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Title: Obiter Dicta
Author: Birrell, Augustine, 1850-1933
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Obiter Dicta" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.

Aldarondo, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed


By Augustine Birrell

   'An _obiter dictum_, in the language of the law, is
    a gratuitous opinion, an individual impertinence, which,
    whether it be wise or foolish, right or wrong, bindeth
    none--not even the lips that utter it.'



_This seems a very little book to introduce to so large a continent. No
such enterprise would ever have suggested itself to the home-keeping
mind of the Author, who, none the less, when this edition was proposed
to him by Messrs. Scribner on terms honorable to them and grateful
to him, found the notion of being read in America most fragrant and

London, February 13, 1885._




The accomplishments of our race have of late become so varied, that it
is often no easy task to assign him whom we would judge to his proper
station among men; and yet, until this has been done, the guns of
our criticism cannot be accurately levelled, and as a consequence the
greater part of our fire must remain futile. He, for example, who would
essay to take account of Mr. Gladstone, must read much else besides
Hansard; he must brush up his Homer, and set himself to acquire some
theology. The place of Greece in the providential order of the world,
and of laymen in the Church of England, must be considered, together
with a host of other subjects of much apparent irrelevance to a
statesman's life. So too in the case of his distinguished rival,
whose death eclipsed the gaiety of politics and banished epigram from
Parliament: keen must be the critical faculty which can nicely discern
where the novelist ended and the statesman began in Benjamin Disraeli.

Happily, no such difficulty is now before us. Thomas Carlyle was a
writer of books, and he was nothing else. Beneath this judgment he would
have winced, but have remained silent, for the facts are so.

Little men sometimes, though not perhaps so often as is taken for
granted, complain of their destiny, and think they have been hardly
treated, in that they have been allowed to remain so undeniably small;
but great men, with hardly an exception, nauseate their greatness, for
not being of the particular sort they most fancy. The poet Gray was
passionately fond, so his biographers tell us, of military history; but
he took no Quebec. General Wolfe took Quebec, and whilst he was taking
it, recorded the fact that he would sooner have written Gray's 'Elegy';
and so Carlyle--who panted for action, who hated eloquence, whose heroes
were Cromwell and Wellington, Arkwright and the 'rugged Brindley,'
who beheld with pride and no ignoble envy the bridge at Auldgarth
his mason-father had helped to build half a century before, and then
exclaimed, 'A noble craft, that of a mason; a good building will last
longer than most books--than one book in a million'; who despised men of
letters, and abhorred the 'reading public'; whose gospel was Silence
and Action--spent his life in talking and writing; and his legacy to the
world is thirty-four volumes octavo.

There is a familiar melancholy in this; but the critic has no need to
grow sentimental. We must have men of thought as well as men of action:
poets as much as generals; authors no less than artizans; libraries
at least as much as militia; and therefore we may accept and proceed
critically to examine Carlyle's thirty-four volumes, remaining somewhat
indifferent to the fact that had he had the fashioning of his own
destiny, we should have had at his hands blows instead of books.

Taking him, then, as he was--a man of letters--perhaps the best type of
such since Dr. Johnson died in Fleet Street, what are we to say of his
thirty-four volumes?

In them are to be found criticism, biography, history, politics, poetry,
and religion. I mention this variety because of a foolish notion, at one
time often found suitably lodged in heads otherwise empty, that Carlyle
was a passionate old man, dominated by two or three extravagant
ideas, to which he was for ever giving utterance in language of equal
extravagance. The thirty-four volumes octavo render this opinion
untenable by those who can read. Carlyle cannot be killed by an epigram,
nor can the many influences that moulded him be referred to any single
source. The rich banquet his genius has spread for us is of many
courses. The fire and fury of the Latter-Day Pamphlets may be
disregarded by the peaceful soul, and the preference given to the
'Past' of 'Past and Present,' which, with its intense and sympathetic
mediaevalism, might have been written by a Tractarian. The 'Life of
Sterling' is the favourite book of many who would sooner pick oakum
than read 'Frederick the Great' all through; whilst the mere student of
_belles lettres_ may attach importance to the essays on Johnson, Burns,
and Scott, on Voltaire and Diderot, on Goethe and Novalis, and yet
remain blankly indifferent to 'Sartor Resartus' and 'The French

But true as this is, it is none the less true that, excepting possibly
the 'Life of Schiller,' Carlyle wrote nothing not clearly recognisable
as his. All his books are his very own--bone of his bone, and flesh
of his flesh. They are not stolen goods, nor elegant exhibitions of
recently and hastily acquired wares.

This being so, it may be as well if, before proceeding any further, I
attempt, with a scrupulous regard to brevity, to state what I take to
be the invariable indications of Mr. Carlyle's literary handiwork--the
tokens of his presence--'Thomas Carlyle, his mark.'

First of all, it may be stated, without a shadow of a doubt, that he
is one of those who would sooner be wrong with Plato than right with
Aristotle; in one word, he is a mystic. What he says of Novalis may with
equal truth be said of himself: 'He belongs to that class of persons
who do not recognise the syllogistic method as the chief organ for
investigating truth, or feel themselves bound at all times to stop short
where its light fails them. Many of his opinions he would despair of
proving in the most patient court of law, and would remain well content
that they should be disbelieved there.' In philosophy we shall not be
very far wrong if we rank Carlyle as a follower of Bishop Berkeley;
for an idealist he undoubtedly was. 'Matter,' says he, 'exists only
spiritually, and to represent some idea, and body it forth. Heaven and
Earth are but the time-vesture of the Eternal. The Universe is but one
vast symbol of God; nay, if thou wilt have it, what is man himself but a
symbol of God? Is not all that he does symbolical, a revelation to sense
of the mystic God-given force that is in him?--a gospel of Freedom,
which he, the "Messias of Nature," preaches as he can by act and word.'
'Yes, Friends,' he elsewhere observes, 'not our logical mensurative
faculty, but our imaginative one, is King over us, I might say Priest
and Prophet, to lead us heavenward, or magician and wizard to lead us
hellward. The understanding is indeed thy window--too clear thou canst
not make it; but phantasy is thy eye, with its colour-giving retina,
healthy or diseased.' It would be easy to multiply instances of this,
the most obvious and interesting trait of Mr. Carlyle's writing; but
I must bring my remarks upon it to a close by reminding you of his
two favourite quotations, which have both significance. One from
Shakespeare's _Tempest_:

   'We are such stuff
    As dreams are made of, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep;'

the other, the exclamation of the Earth-spirit, in Goethe's _Faust_:

   ''Tis thus at the roaring loom of Time I ply,
    And weave for God the garment thou seest Him by.'

But this is but one side of Carlyle. There is another as strongly
marked, which is his second note; and that is what he somewhere calls
'his stubborn realism.' The combination of the two is as charming as it
is rare. No one at all acquainted with his writings can fail to remember
his almost excessive love of detail; his lively taste for facts, simply
as facts. Imaginary joys and sorrows may extort from him nothing but
grunts and snorts; but let him only worry out for himself, from that
great dust-heap called 'history,' some undoubted fact of human and
tender interest, and, however small it may be, relating possibly to
some one hardly known, and playing but a small part in the events he is
recording, and he will wax amazingly sentimental, and perhaps shed as
many real tears as Sterne or Dickens do sham ones over their figments.
This realism of Carlyle's gives a great charm to his histories and
biographies. The amount he tells you is something astonishing--no
platitudes, no rigmarole, no common-form, articles which are the staple
of most biography, but, instead of them, all the facts and features
of the case--pedigree, birth, father and mother, brothers and sisters,
education, physiognomy, personal habits, dress, mode of speech; nothing
escapes him. It was a characteristic criticism of his, on one of Miss
Martineau's American books, that the story of the way Daniel Webster
used to stand before the fire with his hands in his pockets was worth
all the politics, philosophy, political economy, and sociology to be
found in other portions of the good lady's writings. Carlyle's eye was
indeed a terrible organ: he saw everything. Emerson, writing to
him, says: 'I think you see as pictures every street, church,
Parliament-house, barracks, baker's shop, mutton-stall, forge, wharf,
and ship, and whatever stands, creeps, rolls, or swims thereabout, and
make all your own.' He crosses over, one rough day, to Dublin; and he
jots down in his diary the personal appearance of some unhappy creatures
he never saw before or expected to see again; how men laughed, cried,
swore, were all of huge interest to Carlyle. Give him a fact, he loaded
you with thanks; propound a theory, you were rewarded with the most
vivid abuse.

This intense love for, and faculty of perceiving, what one may call the
'concrete picturesque,' accounts for his many hard sayings about fiction
and poetry. He could not understand people being at the trouble of
inventing characters and situations when history was full of men and
women; when streets were crowded and continents were being peopled under
their very noses. Emerson's sphynx-like utterances irritated him at
times, as they well might; his orations and the like. 'I long,' he says,
'to see some _concrete thing_, some Event--Man's Life, American Forest,
or piece of Creation which this Emerson loves and wonders at, well
_Emersonised_, depicted by Emerson--filled with the life of Emerson, and
cast forth from him then to live by itself.' [*] But Carlyle forgot
the sluggishness of the ordinary imagination, and, for the moment, the
stupendous dulness of the ordinary historian. It cannot be matter
for surprise that people prefer Smollett's 'Humphrey Clinker' to his
'History of England.'

    [* Footnote: One need scarcely add, nothing of the sort
    ever proceeded from Emerson. How should it? Where was it
    to come from? When, to employ language of Mr. Arnold's
    own, 'any poor child of nature' overhears the author of
    'Essays in Criticism' telling two worlds that Emerson's
    'Essays' are the most valuable prose contributions to the
    literature of the century, his soul is indeed filled 'with
    an unutterable sense of lamentation and mourning and woe.'
    Mr. Arnold's silence was once felt to be provoking.
    Wordsworth's lines kept occurring to one's mind--

       'Poor Matthew, all his frolics o'er,
        Is silent as a standing pool.'

    But it was better so.]

The third and last mark to which I call attention is his humour.
Nowhere, surely, in the whole field of English literature, Shakespeare
excepted, do you come upon a more abundant vein of humour than
Carlyle's, though I admit that the quality of the ore is not of the
finest. His every production is bathed in humour. This must never be,
though it often has been, forgotten. He is not to be taken literally.
He is always a humourist, not unfrequently a writer of burlesque, and
occasionally a buffoon.

Although the spectacle of Mr. Swinburne taking Mr. Carlyle to task, as
he recently did, for indelicacy, has an oddity all its own, so far as
I am concerned I cannot but concur with this critic in thinking that
Carlyle has laid himself open, particularly in his 'Frederick the
Great,' to the charge one usually associates with the great and terrible
name of Dean Swift; but it is the Dean with a difference, and the
difference is all in Carlyle's favour. The former deliberately pelts
you with dirt, as did in old days gentlemen electors their parliamentary
candidates; the latter only occasionally splashes you, as does a public
vehicle pursuing on a wet day its uproarious course.

These, then, I take to be Carlyle's three principal marks or notes:
mysticism in thought, realism in description, and humour in both.

To proceed now to his actual literary work.

First, then, I would record the fact that he was a great critic, and
this at a time when our literary criticism was a scandal. He more than
any other has purged our vision and widened our horizons in this great
matter. He taught us there was no sort of finality, but only nonsense,
in that kind of criticism which was content with laying down some
foreign masterpiece with the observation that it was not suited for the
English taste. He was, if not the first, almost the first critic, who
pursued in his criticism the historical method, and sought to make
us understand what we were required to judge. It has been said that
Carlyle's criticisms are not final, and that he has not said the last
word about Voltaire, Diderot, Richter, and Goethe. I can well believe
it. But reserving 'last words' for the use of the last man (to whom they
would appear to belong), it is surely something to have said the _first_
sensible words uttered in English on these important subjects. We ought
not to forget the early days of the _Foreign and Quarterly Review_. We
have critics now, quieter, more reposeful souls, taking their ease on
Zion, who have entered upon a world ready to welcome them, whose keen
rapiers may cut velvet better than did the two-handed broadsword of
Carlyle, and whose later date may enable them to discern what their
forerunner failed to perceive; but when the critics of this century come
to be criticized by the critics of the next, an honourable, if not the
highest place will be awarded to Carlyle.

Turn we now to the historian and biographer. History and biography much
resemble one another in the pages of Carlyle, and occupy more than
half his thirty-four volumes; nor is this to be wondered at, since they
afford him fullest scope for his three strong points--his love of the
wonderful; his love of telling a story, as the children say, 'from the
very beginning;' and his humour. His view of history is sufficiently
lofty. History, says he, is the true epic poem, a universal divine
scripture whose plenary inspiration no one out of Bedlam shall bring
into question. Nor is he quite at one with the ordinary historian as to
the true historical method. 'The time seems coming when he who sees no
world but that of courts and camps, and writes only how soldiers were
drilled and shot, and how this ministerial conjurer out-conjured that
other, and then guided, or at least held, something which he called
the rudder of Government, but which was rather the spigot of Taxation,
wherewith in place of steering he could tax, will pass for a more or
less instructive Gazetteer, but will no longer be called an Historian.'

Nor does the philosophical method of writing history please him any

'Truly if History is Philosophy teaching by examples, the writer fitted
to compose history is hitherto an unknown man. Better were it that mere
earthly historians should lower such pretensions, more suitable for
omniscience than for human science, and aiming only at some picture of
the things acted, which picture itself will be a poor approximation,
leave the inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged secret--or at
most, in reverent faith, pause over the mysterious vestiges of Him whose
path is in the great deep of Time, whom History indeed reveals, but only
all History and in Eternity will clearly reveal.'

This same transcendental way of looking at things is very noticeable
in the following view of Biography: 'For, as the highest gospel was a
Biography, so is the life of every good man still an indubitable gospel,
and preaches to the eye and heart and whole man, so that devils
even must believe and tremble, these gladdest tidings. Man is
heaven-born--not the thrall of circumstances, of necessity, but the
victorious subduer thereof.' These, then, being his views, what are
we to say of his works? His three principal historical works are, as
everyone knows, 'Cromwell,' 'The French Revolution,' and 'Frederick the
Great,' though there is a very considerable amount of other historical
writing scattered up and down his works. But what are we to say of these
three? Is he, by virtue of them, entitled to the rank and influence of a
great historian? What have we a right to demand of an historian? First,
surely, stern veracity, which implies not merely knowledge but honesty.
An historian stands in a fiduciary position towards his readers, and
if he withholds from them important facts likely to influence their
judgment, he is guilty of fraud, and, when justice is done in this
world, will be condemned to refund all moneys he has made by his false
professions, with compound interest. This sort of fraud is unknown to
the law, but to nobody else. 'Let me know the facts!' may well be the
agonized cry of the student who finds himself floating down what Arnold
has called 'the vast Mississippi of falsehood, History.' Secondly comes
a catholic temper and way of looking at things. The historian should be
a gentleman and possess a moral breadth of temperament. There should be
no bitter protesting spirit about him. He should remember the world he
has taken upon himself to write about is a large place, and that nobody
set him up over us. Thirdly, he must be a born story-teller. If he is
not this, he has mistaken his vocation. He may be a great philosopher, a
useful editor, a profound scholar, and anything else his friends like
to call him, except a great historian. How does Carlyle meet these
requirements? His veracity, that is, his laborious accuracy, is admitted
by the only persons competent to form an opinion, namely, independent
investigators who have followed in his track; but what may be called
the internal evidence of the case also supplies a strong proof of it.
Carlyle was, as everyone knows, a hero-worshipper. It is part of his
mysticism. With him man, as well as God, is a spirit, either of good or
evil, and as such should be either worshipped or reviled. He is never
himself till he has discovered or invented a hero; and, when he has got
him, he tosses and dandles him as a mother her babe. This is a terrible
temptation to put in the way of an historian, and few there be who are
found able to resist it. How easy to keep back an ugly fact, sure to
be a stumbling-block in the way of weak brethren! Carlyle is above
suspicion in this respect. He knows no reticence. Nothing restrains
him; not even the so-called proprieties of history. He may, after his
boisterous fashion, pour scorn upon you for looking grave, as you read
in his vivid pages of the reckless manner in which too many of his
heroes drove coaches-and-six through the Ten Commandments. As likely as
not he will call you a blockhead, and tell you to close your wide mouth
and cease shrieking. But, dear me! hard words break no bones, and it is
an amazing comfort to know the facts. Is he writing of Cromwell?--down
goes everything--letters, speeches, as they were written, as they were
delivered. Few great men are edited after this fashion. Were they to be
so--Luther, for example--many eyes would be opened very wide. Nor does
Carlyle fail in comment. If the Protector makes a somewhat distant
allusion to the Barbadoes, Carlyle is at your elbow to tell you it
means his selling people to work as slaves in the West Indies. As for
Mirabeau, 'our wild Gabriel Honoré,' well! we are told all about him;
nor is Frederick let off a single absurdity or atrocity. But when we
have admitted the veracity, what are we to say of the catholic temper,
the breadth of temperament, the wide Shakespearian tolerance? Carlyle
ought to have them all. By nature he was tolerant enough; so true a
humourist could never be a bigot. When his war-paint is not on, a child
might lead him. His judgments are gracious, chivalrous, tinged with a
kindly melancholy and divine pity. But this mood is never for long. Some
gadfly stings him: he seizes his tomahawk and is off on the trail.
It must sorrowfully be admitted that a long life of opposition and
indigestion, of fierce warfare with cooks and Philistines, spoilt his
temper, never of the best, and made him too often contemptuous, savage,
unjust. His language then becomes unreasonable, unbearable, bad.
Literature takes care of herself. You disobey her rules: well and good,
she shuts her door in your face; you plead your genius: she replies,
'Your temper,' and bolts it. Carlyle has deliberately destroyed, by his
own wilfulness, the value of a great deal he has written. It can never
become classical. Alas! that this should be true of too many eminent
Englishmen of our time. Language such as was, at one time, almost
habitual with Mr. Ruskin, is a national humiliation, giving point to the
Frenchman's sneer as to our distinguishing literary characteristic
being '_la brutalité_.' In Carlyle's case much must be allowed for his
rhetoric and humour. In slang phrase, he always 'piles it on.' Does
a bookseller misdirect a parcel, he exclaims, 'My malison on all
Blockheadisms and Torpid Infidelities of which this world is full.'
Still, all allowances made, it is a thousand pities; and one's thoughts
turn away from this stormy old man and take refuge in the quiet haven of
the Oratory at Birmingham, with his great Protagonist, who, throughout
an equally long life spent in painful controversy, and wielding weapons
as terrible as Carlyle's own, has rarely forgotten to be urbane, and
whose every sentence is a 'thing of beauty.' It must, then, be owned
that too many of Carlyle's literary achievements 'lack a gracious
somewhat.' By force of his genius he 'smites the rock and spreads
the water;' but then, like Moses, 'he desecrates, belike, the deed in

Our third requirement was, it may be remembered, the gift of the
storyteller. Here one is on firm ground. Where is the equal of the man
who has told us the story of 'The Diamond Necklace'?

It is the vogue, nowadays, to sneer at picturesque writing. Professor
Seeley, for reasons of his own, appears to think that whilst politics,
and, I presume religion, may be made as interesting as you please,
history should be as dull as possible. This, surely, is a jaundiced
view. If there is one thing it is legitimate to make more interesting
than another, it is the varied record of man's life upon earth. So long
as we have human hearts and await human destinies, so long as we are
alive to the pathos, the dignity, the comedy of human life, so long
shall we continue to rank above the philosopher, higher than the
politician, the great artist, be he called dramatist or historian, who
makes us conscious of the divine movement of events, and of our fathers
who were before us. Of course we assume accuracy and labor in our
animated historian; though, for that matter, other things being equal, I
prefer a lively liar to a dull one.

Carlyle is sometimes as irresistible as 'The Campbells are Coming,' or
'Auld Lang Syne.' He has described some men and some events once and for
all, and so takes his place with Thucydides, Tacitus and Gibbon. Pedants
may try hard to forget this, and may in their laboured nothings seek to
ignore the author of 'Cromwell' and 'The French Revolution'; but as well
might the pedestrian in Cumberland or Inverness seek to ignore Helvellyn
or Ben Nevis. Carlyle is _there_, and will remain there, when the pedant
of today has been superseded by the pedant of to-morrow.

Remembering all this, we are apt to forget his faults, his
eccentricities, and vagaries, his buffooneries, his too-outrageous
cynicisms and his too-intrusive egotisms, and to ask ourselves--if it
be not this man, who is it then to be? Macaulay, answer some; and
Macaulay's claims are not of the sort to go unrecognised in a world
which loves clearness of expression and of view only too well.
Macaulay's position never admitted of doubt. We know what to expect, and
we always get it. It is like the old days of W. G. Grace's cricket. We
went to see the leviathan slog for six, and we saw it. We expected him
to do it, and he did it. So with Macaulay--the good Whig, as he takes up
the History, settles himself down in his chair, and knows it is going
to be a bad time for the Tories. Macaulay's style--his much-praised
style--is ineffectual for the purpose of telling the truth about
anything. It is splendid, but _splendide mendax_, and in Macaulay's case
the style was the man. He had enormous knowledge, and a noble spirit;
his knowledge enriched his style and his spirit consecrated it to the
service of Liberty. We do well to be proud of Macaulay; but we must add
that, great as was his knowledge, great also was his ignorance, which
was none the less ignorance because it was wilful; noble as was his
spirit, the range of subject over which it energized was painfully
restricted. He looked out upon the world, but, behold, only the Whigs
were good. Luther and Loyola, Cromwell and Claverhouse, Carlyle and
Newman--they moved him not; their enthusiasms were delusions, and their
politics demonstrable errors. Whereas, of Lord Somers and Charles first
Earl Grey it is impossible to speak without emotion. But the world
does not belong to the Whigs; and a great historian must be capable of
sympathizing both with delusions and demonstrable errors. Mr. Gladstone
has commented with force upon what he calls Macaulay's invincible
ignorance, and further says that to certain aspects of a case
(particularly those aspects most pleasing to Mr. Gladstone) Macaulay's
mind was hermetically sealed. It is difficult to resist these
conclusions; and it would appear no rash inference from them, that a man
in a state of invincible ignorance and with a mind hermetically sealed,
whatever else he may be--orator, advocate, statesman, journalist, man of
letters--can never be a great historian. But, indeed, when one remembers
Macaulay's limited range of ideas: the commonplaceness of his morality,
and of his descriptions; his absence of humour, and of pathos--for
though Miss Martineau says she found one pathetic passage in the
History, I have often searched for it in vain; and then turns to
Carlyle--to his almost bewildering affluence of thought, fancy, feeling,
humour, pathos--his biting pen, his scorching criticism, his world-wide
sympathy (save in certain moods) with everything but the smug
commonplace--to prefer Macaulay to him, is like giving the preference to
Birket Foster over Salvator Rosa. But if it is not Macaulay, who is it
to be? Mr. Hepworth Dixon or Mr. Froude? Of Bishop Stubbs and Professor
Freeman it behoves every ignoramus to speak with respect. Horny-handed
sons of toil, they are worthy of their wage. Carlyle has somewhere
struck a distinction between the historical artist and the historical
artizan. The bishop and the professor are historical artizans; artists
they are not--and the great historian is a great artist.

England boasts two such artists. Edward Gibbon and Thomas Carlyle.
The elder historian may be compared to one of the great Alpine
roadways--sublime in its conception, heroic in its execution, superb in
its magnificent uniformity of good workmanship. The younger resembles
one of his native streams, pent in at times between huge rocks, and
tormented into foam, and then effecting its escape down some precipice,
and spreading into cool expanses below; but however varied may be its
fortunes--however startling its changes--always in motion, always in
harmony with the scene around. Is it gloomy? It is with the gloom of the
thunder-cloud. Is it bright? It is with the radiance of the sun.

It is with some consternation that I approach the subject of Carlyle's
politics. One handles them as does an inspector of police a parcel
reported to contain dynamite. The Latter-Day Pamphlets might not unfitly
be labelled 'Dangerous Explosives.'

In this matter of politics there were two Carlyles; and, as generally
happens in such cases, his last state was worse than his first. Up to
1843, he not unfairly might be called a Liberal--of uncertain vote it
may be--a man difficult to work with, and impatient of discipline, but
still aglow with generous heat; full of large-hearted sympathy with
the poor and oppressed, and of intense hatred of the cruel and
shallow sophistries that then passed for maxims, almost for axioms, of
government. In the year 1819, when the yeomanry round Glasgow was called
out to keep down some dreadful monsters called 'Radicals,' Carlyle
describes how he met an advocate of his acquaintance hurrying along,
musket in hand, to his drill on the Links. 'You should have the like of
this,' said he, cheerily patting his gun. 'Yes, was the reply, 'but
I haven't yet quite settled on which side.' And when he did make his
choice, on the whole he chose rightly. The author of that noble pamphlet
'Chartism,' published in 1840, was at least once a Liberal. Let me quote
a passage that has stirred to effort many a generous heart now cold in
death: 'Who would suppose that Education were a thing which had to be
advocated on the ground of local expediency, or indeed on any ground?
As if it stood not on the basis of an everlasting duty, as a prime
necessity of man! It is a thing that should need no advocating; much
as it does actually need. To impart the gift of thinking to those who
cannot think, and yet who could in that case think: this, one
would imagine, was the first function a government had to set about
discharging. Were it not a cruel thing to see, in any province of an
empire, the inhabitants living all mutilated in their limbs, each strong
man with his right arm lamed? How much crueller to find the strong soul
with its eyes still sealed--its eyes extinct, so that it sees not! Light
has come into the world; but to this poor peasant it has come in vain.
For six thousand years the sons of Adam, in sleepless effort, have been
devising, doing, discovering; in mysterious, infinite, indissoluble
communion, warring, a little band of brothers, against the black empire
of necessity and night; they have accomplished such a conquest and
conquests; and to this man it is all as if it had not been. The
four-and-twenty letters of the alphabet are still runic enigmas to him.
He passes by on the other side; and that great spiritual kingdom,
the toil-won conquest of his own brothers, all that his brothers have
conquered, is a thing not extant for him. An invisible empire; he knows
it not--suspects it not. And is not this his withal; the conquest of
his own brothers, the lawfully acquired possession of all men? Baleful
enchantment lies over him, from generation to generation; he knows
not that such an empire is his--that such an empire is his at all....
Heavier wrong is not done under the sun. It lasts from year to year,
from century to century; the blinded sire slaves himself out, and leaves
a blinded son; and men, made in the image of God, continue as two-legged
beasts of labour: and in the largest empire of the world it is a debate
whether a small fraction of the revenue of one day shall, after thirteen
centuries, be laid out on it, or not laid out on it. Have we governors?
Have we teachers? Have we had a Church these thirteen hundred years?
What is an overseer of souls, an archoverseer, archiepiscopus? Is he
something? If so, let him lay his hand on his heart and say what thing!'

Nor was the man who in 1843 wrote as follows altogether at sea in

'Of Time Bill, Factory Bill, and other such Bills, the present editor
has no authority to speak. He knows not, it is for others than he
to know, in what specific ways it may be feasible to interfere with
legislation between the workers and the master-workers--knows only and
sees that legislative interference, and interferences not a few, are
indispensable. Nay, interference has begun; there are already factory
inspectors. Perhaps there might be mine inspectors too. Might there
not be furrow-field inspectors withal, to ascertain how, on _7s. 6d._
a week, a human family does live? Again, are not sanitary regulations
possible for a legislature? Baths, free air, a wholesome temperature,
ceilings twenty feet high, might be ordained by Act of Parliament in
all establishments licensed as mills. There are such mills already
extant--honour to the builders of them. The legislature can say to
others, "Go you and do likewise--better if you can."'

By no means a bad programme for 1843; and a good part of it has been
carried out, but with next to no aid from Carlyle.

The Radical party has struggled on as best it might, without the author
of 'Chartism' and 'The French Revolution'--

   'They have marched prospering, not through his presence;
    Songs have inspired them, not from his lyre;'

and it is no party spirit that leads one to regret the change of mind
which prevented the later public life of this great man, and now
the memory of it, from being enriched with something better than a
five-pound note for Governor Eyre.

But it could not be helped. What brought about the rupture was his
losing faith in the ultimate destiny of man upon earth. No more terrible
loss can be sustained. It is of both heart and hope. He fell back upon
heated visions of heaven-sent heroes, devoting their early days for
the most part to hoodwinking the people, and their latter ones, more
heroically, to shooting them.

But it is foolish to quarrel with results, and we may learn something
even from the later Carlyle. We lay down John Bright's Reform Speeches,
and take up Carlyle and light upon a passage like this: 'Inexpressibly
delirious seems to me the puddle of Parliament and public upon what it
calls the Reform Measure, that is to say, the calling in of new supplies
of blockheadism, gullibility, bribability, amenability to beer and
balderdash, by way of amending the woes we have had from previous
supplies of that bad article.' This view must be accounted for as well
as Mr. Bright's. We shall do well to remember, with Carlyle, that the
best of all Reform Bills is that which each citizen passes in his own
breast, where it is pretty sure to meet with strenuous opposition.
The reform of ourselves is no doubt an heroic measure never to be
overlooked, and, in the face of accusations of gullibility, bribability,
amenability to beer and balderdash, our poor humanity can only stand
abashed, and feebly demur to the bad English in which the charges are
conveyed. But we can't all lose hope. We remember Sir David Ramsay's
reply to Lord Rea, once quoted by Carlyle himself. Then said his
lordship: 'Well, God mend all.' 'Nay, by God, Donald, we must help Him
to mend it!' It is idle to stand gaping at the heavens, waiting to feel
the thong of some hero of questionable morals and robust conscience; and
therefore, unless Reform Bills can be shown to have checked purity of
election, to have increased the stupidity of electors, and generally to
have promoted corruption--which notoriously they have not--we may allow
Carlyle to make his exit 'swearing,' and regard their presence in the
Statute Book, if not with rapture, at least, with equanimity.

But it must not be forgotten that the battle is still raging--the
issue is still uncertain. Mr. Froude is still free to assert that the
'_post-mortem_' will prove Carlyle was right. His political sagacity
no reader of 'Frederick' can deny; his insight into hidden causes
and far-away effects was keen beyond precedent--nothing he ever said
deserves contempt, though it may merit anger. If we would escape his
conclusion, we must not altogether disregard his premises. Bankruptcy
and death are the final heirs of imposture and make-believes. The old
faiths and forms are worn too threadbare by a thousand disputations to
bear the burden of the new democracy, which, if it is not merely to win
the battle but to hold the country, must be ready with new faiths and
forms of her own. They are within her reach if she but knew it; they
lie to her hand: surely they will not escape her grasp! If they do not,
then, in the glad day when worship is once more restored to man, he
will with becoming generosity forget much that Carlyle has written, and
remembering more, rank him amongst the prophets of humanity.

Carlyle's poetry can only be exhibited in long extracts, which would
be here out of place, and might excite controversy as to the meaning of
words, and draw down upon me the measureless malice of the metricists.
There are, however, passages in 'Sartor Resartus' and the 'French
Revolution' which have long appeared to me to be the sublimest poetry of
the century; and it was therefore with great pleasure that I found Mr.
Justice Stephen, in his book on 'Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,'
introducing a quotation from the 8th chapter of the 3rd book of 'Sartor
Resartus,' with the remark that 'it is perhaps the most memorable
utterance of the greatest poet of the age.'

As for Carlyle's religion, it may be said he had none, inasmuch as
he expounded no creed and put his name to no confession. This is the
pedantry of the schools. He taught us religion, as cold water and fresh
air teach us health, by rendering the conditions of disease well nigh
impossible. For more than half a century, with superhuman energy, he
struggled to establish the basis of all religions, 'reverence and godly
fear.' 'Love not pleasure, love God; this is the everlasting Yea.'

One's remarks might here naturally come to an end, with a word or two of
hearty praise of the brave course of life led by the man who awhile back
stood the acknowledged head of English letters. But the present time is
not the happiest for a panegyric on Carlyle. It would be in vain to
deny that the brightness of his reputation underwent an eclipse, visible
everywhere, by the publication of his 'Reminiscences.' They surprised
most of us, pained not a few, and hugely delighted that ghastly crew,
the wreckers of humanity, who are never so happy as when employed in
pulling down great reputations to their own miserable levels. When these
'baleful creatures,' as Carlyle would have called them, have lit upon
any passage indicative of conceit or jealousy or spite, they have
fastened upon it and screamed over it, with a pleasure but ill-concealed
and with a horror but ill-feigned. 'Behold,' they exclaim, 'your hero
robbed of the nimbus his inflated style cast around him--this preacher
and fault-finder reduced to his principal parts: and lo! the main
ingredient is most unmistakably "bile!"'

The critic, however, has nought to do either with the sighs of the
sorrowful, 'mourning when a hero falls,' or with the scorn of the
malicious, rejoicing, as did Bunyan's Juryman, Mr. Live-loose, when
Faithful was condemned to die: 'I could never endure him, for he would
always be condemning my way.'

The critic's task is to consider the book itself, _i. e._, the nature of
its contents, and how it came to be written at all.

When this has been done, there will not be found much demanding moral
censure; whilst the reader will note with delight, applied to the
trifling concerns of life, those extraordinary gifts of observation and
apprehension which have so often charmed him in the pages of history and

These peccant volumes contain but four sketches: one of his father,
written in 1832; the other three, of Edward Irving, Lord Jeffrey, and
Mrs. Carlyle, all written after the death of the last-named, in 1866.

The only fault that has been found with the first sketch is, that in
it Carlyle hazards the assertion that Scotland does not now contain his
father's like. It ought surely to be possible to dispute this opinion
without exhibiting emotion. To think well of their forbears is one
of the few weaknesses of Scotchmen. This sketch, as a whole, must be
carried to Carlyle's credit, and is a permanent addition to literature.
It is pious, after the high Roman fashion. It satisfies our finest sense
of the fit and proper. Just exactly so should a literate son write of an
illiterate peasant father. How immeasurable seems the distance between
the man from whom proceeded the thirty-four volumes we have been writing
about and the Calvinistic mason who didn't even know his Burns!--and yet
here we find the whole distance spanned by filial love.

The sketch of Lord Jeffrey is inimitable. One was getting tired of
Jeffrey, and prepared to give him the go-by, when Carlyle creates him
afresh, and, for the first time, we see the bright little man bewitching
us by what he is, disappointing us by what he is not. The spiteful
remarks the sketch contains may be considered, along with those of
the same nature to be found only too plentifully in the remaining two

After careful consideration of the worst of these remarks, Mrs.
Oliphant's explanation seems the true one; they are most of them
sparkling bits of Mrs. Carlyle's conversation. She, happily for herself,
had a lively wit, and, perhaps not so happily, a biting tongue, and was,
as Carlyle tells us, accustomed to make him laugh, as they drove home
together from London crushes, by far from genial observations on her
fellow-creatures, little recking--how should she?--that what was so
lightly uttered was being engraven on the tablets of the most marvellous
of memories, and was destined long afterwards to be written down in grim
earnest by a half-frenzied old man, and printed, in cold blood, by an
English gentleman.

The horrible description of Mrs. Irving's personal appearance, and the
other stories of the same connection, are recognised by Mrs. Oliphant as
in substance Mrs. Carlyle's; whilst the malicious account of Mrs. Basil
Montague's head-dress is attributed by Carlyle himself to his wife.
Still, after dividing the total, there is a good helping for each, and
blame would justly be Carlyle's due if we did not remember, as we
are bound to do, that, interesting as these three sketches are, their
interest is pathological, and ought never to have been given us. Mr.
Froude should have read them in tears, and burnt them in fire. There is
nothing surprising in the state of mind which produced them. They are
easily accounted for by our sorrow-laden experience. It is a familiar
feeling which prompts a man, suddenly bereft of one whom he alone really
knew and loved, to turn in his fierce indignation upon the world, and
deride its idols whom all are praising, and which yet to him seem
ugly by the side of one of whom no one speaks. To be angry with such
a sentence as 'scribbling Sands and Eliots, not fit to compare with my
incomparable Jeannie,' is at once inhuman and ridiculous. This is the
language of the heart, not of the head. It is no more criticism than is
the trumpeting of a wounded elephant zoölogy.

Happy is the man who at such a time holds both peace and pen; but
unhappiest of all is he who, having dipped his sorrow into ink, entrusts
the manuscript to a romantic historian.

The two volumes of the 'Life,' and the three volumes of Mrs. Carlyle's
'Correspondence,' unfortunately did not pour oil upon the troubled
waters. The partizanship they evoked was positively indecent. Mrs.
Carlyle had her troubles and her sorrows, as have most women who live
under the same roof with a man of creative genius; but of one thing we
may be quite sure, that she would have been the first, to use her
own expressive language, to require God 'particularly to damn' her
impertinent sympathizers. As for Mr. Froude, he may yet discover his
Nemesis in the spirit of an angry woman whose privacy he has invaded,
and whose diary he has most wantonly published.

These dark clouds are ephemeral. They will roll away, and we shall once
more gladly recognise the lineaments of an essentially lofty character,
of one who, though a man of genius and of letters, neither outraged
society nor stooped to it; was neither a rebel nor a slave; who in
poverty scorned wealth; who never mistook popularity for fame; but from
the first assumed, and throughout maintained, the proud attitude of one
whose duty it was to teach and not to tickle mankind.

Brother-dunces, lend me your ears! not to crop, but that I may whisper
into their furry depths: 'Do not quarrel with genius. We have none
ourselves, and yet are so constituted that we cannot live without it.'


'The sanity of true genius' was a happy phrase of Charles Lamb's. Our
greatest poets were our sanest men. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare,
Milton, and Wordsworth might have defied even a mad doctor to prove his

To extol sanity ought to be unnecessary in an age which boasts its
realism; but yet it may be doubted whether, if the author of the phrase
just quoted were to be allowed once more to visit the world he loved
so well and left so reluctantly, and could be induced to forswear his
Elizabethans and devote himself to the literature of the day, he would
find many books which his fine critical faculty would allow him to
pronounce 'healthy,' as he once pronounced 'John Buncle' to be in the
presence of a Scotchman, who could not for the life of him understand
how a book could properly be said to enjoy either good or bad health.

But, however this may be, this much is certain, that lucidity is one
of the chief characteristics of sanity. A sane man ought not to be
unintelligible. Lucidity is good everywhere, for all time and in all
things, in a letter, in a speech, in a book, in a poem. Lucidity is not
simplicity. A lucid poem is not necessarily an easy one. A great poet
may tax our brains, but he ought not to puzzle our wits. We may often
have to ask in Humility, What _does_ he mean? but not in despair, What
_can_ he mean?

Dreamy and inconclusive the poet sometimes, nay, often, cannot help
being, for dreaminess and inconclusiveness are conditions of thought
when dwelling on the very subjects that most demand poetical treatment.

Misty, therefore, the poet has our kind permission sometimes to be; but
muddy, never! A great poet, like a great peak, must sometimes be
allowed to have his head in the clouds, and to disappoint us of the wide
prospect we had hoped to gain; but the clouds which envelop him must be
attracted to, and not made by him.

In a sentence, though the poet may give expression to what Wordsworth
has called 'the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible
world,' we, the much-enduring public who have to read his poems, are
entitled to demand that the unintelligibility of which we are made to
feel the weight, should be all of it the world's, and none of it merely
the poet's.

We should not have ventured to introduce our subject with such very
general and undeniable observations, had not experience taught us that
the best way of introducing any subject is by a string of platitudes,
delivered after an oracular fashion. They arouse attention, without
exhausting it, and afford the pleasant sensation of thinking, without
any of the trouble of thought. But, the subject once introduced, it
becomes necessary to proceed with it.

In considering whether a poet is intelligible and lucid, we ought not to
grope and grub about his work in search of obscurities and oddities, but
should, in the first instance at all events, attempt to regard his
whole scope and range; to form some estimate, if we can, of his general
purport and effect, asking ourselves, for this purpose, such questions
as these: How are we the better for him? Has he quickened any passion,
lightened any burden, purified any taste? Does he play any real part
in our lives? When we are in love, do we whisper him in our lady's ear?
When we sorrow, does he ease our pain? Can he calm the strife of mental
conflict? Has he had anything to say, which wasn't twaddle, on those
subjects which, elude analysis as they may, and defy demonstration as
they do, are yet alone of perennial interest--

   'On man, on nature, and on human life,'

on the pathos of our situation, looking back on to the irrevocable and
forward to the unknown? If a poet has said, or done, or been any of
these things to an appreciable extent, to charge him with obscurity is
both folly and ingratitude.

But the subject may be pursued further, and one may be called upon to
investigate this charge with reference to particular books or poems.
In Browning's case this fairly may be done; and then another crop of
questions arises, such as: What is the book about, _i. e._, with what
subject does it deal, and what method of dealing does it employ? Is it
didactical, analytical, or purely narrative? Is it content to describe,
or does it aspire to explain? In common fairness these questions must be
asked and answered, before we heave our critical half-bricks at strange
poets. One task is of necessity more difficult than another. Students of
geometry, who have pushed their researches into that fascinating science
so far as the fifth proposition of the first book, commonly called the
_Pons Asinorum_ (though now that so many ladies read Euclid, it ought,
in common justice to them, to be at least sometimes called the _Pons
Asinarum_), will agree that though it may be more difficult to prove
that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal, and that
if the equal sides be produced, the angles on the other side of the base
shall be equal, than it was to describe an equilateral triangle on a
given finite straight line; yet no one but an ass would say that the
fifth proposition was one whit less intelligible than the first. When we
consider Mr. Browning in his later writings, it will be useful to bear
this distinction in mind.

Our first duty, then, is to consider Mr. Browning in his whole scope and
range, or, in a word, generally. This is a task of such dimensions
and difficulty as, in the language of joint-stock prospectuses, 'to
transcend individual enterprise,' and consequently, as we all know, a
company has been recently floated, or a society established, having Mr.
Browning for its principal object. It has a president, two secretaries,
male and female, and a treasurer. You pay a guinea, and you become a
member. A suitable reduction is, I believe, made in the unlikely event
of all the members of one family flocking to be enrolled. The existence
of this society is a great relief, for it enables us to deal with our
unwieldy theme in a light-hearted manner, and to refer those who have
a passion for solid information and profound philosophy to the printed
transactions of this learned society, which, lest we should forget all
about it, we at once do.

When you are viewing a poet generally, as is our present plight, the
first question is: When was he born? The second, When did he (to use
a favourite phrase of the last century, now in disuse)--When did he
commence author? The third, How long did he keep at it? The fourth, How
much has he written? And the fifth may perhaps be best expressed in the
words of Southey's little Peterkin:

  '"What good came of it all at last?"
    Quoth little Peterkin.'

Mr. Browning was born in 1812; he commenced author with the fragment
called 'Pauline,' published in 1833. He is still writing, and his works,
as they stand upon my shelves--for editions vary--number twenty-three
volumes. Little Peterkin's question is not so easily answered; but,
postponing it for a moment, the answers to the other four show that
we have to deal with a poet, more than seventy years old, who has been
writing for half a century, and who has filled twenty-three volumes.
The Browning Society at all events has assets. The way I propose to deal
with this literary mass is to divide it in two, taking the year 1864 as
the line of cleavage. In that year the volume called 'Dramatis Personae'
was published, and then nothing happened till the year 1868, when our
poet presented the astonished English language with the four volumes and
the 21,116 lines called 'The Ring and the Book,' a poem which it may
be stated, for the benefit of that large, increasing, and highly
interesting class of persons who prefer statistics to poetry, is longer
than Pope's 'Homer's Iliad' by exactly 2,171 lines. We thus begin with
'Pauline' in 1833, and end with 'Dramatis Personae' in 1864. We then
begin again with 'The Ring and the Book,' in 1868; but when or where
we shall end cannot be stated. 'Sordello,' published in 1840, is better
treated apart, and is therefore excepted from the first period, to which
chronologically it belongs.

Looking then at the first period, we find in its front eight plays:

1. 'Strafford,' written in 1836, when its author was twenty-four years
old, and put upon the boards of Covent Garden Theatre on the 1st of May,
1837, Macready playing Strafford, and Miss Helen Faucit Lady Carlisle.
It was received with much enthusiasm; but the company was rebellious and
the manager bankrupt; and after running five nights, the man who played
Pym threw up his part, and the theatre was closed.

2. 'Pippa Passes.'

3. 'King Victor and King Charles.'

4. 'The Return of the Druses.'

5. 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon.'

This beautiful and pathetic play was put on the stage of Drury Lane
on the 11th of February, 1843, with Phelps as Lord Tresham, Miss Helen
Faucit as Mildred Tresham, and Mrs. Stirling, still known to us all,
as Guendolen. It was a brilliant success. Mr. Browning was in the
stage-box; and if it is any satisfaction for a poet to hear a crowded
house cry 'Author, author!' that satisfaction has belonged to Mr.
Browning. The play ran several nights; and was only stopped because one
of Mr. Macready's bankruptcies happened just then to intervene. It was
afterwards revived by Mr. Phelps, during his 'memorable management' of
Sadlers' Wells.

6. 'Colombe's Birthday.' Miss Helen Faucit put this upon the stage in
1852, when it was reckoned a success.

7. 'Luria.'

8. 'A Soul's Tragedy.'

To call any of these plays unintelligible is ridiculous; and nobody
who has ever read them ever did, and why people who have not read them
should abuse them is hard to see. Were society put upon its oath, we
should be surprised to find how many people in high places have not read
'All's Well that Ends Well,' or 'Timon of Athens;' but they don't
go about saying these plays are unintelligible. Like wise folk, they
pretend to have read them, and say nothing. In Browning's case they
are spared the hypocrisy. No one need pretend to have read 'A Soul's
Tragedy;' and it seems, therefore, inexcusable for anyone to assert that
one of the plainest, most pointed, and piquant bits of writing in the
language is unintelligible. But surely something more may be truthfully
said of these plays than that they are comprehensible. First of all,
they are _plays_, and not _works_--like the dropsical dramas of Sir
Henry Taylor and Mr. Swinburne. Some of them have stood the ordeal of
actual representation; and though it would be absurd to pretend that
they met with that overwhelming measure of success our critical age
has reserved for such dramatists as the late Lord Lytton, the author of
'Money,' the late Tom Taylor, the author of 'The Overland Route,' the
late Mr. Robertson, the author of 'Caste,' Mr. H. Byron, the author
of 'Our Boys,' Mr. Wills, the author of 'Charles I.,' Mr. Burnand, the
author of 'The Colonel,' and Mr. Gilbert, the author of so much that
is great and glorious in our national drama; at all events they proved
themselves able to arrest and retain the attention of very ordinary
audiences. But who can deny dignity and even grandeur to 'Luria,' or
withhold the meed of a melodious tear from 'Mildred Tresham'? What
action of what play is more happily conceived or better rendered than
that of 'Pippa Passes'?--where innocence and its reverse, tender love
and violent passion, are presented with emphasis, and yet blended into a
dramatic unity and a poetic perfection, entitling the author to the very
first place amongst those dramatists of the century who have laboured
under the enormous disadvantage of being poets to start with.

Passing from the plays, we are next attracted by a number of splendid
poems, on whose base the structure of Mr. Browning's fame perhaps rests
most surely--his dramatic pieces--poems which give utterance to the
thoughts and feelings of persons other than himself, or, as he puts it,
when dedicating a number of them to his wife:

   'Love, you saw me gather men and women,
    Live or dead, or fashioned by my fancy,
    Enter each and all, and use their service,
    Speak from every mouth the speech--a poem;'

or, again, in 'Sordello':

   'By making speak, myself kept out of view,
    The very man, as he was wont to do.'

At a rough calculation, there must be at least sixty of these pieces.
Let me run over the names of a very few of them. 'Saul,' a poem beloved
by all true women; 'Caliban,' which the men, not unnaturally perhaps,
often prefer. The 'Two Bishops'; the sixteenth century one ordering his
tomb of jasper and basalt in St. Praxed's Church, and his nineteenth
century successor rolling out his post-prandial _Apologia_. 'My Last
Duchess,' the 'Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister,' 'Andrea del Sarto,'
'Fra Lippo Lippi,' 'Rabbi Ben Ezra,' 'Cleon,' 'A Death in the Desert,'
'The Italian in England,' and 'The Englishman in Italy.'

It is plain truth to say that no other English poet, living or dead,
Shakespeare excepted, has so heaped up human interest for his readers as
has Robert Browning.

Fancy stepping into a room and finding it full of Shakespeare's
principal characters! What a babel of tongues! What a jostling of
wits! How eagerly one's eye would go in search of Hamlet and Sir John
Falstaff, but droop shudderingly at the thought of encountering the
distraught gaze of Lady Macbeth! We should have no difficulty in
recognising Beatrice in the central figure of that lively group of
laughing courtiers; whilst did we seek Juliet, it would, of course,
be by appointment on the balcony. To fancy yourself in such company
is pleasant matter for a midsummer's night's dream. No poet has such a
gallery as Shakespeare, but of our modern poets Browning comes nearest

Against these dramatic pieces the charge of unintelligibility fails
as completely as it does against the plays. They are all perfectly
intelligible; but--and here is the rub--they are not easy reading, like
the estimable writings of the late Mrs. Hemans. They require the same
honest attention as it is the fashion to give to a lecture of Professor
Huxley's or a sermon of Canon Liddon's: and this is just what too many
persons will not give to poetry. They

       'Love to hear
    A soft pulsation in their easy ear;
    To turn the page, and let their senses drink
    A lay that shall not trouble them to think.'

It is no great wonder it should be so. After dinner, when disposed to
sleep, but afraid of spoiling our night's rest, behold the witching
hour reserved by the nineteenth century for the study of poetry! This
treatment of the muse deserves to be held up to everlasting scorn and
infamy in a passage of Miltonic strength and splendour. We, alas! must
be content with the observation, that such an opinion of the true
place of poetry in the life of a man excites, in the breasts of the
rightminded, feelings akin to those which Charles Lamb ascribes to the
immortal Sarah Battle, when a young gentleman of a literary turn, on
taking a hand in her favourite game of whist, declared that he saw no
harm in unbending the mind, now and then, after serious studies, in
recreations of that kind. She could not bear, so Elia proceeds, 'to have
her noble occupation, to which she wound up her faculties, considered in
that light. It was her business, her duty--the thing she came into the
world to do--and she did it: she unbent her mind, afterwards, over a
book!' And so the lover of poetry and Browning, after winding-up
his faculties over 'Comus' or 'Paracelsus,' over 'Julius Caesar' or
'Strafford,' may afterwards, if he is so minded, unbend himself over the
'Origin of Species,' or that still more fascinating record which tells
us how little curly worms, only give them time enough, will cover with
earth even the larger kind of stones.

Next to these dramatic pieces come what we may be content to call simply
poems: some lyrical, some narrative. The latter are straightforward
enough, and, as a rule, full of spirit and humour; but this is more than
can always be said of the lyrical pieces. Now, for the first time,
in dealing with this first period, excluding 'Sordello,' we strike
difficulty. The Chinese puzzle comes in. We wonder whether it all turns
on the punctuation. And the awkward thing for Mr. Browning's reputation
is this, that these bewildering poems are, for the most part, very
short. We say awkward, for it is not more certain that Sarah Gamp liked
her beer drawn mild, than it is that your Englishman likes his poetry
cut short; and so, accordingly, it often happens that some estimable
paterfamilias takes up an odd volume of Browning his volatile son or
moonstruck daughter has left lying about, pishes and pshaws! and then,
with an air of much condescension and amazing candour, remarks that
he will give the fellow another chance, and not condemn him unread. So
saying, he opens the book, and carefully selects the very shortest poem
he can find; and in a moment, without sign or signal, note or warning,
the unhappy man is floundering up to his neck in lines like these, which
are the third and final stanza of a poem called 'Another Way of Love':

   'And after, for pastime,
    If June be refulgent
    With flowers in completeness,
    All petals, no prickles,
    Delicious as trickles
    Of wine poured at mass-time,
    And choose One indulgent
    To redness and sweetness;
    Or if with experience of man and of spider,
    She use my June lightning, the strong insect-ridder
    To stop the fresh spinning,--why June will consider.'

He comes up gasping, and more than ever persuaded that Browning's poetry
is a mass of inconglomerate nonsense, which nobody understands--least of
all members of the Browning Society.

We need be at no pains to find a meaning for everything Mr. Browning
has written. But when all is said and done--when these few freaks of a
crowded brain are thrown overboard to the sharks of verbal criticism
who feed on such things--Mr. Browning and his great poetical achievement
remain behind to be dealt with and accounted for. We do not get rid of
the Laureate by quoting:

   'O darling room, my heart's delight,
    Dear room, the apple of my sight,
    With thy two couches soft and white
    There is no room so exquisite--
    No little room so warm and bright
    Wherein to read, wherein to write;'

or of Wordsworth by quoting:

   'At this, my boy hung down his head:
    He blushed with shame, nor made reply,
    And five times to the child I said,
    "Why, Edward? tell me why?"'--

or of Keats by remembering that he once addressed a young lady as

   'O come, Georgiana! the rose is full blown,
    The riches of Flora are lavishly strown:
    The air is all softness and crystal the streams,
    The west is resplendently clothed in beams.'

The strength of a rope may be but the strength of its weakest part; but
poets are to be judged in their happiest hours, and in their greatest

Taking, then, this first period of Mr. Browning's poetry as a whole, and
asking ourselves if we are the richer for it, how can there be any doubt
as to the reply? What points of human interest has he left untouched?
With what phase of life, character, or study does he fail to sympathize?
So far from being the rough-hewn block 'dull fools' have supposed him,
he is the most dilettante of great poets. Do you dabble in art and
perambulate picture-galleries? Browning must be your favourite poet: he
is art's historian. Are you devoted to music? So is he: and alone of our
poets has sought to fathom in verse the deep mysteries of sound. Do you
find it impossible to keep off theology? Browning has more theology
than most bishops--could puzzle Gamaliel and delight Aquinas. Are you
in love? Read 'A Last Ride Together,' 'Youth and Art,' 'A Portrait,'
'Christine,' 'In a Gondola,' 'By the Fireside,' 'Love amongst the
Ruins,' 'Time's Revenges,' 'The Worst of It,' and a host of others,
being careful always to end with 'A Madhouse Cell'; and we are much
mistaken if you do not put Browning at the very head and front of the
interpreters of passion. The many moods of sorrow are reflected in
his verse, whilst mirth, movement, and a rollicking humour abound

I will venture upon but three quotations, for it is late in the day to
be quoting Browning. The first shall be a well-known bit of blank verse
about art from 'Fra Lippo Lippi':

   'For, don't you mark, we're made so that we love
    First when we see them painted, things we have passed
    Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see:
    And so they are better painted--better to us,
    Which is the same thing. Art was given for that--
    God uses us to help each other so,
    Lending our minds out. Have you noticed now
    Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,
    And, trust me, but you should though. How much more
    If I drew higher things with the same truth!
    That were to take the prior's pulpit-place--
    Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh!
    It makes me mad to see what men shall do,
    And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,
    Nor blank: it means intensely, and means good.
    To find its meaning is my meat and drink.'

The second is some rhymed rhetoric from 'Holy Cross Day'--the testimony
of the dying Jew in Rome:

       'This world has been harsh and strange,
    Something is wrong: there needeth a change.
    But what or where? at the last or first?
    In one point only we sinned at worst.

   'The Lord will have mercy on Jacob yet,
    And again in his border see Israel set.
    When Judah beholds Jerusalem,
    The stranger seed shall be joined to them:
    To Jacob's house shall the Gentiles cleave:
    So the prophet saith, and his sons believe.

   'Ay, the children of the chosen race
    Shall carry and bring them to their place;
    In the land of the Lord shall lead the same,
    Bondsmen and handmaids. Who shall blame
    When the slaves enslave, the oppressed ones o'er
    The oppressor triumph for evermore?

   'God spoke, and gave us the word to keep:
    Bade never fold the hands, nor sleep
    'Mid a faithless world, at watch and ward,
    Till the Christ at the end relieve our guard.
    By His servant Moses the watch was set:
    Though near upon cockcrow, we keep it yet.

   'Thou! if Thou wast He, who at mid-watch came,
    By the starlight naming a dubious Name;
    And if we were too heavy with sleep, too rash
    With fear--O Thou, if that martyr-gash
    Fell on Thee, coming to take Thine own,
    And we gave the Cross, when we owed the throne;

   'Thou art the Judge. We are bruised thus.
    But, the Judgment over, join sides with us!
    Thine, too, is the cause! and not more Thine
    Than ours is the work of these dogs and swine,
    Whose life laughs through and spits at their creed,
    Who maintain Thee in word, and defy Thee in deed.

   'We withstood Christ then? Be mindful how
    At least we withstand Barabbas now!
    Was our outrage sore? But the worst we spared,
    To have called these--Christians--had we dared!
    Let defiance to them pay mistrust of Thee,
    And Rome make amends for Calvary!

   'By the torture, prolonged from age to age;
    By the infamy, Israel's heritage;
    By the Ghetto's plague, by the garb's disgrace,
    By the badge of shame, by the felon's place,
    By the branding-tool, the bloody whip,
    And the summons to Christian fellowship,

   'We boast our proof, that at least the Jew
    Would wrest Christ's name from the devil's crew.'

The last quotation shall be from the veritable Browning--of one of those
poetical audacities none ever dared but the Danton of modern poetry.
Audacious in its familiar realism, in its total disregard of poetical
environment, in its rugged abruptness: but supremely successful, and
alive with emotion:

   'What is he buzzing in my ears?
      Now that I come to die,
    Do I view the world as a vale of tears?
      Ah, reverend sir, not I.

   'What I viewed there once, what I view again,
      Where the physic bottles stand
    On the table's edge, is a suburb lane,
      With a wall to my bedside hand.

   'That lane sloped, much as the bottles do,
      From a house you could descry
    O'er the garden-wall. Is the curtain blue
      Or green to a healthy eye?

   'To mine, it serves for the old June weather,
      Blue above lane and wall;
    And that farthest bottle, labelled "Ether,"
      Is the house o'ertopping all.

   'At a terrace somewhat near its stopper,
      There watched for me, one June,
    A girl--I know, sir, it's improper:
      My poor mind's out of tune.

   'Only there was a way--you crept
      Close by the side, to dodge
    Eyes in the house--two eyes except.
      They styled their house "The Lodge."

   'What right had a lounger up their lane?
      But by creeping very close,
    With the good wall's help their eyes might strain
      And stretch themselves to oes,

   'Yet never catch her and me together,
      As she left the attic--there,
    By the rim of the bottle labelled "Ether"--
      And stole from stair to stair,

   'And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas!
      We loved, sir; used to meet.
    How sad and bad and mad it was!
      But then, how it was sweet!'

The second period of Mr. Browning's poetry demands a different line of
argument; for it is, in my judgment, folly to deny that he has of late
years written a great deal which makes very difficult reading indeed. No
doubt you may meet people who tell you that they read 'The Ring and the
Book' for the first time without much mental effort; but you will do
well not to believe them. These poems are difficult--they cannot help
being so. What is 'The Ring and the Book'? A huge novel in 20,000
lines--told after the method not of Scott but of Balzac; it tears the
hearts out of a dozen characters; it tells the same story from ten
different points of view. It is loaded with detail of every kind and
description: you are let off nothing. As with a schoolboy's life at a
large school, if he is to enjoy it at all, he must fling himself into
it, and care intensely about everything--so the reader of 'The Ring and
the Book' must be interested in everybody and everything, down to the
fact that the eldest daughter of the counsel for the prosecution of
Guido is eight years old on the very day he is writing his speech, and
that he is going to have fried liver and parsley for his supper.

If you are prepared for this, you will have your reward; for the
_style_, though rugged and involved, is throughout, with the exception
of the speeches of counsel, eloquent, and at times superb; and as for
the _matter_, if your interest in human nature is keen, curious,
almost professional--if nothing man, woman, or child has been, done, or
suffered, or conceivably can be, do, or suffer, is without interest for
you; if you are fond of analysis, and do not shrink from dissection--you
will prize 'The Ring and the Book' as the surgeon prizes the last great
contribution to comparative anatomy or pathology.

But this sort of work tells upon style. Browning has, I think, fared
better than some writers. To me, at all events, the step from 'A Blot
in the 'Scutcheon' to 'The Ring and the Book' is not so marked as is the
_mauvais pas_ that lies between 'Amos Barton' and 'Daniel Deronda.' But
difficulty is not obscurity. One task is more difficult than another.
The angles at the base of the isosceles triangles are apt to get
mixed, and to confuse us all--man and woman alike. 'Prince Hohenstiel'
something or another is a very difficult poem, not only to pronounce but
to read; but if a poet chooses as his subject Napoleon III.--in whom
the cad, the coward, the idealist, and the sensualist were inextricably
mixed--and purports to make him unbosom himself over a bottle of
Gladstone claret in a tavern in Leicester Square, you cannot expect that
the product should belong to the same class of poetry as Mr. Coventry
Patmore's admirable 'Angel in the House.'

It is the method that is difficult. Take the husband in 'The Ring and
the Book.' Mr. Browning remorselessly hunts him down, tracks him to
the last recesses of his mind, and there bids him stand and deliver. He
describes love, not only broken but breaking; hate in its germ; doubt at
its birth. These are difficult things to do either in poetry or prose,
and people with easy, flowing Addisonian or Tennysonian styles cannot do

I seem to overhear a still, small voice asking, But are they worth
doing? or at all events is it the province of art to do them? The
question ought not to be asked. It is heretical, being contrary to the
whole direction of the latter half of this century. The chains binding
us to the rocks of realism are faster riveted every day; and the Perseus
who is destined to cut them is, I expect, some mischievous little boy
at a Board-school. But as the question has been asked, I will own that
sometimes, even when deepest in works of this, the now orthodox school,
I have been harassed by distressing doubts whether, after all, this
enormous labour is not in vain; and, wearied by the effort, overloaded
by the detail, bewildered by the argument, and sickened by the pitiless
dissection of character and motive, have been tempted to cry aloud,
quoting--or rather, in the agony of the moment, misquoting--Coleridge:

    Thou better name than all the family of Fame.'

But this ebullition of feeling is childish and even sinful. We must take
our poets as we do our meals--as they are served up to us. Indeed, you
may, if full of courage, give a cook notice, but not the time-spirit who
makes our poets. We may be sure--to appropriate an idea of the late
Sir James Stephen--that if Robert Browning had lived in the sixteenth
century, he would not have written a poem like 'The Ring and the Book';
and if Edmund Spenser had lived in the nineteenth century he would not
have written a poem like the 'Faerie Queen.'

It is therefore idle to arraign Mr. Browning's later method and style
for possessing difficulties and intricacies which are inherent to it.
The method, at all events, has an interest of its own, a strength of
its own, a grandeur of its own. If you do not like it, you must leave it
alone. You are fond, you say, of romantic poetry; well, then, take down
your Spenser and qualify yourself to join 'the small transfigured band'
of those who are able to take their Bible-oaths they have read their
'Faerie Queen' all through. The company, though small, is delightful,
and you will have plenty to talk about without abusing Browning, who
probably knows his Spenser better than you do. Realism will not for ever
dominate the world of letters and art--the fashion of all things passeth
away--but it has already earned a great place: it has written books,
composed poems, painted pictures, all stamped with that 'greatness'
which, despite fluctuations, nay, even reversals of taste and opinion,
means immortality.

But against Mr. Browning's later poems it is sometimes alleged that
their meaning is obscure because their grammar is bad. A cynic was once
heard to observe with reference to that noble poem 'The Grammarian's
Funeral,' that it was a pity the talented author had ever since allowed
himself to remain under the delusion that he had not only buried the
grammarian, but his grammar also. It is doubtless true that Mr. Browning
has some provoking ways, and is something too much of a verbal acrobat.
Also, as his witty parodist, the pet poet of six generations of
Cambridge undergraduates, reminds us:

   'He loves to dock the smaller parts of speech,
    As we curtail the already curtailed cur.'

It is perhaps permissible to weary a little of his _i_'s and _o_'s, but
we believe we cannot be corrected when we say that Browning is a poet
whose grammar will bear scholastic investigation better than that of
most of Apollo's children.

A word about 'Sordello.' One half of 'Sordello,' and that, with Mr.
Browning's usual ill-luck, the first half, is undoubtedly obscure. It is
as difficult to read as 'Endymion' or the 'Revolt of Islam,' and for the
same reason--the author's lack of experience in the art of composition.
We have all heard of the young architect who forgot to put a staircase
in his house, which contained fine rooms, but no way of getting into
them. 'Sordello' is a poem without a staircase. The author, still in his
twenties, essayed a high thing. For his subject--

       'He singled out
    Sordello compassed murkily about
    With ravage of six long sad hundred years.'

He partially failed; and the British public, with its accustomed
generosity, and in order, I suppose, to encourage the others, has never
ceased girding at him, because forty-two years ago he published, at his
own charges, a little book of two hundred and fifty pages, which even
such of them as were then able to read could not understand.

Poetry should be vital--either stirring our blood by its divine
movement, or snatching our breath by its divine perfection. To do both
is supreme glory; to do either is enduring fame.

There is a great deal of beautiful poetical writing to be had nowadays
from the booksellers. It is interesting reading, but as one reads one
trembles. It smells of mortality. It would seem as if, at the very birth
of most of our modern poems,

       'The conscious Parcae threw
    Upon their roseate lips a Stygian hue.'

That their lives may be prolonged is my pious prayer. In these bad days,
when it is thought more educationally useful to know the principle of
the common pump than Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' one cannot afford
to let any good poetry die.

But when we take down Browning, we cannot think of him and the 'wormy
bed' together. He is so unmistakably and deliciously alive. Die, indeed!
when one recalls the ideal characters he has invested with reality; how
he has described love and joy, pain and sorrow, art and music; as poems
like 'Childe Roland,' 'Abt Vogler,' 'Evelyn Hope,' 'The Worst of It,'
'Pictor Ignotus,' 'The Lost Leader,' 'Home Thoughts from Abroad,'
'Old Pictures in Florence,' 'Hervé Riel,' 'A Householder,' 'Fears and
Scruples,' come tumbling into one's memory, one over another--we are
tempted to employ the language of hyperbole, and to answer the question
'Will Browning die?' by exclaiming, 'Yes; when Niagara stops.' In him
indeed we can

    Infinite passion and the pain
      Of finite hearts that yearn.'

But love of Mr. Browning's poetry is no exclusive cult.

Of Lord Tennyson it is needless to speak. Certainly amongst his Peers
there is no such Poet.

Mr. Arnold may have a limited poetical range and a restricted style, but
within that range and in that style, surely we must exclaim:

   'Whence that completed form of all completeness?
    Whence came that high perfection of all sweetness?'

Rossetti's luscious lines seldom fail to cast a spell by which

   'In sundry moods 'tis pastime to be bound.'

William Morris has a sunny slope of Parnassus all to himself, and Mr.
Swinburne has written some verses over which the world will long love to

Dull must he be of soul who can take up Cardinal Newman's 'Verses on
Various Occasions,' or Miss Christina Rossetti's poems, and lay them
down without recognising their diverse charms.

Let us be Catholics in this great matter, and burn our candles at many
shrines. In the pleasant realms of poesy, no liveries are worn, no paths
prescribed; you may wander where you will, stop where you like, and
worship whom you love. Nothing is demanded of you, save this, that
in all your wanderings and worships, you keep two objects steadily in
view--two, and two only, truth and beauty.


It is common knowledge that the distinguishing characteristic of the
day is the zeal displayed by us all in hunting after Truth. A really not
inconsiderable portion of whatever time we are able to spare from making
or losing money or reputation, is devoted to this sport, whilst both
reading and conversation are largely impressed into the same service.

Nor are there wanting those who avow themselves anxious to see
this, their favourite pursuit, raised to the dignity of a national
institution. They would have Truth-hunting established and endowed.

Mr. Carlyle has somewhere described with great humour the 'dreadfully
painful' manner in which Kepler made his celebrated calculations and
discoveries; but our young men of talent fail to see the joke, and take
no pleasure in such anecdotes. Truth, they feel, is not to be had from
them on any such terms. And why should it be? Is it not notorious that
all who are lucky enough to supply wants grow rapidly and enormously
rich; and is not Truth a now recognised want in ten thousand
homes--wherever, indeed, persons are to be found wealthy enough to pay
Mr. Mudie a guinea and so far literate as to be able to read? What, save
the modesty, is there surprising in the demand now made on behalf of
some young people, whose means are incommensurate with their talents,
that they should be allowed, as a reward for doling out monthly or
quarterly portions of truth, to live in houses rent-free, have their
meals for nothing, and a trifle of money besides? Would Bass consent
to supply us with beer in return for board and lodging, we of course
defraying the actual cost of his brewery, and allowing him some £300 a
year for himself? Who, as he read about 'Sun-spots,' or 'Fresh Facts for
Darwin,' or the 'True History of Modesty or Veracity,' showing how it
came about that these high-sounding virtues are held in their present
somewhat general esteem, would find it in his heart to grudge the
admirable authors their freedom from petty cares?

But, whether Truth-hunting be ever established or not, no one can doubt
that it is a most fashionable pastime, and one which is being pursued
with great vigour.

All hunting is so far alike as to lead one to believe that there must
sometimes occur in Truth-hunting, just as much as in fox-hunting, long
pauses, whilst the covers are being drawn in search of the game, and
when thoughts are free to range at will in pursuit of far other objects
than those giving their name to the sport. If it should chance to any
Truth-hunter, during some 'lull in his hot chase,' whilst, for example,
he is waiting for the second volume of an 'Analysis of Religion,' or for
the last thing out on the Fourth Gospel, to take up this book, and
open it at this page, we should like to press him for an answer to the
following question: 'Are you sure that it is a good thing for you to
spend so much time in speculating about matters outside your daily life
and walk?'

Curiosity is no doubt an excellent quality. In a critic it is especially
excellent. To want to know all about a thing, and not merely one man's
account or version of it; to see all round it, or, at any rate, as far
round as is possible; not to be lazy or indifferent, or easily put
off, or scared away--all this is really very excellent. Sir Fitz James
Stephen professes great regret that we have not got Pilate's account
of the events immediately preceding the Crucifixion. He thinks it would
throw great light upon the subject; and no doubt, if it had occurred
to the Evangelists to adopt in their narratives the method which long
afterwards recommended itself to the author of 'The Ring and the Book,'
we should now be in possession of a mass of very curious information.
But, excellent as all this is in the realm of criticism, the question
remains, How does a restless habit of mind tell upon conduct?

John Mill was not one from whose lips the advice '_Stare super
antiquas vias_' was often heard to proceed, and he was by profession
a speculator, yet in that significant book, the 'Autobiography,'
he describes this age of Truth-hunters as one 'of weak convictions,
paralyzed intellects, and growing laxity of opinions.'

Is Truth-hunting one of those active mental habits which, as Bishop
Butler tells us, intensify their effects by constant use; and are weak
convictions, paralyzed intellects, and laxity of opinions amongst
the effects of Truth-hunting on the majority of minds? These are not
unimportant questions.

Let us consider briefly the probable effects of speculative habits on

The discussion of a question of conduct has the great charm of
justifying, if indeed not requiring, personal illustration; and this
particular question is well illustrated by instituting a comparison
between the life and character of Charles Lamb and those of some of his
distinguished friends.

Personal illustration, especially when it proceeds by way of comparison,
is always dangerous, and the dangers are doubled when the subjects
illustrated and compared are favourite authors. It behoves us to proceed
warily in this matter. A dispute as to the respective merits of Gray
and Collins has been known to result in a visit to an attorney and
the revocation of a will. An avowed inability to see anything in Miss
Austen's novels is reported to have proved destructive of an otherwise
good chance of an Indian judgeship. I believe, however, I run no great
risk in asserting that, of all English authors, Charles Lamb is the one
loved most warmly and emotionally by his admirers, amongst whom I reckon
only those who are as familiar with the four volumes of his 'Life and
Letters' as with 'Elia.'

But how does he illustrate the particular question now engaging our

Speaking of his sister Mary, who, as everyone knows, throughout 'Elia'
is called his Cousin Bridget, he says:

'It has been the lot of my cousin, oftener, perhaps, than I could have
wished, to have had for her associates and mine freethinkers, leaders
and disciples of novel philosophies and systems, but she neither
wrangles with nor accepts their opinions.'

Nor did her brother. He lived his life cracking his little jokes and
reading his great folios, neither wrangling with nor accepting the
opinions of the friends he loved to see around him. To a contemporary
stranger it might well have appeared as if his life were a frivolous and
useless one as compared with those of these philosophers and thinkers.
_They_ discussed their great schemes and affected to probe deep
mysteries, and were constantly asking, 'What is Truth?' _He_ sipped his
glass, shuffled his cards, and was content with the humbler inquiry,
'What are Trumps?' But to us, looking back upon that little group,
and knowing what we now do about each member of it, no such mistake is
possible. To us it is plain beyond all question that, judged by whatever
standard of excellence it is possible for any reasonable human being to
take, Lamb stands head and shoulders a better man than any of them. No
need to stop to compare him with Godwin, or Hazlitt, or Lloyd; let
us boldly put him in the scales with one whose fame is in all the
churches--with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'logician, metaphysician, bard.'

There are some men whom to abuse is pleasant. Coleridge is not one of
them. How gladly we would love the author of 'Christabel' if we could!
But the thing is flatly impossible. His was an unlovely character. The
sentence passed upon him by Mr. Matthew Arnold (parenthetically, in one
of the 'Essays in Criticism')--'Coleridge had no morals'--is no less
just than pitiless. As we gather information about him from numerous
quarters, we find it impossible to resist the conclusion that he was a
man neglectful of restraint, irresponsive to the claims of those who had
every claim upon him, willing to receive, slow to give.

In early manhood Coleridge planned a Pantisocracy where all the virtues
were to thrive. Lamb did something far more difficult: he played
cribbage every night with his imbecile father, whose constant stream of
querulous talk and fault-finding might well have goaded a far stronger
man into practising and justifying neglect.

That Lamb, with all his admiration for Coleridge, was well aware of
dangerous tendencies in his character, is made apparent by many letters,
notably by one written in 1796, in which he says:

'O my friend, cultivate the filial feelings! and let no man think
himself released from the kind charities of relationship: these shall
give him peace at the last; these are the best foundation for every
species of benevolence. I rejoice to hear that you are reconciled with
all your relations.'

This surely is as valuable an 'aid to reflection' as any supplied by the
Highgate seer.

Lamb gave but little thought to the wonderful difference between the
'reason' and the 'understanding.' He preferred old plays--an odd diet.
some may think, on which to feed the virtues; but, however that may be,
the noble fact remains, that he, poor, frail boy! (for he was no more,
when trouble first assailed him) stooped down and, without sigh or sign,
took upon his own shoulders the whole burden of a life-long sorrow.

Coleridge married. Lamb, at the bidding of duty, remained single,
wedding himself to the sad fortunes of his father and sister. Shall
we pity him? No; he had his reward--the surpassing reward that is
only within the power of literature to bestow. It was Lamb, and not
Coleridge, who wrote 'Dream-Children: a Reverie':

'Then I told how for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in
despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W----n; and as
much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness and
difficulty and denial meant in maidens--when, suddenly turning to Alice,
the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality
of representment that I became in doubt which of them stood before
me, or whose that bright hair was; and while I stood gazing, both the
children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding and still receding,
till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the
uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed upon
me the effects of speech. "We are not of Alice nor of thee, nor are
we children at all. The children of Alice call Bartrum father. We are
nothing, less than nothing, and dreams. We are only _what might have

Godwin! Hazlitt! Coleridge! Where now are their 'novel philosophies and
systems'? Bottled moonshine, which does _not_ improve by keeping.

   'Only the actions of the just
    Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.'

Were we disposed to admit that Lamb would in all probability have been
as good a man as everyone agrees he was--as kind to his father, as full
of self-sacrifice for the sake of his sister, as loving and ready a
friend--even though he had paid more heed to current speculations, it
is yet not without use in a time like this, when so much stress is laid
upon anxious inquiry into the mysteries of soul and body, to point out
how this man attained to a moral excellence denied to his speculative
contemporaries; performed duties from which they, good men as they were,
would one and all have shrunk; how, in short, he contrived to achieve
what no one of his friends, not even the immaculate Wordsworth or the
precise Southey, achieved--the living of a life, the records of
which are inspiriting to read, and are indeed 'the presence of a good
diffused;' and managed to do it all without either 'wrangling with or
accepting' the opinions that 'hurtled in the air' about him.

But _was_ there no relation between his unspeculative habit of mind and
his honest, unwavering service of duty, whose voice he ever obeyed as
the ship the rudder? It would be difficult to name anyone more unlike
Lamb, in many aspects of character, than Dr. Johnson, for whom he had
(mistakenly) no warm regard; but they closely resemble one another in
their indifference to mere speculation about things--if things they
can be called--outside our human walk; in their hearty love of honest
earthly life, in their devotion to their friends, their kindness to
dependents, and in their obedience to duty. What caused each of them the
most pain was the recollection of a past unkindness. The poignancy of
Dr. Johnson's grief on one such recollection is historical; and amongst
Lamb's letters are to be found several in which, with vast depths of
feeling, he bitterly upbraids himself for neglect of old friends.

Nothing so much tends to blur moral distinctions, and to obliterate
plain duties, as the free indulgence of speculative habits. We must all
know many a sorry scrub who has fairly talked himself into the belief
that nothing but his intellectual difficulties prevents him from being
another St. Francis. We think we could suggest a few score of other

Would it not be better for most people, if, instead of stuffing their
heads with controversy, they were to devote their scanty leisure to
reading books, such as, to name one only, Kaye's 'History of the Sepoy
War,' which are crammed full of activities and heroisms, and which force
upon the reader's mind the healthy conviction that, after all, whatever
mysteries may appertain to mind and matter, and notwithstanding grave
doubts as to the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel, it is bravery, truth
and honour, loyalty and hard work, each man at his post, which make this
planet inhabitable?

In these days of champagne and shoddy, of display of teacups and rotten
foundations--especially, too, now that the 'nexus' of 'cash payment,'
which was to bind man to man in the bonds of a common pecuniary
interest, is hopelessly broken--it becomes plain that the real wants
of the age are not analyses of religious belief, nor discussions as to
whether 'Person' or 'Stream of Tendency' are the apter words to describe
God by; but a steady supply of honest, plain-sailing men who can be
safely trusted with small sums, and to do what in them lies to maintain
the honour of the various professions, and to restore the credit of
English workmanship. We want Lambs, not Coleridges. The verdict to be
striven for is not 'Well guessed,' but 'Well done.'

All our remarks are confined to the realm of opinion. Faith may be well
left alone, for she is, to give her her due, our largest manufacturer of
good works, and whenever her furnaces are blown out, morality suffers.

But speculation has nothing to do with faith. The region of speculation
is the region of opinion, and a hazy, lazy, delightful region it is;
good to talk in, good to smoke in, peopled with pleasant fancies and
charming ideas, strange analogies and killing jests. How quickly the
time passes there! how well it seems spent! The Philistines are all
outside; everyone is reasonable and tolerant, and good-tempered; you
think and scheme and talk, and look at everything in a hundred ways and
from all possible points of view; and it is not till the company breaks
up and the lights are blown out, and you are left alone with silence,
that the doubt occurs to you, What is the good of it all?

Where is the actuary who can appraise the value of a man's opinions?
'When we speak of a man's opinions,' says Dr. Newman, 'what do we mean
but the collection of notions he happens to have?' Happens to have! How
did he come by them? It is the knowledge we all possess of the sorts of
ways in which men get their opinions that makes us so little affected in
our own minds by those of men for whose characters and intellects we may
have great admiration. A sturdy Nonconformist minister, who thinks Mr.
Gladstone the ablest and most honest man, as well as the ripest scholar
within the three kingdoms, is no whit shaken in his Nonconformity
by knowing that his idol has written in defence of the Apostolical
Succession, and believes in special sacramental graces. Mr. Gladstone
may have been a great student of Church history, whilst Nonconformist
reading under that head usually begins with Luther's Theses--but what
of that? Is it not all explained by the fact that Mr. Gladstone was at
Oxford in 1831? So at least the Nonconformist minister will think.

The admission frankly made, that these remarks are confined to the
realms of opinion, prevents me from urging on everyone my prescription,
but, with the two exceptions to be immediately named, I believe it would
be found generally useful. It may be made up thus: 'As much reticence
as is consistent with good-breeding upon, and a wisely tempered
indifference to, the various speculative questions now agitated in our

This prescription would be found to liberate the mind from all kinds
of cloudy vapours which obscure the mental vision and conceal from men
their real position, and would also set free a great deal of time which
might be profitably spent in quite other directions.

The first of the two exceptions I have alluded to is of those
who possess--whether honestly come by or not we cannot stop to
inquire--strong convictions upon these very questions. These convictions
they must be allowed to iterate and reiterate, and to proclaim that in
them is to be found the secret of all this (otherwise) unintelligible

The second exception is of those who pursue Truth as by a divine
compulsion, and who can be likened only to the nympholepts of old; those
unfortunates who, whilst carelessly strolling amidst sylvan shades,
caught a hasty glimpse of the flowing robes or even of the gracious
countenance of some spiritual inmate of the woods, in whose pursuit
their whole lives were ever afterwards fruitlessly spent.

The nympholepts of Truth are profoundly interesting figures in the
world's history, but their lives are melancholy reading, and seldom fail
to raise a crop of gloomy thoughts. Their finely touched spirits are not
indeed liable to succumb to the ordinary temptations of life, and they
thus escape the evils which usually follow in the wake of speculation;
but what is their labour's reward?

Readers of Dr. Newman will remember, and will thank me for recalling it
to mind, an exquisite passage, too long to be quoted, in which, speaking
as a Catholic to his late Anglican associates, he reminds them how he
once participated in their pleasures and shared their hopes, and thus

'When, too, shall I not feel the soothing recollection of those dear
years which I spent in retirement, in preparation for my deliverance
from Egypt, asking for light, and by degrees getting it, with less of
temptation in my heart and sin on my conscience than ever before?'

But the passage is sad as well as exquisite, showing to us, as it does,
one who from his earliest days has rejoiced in a faith in God, intense,
unwavering, constant; harassed by distressing doubts, he carries them
all, in the devotion of his faith, the warmth of his heart, and the
purity of his life, to the throne where Truth sits in state; living, he
tells us, in retirement, and spending great portions of every day on
his knees; and yet--we ask the question with all reverence--what did Dr.
Newman get in exchange for his prayers?

'I think it impossible to withstand the evidence which is brought for
the liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius at Naples, or for the
motion of the eyes of the pictures of the Madonna in the Roman States. I
see no reason to doubt the material of the Lombard Cross at Monza, and
I do not see why the Holy Coat at Trèves may not have been what it
professes to be. I firmly believe that portions of the True Cross are
at Rome and elsewhere, that the Crib of Bethlehem is at Rome, and the
bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul; also I firmly believe that the relics
of the Saints are doing innumerable miracles and graces daily. I firmly
believe that before now Saints have raised the dead to life, crossed
the seas without vessels, multiplied grain and bread, cured incurable
diseases, and stopped the operations of the laws of the universe in a
multitude of ways.'

So writes Dr. Newman, with that candour, that love of putting the
case most strongly against himself, which is only one of the lovely
characteristics of the man whose long life has been a miracle of beauty
and grace, and who has contrived to instil into his very controversies
more of the spirit of Christ than most men can find room for in their
prayers. But the dilemma is an awkward one. Does the Madonna wink, or is
Heaven deaf?

Oh, Spirit of Truth, where wert thou, when the remorseless deep of
superstition closed over the head of John Henry Newman, who surely
deserved to be thy best-loved son?

But this is a digression. With the nympholepts of Truth we have nought
to do. They must be allowed to pursue their lonely and devious
paths, and though the records of their wanderings, their conflicting
conclusions, and their widely-parted resting-places may fill us with
despair, still they are witnesses whose testimony we could ill afford to

But there are not many nympholepts. The symptoms of the great majority
of our modern Truth-hunters are very different, as they will, with
their frank candour, be the first to admit. They are free 'to drop their
swords and daggers' whenever so commanded, and it is high time they did.

With these two exceptions I think my prescription will be found of
general utility, and likely to promote a healthy flow of good works.

I had intended to say something as to the effect of speculative habits
upon the intellect, but cannot now do so. The following shrewd remark
of Mr. Latham's in his interesting book on the 'Action of Examinations'
may, however, be quoted; its bearing will be at once seen, and its truth
recognised by many:

'A man who has been thus provided with views and acute observations may
have destroyed in himself the germs of that power which he simulates. He
might have had a thought or two now and then if he had been let alone,
but if he is made first to aim at a standard of thought above his
years, and then finds he can get the sort of thoughts he wants without
thinking, he is in a fair way to be spoiled.'


Most people, I suppose, at one time or another in their lives, have felt
the charm of an actor's life, as they were free to fancy it, well-nigh

What is it to be a great actor? I say a great actor, because (I am sure)
no amateur ever fancied himself a small one. Is it not always to have
the best parts in the best plays; to be the central figure of every
group; to feel that attention is arrested the moment you come on the
stage; and (more exquisite satisfaction still) to be aware that it
is relaxed when you go off; to have silence secured for your smallest
utterances; to know that the highest dramatic talent has been exercised
to invent situations for the very purpose of giving effect to _your_
words and dignity to _your_ actions; to quell all opposition by the
majesty of your bearing or the brilliancy of your wit; and finally,
either to triumph over disaster, or if you be cast in tragedy, happier
still, to die upon the stage, supremely pitied and honestly mourned
for at least a minute? And then, from first to last, applause loud and
long--not postponed, not even delayed, but following immediately after.
For a piece of diseased egotism--that is, for a man--what a lot is this!

How pointed, how poignant the contrast between a hero on the boards
and a hero in the streets! In the world's theatre the man who is really
playing the leading part--did we but know it--is too often, in the
general estimate, accounted but one of the supernumeraries, a figure
in dingy attire, who might well be spared, and who may consider himself
well paid with a pound a week. _His_ utterances procure no silence.
He has to pronounce them as best he may, whilst the gallery sucks its
orange, the pit pares its nails, the boxes babble, and the stalls yawn.
Amidst, these pleasant distractions he is lucky if he is heard at all;
and perhaps the best thing that can befall him is for somebody to think
him worth the trouble of a hiss. As for applause, it may chance with
such men, if they live long enough, as it has to the great ones who have
preceded them, in their old age,

   'When they are frozen up within, and quite
      The phantom of themselves,
    To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
      Which blamed the living man.'

The great actor may sink to sleep, soothed by the memory of the tears
or laughter he has evoked, and wake to find the day far advanced, whose
close is to witness the repetition of his triumph; but the great man
will lie tossing and turning as he reflects on the seemingly unequal war
he is waging with stupidity and prejudice, and be tempted to exclaim,
as Milton tells us he was, with the sad prophet Jeremy: 'Woe is me, my
mother, that thou hast borne me, a man of strife and contention!'

The upshot of all this is, that it is a pleasanter thing to represent
greatness than to be great.

But the actor's calling is not only pleasant in itself--it gives
pleasure to others. In this respect, how favourably it contrasts with
the three learned professions!

Few pleasures are greater than to witness some favourite character,
which hitherto has been but vaguely bodied forth by our sluggish
imaginations, invested with all the graces of living man or woman. A
distinguished man of letters, who years ago was wisely selfish enough to
rob the stage of a jewel and set it in his own crown, has addressed to
his wife some radiant lines which are often on my lips:

   'Beloved, whose life is with mine own entwined,
    In whom, whilst yet thou wert my dream, I viewed,
    Warm with the life of breathing womanhood,
    What Shakespeare's visionary eye divined--
    Pure Imogen; high-hearted Rosalind,
    Kindling with sunshine the dusk greenwood;
    Or changing with the poet's changing mood,
    Juliet, or Constance of the queenly mind.'

But a truce to these compliments.

   'I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.'

It is idle to shirk disagreeable questions, and the one I have to ask is
this, 'Has the world been wrong in regarding with disfavour and lack of
esteem the great profession of the stage?'

That the world, ancient and modern, has despised the actor's profession
cannot be denied. An affecting story I read many years ago--in that
elegant and entertaining work, Lemprière's 'Classical Dictionary'--well
illustrates the feeling of the Roman world. Julius Decimus Laberius was
a Roman knight and dramatic author, famous for his mimes, who had
the misfortune to irritate a greater Julius, the author of the
'Commentaries,' when the latter was at the height of his power. Caesar,
casting about how best he might humble his adversary, could think of
nothing better than to condemn him to take a leading part in one of his
own plays. Laberius entreated in vain. Caesar was obdurate, and had his
way. Laberius played his part--how, Lemprière sayeth not; but he
also took his revenge, after the most effectual of all fashions, the
literary. He composed and delivered a prologue of considerable power, in
which he records the act of spiteful tyranny, and which, oddly enough,
is the only specimen of his dramatic art that has come down to us. It
contains lines which, though they do not seem to have made Caesar, who
sat smirking in the stalls, blush for himself, make us, 1,900 years
afterwards, blush for Caesar. The only lines, however, now relevant are,
being interpreted, as follow:

'After having lived sixty years with honour, I left my home this morning
a Roman knight, but I shall return to it this evening an infamous
stage-player. Alas! I have lived a day too long.'

Turning to the modern world, and to England, we find it here the popular
belief that actors are by statute rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.
This, it is true, is founded on a misapprehension of the effect of 39
Eliz. chap. 4, which only provides that common players wandering abroad
without authority to play, shall be taken to be 'rogues and vagabonds;'
a distinction which one would have thought was capable of being
perceived even by the blunted faculties of the lay mind.[*]

    [* Footnote: See note at end of Essay.]

But the fact that the popular belief rests upon a misreading of an Act
of Parliament three hundred years old does not affect the belief,
but only makes it exquisitely English, and as a consequence entirely

Is there anything to be said in support of this once popular prejudice?

It may, I think, be supported by two kinds of argument. One derived
from the nature of the case, the other from the testimony of actors

A serious objection to an actor's calling is that from its nature it
admits of no other test of failure or success than the contemporary
opinion of the town. This in itself must go far to rob life of dignity.
A Milton may remain majestically indifferent to the 'barbarous noise'
of 'owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs,' but the actor can steel
himself to no such fortitude. He can lodge no appeal to posterity. The
owls must hoot, the cuckoos cry, the apes yell, and the dogs bark on
his side, or he is undone. This is of course inevitable, but it is an
unfortunate condition of an artist's life.

Again, no record of his art survives to tell his tale or account for his
fame. When old gentlemen wax garrulous over actors dead and gone, young
gentlemen grow somnolent. Chippendale the cabinet-maker is more potent
than Garrick the actor. The vivacity of the latter no longer charms
(save in Boswell); the chairs of the former still render rest impossible
in a hundred homes.

This, perhaps, is why no man of lofty genius or character has ever
condescended to remain an actor. His lot pressed heavily even on so
mercurial a trifler as David Garrick, who has given utterance to the
feeling in lines as good perhaps as any ever written by a successful

   'The painter's dead, yet still he charms the eye,
    While England lives his fame shall never die;
    But he who struts his hour upon the stage
    Can scarce protract his fame thro' half an age;
    Nor pen nor pencil can the actor save--
    Both art and artist have one common grave.'

But the case must be carried farther than this, for the mere fact that
a particular pursuit does not hold out any peculiar attractions for
soaring spirits will not justify us in calling that pursuit bad names.
I therefore proceed to say that the very act of acting, _i. e._, the art
of mimicry, or the representation of feigned emotions called up by sham
situations, is, in itself, an occupation an educated man should be slow
to adopt as the profession of a life.

I believe--for we should give the world as well as the devil its
due--that it is to a feeling, a settled persuasion of this sort, lying
deeper than the surface brutalities and snobbishnesses visible to
all, that we must attribute the contempt, seemingly so cruel and so
ungrateful, the world has visited upon actors.

I am no great admirer of beards, be they never so luxurious or glossy,
yet I own I cannot regard off the stage the closely shaven face of an
actor without a feeling of pity, not akin to love. Here, so I cannot
help saying to myself, is a man who has adopted a profession whose very
first demand upon him is that he should destroy his own identity. It is
not what you are, or what by study you may become, but how few obstacles
you present to the getting of yourself up as somebody else, that settles
the question of your fitness for the stage. Smoothness of face, mobility
of feature, compass of voice--these things, but the toys of other
trades, are the tools of this one.

Boswellites will remember the name of Tom Davies as one of frequent
occurrence in the great biography. Tom was an actor of some repute, and
(so it was said) read 'Paradise Lost' better than any man in England.
One evening, when Johnson was lounging behind the scenes at Drury (it
was, I hope, before his pious resolution to go there no more), Davies
made his appearance on his way to the stage in all the majesty and
millinery of his part. The situation is picturesque. The great and
dingy Reality of the eighteenth century, the Immortal, and the bedizened
little player. 'Well, Tom,' said the great man (and this is the
whole story), 'well, Tom, and what art thou to-night?' 'What art thou
to-night?' It may sound rather like a tract, but it will, I think, be
found difficult to find an answer to the question consistent with any
true view of human dignity.

Our last argument derived from the nature of the case is, that
deliberately to set yourself as the occupation of your life to amuse the
adult and to astonish, or even to terrify, the infant population of your
native land, is to degrade yourself.

Three-fourths of the acted drama is, and always must be, comedy, farce,
and burlesque. We are bored to death by the huge inanities of life. We
observe with horror that our interest in our dinner becomes languid. We
consult our doctor, who simulates an interest in our stale symptoms,
and after a little talk about Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merriman,
prescribes Toole. If we are very innocent we may inquire what night we
are to go, but if we do we are at once told that it doesn't in the least
matter when we go, for it is always equally funny. Poor Toole! to be
made up every night as a safe prescription for the blues! To make people
laugh is not necessarily a crime, but to adopt as your trade the making
people laugh by delivering for a hundred nights together another man's
jokes, in a costume the author of the jokes would blush to be seen
in, seems to me a somewhat unworthy proceeding on the part of a man of
character and talent.

To amuse the British public is a task of herculean difficulty and
danger, for the blatant monster is, at times, as whimsical and coy as a
maiden, and if it once makes up its mind not to be amused, nothing will
shake it. The labour is enormous, the sacrifice beyond what is demanded
of saints. And if you succeed, what is your reward? Read the lives of
comedians, and closing them, you will see what good reason an actor has
for exclaiming with the old-world poet:

   'Odi profanum vulgus!'

We now turn to the testimony of actors themselves.

Shakespeare is, of course, my first witness. There is surely
significance in this. 'Others abide our question,' begins Arnold's fine
sonnet on Shakespeare--'others abide our question; thou art free.' The
little we know about our greatest poet has become a commonplace. It is
a striking tribute to the endless loquacity of man, and a proof how that
great creature is not to be deprived of his talk, that he has managed to
write quite as much about there being nothing to write about as he could
have written about Shakespeare, if the author of _Hamlet_ had been as
great an egoist as Rousseau. The fact, however, remains that he who has
told us most about ourselves, whose genius has made the whole civilized
world kin, has told us nothing about himself, except that he hated and
despised the stage. To say that he has told us this is not, I think, any
exaggeration. I have, of course, in mind the often quoted lines to be
found in that sweet treasury of melodious verse and deep feeling, the
'Sonnets of Shakespeare.' The 110th begins thus:

   'Alas! 'tis true I have gone here and there,
    And made myself a motley to the view,
    Gor'd my own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
    Made old offences of affections new.'

And the 111th:

   'O for my sake do thou with Fortune chide,
    The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
    That did not better for my life provide
    Than public means, which public manners breeds.
    Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
    And almost thence my nature is subdued
    To what it works on, like the dyer's hand.
    Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed.'

It is not much short of three centuries since those lines were written,
but they seem still to bubble with a scorn which may indeed be called

   'Sold cheap what is most dear.'

There, compressed in half a line, is the whole case against an actor's

But it may be said Shakespeare was but a poor actor. He could write
_Hamlet_ and _As You Like It_; but when it came to casting the parts,
the Ghost in the one and old Adam in the other were the best he could
aspire to. Verbose biographers of Shakespeare, in their dire extremity,
and naturally desirous of writing a big book about a big man, have
remarked at length that it was highly creditable to Shakespeare that he
was not, or at all events that it does not appear that he was, jealous,
after the true theatrical tradition, of his more successful brethren of
the buskin.

It surely might have occured, even to a verbose biographer in his direst
need, that to have had the wit to write and actually to have written the
soliloquies in _Hamlet_, might console a man under heavier afflictions
than the knowledge that in the popular estimate somebody else spouted
those soliloquies better than he did himself. I can as easily fancy
Milton jealous of Tom Davies as Shakespeare of Richard Burbage.
But--good, bad, or indifferent--Shakespeare was an actor, and as such I
tender his testimony.

I now--for really this matter must be cut short--summon pell-mell all
the actors and actresses who have ever strutted their little hour on the
stage, and put to them the following comprehensive question: Is there in
your midst one who had an honest, hearty, downright pride and pleasure
in your calling, or do not you all (tell the truth) mournfully echo the
lines of your great master (whom nevertheless you never really cared
for), and with him

       'Your fortunes chide,
    That did not better for your lives provide
    Than public means, which public manners breeds.'

They all assent: with wonderful unanimity.

But, seriously, I know of no recorded exception, unless it be Thomas
Betterton, who held the stage for half a century--from 1661 to 1708--and
who still lives, as much as an actor can, in the pages of Colley
Cibber's _Apology_. He was a man apparently of simple character, for he
had only one benefit-night all his life.

Who else is there? Read Macready's 'Memoirs'--the King Arthur of
the stage. You will find there, I am sorry to say, all the actor's
faults--if faults they can be called which seem rather hard necessities,
the discolouring of the dyer's hand; greedy hungering after applause,
endless egotism, grudging praise--all are there; not perhaps in the
tropical luxuriance they have attained elsewhere, but plain enough.
But do we not also find, deeply engrained and constant, a sense of
degradation, a longing to escape from the stage for ever?

He did not like his children to come and see him act, and was always
regretting--heaven help him!--that he wasn't a barrister-at-law. Look
upon this picture and on that. Here we have Macbeth, that mighty thane;
Hamlet, the intellectual symbol of the whole world of modern thought;
Strafford, in Robert Browning's fine play; splendid dresses, crowded
theatres, beautiful women, royal audiences; and on the other side, a
rusty gown, a musty wig, a fusty court, a deaf judge, an indifferent
jury, a dispute about a bill of lading, and ten guineas on your
brief--which you have not been paid, and which you can't recover--why,
''tis Hyperion to a satyr!'

Again, we find Mrs. Siddons writing of her sister's marriage:

'I have lost one of the sweetest companions in the world. She has
married a respectable man, though of small fortune. I thank God she is
off the stage.' What is this but to say, 'Better the most humdrum of
existences with the most "respectable of men," than to be upon the

The volunteered testimony of actors is both large in bulk and valuable
in quality, and it is all on my side.

Their involuntary testimony I pass over lightly. Far be from me the
disgusting and ungenerous task of raking up a heap of the weaknesses,
vanities, and miserablenesses of actors and actresses dead and gone.
After life's fitful fever they sleep (I trust) well; and in common
candour, it ought never to be forgotten that whilst it has always been
the fashion--until one memorable day Mr. Froude ran amuck of it--for
biographers to shroud their biographees (the American Minister must
bear the brunt of this word on his broad shoulders) in a crape veil of
respectability, the records of the stage have been written in another
spirit. We always know the worst of an actor, seldom his best. David
Garrick was a better man than Lord Eldon, and Macready was at least as
good as Dickens.

There is however, one portion of this body of involuntary testimony
on which I must be allowed to rely, for it may be referred to without

Our dramatic literature is our greatest literature. It is the best thing
we have done. Dante may over-top Milton, but Shakespeare surpasses both.
He is our finest achievement; his plays our noblest possession; the
things in the world most worth thinking about. To live daily in his
company, to study his works with minute and loving care--in no spirit
of pedantry searching for double endings, but in order to discover their
secret, and to make the spoken word tell upon the hearts of man and
woman--this might have been expected to produce great intellectual if
not moral results.

The most magnificent compliment ever paid by man to woman is undoubtedly
Steele's to the Lady Elizabeth Hastings. 'To love her,' wrote he, 'is a
liberal education.' As much might surely be said of Shakespeare.

But what are the facts--the ugly, hateful facts? Despite this great
advantage--this close familiarity with the noblest and best in our
literature--the taste of actors, their critical judgment, always has
been and still is, if not beneath contempt, at all events far below
the average intelligence of their day. By taste, I do not mean taste in
flounces and in furbelows, tunics and stockings; but in the weightier
matters of the truly sublime and the essentially ridiculous. Salvini's
Macbeth is undoubtedly a fine performance; and yet that great actor,
as the result of his study, has placed it on record that he thinks the
sleep-walking scene ought to be assigned to Macbeth instead of to his
wife. Shades of Shakespeare and Siddons, what think you of that?

It is a strange fatality, but a proof of the inherent pettiness of
the actor's art, that though it places its votary in the very midst of
literary and artistic influences, and of necessity informs him of the
best and worthiest, he is yet, so far as his own culture is concerned,
left out in the cold--art's slave, not her child.

What have the devotees of the drama taught us? Nothing! it is we who
have taught them. We go first, and they come lumbering after. It was
not from the stage the voice arose bidding us recognise the supremacy of
Shakespeare's genius. Actors first ignored him, then hideously mutilated
him; and though now occasionally compelled, out of deference to the
taste of the day, to forego their green-room traditions, to forswear
their Tate and Brady emendations, in their heart of hearts they love
him not; and it is with a light step and a smiling face that our great
living tragedian flings aside Hamlet's tunic or Shylock's gaberdine
to revel in the melodramatic glories of _The Bells_ and _The Corsican

Our gratitude is due in this great matter to men of letters, not to
actors. If it be asked, 'What have actors to do with literature and
criticism?' I answer, 'Nothing;' and add, 'That is my case.'

But the notorious bad taste of actors is not entirely due to their
living outside Literature, with its words for ever upon their lips, but
none of its truths engraven on their hearts. It may partly be accounted
for by the fact that for the purposes of an ambitious actor bad plays
are the best.

In reading actors' lives, nothing strikes you more than their delight
in making a hit in some part nobody ever thought anything of before.
Garrick was proud past all endurance of his Beverley in the _Gamester_,
and one can easily see why. Until people saw Garrick's Beverley, they
didn't think there was anything in the _Gamester_; nor was there, except
what Garrick put there. This is called creating a part, and he is the
greatest actor who creates most parts.

But genius in the author of the play is a terrible obstacle in the way
of an actor who aspires to identify himself once and for all with the
leading part in it. Mr. Irving may act Hamlet well or ill--and, for
my part, I think he acts it exceedingly well--but behind Mr. Irving's
Hamlet, as behind everybody else's Hamlet, there looms a greater Hamlet
than them all--Shakespeare's Hamlet, the real Hamlet.

But Mr. Irving's Mathias is quite another kettle of fish, all of Mr.
Irving's own catching. Who ever, on leaving the Lyceum, after seeing
_The Bells_, was heard to exclaim, 'It is all mighty fine; but that
is not my idea of Mathias'? Do not we all feel that without Mr. Irving
there could be no Mathias?

We best like doing what we do best: and an actor is not to be blamed for
preferring the task of making much of a very little to that of making
little of a great deal.

As for actresses, it surely would be the height of ungenerosity to blame
a woman for following the only regular profession commanding fame and
fortune the kind consideration of man has left open to her. For two
centuries women have been free to follow this profession, onerous and
exacting though it be, and by doing so have won the rapturous applause
of generations of men, who are all ready enough to believe that where
their pleasure is involved, no risks of life or honour are too great for
a woman to run. It is only when the latter, tired of the shams of life,
would pursue the realities, that we become alive to the fact--hitherto,
I suppose, studiously concealed from us--how frail and feeble a creature
she is.

Lastly, it must not be forgotten that we are discussing a question
of casuistry, one which is 'stuff o' the conscience,' and where
consequently words are all important.

Is an actor's calling an eminently worthy one?--that is the question. It
may be lawful, useful, delightful; but is it worthy?

An actor's life is an artist's life. No artist, however eminent, has
more than one life, or does anything worth doing in that life, unless
he is prepared to spend it royally in the service of his art, caring for
nought else. Is an actor's art worth the price? I answer, No!


The Statute Law on this subject is not without interest. Stated shortly
it stands thus: By 39 Eliz. c. 4, it was enacted, 'That all persons
calling themselves Schollers going abroad begging ... all idle persons
using any subtile craft or fayning themselves to have knowledge in
Phisiognomye, Palmestry, or other like crafty science; or pretending
that they can tell Destyneyes, Fortunes, or such other like fantasticall
Ymagynaeons; all Fencers, Bearwards, _common players of Interludes and
Minstrels wandering abroad_ (other than players of Interludes belonging
to any Baron of this realm, or any honourable personage of greater
degree to be auctorised to play under the hand and seale of Arms of such
Baron or Personage); all Juglers, Tinkers, Pedlars, and Petty Chapmen
wandering abroad ... shall be taken, adjudged, and deemed Rogues,
Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars, and shall sustain such payne and
punyshment as by this Act is in that behalf appointed.'

Such 'payne and punyshment' was as follows:

'To be stripped naked from the middle upwards, and shall be openly
whipped until his or her body be bloudye, and shall be forthwith
sent from parish to parish by the officers of every the same the next
streghte way to the parish where he was borne. After which whipping
the same person shall have a Testimonyall testifying that he has been
punyshed according to law.'

This statute was repealed by 13 Anne c. 26, which, however, includes
within its new scope 'common players of Interludes,' and names no
exceptions. The whipping continues, but there is an alternative in the
House of Correction: 'to be stript naked from the middle, and be openly
whipped until his or her body be bloody, or may be sent to the House
of Correction.' 17 Geo. II. c. 5 repeals a previous statute of the same
king which had repealed the statute of Anne, and provides that 'all
common players of Interludes and all persons who shall for Hire, Gain,
or Reward act, represent, or perform any Interlude, Tragedy, Comedy,
Opera, Play, Farce, or other Entertainment of the Stage, not being
authorized by law, shall be deemed Rogues and Vagabonds within the true
meaning of the Act.' The punishment was to be 'publicly whipt,' or to be
sent to the House of Correction. This Act has been repealed, and the law
is regulated by 5 Geo. IV. c. 83, which makes no mention of actors, who
are therefore now wholly quit of this odious imputation.


One is often tempted of the Devil to forswear the study of history
altogether as the pursuit of the Unknowable. 'How is it possible,'
he whispers in our ear, as we stand gloomily regarding the portly
calf-bound volumes without which no gentleman's library is complete,
'how is it possible to suppose that you have there, on your shelves--the
actual facts of history--a true record of what men, dead long ago, felt
and thought?' Yet, if we have not, I for one, though of a literary
turn, would sooner spend my leisure playing skittles with boors than in
reading sonorous lies in stout volumes.

'It is not so much,' wilily insinuates the Tempter, 'that these renowned
authors lack knowledge. Their habit of giving an occasional reference
(though the verification of these is usually left to the malignancy of a
rival and less popular historian) argues at least some reading. No; what
is wanting is ignorance, carefully acquired and studiously maintained.
This is no paradox. To carry the truisms, theories, laws, language of
to-day, along with you in your historical pursuits, is to turn the muse
of history upside down--a most disrespectful proceeding--and yet to
ignore them--to forget all about them--to hang them up with your hat
and coat in the hall, to remain there whilst you sit in the library
composing your immortal work, which is so happily to combine all that
is best in Gibbon and Macaulay--a sneerless Gibbon and an impartial
Macaulay--is a task which, if it be not impossible is, at all events, of
huge difficulty.

Another blemish in English historical work has been noticed by the
Rev. Charles Kingsley, and may therefore be referred to by me without
offence. Your standard historians, having no unnatural regard for their
most indefatigable readers, the wives and daughters of England, feel it
incumbent upon them to pass over, as unfit for dainty ears and dulcet
tones, facts, and rumours of facts, which none the less often determined
events by stirring the strong feelings of your ancestors, whose conduct,
unless explained by this light, must remain enigmatical.

When, to these anachronisms of thought and omissions of fact, you have
added the dishonesty of the partisan historian and the false glamour
of the picturesque one, you will be so good as to proceed to find the
present value of history!'

Thus far the Enemy of Mankind:

An admirable lady orator is reported lately to have 'brought down'
Exeter Hall by observing, 'in a low but penetrating voice,' that the
Devil was a very stupid person. It is true that Ben Jonson is on the
side of the lady, but I am far too orthodox to entertain any such
opinion; and though I have, in this instance of history, so far resisted
him as to have refrained from sending my standard historians to the
auction mart--where, indeed, with the almost single exception of Mr.
Grote's History of Greece (the octavo edition in twelve volumes), prices
rule so low as to make cartage a consideration--I have still of late
found myself turning off the turnpike of history to loiter down the
primrose paths of men's memoirs of themselves and their times.

Here at least, so we argue, we are comparatively safe. Anachronisms of
thought are impossible; omissions out of regard for female posterity
unlikely, and as for party spirit, if found, it forms part of what
lawyers call the _res gestae_, and has therefore a value of its own.
Against the perils of the picturesque, who will insure us?

But when we have said all this, and, sick of prosing, would begin
reading, the number of really readable memoirs is soon found to be but
few. This is, indeed, unfortunate; for it launches us off on another
prose-journey by provoking the question, What makes memoirs interesting?

Is it necessary that they should be the record of a noble character?
Certainly not. We remember Pepys, who--well, never mind what he does.
We call to mind Cellini; _he_ runs behind a fellow-creature, and with
'admirable address' sticks a dagger in the nape of his neck, and long
afterwards records the fact, almost with reverence, in his life's story.
Can anything be more revolting than some portions of the revelation
Benjamin Franklin was pleased to make of himself in writing? And what
about Rousseau? Yet, when we have pleaded guilty for these men, a modern
Savonarola, who had persuaded us to make a bonfire of their works, would
do well to keep a sharp look-out, lest at the last moment we should
be found substituting 'Pearson on the Creed' for Pepys, Coleridge's
'Friend' for Cellini, John Foster's Essays for Franklin, and Roget's
Bridgewater Treatise for Rousseau.

Neither will it do to suppose that the interest of a memoir depends on
its writer having been concerned in great affairs, or lived in stirring
times. The dullest memoirs written even in English, and not excepting
those maimed records of life known as 'religious biography,' are the
work of men of the 'attaché' order, who, having been mixed up in events
which the newspapers of the day chronicled as 'Important Intelligence,'
were not unnaturally led to cherish the belief that people would like to
have from their pens full, true and particular accounts of all that
then happened, or, as they, if moderns, would probably prefer to say,
transpired. But the World, whatever an over-bold Exeter Hall may say of
her old associate the Devil, is not a stupid person, and declines to
be taken in twice; and turning a deaf ear to the most painstaking and
trustworthy accounts of deceased Cabinets and silenced Conferences, goes
journeying along her broad way, chuckling over some old joke in Boswell,
and reading with fresh delight the all-about-nothing letters of Cowper
and Lamb.

How then does a man--be he good or bad--big or little--a philosopher or
a fribble--St. Paul or Horace Walpole--make his memoirs interesting?

To say that the one thing needful is individuality, is not quite enough.
To be an individual is the inevitable, and in most cases the unenviable,
lot of every child of Adam. Each one of us has, like a tin soldier, a
stand of his own. To have an individuality is no sort of distinction,
but to be able to make it felt in writing is not only distinction but
under favouring circumstances immortality.

Have we not all some correspondents, though probably but few, from whom
we never receive a letter without feeling sure that we shall find inside
the envelope something written that will make us either glow with the
warmth or shiver with the cold of our correspondent's life? But how many
other people are to be found, good, honest people too, who no sooner
take pen in hand than they stamp unreality on every word they write. It
is a hard fate, but they cannot escape it. They may be as literal as the
late Earl Stanhope, as painstaking as Bishop Stubbs, as much in earnest
as the Prime Minister--their lives may be noble, their aims high, but no
sooner do they seek to narrate to us their story, than we find it is not
to be. To hearken to them is past praying for. We turn from them as from
a guest who has outstayed his welcome. Their writing wearies, irritates,

Here then, at last, we have the two classes of memoir writers--those who
manage to make themselves felt, and those who do not. Of the latter, a
very little is a great deal too much--of the former we can never have

What a liar was Benvenuto Cellini!--who can believe a word he says? To
hang a dog on his oath would be a judicial murder. Yet when we lay down
his Memoirs and let our thoughts travel back to those far-off days he
tells us of, there we see him standing, in bold relief, against the
black sky of the past, the very man he was. Not more surely did he, with
that rare skill of his, stamp the image of Clement VII. on the papal
currency than he did the impress of his own singular personality upon
every word he spoke and every sentence he wrote.

We ought, of course, to hate him, but do we? A murderer he has written
himself down. A liar he stands self-convicted of being. Were anyone
in the nether world bold enough to call him thief, it may be doubted
whether Rhadamanthus would award him the damages for which we may be
certain he would loudly clamour. Why do we not hate him? Listen to him:

'Upon my uttering these words, there was a general outcry, the noblemen
affirming that I promised too much. But one of them, who was a great
philosopher, said in my favour, "From the admirable symmetry of shape
and happy physiognomy of this young man, I venture to engage that he
will perform all he promises, and more." The Pope replied, "I am of the
same opinion;" then calling Trajano, his gentleman of the bed-chamber,
he ordered him to fetch me five hundred ducats.'

And so it always ended; suspicions, aroused most reasonably, allayed
most unreasonably, and then--ducats. He deserved hanging, but he died
in his bed. He wrote his own memoirs after a fashion that ought to have
brought posthumous justice upon him, and made them a literary gibbet, on
which he should swing, a creaking horror, for all time; but nothing
of the sort has happened. The rascal is so symmetrical, and his
physiognomy, as it gleams upon us through the centuries, so happy, that
we cannot withhold our ducats, though we may accompany the gift with a
shower of abuse.

This only proves the profundity of an observation made by Mr. Bagehot--a
man who carried away into the next world more originality of thought
than is now to be found in the Three Estates of the Realm. Whilst
remarking upon the extraordinary reputation of the late Francis Horner
and the trifling cost he was put to in supporting it, Mr. Bagehot said
that it proved the advantage of 'keeping an atmosphere.'

The common air of heaven sharpens men's judgments. Poor Horner, but for
that kept atmosphere of his, always surrounding him, would have been
bluntly asked, 'What he had done since he was breeched,' and in reply
he could only have muttered something about the currency. As for our
especial rogue Cellini, the question would probably have assumed this
shape: 'Rascal, name the crime you have not committed, and account for
the omission.'

But these awkward questions are not put to the lucky people who keep
their own atmospheres. The critics, before they can get at them, have
to step out of the everyday air, where only achievements count and the
Decalogue still goes for something, into the kept atmosphere, which they
have no sooner breathed than they begin to see things differently,
and to measure the object thus surrounded with a tape of its
own manufacture. Horner--poor, ugly, a man neither of words nor
deeds--becomes one of our great men; a nation mourns his loss and erects
his statue in the Abbey. Mr. Bagehot gives several instances of the same
kind, but he does not mention Cellini, who is, however, in his own way,
an admirable example.

You open his book--a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Lying indeed! Why, you
hate prevarication. As for murder, your friends know you too well to
mention the subject in your hearing, except in immediate connection with
capital punishment. You are, of course, willing to make some allowance
for Cellini's time and place--the first half of the sixteenth century
and Italy. 'Yes,' you remark, 'Cellini shall have strict justice at my
hands.' So you say as you settle yourself in your chair and begin to
read. We seem to hear the rascal laughing in his grave. His spirit
breathes upon you from his book--peeps at you roguishly as you turn the
pages. His atmosphere surrounds you; you smile when you ought to frown,
chuckle when you should groan, and--O final triumph!--laugh aloud when,
if you had a rag of principle left, you would fling the book into the
fire. Your poor moral sense turns away with a sigh, and patiently awaits
the conclusion of the second volume.

How cautiously does he begin, how gently does he win your ear by his
seductive piety! I quote from Mr. Roscoe's translation:--

'It is a duty incumbent on upright and credible men of all ranks, who
have performed anything noble or praiseworthy, to record, in their own
writing, the events of their lives; yet they should not commence this
honourable task before they have passed their fortieth year. Such, at
least, is my opinion, now that I have completed my fifty-eighth year,
and am settled in Florence, where, considering the numerous ills that
constantly attend human life, I perceive that I have never before been
so free from vexations and calamities, or possessed of so great a share
of content and health as at this period. Looking back on some
delightful and happy events of my life, and on many misfortunes so truly
overwhelming that the appalling retrospect makes me wonder how I have
reached this age in vigour and prosperity, through God's goodness I have
resolved to publish an account of my life; and ... I must, in commencing
my narrative, satisfy the public on some few points to which its
curiosity is usually directed; the first of which is to ascertain
whether a man is descended from a virtuous and ancient family.... I
shall therefore now proceed to inform the reader how it pleased God that
I should come into the world.'

So you read on page 1; what you read on page 191 is this:--

'Just after sunset, about eight o'clock, as this musqueteer stood at his
door with his sword in his hand, when he had done supper, I with great
address came close up to him with a long dagger, and gave him a violent
back-handed stroke, which I aimed at his neck. He instantly turned
round, and the blow, falling directly upon his left shoulder, broke the
whole bone of it; upon which he dropped his sword, quite overcome by the
pain, and took to his heels. I pursued, and in four steps came up with
him, when, raising the dagger over his head, which he lowered down, I
hit him exactly upon the nape of the neck. The weapon penetrated so
deep that, though I made a great effort to recover it again, I found it

So much for murder. Now for manslaughter, or rather Cellini's notion of

'Pompeo entered an apothecary's shop at the corner of the Chiavica,
about some business, and stayed there for some time. I was told he had
boasted of having bullied me, but it turned out a fatal adventure to
him. Just as I arrived at that quarter he was coming out of the shop,
and his bravoes, having made an opening, formed a circle round him. I
thereupon clapped my hand to a sharp dagger, and having forced my way
through the file of ruffians, laid hold of him by the throat, so quickly
and with such presence of mind, that there was not one of his friends
could defend him. I pulled him towards me to give him a blow in front,
but he turned his face about through excess of terror, so that I wounded
him exactly under the ear; and upon repeating my blow, he fell down
dead. It had never been my intention to kill him, but blows are not
always under command.'

We must all feel that it would never have done to have begun with these
passages, but long before the 191st page has been reached Cellini has
retreated into his own atmosphere, and the scales of justice have been
hopelessly tampered with.

That such a man as this encountered suffering in the course of his life,
should be matter for satisfaction to every well-regulated mind; but,
somehow or another, you find yourself pitying the fellow as he
narrates the hardships he endured in the Castle of S. Angelo. He is so
symmetrical a rascal! Just hear him! listen to what he says well on in
the second volume, after the little incidents already quoted:

'Having at length recovered my strength and vigour, after I had composed
myself and resumed my cheerfulness of mind, I continued to read my
Bible, and so accustomed my eyes to that darkness, that though I was at
first able to read only an hour and a half, I could at length read three
hours. I then reflected on the wonderful power of the Almighty upon
the hearts of simple men, who had carried their enthusiasm so far as to
believe firmly that God would indulge them in all they wished for; and
I promised myself the assistance of the Most High, as well through His
mercy as on account of my innocence. Thus turning constantly to the
Supreme Being, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in silent meditation
on the divine goodness, I was totally engrossed by these heavenly
reflections, and came to take such delight in pious meditations that I
no longer thought of past misfortunes. On the contrary, I was all day
long singing psalms and many other compositions of mine, in which I
celebrated and praised the Deity.'

Thus torn from their context, these passages may seem to supply the best
possible falsification of the previous statement that Cellini told the
truth about himself. Judged by these passages alone, he may appear a
hypocrite of an unusually odious description. But it is only necessary
to read his book to dispel that notion. He tells lies about other
people; he repeats long conversations, sounding his own praises, during
which, as his own narrative shows, he was not present; he exaggerates
his own exploits, his sufferings--even, it may be, his crimes; but when
we lay down his book, we feel we are saying good-bye to a man whom we

He has introduced himself to us, and though doubtless we prefer saints
to sinners, we may be forgiven for liking the company of a live rogue
better than that of the lay-figures and empty clock-cases labelled with
distinguished names, who are to be found doing duty for men in the works
of our standard historians. What would we not give to know Julius Caesar
one half as well as we know this outrageous rascal? The saints of the
earth, too, how shadowy they are! Which of them do we really know?
Excepting one or two ancient and modern Quietists, there is hardly one
amongst the whole number who being dead yet speaketh. Their memoirs far
too often only reveal to us a hazy something, certainly not recognisable
as a man. This is generally the fault of their editors, who, though
men themselves, confine their editorial duties to going up and down the
diaries and papers of the departed saint, and obliterating all human
touches. This they do for the 'better prevention of scandals;' and one
cannot deny that they attain their end, though they pay dearly for it.

I shall never forget the start I gave when, on reading some old book
about India, I came across an after-dinner jest of Henry Martyn's.
The thought of Henry Martyn laughing over the walnuts and the wine was
almost, as Robert Browning's unknown painter says, 'too wildly dear;'
and to this day I cannot help thinking that there must be a mistake

To return to Cellini, and to conclude. On laying down his 'Memoirs,' let
us be careful to recall our banished moral sense, and make peace
with her, by passing a final judgment on this desperate sinner, which
perhaps, after all, we cannot do better than by employing language of
his own concerning a monk, a fellow-prisoner of his, who never, so far
as appears, murdered anybody, but of whom Cellini none the less felt
himself entitled to say:

'I admired his shining qualities, but his odious vices I freely censured
and held in abhorrence.'


The world is governed by logic. Truth as well as Providence is always on
the side of the strongest battalions. An illogical opinion only requires
rope enough to hang itself.

Middle men may often seem to be earning for themselves a place in
Universal Biography, and middle positions frequently, seem to afford
the final solution of vexed questions; but this double delusion seldom
outlives a generation. The world wearies of the men, for, attractive
as their characters may be, they are for ever telling us, generally at
great length, how it comes about that they stand just where they do, and
we soon tire of explanations and forget apologists. The positions, too,
once hailed with such acclaim, so eagerly recognised as the true
refuges for poor mortals anxious to avoid being run over by fast-driving
logicians, how untenable do they soon appear! how quickly do they grow
antiquated! how completely they are forgotten!

The Via Media, alluring as is its direction, imposing as are its
portals, is, after all, only what Londoners call a blind alley, leading

'Ratiocination,' says one of the most eloquent and yet exact of modern
writers,[*] 'is the great principle of order in thinking: it reduces
a chaos into harmony, it catalogues the accumulations of knowledge; it
maps out for us the relations of its separate departments. It enables
the independent intellects of many acting and re-acting on each other
to bring their collective force to bear upon the same subject-matter. If
language is an inestimable gift to man, the logical faculty prepares it
for our use. Though it does not go so far as to ascertain truth; still,
it teaches us the _direction_ in which truth lies, and _how propositions
lie towards each other_. Nor is it a slight benefit to know what is
needed for the proof of a point, what is wanting in a theory, how a
theory hangs together, _and what will follow if it be admitted_.'

    [* Footnote: Dr. Newman in the 'Grammar of Assent.']

This great principle of order in thinking is what we are too apt to
forget. 'Give us,' cry many, 'safety in our opinions, and let who
will be logical. An Englishman's creed is compromise. His _bête noir_
extravagance. We are not saved by syllogism.' Possibly not; but yet
there can be no safety in an illogical position, and one's chances of
snug quarters in eternity cannot surely be bettered by our believing at
one and the same moment of time self-contradictory propositions.

But, talk as we may, for the bulk of mankind it will doubtless always
remain true that a truth does not exclude its contradictory. Darwin and
Moses are both right. Between the Gospel according to Matthew and the
Gospel according to Matthew Arnold there is no difference.

If the too apparent absurdity of this is pressed home, the baffled
illogician, persecuted in one position, flees into another, and may be
heard assuring his tormentor that in a period like the present, which
is so notoriously transitional, a logician is as much out of place as
a bull in a china shop, and that unless he is quiet, and keeps his tail
well wrapped round his legs, the mischief he will do to his neighbours'
china creeds and delicate porcelain opinions is shocking to contemplate.
But this excuse is no longer admissible. The age has remained
transitional so unconscionably long, that we cannot consent to forego
the use of logic any longer. For a decade or two it was all well enough,
but when it comes to fourscore years, one's patience gets exhausted.
Carlyle's celebrated Essay, 'Characteristics,' in which this
transitional period is diagnosed with unrivalled acumen, is half a
century old. Men have been born in it--have grown old in it--have died
in it. It has outlived the old Court of Chancery. It is high time the
spurs of logic were applied to its broken-winded sides.

Notwithstanding the obstinate preference the 'bulk of mankind' always
show for demonstrable errors over undeniable truths, the number of
persons is daily increasing who have begun to put a value upon mental
coherency and to appreciate the charm of a logical position.

It was common talk at one time to express astonishment at the extending
influence of the Church of Rome, and to wonder how people who went about
unaccompanied by keepers could submit their reason to the Papacy, with
her open rupture with science and her evil historical reputation. From
astonishment to contempt is but a step. We first open wide our eyes and
then our mouths.

   'Lord So-and-so, his coat bedropt with wax,
    All Peter's chains about his waist, his back
    Brave with the needlework of Noodledom,
    Believes,--who wonders and who cares?'

It used to be thought a sufficient explanation to say either that the
man was an ass or that it was all those Ritualists. But gradually it
became apparent that the pervert was not always an ass, and that the
Ritualists had nothing whatever to do with it. If a man's tastes run
in the direction of Gothic Architecture, free seats, daily services,
frequent communions, lighted candles and Church millinery, they can all
be gratified, not to say glutted, in the Church of his baptism.

It is not the Roman ritual, however splendid, nor her ceremonial,
however spiritually significant, nor her system of doctrine, as well
arranged as Roman law and as subtle as Greek philosophy, that makes
Romanists nowadays.

It is when a person of religious spirit and strong convictions as to the
truth and importance of certain dogmas--few in number it may be; perhaps
only one, the Being of God--first becomes fully alive to the tendency
and direction of the most active opinions of the day; when, his alarm
quickening his insight, he reads as it were between the lines of books,
magazines, and newspapers; when, struck with a sudden trepidation,
he asks, 'Where is this to stop? how can I, to the extent of a poor
ability, help to stem this tide of opinion which daily increases its
volume and floods new territory?'--then it is that the Church of Rome
stretches out her arms and seems to say, 'Quarrel not with your destiny,
which is to become a Catholic. You may see difficulties and you may have
doubts. They abound everywhere. You will never get rid of them. But I,
and I alone, have never coquetted with the spirit of the age. I, and I
alone, have never submitted my creeds to be overhauled by infidels. Join
me, acknowledge my authority, and you need dread no side attack and fear
no charge of inconsistency. Succeed finally I must, but even were I to
fail, yours would be the satisfaction of knowing that you had never held
an opinion, used an argument, or said a word, that could fairly have
served the purpose of your triumphant enemy.'

At such a crisis as this in a man's life, he does not ask himself, How
little can I believe? With how few miracles can I get off?--he demands
sound armour, sharp weapons, and, above all, firm ground to stand on--a
good footing for his faith--and these he is apt to fancy he can get from
Rome alone.

No doubt he has to pay for them, but the charm of the Church of Rome is
this: when you have paid her price you get your goods--a neat assortment
of coherent, interdependent, logical opinions.

It is not much use, under such circumstances, to call the convert a
coward, and facetiously to inquire of him what he really thinks about
St. Januarius. Nobody ever began with Januarius. I have no doubt a good
many Romanists would be glad to be quit of him. He is part of the price
they have to pay in order that their title to the possession of other
miracles may be quieted. If you can convince the convert that he can
disbelieve Januarius of Naples without losing his grip of Paul of
Tarsus, you will be well employed; but if you begin with merry gibes,
and end with contemptuously demanding that he should have done with such
nonsense and fling the rubbish overboard, he will draw in his horns and
perhaps, if he knows his Browning, murmur to himself:--

   'To such a process, I discern no end.
    Cutting off one excrescence to see two;
    There is ever a next in size, now grown as big,
    That meets the knife. I cut and cut again;
    First cut the Liquefaction, what comes last
    But Fichte's clever cut at God Himself?'

To suppose that no person is logically entitled to fear God and to
ridicule Januarius at the same time, is doubtless extravagant, but to do
so requires care. There is an 'order in thinking. We must consider how
propositions lie towards each other--how a theory hangs together, and
what will follow if it be admitted.'

It is eminently desirable that we should consider the logical termini
of our opinions. Travelling up to town last month from the West, a
gentleman got into my carriage at Swindon, who, as we moved off and
began to rush through the country, became unable to restrain his delight
at our speed. His face shone with pride, as if he were pulling us
himself. 'What a charming train!' he exclaimed. 'This is the pace I like
to travel at.' I indicated assent. Shortly afterwards, when our windows
rattled as we rushed through Reading, he let one of them down in a
hurry, and cried out in consternation, 'Why, I want to get out here.'
'Charming train,' I observed. 'Just the pace I like to travel at; but it
_is_ awkward if you want to go anywhere except Paddington.' My companion
made no reply; his face ceased to shine, and as he sat whizzing past his
dinner, I mentally compared his recent exultation with that of those who
in the present day extol much of its spirit, use many of its arguments,
and partake in most of its triumphs, in utter ignorance as to
whitherwards it is all tending as surely as the Great Western rails run
into Paddington. 'Poor victims!' said a distinguished Divine, addressing
the Evangelicals, then rejoicing over their one legal victory, the
'Gorham Case'; 'do you dream that the spirit of the age is working for
you, or are you secretly prepared to go further than you avow?'

Mr. Matthew Arnold's friends, the Nonconformists, are, as a rule,
nowadays, bad logicians. What Dr. Newman has said of the Tractarians is
(with but a verbal alteration) also true of a great many Nonconformists:
'Moreover, there are those among them who have very little grasp of
principle, even from the natural temper of their minds. They see
this thing is beautiful, and that is in the Fathers, and a third is
expedient, and a fourth pious; but of their connection one with another,
their hidden essence and their life, and the bearing of external matters
upon each and upon all, they have no perception or even suspicion. They
do not look at things as part of a whole, and often will sacrifice
the most important and precious portions of their creed, or make
irremediable concessions in word or in deed, from mere simplicity and
want of apprehension.'

We have heard of grown-up Baptists asked to become, and actually
becoming, godfathers and godmothers to Episcopalian babies! What
terrible confusion is here! A point is thought to be of sufficient
importance to justify separation on account of it from the whole
Christian Church, and yet not to be of importance enough to debar the
separatist from taking part in a ceremony whose sole significance is
that it gives the lie direct to the point of separation.

But we all of us--Churchmen and Dissenters alike--select our opinions
far too much in the same fashion as ladies are reported, I dare say
quite falsely, to do their afternoon's shopping--this thing because it
is so pretty, and that thing because it is so cheap. We pick and choose,
take and leave, approbate and reprobate in a breath. A familiar anecdote
is never out of place: An English captain, anxious to conciliate a
savage king, sent him on shore, for his own royal wear, an entire dress
suit. His majesty was graciously pleased to accept the gift, and as it
never occurred to the royal mind that he could, by any possibility, wear
all the things himself, with kingly generosity he distributed what he
did not want amongst his Court. This done, he sent for the donor to
thank him in person. As the captain walked up the beach, his majesty
advanced to meet him, looking every inch a king in the sober dignity of
a dress-coat. The waistcoat imparted an air of pensive melancholy that
mightily became the Prime Minister, whilst the Lord Chamberlain, as he
skipped to and fro in his white gloves, looked a courtier indeed. The
trousers had become the subject of an unfortunate dispute, in the course
of which they had sustained such injuries as to be hardly recognisable.
The captain was convulsed with laughter.

But, in truth, the mental toilet of most of us is as defective and
almost as risible as was that of this savage Court. We take on our
opinions without paying heed to conclusions, and the result is absurd.
Better be without any opinions at all. A naked savage is not necessarily
an undignified object; but a savage in a dress-coat and nothing else is,
and must ever remain, a mockery and a show. There is a great relativity
about a dress-suit. In the language of the logicians, the name of each
article not only denotes that particular, but connotes all the rest.
Hence it came about that that which, when worn in its entirety, is
so dull and decorous, became so provocative of Homeric laughter when
distributed amongst several wearers.

No person with the least tincture of taste can ever weary of Dr. Newman,
and no apology is therefore offered for another quotation from his
pages. In his story, 'Loss and Gain,' he makes one of his characters,
who has just become a Catholic, thus refer to the stock Anglican
Divines, a class of writers who are, at all events, immensely superior
to the Ellicotts and Farrars of these latter days: 'I am embracing that
creed which upholds the divinity of tradition with Laud, consent of
Fathers with Beveridge, a visible Church with Bramhall, dogma with Bull,
the authority of the Pope with Thorndyke, penance with Taylor,
prayers for the dead with Ussher, celibacy, asceticism, ecclesiastical
discipline with Bingham.' What is this to say but that, according to the
Cardinal, our great English divines have divided the Roman dress-suit
amongst themselves?

This particular charge may perhaps be untrue, but with that I am not
concerned. If it is not true of them, it is true of somebody else.
'That is satisfactory so far as Mr. Lydgate is concerned,' says Mrs.
Farebrother in 'Middlemarch,' with an air of precision; 'but as to
Bulstrode, the report may be true of some other son.'

We must all be acquainted with the reckless way in which people pluck
opinions like flowers--a bud here, and a leaf there. The bouquet is
pretty to-day, but you must look for it to-morrow in the oven.

There is a sense in which it is quite true, what our other Cardinal has
said about Ultramontanes, Anglicans, and Orthodox Dissenters all being
in the same boat. They all of them enthrone Opinion, holding it to be,
when encased in certain dogmas, Truth Absolute. Consequently they have
all their martyrologies--the bright roll-call of those who have defied
Caesar even unto death, or at all events gaol. They all, therefore, put
something above the State, and apply tests other than those recognised
in our law courts.

The precise way by which they come at their opinions is only detail.
Be it an infallible Church, an infallible Book, or an inward spiritual
grace, the outcome is the same. The Romanist, of course, has to bear the
first brunt, and is the most obnoxious to the State; but he must be
slow of comprehension and void of imagination who cannot conceive of
circumstances arising in this country when the State should assert it to
be its duty to violate what even Protestants believe to be the moral law
of God. Therefore, in opposing Ultramontanism, as it surely ought to be
opposed, care ought to be taken by those who are not prepared to go all
lengths with Caesar, to select their weapons of attack, not from his
armoury, but from their own.

How ridiculous it is to see some estimable man who subscribes to the
Bible Society, and takes what he calls 'a warm interest' in the heathen,
chuckling over some scoffing article in a newspaper--say about a
Church Congress--and never perceiving, so unaccustomed is he to examine
directions, that he is all the time laughing at his own folly! Aunt
Nesbit, in 'Dred,' considered Gibbon a very pious writer. 'I am sure,'
says she, 'he makes the most religious reflections all along. I liked
him particularly on that account.' This poor lady had some excuse. A
vein of irony like Gibbon's is not struck upon every day; but readers
of newspapers, when they laugh, ought to be able to perceive what it is
they are laughing at.

Logic is the prime necessity of the hour. Decomposition and
transformation is going on all around us, but far too slowly. Some
opinions, bold and erect as they may still stand, are in reality but
empty shells. One shove would be fatal. Why is it not given?

The world is full of doleful creatures, who move about demanding our
sympathy. I have nothing to offer them but doses of logic, and
stern commands to move on or fall back. Catholics in distress about
Infallibility; Protestants devoting themselves to the dismal task of
paring down the dimensions of this miracle, and reducing the credibility
of that one--as if any appreciable relief from the burden of faith could
be so obtained; sentimental sceptics, who, after labouring to demolish
what they call the chimera of superstition, fall to weeping as they
remember they have now no lies to teach their children; democrats
who are frightened at the rough voice of the people, and aristocrats
flirting with democracy. Logic, if it cannot cure, might at least
silence these gentry.


There is more material for a life of Falstaff than for a life of
Shakespeare, though for both there is a lamentable dearth. The
difficulties of the biographer are, however, different in the two cases.
There is nothing, or next to nothing, in Shakespeare's works which
throws light on his own story; and such evidence as we have is of
the kind called circumstantial. But Falstaff constantly gives us
reminiscences or allusions to his earlier life, and his companions also
tell us stories which ought to help us in a biography. The evidence,
such as it is, is direct; and the only inference we have to draw is that
from the statement to the truth of the statement.

It has been justly remarked by Sir James Stephen, that this very
inference is perhaps the most difficult one of all to draw correctly.
The inference from so-called circumstantial evidence, if you have enough
of it, is much surer; for whilst facts cannot lie, witnesses can, and
frequently do. The witnesses on whom we have to rely for the facts are
Falstaff and his companions--especially Falstaff.

When an old man tries to tell you the story of his youth, he sees the
facts through a distorting subjective medium, and gives an impression of
his history and exploits more or less at variance with the bare facts as
seen by a contemporary outsider. The scientific Goethe, though truthful
enough in the main, certainly fails in his reminiscences to tell a plain
unvarnished tale. And Falstaff was _not_ habitually truthful. Indeed,
that Western American, who wrote affectionately on the tomb of a
comrade, 'As a truth-crusher he was unrivalled,' had probably not
given sufficient attention to Falstaff's claims in this matter. Then
Falstaff's companions are not witnesses above suspicion. Generally
speaking, they lie open to the charge made by P. P. against the wags
of his parish, that they were men delighting more in their own conceits
than in the truth. These are some of our difficulties, and we ask the
reader's indulgence in our endeavours to overcome them. We will tell
the story from our hero's birth, and will not begin longer _before_ that
event than is usual with biographers.

The question, _Where_ was Falstaff born? has given us some trouble.
We confess to having once entertained a strong opinion that he was a
Devonshire man. This opinion was based simply on the flow and fertility
of his wit as shown in his conversation, and the rapid and fantastic
play of his imagination. But we sought in vain for any verbal
provincialisms in support of this theory, and there was something in the
character of the man that rather went against it. Still, we clung to
the opinion, till we found that philology was against us, and that the
Falstaffs unquestionably came from Norfolk.

The name is of Scandinavian origin; and we find in 'Domesday' that a
certain Falstaff held freely from the king a church at Stamford. These
facts are of great importance. The thirst for which Falstaff was always
conspicuous was no doubt inherited--was, in fact, a Scandinavian thirst.
The pirates of early English times drank as well as they fought, and
their descendants who invade England--now that the war of commerce has
superseded the war of conquest--still bring the old thirst with them,
as anyone can testify who has enjoyed the hospitality of the London
Scandinavian Club. Then this church was no doubt a familiar landmark in
the family; and when Falstaff stated, late in life, that if he hadn't
forgotten what the inside of a church was like, he was a peppercorn
and a brewer's horse, he was thinking with some remorse of the family

Of the family between the Conquest and Falstaff's birth we know nothing,
except that, according to Falstaff's statement, he had a grandfather
who left him a seal-ring worth forty marks. From this statement we might
infer that the ring was an heirloom, and consequently that Falstaff was
an eldest son, and the head of his family. But we must be careful in
drawing our inferences, for Prince Henry frequently told Falstaff that
the ring was copper; and on one occasion, when Falstaff alleged that his
pocket had been picked at the Boar's Head, and this seal-ring and three
or four bonds of forty pounds apiece abstracted, the Prince assessed the
total loss at eight-pence.

After giving careful attention to the evidence, and particularly to the
conduct of Falstaff on the occasion of the alleged robbery, we come to
the conclusion that the ring _was_ copper, and was not an heirloom. This
leaves us without any information about Falstaff's family prior to his
birth. He was born (as he himself informs the Lord Chief Justice) about
three o'clock in the afternoon, with a white head and something a round
belly. Falstaffs corpulence, therefore, as well as his thirst, was
congenital. Let those who are not born with his comfortable figure sigh
in vain to attain his stately proportions. This is a thing which Nature
gives us at our birth as much as the Scandinavian thirst or the shaping
spirit of imagination.

Born somewhere in Norfolk, Falstaff's early months and years were no
doubt rich with the promise of his after greatness. We have no record of
his infancy, and are tempted to supply the gap with Rabelais' chapters
on Gargantua's babyhood. But regard for the truth compels us to add
nothing that cannot fairly be deduced from the evidence. We leave the
strapping boy in his swaddling-clothes to answer the question _when_ he
was born. Now, it is to be regretted that Falstaff, who was so precise
about the hour of his birth, should not have mentioned the year. On this
point we are again left to inference from conflicting statements. We
have this distinct point to start from, that Falstaff, in or about
the year 1401, gives his age as some fifty or by'r Lady inclining to
three-score. It is true that in other places he represents himself as
old, and again in another states that he and his accomplices in the
Gadshill robbery are in the vaward of their youth. The Chief Justice
reproves him for this affectation of youth, and puts a question (which,
it is true, elicits no admission from Falstaff) as to whether every part
of him is not blasted with antiquity.

We are inclined to think that Falstaff rather understated his age when
he described himself as by'r Lady inclining to three-score, and that we
shall not be far wrong if we set down 1340 as the year of his birth. We
cannot be certain to a year or two. There is a similar uncertainty about
the year of Sir Richard Whittington's birth. But both these great men,
whose careers afford in some respects striking contrasts, were born
within a few years of the middle of the fourteenth century.

Falstaff's childhood was no doubt spent in Norfolk; and we learn from
his own lips that he plucked geese, played truant, and whipped top,
and that he did not escape beating. That he had brothers and sisters we
know; for he tells us that he is _John_ with them and _Sir John_ with
all Europe. We do not know the dame or pedant who taught his young idea
how to shoot and formed his manners; but Falstaff says that _if_ his
manners became him not, he was a fool that taught them him. This does
not throw much light on his early education: for it is not clear
that the remark applies to that period, and in any case it is purely

But Falstaff, like so many boys since his time, left his home in the
country and came to London. His brothers and sisters he left behind
him, and we hear no more of them. Probably none of them ever attained
eminence, as there is no record of Falstaff's having attempted to
borrow money of them. We know Falstaff so well as a tun of man, a
horse-back-breaker, and so forth, that it is not easy to form an idea of
what he was in his youth. But if we trace back the sack-stained current
of his life to the day when, full of wonder and hope, he first rode into
London, we shall find him as different from Shakespeare's picture of him
as the Thames at Iffley is from the Thames at London Bridge. His figure
was shapely; he had no difficulty _then_ in seeing his own knee, and
if he was not able, as he afterwards asserted, to creep through an
alderman's ring, nevertheless he had all the grace and activity
of youth. He was just such a lad (to take a description almost
contemporary) as the Squier who rode with the Canterbury Pilgrims:

   'A lover and a lusty bacheler,
    With lockes crull as they were laid in presse,
    Of twenty yere of age he was, I gesse.
    Of his stature he was of even lengthe,
    And wonderly deliver, and grete of strengthe.

       *       *       *       *       *

      Embrouded was he, as it were a mede,
    All ful of freshe floures, white and rede;
    Singing he was, or floyting alle the day,
    He was as freshe as is the moneth of May.
    Short was his goune, with sleves long and wide,
    Wel coude he sitte on hors, and fayre ride,
    He coude songes make, and wel endite,
    Juste and eke dance, and wel pourtraie and write.
    So hot he loved that by nightertale,
    He slep no more than doth the nightingale.'

Such was Falstaff at the age of twenty, or something earlier, when he
entered at Clement's Inn, where were many other young men reading law,
and preparing for their call to the Bar. How much law he read it is
impossible now to ascertain. That he had, in later life, a considerable
knowledge of the subject is clear, but this may have been acquired like
Mr. Micawber's, by experience, as defendant on civil process. We are
inclined to think he read but little. _Amici fures temporis:_ and he had
many friends at Clement's Inn who were not smugs, nor, indeed, reading
men in any sense. There was John Doit of Staffordshire, and Black George
Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and Will Squele, a Cotswold man,
and Robert Shallow from Gloucestershire. Four of these were such
swinge-bucklers as were not to be found again in all the Inns o' Court,
and we have it on the authority of Justice Shallow that Falstaff was
a good backswordsman, and that before he had done growing he broke
the head of Skogan at the Court gate. This Skogan appears to have been
Court-jester to Edward III. No doubt the natural rivalry between the
amateur and the professional caused the quarrel, and Skogan must have
been a good man if he escaped with a broken head only, and without
damage to his reputation as a professional wit. The same day that
Falstaff did this deed of daring--the only one of the kind recorded of
him--Shallow fought with Sampson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray's
Inn. Shallow was a gay dog in his youth, according to his own account:
he was called Mad Shallow, Lusty Shallow--indeed, he was called
anything. He played Sir Dagonet in Arthur's show at Mile End Green; and
no doubt Falstaff and the rest of the set were cast for other parts
in the same pageant. These tall fellows of Clement's Inn kept well
together, for they liked each other's company, and they needed each
other's help in a row in Turnbull Street or elsewhere. Their watchword
was 'Hem, boys!' and they made the old Strand ring with their songs
as they strolled home to their chambers of an evening. They heard the
chimes at midnight--which, it must be confessed, does not seem to us a
desperately dissipated entertainment. But midnight was a late hour in
those days. The paralytic masher of the present day, who is most alive
at midnight, rises at noon. _Then_ the day began earlier with a long
morning, followed by a pleasant period called the forenoon. Under modern
conditions we spend the morning in bed, and to palliate our sloth call
the forenoon and most of the rest of the day, the morning. These young
men of Clement's Inn were a lively, not to say a rowdy, set. They would
do anything that led to mirth or mischief. What passed when they lay all
night in the windmill in St. George's Field we do not quite know; but
we are safe in assuming that they did not go there to pursue their legal
duties, or to grind corn. Anyhow, forty years after, that night raised
pleasant memories.

John Falstaff was the life and centre of this set, as Robert Shallow was
the butt of it. The latter had few personal attractions. According to
Falstaff's portrait of him, he looked like a man made after supper of a
cheese-paring. When he was naked he was for all the world like a forked
radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife: he was so
forlorn that his dimensions to any thick sight were invincible: he was
the very genius of famine; and a certain section of his friends called
him mandrake: he came ever in the rearward of the fashion, and sung
those tunes to the over-scutched huswives that he heard the carmen
whistle, and sware they were his fancies or his good-nights. Then he had
the honour of having his head burst by John o' Gaunt, for crowding among
the Marshal's men in the Tilt-yard, and this was matter for continual
gibe from Falstaff and the other boys. Falstaff was in the van of the
fashion, was witty himself without being at that time the cause that wit
was in others. No one could come within range of his wit without being
attracted and overpowered. Late in life Falstaff deplores nothing so
much in the character of Prince John of Lancaster as this, that a man
cannot make him laugh. He felt this defect in the Prince's character
keenly, for laughter was Falstaff's familiar spirit, which never failed
to come at his call. It was by laughter that young Falstaff fascinated
his friends and ruled over them. There are only left to us a few scraps
of his conversation, and these have been, and will be, to all time the
delight of all good men. The Clement's Inn boys who enjoyed the feast,
of which we have but the crumbs left to us, were happy almost beyond
the lot of man. For there is more in laughter than is allowed by the
austere, or generally recognised by the jovial. By laughter man is
distinguished from the beasts, but the cares and sorrows of life have
all but deprived man of this distinguishing grace, and degraded him to
a brutal solemnity. Then comes (alas, how rarely!) a genius such as
Falstaff's, which restores the power of laughter and transforms the
stolid brute into man. This genius approaches nearly to the divine power
of creation, and we may truly say, 'Some for less were deified.' It is
no marvel that young Falstaff's friends assiduously served the deity
who gave them this good gift. At first he was satisfied with the mere
exercise of his genial power, but he afterwards made it serviceable to
him. It was but just that he should receive tribute from those who were
beholden to him, for a pleasure which no other could confer.

It was now that Falstaff began to recognise what a precious gift was his
congenital Scandinavian thirst, and to lose no opportunity of gratifying
it. We have his mature views on education, and we may take them as an
example of the general truth that old men habitually advise a young one
to shape the conduct of his life after their own. Rightly to apprehend
the virtues of sherris-sack is the first qualification in an instructor
of youth. 'If I had a thousand sons,' says he, 'the first humane
principles I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations, and
to addict themselves to sack'; and further: 'There's never none of these
demure boys come to any proof; for their drink doth so over-cool their
blood, and making many fish-meals, that they fall into a kind of male
green sickness; and then when they marry they get wenches: they are
generally fools and cowards, which some of us should be too but for
inflammation.' There can be no doubt that Falstaff did not in early life
over-cool his blood, but addicted himself to sack, and gave the subject
a great part of his attention for all the remainder of his days.

It may be that he found the subject too absorbing to allow of his giving
much attention to old Father Antic the Law. At any rate, he was never
called to the Bar, and posterity cannot be too thankful that his great
mind was not lost in 'the abyss of legal eminence' which has received so
many men who might have adorned their country. That he was fitted for
a brilliant legal career can admit of no doubt. His power of detecting
analogies in cases apparently different, his triumphant handling of
cases apparently hopeless, his wonderful readiness in reply, and his
dramatic instinct, would have made him a powerful advocate. It may
have been owing to difficulties with the Benchers of the period
over questions of discipline, or it may have been a distaste for the
profession itself, which induced him to throw up the law and adopt the
profession of arms.

We know that while he was still at Clement's Inn he was page to Lord
Thomas Mowbray, who was afterwards created Earl of Nottingham and Duke
of Norfolk. It must be admitted that here (as elsewhere in Shakespeare)
there is some little chronological difficulty. We will not inquire too
curiously, but simply accept the testimony of Justice Shallow on the
point. Mowbray was an able and ambitious lord, and Falstaff, as page to
him, began his military career with every advantage. The French wars of
the later years of Edward III. gave frequent and abundant opportunity
for distinction. Mowbray distinguished himself in Court and in camp,
and we should like to believe that Falstaff was in the sea-fight when
Mowbray defeated the French fleet and captured vast quantities of sack
from the enemy. Unfortunately, there is no record whatever of Falstaff's
early military career, and beyond his own ejaculation, 'Would to
God that my name was not so terrible to the enemy as it is!' and the
(possible) inference from it that he must have made his name terrible in
some way, we have no evidence that he was ever in the field before the
battle of Shrewsbury. Indeed, the absence of evidence on this matter
goes strongly to prove the negative. Falstaff boasts of his valour,
his alacrity, and other qualities which were not apparent to the casual
observer, but he never boasts of his services in battle. If there had
been anything of the kind to which he could refer with complacency,
there is no moral doubt that he would have mentioned it freely, adding
such embellishments and circumstances as he well knew how.

In the absence of evidence as to the course of his life, we are left to
conjecture how he spent the forty years, more or less, between the time
of his studies at Clement's Inn and the day when Shakespeare introduces
him to us. We have no doubt that he spent all, or nearly all, this time
in London. His habits were such as are formed by life in a great city;
his conversation betrays a man who has lived, as it were, in a crowd,
and the busy haunts of men were the appropriate scene for the display of
his great qualities. London, even then, was a great city, and the study
of it might well absorb a lifetime. Falstaff knew it well, from the
Court, with which he always preserved a connection, to the numerous
taverns where he met his friends and eluded his creditors. The Boar's
Head in Eastcheap was his headquarters, and, like Barnabee's, two
centuries later, his journeys were from tavern to tavern; and, like
Barnabee, he might say '_Multum bibi, nunquam pransi_.' To begin
with, no doubt the dinner bore a fair proportion to the fluid which
accompanied it, but by degrees the liquor encroached on and superseded
the viands, until his tavern bills took the shape of the one purloined
by Prince Henry, in which there was but one halfpenny-worth of bread to
an intolerable deal of sack. It was this inordinate consumption of sack
(and not sighing and grief, as he suggests) which blew him up like a
bladder. A life of leisure in London always had, and still has, its
temptations. Falstaff's means were described by the Chief Justice of
Henry IV. as very slender, but this was after they had been wasted for
years. Originally they were more ample, and gave him the opportunity of
living at ease with his friends. No domestic cares disturbed the even
tenor of his life. Bardolph says he was better accommodated than with a
wife. Like many another man about town, he thought about settling down
when he was getting up in years. He weekly swore, so he tells us, to
marry old Mistress Ursula, but this was only after he saw the first
white hair on his chin. But he never led Mistress Ursula to the altar.
The only other women for whom he formed an early attachment were
Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar's Head, and Doll Tearsheet,
who is described by the page as a proper gentlewoman, and a kinswoman of
his master's. There is no denying that Falstaff was on terms of intimacy
with Mistress Quickly, but he never admitted that he made her an offer
of marriage. She, however, asserted it in the strongest terms, and with
a wealth of circumstance.

We must transcribe her story: 'Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt
goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal
fire, upon Wednesday in Whitsun-week, when the Prince broke thy head for
liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor; thou didst swear to me
then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me, and make me my lady thy
wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife Keech, the butcher's wife,
come in then, and call me Gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of
vinegar; telling us she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou didst
desire to eat some; whereby I told thee they were ill for a green wound?
And didst thou not, when she was gone downstairs, desire me to be no
more so familiarity with such poor people; saying that ere long they
should call me madam? And didst thou not kiss me, and bid me fetch
thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book-oath; deny it if thou

We feel no doubt that if Mistress Quickly had given this evidence
in action for breach of promise of marriage, and goodwife Keech
corroborated it, the jury would have found a verdict for the plaintiff,
unless indeed they brought in a special verdict to the effect that
Falstaff made the promise, but never intended to keep it. But Mistress
Quickly contented herself with upbraiding Falstaff, and he cajoled her
with his usual skill, and borrowed more money of her.

Falstaff's attachment for Doll Tearsheet lasted many years, but did not
lead to matrimony. From the Clement's Inn days till he was threescore he
lived in London celibate, and his habits and amusements were much like
those of other single gentlemen about town of his time, or, for that
matter, of ours. He had only himself to care for, and he cared for
himself well. Like his page, he had a good angel about him, but the
devil outbid him. He was as virtuously given as other folk, but perhaps
the devil had a handle for temptation in that congenital thirst of his.
He was a social spirit too, and he tells us that company, villainous
company, was the spoil of him. He was less than thirty when he took the
faithful Bardolph into his service, and only just past that age when he
made the acquaintance of the nimble Poins. Before he was forty he
became the constant guest of Mistress Quickly. Pistol and Nym were later
acquisitions, and the Prince did not come upon the scene till Falstaff
was an old man and knighted.

There is some doubt as to when he obtained this honour. Richard II.
bestowed titles in so lavish a manner as to cause discontent among many
who didn't receive them. In 1377, immediately on his accession, the
earldom of Nottingham was given to Thomas Mowbray, and on the same day
three other earls and nine knights were created. We have not been able
to discover the names of these knights, but we confidently expect to
unearth them some day, and to find the name of Sir John Falstaff among
them. We have already stated that Falstaff had done no service in
the field at this time, so he could not have earned his title in that
manner. No doubt he got it through the influence of Mowbray, who was in
a position to get good things for his friends as well as for himself.
It was but a poor acknowledgment for the inestimable benefit of
occasionally talking with Falstaff over a quart of sack.

We will not pursue Falstaff's life further than this. It can from this
point be easily collected. It is a thankless task to paraphrase a great
and familiar text. To attempt to tell the story in better words than
Shakespeare would occur to no one but Miss Braddon, who has epitomised
Sir Walter, or to Canon Farrar, who has elongated the Gospels. But we
feel bound to add a few words as to character. There are, we fear, a
number of people who regard Falstaff as a worthless fellow, and who
would refrain (if they could) from laughing at his jests. These people
do not understand his claim to grateful and affectionate regard. He
did more to produce that mental condition of which laughter is the
expression than any man who ever lived. But for the cheering presence
of him, and men like him, this vale of tears would be a more terrible
dwelling-place than it is. In short, Falstaff has done an immense deal
to alleviate misery and promote positive happiness. What more can be
said of your heroes and philanthropists?

It is, perhaps, characteristic of this commercial age that benevolence
should be always associated, if not considered synonymous, with the
giving of money. But this is clearly mistaken, for we have to consider
what effect the money given produces on the minds and bodies of human
beings. Sir Richard Whittington was an eminently benevolent man,
and spent his money freely for the good of his fellow-citizens. (We
sincerely hope, by the way, that he lent some of it to Falstaff without
security.) He endowed hospitals and other charities. Hundreds were
relieved by his gifts, and thousands (perhaps) are now in receipt of his
alms. This is well. Let the sick and the poor, who enjoy his hospitality
and receive his doles, bless his memory. But how much wider and
further-reaching is the influence of Falstaff! Those who enjoy his good
things are not only the poor and the sick, but all who speak the English
language. Nay, more; translation has made him the inheritance of the
world, and the benefactor of the entire human race.

It may be, however, that some other nations fail fully to understand and
appreciate the mirth and the character of the man. A Dr. G. G. Gervinus,
of Heidelberg, has written, in the German language, a heavy work
on Shakespeare, in which he attacks Falstaff in a very solemn and
determined manner, and particularly charges him with selfishness and
want of conscience. We are inclined to set down this malignant attack
to envy. Falstaff is the author and cause of universal laughter. Dr.
Gervinus will never be the cause of anything universal; but, so far as
his influence extends, he produces headaches. It is probably a painful
sense of this contrast that goads on the author of headaches to attack
the author of laughter.

But is there anything in the charge? We do not claim anything like
perfection, or even saintliness, for Falstaff. But we may say of him, as
Byron says of Venice, that his very vices are of the gentler sort. And
as for this charge of selfishness and want of conscience, we think that
the words of Bardolph on his master's death are an overwhelming answer
to it. Bardolph said, on hearing the news: 'I would I were with him
wheresoever he is: whether he be in heaven or hell.' Bardolph was a mere
serving-man, not of the highest sensibility, and he for thirty years
knew his master as his valet knows the hero. Surely the man who could
draw such an expression of feeling from his rough servant is not the man
to be lightly charged with selfishness! Which of us can hope for such an
epitaph, not from a hireling, but from our nearest and dearest? Does Dr.
Gervinus know anyone who will make such a reply to a posthumous charge
against him of dulness and lack of humour?

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