future. He lives only in the present, and
can throw himself into a favourite author or compose Latin verses or an
imaginary conversation as though schoolmasters or wives, or duns or
critics, had no existence. With such a temperament, reasoning, which
implies patient contemplation and painful liberation from prejudice, has
no fair chance; his principles are not the growth of thought, but the
translation into dogmas of intense likes and dislikes, which have grown
up in his mind he scarcely knows how, and gathered strength by sheer
force of repetition instead of deliberate examination.

His writings reflect--and in some ways only too faithfully--these
idiosyncrasies. Southey said that his temper was the only explanation of
his faults. 'Never did man represent himself in his writings so much
less generous, less just, less compassionate, less noble in all respects
than he really is. I certainly,' he adds, 'never knew anyone of brighter
genius or of kinder heart.' Southey, no doubt, was in this case
resenting certain attacks of Landor's upon his most cherished opinions;
and, truly, nothing but continuous separation could have preserved the
friendship between two men so peremptorily opposed upon so many
essential points. Southey's criticism, though sharpened by such latent
antagonisms, has really much force. The 'Conversations' give much that
Landor's friends would have been glad to ignore; and yet they present
such a full-length portrait of the man, that it is better to dwell upon
them than upon his poetry, which, moreover, with all its fine qualities,
is (I cannot help thinking) of less intrinsic value. The ordinary
reader, however, is repelled from the 'Conversations' not only by mere
inherent difficulties, but by comments which raise a false expectation.
An easy-going critic is apt to assume of any book that it exactly
fulfils the ostensible aim of the author. So we are told of
'Shakespeare's Examination' (and on the high authority of Charles Lamb),
that no one could have written it except Landor or Shakespeare himself.
When Bacon is introduced, we are assured that the aphorisms introduced
are worthy of Bacon himself. What Cicero is made to say is exactly what
he would have said, 'if he could;' and the dialogue between Walton,
Cotton, and Oldways is, of course, as good as a passage from the
'Complete Angler.' In the same spirit we are told that the dialogues
were to be 'one-act dramas;' and we are informed how the great
philosophers, statesmen, poets, and artists of all ages did in fact pass
across the stage, each represented to the life, and each discoursing in
his most admirable style.

All this is easy to say, but unluckily represents what the
'Conversations' would have been had they been perfect. To say that they
are very far from perfect is only to say that they were the compositions
of a man; but Landor was also a man to whom his best friends would
hardly attribute a remarkable immunity from fault. The dialogue, it need
hardly be remarked, is one of the most difficult of all forms of
composition. One rule, however, would be generally admitted. Landor
defends his digressions on the ground that they always occur in real
conversations. If we 'adhere to one point,' he says (in Southey's
person), 'it is a disquisition, not a conversation.' And he adds, with
one of his wilful back-handed blows at Plato, that most writers of
dialogue plunge into abstruse questions, and 'collect a heap of
arguments to be blown away by the bloated whiff of some rhetorical
charlatan tricked out in a multiplicity of ribbons for the occasion.'
Possibly! but for all that, the perfect dialogue ought not, we should
say, to be really incoherent. It should include digressions, but the
digressions ought to return upon the main subject. The art consists in
preserving real unity in the midst of the superficial deviations
rendered easy by this form of composition. The facility of digression is
really a temptation, not a privilege. Anybody can write blank verse of a
kind, because it so easily slips into prose; and that is why good blank
verse is so rare. And so anybody can write a decent dialogue if you
allow him to ramble as we all do in actual talk. The finest
philosophical dialogues are those in which a complete logical framework
underlies the dramatic structure. They are a perfect fusion of logic and
imagination. Instead of harsh divisions and cross-divisions of the
subject, and a balance of abstract arguments, we have vivid portraits of
human beings, each embodying a different line of thought. But the logic
is still seen, though the more carefully hidden the more exquisite the
skill of the artist. And the purely artistic dialogue which describes
passion or the emotions arising from a given situation should in the
same way set forth a single idea, and preserve a dramatic unity of
conception at least as rigidly as a full-grown play. So far as Landor
used his facilities as an excuse for rambling, instead of so skilfully
subordinating them to the main purpose as to reproduce new variations on
the central theme, he is clearly in error, or is at least aiming at a
lower kind of excellence. And this, it may be said at once, seems to be
the most radical defect in point of composition of Landor's
'Conversations.' They have the fault which his real talk is said to have
exemplified. We are told that his temperament 'disqualified him for
anything like sustained reasoning, and he instinctively backed away from
discussion or argument.' Many of the written dialogues are a prolonged
series of explosions; when one expects a continuous development of a
theme, they are monotonous thunder-growls. Landor undoubtedly had a
sufficient share of dramatic power to write short dialogues expressing a
single situation with most admirable power, delicacy, and firmness of
touch. Nor, again, does the criticism just made refer to those longer
dialogues which are in reality a mere string of notes upon poems or
proposals for reforms in spelling. The slight dramatic form binds
together his pencillings from the margins of 'Paradise Lost' or
Wordsworth's poems very pleasantly, and enables him to give additional
effect to vivacious outbursts of praise or censure. But the more
elaborate dialogues suffer grievously from this absence of a true unity.
There is not that skilful evolution of a central idea without the rigid
formality of scientific discussion which we admire in the real
masterpieces of the art. We have a conglomerate, not an organic growth;
a series of observations set forth with never-failing elegance of style,
and often with singular keenness of perception; but they do not take us
beyond the starting-point. When Robinson Crusoe crossed the Pyrenees,
his guide led him by such dexterous windings and gradual ascents that he
found himself across the mountains before he knew where he was. With
Landor it is just the opposite. After many digressions and ramblings we
find ourselves back on the same side of the original question. We are
marking time with admirable gracefulness, but somehow we are not
advancing. Naturally flesh and blood grow weary when there is no
apparent end to a discussion, except that the author must in time be
wearied of performing variations upon a single theme.

We are more easily reconciled to some other faults which are rather due
to expectations raised by his critics than to positive errors. No one,
for example, would care to notice an anachronism, if Landor did not
occasionally put in a claim for accuracy. I have no objection whatever
to allow Hooker to console Bacon for his loss of the chancellorship, in
calm disregard of the fact that Hooker died some twenty years before
Bacon rose to that high office. The fault can be amended by substituting
any other name for Hooker's. Nor do I at all wish to find in Landor
that kind of archæological accuracy which is sought by some composers of
historical romances. Were it not that critics have asserted the
opposite, it would be hardly worth while to say that Landor's style
seldom condescends to adapt itself to the mouth of the speaker, and that
from Demosthenes to Porson every interlocutor has palpably the true
Landorian trick of speech. Here and there, it is true, the effect is
rather unpleasant. Pericles and Aspasia are apt to indulge in criticism
of English customs, and no weak regard for time and place prevents
Eubulides from denouncing Canning to Demosthenes. The classical dress
becomes so thin on such occasions, that even the small degree of
illusion which one may fairly desiderate is too rudely interrupted. The
actor does not disguise his voice enough for theatrical purposes. It is
perhaps a more serious fault that the dialogue constantly lapses into
monologue. We might often remove the names of the talkers as useless
interruptions. Some conversations might as well be headed, in legal
phraseology, Landor _v._ Landor, or at most Landor _v._ Landor and
another--the other being some wretched man of straw or Guy Faux effigy
dragged in to be belaboured with weighty aphorisms and talk obtrusive
nonsense. Hence sometimes we resent a little the taking in vain of the
name of some old friend. It is rather too hard upon Sam Johnson to be
made a mere 'passive bucket' into which Horne Tooke may pump his
philological notions, with scarcely a feeble sputter or two to represent
his smashing retorts.

There is yet another criticism or two to be added. The extreme
scrupulosity with which Landor polishes his style and removes
superfluities from poetical narrative, smoothing them at times till we
can hardly grasp them, might have been applied to some of the wanton
digressions in which the dialogues abound. We should have been glad if
he had ruthlessly cut out two-thirds of the conversation between
Richelieu and others, in which some charming English pastorals are mixed
up with a quantity of unmistakable rubbish. But, for the most part, we
can console ourselves by a smile. When Landor lowers his head and
charges bull-like at the phantom of some king or priest, we are prepared
for, and amused by, his impetuosity. Malesherbes discourses with great
point and vigour upon French literature, and may fairly diverge into a
little politics; but it is certainly comic when he suddenly remembers
one of Landor's pet grievances, and the unlucky Rousseau has to discuss
a question for which few people could be more ludicrously unfit--the
details of a plan for reforming the institution of English justices of
the peace. The grave dignity with which the subject is introduced gives
additional piquancy to the absurdity. An occasional laugh at Landor is
the more valuable because, to say the truth, one is not very likely to
laugh with him. Nothing is more difficult for an author--as Landor
himself observes in reference to Milton--than to decide upon his own
merits as a wit or humorist. I am not quite sure that this is true; for
I have certainly found authors distinctly fallible in judging of their
own merits as poets and philosophers. But it is undeniable that many a
man laughs at his own wit who has to laugh alone. I will not take upon
myself to say that Landor was without humour; he has certainly a
delicate gracefulness which may be classed with the finer kinds of
humour; but if anybody (to take one instance) will read the story which
Chaucer tells to Boccaccio and Petrarch and pronounce it to be amusing,
I can only say that his notions of humour differ materially from mine.
Some of his wrathful satire against kings and priests has a vigour which
is amusing; but the tact which enables him to avoid errors of taste of a
different kind often fails him when he tries the facetious.

Blemishes such as these go some way, perhaps, to account for Landor's
unpopularity. But they are such as might be amply redeemed by his
vigour, his fulness, and unflagging energy of style. There is no equally
voluminous author of great power who does not fall short of his own
highest achievements in a large part of his work, and who is not open to
the remark that his achievements are not all that we could have wished.
It is doubtless best to take what we can get, and not to repine if we do
not get something better, the possibility of which is suggested by the
actual accomplishment. If Landor had united to his own powers those of
Scott or Shakespeare, he would have been improved. Landor, repenting a
little for some censures of Milton, says to Southey, 'Are we not
somewhat like two little beggar-boys who, forgetting that they are in
tatters, sit noticing a few stains and rents in their father's raiment?'
'But they love him,' replies Southey, and we feel the apology to be

Can we make it in the case of Landor? Is he a man whom we can take to
our hearts, treating his vagaries and ill-humours as we do the testiness
of a valued friend? Or do we feel that he is one whom it is better to
have for an acquaintance than for an intimate? The problem seems to have
exercised those who knew him best in life. Many, like Southey or Napier,
thought him a man of true nobility and tenderness of character, and
looked upon his defects as mere superficial blemishes. If some who came
closer seem to have had a rather different opinion, we must allow that
a man's personal defects are often unimportant in his literary capacity.
It has been laid down as a general rule that poets cannot get on with
their wives; and yet they are poets in virtue of being lovable at the
core. Landor's domestic troubles need not indicate an incapacity for
meeting our sympathies any more than the domestic troubles of
Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Burns, Byron, Shelley, or many others. In
his poetry a man should show his best self; and defects, important in
the daily life which is made up of trifles, may cease to trouble us when
admitted to the inmost recesses of his nature.

Landor, undoubtedly, may be loved; but I fancy that he can be loved
unreservedly only by a very narrow circle. For when we pass from the
form to the substance--from the manner in which his message is delivered
to the message itself--we find that the superficial defects rise from
very deep roots. Whenever we penetrate to the underlying character, we
find something harsh and uncongenial mixed with very high qualities. He
has pronounced himself upon a wide range of subjects; there is much
criticism, some of it of a very rare and admirable order; much
theological and political disquisition; and much exposition, in various
forms, of the practical philosophy which every man imbibes according to
his faculties in his passage through the world. It would be undesirable
to discuss seriously his political or religious notions. To say the
truth, they are not really worth discussing, for they are little more
than vehement explosions of unreasoning prejudice. I do not know whether
Landor would have approved the famous aspiration about strangling the
last of kings with the entrails of the last priest, but some such
sentiment seems to sum up all that he really has to say. His doctrine
so far coincides with that of Diderot and other revolutionists, though
he has no sympathy with their social aspirations. His utterances,
however, remind us too much--in substance, though not in form--of the
rhetoric of debating societies. They are as factitious as the
old-fashioned appeals to the memory of Brutus. They would doubtless make
a sensation at the Union. Diogenes tells us that 'all nations, all
cities, all communities, should combine in one great hunt, like that of
the Scythians at the approach of winter, and follow it' (the kingly
power, to wit) 'up, unrelentingly to its perdition. The diadem should
designate the victim; all who wear it, all who offer it, all who bow to
it, should perish.' Demosthenes, in less direct language, announces the
same plan to Eubulides as the one truth, far more important than any
other, and 'more conducive to whatever is desirable to the well-educated
and free.' We laugh, not because the phrase is overstrained, or intended
to have a merely dramatic truth, for Landor puts similar sentiments into
the mouths of all his favourite speakers, but simply because we feel it
to be a mere form of swearing. The language would have been less
elegant, but the meaning just the same, if he had rapped out a good
mouth-filling oath whenever he heard the name of king. When, in
reference to some such utterances, Carlyle said that 'Landor's principle
is mere rebellion,' Landor was much nettled, and declared himself to be
in favour of authority. He despised American republicanism and regarded
Venice as the pattern State. He sympathised in this, as in much else,
with the theorists of Milton's time, and would have been approved by
Harrington or Algernon Sidney; but, for all that, Carlyle seems pretty
well to have hit the mark. Such republicanism is in reality nothing
more than the political expression of intense pride, or, if you prefer
the word, self-respect. It is the sentiment of personal dignity, which
could not bear the thought that he, Landor, should have to bow the knee
to a fool like George III.; or that Milton should have been regarded as
the inferior of such a sneak as Charles I. But the same feeling would
have been just as much shocked by the claim of a demagogue to override
high-spirited gentlemen. Mobs were every whit as vile as kings. He might
have stood for Shakespeare's Coriolanus, if Coriolanus had not an
unfortunate want of taste in his language. Landor, indeed, being never
much troubled as to consistency, is fond of dilating on the absurdity of
any kind of hereditary rank; but he sympathises, to his last fibre, with
the spirit fostered by the existence of an aristocratic caste, and
producible, so far as our experience has gone, in no other way. He is
generous enough to hate all oppression in every form, and therefore to
hate the oppression exercised by a noble as heartily as oppression
exercised by a king. He is a big boy ready to fight anyone who bullies
his fag; but with no doubts as to the merits of fagging. But then he
never chooses to look at the awkward consequences of his opinion. When
talking of politics, an aristocracy full of virtue and talent, ruling on
generous principles a people sufficiently educated to obey its natural
leaders, is the ideal which is vaguely before his mind. To ask how it is
to be produced without hereditary rank, or to be prevented from
degenerating into a tyrannical oligarchy, or to be reconciled at all
with modern principles, is simply to be impertinent. He answers all such
questions by putting himself in imagination into the attitude of a
Pericles or Demosthenes or Milton, fulminating against tyrants and
keeping the mob in its place by the ascendency of genius. To recommend
Venice as a model is simply to say that you have nothing but contempt
for all politics. It is as if a lad should be asked whether he preferred
to join a cavalry or an infantry regiment, and should reply that he
would only serve under Leonidas.

His religious principles are in the same way little more than the
assertion that he will not be fettered in mind or body by any priest on
earth. The priest is to him what he was to the deists and materialists
of the eighteenth century--a juggling impostor who uses superstition as
an instrument for creeping into the confidence of women and cowards, and
burning brave men; but he has no dreams of the advent of a religion of
reason. He ridicules the notion that truth will prevail: it never has
and it never will. At bottom he prefers paganism to Christianity because
it was tolerant and encouraged art, and allowed philosophers to enjoy as
much privilege as they can ever really enjoy--that of living in peace
and knowing that their neighbours are harmless fools. After a fashion he
likes his own version of Christianity, which is superficially that of
many popular preachers: Be tolerant, kindly, and happy, and don't worry
your head about dogmas, or become a slave to priests. But then one also
feels that humility is generally regarded as an essential part of
Christianity, and that in Landor's version it is replaced by something
like its antithesis. You should do good, too, as you respect yourself
and would be respected by men; but the chief good is the philosophic
mind, which can wrap itself in its own consciousness of worth, and enjoy
the finest pleasures of life without superstitious asceticism. Let the
vulgar amuse themselves with the playthings of their creed, so long as
they do not take to playing with faggots. Stand apart and enjoy your
own superiority with good-natured contempt.

One of his longest and, in this sense, most characteristic dialogues, is
that between Penn and Peterborough. Peterborough is the ideal aristocrat
with a contempt for the actual aristocracy; and Penn represents the
religion of common-sense. 'Teach men to calculate rightly and thou wilt
have taught them to live religiously,' is Penn's sentiment, and perhaps
not too unfaithful to the original. No one could have a more thorough
contempt for the mystical element in Quakerism than Landor; but he loves
Quakers as sober, industrious, easy-going people, who regard good-humour
and comfort as the ultimate aim of religious life, and who manage to do
without lawyers or priests. Peterborough, meanwhile, represents his
other side--the haughty, energetic, cultivated aristocrat, who, on the
ground of their common aversions, can hold out a friendly hand to the
quiet Quaker. Landor, of course, is both at once. He is the noble who
rather enjoys giving a little scandal at times to his drab-suited
companion; but, on the whole, thinks that it would be an excellent world
if the common people would adopt this harmless form of religion, which
tolerates other opinions and does not give any leverage to kings,
insolvent aristocrats, or intriguing bishops.

Landor's critical utterances reveal the same tendencies. Much of the
criticism has of course an interest of its own. It is the judgment of a
real master of language upon many technical points of style, and the
judgment, moreover, of a poet who can look even upon classical poets as
one who breathes the same atmosphere at an equal elevation, and who
speaks out like a cultivated gentleman, not as a schoolmaster or a
specialist. But putting aside this and the crotchets about spelling,
which have been dignified with the name of philological theories, the
general direction of his sympathies is eminently characteristic. Landor
of course pays the inevitable homage to the great names of Plato, Dante,
and Shakespeare, and yet it would be scarcely unfair to say that he
hates Plato, that Dante gives him far more annoyance than pleasure, and
that he really cares little for Shakespeare. The last might be denied on
the ground of isolated expressions. 'A rib of Shakespeare,' he says,
'would have made a Milton: the same portion of Milton all poets born
ever since.' But he speaks of Shakespeare in conventional terms, and
seldom quotes or alludes to him. When he touches Milton his eyes
brighten and his voice takes a tone of reverent enthusiasm. His ear is
dissatisfied with everything for days and weeks after the harmony of
'Paradise Lost.' 'Leaving this magnificent temple, I am hardly to be
pacified by the fairly-built chambers, the rich cupboards of embossed
plate, and the omnigenous images of Shakespeare.' That is his genuine
impression. Some readers may appeal to that 'Examination of Shakespeare'
which (as we have seen) was held by Lamb to be beyond the powers of any
other writer except its hero. I confess that, in my opinion, Lamb could
have himself drawn a far more sympathetic portrait of Shakespeare, and
that Scott would have brought out the whole scene with incomparably
greater vividness. Call it a morning in an English country-house in the
sixteenth century, and it will be full of charming passages along with
some laborious failures. But when we are forced to think of Slender and
Shallow, and Sir Hugh Evans, and the Shakespearian method of
portraiture, the personages in Landor's talk seem half asleep and
terribly given to twaddle. His view of Dante is less equivocal. In the
whole 'Inferno,' Petrarca (evidently representing Landor) finds nothing
admirable but the famous descriptions of Francesca and Ugolino. They are
the 'greater and lesser oases' in a vast desert. And he would pare one
of these fine passages to the quick, whilst the other provokes the
remark ('we must whisper it') that Dante is 'the great master of the
disgusting.' He seems really to prefer Boccaccio and Ovid, to say
nothing of Homer and Virgil. Plato is denounced still more unsparingly.
From Aristotle and Diogenes down to Lord Chatham, assailants are set on
to worry him, and tear to pieces his gorgeous robes with just an
occasional perfunctory apology. Even Lady Jane Grey is deprived of her
favourite. She consents on Ascham's petition to lay aside books, but she
excepts Cicero, Epictetus, Plutarch, and Polybius: the 'others I do
resign;' they are good for the arbour and garden walk, but not for the
fireside or pillow. This is surely to wrong the poor soul; but Landor is
intolerant in his enthusiasm for his philosophical favourites. Epicurus
is the teacher whom he really delights to honour, and Cicero is forced
to confess in his last hours that he has nearly come over to the camp of
his old adversary.

It is easy to interpret the meaning of these prejudices. Landor hates
and despises the romantic and the mystic. He has not the least feeling
for the art which owes its powers to suggestions of the infinite, or to
symbols forced into grotesqueness by the effort to express that for
which no thought can be adequate. He refuses to bother himself with
allegory or dreamy speculation, and, unlike Sir T. Browne, hates to lose
himself in an 'O Altitudo!' He cares nothing for Dante's inner thoughts,
and sees only a hideous chamber of horrors in the 'Inferno.' Plato is a
mere compiler of idle sophistries, and contemptible to the common-sense
and worldly wisdom of Locke and Bacon. In the same spirit he despised
Wordsworth's philosophising as heartily as Jeffrey, and, though he tried
to be just, could really see nothing in him except the writer of good
rustic idylls, and of one good piece of paganism, the 'Laodamia.'[29]
From such a point of view he ranks him below Burns, Scott, and Cowper,
and makes poor Southey consent--Southey who ranked Wordsworth with

These tendencies are generally summed up by speaking of Landor's
objectivity and Hellenism. I have no particular objection to those words
except that they seem rather vague and to leave our problem untouched. A
man may be as 'objective' as you please in a sense, and as thoroughly
imbued with the spirit of Greek art, and yet may manage to fall in with
the spirit of our own times. The truth is, I fancy, that a simpler name
may be given to Landor's tastes, and that we may find them exemplified
nearer home. There is many a good country gentleman who rides well to
hounds, and is most heartily 'objective' in the sense of hating
metaphysics and elaborate allegory and unintelligible art, and
preferring a glass of wine and a talk with a charming young lady to
mystic communings with the world-spirit; and as for Landor's Hellenism,
that surely ought not to be an uncommon phenomenon in the region of
English public schools. It is an odd circumstance that we should be so
much puzzled by the very man who seems to realise precisely that ideal
of culture upon which our most popular system of education is apparently
moulded. Here at last is a man who is really simple-minded enough to
take the habit of writing Latin verses seriously; making it a
consolation in trouble as well as an elegant amusement. He hopes to rest
his fame upon it, and even by a marvellous _tour de force_ writes a
great deal of English poetry which for all the world reads exactly like
a first-rate copy of modern Greek Iambics. For once we have produced
just what the system ought constantly to produce, and yet we cannot make
him out.

The reason for our not producing more Landors is indeed pretty simple.
Men of real poetic genius are exceedingly rare at all times, and it is
still rarer to find such a man who remains a schoolboy all his life.
Landor is precisely a glorified and sublime edition of the model
sixth-form lad, only with an unusually strong infusion of schoolboy
perversion. Perverse lads, indeed, generally kick over the traces at an
earlier point: and refuse to learn anything. Boys who take kindly to the
classical system are generally good--that is to say, docile. They
develop into prosaic tutors and professors; or, when the cares of life
begin to press, they start their cargo of classical lumber and fill the
void with law or politics. Landor's peculiar temperament led him to kick
against authority, whilst he yet imbibed the spirit of the teaching
fully, and in some respects rather too fully. He was a rebel against the
outward form, and yet more faithful in spirit than most of the obedient

The impatient and indomitable temper which made quiet or continuous
meditation impossible, and the accidental circumstances of his life,
left him in possession of qualities which are in most men subdued or
expelled by the hard discipline of life. Brought into impulsive
collision with all kinds of authorities, he set up a kind of schoolboy
republicanism, and used all his poetic eloquence to give it an air of
reality. But he never cared to bring it into harmony with any definite
system of thought, or let his outbursts of temper transport him into
settled antagonism with accepted principles. He troubled himself just as
little about theological as about political theories; he was as utterly
impervious as the dullest of squires to the mystic philosophy imported
by Coleridge, and found the world quite rich enough in sources of
enjoyment without tormenting himself about the unseen, and the ugly
superstitions which thrive in mental twilight. But he had quarrelled
with parsons as much as with lawyers, and could not stand the thought of
a priest interfering with his affairs or limiting his amusements. And so
he set up as a tolerant and hearty disciple of Epicurus. Chivalrous
sentiment and an exquisite perception of the beautiful saved him from
any gross interpretation of his master's principles; although, to say
the truth, he shows an occasional laxity on some points which savours of
the easy-going pagan, or perhaps of the noble of the old school. As he
grew up he drank deep of English literature, and sympathised with the
grand republican pride of Milton--as sturdy a rebel as himself, and a
still nobler because more serious rhetorician. He went to Italy, and, as
he imbibed Italian literature, sympathised with the joyous spirit of
Boccaccio and the eternal boyishness of classical art. Mediævalism and
all mystic philosophies remained unintelligible to this true-born
Englishman. Irritated rather than humbled by his incapacity, he cast
them aside, pretty much as a schoolboy might throw a Plato at the head
of a pedantic master.

The best and most attractive dialogues are those in which he can give
free play to this Epicurean sentiment; forget his political mouthing,
and inoculate us for the moment with the spirit of youthful enjoyment.
Nothing can be more perfectly charming in its way than Epicurus in his
exquisite garden, discoursing on his pleasant knoll, where, with
violets, cyclamens, and convolvuluses clustering round, he talks to his
lovely girl-disciples upon the true theory of life--temperate enjoyment
of all refined pleasures, forgetfulness of all cares, and converse with
true chosen spirits far from the noise of the profane vulgar: of the
art, in short, by which a man of fine cultivation may make the most of
this life, and learn to take death as a calm and happy subsidence into
oblivion. Nor far behind is the dialogue in which Lucullus entertains
Cæsar in his delightful villa, and illustrates by example, as well as
precept, Landor's favourite doctrine of the vast superiority of the
literary to the active life. Politics, as he makes even Demosthenes
admit, are the 'sad refuge of restless minds, averse from business and
from study.' And certainly there are moods in which we could ask nothing
better than to live in a remote villa, in which wealth and art have done
everything in their power to give all the pleasures compatible with
perfect refinement and contempt of the grosser tastes. Only it must be
admitted that this is not quite a gospel for the million. And probably
the highest triumph is in the Pentameron, where the whole scene is so
vividly coloured by so many delicate touches, and such charming little
episodes of Italian life, that we seem almost to have seen the fat,
wheezy poet hoisting himself on to his pampered steed, to have listened
to the village gossip, and followed the little flirtations in which the
true poets take so kindly an interest; and are quite ready to pardon
certain useless digressions and critical vagaries, and to overlook
complacently any little laxity of morals.

These, and many of the shorter and more dramatic dialogues, have a rare
charm, and the critic will return to analyse, if he can, their technical
qualities. But little explanation can be needed, after reading them, of
Landor's want of popularity. If he had applied one-tenth part of his
literary skill to expand commonplace sentiment; if he had talked that
kind of gentle twaddle by which some recent essayists edify their
readers, he might have succeeded in gaining a wide popularity. Or if he
had been really, as some writers seem to fancy, a deep and systematic
thinker as well as a most admirable artist, he might have extorted a
hearing even while provoking dissent. But his boyish waywardness has
disqualified him from reaching the deeper sympathies of either class. We
feel that the most superhuman of schoolboys has really a rather shallow
view of life. His various outbursts of wrath amuse us at best when they
do not bore, even though they take the outward form of philosophy or
statesmanship. He has really no answer or vestige of answer for any
problems of his, nor indeed of any other time, for he has no basis of
serious thought. All he can say is, ultimately, that he feels himself in
a very uncongenial atmosphere, from which it is delightful to retire, in
imagination, to the society of Epicurus, or the study of a few literary
masterpieces. That may be very true, but it can be interesting only to a
few men of similar taste; and men of profound insight, whether of the
poetic or the philosophic temperament, are apt to be vexed by his hasty
dogmatism and irritable rejection of much which deserved his sympathy.
His wanton quarrel with the world has been avenged by the world's
indifference. We may regret the result when we see what rare qualities
have been cruelly wasted, but we cannot fairly shut our eyes to the fact
that the world has a very strong case.


[29] De Quincey gets into a curious puzzle about Landor's remarks in his
essay on Milton _versus_ Southey and Landor. He cannot understand to
which of Wordsworth's poems Landor is referring, and makes some oddly
erroneous guesses.


Lord Macaulay was pre-eminently a fortunate man; and his good fortune
has survived him. Few, indeed, in the long line of English authors whom
he loved so well, have been equally happy in a biographer. Most official
biographies are a mixture of bungling and indiscretion. It is only in
virtue of some happy coincidence that the one or two people who alone
have the requisite knowledge can produce also the requisite skill and
discretion. Mr. Trevelyan is one of the exceptions to the rule. His book
is such a piece of thorough literary workmanship as would have delighted
its subject. By a rare felicity, the almost filial affection of the
narrator conciliates the reader instead of exciting a distrust of the
narrative. We feel that Macaulay's must have been a lovable character to
excite such warmth of feeling, and a noble character to enable one who
loved him to speak so frankly. The ordinary biographer's idolatry is not
absent, but it becomes a testimony to the hero's excellence instead of
introducing a disturbing element into our estimate of his merits.

No reader of Macaulay's works will be surprised at the manliness which
is stamped not less plainly upon them than upon his whole career. But
few who were not in some degree behind the scenes would be prepared for
the tenderness of nature which is equally conspicuous. We all recognised
in Macaulay a lover of truth and political honour. We find no more than
we expected, when we are told that the one circumstance upon which he
looked back with some regret was the unauthorised publication by a
constituent of a letter in which he had spoken too frankly of a
political ally. That is indeed an infinitesimal stain upon the character
of a man who rose without wealth or connection, by sheer force of
intellect, to a conspicuous position amongst politicians. But we find
something more than we expected in the singular beauty of Macaulay's
domestic life. In his relations to his father, his sisters, and the
younger generation, he was admirable. The stern religious principle and
profound absorption in philanthropic labours of old Zachary Macaulay
must have made the position of his brilliant son anything but an easy
one. He could hardly read a novel, or contribute to a worldly magazine,
without calling down something like a reproof. The father seems to have
indulged in the very questionable practice of listening to vague gossip
about his son's conduct, and demanding explanations from the supposed
culprit. The stern old gentleman carefully suppressed his keen
satisfaction at his son's first oratorical success, and, instead of
praising him, growled at him for folding his arms in the presence of
royalty. Many sons have turned into consummate hypocrites under such
paternal discipline; and, as a rule, the system is destructive of
anything like mutual confidence. Macaulay seems, in spite of all, to
have been on the most cordial terms with his father to the last. Some
suppression of his sentiments must indeed have been necessary; and we
cannot avoid tracing certain peculiarities of the son's intellectual
career to his having been condemned from an early age to habitual
reticence upon the deepest of all subjects of thought.

Macaulay's relations to his sisters are sufficiently revealed in a long
series of charming letters, showing, both in their playfulness and in
their literary and political discussions, the unreserved respect and
confidence which united them. One of them writes upon his death: 'We
have lost the light of our home, the most tender, loving, generous,
unselfish, devoted of friends. What he was to me for fifty years who can
tell? What a world of love he poured out upon me and mine!' Reading
these words at the close of the biography, we do not wonder at the
glamour of sisterly affection; but admit them to be the natural
expression of a perfectly sincere conviction. Can there be higher
praise? His relation to children is equally charming. 'He was beyond
comparison the best of playfellows,' writes Mr. Trevelyan; 'unrivalled
in the invention of games, and never weary of repeating them.' He wrote
long letters to his favourites; he addressed pretty little poems to them
on their birthdays, and composed long nursery rhymes for their
edification; whilst overwhelmed with historical labours, and grudging
the demands of society, he would dawdle away whole mornings with them,
and spend the afternoon in taking them to sights; he would build up a
den with newspapers behind the sofa, and act the part of tiger or
brigand; he would take them to the Tower, or Madame Tussaud's, or the
Zoological Gardens, make puns to enliven the Polytechnic, and tell
innumerable anecdotes to animate the statues in the British Museum; nor,
as they grew older, did he neglect the more dignified duty of
inoculating them with the literary tastes which had been the consolation
of his life. Obviously he was the ideal uncle--the uncle of optimistic
fiction, but with qualifications for his task such as few fictitious
uncles can possess. It need hardly be added that Macaulay was a man of
noble liberality in money matters, that he helped his family when they
were in difficulties, and was beloved by the servants who depended upon
him. In his domestic relations he had, according to his nephew, only one
serious fault--he did not appreciate canine excellence; but no man is

The thorough kindliness of the man reconciles us even to his good
fortune. He was an infant phenomenon; the best boy at school; in his
college days, 'ladies, artists, politicians, and diners-out' at Bowood,
formed a circle to hear him talk, from breakfast to dinner-time; he was
famous as an author at twenty-five; accepted as a great parliamentary
orator at thirty; and, as a natural consequence, caressed with effusion
by editors, politicians, Whig magnates, and the clique of Holland House;
by thirty-three he had become a man of mark in society, literature, and
politics, and had secured his fortune by gaining a seat in the Indian
Council. His later career was a series of triumphs. He had been the main
support of the greatest literary organ of his party, and the 'Essays'
republished from its pages became at once a standard work. The 'Lays of
Ancient Rome' sold like Scott's most popular poetry; the 'History'
caused an excitement almost unparalleled in literary annals. Not only
was the first sale enormous, but it has gone on ever since increasing.
The popular author was equally popular in Parliament. The benches were
crammed to listen to the rare treat of his eloquence; and he had the far
rarer glory of more than once turning the settled opinion of the House
by a single speech. It is a more vulgar but a striking testimony to his
success that he made 20,000_l._ in one year by literature. Other authors
have had their heads turned by less triumphant careers; they have
descended to lower ambition, and wasted their lives in spasmodic
straining to gain worthless applause. Macaulay remained faithful to his
calling. He worked his hardest to the last, and became a more unsparing
critic of his own performances as time went on. We do not feel even a
passing symptom of a grudge against his good fortune. Rather we are
moved by that kind of sentiment which expresses itself in the schoolboy
phrase, 'Well done our side!' We are glad to see the hearty, kindly,
truthful man crowned with all appropriate praise, and to think that for
once one of our race has got so decidedly the best of it in the hard
battle with the temptations and the miseries of life.

Certain shortcomings have been set off against these virtues by critics
of Macaulay's life. He was, it has been said, too good a hater. At any
rate, he hated vice, meanness, and charlatanism. It is easier to hate
such things too little than too much. But it must be admitted that his
likes and dislikes indicate a certain rigidity and narrowness of nature.
'In books, as in people and places,' says Mr. Trevelyan, 'he loved that,
and loved that only, to which he had been accustomed from boyhood
upwards.' The faults of which this significant remark reveals one cause,
are marked upon his whole literary character. Macaulay was converted to
Whiggism when at college. The advance from Toryism to Whiggism is not
such as to involve a very violent wrench of the moral and intellectual
nature. Such as it was, it was the only wrench from which Macaulay
suffered. What he was as a scholar of Trinity, he was substantially as a
peer of the realm. He made, it would seem, few new friends, though he
grappled his old ones as 'with hooks of steel.' The fault is one which
belongs to many men of strong natures, and so long as we are
considering Macaulay's life we shall not be much disposed to quarrel
with his innate conservatism. Strong affections are so admirable a
quality that we can pardon the man who loves well though not widely; and
if Macaulay had not a genuine fervour of regard for the little circle of
his intimates, there is no man who deserves such praise.

It is when we turn from Macaulay's personal character to attempt an
estimate of his literary position, that these faults acquire more
importance. His intellectual force was extraordinary within certain
limits; beyond those limits the giant became a child. He assimilated a
certain set of ideas as a lad, and never acquired a new idea in later
life. He accumulated vast stores of knowledge, but they all fitted into
the old framework of theory. Whiggism seemed to him to provide a
satisfactory solution for all political problems when he was sending his
first article to 'Knight's Magazine,' and when he was writing the last
page of his 'History.' 'I entered public life a Whig,' as he said in
1849, 'and a Whig I am determined to remain.' And what is meant by
Whiggism in Macaulay's mouth? It means substantially that creed which
registers the experience of the English upper classes during the four or
five generations previous to Macaulay. It represents, not the reasoning,
but the instinctive convictions generated by the dogged insistence upon
their privileges of a stubborn, high-spirited, and individually
short-sighted race. To deduce it as a symmetrical doctrine from abstract
propositions would be futile. It is only reasonable so far as a creed,
felt out by the collective instinct of a number of more or less stupid
people, becomes impressed with a quasi-rational unity, not from their
respect for logic, but from the uniformity of the mode of development.
Hatred to pure reason is indeed one of its first principles. A doctrine
avowedly founded on logic instead of instinct becomes for that very
reason suspect to it. Common-sense takes the place of philosophy. At
times this mass of sentiment opposes itself under stress of
circumstances to the absolute theories of monarchy, and then calls
itself Whiggism. At other times it offers an equally dogged resistance
to absolute theories of democracy, and then becomes nominally Tory. In
Macaulay's youth the weight of opinion had been slowly swinging round
from the Toryism generated by dread of revolution, to Whiggism generated
by the accumulation of palpable abuses. The growing intelligence and
more rapidly growing power of the middle classes gave it at the same
time a more popular character than before. Macaulay's 'conversion' was
simply a process of swinging with the tide. The Clapham Sect, amongst
whom he had been brought up, was already more than half Whig, in virtue
of its attack upon the sacred institution of slavery by means of popular
agitation. Macaulay--the most brilliant of its young men--naturally cast
in his lot with the brilliant men, a little older than himself, who
fought under the blue and yellow banner of the 'Edinburgh Review.' No
great change of sentiment was necessary, though some of the old Clapham
doctrines died out in his mind as he was swept into the political

Macaulay thus early became a thoroughgoing Whig. Whiggism seemed to him
the _ne plus ultra_ of progress: the pure essence of political wisdom.
He was never fully conscious of the vast revolution in thought which was
going on all around him. He was saturated with the doctrines of 1832. He
stated them with unequalled vigour and clearness. Anybody who disputed
them from either side of the question seemed to him to be little better
than a fool. Southey and Mr. Gladstone talked arrant nonsense when they
disputed the logical or practical value of the doctrines laid down by
Locke. James Mill deserved the most contemptuous language for daring to
push those doctrines beyond the sacred line. When Macaulay attacks an
old non-juror or a modern Tory, we can only wonder how opinions which,
on his showing, are so inconceivably absurd, could ever have been held
by any human being. Men are Whigs or not-Whigs, and the not-Whig is less
a heretic to be anathematised than a blockhead beneath the reach of
argument. All political wisdom centres in Holland House, and the
'Edinburgh Review' is its prophet. There is something in the absolute
confidence of Macaulay's political dogmatism which varies between the
sublime and the ridiculous. We can hardly avoid laughing at this
superlative self-satisfaction, and yet we must admit that it is
indicative of a real political force not to be treated with simple
contempt. Belief is power, even when belief is most unreasonable.

To define a Whig and to define Macaulay is pretty much the same thing.
Let us trace some of the qualities which enabled one man to become so
completely the type of a vast body of his compatriots.

The first and most obvious power in which Macaulay excelled his
neighbours was his portentous memory. He could assimilate printed pages,
says his nephew, more quickly than others could glance over them.
Whatever he read was stamped upon his mind instantaneously and
permanently, and he read everything. In the midst of severe labours in
India, he read enough classical authors to stock the mind of an ordinary
professor. At the same time he framed a criminal code and devoured
masses of trashy novels. From the works of the ancient Fathers of the
Church to English political pamphlets and to modern street ballads, no
printed matter came amiss to his omnivorous appetite. All that he had
read could be reproduced at a moment's notice. Every fool, he said, can
repeat his Archbishops of Canterbury backwards; and he was as familiar
with the Cambridge Calendar as the most devout Protestant with the
Bible. He could have re-written 'Sir Charles Grandison' from memory if
every copy had been lost. Now it might perhaps be plausibly maintained
that the possession of such a memory is unfavourable to a high
development of the reasoning powers. The case of Pascal, indeed, who is
said never to have forgotten anything, shows that the two powers may
co-exist; and other cases might of course be mentioned. But it is true
that a powerful memory may enable a man to save himself the trouble of
reasoning. It encourages the indolent propensity of deciding
difficulties by precedent instead of principles. Macaulay, for example,
was once required to argue the point of political casuistry as to the
degree of independent action permissible to members of a Cabinet. An
ordinary mind would have to answer by striking a rough balance between
the conveniences and inconveniences likely to arise. It would be forced,
that is to say, to reason from the nature of the case. But Macaulay had
at his fingers' end every instance from the days of Walpole to his own
in which Ministers had been allowed to vote against the general policy
of the Government. By quoting them, he seemed to decide the point by
authority, instead of taking the troublesome and dangerous road of
abstract reasoning. Thus to appeal to experience is with him to appeal
to the stores of a gigantic memory; and is generally the same thing as
to deny the value of all general rules. This is the true Whig doctrine
of referring to precedent rather than to theory. Our popular leaders
were always glad to quote Hampden and Sidney instead of venturing upon
the dangerous ground of abstract rights.

Macaulay's love of deciding all points by an accumulation of appropriate
instances is indeed characteristic of his mind. It is connected with a
curious defect of analytical power. It appears in his literary criticism
as much as in his political speculations. In an interesting letter to
Mr. Napier, he states the case himself as an excuse for not writing upon
Scott. 'Hazlitt used to say, "I am nothing if not critical." The case
with me,' says Macaulay, 'is precisely the reverse. I have a strong and
acute enjoyment of works of the imagination, but I have never habituated
myself to dissect them. Perhaps I enjoy them the more keenly for that
very reason. Such books as Lessing's "Laocoon," such passages as the
criticism on "Hamlet" in "Wilhelm Meister," fill me with wonder and
despair.' If we take any of Macaulay's criticisms, we shall see how
truly he had gauged his own capacity. They are either random discharges
of superlatives or vigorous assertions of sound moral principles. He
compliments some favourite author with an emphatic repetition of the
ordinary eulogies, or shows conclusively that Montgomery was a sham
poet, and Wycherley a corrupt ribald. Nobody can hit a haystack with
more certainty, but he is not so good at a difficult mark. He never
makes a fine suggestion as to the secrets of the art whose products he
admires or describes. His mode, for example, of criticising Bunyan is to
give a list of the passages which he remembers, and of course he
remembers everything. He observes, what is tolerably clear, that
Bunyan's allegory is as vivid as a concrete history, though strangely
comparing him in this respect to Shelley--the least concrete of poets;
and he makes the discovery, which did not require his vast stores of
historical knowledge, 'that it is impossible to doubt that' Bunyan's
trial of Christian and Faithful is meant to satirise the judges of the
time of Charles II. That is as plain as the intention of the last
cartoon in 'Punch.' Macaulay can draw a most vivid portrait, so far as
that can be done by a picturesque accumulation of characteristic facts,
but he never gets below the surface, or details the principles whose
embodiment he describes from without.

The defect is connected with further peculiarities, in which Macaulay is
the genuine representative of the true Whig type. The practical value of
adherence to precedent is obvious. It may be justified by the assertion
that all sound political philosophy must be based upon experience: and
no one will deny that assertion to contain a most important truth. But
in Macaulay's mind this sound doctrine seems to be confused with the
very questionable doctrine that in political questions there is no
philosophy at all. To appeal to experience may mean either to appeal to
facts so classified and systematically arranged as to illustrate general
truths, or to appeal to a mere mass of observations, without taking the
trouble to elicit their true significance, or even to believe that they
can be resolved into particular cases of a general truth. This is the
difference between an experimental philosophy and a crude empiricism.
Macaulay takes the lower alternative. The vigorous attack upon James
Mill, which he very properly suppressed during his life on account of
its juvenile arrogance, curiously illustrates his mode of thought. No
one can deny, I think, that he makes some very good points against a
very questionable system of political dogmatism. But when we ask what
are Macaulay's own principles, we are left at a stand. He ought, by all
his intellectual sympathies, to be a utilitarian. Yet he treats
utilitarianism with the utmost contempt, though he has no alternative
theory to suggest. He ends his first Essay against Mill by one of his
customary purple patches about Baconian induction. He tells us, in the
second, how to apply it. Bacon proposed to discover the principle of
heat by observing in what qualities all hot bodies agreed, and in what
qualities all cold bodies. Similarly, we are to make a list of all
constitutions which have produced good or bad government, and to
investigate their points of agreement and difference. This sounds
plausible to the uninstructed, but is a mere rhetorical flourish.
Bacon's method is admittedly inadequate for reasons which I leave to men
of science to explain, and Macaulay's method is equally hopeless in
politics. It is hopeless for the simple reason that the complexity of
the phenomena makes it impracticable. We cannot find out what
constitution is best after this fashion, simply because the goodness or
badness of a constitution depends upon a thousand conditions of social,
moral, and intellectual development. When stripped of its pretentious
phraseology, Macaulay's teaching comes simply to this: the only rule in
politics is the rule of thumb. All general principles are wrong or
futile. We have found out in England that our constitution, constructed
in absolute defiance of all _à priori_ reasoning, is the best in the
world: it is the best for providing us with the maximum of bread, beef,
beer, and means of buying bread, beer, and beef: and we have got it
because we have never--like those publicans the French--trusted to fine
sayings about truth and justice and human rights, but blundered on,
adding a patch here and knocking a hole there, as our humour prompted

This sovereign contempt of all speculation--simply as
speculation--reaches its acme in the Essay on Bacon. The curious naïveté
with which Macaulay denounces all philosophy in that vigorous production
excites a kind of perverse admiration. How can one refuse to admire the
audacity which enables a man explicitly to identify philosophy with
humbug? It is what ninety-nine men out of a hundred think, but not one
in a thousand dares to say. Goethe says somewhere that he likes
Englishmen because English fools are the most thoroughgoing of fools.
English 'Philistines,' as represented by Macaulay, the prince of
Philistines, according to Matthew Arnold, carry their contempt of the
higher intellectual interests to a pitch of real sublimity. Bacon's
theory of induction, says Macaulay, in so many words, was valueless.
Everybody could reason before it as well as after. But Bacon really
performed a service of inestimable value to mankind; and it consisted
precisely in this, that he called their attention from philosophy to the
pursuit of material advantages. The old philosophers had gone on
bothering about theology, ethics, and the true and beautiful, and such
other nonsense. Bacon taught us to work at chemistry and mechanics, to
invent diving-bells and steam-engines and spinning-jennies. We could
never, it seems, have found out the advantages of this direction of our
energies without a philosopher, and so far philosophy is negatively
good. It has written up upon all the supposed avenues to inquiry, 'No
admission except on business;' that is, upon the business of direct
practical discovery. We English have taken the hint, and we have
therefore lived to see when a man can breakfast in London and dine in
Edinburgh, and may look forward to a day when the tops of Ben-Nevis and
Helvellyn will be cultivated like flower-gardens, and when machines
constructed on principles yet to be discovered will be in every house.

The theory which underlies this conclusion is often explicitly stated.
All philosophy has produced mere futile logomachy. Greek sages and Roman
moralists and mediæval schoolmen have amassed words, and amassed nothing
else. One distinct discovery of a solid truth, however humble, is worth
all their labours. This condemnation applies not only to philosophy, but
to the religious embodiment of philosophy. No satisfactory conclusion
ever has been reached or ever will be reached in theological disputes.
On all such topics, he tells Mr. Gladstone, there has always been the
widest divergence of opinion. Nor are there better hopes for the future.
The ablest minds, he says in the Essay upon Ranke, have believed in
transubstantiation; that is, according to him, in the most ineffable
nonsense. There is no certainty that men will not believe to the end of
time the doctrines which imposed upon so able a man as Sir Thomas More.
Not only, that is, have men been hitherto wandering in a labyrinth
without a clue, but there is no chance that any clue will ever be found.
The doctrine, so familiar to our generation, of laws of intellectual
development, never even occurs to him. The collective thought of
generations marks time without advancing. A guess of Sir Thomas More is
as good or as bad as the guess of the last philosopher. This theory, if
true, implies utter scepticism. And yet Macaulay was clearly not a
sceptic. His creed was hidden under a systematic reticence, and he
resisted every attempt to raise the veil with rather superfluous
indignation. When a constituent dared to ask about his religious views,
he denounced the rash inquirer in terms applicable to an agent of the
Inquisition. He vouchsafed, indeed, the information that he was a
Christian. We may accept the phrase, not only on the strength of his
invariable sincerity, but because it falls in with the general turn of
his arguments. He denounces the futility of the ancient moralists, but
he asserts the enormous social value of Christianity.

His attitude, in fact, is equally characteristic of the man and his
surroundings. The old Clapham teaching had faded in his mind: it had not
produced a revolt. He retained the old hatred for slavery; and he
retained, with the whole force of his affectionate nature, reverence for
the school of Wilberforce, Thornton, and his own father. He estimated
most highly, not perhaps more highly than they deserved, the value of
the services rendered by them in awakening the conscience of the nation.
In their persistent and disinterested labours he recognised a
manifestation of the great social force of Christianity. But a belief
that Christianity is useful, and even that it is true, may consist with
a profound conviction of the futility of the philosophy with which it
has been associated. Here again Macaulay is a true Whig. The Whig love
of precedent, the Whig hatred for abstract theories, may consist with a
Tory application. But the true Whig differed from the Tory in adding to
these views an invincible suspicion of parsons. The first Whig battles
were fought against the Church as much as against the King. From the
struggle with Sacheverell down to the struggle for Catholic
emancipation, Toryism and High-Church principles were associated against
Whigs and Dissenters. By that kind of dumb instinct which outruns
reason, the Whig had learnt that there was some occult bond of union
between the claims of a priesthood and the claims of a monarchy. The
old maxim, 'No bishop, no king,' suggested the opposite principle that
you must keep down the clergy if you would limit the monarchy. The
natural interpretation of this prejudice into political theory, is that
the Church is extremely useful as an ally of the constable, but
possesses a most dangerous explosive power if allowed to claim
independent authority. In practice we must resist all claims of the
Church to dictate to the State. In theory we must deny the foundation
upon which such claims can alone be founded. Dogmatism must be
pronounced to be fundamentally irrational. Nobody knows anything about
theology; or what is the same thing, no two people agree. As they don't
agree, they cannot claim to impose their beliefs upon others.

This sentiment comes out curiously in the characteristic Essay just
mentioned. Macaulay says, in reply to Mr. Gladstone, that there is no
more reason for the introduction of religious questions into State
affairs than for introducing them into the affairs of a Canal Company.
He puts his argument with an admirable vigour and clearness which blinds
many readers to the fact that he is begging the question by evading the
real difficulty. If, in fact, Government had as little to do as a Canal
Company with religious opinion, we should have long ago learnt the great
lesson of toleration. But that is just the very _crux_. Can we draw the
line between the spiritual and the secular? Nothing, replies Macaulay,
is easier; and his method has been already indicated. We all agree that
we don't want to be robbed or murdered: we are by no means all agreed
about the doctrine of Trinity. But, says a churchman, a certain creed is
necessary to men's moral and spiritual welfare, and therefore of the
utmost importance even for the prevention of robbery and murder. This
is what Macaulay implicitly denies. The whole of dogmatic theology
belongs to that region of philosophy, metaphysics, or whatever you
please to call it, in which men are doomed to dispute for ever without
coming any nearer to a decision. All that the statesman has to do with
such matters is to see that if men are fools enough to speculate, they
shall not be allowed to cut each other's throats when they reach, as
they always must reach, contradictory results. If you raise a difficult
point--such, for example, as the education question--Macaulay replies,
as so many people have replied before and since, Teach the people 'those
principles of morality which are common to all the forms of
Christianity.' That is easier said than done! The plausibility of the
solution in Macaulay's mouth is due to the fundamental assumption that
everything except morality is hopeless ground of inquiry. Once get
beyond the Ten Commandments and you will sink in a bottomless morass of
argument, counterargument, quibble, logomachy, superstition, and
confusion worse confounded.

In Macaulay's teaching, as in that of his party, there is doubtless much
that is noble. He has a righteous hatred of oppression in all shapes and
disguises. He can tear to pieces with great logical power many of the
fallacies alleged by his opponents. Our sympathies are certainly with
him as against men who advocate persecution on any grounds, and he is
fully qualified to crush his ordinary opponents. But it is plain that
his whole political and (if we may use the word) philosophical teaching
rests on something like a downright aversion to the higher order of
speculation. He despises it. He wants something tangible and
concrete--something in favour of which he may appeal to the immediate
testimony of the senses. He must feel his feet planted on the solid
earth. The pain of attempting to soar into higher regions is not
compensated to him by the increased width of horizon. And in this
respect he is but the type of most of his countrymen, and reflects what
has been (as I should say) erroneously called their 'unimaginative' view
of things in general.

Macaulay, at any rate, distinctly belongs to the imaginative class of
minds, if only in virtue of his instinctive preference of the concrete
to the abstract, and his dislike, already noticed, to analysis. He has a
thirst for distinct and vivid images. He reasons by examples instead of
appealing to formulæ. There is a characteristic account in Mr.
Trevelyan's volumes of his habit of rambling amongst the older parts of
London, his fancy teeming with stories attached to the picturesque
fragments of antiquity, and carrying on dialogues between imaginary
persons as vivid, if not as forcible, as those of Scott's novels. To
this habit--rather inverting the order of cause and effect--he
attributes his accuracy of detail. We should rather say that the
intensity of the impressions generated both the accuracy and the
day-dreams. A philosopher would be arguing in his daily rambles where an
imaginative mind is creating a series of pictures. But Macaulay's
imagination is as definitely limited as his speculation. The genuine
poet is also a philosopher. He sees intuitively what the reasoner
evolves by argument. The greatest minds in both classes are equally
marked by their naturalisation in the lofty regions of thought,
inaccessible or uncongenial to men of inferior stamp. It is tempting in
some ways to compare Macaulay to Burke. Burke's superiority is marked by
this, that he is primarily a philosopher, and therefore instinctively
sees the illustration of a general law in every particular fact.
Macaulay, on the contrary, gets away from theory as fast as possible,
and tries to conceal his poverty of thought under masses of ingenious

His imaginative narrowness would come out still more clearly by a
comparison with Carlyle. One significant fact must be enough. Everyone
must have observed how powerfully Carlyle expresses the emotion
suggested by the brief appearance of some little waif from past history.
We may remember, for example, how the usher, De Brézé, appears for a
moment to utter the last shriek of the old monarchical etiquette, and
then vanishes into the dim abysses of the past. The imagination is
excited by the little glimpse of light flashing for a moment upon some
special point in the cloudy phantasmagoria of human history. The image
of a past existence is projected for a moment upon our eyes, to make us
feel how transitory is life, and how rapidly one visionary existence
expels another. We are such stuff as dreams are made of:--

            None other than a moving row
    Of visionary shapes that come and go
      Around the sun-illumined lantern held
    In midnight by the master of the show.

Every object is seen against the background of eternal mystery. In
Macaulay's pages this element is altogether absent. We see a figure from
the past as vividly as if he were present. We observe the details of his
dress, the odd oaths with which his discourse is interlarded, the minute
peculiarities of his features or manner. We laugh or admire as we should
do at a living man; and we rightly admire the force of the illusion. But
the thought never suggests itself that we too are passing into oblivion,
that our little island of daylight will soon be shrouded in the
gathering mist, and that we tread at every instant on the dust of
forgotten continents. We treat the men of past ages quite at our ease.
We applaud and criticise Hampden or Chatham as we should applaud Peel or
Cobden. There is no atmospheric effect--no sense of the dim march of
ages, or of the vast procession of human life. It is doubtless a great
feat to make the past present. It is a greater to emancipate us from the
tyranny of the present, and to raise us to a point at which we feel that
we too are almost as dreamlike as the men of old time. To gain clearness
and definition Macaulay has dropped the element of mystery. He sees
perfectly whatever can be seen by the ordinary lawyer, or politician, or
merchant; he is insensible to the visions which reveal themselves only
to minds haunted by thoughts of eternity, and delighting to dwell in the
border-land where dreams blend with realities. Mysticism is to him
hateful, and historical figures form groups of individuals, not symbols
of forces working behind the veil.

Macaulay, therefore, can be no more a poet in the sense in which the
word is applied to Spenser, or to Wordsworth, both of whom he holds to
be simply intolerable bores, than he can be a metaphysician or a
scientific thinker. In common phraseology, he is a Philistine--a word
which I understand properly to denote indifference to the higher
intellectual interests. The word may also be defined, however, as the
name applied by prigs to the rest of their species. And I hold that the
modern fashion of using it as a common term of abuse amounts to a
literary nuisance. It enables intellectual coxcombs to brand men with an
offensive epithet for being a degree more manly than themselves. There
is much that is good in your Philistine; and when we ask what Macaulay
was, instead of showing what he was not, we shall perhaps find that the
popular estimate is not altogether wrong.

Macaulay was not only a typical Whig, but the prophet of Whiggism to his
generation. Though not a poet or a philosopher, he was a born
rhetorician. His parliamentary career proves his capacity sufficiently,
though want of the physical qualifications, and of exclusive devotion to
political success, prevented him, as perhaps a want of subtlety or
flexibility of mind would have always prevented him, from attaining
excellence as a debater. In everything that he wrote, however, we see
the true rhetorician. He tells us that Fox wrote debates, whilst
Mackintosh spoke essays. Macaulay did both. His compositions are a
series of orations on behalf of sound Whig views, whatever their
external form. Given a certain audience--and every orator supposes a
particular audience--their effectiveness is undeniable. Macaulay's may
be composed of ordinary Englishmen, with a moderate standard of
education. His arguments are adapted to the ordinary Cabinet Minister,
or, what is much the same, to the person who is willing to pay a
shilling to hear an evening lecture. He can hit an audience composed of
such materials--to quote Burke's phrase about George Grenville--'between
wind and water.' He uses the language, the logic, and the images which
they can fully understand; and though his hearer, like his schoolboy, is
ostensibly credited at times with a portentous memory, Macaulay always
takes excellent care to put him in mind of the facts which he is assumed
to remember. The faults and the merits of his style follow from his
resolute determination to be understood of the people. He was specially
delighted, as his nephew tells us, by a reader at Messrs.
Spottiswoode's, who said that in all the 'History' there was only one
sentence the meaning of which was not obvious to him at first sight. We
are more surprised that there was one such sentence. Clearness is the
first of the cardinal virtues of style; and nobody ever wrote more
clearly than Macaulay. He sacrifices much, it is true, in order to
obtain it. He proves that two and two make four with a pertinacity which
would make him dull, if it were not for his abundance of brilliant
illustration. He always remembers the principle which should guide a
barrister in addressing a jury. He has not merely to exhibit his proofs,
but to hammer them into the heads of his audience by incessant
repetition. It is no small proof of artistic skill that a writer who
systematically adopts this method should yet be invariably lively. He
goes on blacking the chimney with a persistency which somehow amuses us
because he puts so much heart into his work. He proves the most obvious
truths again and again; but his vivacity never flags. This tendency
undoubtedly leads to great defects of style. His sentences are
monotonous and mechanical. He has a perfect hatred of pronouns, and for
fear of a possible entanglement between 'hims' and 'hers' and 'its,' he
will repeat not merely a substantive, but a whole group of substantives.
Sometimes, to make his sense unmistakable, he will repeat a whole
formula, with only a change in the copula. For the same reason, he hates
all qualifications and parentheses. Each thought must be resolved into
its constituent parts; each argument must be expressed as a simple
proposition: and his paragraphs are rather aggregates of independent
atoms than possessed of a continuous unity. His writing--to use a
favourite formula of his own--bears the same relation to a style of
graceful modulation that a bit of mosaic work bears to a picture. Each
phrase has its distinct hue, instead of melting into its neighbours.
Here we have a black patch and there a white. There are no half tones,
no subtle interblending of different currents of thought. It is partly
for this reason that his descriptions of character are often so
unsatisfactory. He likes to represent a man as a bundle of
contradictions, because it enables him to obtain startling contrasts. He
heightens a vice in one place, a virtue in another, and piles them
together in a heap, without troubling himself to ask whether nature can
make such monsters, or preserve them if made. To anyone given to
analysis, these contrasts are actually painful. There is a story of the
Duke of Wellington having once stated that the rats got into his bottles
in Spain. 'They must have been very large bottles or very small rats,'
said somebody. 'On the contrary,' replied the Duke, 'the rats were very
large and the bottles very small.' Macaulay delights in leaving us face
to face with such contrasts in more important matters. Boswell must, we
would say, have been a clever man or his biography cannot have been so
good as you say. On the contrary, says Macaulay, he was the greatest of
fools and the best of biographers. He strikes a discord and purposely
fails to resolve it. To men of more delicate sensibility the result is
an intolerable jar.

For the same reason, Macaulay's genuine eloquence is marred by the
symptoms of malice prepense. When he sews on a purple patch, he is
resolved that there shall be no mistake about it; it must stand out from
a radical contrast of colours. The emotion is not to swell by degrees,
till you find yourself carried away in the torrent which set out as a
tranquil stream. The transition is deliberately emphasised. On one side
of a full stop you are listening to a matter-of-fact statement; on the
other, there is all at once a blare of trumpets and a beating of drums,
till the crash almost deafens you. He regrets in one of his letters that
he has used up the celebrated, and, it must be confessed, really
forcible passage about the impeachment scene in Westminster Hall. It
might have come in usefully in the 'History,' which, as he then hoped,
would reach the time of Warren Hastings. The regret is unpleasantly
suggestive of that deliberation in the manufacture of eloquence which
stamps it as artificial.

Such faults may annoy critics, even of no very sensitive fibre. What is
it that redeems them? The first answer is, that the work is impressive
because it is thoroughly genuine. The stream, it is true, comes forth by
spasmodic gushes, when it ought to flow in a continuous current; but it
flows from a full reservoir instead of being pumped from a shallow
cistern. The knowledge and, what is more, the thoroughly-assimilated
knowledge, is enormous. Mr. Trevelyan has shown in detail what we had
all divined for ourselves, how much patient labour is often employed in
a paragraph or the turn of a phrase. To accuse Macaulay of
superficiality is, in this sense, altogether absurd. His speculation may
be meagre, but his store of information is simply inexhaustible. Mill's
writing was impressive, because one often felt that a single argument
condensed the result of a long process of reflection. Macaulay has the
lower but similar merit that a single picturesque touch implies
incalculable masses of knowledge. It is but an insignificant part of the
building which appears above ground. Compare a passage with the assigned
authority, and you are inclined to accuse him--sometimes it may be
rightfully--of amplifying and modifying. But more often the particular
authority is merely the nucleus round which a whole volume of other
knowledge has crystallised. A single hint is significant to a
properly-prepared mind of a thousand facts not explicitly contained in
it. Nobody, he said, could judge of the accuracy of one part of his
'History' who had not 'soaked his mind with the transitory literature of
the day.' His real authority was not this or that particular passage,
but a literature. And for this reason alone, Macaulay's historical
writings have a permanent value which will prevent them from being
superseded even by more philosophical thinkers, whose minds have not
undergone the 'soaking' process.

It is significant again that imitations of Macaulay are almost as
offensive as imitations of Carlyle. Every great writer has his
parasites. Macaulay's false glitter and jingle, his frequent flippancy
and superficiality of thought, are more easily caught than his virtues;
but so are all faults. Would-be followers of Carlyle catch the strained
gestures without the rapture of his inspiration. Would-be followers of
Mill fancied themselves to be logical when they were only hopelessly
unsympathetic and unimaginative; and would-be followers of some other
writers can be effeminate and foppish without being subtle or graceful.
Macaulay's thoroughness of work has, perhaps, been less contagious than
we could wish. Something of the modern raising of the standard of
accuracy in historical inquiry may be set down to his influence. The
misfortune is that, if some writers have learnt from him to be flippant
without learning to be laborious, others have caught the accuracy
without the liveliness. In the later volumes of his 'History,' his
vigour began to be a little clogged by the fulness of his knowledge; and
we can observe symptoms of the tendency of modern historians to grudge
the sacrifice of sifting their knowledge. They read enough, but instead
of giving us the results, they tumble out the accumulated mass of raw
materials upon our devoted heads, till they make us long for a fire in
the State Paper Office.

Fortunately, Macaulay did not yield to this temptation in his earlier
writings, and the result is that he is, for the ordinary reader, one of
the two authorities for English history, the other being Shakespeare.
Without comparing their merits, we must admit that the compression of so
much into a few short narratives shows intensity as well as compass of
mind. He could digest as well as devour, and he tried his digestion
pretty severely. It is fashionable to say that part of his practical
force is due to the training of parliamentary life. Familiarity with the
course of affairs doubtless strengthened his insight into history, and
taught him the value of downright common-sense in teaching an average
audience. Speaking purely from the literary point of view, I cannot
agree further in the opinion suggested. I suspect the 'History' would
have been better if Macaulay had not been so deeply immersed in all the
business of legislation and electioneering. I do not profoundly
reverence the House of Commons' tone--even in the House of Commons; and
in literature it easily becomes a nuisance. Familiarity with the actual
machinery of politics tends to strengthen the contempt for general
principles, of which Macaulay had an ample share. It encourages the
illusion of the fly upon the wheel, the doctrine that the dust and din
of debate and the worry of lobbies and committee-rooms are not the
effect but the cause of the great social movement. The historian of the
Roman Empire, as we know, owed something to the captain of Hampshire
Militia; but years of life absorbed in parliamentary wrangling and in
sitting at the feet of the philosophers of Holland House were not
likely to widen a mind already disposed to narrow views of the world.

For Macaulay's immediate success, indeed, the training was undoubtedly
valuable. As he carried into Parliament the authority of a great writer,
so he wrote books with the authority of the practical politician. He has
the true instinct of affairs. He knows what are the immediate motives
which move masses of men; and is never misled by fanciful analogies or
blindfolded by the pedantry of official language. He has seen
flesh-and-blood statesmen--at any rate, English statesmen--and
understands the nature of the animal. Nobody can be freer from the
dominion of crotchets. All his reasoning is made of the soundest common
sense, and represents, if not the ultimate forces, yet forces with which
we have to reckon. And he knows, too, how to stir the blood of the
average Englishman. He understands most thoroughly the value of
concentration, unity, and simplicity. Every speech or essay forms an
artistic whole, in which some distinct moral is vigorously driven home
by a succession of downright blows. This strong rhetorical instinct is
shown conspicuously in the 'Lays of Ancient Rome,' which, whatever we
might say of them as poetry, are an admirable specimen of rhymed
rhetoric. We know how good they are when we see how incapable are modern
ballad-writers in general of putting the same swing and fire into their
verses. Compare, for example, Aytoun's 'Lays of the Cavaliers,' as the
most obvious parallel:--

    Not swifter pours the avalanche
      Adown the steep incline,
    That rises o'er the parent springs
      Of rough and rapid Rhine,

than certain Scotch heroes over an entrenchment. Place this mouthing by
any parallel passage in Macaulay:--

    Now, by our sire Quirinus,
      It was a goodly sight
    To see the thirty standards
      Swept down the tide of flight.
    So flies the spray in Adria
      When the black squall doth blow.
    So corn-sheaves in the flood time
      Spin down the whirling Po.

And so on in verses which innumerable schoolboys of inferior pretensions
to Macaulay's know by heart. And in such cases the verdict of the
schoolboy is perhaps more valuable than that of the literary
connoisseur. There are, of course, many living poets who can do
tolerably something of far higher quality which Macaulay could not do at
all. But I don't know who, since Scott, could have done this particular
thing. Possibly Mr. Kingsley might have approached it, or the poet, if
he would have condescended so far, who sang the bearing of the good news
from Ghent to Aix. In any case, the feat is significant of Macaulay's
true power. It looks easy; it involves no demands upon the higher
reasoning or imaginative powers: but nobody will believe it to be easy
who observes the extreme rarity of a success in a feat so often

A similar remark is suggested by Macaulay's 'Essays.' Read such an essay
as that upon Clive, or Warren Hastings, or Chatham. The story seems to
tell itself. The characters are so strongly marked, the events fall so
easily into their places, that we fancy that the narrator's business has
been done to his hand. It wants little critical experience to discover
that this massive simplicity is really indicative of an art not, it may
be, of the highest order, but truly admirable for its purpose. It
indicates not only a gigantic memory, but a glowing mind, which has
fused a crude mass of materials into unity. If we do not find the sudden
touches which reveal the philosophical sagacity or the imaginative
insight of the highest order of intellects, we recognise the true
rhetorical instinct. The outlines may be harsh, and the colours too
glaring; but the general effect has been carefully studied. The details
are wrought in with consummate skill. We indulge in an intercalary pish!
here and there; but we are fascinated and we remember. The actual amount
of intellectual force which goes to the composition of such written
archives is immense, though the quality may leave something to be
desired. Shrewd common-sense may be an inferior substitute for
philosophy, and the faculty which brings remote objects close to the eye
of an ordinary observer for the loftier faculty which tinges everyday
life with the hues of mystic contemplation. But when the common
faculties are present in so abnormal a degree, they begin to have a
dignity of their own.

It is impossible in such matters to establish any measure of comparison.
No analysis will enable us to say how much pedestrian capacity may be
fairly regarded as equivalent to a small capacity for soaring above the
solid earth, and therefore the question as to the relative value of
Macaulay's work and that of some men of loftier aims and less perfect
execution must be left to individual taste. We can only say that it is
something so to have written the history of many national heroes as to
make their faded glories revive to active life in the memory of their
countrymen. So long as Englishmen are what they are--and they don't seem
to change as rapidly as might be wished--they will turn to Macaulay's
pages to gain a vivid impression of our greatest achievements during an
important period.

Nor is this all. The fire which glows in Macaulay's history, the intense
patriotic feeling, the love of certain moral qualities, is not
altogether of the highest kind. His ideal of national and individual
greatness might easily be criticised. But the sentiment, as far as it
goes, is altogether sound and manly. He is too fond, it has been said,
of incessant moralising. From a scientific point of view the moralising
is irrelevant. We want to study the causes and the nature of great
social movements; and when we are stopped in order to inquire how far
the prominent actors in them were hurried beyond ordinary rules, we are
transported into a different order of thought. It would be as much to
the purpose if we approved an earthquake for upsetting a fort, and
blamed it for moving the foundations of a church. Macaulay can never
understand this point of view. With him, history is nothing more than a
sum of biographies. And even from a biographical point of view his
moralising is often troublesome. He not only insists upon transporting
party prejudice into his estimates, and mauls poor James II. as he
mauled the Tories in 1832; but he applies obviously inadequate tests. It
is absurd to call upon men engaged in a life-and-death wrestle to pay
scrupulous attention to the ordinary rules of politeness. There are
times when judgments guided by constitutional precedent become
ludicrously out of place, and when the best man is he who aims
straightest at the heart of his antagonist. But, in spite of such
drawbacks, Macaulay's genuine sympathy for manliness and force of
character generally enables him to strike pretty nearly the true note.
To learn the true secret of Cromwell's character we must go to Carlyle,
who can sympathise with deep currents of religious enthusiasm. Macaulay
retains too much of the old Whig distrust for all that it calls
fanaticism fully to recognise the grandeur beneath the grotesque outside
of the Puritan. But Macaulay tells us most distinctly why Englishmen
warm at the name of the great Protector. We, like the banished
Cavaliers, 'glow with an emotion of national pride' at his animated
picture of the unconquerable Ironsides. One phrase may be sufficiently
illustrative. After quoting Clarendon's story of the Scotch nobleman who
forced Charles to leave the field of Naseby by seizing his horse's
bridle, 'no man,' says Macaulay, 'who had much value for his life would
have tried to perform the same friendly office on that day for Oliver

Macaulay, in short, always feels, and therefore communicates, a hearty
admiration for sheer manliness. And some of his portraits of great men
have therefore a genuine power, and show the deeper insight which comes
from true sympathy. He estimates the respectable observer of
constitutional proprieties too highly; he is unduly repelled by the
external oddities of the truly masculine and noble Johnson; but his
enthusiasm for his pet hero, William, or for Chatham or Clive, carries
us along with him. And at moments when he is narrating their exploits,
and can forget his elaborate argumentations and refrain from bits of
deliberate bombast, the style becomes graphic in the higher sense of a
much-abused word, and we confess that we are listening to genuine
eloquence. Putting aside for the moment recollection of foibles, almost
too obvious to deserve the careful demonstration which they have
sometimes received, we are glad to surrender ourselves to the charm of
his straightforward, clear-headed, hard-hitting declamation. There is no
writer with whom it is easier to find fault, or the limits of whose
power may be more distinctly defined; but within his own sphere he goes
forward, as he went through life, with a kind of grand confidence in
himself and his cause, which is attractive, and at times even
provocative of sympathetic enthusiasm.

Macaulay said, in his Diary, that he wrote his 'History' with an eye to
a remote past and a remote future. He meant to erect a monument more
enduring than brass, and the ambition at least stimulated him to
admirable thoroughness of workmanship. How far his aim was secured must
be left to the decision of a posterity which will not trouble itself
about the susceptibilities of candidates for its favour. In one sense,
however, Macaulay must be interesting so long as the type which he so
fully represents continues to exist. Whig has become an old-fashioned
phrase, and is repudiated by modern Liberals and Radicals, who think
themselves wiser than their fathers. The decay of the old name implies a
remarkable political change; but I doubt whether it implies more than a
very superficial change in the national character. New classes and new
ideas have come upon the stage; but they have a curious family likeness
to the old. The Whiggism whose peculiarities Macaulay reflected so
faithfully represents some of the most deeply-seated tendencies of the
national character. It has, therefore, both its ugly and its honourable
side. Its disregard, or rather its hatred, for pure reason, its
exaltation of expediency above truth and precedent above principle, its
instinctive dread of strong religious or political faiths, are of course
questionable qualities. Yet even they have their nobler side. There is
something almost sublime about the grand unreasonableness of the average
Englishman. His dogged contempt for all foreigners and philosophers,
his intense resolution to have his own way and use his own eyes, to see
nothing that does not come within his narrow sphere of vision, and to
see it quite clearly before he acts upon it, are of course abhorrent to
thinkers of a different order. But they are great qualities in the
struggle for existence which must determine the future of the world. The
Englishman, armed in his panoply of self-content, and grasping facts
with unequalled tenacity, goes on trampling upon acuter sensibilities,
but somehow shouldering his way successfully through the troubles of the
universe. Strength may be combined with stupidity, but even then it is
not to be trifled with. Macaulay's sympathy with these qualities led to
some annoying peculiarities, to a certain brutal insularity, and to a
commonness, sometimes a vulgarity, of style which is easily criticised.
But, at least, we must confess that, to use an epithet which always
comes up in speaking of him, he is a thoroughly manly writer. There is
nothing silly or finical about him. He sticks to his colours resolutely
and honourably. If he flatters his countrymen, it is the unconscious and
spontaneous effect of his participation in their weaknesses. He never
knowingly calls black white, or panders to an ungenerous sentiment. He
is combative to a fault, but his combativeness is allied to a genuine
love of fair-play. When he hates a man, he calls him knave or fool with
unflinching frankness, but he never uses a base weapon. The wounds which
he inflicts may hurt, but they do not fester. His patriotism may be
narrow, but it implies faith in the really good qualities, the
manliness, the spirit of justice, and the strong moral sense of his
countrymen. He is proud of the healthy vigorous stock from which he
springs; and the fervour of his enthusiasm, though it may shock a
delicate taste, has embodied itself in writings which will long continue
to be the typical illustration of qualities of which we are all proud at
bottom--indeed, be it said in passing, a good deal too proud.



    | Transcriber's Notes:                                       |
    |                                                            |
    | Page 31: illlustrations amended to illustrations           |
    | Page 38: Single quote mark removed from end of excerpt.    |
    |   ("And Shelburne's fame through laughing valleys ring!")  |
    | Page 81: idiosyncracy amended to idiosyncrasy              |
    | Page 117: Single quote mark in front of "miserable"        |
    |   removed. ("'The man they called Dizzy' can despise a     |
    |   miserable creature ...")                                 |
    | Page 131: sweatmeats amended to sweetmeats                 |
    | Page 143: aristocractic amended to aristocratic            |
    | Page 147: sentiment amended to sentiments                  |
    | Page 163: Mahommedan amended to Mohammedan                 |
    | Page 181: Macchiavelli amended to Machiavelli              |
    | Page 241: Full stop added after "third generation."        |
    | Page 247: Comma added after "We  both love the             |
    |   Constitution...."                                        |
    | Page 325: chartalan amended to charlatan                   |
    | Page 368: Shakspeare amended to Shakespeare                |
    |                                                            |
    | 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: dreamlike/dream-like; evildoers/evil-doers;      |
    | highflown/high-flown; jogtrot/jog-trot;                    |
    | overdoses/over-doses; textbook/text-book.                  |

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