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Title: The Connecticut Wits and Other Essays
Author: Beers, Henry A. (Henry Augustin)
Language: English
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                          THE CONNECTICUT WITS

                     REPRINTS FROM THE YALE REVIEW


                  _A Book of Yale Review Verse, 1917._

                _War Poems from The Yale Review, 1918._
                       (_Second Edition, 1919._)

                _Four Americans: Roosevelt, Hawthorne,_
                       _Emerson, Whitman, 1919._
                       (_Second Printing, 1920._)

                     _Milton’s Tercentenary, 1910._

                              IN MEMORY OF
                         OLIVER BATY CUNNINGHAM
                   OF THE CLASS OF 1917, YALE COLLEGE

                                 T H E
                    C O N N E C T I C U T   W I T S
                           AND  OTHER  ESSAYS

                            HENRY  A.  BEERS
                            YALE  UNIVERSITY


                               NEW  HAVEN
                        YALE  UNIVERSITY  PRESS

                          COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY
                         YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS


                 1. The Connecticut Wits
                 2. The Singer of the Old Swimmin’ Hole
                 3. Emerson’s Journals
                 4. The Art of Letter Writing
                 5. Thackeray’s Centenary
                 6. Retrospects and Prospects of the English
                 7. Sheridan
                 8. The Poetry of the Cavaliers
                 9. Abraham Cowley
                10. Milton’s Tercentenary
                11. Shakespeare’s Contemporaries

                       THE OLIVER BATY CUNNINGHAM
                       MEMORIAL PUBLICATION FUND

     THE present volume is the first work published by the
     Yale University Press on the Oliver Baty Cunningham
     Memorial Publication Fund. This Foundation was established
     May 8, 1920, by a gift from Frank S. Cunningham,
     Esq., of Chicago, to Yale University, in
     memory of his son, Captain Oliver Baty Cunningham,
     15th United States Field Artillery, who was born in
     Chicago, September 17, 1894, and was graduated from
     Yale College in the Class of 1917. As an undergraduate
     he was distinguished alike for high scholarship and for
     proved capacity in leadership among his fellows, as evidenced
     by his selection as Gordon Brown Prize Man
     from his class. He received his commission as Second
     Lieutenant, United States Field Artillery, at the First
     Officers’ Training Camp at Fort Sheridan, and in
     December, 1917, was detailed abroad for service, receiving
     subsequently the Distinguished Service Medal. He
     was killed while on active duty near Thiaucourt, France,
               on September 17, 1918, the twenty-fourth
                       anniversary of his birth.

                          THE CONNECTICUT WITS

IN the days when Connecticut counted in the national councils; when it
had _men_ in the patriot armies, in Washington’s Cabinet, in the Senate
of the United States—men like Israel Putnam, Roger Sherman, Oliver
Wolcott, Oliver Ellsworth,—in those same days there was a premature but
interesting literary movement in our little commonwealth. A band of
young graduates of Yale, some of them tutors in the college, or in
residence for their Master’s degree, formed themselves into a school for
the cultivation of letters. I speak advisedly in calling them a school:
they were a group of personal friends, united in sympathy by similar
tastes and principles; and they had in common certain definite,
coherent, and conscious aims. These were, first, to liberalize and
modernize the rigidly scholastic curriculum of the college by the
introduction of more elegant studies: the _belles lettres_, the _literae
humaniores_. Such was the plea of John Trumbull in his Master’s oration,
“An Essay on the Use and Advantages of the Fine Arts,” delivered at
Commencement, 1770; and in his satire, “The Progress of Dulness,” he had
his hit at the dry and dead routine of college learning. Secondly, these
young men resolved to supply the new republic with a body of poetry on a
scale commensurate with the bigness of American scenery and the vast
destinies of the nation: epics resonant as Niagara, and Pindaric odes
lofty as our native mountains. And finally, when, at the close of the
Revolutionary War, the members of the group found themselves reunited
for a few years at Hartford, they set themselves to combat, with the
weapon of satire, the influences towards lawlessness and separatism
which were delaying the adoption of the Constitution.

My earliest knowledge of this literary coterie was derived from an
article in _The Atlantic Monthly_ for February, 1865, “The Pleiades of
Connecticut.” The “Pleiades,” to wit, were John Trumbull, Timothy
Dwight, David Humphreys, Lemuel Hopkins, Richard Alsop, and Theodore
Dwight. The tone of the article was ironic. “Connecticut is pleasant,”
it said, “with wooded hills and a beautiful river; plenteous with
tobacco and cheese; fruitful of merchants, missionaries, peddlers, and
single women,—but there are no poets known to exist there . . . the
brisk little democratic state has turned its brains upon its machinery
. . . the enterprising natives can turn out any article on which a
profit can be made—except poetry.”

Massachusetts has always been somewhat condescending towards
Connecticut’s literary pretensions. Yet all through that very volume of
the _Atlantic_, from which I quote, run Mrs. Stowe’s “Chimney Corner”
papers and Donald Mitchell’s novel, “Doctor Johns”; with here and there
a story by Rose Terry and a poem by Henry Brownell. Nay, in an article
entitled “Our Battle Laureate,” in the May number of the magazine, the
“Autocrat” himself, who would always have his fling at Connecticut
theology and Connecticut spelling and pronunciation (“Webster’s
provincials,” forsooth! though _pater ipse_, the Rev. Abiel, had been a
Connecticut orthodox parson, a Yale graduate, and a son-in-law of
President Stiles),—the “Autocrat,” I say, takes off his hat to my old
East Hartford neighbor, Henry Howard Brownell.

He begins by citing the paper which I have been citing: “How came the
Muses to settle in Connecticut? . . . But the seed of the Muses has run
out. No more Pleiades in Hartford . . .”; and answers that, if the
author of the article asks Nathanael’s question, putting Hartford for
Nazareth, he can refer him to Brownell’s “Lyrics of a Day.” “If Drayton
had fought at Agincourt, if Campbell had held a sabre at Hohenlinden, if
Scott had been in the saddle with Marmion, if Tennyson had charged with
the six hundred at Balaclava, each of these poets might possibly have
pictured what he said as faithfully and as fearfully as Mr. Brownell has
painted the sea fights in which he took part as a combatant.”

Many years later, when preparing a chapter on the literature of the
county for the “Memorial History of Hartford,” I came to close quarters
with the sweet influence of the Pleiades. I am one of the few
men—perhaps I am the only man—now living who have read the whole of
Joel Barlow’s “Columbiad.” “Is old Joel Barlow yet alive?” asks
Hawthorne’s crazy correspondent. “Unconscionable man! . . . And _does_
he meditate an epic on the war between Mexico and Texas, with machinery
contrived on the principle of the steam engine?” I also “perused” (good
old verb—the right word for the deed!) Dwight’s “Greenfield Hill”—a
meritorious action,—but I cannot pretend to have read his “Conquest of
Canaän” (the diaeresis is his, not mine), an epic in eleven books and in
heroic couplets. I dipped into it only far enough to note that the poet
had contrived to introduce a history of our Revolutionary War, by way of
episode, among the wars of Israel.

It must be acknowledged that this patriotic enterprise of creating a
national literature by _tour de force_, was undertaken when Minerva was
unwilling. These were able and eminent men: scholars, diplomatists,
legislators. Among their number were a judge of the Connecticut Supreme
Court, a college president, foreign ministers and ambassadors, a
distinguished physician, an officer of the Revolutionary army, intimate
friends of Washington and Jefferson. But, as poetry, a few little pieces
of the New Jersey poet, Philip Freneau,—“The Indian Student,” “The
Indian Burying Ground,” “To a Honey Bee,” “The Wild Honeysuckle,” and
“The Battle of Eutaw Springs,”—are worth all the epic and Pindaric
strains of the Connecticut bards. Yet “still the shore a brave attempt
resounds.” For they had few misgivings and a truly missionary zeal. They
formed the first Mutual Admiration Society in our literary annals.

    Here gallant Humphreys charm’d the list’ning throng.
    Sweetly he sang, amid the clang of arms,
    His numbers smooth, replete with winning charms.
    In him there shone a great and godlike mind,
    The poet’s wreath around the laurel twined.

This was while Colonel Humphreys was in the army—one of Washington’s
aides. But when he resigned his commission,—hark! ’tis Barlow sings:—

    See Humphreys glorious from the field retire,
    Sheathe the glad sword and string the sounding lyre.
    O’er fallen friends, with all the strength of woe,
    His heartfelt sighs in moving numbers flow.
    His country’s wrongs, her duties, dangers, praise,
    Fire his full soul, and animate his lays.

Humphreys, in turn, in his poem “On the Future Glory of the United
States of America,” calls upon his learned friends to string _their_
lyres and rouse their countrymen against the Barbary corsairs who were
holding American seamen in captivity:—

    Why sleep’st thou, Barlow, child of genius? Why
    See’st thou, blest Dwight, our land in sadness lie?
    And where is Trumbull, earliest boast of fame?
    ’Tis yours, ye bards, to wake the smothered flame.
    To you, my dearest friends, the task belongs
    To rouse your country with heroic songs.

Yes, to be sure, where _is_ Trumbull, earliest boast of fame? He came
from Watertown (now a seat of learning), a cousin of Governor
Trumbull—“Brother Jonathan”—and a second cousin of Colonel John
Trumbull, the historical painter, whose battle pieces repose in the Yale
Art Gallery. Cleverness runs in the Trumbull blood. There was, for
example, J. Hammond Trumbull (abbreviated by lisping infancy to “J.
Hambull”) in the last generation, a great sagamore—O a very big
Indian,—reputed the only man in the country who could read Eliot’s
Algonquin Bible. I make no mention of later Trumbulls known in letters
and art. But as for our worthy, John Trumbull, the poet, it is well
known and has been often told how he passed the college entrance
examination at the age of seven, but forebore to matriculate till a more
reasonable season, graduating in 1767 and serving two years as a tutor
along with his friend Dwight; afterwards studying law at Boston in the
office of John Adams, practising at New Haven and Hartford, filling
legislative and judicial positions, and dying at Detroit in 1831.

Trumbull was the satirist of the group. As a young man at Yale, he
amused his leisure by contributing to the newspapers essays in the
manner of “The Spectator” (“The Meddler,” “The Correspondent,” and the
like); and verse satires after the fashion of Prior and Pope. There is
nothing very new about the Jack Dapperwits, Dick Hairbrains, Tom
Brainlesses, Miss Harriet Simpers, and Isabella Sprightlys of these
compositions. The very names will recall to the experienced reader the
stock figures of the countless Addisonian imitations which sicklied o’er
the minor literature of the eighteenth century. But Trumbull’s
masterpiece was “M’Fingal,” a Hudibrastic satire on the Tories, printed
in part at Philadelphia in 1776, and in complete shape at Hartford in
1782, “by Hudson and Goodwin near the Great Bridge.” “M’Fingal” was the
most popular poem of the Revolution. It went through more than thirty
editions in America and England. In 1864 it was edited with elaborate
historical notes by Benson J. Lossing, author of “Pictorial Field-Book
of the Revolution.” A reprint is mentioned as late as 1881. An edition,
in two volumes, of Trumbull’s poetical works was issued in 1820.

Timothy Dwight pronounced “M’Fingal” superior to “Hudibras.” The Marquis
de Chastellux, who had fought with Lafayette for the independence of the
colonies; who had been amused when at Windham, says my authority, by
Governor Jonathan Trumbull’s “pompous manner in transacting the most
trifling public business”; and who translated into French Colonel
Humphreys’s poetical “Address to the Armies of the United States of
America,”—Chastellux wrote to Trumbull _à propos_ of his burlesque: “I
believe that you have rifled every flower which that kind of poetry
could offer. . . . I prefer it to every work of the kind,—even
‘Hudibras.’” And Moses Coit Tyler, whose four large volumes on our
colonial and revolutionary literature are, for the most part, a much ado
about nothing, waxes dithyrambic on this theme. He speaks, for example,
of “the vast and prolonged impression it has made upon the American
people.” But surely all this is very uncritical. All that is really
alive of “M’Fingal” are a few smart couplets usually attributed to
“Hudibras,” such as—

                    No man e’er felt the halter draw
                    With good opinion of the law.

“M’Fingal” is one of the most successful of the innumerable imitations
of “Hudibras”; still it is an imitation, and, as such, inferior to its
original. But apart from that, Trumbull was far from having Butler’s
astonishing resources of wit and learning, tedious as they often are
from their mere excess. Nor is the Yankee sharpness of “M’Fingal” so
potent a spirit as the harsh, bitter contempt of Butler, almost as
inventive of insult as the _saeva indignatio_ of Swift. Yet “M’Fingal”
still keeps a measure of historical importance, reflecting, in its
cracked and distorted mirror of caricature, the features of a stormy
time: the turbulent town meetings, the liberty poles and bonfires of the
patriots; with the tar-and-feathering of Tories, and their stolen
gatherings in cellars or other holes and corners.

After peace was declared, a number of these young writers came together
again in Hartford, where they formed a sort of literary club with weekly
meetings—“The Hartford Wits,” who for a few years made the little
provincial capital the intellectual metropolis of the country. Trumbull
had settled at Hartford in the practice of the law in 1781. Joel Barlow,
who had hastily qualified for a chaplaincy in a Massachusetts brigade by
a six weeks’ course of theology, and had served more or less
sporadically through the war, came to Hartford in the year following and
started a newspaper. David Humphreys, Yale 1771, illustrious founder of
the Brothers in Unity Society, and importer of merino sheep, had
enlisted in 1776 in a Connecticut militia regiment then on duty in New
York. He had been on the staff of General Putnam, whose life he
afterwards wrote; had been Washington’s aide and a frequent inmate at
Mount Vernon from 1780 to 1783; then abroad (1784–1786), as secretary to
the commission for making commercial treaties with the nations of
Europe. (The commissioners were Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson.) On
returning to his native Derby in 1786, he had been sent to the
legislature at Hartford, and now found himself associated with Trumbull,
who had entered upon his Yale tutorship in 1771, the year of Humphreys’s
graduation; and with Barlow, who had taken his B.A. degree in 1778.
These three Pleiades drew to themselves other stars of lesser magnitude,
the most remarkable of whom was Dr. Lemuel Hopkins, a native of
Waterbury, but since 1784 a practising physician at Hartford and one of
the founders of the Connecticut Medical Society. Hopkins was an
eccentric humorist, and is oddly described by Samuel Goodrich—“Peter
Parley”—as “long and lank, walking with spreading arms and straddling
legs.” “His nose was long, lean, and flexible,” adds Goodrich,—a
description which suggests rather the proboscis of the elephant, or at
least of the tapir, than a feature of the human countenance.

Other lights in this constellation were Richard Alsop, from Middletown,
who was now keeping a bookstore at Hartford, and Theodore Dwight,
brother to Timothy and brother-in-law to Alsop, and later the secretary
and historian of the famous Hartford Convention of 1814, which came near
to carrying New England into secession. We might reckon as an eighth
Pleiad, Dr. Elihu H. Smith, then residing at Wethersfield, who published
in 1793 our first poetic miscellany, printed—of all places in the
world—at Litchfield, “mine own romantic town”: seat of the earliest
American law school, and emitter of this earliest American anthology. If
you should happen to find in your garret a dusty copy of this
collection, “American Poems, Original and Selected,” by Elihu H. Smith,
hold on to it. It is worth money, and will be worth more.

The Hartford Wits contributed to local papers, such as the _New Haven
Gazette_ and the _Connecticut Courant_, a series of political lampoons:
“The Anarchiad,” “The Echo,” and “The Political Greenhouse,” a sort of
Yankee “Dunciad,” “Rolliad,” and “Anti-Jacobin.” They were staunch
Federalists, friends of a close union and a strong central government;
and used their pens in support of the administrations of Washington and
Adams, and to ridicule Jefferson and the Democrats. It was a time of
great confusion and unrest: of Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, and
the irredeemable paper currency in Rhode Island. In Connecticut,
Democratic mobs were protesting against the vote of five years’ pay to
the officers of the disbanded army. “The Echo” and “The Political
Greenhouse” were published in book form in 1807; “The Anarchiad” not
till 1861, by Thomas H. Pease, New Haven, with notes and introduction by
Luther G. Riggs. I am not going to quote these satires. They amused
their own generation and doubtless did good. “The Echo” had the honor of
being quoted in Congress by an angry Virginian, to prove that
Connecticut was trying to draw the country into a war with France. It
caught up cleverly the humors of the day, now travestying a speech of
Jefferson, now turning into burlesque a Boston town meeting. A local
flavor is given by allusions to Connecticut traditions: Captain Kidd,
the Blue Laws, the Windham Frogs, the Hebron pump, the Wethersfield
onion gardens. But the sparkle has gone out of it. There is a perishable
element in political satire. I find it difficult to interest young
people nowadays even in the “Biglow Papers,” which are so much superior,
in every way, to “M’Fingal” or “The Anarchiad.”

Timothy Dwight would probably have rested his title to literary fame on
his five volumes of theology and the eleven books of his “Conquest of
Canaän.” But the epic is unread and unreadable, while theological
systems need constant restatement in an age of changing beliefs. There
is one excellent hymn by Dwight in the collections,—“I love thy
kingdom, Lord.” His war song, “Columbia, Columbia, in glory arise,” was
once admired, but has faded. I have found it possible to take a mild
interest in the long poem, “Greenfield Hill,” a partly idyllic and
partly moral didactic piece, emanating from the country parish, three
miles from the Sound, in the town of Fairfield, where Dwight was pastor
from 1783 to 1795. The poem has one peculiar feature: each of its seven
parts was to have imitated the manner of some one British poet. Part One
is in the blank verse and the style of Thomson’s “Seasons”; Part Two in
the heroic couplets and the diction of Goldsmith’s “Traveller” and
“Deserted Village.” For lack of time this design was not systematically
carried out, but the reader is reminded now of Prior, then of Cowper,
and again of Crabbe. The nature descriptions and the pictures of rural
life are not untruthful, though somewhat tame and conventional. The
praise of modest competence is sung, and the wholesome simplicity of
American life, under the equal distribution of wealth, as contrasted
with the luxury and corruption of European cities. Social questions are
discussed, such as, “The state of negro slavery in Connecticut”; and
“What is not, and what is, a social female visit.” Narrative episodes
give variety to the descriptive and reflective portions: the burning of
Fairfield in 1779 by the British under Governor Tryon; the destruction
of the remnants of the Pequod Indians in a swamp three miles west of the
town. It is distressing to have the Yankee farmer called “the swain,”
and his wife and daughter “the fair,” in regular eighteenth century
style; and Long Island, which is always in sight and frequently
apostrophized, personified as “Longa.”

    Then on the borders of this sapphire plain
    Shall growing beauties grace my fair domain
            *       *       *       *       *
    Gay groves exult: Chinesian gardens glow,
    And bright reflections paint the wave below.

The poet celebrates Connecticut artists and inventors:—

    Such forms, such deeds on Rafael’s tablets shine,
    And such, O Trumbull, glow alike on thine.

David Bushnell of Saybrook had invented a submarine torpedo boat,
nicknamed “the American Turtle,” with which he undertook to blow up Lord
Admiral Howe’s gunship in New York harbor. Humphreys gives an account of
the failure of this enterprise in his “Life of Putnam.” It was some of
Bushnell’s machines, set afloat on the Delaware, among the British
shipping, that occasioned the panic celebrated in Hopkinson’s satirical
ballad, “The Battle of the Kegs,” which we used to declaim at school.
“See,” exclaims Dwight,—

    See Bushnell’s strong creative genius, fraught
    With all th’ assembled powers of skillful thought,
    His mystic vessel plunge beneath the waves
    And glide through dark retreats and coral caves!

Dr. Holmes, who knew more about Yale poets than they know about each
other, has rescued one line from “Greenfield Hill.” “The last we see of
snow,” he writes, in his paper on “The Seasons,” “is, in the language of
a native poet,

               The lingering drift behind the shady wall.

This is from a bard more celebrated once than now, Timothy Dwight, the
same from whom we borrowed the piece we used to speak, beginning (as we
said it),

                   Columby, Columby, to glory arise!

The line with the drift in it has stuck in my memory like a feather in
an old nest, and is all that remains to me of his ‘Greenfield Hill.’”

                 *        *        *        *        *

As President of Yale College from 1795 to 1817, Dr. Dwight, by his
sermons, addresses, and miscellaneous writings, his personal influence
with young men, and his public spirit, was a great force in the
community. I have an idea that his “Travels in New England and New
York,” posthumously published in 1821–1822, in four volumes, will
survive all his other writings. I can recommend Dwight’s “Travels” as a
really entertaining book, and full of solid observation.

Of all the wooden poetry of these Connecticut bards, David Humphreys’s
seems to me the woodenest,—big patriotic verse essays on the model of
the “Essay on Man”; “Address to the Armies of the United States”; “On
the Happiness of America”; “On the Future Glory of the United States”;
“On the Love of Country”; “On the Death of George Washington,” etc. Yet
Humphreys was a most important figure. He was plenipotentiary to
Portugal and Spain, and a trusted friend of Washington, from whom,
perhaps, he caught that stately deportment which is said to have
characterized him. He imported a hundred merino sheep from Spain,
landing them from shipboard at his native Derby, then a port of entry on
the lordly Housatonic. He wrote a dissertation on merino sheep, and also
celebrated the exploit in song. The Massachusetts Agricultural Society
gave him a gold medal for his services in improving the native breed.
But if these sheep are even remotely responsible for Schedule K, it
might be wished that they had remained in Spain, or had been as the
flocks of Bo-Peep. Colonel Humphreys died at New Haven in 1818. The
college owns his portrait by Stuart, and his monument in Grove Street
cemetery is dignified by a Latin inscription reciting his titles and
achievements, and telling how, like a second Jason, he brought the
_auream vellerem_ from Europe to Connecticut. Colonel Humphreys’s works
were handsomely published at New York in 1804, with a list of
subscribers headed by their Catholic Majesties, the King and Queen of
Spain, and followed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and numerous dukes
and chevaliers. Among the humbler subscribers I am gratified to observe
the names of Nathan Beers, merchant, New Haven; and Isaac Beers & Co.,
booksellers, New Haven (six copies),—no ancestors but conjecturally
remote collateral relatives of the undersigned.

I cannot undertake to quote from Humphreys’s poems. The patriotic
feeling that prompted them was genuine; the descriptions of campaigns in
which he himself had borne a part have a certain value; but the poetry
as such, though by no means contemptible, is quite uninspired. Homer’s
catalogue of ships is a hackneyed example of the way in which a great
poet can make bare names poetical. Humphreys had a harder job, and
passages of his battle pieces read like pages from a city directory.

    As fly autumnal leaves athwart some dale,
    Borne on the pinions of the sounding gale,
    Or glides the gossamer o’er rustling reeds,
    Bland’s, Sheldon’s, Moylan’s, Baylor’s battle steeds
    So skimmed the plain. . . .
    Then Huger, Maxwell, Mifflin, Marshall, Read,
    Hastened from states remote to seize the meed;
            *       *       *       *       *
    While Smallwood, Parsons, Shepherd, Irvine, Hand,
    Guest, Weedon, Muhlenberg, leads each his band.

Does the modern reader recognize a forefather among these heroic
patronymics? Just as good men as fought at Marathon or Agincourt. Nor
can it be said of any one of them _quia caret vate sacro_.

But the loudest blast upon the trump of fame was blown by Joel Barlow.
It was agreed that in him America had produced a supreme poet. Born at
Redding,—where Mark Twain died the other day,—the son of a farmer,
Barlow was graduated at Yale in 1778—just a hundred years before
President Taft. He married the daughter of a Guilford blacksmith, who
had moved to New Haven to educate his sons; one of whom, Abraham
Baldwin, afterwards went to Georgia, grew up with the country, and
became United States Senator.

After the failure of his Hartford journal, Barlow went to France, in
1788, as agent of the Scioto Land Company, which turned out to be a
swindling concern. He now “embraced French principles,” that is, became
a Jacobin and freethinker, to the scandal of his old Federalist friends.
He wrote a song to the guillotine and sang it at festal gatherings in
London. He issued other revolutionary literature, in particular an
“Advice to the Privileged Orders,” suppressed by the British government;
whereupon Barlow, threatened with arrest, went back to France. The
Convention made him a French citizen; he speculated luckily in the
securities of the republic, which rose rapidly with the victories of its
armies. He lived in much splendor in Paris, where Robert Fulton,
inventor of steamboats, made his home with him for seven years. In 1795,
he was appointed United States consul to Algiers, resided there two
years, and succeeded in negotiating the release of the American captives
who had been seized by Algerine pirates. After seventeen years’ absence,
he returned to America, and built a handsome country house on Rock
Creek, Washington, which he named characteristically “Kalorama.” He had
become estranged from orthodox New England, and lived on intimate terms
with Jefferson and the Democratic leaders, French sympathizers, and
philosophical deists.

In 1811 President Madison sent him as minister plenipotentiary to
France, to remonstrate with the emperor on the subject of the Berlin and
Milan decrees, which were injuring American commerce. He was summoned to
Wilna, Napoleon’s headquarters in his Russian campaign, where he was
promised a personal interview. But the retreat from Moscow had begun.
Fatigue and exposure brought on an illness from which Barlow died in a
small Polish village near Cracow. An elaborate biography, “The Life and
Letters of Joel Barlow,” by Charles Burr Todd, was published by G. P.
Putnam’s Sons in 1886.

Barlow’s most ambitious undertaking was the “Columbiad,” originally
printed at Hartford in 1787 as “The Vision of Columbus,” and then
reissued in its expanded form at Philadelphia in 1807: a sumptuous
quarto with plates by the best English and French engravers from designs
by Robert Fulton: altogether the finest specimen of bookmaking that had
then appeared in America. The “Columbiad’s” greatness was in inverse
proportion to its bigness. Grandiosity was its author’s besetting sin,
and the plan of the poem is absurdly grandiose. It tells how Hesper
appeared to Columbus in prison and led him to a hill of vision whence he
viewed the American continents spread out before him, and the panorama
of their whole future history unrolled. Among other things he saw the
Connecticut river—

    Thy stream, my Hartford, through its misty robe,
    Played in the sunbeams, belting far the globe.
    No watery glades through richer vallies shine,
    Nor drinks the sea a lovelier wave than thine.

It is odd to come upon familiar place-names swollen to epic pomp. There
is Danbury, for example, which one associates with the manufacture of
hats and a somewhat rowdy annual fair. In speaking of the towns set on
fire by the British, the poet thus exalteth Danbury, whose flames were
visible from native Redding:—

    Norwalk expands the blaze; o’er Redding hills
    High flaming Danbury the welkin fills.
    Esopus burns, New York’s deliteful fanes
    And sea-nursed Norfolk light the neighboring plains.

But Barlow’s best poem was “Hasty Pudding,” a mock-heroic after the
fashion of Philips’s “Cider,” and not, I think, inferior to that. One
couplet, in particular, has prevailed against the tooth of time:—

    E’en in thy native regions how I blush
    To hear the Pennsylvanians call thee mush!

This poem was written in 1792 in Savoy, whither Barlow had gone to stand
as deputy to the National Convention. In a little inn at Chambéry, a
bowl of _polenta_, or Indian meal pudding, was set before him, and the
familiar dish made him homesick for Connecticut. You remember how Dr.
Holmes describes the dinners of the young American medical students in
Paris at the _Trois Frères_; and how one of them would sit tinkling the
ice in his wineglass, “saying that he was hearing the cowbells as he
used to hear them, when the deep-breathing kine came home at twilight
from the huckleberry pasture in the old home a thousand leagues towards
the sunset.”


MANY years ago I said to one of Walt Whitman’s biographers: “Whitman
may, as you claim, be the poet of democracy, but he is not the poet of
the American people. He is the idol of a literary _culte_. Shall I tell
you who the poet of the American people is just at present? He is James
Whitcomb Riley of Indiana.” Riley used to become quite blasphemous when
speaking of Whitman. He said that the latter had begun by scribbling
newspaper poetry of the usual kind—and very poor of its kind—which had
attracted no attention and deserved none. Then he suddenly said to
himself: “Go to! I will discard metre and rhyme and write something
startlingly eccentric which will make the public sit up and take notice.
I will sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, and the world
will say—as in fact it did—‘here is a new poetry, lawless, virile,
democratic. It is so different from anything hitherto written, that here
must be the great American poet at last.’”

Now, I am not going to disparage old Walt. He was big himself, and he
had an extraordinary feeling of the bigness of America with its swarming
multitudes, millions of the plain people, whom God must have loved, said
Lincoln, since he made so many of them. But all this in the mass. As to
any dramatic power to discriminate among individuals and characterize
them singly, as Riley does, Whitman had none. They are all alike, all
“leaves of grass.”

Well, my friend, and Walt Whitman’s, promised to read Riley’s poems. And
shortly I got a letter from him saying that he had read them with much
enjoyment, but adding, “Surely you would not call him a great national
poet.” Now since his death, the newspaper critics have been busy with
this question. His poetry was true, sweet, original; but was it great?
Suppose we leave aside for the moment this question of greatness. Who
are the great poets, anyway? Was Robert Burns one of them? He composed
no epics, no tragedies, no high Pindaric odes. But he made the songs of
the Scottish people, and is become a part of the national consciousness
of the race. In a less degree, but after the same fashion, Riley’s
poetry has taken possession of the popular heart. I am told that his
sales outnumber Longfellow’s. This is not an ultimate test, but so far
as it goes it is a valid one.

Riley is the Hoosier poet, but he is more than that: he is a national
poet. His state and his city have honored themselves in honoring him and
in keeping his birthday as a public holiday. The birthdays of nations
and of kings and magistrates have been often so kept. We have our fourth
of July, our twenty-second of February, our Lincoln’s birthday; and we
had a close escape from having a McKinley day. I do not know that the
banks are closed and the children let out of school—Riley’s children,
for all children are his—on each succeeding seventh of October; but I
think there is no record elsewhere in our literary history of a tribute
so loving and so universal to a mere man of letters, as the Hoosier
State pays annually to its sweet singer. Massachusetts has its poets and
is rightly proud of them, but neither Bryant nor Emerson nor Lowell nor
Holmes, nor the more popular Longfellow or Whittier, has had his natal
day marked down on the calendar as a yearly state _festa_. And yet
poets, novelists, playwriters, painters, musical composers, artists of
all kinds, have added more to the sum of human happiness than all the
kings and magistrates that ever lived. Perhaps Indianians are warmer
hearted than New Englanders; or perhaps they make so much of their poets
because there are fewer of them. But this is not the whole secret of it.
In a sense, Riley’s poems are provincial. They are intensely true to
local conditions, local scenery and dialect, childish memories and the
odd ways and characters of little country towns. But just for this
faithfulness to their environment these “poems here at home” come home
to others whose homes are far away from the Wabash, but are not so very
different after all.

America, as has often been said, is a land of homes: of dwellers in
villages, on farms, and in small towns. We are common people,
middle-class people, conservative, decent, religious, tenacious of old
ways, home-keeping and home-loving. We do not thrill to Walt Whitman’s
paeans to democracy in the abstract; but we vibrate to every touch on
the chord of family affections, of early friendships, and of the dear
old homely things that our childhood knew. Americans are sentimental and
humorous; and Riley abounds in sentiment—wholesome sentiment—and
natural humor, while Whitman had little of either.

To all Americans who were ever boys; to all, at least who have had the
good luck to be country boys and go barefoot; whether they dwell in the
prairie states of the Middle West, or elsewhere, the scenes and
characters of Riley’s poems are familiar: Little Orphant Annie and the
Raggedy Man, and the Old Swimmin’ Hole and Griggsby’s Station “where we
ust to be so happy and so pore.” They know when the frost is on the
“punkin,” and that the “Gobble-uns’ll git you ef you don’t watch out”;
and how the old tramp said to the Raggedy Man:—

                  You’re a _purty_ man!—_You_ air!—
                With a pair o’ eyes like two fried eggs,
                  An’ a nose like a Bartlutt pear!

They have all, in their time, followed along after the circus parade,
listened to the old village band playing tunes like “Lily Dale” and “In
the Hazel Dell my Nellie’s Sleeping” and “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower”;
have heard the campaign stump speaker when he “cut loose on monopolies
and cussed and cussed and cussed”; have belonged to the literary society
which debated the questions whether fire or water was the most
destructive element; whether town life was preferable to country life;
whether the Indian or the negro had suffered more at the hands of the
white man; or whether the growth of Roman Catholicism in this country is
a menace to our free institutions. And _was_ the execution of Charles
the First justifiable? Charles is dead now; but this good old debate
question will never die. They knew the joys of “eatin’ out on the porch”
and the woes of having your sister lose your jackknife through a crack
in the barn floor; or of tearing your thumb nail in trying to get the
nickel out of the tin savings bank.

The poets we admire are many; the poets we love are few. One of the
traits that endear Riley to his countrymen is his cheerfulness. He is
“Sunny Jim.” The south wind and the sun are his playmates. The drop of
bitterness mixed in the cup of so many poets seems to have been left out
of his life potion. And so, while he does not rouse us with “the thunder
of the trumpets of the night,” or move us with the deep organ tones of
tragic grief, he never fails to hearten and console. And though tragedy
is absent from his verse, a tender pathos, kindred to his humor, is
everywhere present. Read over again “The Old Man and Jim,” or “Nothin’
to Say, my Daughter,” or any of his poems on the deaths of children; for
a choice that poignant little piece, “The Lost Kiss,” comparable with
Coventry Patmore’s best poem, “The Toys,” in which the bereaved father
speaks his unavailing remorse because he had once spoken crossly to his
little girl when she came to his desk for a good-night kiss and
interrupted him at his work.

Riley followed the bent of his genius and gave himself just the kind of
training that fitted him to do his work. He never had any regular
education, adopted no trade or profession, never married and had
children, but kept himself free from set tasks and from those
responsibilities which distract the poet’s soul. His muse was a truant,
and he was a runaway schoolboy who kept the heart of a boy into manhood
and old age, which is one definition of genius. He was better employed
when he joined a circus troupe or a travelling medicine van, or set up
as a sign painter, or simply lay out on the grass, “knee deep in June,”
than if he had shut himself up in a school or an office. He did no
routine work, but wrote when he felt like it, when he was in the mood.
Fortunately the mood recurred abundantly, and so we have about two dozen
volumes from him, filled with lovely poetry. Most of us do hack work,
routine work, because we can do nothing better. But for the creative
artist, hack work is a waste. Creative work, when one is in the mood, is
more a pleasure than a toil; and Riley worked hard at his verse-making.
For he was a most conscientious artist; and all those poems of his,
seemingly so easy, natural, spontaneous, were the result of labor,
though of labor joyously borne. How fine his art was perhaps only those
can fully appreciate who have tried their own hands at making verses.
Some of the things that he said to me about the use and abuse of dialect
in poetry and concerning similar points, showed me how carefully he had
thought out the principles of composition.

He thought most dialect poetry was overdone; recalling that delightful
anecdote about the member of the Chicago Browning Club who was asked
whether he liked dialect verse, and who replied: “Some of it. Eugene
Field is all right. But the other day I read some verses by a fellow
named Chaucer, and he carries it altogether too far.”

In particular, Riley objected to the habit which many writers have of
labelling their characters with descriptive names like Sir Lucius
O’Trigger and Birdofredum Sawin. I reminded him that English comedy from
“Ralph Roister Doister” down had practised this device. (In Ben Jonson
it is the rule.) And that even such an artist as Thackeray employed it
frequently with droll effect: Lady Jane Sheepshanks, daughter of the
Countess of Southdown, and so forth. But he insisted that it was a
departure from _vraisemblance_ which disturbed the impression of

In seeking to classify these Hoosier poems, we are forced back
constantly to a comparison with the Doric singers: with William Barnes,
the Dorsetshire dialect poet; and above all with Robert Burns.
Wordsworth in his “Lyrical Ballads,” and Tennyson in his few rural idyls
like “Dora” and “The Brook” dealt also with simple, country life, the
life of Cumberland dalesmen and Lincolnshire farmers. But these poets
are in another class. They are grave philosophers, cultivated scholars,
university men, writing in academic English; writing with sympathy
indeed, but from a point of view outside the life which they depict. In
our own country there are Will Carleton’s “Farm Ballads,” handling the
same homely themes as Riley’s; handling them truthfully, sincerely, but
prosaically. Carleton could not

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

But Riley’s world of common things and plain folks is always lit up by
the lamp of beauty. Then there is Whittier. He was a farmer lad, and was
part of the life that he wrote of. He belonged; and, like Riley, he knew
his Burns. I think, indeed, that “Snow-Bound” is a much better poem than
“The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” Whittier’s fellow Quaker, John Bright, in
an address to British workingmen, advised them to read Whittier’s poems,
if they wanted to understand the spirit of the American people. Well,
the spirit of New England, let us say, if not of all America. For
Whittier is in some ways provincial, and rightly so. But though he uses
homely New England words like “chore,” he does not, so far as I
remember, essay dialect except in “Skipper Ireson’s Ride”; and that is
Irish if it is anything. No Yankee women known to me talk like the
fishwives of Marblehead in that popular but overrated piece. Then there
are the “Biglow Papers,” which remind of Riley’s work on the humorous,
as Whittier’s ballads do on the serious side. Lowell made a careful
study of the New England dialect and the “Biglow Papers” are brilliantly
true to the shrewd Yankee wit; but they are political satires rather
than idyls. Where they come nearest to these Hoosier ballads or to
“Sunthin’ in the Pastoral Line” is where they record old local ways and
institutions. “This kind o’ sogerin’,” writes Birdofredum Sawin, who is
disgustedly campaigning in Mexico, like our National Guards of

    This kind o’ sogerin’ aint a mite like our October trainin’,
    A chap could clear right out from there ef ’t only looked like
    An’ th’ Cunnles, tu, could kiver up their shappoes with bandanners,
    An’ send the insines skootin’ to the bar-room with their banners
    (Fear o’ gittin’ on ’em spotted), . . .

Isn’t that something like Riley? Lowell, of course, is a more imposing
literary figure, and he tapped intellectual sources to which the younger
poet had no access. But I still think Riley the finer artist. Benjamin
F. Johnson, of Boone, the quaint, simple, innocent old Hoosier farmer,
is a more convincing person than Hosea Biglow. In many of the “Biglow
Papers” sentiment, imagery, vocabulary, phrase, are often too elevated
for the speaker and for his dialect. Riley is not guilty of this
inconsistency; his touch here is absolutely correct.

Riley’s work was anything but academic; and I am therefore rather proud
of the fact that my university was the first to confer upon him an
honorary degree. I cannot quite see why geniuses like Mark Twain and
Riley, whose books are read and loved by hundreds of thousands of their
countrymen, should care very much for a college degree. The fact
remains, however, that they are gratified by the compliment, which
stamps their performances with a sort of official sanction, like the
_couronné par l’Académie Française_ on the title-page of a French

When Mr. Riley came on to New Haven to take his Master’s degree, he was
a bit nervous about making a public appearance in unwonted conditions;
although he had been used to facing popular audiences with great
applause when he gave his delightful readings from his own poems, with
humorous impersonations in prose as good as Beatrice Herford’s best
monologues. He rehearsed the affair in advance, trying on his Master’s
gown and reading me his poem, “No Boy Knows when He Goes to Sleep,”
which he proposed to use if called on for a speech. He asked me if it
would do: it did. For at the alumni dinner which followed the conferring
of degrees, when Riley got to his feet and read the piece, the audience
broke loose. It was evident that, whatever the learned gentlemen on the
platform might think, the undergraduates and the young alumni knew their
Riley; and that his enrolment on the Yale catalogue was far and away the
most popular act of the day. For in truth there is nothing cloistral or
high and dry among our modern American colleges. A pessimist on my own
faculty even avers that the average undergraduate nowadays reads nothing
beyond the sporting columns in the New York newspapers. There were other
distinguished recipients of degrees at that same Commencement. One
leading statesman was made a Doctor of Laws: Mr. Riley a Master of Arts.
Of course a mere man of letters cannot hope to rank with a politician.
If Shakespeare and Ben Butler had been contemporaries and had both come
up for a degree at the same Commencement—supposing any college willing
to notice Butler at all—why Ben would have got an LL.D. and William an
M.A. Yet exactly why should this be so? For as I am accustomed to say of
John Hay, anybody can be Secretary of State, but it took a smart man to
write “Little Breeches” and “The Mystery of Gilgal.”

                        EMERSON AND HIS JOURNALS

THE publication of Emerson’s journals,[1] kept for over half a
century, is a precious gift to the reading public. It is well known that
he made an almost daily record of his thoughts: that, when called upon
for a lecture or address, he put together such passages as would
dovetail, without too anxious a concern for unity; and that from all
these sources, by a double distillation, his perfected essays were
finally evolved.

Accordingly, many pages are here omitted which are to be found in his
published works, but a great wealth of matter remains—chips from his
workshop—which will be new to the reader. And as he always composed
carefully, even when writing only for his own eye, and as
consecutiveness was never his long suit, these entries may be read with
a pleasure and profit hardly less than are given by his finished

The editors, with excellent discretion, have sometimes allowed to stand
the first outlines, in prose or verse, of work long familiar in its
completed shape. Here, for instance, is the germ of a favorite poem:

                                               “August 28. [1838.]

    “It is very grateful to my feelings to go into a Roman
    cathedral, yet I look as my countrymen do at the Roman
    priesthood. It is very grateful to me to go into an English
    church and hear the liturgy read. Yet nothing would induce me to
    be the English priest. I find an unpleasant dilemma in this
    nearer home.”

This dilemma is “The Problem.” And here again is the original of “The
Two Rivers,” “as it came to mind, sitting by the river, one April day”
(April 5, 1856):

    “Thy Voice is sweet, Musketaquid; repeats the music of the rain;
    but sweeter rivers silent flit through thee, as thou through
    Concord plain.

    “Thou art shut in thy banks; but the stream I love, flows in thy
    water, and flows through rocks and through the air, and through
    darkness, and through men, and women. I hear and see the
    inundation and eternal spending of the stream, in winter and in
    summer, in men and animals, in passion and thought. Happy are
    they who can hear it.

    “I see thy brimming, eddying stream, and thy enchantment. For
    thou changest every rock in thy bed into a gem; all is real opal
    and agate, and at will thou pavest with diamonds. Take them away
    from thy stream, and they are poor shards and flints: So is it
    with me to-day.”

These journals differ from common diaries in being a chronicle of
thoughts, rather than of events, or even of impressions. Emerson is the
most impersonal of writers, which accounts in part, and by virtue of the
attraction of opposites, for the high regard in which he held that
gossip, Montaigne. Still, there are jottings enough of foreign travel,
lecture tours, domestic incidents, passing public events, club meetings,
college reunions, walks and talks with Concord neighbors, and the like,
to afford the material of a new biography,[2] which has been published
uniformly with the ten volumes of journals. And the philosopher held
himself so aloof from vulgar curiosity that the general reader, who
breathes with difficulty in the rarefied air of high speculations, will
perhaps turn most readily to such more intimate items as occur. As where
his little son—the “deep-eyed boy” of the “Threnody”—being taken to
the circus, said _à propos_ of the clown, “Papa, the funny man makes me
want to go home.” Emerson adds that he and Waldo were of one mind on the
subject; and one thereupon recalls a celebrated incident in the career
of Mark Twain. The diarist is not above setting down jests—even profane
jests—with occasional anecdotes, _bons mots_, and miscellaneous
witticisms like “an ordinary man or a Christian.” I, for one, would like
to know who was the “Miss —— of New Haven, who on reading Ruskin’s
book [presumably “Modern Painters”], said ‘Nature was Mrs. Turner.’”
Were there such witty fair in the New Haven of 1848?

In the privacy of his journals, every man allows himself a license of
criticism which he would hardly practise in public. The limitations or
eccentricities of Emerson’s literary tastes are familiar to most; such
as his dislike of Shelley and contempt for Poe, “the jingle man.” But
here is a judgment, calmly penned, which rather takes one’s breath away:
“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s reputation as a writer is a very pleasing fact,
because his writing is not good for anything, and this is a tribute to
the man.” This, to be sure, was in 1842, eight years before the
appearance of “The Scarlet Letter.” Yet, to the last, the romancer’s
obsession with the problem of evil affected the resolved optimist as
unwholesome. Indeed he speaks impatiently of all novels, and prophesies
that they will give way by and by to autobiographies and diaries. The
only exception to his general distaste for fiction is “The Bride of
Lammermoor,” which he mentions repeatedly and with high praise,
comparing it with Aeschylus.

The entry concerning Moore’s “Life of Sheridan” is surprisingly
savage—less like the gentle Emerson than like his truculent friend
Carlyle: “He details the life of a mean, fraudulent, vain, quarrelsome
play-actor, whose wit lay in cheating tradesmen, whose genius was used
in studying jokes and _bons mots_ at home for a dinner or a club, who
laid traps for the admiration of coxcombs, who never did anything good
and never said anything wise.”

Emerson’s biographers make a large claim for him. One calls him “the
first of American thinkers”: another, “the only great mind in American
literature.” This is a generous challenge, but I believe that, with
proper definition, it may be granted. When it is remembered that among
American thinkers are Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander
Hamilton, William James, and Willard Gibbs, one hesitates to subscribe
to so absolute a verdict. Let it stand true, however, with the saving
clause, “after the intuitional order of thought.” Emerson dwelt with the
insights of the Reason and not with the logically derived judgments of
the Understanding. (He capitalizes the names of these faculties, which
translate the Kantian _Vernunft_ and _Verstand_.) Dialectics he
eschewed, professing himself helpless to conduct an argument. He
announced truths, but would not undertake to say by what process of
reasoning he reached them. They were not the conclusions of a syllogism:
they were borne in upon him—revelations. At New Bedford he visited the
meetings of the Quakers, and took great interest in their doctrine of
the inner light.

When the heresies of the “Divinity School Address” (1838) were attacked
by orthodox Unitarians (if there is such a thing as an orthodox
Unitarian) like Andrews Norton in “The Latest Form of Infidelity,” and
Henry Ware in his sermon on “The Personality of God,” Emerson made no
attempt to defend his position. In a cordial letter to Ware he wrote: “I
could not possibly give you one of the ‘arguments’ you cruelly hint at,
on which any doctrine of mine stands; for I do not know what arguments
are in reference to any expression of a thought. I delight in telling
what I think; but if you ask me how I dare say so, or why it is so, I am
the most helpless of mortal men.”

Let me add a few sentences from the noble and beautiful passage written
at sea, September 17, 1833: “Yesterday I was asked what I mean by
morals. I reply that I cannot define, and care not to define. . . . That
which I cannot yet declare has been my angel from childhood until
now. . . . It cannot be defeated by my defeats. It cannot be questioned
though all the martyrs apostatize. . . . What is this they say about
wanting mathematical certainty for moral truths? I have always affirmed
they had it. Yet they ask me whether I know the soul immortal. No. But
do I not know the Now to be eternal? . . . Men seem to be
constitutionally believers and unbelievers. There is no bridge that can
cross from a mind in one state to a mind in the other. All my opinions,
affections, whimsies, are tinged with belief,—incline to that
side. . . . But I cannot give reasons to a person of a different
persuasion that are at all adequate to the force of my conviction. Yet
when I fail to find the reason, my faith is not less.”

No doubt most men cherish deep beliefs for which they can assign no
reasons: “real assents,” rather than “notional assents,” in Newman’s
phrase. But Emerson’s profession of inability to argue need not be
accepted too literally. It is a mask of humility covering a subtle
policy: a plea in confession and avoidance: a throwing off of
responsibility _in forma pauperis_. He could argue well, when he wanted
to. In these journals, for example, he exposes, with admirable
shrewdness, the unreasonableness and inconsistency of Alcott, Thoreau,
and others, who refused to pay taxes because Massachusetts enforced the
fugitive slave law: “As long as the state means you well, do not refuse
your pistareen. You have a tottering cause: ninety parts of the
pistareen it will spend for what you think also good: ten parts for
mischief. You cannot fight heartily for a fraction. . . . The state tax
does not pay the Mexican War. Your coat, your sugar, your Latin and
French and German book, your watch does. Yet these you do not stick at

Again, is it true that Emerson is the only great mind in American
literature? Of his greatness of mind there can be no question; but how
far was that mind _in_ literature? No one doubts that Poe, or Hawthorne,
or Longfellow, or Irving was _in_ literature: was, above all things
else, a man of letters. But the gravamen of Emerson’s writing appears to
many to fall outside of the domain of letters: to lie in the provinces
of ethics, religion, and speculative thought. They acknowledge that his
writings have wonderful force and beauty, have literary quality; but
tried by his subject matter, he is more a philosopher, a moralist, a
theosophist, than a poet or a man of letters who deals with this human
life as he finds it. A theosophist, not of course a theologian. Emerson
is the most religious of thinkers, but by 1836, when his first book,
“Nature,” was published, he had thought himself free of dogma and creed.
Not the least interest of the journals is in the evidence they give of
the process, the steps of growth by which he won to his perfected
system. As early as 1824 we find a letter to Plato, remarkable in its
mature gravity for a youth of twenty-one, questioning the exclusive
claim of the Christian Revelation: “Of this Revelation I am the ardent
friend. Of the Being who sent it I am the child. . . . But I confess it
has not for me the same exclusive and extraordinary claims it has for
many. I hold Reason to be a prior Revelation. . . . I need not inform
you in all its depraved details of the theology under whose chains
Calvin of Geneva bound Europe down; but this opinion, that the
Revelation had become necessary to the salvation of men through some
conjunction of events in heaven, is one of its vagaries.”

Emerson refused to affirm personality of God, “because it is too little,
not too much.” Here, for instance, in the journal for Sunday, May 22,
1836, is the seed of the passage in the “Divinity School Address” which
complains that “historical Christianity . . . dwells with noxious
exaggeration about the _person_ of Jesus”: “The talk of the kitchen and
the cottage is exclusively occupied with persons. . . . And yet, when
cultivated men speak of God, they demand a biography of him as steadily
as the kitchen and the bar-room demand personalities of men. . . .
Theism must be, and the name of God must be, because it is a necessity
of the human mind to apprehend the relative as flowing from the
absolute, and we shall always give the absolute a name.”

The theosophist whose soul is in direct contact with the “Oversoul”
needs no “evidences of Christianity,” nor any revelation through the
scripture or the written word. Revelation is to him something more
immediate—a doctrine, said Andrews Norton, which is not merely a
heresy, but is not even an intelligible error. Neither does the mystic
seek proof of God’s existence from the arguments of natural theology.
“The intellectual power is not the gift, but the presence of God. Nor do
we reason to the being of God, but God goes with us into Nature, when we
go or think at all.”

The popular faith does not warm to Emerson’s impersonal deity. “I cannot
love or worship an abstraction,” it says. “I must have a Father to
believe in and pray to: a Father who loves and watches over _me_. As for
the immortality you offer, it has no promise for the heart.

                  My servant Death, with solving rite,
                  Pours finite into infinite.

I do not know what it means to be absorbed into the absolute. The loss
of conscious personal life is the loss of all. To awake into another
state of being without a memory of this, is such a loss; and is,
besides, inconceivable. I want to be reunited to my friends. I want my
heaven to be a continuation of my earth. And hang Brahma!”

In literature, as in religion, this impersonality has disconcerting
aspects to the man who dwells in the world of the senses and the
understanding. “Some men,” says a note of 1844, “have the perception of
difference predominant, and are conversant with surfaces and trifles,
with coats and coaches and faces and cities; these are the men of
talent. And other men abide by the perception of Identity: these are the
Orientals, the philosophers, the men of faith and divinity, the men of

All this has a familiar look to readers who remember the chapter on
Plato in “Representative Men,” or passages like the following from “The
Oversoul”: “In youth we are mad for persons. But the larger experience
of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all.” Now,
in mundane letters it is the difference that counts, the _più_ and not
the _uno_. The common nature may be taken for granted. In drama and
fiction, particularly, difference is life and identity is death; and
this “tyrannizing unity” would cut the ground from under them both.

This philosophical attitude did not keep Emerson from having a sharp eye
for personal traits. His sketch of Thoreau in “Excursions” is a
masterpiece; and so is the half-humorous portrait of Socrates in
“Representative Men”; and both these are matched by the keen analysis of
Daniel Webster in the journals. All going to show that this
transcendentalist had something of “the devouring eye and the portraying
hand” with which he credits Carlyle.

As in religion and in literature, so in the common human relations, this
impersonality gives a peculiar twist to Emerson’s thought. The coldness
of his essays on “Love” and “Friendship” has been often pointed out. His
love is the high Platonic love. He is enamored of perfection, and
individual men and women are only broken images of the absolute good.

                Have I a lover who is noble and free?
                I would he were nobler than to love me.

Alas! _nous autres_, we do not love our friends because they are more or
less perfect reflections of divinity. We love them in spite of their
faults: almost because of their faults: at least we love their faults
because they are theirs. “You are in love with certain attributes,” said
the fair blue-stocking in “Hyperion” to her suitor. “‘Madam,’ said I,
‘damn your attributes!’”

Another puzzle in Emerson, to the general reader, is the centrality of
his thought. I remember a remark of Professor Thomas A. Thacher, upon
hearing an address of W. T. Harris, the distinguished Hegelian and
educationalist. He said that Mr. Harris went a long way back for a jump.
So Emerson draws lines of relation from every least thing to the centre.

                   A subtle chain of countless rings
                   The next unto the farthest brings.

He never lets go his hold upon his theosophy. All his wagons are hitched
to stars: himself from God he cannot free. But the citizen does not like
to be always reminded of God, as he goes about his daily affairs. It
carries a disturbing suggestion of death and the judgment and eternity
and the other world. But, for the present, this comfortable phenomenal
world of time and space is good enough for him. “So a’ cried out, ‘God,
God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should
not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any
such thoughts yet.”

Another block of stumbling, about which much has been written, is
Emerson’s optimism, which rests upon the belief that evil is negative,
merely the privation or shadow of good, without real existence. It was
the heresy of “Uriel” that there was nothing inherently and permanently
bad: no line of division between good and evil—“Line in nature is not
found”; “Evil will bless and ice will burn.” He turned away resolutely
from the contemplation of sin, crime, suffering: was impatient of
complaints of sickness, of breakfast-table talk about headaches and a
bad night’s sleep. Doubtless had he lived to witness the Christian
Science movement, he would have taken an interest in the underlying
doctrine, while repelled by the element of quackery in the practice and
preaching of the sect. Hence the tragedy of life is ignored or evaded by
Emerson. But _ici bas_, the reality of evil is not abolished, as an
experience, by calling it the privation of good; nor will philosophy
cure the grief of a wound. We suffer quite as acutely as we enjoy. We
find that all those disagreeable appearances—“swine, spiders, snakes,
pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies,”—which he assures us will
disappear, when man comes fully into possession of his kingdom, do not
disappear but persist.

The dispute between optimism and pessimism rests, in the long run, on
individual temperament and personal experience, and admits of no secure
solution. Imposing systems of philosophy have been erected on these
opposing views. Leibnitz proved that everything is for the best in the
best of all possible worlds. Schopenhauer demonstrated the futility of
the will to live; and showed that he who increaseth knowledge increaseth
sorrow. Nor does it avail to appeal from the philosophers to the poets,
as more truly expressing the general sense of mankind; and to array
Byron, Leopardi, Shelley, and the book of “Lamentations,” and “The City
of Dreadful Night” against Goethe, Wordsworth, Browning, and others of
the hopeful wise. The question cannot be decided by a majority vote: the
question whether life is worth living, is turned aside by a jest about
the liver. Meanwhile men give it practically an affirmative answer by
continuing to live. Is life so bad? Then why not all commit suicide?
Dryden explains, in a famous tirade, that we do not kill ourselves
because we are the fools of hope:—

              When I consider life, ’tis all a cheat . . .

Shelley, we are reminded, calls birth an “eclipsing curse”; and Byron,
in a hackneyed stanza, invites us to count over the joys our life has
seen and our days free from anguish, and to recognize that whatever we
have been, it were better not to be at all.

The question as between optimist and pessimist is not whether evil is a
necessary foil to good, as darkness is to light—a discipline without
which we could have no notion of good,—but whether or not evil
predominates in the universe. Browning, who seems to have had somewhat
of a contempt for Bryon, affirms:—

                  . . . There’s a simple test
      Would serve, when people take on them to weigh
    The worth of poets. “Who was better, best,
      This, that, the other bard?” . . .
                                  End the strife
    By asking “Which one led a happy life?”

This may answer as a criterion of a poet’s “worth,” that is, his power
to fortify, to heal, to inspire; but it can hardly be accepted, without
qualification, as a test of intellectual power. Goethe, to be sure,
thought lightly of Byron as a thinker. But Leopardi was a thinker and a
deep and exact scholar. And what of Shakespeare? What of the speeches in
his plays which convey a profound conviction of the overbalance of
misery in human life?—Hamlet’s soliloquy; Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief
candle”; the Duke’s remonstrance with Claudio in “Measure for Measure,”
persuading him that there was nothing in life which he need regret to
lose; and the sad reflections of the King in “All’s Well that Ends Well”
upon the approach of age,

               Let me not live after my flame lacks oil.

It is the habit of present-day criticism to regard all such speeches in
Shakespeare as having a merely dramatic character, true only to the
feeling of the _dramatis persona_ who speaks them. It may be so; but
often there is a weight of thought and emotion in these and the like
passages which breaks through the platform of the theatre and gives us
the truth as Shakespeare himself sees it.

Browning’s admirers accord him great credit for being happy. And,
indeed, he seems to take credit to himself for that same. Now we may
envy a man for being happy, but we can hardly praise him for it. It is
not a thing that depends on his will, but is only his good fortune. Let
it be admitted that those writers do us the greater service who
emphasize the hopeful view, who are lucky enough to be able to maintain
that view. Still, when we consider what this world is, the placid
optimism of Emerson and the robustious optimism of Browning become
sometimes irritating; and we feel almost like calling for a new
“Candide” and exclaim impatiently, _Il faut cultiver notre jardin_!

                        Grow old along with me,
                        The best is yet to be.

Oh, no: the best has been: youth is the best. So answers general, if not
universal, experience. Old age doubtless has its compensations, and
Cicero has summed them up ingeniously. But the “De Senectute” is, at
best, a whistling to keep up one’s courage.

    Strange cozenage! None would live past years again,
    Yet all hope pleasure from what still remain,
    And from the dregs of life hope to receive
    What the first sprightly runnings could not give.
    I’m tired of waiting for this chymic gold,
    Which fools us young and beggars us when old.

Upon the whole, Matthew Arnold holds the balance more evenly than either
optimist or pessimist.

                               . . . Life still
                     Yields human effort scope.
                     But since life teems with ill,
                     Nurse no extravagant hope.
                     Because thou must not dream,
                     Thou needs’t not then despair.

Spite of all impersonality, there is much interesting personal mention
in these journals. Emerson’s kindly regard for his Concord friends and
neighbors is quite charming. He had need of much patience with some of
them, for they were queer as Dick’s proverbial hatband:
transcendentalists, reformers, vegetarians, communists—the “cranks” of
our contemporary slang. The figure which occurs oftenest in these
memoranda is—naturally—Mr. A. Bronson Alcott. Of him Emerson speaks
with unfailing reverence, mingled with a kind of tender desperation over
his unworldliness and practical helplessness. A child of genius, a
deep-thoughted seer, a pure visionary, living, as nearly as such a thing
is possible, the life of a disembodied spirit. If earth were heaven,
Alcott’s life would have been the right life. “Great Looker! Great
Expecter!” says Thoreau. “His words and attitude always suppose a better
state of things than other men are acquainted with. . . . He has no
venture in the present.”

Emerson is forced to allow that Alcott was no writer: talk was his
medium. And even from his talk one derived few definite ideas; but its
steady, melodious flow induced a kind of hypnotic condition, in which
one’s own mind worked with unusual energy, without much attending to
what was being said. “Alcott is like a slate-pencil which has a sponge
tied to the other end, and, as the point of the pencil draws lines, the
sponge follows as fast, and erases them. He talks high and wide, and
expresses himself very happily, and forgets all he has said. If a
skilful operator could introduce a lancet and sever the sponge, Alcott
would be the prince of writers.” “I used to tell him that he had no
senses. . . . We had a good proof of it this morning. He wanted to know
‘why the boys waded in the water after pond lilies?’ Why, because they
will sell in town for a cent apiece and every man and child likes to
carry one to church for a cologne bottle. ‘What!’ said he, ‘have they a
perfume? I did not know it.’”

And Ellery Channing, who had in him brave, translunary things, as
Hawthorne testifies no less than Emerson; as his own poems do partly
testify—those poems which were so savagely cut up by Edgar Poe.
Channing, too, was no writer, no artist. His poetry was freakish,
wilfully imperfect, not seldom affected, sometimes downright
silly—“shamefully indolent and slovenly,” are Emerson’s words
concerning it.

Margaret Fuller, too, fervid, high aspiring, dominating soul, and
brilliant talker: (“such a determination to _eat_ this huge universe,”
Carlyle’s comment upon her; disagreeable, conceited woman, Lowell’s and
Hawthorne’s verdict). Margaret, too, was an “illuminator but no writer.”
Miss Peabody was proposing to collect anecdotes of Margaret’s youth. But
Emerson throws cold water on the project: “Now, unhappily, Margaret’s
writing does not justify any such research. All that can be said is that
she represents an interesting hour and group in American cultivation;
then that she was herself a fine, generous, inspiring, vinous, eloquent
talker, who did not outlive her influence.”

This is sound criticism. None of these people could write. Thoreau and
Hawthorne and Emerson, himself, were accomplished writers, and are
American classics. But the collected works of Margaret Fuller, in the
six-volume “Tribune Memorial Edition” are disappointing. They do not
interest, are to-day virtually unreadable. A few of Channing’s most
happily inspired and least capriciously expressed verses find lodgment
in the anthologies. As for Alcott, he had no technique at all. For its
local interest I once read his poem “New Connecticut,” which recounts
his early life in the little old hilltop village of Wolcott (Alcott of
Wolcott), and as a Yankee pedlar in the South. It is of a winning
innocence, a more than Wordsworthian simplicity. I read it with
pleasure, as the revelation of a singularly pure and disinterested
character. As a literary composition, it is about on the level of Mother
Goose. Here is one more extract from the journals, germane to the

“In July [1852] Mr. Alcott went to Connecticut to his native town of
Wolcott; found his father’s farm in possession of a stranger; found many
of his cousins still poor farmers in the town; the town itself unchanged
since his childhood, whilst all the country round has been changed by
manufactures and railroads. Wolcott, which is a mountain, remains as it
was, or with a still less population (ten thousand dollars, he said,
would buy the whole town, and all the men in it) and now tributary
entirely to the neighboring town of Waterbury, which is a thriving
factory village. Alcott went about and invited all the people, his
relatives and friends, to meet him at five o’clock at the schoolhouse,
where he had once learned, on Sunday evening. Thither they all came, and
he sat at the desk and gave them the story of his life. Some of the
audience went away discontented, because they had not heard a sermon, as
they hoped.”

Some sixty years after this entry was made, I undertook a literary
pilgrimage to Wolcott in company with a friend. We crossed the mountain
from Plantsville and, on the outskirts of the village, took dinner at a
farmhouse, one wing of which was the little Episcopal chapel in which
the Alcott family had worshipped about 1815. It had been moved over, I
believe, from the centre. The centre itself was a small green, bordered
by some dozen houses, with the meeting-house and horse sheds, on an airy
summit overlooking a vast open prospect of farms and woods, falling away
to the Naugatuck. We inquired at several of the houses, and of the few
human beings met on the road, where was the birthplace of A. Bronson
Alcott? In vain: none had ever heard of him, nor of an Alcott family
once resident in the town: not even of Louisa Alcott, whose “Little
Women” still sells its annual thousands, and a dramatized version of
which was even then playing in New York to crowded houses. The prophet
and his country! We finally heard rumors of a certain Spindle Hill,
which was vaguely connected with traditions of the Alcott name. But it
was getting late, and we availed ourselves of a passing motor car which
set us some miles on our way towards the Waterbury trolley line. This
baffled act of homage has seemed to me, in a way, symbolical, and I have
never renewed it.

It was Emerson’s belief that the faintest promptings of the spirit are
also, in the end, the practical rules of conduct. A paragraph written in
1837 has a startling application to the present state of affairs in
Europe: “I think the principles of the Peace party sublime. . . . If a
nation of men is exalted to that height of morals as to refuse to fight
and choose rather to suffer loss of goods and loss of life than to use
violence, they must be not helpless, but most effective and great men:
they would overawe their invader and make him ridiculous: they would
communicate the contagion of their virtue and inoculate all mankind.”

Is this transcendental politics? Does it belong to what Mr. Roosevelt
calls, with apt alliteration, the “realm of shams and shadows”? It is,
at all events, applied Christianity. It is the principle of the Society
of Friends; and of Count Tolstoy, who of all recent great writers is the
most consistent preacher of Christ’s gospel.


[1] _Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820–76._ Edited by E. W. Emerson
and Waldo E. Forbes. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1909–14.

[2] _Ralph Waldo Emerson._ By O. W. Firkins. Houghton Mifflin Company,

                       THE ART OF LETTER WRITING

THIS lecture was founded by Mr. George F. Dominick, of the Class of
1894, in memory of Daniel S. Lamont, private secretary to President
Cleveland, and afterwards Secretary of War, during Mr. Cleveland’s
second term of office. Mr. Dominick had a high regard for Lamont’s skill
as a letter writer and in the composition of messages, despatches, and
reports. It was his wish, not only to perpetuate the memory of his
friend and to associate it with his own Alma Mater, but to give his
memorial a shape which should mark his sense of the importance of the
art of letter writing.

Mr. Dominick thought that Lamont was particularly happy in turning a
phrase and that many of the expressions which passed current in
Cleveland’s two presidencies were really of his secretary’s coinage. I
don’t suppose that we are to transfer such locutions as “innocuous
desuetude” and “pernicious activity” from the President to his
secretary. They bear the stamp of their authorship. I fancy that Mr.
Lamont’s good phrases took less room to turn in.

But however this may be, the founder of this lecture is certainly right
in his regard for the art of letter writing. It is an important asset in
any man’s equipment, and I have heard it said that the test of education
is the ability to write a good letter. Merchants, manufacturers, and
business men generally, in advertising for clerks or assistants, are apt
to judge of the fitness of applicants for positions by the kind of
letters that they write. If these are illegible, ill-spelled, badly
punctuated and paragraphed, ungrammatical, confused, repetitious,
ignorantly or illiterately expressed, they are usually fatal to their
writers’ hopes of a place. This is not quite fair, for there is many a
shrewd man of business who can’t write a good letter. But surely a
college graduate may be justly expected to write correct English; and he
is likely to be more often called on to use it in letters than in any
other form of written composition. “The writing of letters,” says John
Locke, “has so much to do in all the occurrences of human life, that no
gentleman can avoid showing himself in this kind of writing . . . which
always lays him open to a severer examination of his breeding, sense and
abilities than oral discourses whose transient faults . . . more easily
escape observation and censure.” _Litera scripta manet._ Who was the
prudent lady in one of Rhoda Broughton’s novels who cautioned her
friend: “My dear, never write a letter; there’s not a scrap of my
handwriting in Europe”? Rightly or wrongly, we are quick to draw
conclusions as to a person’s social antecedents from his pronunciation
and from his letters.

In the familiar epistle, as in other forms of social intercourse,
nothing can quite take the place of old use and wont. Still the proper
forms may be learned from the rhetoric books, just as the young man
whose education has been neglected may learn from the standard manuals
of politeness, such as “Etiquette and Eloquence or The Perfect
Gentleman,” what the right hour is for making an evening call, and on
what occasions the Tuxedo jacket is the correct thing. The rhetorics
give directions how to address a letter, to begin it, to close it, and
where to put the postage stamp; directions as to the date, the
salutation, the signature, and cautions not to write “yours
respectively” instead of “yours respectfully.” These are useful, but
beyond these the rhetoric books cannot go, save in the way of general
advice. The model letters in “The Complete Letter Writer” are dismal
things. “Ideas,” says one of these textbook authorities, “ideas should
be collected by the card system.” Now I rather think that ideas should
_not_ be collected by the card system, or by any other system. The charm
of a personal letter is its spontaneity. Any suspicion that the ideas in
it have been “collected” is deadly. To do the rhetoric books justice,
the best of them warn against formality in all except the necessarily
formal portions of the letter. A letter, like an epic poem, should begin
_in medias res_. Ancient targets for jest are the opening formulae in
servant girls’ correspondence. “I take my pen in hand to inform you that
I am well and hope you are enjoying the same great blessing;” or the
sentence with which our childish communications used to start out: “Dear
Champ,—As I have nothing else to do I thought I would write you a
letter”—matter of excusation and apology which Bacon instructs us to

The little boy whom Dr. John Brown tells about was unconsciously obeying
Aristotle’s rule. Without permission he had taken his brother’s gun and
broken it; and after hiding himself all day, he opened written
communications with his stern elder; a blotted and tear-spotted scrawl
beginning: “O Jamie, your gun is broke and my heart is broke.”

But no general rules for letter writing give much help; nor for that
matter, do general rules for any kind of writing. A little practice in
the concrete, under intelligent guidance, is worth any number of
rhetorical platitudes. But such as it is, the rule for a business letter
is just the reverse of that for a friendly letter. It should be as brief
as is consistent with clearness, for your correspondent is a business
man, whose time is his money. It should above all things, however, be
explicit; and in striving to avoid surplusage should omit nothing that
is necessary. Ambiguity is here the unpardonable sin and has occasioned
thousands of law suits, involving millions of dollars. It should be
severely impersonal. Pleasantries, sentiments, digressions and the like
are impertinences in a business letter, like the familiarity of an
unintroduced stranger. I knew a lawyer—and a good lawyer—who suffered
professionally, because he would get himself into his business letters.
He made jokes; he made quotations; sometimes French quotations which his
correspondents could not translate; he expressed opinions and vented
emotions on subjects only incidentally connected with the matter in
hand, which he embroidered with wit and fancy; and he was a long time
coming to the point. Now men of business may trifle about all other
serious aspects of life or death, but when it concerns the making of
money, they are in deadly earnest; so that my friend’s frivolous
treatment of those interests seemed to them little less than sacrilege.

Viewed then as one of the commonest means of communication between man
and man, it is well to be able to write a good letter; just as it is
well to know how to tie a bowknot, cast an account, carve a joint, shave
oneself, or meet any other of the ordinary occasions of life. But tons
of letters are emptied from the mail bags every day, and burned, which
serve no other than a momentary end. The art of composing letters worth
keeping and printing is a part of the art literary. The word letters and
the word literature are indeed used interchangeably; we speak of a man
of letters, polite letters, the _belles lettres_, _literae humaniores_.
How far are such expressions justified? Manifestly a letter, or a
collection of letters, has not the structural unity and the deliberate
artistic appeal of the higher forms of literature. It is not like an
epic poem, a play, a novel or an ode. It has an art of its own, but an
art of a particular kind, the secret of which is artlessness. It is not
addressed to the public but to an individual and should betray no
consciousness of any third party. It belongs, therefore, in the class
with journals and table talk and, above all, autobiography, of which it
constitutes the very best material. A book is written for everybody, a
diary for oneself, a letter for one’s friend. While a letter, therefore,
cannot quite claim a standing among the works of the creative
imagination, yet it comes so freshly out of life and is so true in
self-expression that, in some moods, we prefer it to more artificial or
more objective kinds of literature; just as the advertisements in an old
newspaper or magazine often have a greater veracity and freshness as
dealing with the homely, actual needs and concerns of the time, than the
stories, poems, and editorials whose fashion has faded.

I am speaking now of a genuine letter, “a link between two
personalities,” as it has been defined. There are two varieties of
letters which are not genuine. The first of these is the open letter,
the letter to the editor, letter to a noble lord, etc. This is really
addressed to the public through the medium of a more or less imaginary
correspondent. The Englishman’s habit of writing to the _London Times_
on all occasions is proverbial. Professor Goldwin Smith is a living
example of the practice, transplanted to the field of the American
newspaper press. But _private_ letters written with an eye to
publication are spoiled in the act. To be natural they should not mean
to be overheard. If afterwards, by reason of the eminence of the writer,
or of some quality in the letters themselves, they get into print, let
it be by accident and not from forethought. Why is it, then, that the
best printed letters, such as Gray’s, Walpole’s, Cowper’s, Fitzgerald’s,
written with all the ease and intimacy of confidential
intercourse—“written _from_ one man and _to_ one man”—are found to be
composed in such perfect English, with such high finish, filled with
matter usually reserved by professional authors for their essays or
descriptive sketches; in fine, to be so literary? The reason I take to
be partly in the mutual intellectual sympathy between writer and
correspondent; and partly in the conscientious literary habit of the
letter writer. Hawthorne’s “Note Books,” intended only for his own eye,
are written with almost as much care as the romances and tales into
which many pages of them were decanted with little alteration.

Besides the open letter, there is another variety which is not a real
letter: I mean the letter of fiction. This has been a favorite method of
telling a story. You know that all the novels of our first novelist,
Richardson, are in this form: “Pamela,” “Clarissa Harlowe,” “Sir Charles
Grandison”; and some of the most successful American short stories of
recent years have been written in letters: Mr. James’s “A Bundle of
Letters,” Mr. Aldrich’s “Margery Daw,” Mr. Bishop’s “Writing to Rosina”
and many others. This is a subjective method of narration and requires a
delicate art in differentiating the epistolary style of a number of
correspondents; though not more, perhaps, than in the management of
dialogue in an ordinary novel or play. The plan has certain advantages
and in Richardson’s case was perhaps the most effective that he could
have hit upon, i.e., the best adapted to the turn of his genius and the
nature of his fiction. (Richardson began by writing letters for young
people.) Fitzgerald, the translator of Omar Khayyám, and himself one of
our best letter writers, preferred Richardson to Fielding, as did also
Dr. Johnson. For myself, I will acknowledge that, while I enjoy a
characteristic _introduced_ letter here and there in a novel, as
Thackeray, e.g., manages the thing; or even a short story in this form;
yet a long novel written throughout in letters I find tedious, and
Richardson’s interminable fictions, in particular, perfectly

The epistolary form is conveniently elastic and not only lends itself
easily to the purposes of fiction, but is a ready vehicle of reflection,
humor, sentiment, satire, and description. Such recent examples as “The
Upton Letters,” “The Love Letters of a Worldly Woman,” and Andrew Lang’s
“Letters to Dead Authors” are illustrations, holding in solution many of
the elements of the essay, the diary, the character sketch, and the

But from these fictitious uses of the form let us return to the
consideration of the real letter, the letter written by one man to
another for his private perusal, but which from some superiority to the
temporary occasion, has become literature. The theory of letter writing
has been well given by Mr. J. C. Bailey in his “Studies in Some Famous
Letters.” “What is a letter? It is written talk, with something, but not
all, of the easiness of talking; and something, but not all, of the
formality of writing. It is at once spontaneous and deliberate, a thing
of art and a thing of amusement, the idle occupation of an hour and the
sure index of a character.”

It is often said that letter writing is a lost art. It is an art of
leisure and these are proverbially the days of hurry. The modern spirit
is expressed by the telegraphic despatch, the telephone message, and the
picture postal card. It is much if we manage an answer to an R.S.V.P.
note of invitation. We have lost the habit of those old-fashioned
correspondents whose “friendship covered reams.” How wonderful now seem
the voluminous outpourings of Mme. de Sevigné to her daughter! How did
she get time to do it all? It has been shown by actual calculation that
the time occupied by Clarissa Harlowe in writing her letters would have
left no room for the happening of the events which her letters record.
She could not have been doing and suffering what she did and suffered
and yet have had the leisure to write it up. And not only want of time,
but an increasing reticence constrains our pens within narrower limits.
Members of families now exchange letters merely to give news, ask
questions, keep in touch with one another: not to confide feelings or
impart experiences. A man is ashamed to sit down and deliberately pour
out thoughts, sentiments, and descriptions, even to his intimates. “I
suppose,” wrote Fitzgerald, “that people who are engaged in serious ways
of life, and are of well filled minds, don’t think much about the
interchange of letters with any anxiety; but I am an idle fellow, of a
very ladylike turn of sentiment, and my friendships are more like loves,
I think.” It is from men of letters that the best letters are to be
expected, but they are busy magazining, overwork their pens for the
public, and are consequently impatient of the burden of private
correspondence. “Private letters,” wrote Willis to Poe, “are the last
ounce that breaks the camel’s back of a literary man.” To ask him to
write a letter after his day’s work, said Willis, was like asking a
penny postman to take a walk in the evening for the pleasure of it. And
in a letter to a friend he excused his brevity on the plea that he was
paid a guinea a page for everything he wrote, and could not afford to
waste manuscript. “I do not write letters to anybody,” wrote Lowell in
1842 to his friend Dr. G. B. Loring. “The longer I live the more irksome
does letter writing become to me. When we are young we need such a vent
for our feelings. . . . But as we grow older and find more ease of
expression, especially if it be in a way by which we can reach the
general ear and heart, these private utterances become less and less
needful to us.” In spite of this protest, when Mr. Charles Eliot Norton
came to print Lowell’s letters, he found enough of them to fill two
volumes of four hundred pages each. For after all, and with some
exceptions, it is among the class of professional writers that we find
the best letter writers: Gray, Cowper, Byron, Lamb, Fitzgerald, Lowell
himself. They do it out of hours, “on the side” and, as in Lowell’s
case, under protest; but the habit of literary expression is strong in
them; they like to practise their pens; they begin a note to a friend
and before they know it they have made a piece of literature, bound some
day to get into print with others of the same kind.

And here comes a curious speculation. Where do all the letters come from
that go into these collections? Do you keep the letters that you
receive? I confess that I burn most of mine as soon as I have read them.
Still more, do you keep copies of the letters that you send? I don’t
mean typewritten business letters which you put damp into the
patent-press-letter-copier to take off an impression to file away for
reference, but friendly letters? The typewriting machine, by the way, is
perhaps partly responsible for the decay of the letter writing art. It
is hard to imagine Charles Lamb, or any other master of this most
personal and intimate little art, who would not be disconcerted by this
mechanical interposition between his thought and his page. The last
generation must certainly have hoarded their letters more carefully than
ours. You come across trunks full of them, desks full of them in the
garrets of old houses: yellow bundles tied with tape, faded ink, stains
of pressed violets, dust and musty odors, old mirth, old sorrows, old
loves. Hackneyed themes of pathos, I mention them again, not to drop the
tear of sensibility on their already well-moistened paper, but to
enquire: Are these, and such as these, the sources of those many printed
volumes “Letters of Blank,” “Diary and Correspondence of So and So,”
ranging in date over periods of fifty or sixty years, and beginning
sometimes in the boyhood of the writer, when the correspondent who
preserved the letter could not possibly have foreseen Blank’s future
greatness and the value of his autograph?

Women are proverbially good letter writers. The letters of Mme. de
Sevigné to her daughter are masterpieces of their kind. Lady Mary
Wortley Montagu’s are among the best of English letters; and Fitzgerald
somewhat whimsically mentions the correspondence of a certain Mrs.
French as worthy to rank with Horace Walpole’s. “Would you desire at
this day,” says De Quincey, “to read our noble language in its native
beauty . . . steal the mail bags and break open all the letters in
female handwriting. Three out of four will have been written by that
class of women who have the most leisure and the most interest in a
correspondence by the post,” i.e., “unmarried women above twenty-five.”
De Quincey adds that “if required to come forward in some public
character” these same ladies “might write ill and affectedly. . . . But
in their letters they write under the benefit of their natural
advantages . . . sustained by some deep sympathy between themselves and
their correspondents.” “Authors can’t write letters,” says Lowell in a
letter to Miss Norton. “At best they squeeze out an essay now and then,
burying every natural sprout in a dry and dreary _sand flood_, as unlike
as possible to those delightful freshets with which your heart overflows
the paper. _They_ are thinking of their punctuation, of crossing their
t’s and dotting their i’s, and cannot forget themselves in their
correspondent, which I take to be the true recipe for a letter.” And
writing to another correspondent, C. E. Norton, he says: “The habits of
authorship are fatal to the careless unconsciousness that is the life of
a letter. . . . But worse than all is that lack of interest in one’s
self that comes of drudgery—for I hold that a letter which is not
mainly about the writer of it lacks the prime flavor.” This is slightly
paradoxical, for, I repeat, the best published letters are commonly the
work of professional _literati_. Byron’s letters have been preferred by
some readers to his poetry, such are their headlong vigor, dash,
_verve_, spontaneity, the completeness of their self-expression. Keats
was _par excellence_ the literary artist; yet nothing can exceed the
artlessness, simplicity, and sympathetic self-forgetfulness with which
he writes to his little sister. But it is easy to see what Lowell means.
Charles Lamb’s letters, e.g., though in many respects charming, are a
trifle too _composed_. They have that trick of quaintness which runs
through the “Essays of Elia,” but which gives an air of artificiality to
a private letter. He is practising a literary habit rather than thinking
of his correspondent. In this most intimate, personal, and mutual of
arts, the writer should write _to_ his friend what will interest him as
well as himself. He should not dwell on hobbies of his own; nor describe
his own experiences at too great length. It is all right to amuse his
friend, but not to air his own cleverness. Lowell’s letters are
delightful, and, by and large, I would place them second to none in the
language. But they are sometimes too literary and have the faults of his
prose writing in general. Wit was always his temptation, misleading him
now and then into a kind of Yankee smartness and a disposition to show
off. His temperament was buoyant, impulsive; there was to the last a
good deal of the boy about Lowell. Letter writing is a friendly art, and
Lowell’s warm expressions of love for his friends are most genuine. His
epistolary style, like his essay style, is lavish and seldom chastened
or toned down to the exquisite simplicity which distinguishes the best
letters of Gray and Cowper. And so Lowell is always getting in his own
way, tripping himself up over his superabundance of matter. Still, as a
whole, I know no collected letters richer in thought, humor, and
sentiment. And one may trace in them, read consecutively, the gradual
ripening and refining of a highly gifted mind and a nature which had at
once nobility and charm of thought.

Lowell speaks admiringly of Emerson’s “gracious impersonality.” Now
impersonality is the last thing we expect of a letter writer. Emerson
could write a good letter on occasion, as may be seen by a dip almost
anywhere into the Carlyle-Emerson correspondence. But when Mr. Cabot was
preparing his life of Emerson and applied to Henry James, Senior, for
permission to read his letters to Emerson, Mr. James replied, not
without a touch of petulance: “Emerson always kept one at such arm’s
length, tasting him and sipping him and trying him, to make sure that he
was worthy of his somewhat prim and bloodless friendship, that it was
fatiguing to write him letters. I can’t recall any serious letter I ever
sent him. I remember well what maidenly letters I used to receive from
him.” We know what doctrine Emerson held on the subject of “persons.”
But it is just this personality which makes Lowell the prince of letter
writers. He may attract, he may irritate, but he never fails to interest
us in himself. Even in his books it is the man in the book that
interests most.

Women write good letters because they are sympathetic; because they take
personal rather than abstract views; because they stay at home a great
deal and are interested in little things and fond of exchanging
confidences and news. They like to receive letters as well as to write
them. The fact that Richardson found his most admiring readers among the
ladies was due perhaps not only to the sentimentality of his novels, but
to their epistolary form. Hence there is apt to be a touch of the
feminine in the most accomplished letter writers. They are gossips, like
Horace Walpole, or dilettanti like Edward Fitzgerald, or shy, reserved,
sensitive persons like Gray and Cowper, who live apart, retired from the
world in a retirement either cloistral or domestic; who have a few
friends and a genius for friendship, enjoy the exercise of their pens,
feel the need of unbosoming themselves, but are not ready talkers. Above
all they are not above being interested in trifles and little things.
Cowper was absorbed in his hares, his cucumber frames and gardening,
country walks, tea-table chat, winding silk for Mrs. Unwin. Lamb was
unceasingly taken up with the oddities and antiquities of London
streets, the beggars, the chimney sweeps, the old benchers, the old
bookstalls, and the like. Gray fills his correspondence with his
solitary pursuits and recreations and tastes: Gothic curiosities,
engravings, music sheets, ballads, excursions here and there. The
familiar is of the essence of good letter writing: to unbend, to relax,
to _desipere in loco_, to occupy at least momentarily the playful and
humorous point of view. Solemn, prophetic souls devoted to sublimity are
not for this art. Dante and Milton and “old Daddy” Wordsworth, as
Fitzgerald calls him, could never have been good letter writers: they
were too great to care about little things, too high and rigid to stoop
to trifles.

Letter writing is sometimes described as a colloquial art.
Correspondence, it is said, is a conversation kept up between
interlocutors at a distance. But there is a difference: good talkers are
not necessarily good letter writers, and _vice versa_. Coleridge, e.g.,
was great in monologue, but his letters are in no way remarkable.
Cowper, on the other hand, did not sparkle in conversation, and Gray was
silent in company, “dull,” Dr. Johnson called him. Johnson himself,
notoriously a most accomplished talker, does not shine as a letter
writer. His letters, frequently excellent in substance, are ponderous in
style. They are of the kind best described as “epistolary
correspondence.” The Doctor needed the give and take of social
intercourse to allay the heaviness of his written discourse. His talk
was animated, pointed, idiomatic, but when he sat down and took pen in
hand, he began to translate, as Macaulay said, from English into
Johnsonese. His celebrated letter of rebuke to Lord Chesterfield labors
under the weight of its indignation, is not free from pomposity and
pedantry, and is written with an eye to posterity. One can imagine the
noble lord, himself an accomplished letter writer, smiling over this
oracular sentence: “The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with
Love, and found him a native of the rocks.” Heine’s irony, Voltaire’s
light touch would have stung more sharply, though somewhat of Johnson’s
dignified pathos would perhaps have been lost. Orators, in general, are
not good letter writers. They are accustomed to the _ore rotundo_
utterance, the “big bow-wow,” and they crave the large audience instead
of the audience of one.

The art of letter writing, then, is a relaxation, an art of leisure, of
the idle moment, the mind at ease, the bow unbent, the loin ungirt. But
there are times in every man’s life when he has to write letters of a
tenser mood, utterances of the passionate and agonized crises of the
soul, love letters, death messages, farewells, confessions, entreaties.
It seems profane to use the word _art_ in such connections. Yet even a
prayer, when it is articulate at all, follows the laws of human speech,
though directed to the ear that heareth in secret. The collects of the
church, being generalized prayer, employ a deliberate art.

Probably you have all been called upon to write letters of condolence
and have found it a very difficult thing to do. There is no harder test
of tact, delicacy, and good taste. The least appearance of insincerity,
the least intrusion of egotism, of an air of effort, an assumed
solemnity, a moralizing or edifying pose, makes the whole letter ring
false. Reserve is better here than the opposite extreme; better to say
less than you feel than even to _seem_ to say more.

There is a letter of Lincoln’s, written to a mother whose sons had been
killed in the Civil War, which is a brief model in this kind. I will not
cite it here, for it has become a classic and is almost universally
known. An engrossed copy of it hangs on the wall of Brasenose College,
Oxford, as a specimen of the purest English diction—the diction of the
Gettysburg address.

                         THACKERAY’S CENTENARY

AFTER all that has been written about Thackeray, it would be flat for
me to present here another estimate of his work, or try to settle the
relative value of his books. In this paper I shall endeavor only two
things: first, to enquire what changes, in our way of looking at him,
have come about in the half century since his death. Secondly, to give
my own personal experience as a reader of Thackeray, in the hope that it
may represent, in some degree, the experience of others.

What is left of Thackeray in this hundredth year since his birth? and
how much of him has been eaten away by destructive criticism—or rather
by time, that far more corrosive acid, whose silent operation criticism
does but record? As the nineteenth century recedes, four names in the
English fiction of that century stand out ever more clearly, as the
great names: Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot. I know what
may be said—what has been said—for others: Jane Austen and the Brontë
sisters, Charles Reade, Trollope, Meredith, Stevenson, Hardy. I believe
that these will endure, but will endure as writers of a secondary
importance. Others are already fading: Bulwer is all gone, and Kingsley
is going fast.

The order in which I have named the four great novelists is usually, I
think, the order in which the reader comes to them. It is also the order
of their publication. For although Thackeray was a year older than
Dickens, his first novels were later in date, and he was much later in
securing his public. But the chronological reason is not the real reason
why we read them in that order. It is because of their different appeal.
Scott was a romancer, Dickens a humorist, Thackeray a satirist, and
George Eliot a moralist. Each was much more than that; but that was what
they were, reduced to the lowest term. Romance, humor, satire, and moral
philosophy respectively were their starting point, their strongest
impelling force, and their besetting sin. Whenever they fell below
themselves, Walter Scott lapsed into sheer romantic unreality, Dickens
into extravagant caricature, Thackeray into burlesque, George Eliot into
psychology and ethical reflection.

I wonder whether your experience here is the same as mine. By the time
that I was fourteen, as nearly as I can remember, I had read all the
Waverley novels. Then I got hold of Dickens, and for two or three years
I lived in Dickens’s world, though perhaps he and Scott somewhat
overlapped at the edge—I cannot quite remember. I was sixteen when
Thackeray died, and I heard my elders mourning over the loss. “Dear old
Thackeray is gone,” they told each other, and proceeded to reread all
his books, with infinite laughter. So I picked up “Vanity Fair” and
tried to enjoy it. But fresh from Scott’s picturesque page and Dickens’s
sympathetic extravagances, how dull, insipid, repellent, disgusting were
George Osborne, and fat Joseph Sedley, and Amelia and Becky! What
sillies they were and how trivial their doings! “It’s just about a lot
of old girls,” I said to my uncle, who laughed in a provokingly superior
manner and replied, “My boy, those old girls are life.” I will confess
that even to this day, something of that shock of disillusion, that
first cold plunge into “Vanity Fair,” hangs about the book. I understand
what Mr. Howells means when he calls it “the poorest of Thackeray’s
novels—crude, heavy-handed, caricatured.” I ought to have begun, as he
did, with “Pendennis,” of which he writes, “I am still not sure but it
is the author’s greatest book.” I don’t know about that, but I know that
it is the novel of Thackeray’s that I have read most often and like the
best, better than “Henry Esmond” or “Vanity Fair”: just as I prefer “The
Mill on the Floss” to “Adam Bede,” and “The House of the Seven Gables”
to “The Scarlet Letter” (as Hawthorne did himself, by the way); or as I
agree with Dickens that “Bleak House” was his best novel, though the
public never thought so. We may concede to the critics that, objectively
considered, and by all the rules of judgment, this or that work is its
author’s masterpiece and we _ought_ to like it best—only we don’t. We
have our private preferences which we cannot explain and do not seek to
defend. As for “Esmond,” my comparative indifference to it is only, I
suppose, a part of my dislike of the _genre_. I know the grounds on
which the historical novel is recommended, and I know how intimately
Thackeray’s imagination was at home in the eighteenth century.
Historically that is what he stands for: he was a Queen Anne man—like
Austin Dobson: he passed over the great romantic generation altogether
and joined on to Fielding and Goldsmith and their predecessors. Still no
man knows the past as he does the present. I will take Thackeray’s
report of the London of his day; but I do not care very much about his
reproduction of the London of 1745. Let me whisper to you that since
early youth I have not been able to take much pleasure in the Waverley
novels, except those parts of them in which the author presents Scotch
life and character as he knew them.

I think it was not till I was seventeen or eighteen, and a freshman in
college, that I really got hold of Thackeray; but when once I had done
so, the result was to drive Dickens out of my mind, as one nail drives
out another. I never could go back to him after that. His sentiment
seemed tawdry, his humor, buffoonery. Hung side by side, the one picture
killed the other. “Dickens knows,” said Thackeray, “that my books are a
protest against him: that, if the one set are true, the other must be
false.” There is a species of ingratitude, of disloyalty, in thus
turning one’s back upon an old favorite who has furnished one so intense
a pleasure and has had so large a share in one’s education. But it is
the cruel condition of all growth.

    The heavens that now draw him with sweetness untold,
    Once found, for new heavens he spurneth the old.

But when I advanced to George Eliot, as I did a year or two later, I did
not find that her fiction and Thackeray’s destroyed each other. I have
continued to reread them both ever since and with undiminished
satisfaction. And yet it was, in some sense, an advance. I would not say
that George Eliot was a greater novelist than Thackeray, nor even so
great. But her message is more gravely intellectual: the psychology of
her characters more deeply studied: the problems of life and mind more
thoughtfully confronted. Thought, indeed, thought in itself and apart
from the story, which is only a chosen illustration of a thesis, seems
her principal concern. Thackeray is always concrete, never speculative
or abstract. The mimetic instinct was strong in him, but weak in his
great contemporary, to the damage and the final ruin of her art. His
method was observation, hers analysis. Mr. Brownell says that
Thackeray’s characters are “delineated rather than dissected.” There is
little analysis, indeed hardly any literary criticism in his “English
Humorists”: only personal impressions. He deals with the men, not with
the books. The same is true of his art criticisms. He is concerned with
the sentiment of the picture, seldom with its technique, or even with
its imaginative or expressional power.

In saying that Dickens was essentially a humorist and Thackeray a
satirist, I do not mean, of course, that the terms are mutually
exclusive. Thackeray was a great humorist as well as a satirist, but
Dickens was hardly a satirist at all. I know that Mr. Chesterton says he
was, but I cannot believe it. He cites “Martin Chuzzlewit.” Is “Martin
Chuzzlewit” a satire on the Americans? It is a caricature—a very gross
caricature—a piece of _bouffe_. But it lacks the true likeness which is
the sting of satire. Dickens and Thackeray had, in common, a quick sense
of the ridiculous, but they employed it differently. Dickens was a
humorist almost in the Ben Jonsonian sense: his field was the odd, the
eccentric, the grotesque—sometimes the monstrous; his books, and
especially his later books, are full of queer people, frequently as
incredible as Jonson’s _dramatis personae_. In other words, he was a
caricaturist. Mr. Howells says that Thackeray was a caricaturist, but I
do not think he was so except incidentally; while Dickens was constantly
so. When satire identifies itself with its object, it takes the form of
parody. Thackeray was a parodist, a travesty writer, an artist in
burlesque. What is the difference between caricature and parody? I take
it to be this, that caricature is the ludicrous _exaggeration_ of
character for purely comic effect, while parody is its ludicrous
_imitation_ for the purpose of mockery. Now there is plenty of invention
in Dickens, but little imitation. He began with broad
_facetiae_—“Sketches by Boz” and the “Pickwick Papers”; while Thackeray
began with travesty and kept up the habit more or less all his life. At
the Charterhouse he spent his time in drawing burlesque representations
of Shakespeare, and composing parodies on L. E. L. and other lady poets.
At Cambridge he wrote a mock-heroic “Timbuctoo,” the subject for the
prize poem of the year—a prize which Tennyson captured. Later he wrote
those capital travesties, “Rebecca and Rowena” and “Novels by Eminent
Hands.” In “Fitzboodle’s Confessions” he wrote a sentimental ballad,
“The Willow Tree,” and straightway a parody of the same. You remember
Lady Jane Sheepshanks who composed those lines comparing her youth to

                 A violet shrinking meanly
                 Where blow the March winds[3] keenly—
                 A timid fawn on wildwood lawn
                 Where oak-boughs rustle greenly.

I cannot describe the gleeful astonishment with which I discovered that
Thackeray was even aware of our own excellent Mrs. Sigourney, whose
house in Hartford I once inhabited (_et nos in Arcadia_). The passage is
in “Blue-Beard’s Ghost.” “As Mrs. Sigourney sweetly sings:—

             “‘O the heart is a soft and delicate thing,
             O the heart is a lute with a thrilling string,
             A spirit that floats on a gossamer’s wing.’

Such was Fatima’s heart.” Do not try to find these lines in Mrs.
Sigourney’s complete poems: they are not there. Thackeray’s humor always
had this satirical edge to it. Look at any engraving of the bust by
Deville (the replica of which is in the National Portrait Gallery),
which was taken when its subject was fourteen years old. There is a
quizzical look about the mouth, prophetic and unmistakable. That boy is
a tease: I would not like to be his little sister. And this boyish sense
of fun never deserted the mature Thackeray. I like to turn sometimes
from his big novels, to those delightful “Roundabout Papers” and the
like where he gives a free rein to his frolic: “Memorials of
Gormandizing,” the “Ballads of Policeman X,” “Mrs. Perkins’ Ball,” where
the Mulligan of Ballymulligan, disdaining the waltz step of the Saxon,
whoops around the room with his terrified partner in one of the dances
of his own green land. Or that paper which describes how the author took
the children to the zoölogical gardens, and how

    First he saw the white bear, then he saw the black,
    Then he saw the camel with a hump upon his back.
    _Chorus of Children_:
    Then he saw the camel with the HUMP upon his back.

Of course in all comic art there is a touch of caricature, i.e., of
exaggeration. The Rev. Charles Honeyman in “The Newcomes,” e.g., has
been denounced as a caricature. But compare him with any of Dickens’s
clerical characters, such as Stiggins or Chadband, and say which is the
fine art and which the coarse. And this brings me to the first of those
particulars in which we do not view Thackeray quite as his
contemporaries viewed him. In his own time he was regarded as the
greatest of English realists. “I have no head above my eyes,” he said.
“I describe what I see.” It is thus that Anthony Trollope regarded him,
whose life of Thackeray was published in 1879. And of his dialogue, in
special, Trollope writes, “The ear is never wounded by a tone that is
false.” It is not quite the same to-day. Zola and the _roman
naturaliste_ of the French and Russian novelists have accustomed us to
forms of realism so much more drastic that Thackeray’s realism seems, by
comparison, reticent and partial. Not that he tells falsehoods, but that
he does not and will not tell the whole truth. He was quite conscious,
himself, of the limits which convention and propriety imposed upon him
and he submitted to them willingly. “Since the author of ‘Tom Jones’ was
buried,” he wrote, “no writer of fiction has been permitted to depict,
to his utmost power, a Man.” Thackeray’s latest biographer, Mr. Whibley,
notes in him certain early Victorian prejudices. He wanted to hang a
curtain over Etty’s nudities. Goethe’s “Wahlverwandtschaften”
scandalized him. He found the drama of Victor Hugo and Dumas “profoundly
immoral and absurd”; and had no use for Balzac, his own closest parallel
in French fiction. Mr. G. B. Shaw, the blasphemer of Shakespeare, speaks
of Thackeray’s “enslaved mind,” yet admits that he tells the truth in
spite of himself. “He exhausts all his feeble pathos in trying to make
you sorry for the death of Col. Newcome, imploring you to regard him as
a noble-hearted gentleman, instead of an insufferable old fool . . . but
he gives you the facts about him faithfully.” But the denial of
Thackeray’s realism goes farther than this and attacks in some instances
the truthfulness of his character portrayal. Thus Mr. Whibley, who
acknowledges, in general, that Thackeray was “a true naturalist,” finds
that the personages in several of his novels are “drawn in varying
planes.” Charles Honeyman and Fred Bayham, e.g., are frank caricatures;
Helen and Laura Pendennis, and “Stunning” Warrington are somewhat
unreal; Colonel Newcome is overdrawn—“the travesty of a man”; and even
Beatrix Esmond, whom Mr. Brownell pronounces her creator’s masterpiece,
is a “picturesque apparition rather than a real woman.” And finally
comes Mr. Howells and affirms that Thackeray is no realist but a
caricaturist: Jane Austen and Trollope are the true realists.

Well, let it be granted that Thackeray is imperfectly realistic. I am
not concerned to defend him. Nor shall I enter into this wearisome
discussion of what realism is or is not, further than to say that I
don’t believe the thing exists; that is, I don’t believe that
photographic fiction—the “mirror up to nature” fiction—exists or can
exist. A mirror reflects, a photograph reproduces its object without
selection or rejection. Does any artist do this? Try to write the
history of one day: everything—literally everything—that you have
done, said, thought: and everything that you have seen done, or heard
said during twenty-four hours. That would be realism, but, suppose it
possible, what kind of reading would it make? The artist must select,
reject, combine, and he does it differently from every other artist: he
mixes his personality with his art, colors his art with it. The point of
view from which he works is personal to himself: satire is a point of
view, humor is a point of view, so is religion, so is morality, so is
optimism or pessimism, or any philosophy, temper, or mood. In speaking
of the great Russians Mr. Howells praises their “transparency of style,
unclouded by any mist of the personality which we mistakenly value in
style, and which ought no more to be there than the artist’s personality
should be in a portrait.” This seems to me true; though it was said long
ago, the style is the man. Yet if this transparency, this impersonality
is measurably attainable in the style, it is not so in the substance of
the novel. If an impersonal report of life is the ideal of naturalistic
or realistic fiction—and I don’t say it is—then it is an impossible
ideal. People are saying now that Zola is a romantic writer. Why?
Because, however well documented, his facts are _selected_ to make a
particular impression. I suppose the reason why Thackeray’s work seemed
so much more realistic to his generation than it does to ours was that
his particular point of view was that of the satirist, and his satire
was largely directed to the exposure of cant, humbug, affectation, and
other forms of unreality. Disillusion was his trade. He had no heroes,
and he saw all things in their unheroic and unromantic aspect. You all
know his famous caricature of Ludovicus Rex inside and outside of his
court clothes: a most majestic, bewigged and beruffled _grand monarque_:
and then a spindle-shanked, pot-bellied, bald little man—a good
illustration for a chapter in “Sartor Resartus.” The ship in which
Thackeray was sent home from India, a boy of six, touched at St. Helena
and he saw Napoleon. He always remembered him as a little fat man in a
suit of white duck and a palm-leaf hat.

Thackeray detested pose and strut and sham heroics. He called Byron “a
big sulky dandy.” “Lord Byron,” he said, “wrote more cant . . . than any
poet I know of. Think of the ‘peasant girls with dark blue eyes’ of the
Rhine—the brown-faced, flat-nosed, thick-lipped, dirty wenches! Think
of ‘filling high a cup of Samian wine’: . . . Byron himself always drank
gin.” The captain in “The White Squall” does not pace the deck like a
dark-browed corsair, but calls, “George, some brandy and water!”

And this reminds me of Thackeray’s poetry. Of course one who held this
attitude toward the romantic and the heroic could not be a poet in the
usual sense. Poetry holds the quintessential truth, but, as Bacon says,
it “subdues the shows of things to the desires of the mind”; while
realism clings to the shows of things, and satire disenchants, ravels
the magic web which the imagination weaves. Heine was both satirist and
poet, but he was each by turns, and he had the touch of ideality which
Thackeray lacked. Yet Thackeray wrote poetry and good poetry of a sort.
But it has beauty purely of sentiment, never of the imagination that
transcends the fact. Take the famous lines with which this same “White
Squall” closes:

                    And when, its force expended,
                    The harmless storm was ended,
                    And as the sunrise splendid
                      Came blushing o’er the sea;
                    I thought, as day was breaking,
                    My little girls were waking
                    And smiling and making
                      A prayer at home for me.

And such is the quality of all his best things in verse—“The Mahogany
Tree,” “The Ballad of Bouillebaisse,” “The End of the Play”; a mixture
of humor and pensiveness, homely fact and sincere feeling.

Another modern criticism of Thackeray is that he is always interrupting
his story with reflections. This fault, if it is a fault, is at its
worst in “The Newcomes,” from which a whole volume of essays might be
gathered. The art of fiction is a progressive art and we have learned a
great deal from the objective method of masters like Turgenev, Flaubert,
and Maupassant. I am free to confess, that, while I still enjoy many of
the passages in which the novelist appears as chorus and showman, I do
find myself more impatient of them than I used to be. I find myself
skipping a good deal. I wonder if this is also your experience. I am not
sure, however, but there are signs of a reaction against the slender,
episodic, short-story kind of fiction, and a return to the
old-fashioned, biographical novel. Mr. Brownell discusses this point and
says that “when Thackeray is reproached with ‘bad art’ for intruding
upon his scene, the reproach is chiefly the recommendation of a
different technique. And each man’s technique is his own.” The question,
he acutely observes, is whether Thackeray’s subjectivity destroys
illusion or deepens it. He thinks that the latter is true. I will not
argue the point further than to say that, whether clumsy or not,
Thackeray’s method is a thoroughly English method and has its roots in
the history of English fiction. He is not alone in it. George Eliot,
Hawthorne, and Trollope and many others practise it; and he learned it
from his master, Fielding.

Fifty years ago it was quite common to describe Thackeray as a cynic, a
charge from which Shirley Brooks defended him in the well-known verses
contributed to “Punch” after the great novelist’s death. Strange that
such a mistake should ever have been made about one whose kindness is as
manifest in his books as in his life: “a big, fierce, weeping man,” as
Carlyle grotesquely describes him: a writer in whom we find to-day even
an excess of sentiment and a persistent geniality which sometimes
irritates. But the source of the misapprehension is not far to seek. His
satiric and disenchanting eye saw, with merciless clairvoyance, the
disfigurements of human nature, and dwelt upon them perhaps unduly. He

                   How very weak the very wise,
                   How very small the very great are.

Moreover, as with many other humorists, with Thomas Hood and Mark Twain
and Abraham Lincoln (who is one of the foremost American humorists), a
deep melancholy underlay his fun. _Vanitas vanitatum_ is the last word
of his philosophy. Evil seemed to him stronger than good and death
better than life. But he was never bitter: his pen was driven by love,
not hate. Swift was the true cynic, the true misanthrope; and
Thackeray’s dislike of him has led him into some injustice in his
chapter on Swift in “The English Humorists.” And therefore I have never
been able to enjoy “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” which has the almost
unanimous praises of the critics. The hard, artificial irony of the
book—maintained, of course, with superb consistency—seems to me
uncharacteristic of its author. It repels and wearies me, as does its
model, “Jonathan Wild.” Swift’s irony I enjoy because it is the natural
expression of his character. With Thackeray it is a mask.

Lastly I come to a point often urged against Thackeray. The favorite
target of his satire was the snob. His lash was always being laid across
flunkeyism, tuft hunting, the “mean admiration of mean things,” such as
wealth, rank, fashion, title, birth. Now, it is said, his constant
obsession with this subject, his acute consciousness of social
distinctions, prove that he is himself one of the class that he is
ridiculing. “Letters four do form his name,” to use a phrase of Dr.
Holmes, who is accused of the same weakness, and, I think, with more
reason. Well, Thackeray owned that he was a snob, and said that we are
all of us snobs in a greater or less degree. Snobbery is the fat weed of
a complex civilization, where grades are unfixed, where some families
are going down and others rising in the world, with the consequent
jealousies, heartburnings, and social struggles. In India, I take it,
where a rigid caste system prevails, there are no snobs. A Brahmin may
refuse to eat with a lower caste man, whose touch is contamination, but
he does not despise him as the gentleman despises the cad, as the man
who eats with a fork despises the man who eats with a knife, or as the
educated Englishman despises the Cockney who drops his h’s, or the
Boston Brahmin the Yankee provincial who says _haöw_, the woman who
_callates_, and the gent who wears _pants_. In feudal ages the lord
might treat the serf like a beast of the field. The modern swell does
not oppress his social inferior: he only calls him a bounder. In
primitive states of society differences in riches, station, power are
accepted quite simply: they do not form ground for envy or contempt. I
used to be puzzled by the conventional epithet applied by Homer to
Eumaeus—“the godlike swineherd”—which is much as though one should
say, nowadays, the godlike garbage collector. But when Pope writes

                 Honor and fame from no condition rise

he writes a lying platitude. In the eighteenth century, and in the
twentieth, honor and fame do rise from condition. Now in the presence of
the supreme tragic emotions, of death, of suffering, all men are equal.
But this social inequality is the region of the comedy of manners, and
that is the region in which Thackeray’s comedy moves—the _comédie
mondaine_, if not the full _comédie humaine_. It is a world of
convention, and he is at home in it, in the world and a citizen of the
world. Of course it is not primitively human. Manners are a convention:
but so are morals, laws, society, the state, the church. I suppose it is
because Thackeray dwelt contentedly in these conventions and rather
liked them although he laughed at them, that Shaw calls him an enslaved
mind. At any rate, this is what Mr. Howells means when he writes: “When
he made a mock of snobbishness, I did not know but snobbishness was
something that might be reached and cured by ridicule. Now I know that
so long as we have social inequality we shall have snobs: we shall have
men who bully and truckle, and women who snub and crawl. I know that it
is futile to spurn them, or lash them for trying to get on in the world,
and that the world is what it must be from the selfish motives which
underlie our economic life. . . . This is the toxic property of all
Thackeray’s writing. . . . He rails at the order of things, but he
imagines nothing different.” In other words, Thackeray was not a
socialist, as Mr. Shaw is, and Mr. Howells, and as we are all coming
measurably to be. Meanwhile, however, equality is a dream.

All his biographers are agreed that Thackeray was honestly fond of
mundane advantages. He liked the conversation of clever, well-mannered
gentlemen, and the society of agreeable, handsome, well-dressed women.
He liked to go to fine houses: liked his club, and was gratified when
asked to dine with Sir Robert Peel or the Duke of Devonshire. Speaking
of the South and of slavery, he confessed that he found it impossible to
think ill of people who gave you such good claret.

This explains his love of Horace. Venables reports that he would not
study his Latin at school. But he certainly brought away with him from
the Charterhouse, or from Trinity, a knowledge of Horace. You recall
what delightful, punning use he makes of the lyric Roman at every turn.
It is _solvuntur rupes_ when Colonel Newcome’s Indian fortune melts
away; and _Rosa sera moratur_ when little Rose is slow to go off in the
matrimonial market. Now Horace was eminently a man of the world, a man
about town, a club man, a gentle satirist, with a cheerful, mundane
philosophy of life, just touched with sadness and regret. He was the
poet of an Augustan age, like that English Augustan age which was
Thackeray’s favorite; social, gregarious, urban.

I never saw Thackeray. I was a boy of eight when he made his second
visit to America, in the winter of 1855–56. But Arthur Hollister, who
graduated at Yale in 1858, told me that he once saw Thackeray walking up
Chapel Street, a colossal figure, six feet four inches in height,
peering through his big glasses with that expression which is familiar
to you in his portraits and in his charming caricatures of his own face.
This seemed to bring him rather near. But I think the nearest that I
ever felt to his bodily presence was once when Mr. Evarts showed me a
copy of Horace, with inserted engravings, which Thackeray had given to
Sam Ward and Ward had given to Evarts. It was a copy which Thackeray had
used and which had his autograph on the flyleaf.

And this mention of his Latin scholarship induces me to close with an
anecdote that I find in Melville’s “Life.” He says himself that it is
almost too good to be true, but it illustrates so delightfully certain
academic attitudes, that I must give it, authentic or not. The novelist
was to lecture at Oxford and had to obtain the license of the
Vice-Chancellor. He called on him for the necessary permission and this
was the dialogue that ensued:

    _V. C._ Pray, sir, what can I do for you?

    _T._ My name is Thackeray.

    _V. C._ So I see by this card.

    _T._ I seek permission to lecture within your precincts.

    _V. C._ Ah! You are a lecturer: what subjects do you undertake,
    religious or political?

    _T._ Neither. I am a literary man.

    _V. C._ Have you written anything?

    _T._ Yes, I am the author of “Vanity Fair.”

    _V. C._ I presume, a dissenter—has that anything to do with
    Jno. Bunyan’s book?

    _T._ Not exactly: I have also written “Pendennis.”

    _V. C._ Never heard of these works, but no doubt they are proper

    _T._ I have also contributed to “Punch.”

    _V. C._ “Punch.” I have heard of that. Is it not a ribald


[3] Unquestionably Lady Jane pronounced it wīnds.


THE English drama has been dead for nearly two hundred years. Mr.
Gosse says that in 1700 the English had the most vivacious school of
comedy in Europe. And, if their serious drama was greatly inferior,
still the best tragedies of Dryden and Otway—and perhaps of Lee,
Southerne, and Rowe—made not only a sounding success on the boards, but
a fair bid for literary honors. Ten years later the drama was moribund,
and in 1747 its epitaph was spoken by Garrick in the sonorous prologue
written by Dr. Johnson for the opening of Drury Lane:

    Then, crushed by rules and weakened as refined,
    For years the power of Tragedy declined:
    From bard to bard the frigid caution crept,
    Till declamation roared whilst passion slept.
    Yet still did Virtue deign the stage to tread;
    Philosophy remained though nature fled.
    But, forced at length her ancient reign to quit,
    She saw great Faustus lay the ghost of wit:
    Exulting Folly hailed the joyful day,
    And pantomime and song confirmed her sway—

That is, as has been complained a hundred times before and since, the
opera and the spectacular show drove the legitimate drama from the

The theatre, indeed, is not dead: it has continued to live and to
flourish, and is furnishing entertainment to the public to-day, as it
did two hundred—nay, two thousand—years ago. The theatre, as an
institution, has a life of its own, whose history is recorded in
innumerable volumes. Playhouses have multiplied in London, in the
provinces, in all English-speaking lands. The callings of the actor and
the playwright have given occupation to many, and rich rewards to not a
few. Scholars, critics, and literary men are apt to look at the drama as
if it were simply a department of literature. In reading a play, we
should remember that we are taking the author at a disadvantage. It is
not meant to be read, but to be acted. It is not mere literature: it is
both more and less than literature. The art of the theatre is a
composite art, requiring the help of the scene-painter, the costumer,
the manager, the stage-carpenter, sometimes of the musician and dancer,
nowadays of the electrician; and always and above all demanding the
interpretation of the actor. It is not addressed to the understanding
exclusively, but likewise to the eye and the ear. It is a show, as well
as a piece of writing. The drama can subsist without any dialogue at
all, as in the pantomime; or with the dialogue reduced to its lowest
terms, as in the Italian _commedie a soggetto_, where the actors
improvised the lines. “The skeleton of every play is a pantomime,” says
Professor Brander Matthews, who reminds us that not only buffoonery and
acrobatic performances may be carried on silently by stock characters
like Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, and Punchinello; but a story of a
more pretentious kind may be enacted entirely by gesture and dumb show,
as in the French pantomime play “_L’Enfant Prodigue_.” A good dramatist
includes a good playwright, one who can invent striking situations,
telling climaxes, tableaux, _ensemble_ scenes, spectacular and
histrionic effects, _coups de théâtre_. These things may seem to the
literary student the merely mechanical or technical parts of the art.
Yet, without them, a play will be amateurish, and no really successful
dramatist has ever been lacking in this kind of skill.

Still, although stage presentation, the _mise en scène_, is the
touchstone of a play as play, it is of course quite possible to read a
play with pleasure. It is even better to read it than to see it badly
acted, just as one would rather have no pictures in a novel than such
pictures as disturb one’s ideas of the characters. A musical adept can
take pleasure in reading the score of an opera, though he would rather
hear it performed. This is not to say that a play depends for its effect
upon actual performance in anywhere near the same degree as a musical
composition; for written speech is a far more definite language than
musical notation. I use the latter only as an imperfect illustration.

This professional quality has been much insisted on by practical
playwrights, who are properly contemptuous of closet drama. But just
what is a closet drama? Let it be defined provisionally as a piece meant
to be read and not acted. Yet a play’s chances for representation depend
partly on the condition of the theatre and the demands of the public.
Mr. Yeats, for example, thinks that a play of any poetic or spiritual
depth has no chance to-day in a big London theatre, with an audience
living on the surface of life; and he advises that such plays be tried
in small suburban or country playhouses before audiences of scholars and
simple, unspoiled folk. To the English public, with its desire for
strong action and variety, Racine’s tragedies are nothing but closet
dramas; and yet they are played constantly and with applause in the
French theatre. In the eighteenth century, when the English stage still
maintained a literary tradition,—though it had lost all literary
vitality,—the rankest sort of closet dramas were frequently put on and
listened to respectfully. No manager now would venture to mount such a
thing as “Cato” or “Sophonisba” or “The Castle Spectre.” The modern
public will scarcely endure sheer poetry, or long descriptive and
reflective tirades even in Shakespeare. Such passages have to be cut in
the acting versions. The Elizabethan craving for drama was such that
everything was tried, though some things, when brought to the test of
action, proved failures. Ben Jonson’s heavy tragedies, “Catiline” and
“Sejanus,” failed on the stage; and Daniel’s “Cleopatra” never got so
far as the stage, a rare example of an Elizabethan closet drama. Very
likely, modern literary plays like “Philip Van Artevelde” and Tennyson’s
“Queen Mary” might have succeeded in the seventeenth century. For the
audiences of those days were omnivorous. They hungered for sensation,
but they enjoyed as well fine poetry, noble declamation, philosophy,
sweet singing, and the clown with his funny business, all in close
neighborhood. They cared more for quantity of life than for delicate
art. Their art, indeed, was in some ways quite artless, and the drama
had not yet purged itself of lyric, epic, and didactic elements, nor
attained a purely dramatic type. Since then, the French, whose ideal is
not so much fulness of life as perfection of form, have taught English
playwrights many lessons. Brunetière, speaking of the gradual evolution
and differentiation of literary kinds (_genres_), says that
Shakespeare’s theatre, as theatre, exhibits the art of drama in its

Perhaps, then, no hard and fast line can be drawn between an acting
drama and a closet play. It is largely a matter of contemporary taste.
“Cato,” we know, made a prodigious hit. Coleridge’s “Remorse,” a closet
drama if there ever was one, and a very rubbishy affair at that, was put
on by Sheridan, though with many misgivings, and lasted twenty nights, a
good run for those days. No audience now would stand it an hour. And yet
we have seen Sir Henry Irving forcing Tennyson’s dramatic poems into a
temporary _succès d’estime_. “Samson Agonistes” is a closet play,
without question; but is “The Cenci”? Shelley wanted it played, and had
selected Miss O’Niel for the rôle of Beatrice. But it never got itself
played till 1889, when it was given before the Shelley Society at South
Kensington. The picked audience applauded it, just as an academic
audience will applaud a rehearsal of the “Antigone” in the original
Greek; but the dramatic critics sent down by the London newspapers to
report the performance were unconvinced.

Let it be granted, then, that the question in the case of any given play
is a question of more or less. Still, the difference between our modern
literary drama, as a whole, and the Elizabethan drama,—which was also
literary,—as a whole, I take to be this: that in our time literature
has lost touch with the stage. In the seventeenth century, the poets
_wrote for_ the theatre. They knew that their plays would be played. In
the nineteenth century, English poets who adopted the dramatic framework
did not write for the theatre. They did not expect their pieces to be
played, and they addressed themselves consciously to the reader. When
one of them had the luck to get upon the boards, it was an exception,
and the manager generally lost money by it. Thus, in the late thirties
and early forties, in one of those efforts to “elevate the stage,” which
recur with comic persistence in our dramatic annals, Macready rallied
the _literati_ to his aid and presented, among other things, Taylor’s
“Philip Van Artevelde,” Talfourd’s “Ion,” Bulwer’s “Richelieu” and “The
Lady of Lyons,” and Browning’s “Stafford” and “A Blot in the
’Scutcheon.” The only titles on this list that secured a permanent
foothold on the repertoire of the playhouses were Bulwer’s two pieces,
which were precisely the most flimsy of the whole lot, from the literary
point of view. “A Blot in the ’Scutcheon” has been tried again. As I saw
it a number of years ago, with Lawrence Barrett cast for Lord Tresham
and Marie Wainwright as Mildred, it seemed to me—in spite of its
somewhat absurd _motivirung_—decidedly impressive as an acting play. On
the other hand, “In a Balcony,” though very intelligently and
sympathetically presented by Mrs. Lemoyne and Otis Skinner, was too
subtle for a popular audience, and was manifestly unfitted for the

The closet drama is a quite legitimate product of literary art. The
playhouse has no monopoly of the dramatic form. Indeed, as the closet
dramatist is not bound to consider the practical exigencies of the
theatre, to consult the prejudices of the manager or the spectators,
fill the pockets of the company, or provide a rôle for a star performer,
he has, in many ways, a freer hand than the professional playwright. He
need not sacrifice truth of character and probability of plot to the
need of highly accentuated situations. He does not have to consider
whether a speech is too long, too ornate in diction, too deeply
thoughtful for recitation by an actor. If the action lags at certain
points, let it lag. In short, as the aim of the closet dramatist is
other than the playwright’s, so his methods may be independent.

In the rather bitter preface to the printed version of “Saints and
Sinners” (1891), Mr. Henry Arthur Jones complains of “the English
practice of writing plays to order for a star performer,” together with
other “binding and perplexing . . . conventions and limitations of
playwriting,” as “quite sufficient to account for the literary
degradation of the modern drama.” The English closet drama of the
nineteenth century is an important body of literature, of higher
intellectual value than all the stage plays produced in England during
the same period. It is not necessary to enumerate its triumphs: I will
merely remind the reader, in passing, that work like Byron’s “Manfred,”
Landor’s “Gebir,” George Eliot’s “The Spanish Gypsy,” Beddoes’s “Death’s
Jest-Book,” Arnold’s “Empedocles on Etna,” Tennyson’s “Becket,”
Browning’s “Pippa Passes” and Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon,” is
justified in its assumption of the dramatic form, though its appeal is
only to the closet reader. I do not forget that one or two of these have
been tried upon the stage, but they do not belong there, and, as theatre
pieces, were flat failures.

It is hard to say exactly what qualities ensure stage success. As
reading plays, Lillo’s “George Barnwell” is intolerably stilted,
Knowles’s “Virginius” insipid, “The Lady of Lyons” tawdry; yet all of
them took notoriously, and the last two—as any one can testify who has
seen them performed—retain a certain effectiveness even now. Perhaps
the secret lies in simplicity and directness of construction, unrelaxing
tension, quick movement, and an instinctive seizure of the essentially
dramatic crises in the action. In a word, the thing has “go”; lacking
which, no cleverness of dialogue, no epigrammatic sharpness of wit or
delicate play of humor can save a comedy; and no beauty of style, no
depth or reach of thought, a tragedy. Hence it is pertinent to remark
how many popular playwrights have been actors or in close practical
relations with the theatre. In the seventeenth century this was a matter
of course. Shakespeare was an actor, and Molière and Jonson and Marlowe
and Greene and Otway, and countless others. Cibber was an actor and
stage-manager. Sheridan and both Colmans were managers. Garrick and
Foote wrote plays as well as acted them. Knowles, Boucicault, Robertson,
Pinero and Stephen Phillips have all been actors.

Conceded that this professional point of view has been rightly
emphasized, yet before the acted drama can rank as literature, or even
hope to hold possession of the stage itself for more than a season, it
must stand a further test. It must read well, too. If it is no more than
an after-dinner amusement, without intellectual meaning or vital
relation to life: if it has neither strength nor truth nor beauty as a
criticism of life, or an imaginative representation of life, what
interest can it have for serious people? Let us stay at home and read
our Thackeray. Eugène Scribe was perhaps the cunningest master of
stagecraft who ever wrote. Schlegel ranked him above Molière. He left
the largest fortune ever accumulated by a French man of letters. His
plays were more popular in all the theatres of Europe than anything
since Kotzebue’s melodramas; and all European purveyors for the stage
strove to imitate the adroitness and ingenuity with which his plots were
put together. But if one to-day tries to _read_ any one of his three
hundred and fifty pieces—say, “Adrienne Lecouvreur” or “La Bataille des
Dames”—one will find little in them beyond the mechanical perfection of
the construction, and will feel how powerless mere technical cleverness
is to keep alive false and superficial conceptions.

When it is asserted, then, that the British drama has been dead for
nearly two hundred years, what is really meant is that its _literary_
vitality went out of it some two centuries ago, and has not yet come
back. It is hard to say what causes the breath of life suddenly to enter
some particular literary form, inspire it fully for a few years, and
then desert it for another; leaving it all flaccid and inanimate.
Literary forms have their periods. No one now sits down to compose an
epic poem or a minstrel ballad or a five-act blank verse tragedy without
an uneasy sense of anachronism. The dramatic form had run along in
England for generations, from the mediaeval miracles down to the rude
chronicle histories, Senecan tragedies, and clownish interludes of the
sixteenth century. Suddenly, in the last years of that century, the
spark of genius touched and kindled it into the great drama of
Elizabeth. About the middle of the eighteenth century life abandoned it
again, and took possession of the novel. Fielding is the point of
contact between the dying drama and new-born fiction. The whole process
of the change may be followed in him. “Tom Jones” and “Amelia” still
rank as masterpieces, but who reads “The Modern Husband,” or “Miss Lucy
in Town,” or “Love in Several Masques,” or any other of Fielding’s
plays? How many even know that he wrote any plays? Mr. Shaw attributes
Fielding’s change of base to the government censorship. He writes:

    In 1737 Henry Fielding, the greatest practising dramatist, with
    the single exception of Shakspere, produced by England between
    the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, devoted his genius
    to the task of exposing and destroying parliamentary
    corruption. . . . Walpole . . . promptly gagged the stage by a
    censorship which is in full force at the present moment [1898].
    Fielding, driven out of the trade of Molière and Aristophanes,
    took to that of Cervantes; and since then, the English novel has
    been one of the glories of literature, whilst the English drama
    has been its disgrace.

But Mr. Shaw’s explanation fails to explain, and his estimate of
Fielding’s talent for drama is too high. With the exception of “Tom
Thumb,” his plays are very dull, and it is doubtful whether, given the
freest hand, he would ever have become a great dramatist. It was not
Walpole but the _Zeitgeist_ that was responsible for his failure in one
literary form and his triumph in another. The clock had run down, and
though Goldsmith and Sheridan wound it up once more towards the end of
the century, it only went for an hour or so. It is usual to refer to
their comedy group as the last flare of the literary drama in England
before its final extinction.

In the appendix to Clement Scott’s “The Drama of Yesterday and To-day”
there is given, by way of supplement to Genest, a list of the new plays
put on at London theatres between 1830 and 1900. They number about
twenty-four hundred; and—until we reach the last decade of the
century—it would be hard to pick out a dozen of them which have become
a part of English literature: which any one would think of reading for
pleasure or profit, as one reads, say, the plays of Marlowe or Fletcher
or Congreve. Of course, many of the pieces on the list are of
non-literary kinds—burlesques, vaudevilles, operas, and the like. Then
there is a large body of translations and adaptations from the foreign
drama, more especially from the French of Scribe, Sardou, Dumas, _père
et fils_, d’Hennery, Labiche, Goudinet, Meilhac and Halévy, Ohnet, and
many others. Next to the French theatre, the most abundant feeder of our
modern stage has been contemporary fiction. Nowadays, every successful
novel is immediately dramatized. This has been the case, more or less,
for three-quarters of a century. The Waverley Novels were dramatized in
their time, and Dickens’s stories in theirs, and there are a plenty of
dramatized novels on Scott’s catalogue. But the practice has greatly
increased of recent years. Now, for some reason, a dramatized novel
seldom means a good play; that is to say, permanently good, though it
may act fairly well for a season. One does not care to _read_ the stage
version of “Vanity Fair,” known as “Becky Sharp,” any more than one
would care to read “The School for Scandal” diluted into a novel. The
dramatist conceives and moulds his theme otherwise than the novelist.
“Playwriting,” says Walter Scott, “is the art of forming situations.” To
be sure, Shakespeare took plots from Italian “novels,” so called; that
is, short romantic tales like Boccaccio’s or Bandello’s. But he took
only the bare outline, and altered freely. The modern novel is a far
more elaborate thing. In it, not only incident and character, but a
great part of the dialogue is already done to hand.

Glancing over Clement Scott’s list, old playgoers will find their
memories somewhat pathetically stirred by forgotten fashions and
schools. There are Planché’s extravaganzas, and later Dion Boucicault’s
versatilities—“classical” comedies like “London Assurance,” sentimental
Irish melodramas—“The Shaughraun,” “The Colleen Bawn”—and popular
favorites, such as “Rip Van Winkle”; the equally versatile Tom Taylor,
with his “Our American Cousin,” “The Ticket-of-Leave Man,” etc.;
Burnand’s multifarious _facetiae_; the cockney vulgarities of that very
prolific Mr. H. J. Byron; and, in the late sixties, Robertson’s
“cup-and-saucer” comedies—“Ours,” “Caste,” “Society,” “School.” Three
thousand representations of these fashionable comedies were given inside
of twenty years. How gay, how brilliant, even, the dialogue seemed to us
in those good old days! But take up the text of one of Tom Robertson’s
plays now and try to read it. What has become of the sparkle? Does any
one recall the famous “Ours” _galop_ that we used to dance to _consule
Planco? Eheu fugaces!_

The playwriters whom I have named, and others whom I might have named,
their contemporaries, were the Clyde Fitches, Augustus Thomases, and
George Ades of their generation. They provided a fair article of
entertainment for the public of their time, but they added nothing to
literature. The poverty of the English stage, during these late
centuries, in work of real substance and value, is the more striking
because there has been no dearth of genius in other departments. There
have been great English poets, novelists, humorists, essayists, critics,
historians. Moreover, the literary drama has flourished in other
countries. France has never lacked accomplished artists in this kind:
from Voltaire to Victor Hugo, from Hugo to Rostand, talent always, and
genius not unfrequently, have been at the service of the French
theatres. In Germany—with some breaks—the case has been the same. From
Lessing and Goethe and Schiller down to our own contemporaries, to
Hauptmann, Sudermann, and Halbe, Germany has seldom been without worthy
dramatists. Both the Germans and the French have taken the theatre
seriously. Their actors have been carefully trained, their audiences
intelligently critical, their playhouses in part maintained by
government subventions, as institutions importantly related to the
national life.

It is not that English men of letters have been unwilling to contribute
to the stage. On the contrary, they have shown an eager, although mostly
ineffectual, ambition for dramatic honors. In the eighteenth century it
was well-nigh the rule that a successful writer should try his hand at a
play. Addison did so, and Steele, Pope, Gay, Fielding, Johnson,
Goldsmith, Smollett, Thomson, Mason, Mallet, Chatterton, and many others
who had no natural turn for it, and would not think of such a thing now.
In the nineteenth century the tradition had lost much of its force:
still, we find Scott, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Thackeray,
Browning, Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, all using the dramatic form, and
some of them attempting the stage. Charles Lamb, one of the most ardent
of playgoers and best of dramatic critics, was greatly chagrined by the
failure of his farce, “Mr. H——.” Dickens was a good actor in private
theatricals, and was intensely concerned with the theatre and the
theatrical fortunes of his own dramatized novels. So was Charles Reade,
who collaborated with Tom Taylor in a number of plays, and whose theatre
piece “Masks and Faces,” was the original of his novelette, “Peg
Woffington”—_vice versa_ the usual case. More recently we have seen
Stevenson and Henley collaborating in three plays, “Deacon Brodie” and
“Beau Austin,” performed at London and Montreal in 1884–87, and “Admiral
Guinea,” shown at the Haymarket in 1890; the first and third, low-life
melodrama and broad comedy, of some vigor but no great importance; the
second, an unusually good eighteenth century society play. Most
certainly these experiments do not rank with Stevenson’s romances or
Henley’s poems. Another curious illustration of the attraction of the
dramatic form for the literary mind is Thomas Hardy’s “The Dynasts”
(1904), a drama of the Napoleonic wars, projected in nineteen acts, with
choruses of spirits and personified abstractions; a sort of reversion to
the class of morality and chronicle play exemplified in Bale’s “King
John.” Mr. Hardy is perhaps the foremost living English novelist, but
“The Dynasts” is a dramatic monster, and, happily, a torso. The preface
confesses that the abortion is a “panoramic show” and intended for
“mental performance” only, and suggests an apology for closet drama by
inquiring whether “mental performance alone may not eventually be the
fate of all drama other than that of contemporary or frivolous life.”

Mr. Henry James, too, has tempted the stage, teased, yet fascinated, by
the “insufferable little art”; and the result is a dramatized version of
“Daisy Miller,” and two volumes of “Theatricals”: “Tenants” and
“Disengaged” (1894); “The Album” and “The Reprobate” (1895). These last
were written with a view to their being played at country theatres (an
opportunity having seemingly presented itself), but they never got so
far. In reading them, one feels that a single rehearsal would have
decided their chances. Mr. James, in the preface to the printed plays,
treats his failure with humorous resignation. He complains of “the hard
meagreness inherent in the theatrical form,” and of his own
conscientious effort to avoid supersubtlety and to cultivate an “anxious
simplicity” and a “deadly directness”—to write “something elaborately
plain.” It was to be expected that Mr. James’s habit of refined analysis
would prove but a poor preparation for acted drama; and that his
singular coldness or shyness or reticence would handicap him fatally in
emotional crises. Whenever he is led squarely up to such, he bolts.
Innuendo is not the language of passion. In vain he cries: “See me being
popular: observe this play to the gallery.” The failure is so complete
as to have the finality of a demonstration.

What was less to be expected is the odd way in which this artist drops
realism for melodrama and farce when he exchanges fiction for
playwriting. Sir Ralph Damant, in “The Album,” is a farce or “humor”
character in the Jonsonian sense, his particular obsession being a fixed
idea that all the women in the play want to marry him. In “Disengaged,”
Mrs. Wigmore, a campaigner with a trained daughter, is another farce
character; and there are iterations of phrase and catchwords here and
elsewhere, as in Dickens’s or Jonson’s humorists. In “The Reprobate,”
Paul Doubleday and Pitt Brunt, M.P., have the accentuated contrast of
the Surface brothers. In “The Album,” that innocent old stage trick is
played again, whereby some article—a lace handkerchief, a scrap of
paper, a necklace, or what not—is made the plot centre. In “Daisy
Miller”—dramatized version—the famous little masterpiece is spoiled by
the substitution of a conventional happy ending and the introduction of
a blackmailing villain. All this insinuates a doubt as to the reality of
a realism which turns into improbability and artificiality merely by a
change in the method of presentation. But the doubt is unfair. No
_reductio ad absurdum_ has occurred, but simply another instance of the
law that every art has its own method, and that the method of the novel
is not that of the play. Of course, there are clever things in the
dialogue of these three-act comedies, for Mr. James is always Mr. James.
But the only one of them that comes near to being a practicable theatre
piece is “Tenants,” which has a good plot founded on a French story.

The paralysis of the literary drama, then, has not been due to the
indifference of the literary class. Perhaps it is time thrown away to
seek for its cause. The fact is that, for one reason or another, England
has lost the dramatic habit.

The past fifteen or twenty years have witnessed one more concerted
effort to “elevate the English stage,” and this time with a fair
prospect of results. There is a stir of expectation: the new drama is
announced and already in part arrived. It would be premature to proclaim
success as yet; but thus much may be affirmed, that the dramatic output
of the last quarter-century outweighs that of any other quarter-century
since 1700. Here, for instance, are the titles of a dozen contemporary
plays which it would be hard to match with any equal number produced
during an equal period of time since the failure of Congreve’s latest
and most brilliant comedy, “The Way of the World,” marked the close of
the Restoration drama: W. S. Gilbert’s “Pygmalion and Galatea”; Sydney
Grundy’s “An Old Jew”; Henry Arthur Jones’s “Judah” and “The Liars”;
Arthur Wing Pinero’s “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray” and “The Benefit of the
Doubt”; George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” and “Arms and the Man”; Oscar
Wilde’s “Salome” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan”; Stephen Phillips’s
“Ulysses”; and W. Butler Yeats’s “The Land of Heart’s Desire.” (I have
gone back a few years to include Mr. Gilbert’s piece, first given at the
Haymarket in 1871.)

Every one of these dramas has been performed with acceptance, every one
of them is a contribution to literature, worthy the attention of
cultivated readers. I do not say that any one of them is a masterpiece,
or that collectively they will hold the stage as Goldsmith’s and
Sheridan’s are still holding it a century and a quarter after their
first production. But I will venture to say that, taken together, they
constitute a more solid and varied group of dramatic works than that
favorite little bunch of “classical” comedies, and offer a securer
ground of hope for the future of the British stage. It will be observed
that half of them are tragedies, or plays of a serious interest; also
that they do not form a school, in the sense in which the French tragedy
of Louis XIV, or the English comedy of the Restoration, was a
school—that is, a compact dramatic group, limited in subject and alike
in manner. They are the work of individual talents, conforming to no
single ideal, but operating on independent lines. And it would be easy
to add a second dozen by the same authors little, if at all, inferior to
those on the first list.

Probably the foremost English playwriter of to-day is Mr. A. W. Pinero,
whether tried by the test of popular success in the theatre, or by the
literary quality of his printed dramas. He learned his art as
Shakespeare learned his, by practical experience as an actor, and by
years of obscure work as a hack writer for the playhouses, adapting from
the French, dramatizing novels, scribbling one-act curtain-raisers and
all kinds of theatrical nondescripts. There is a long list of failures
and half successes to his account before he emerged, about 1885, with a
series of three-act farces, “The Magistrate,” “The Cabinet Minister,”
“The Schoolmistress” and the like, which pleased every one by their
easy, natural style, their fresh invention, the rollicking fun that
carried off their highly improbable entanglements, and the _bonhomie_
and knowledge of the world with which comic character was observed and
portrayed. Absurdity is the kingdom of farce; and, as in the topsyturvy
world of _opera bouffe_, a great part of the effect in these plays is
obtained by setting dignified persons, like prime ministers, cathedral
deans and justices, to doing ludicrously incongruous actions. Thus, the
schoolmistress, outwardly a very prim and proper gentlewoman, leads a
double life, putting in her Christmas vacation as a _figurante_ in comic
opera; anticipating, and perhaps suggesting, Mr. Zangwill’s “Serio-Comic

To these farces succeeded pieces in which social satire, sentimental
comedy, and the comedy of character were mixed in varying proportions:
“Sweet Lavender,” “The Princess and the Butterfly,” “Trelawney of the
Wells,” and others. Of these, the first was, perhaps, the favorite, and
was translated and performed in several languages. It is a very winning
play, with a genuine popular quality, though with a slight twist in its
sentiment. Pinero’s art has deepened in tone, until in such later work
as “The Profligate,” “The Benefit of the Doubt,” “The Second Mrs.
Tanqueray,” “The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith,” and “Iris,” he has dealt
seriously, and sometimes tragically, with the nobler passions. His _chef
d’oeuvre_ in this kind, “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,” is constructed with
consummate skill, and its psychology is right and true. This is a
problem play (it is unfortunate that we apply this term exclusively to
plays dealing with one particular class of problems), and its ethical
value, as well as its tragical force, lies in its demonstration of the
truth that no one can escape from his past. The past will avenge itself
upon him or her, not only in the unforeseen consequences of old
misdeeds, but in that subtler nemesis, the deterioration of character
which makes life under better conditions irksome and impossible. The
catastrophe comes with the inevitableness of the old Greek
fate-tragedies. In this instance, it is suicide, as in “Hedda Gabler” or
Hauptmann’s “_Vor Sonnenaufgang_.” Though criticised as melodramatic,
the dramatist makes us feel it here to be the only solution. Mr. Pinero
has already achieved the distinction of a “Pinero Birthday Book”; while
“Arthur Wing Pinero: a Study,” by H. Hamilton Fyfe, a book of two
hundred and fifty pages, with a bibliography, reviews his plays

Without pushing the analogy too far, we may call Mr. Pinero and Mr.
Bernard Shaw the Goldsmith and Sheridan of the modern stage. In Pinero,
as in Goldsmith, humor more than wit is the prevailing impression. That
“brilliancy” which is often so distressing is absent from his comedy,
whose surfaces do not corruscate, but absorb the light softly. His
satire is good-natured, his worldliness not hard, and his laughter is a
neighbor to tears. Shaw is an Irishman, a journalistic free-lance and
Socialist pamphleteer. He has published three collections of
plays—“Pleasant,” “Unpleasant,” and “For Puritans”—accompanied with
amusingly truculent prefaces, discussing, among other things, whether
his pieces are “better than Shakespeare’s.” Two of his comedies, “Arms
and the Man” and “The Devil’s Disciple,” were put on in New York by Mr.
Mansfield as long ago, if I am right, as 1894 and 1897, respectively.
“Arms and the Man” is an effective theatre piece, with a quick movement,
ingenious misunderstandings, and several exciting moments. Like his
fellow countryman, Sheridan, Mr. Shaw is clever in inventing situations,
though he professes scorn of them as bits of old theatrical lumber, a
concession to the pit. “Candida” was given in America a season or two
ago, and the problems of character which it proposes have been
industriously discussed by the dramatic critics and by social circles
everywhere. The author is reported to have been amused at this, and to
have described his heroine as a most unprincipled woman—a view quite
inconsistent with the key kindly afforded in the stage directions.
These, in all Shaw’s plays, are explicit and profuse, comprising details
of costume, gesture, expression, the furniture and decorations of the
scene, with full character analyses of the _dramatis personae_ in the
manner of Ben Jonson. The italicized portions of the printed play are
little less important than the speeches; and small license of
interpretation is left to the players. This is an extra-dramatic method,
the custom of the novel overflowing upon the stage. But Mr. Shaw defends
the usage and asks: “What would we not give for the copy of ‘Hamlet’
used by Shakespeare at rehearsal, with the original ‘business’ scrawled
by the prompter’s pencil? And if we had, in addition, the descriptive
directions which the author gave on the stage: above all, the character
sketches, however brief, by which he tried to convey to the actor the
sort of person he meant him to incarnate! Well, we should have had all
this if Shakespeare, instead of merely writing out his lines, had
prepared the plays for publication in competition with fiction as
elaborate as that of Meredith.” “I would give half a dozen of
Shakespeare’s plays for one of the prefaces he ought to have written.”

Shaw’s appeal has been more acutely intellectual than Pinero’s, but his
plays are less popular and less satisfying; while the critics, he
complains, refuse to take him seriously. They treat him as an
irresponsible Irishman with a genius for paradox, a puzzling way of
going back on himself, and a freakish delight in mystifying the public.
The heart interest in his plays is small. He has the Celtic subtlety,
but not the Celtic sentiment; in this, too, resembling Sheridan, that
wit rather than humor is the staple of his comedy—a wit which in both
is employed in the service of satire upon sentiment. But the modern
dramatist’s satire cuts deeper and is more caustic. Lydia Languish and
Joseph Surface, Sheridan’s embodiments of romance and sentiment, are
conceived superficially and belong to the comedy of manners, not of
character. Sheridan would not have understood Lamb’s saying that Charles
Surface was the true canting hypocrite of “The School for Scandal.” For
nowadays sentiment and romance take less obvious shapes; and Shaw, who
detests them both and holds a retainer for realism, tests for them with
finer reagents.

And here comes in the influence of Ibsen, perhaps the most noticeable
foreign influence in the recent English drama, from which it has partly
driven out the French, hitherto all-predominant. Ibsen’s introduction to
the English stage dates from 1889 and the years following, although Mr.
Gosse’s studies and the translations of Mr. Havelock Ellis and others
had made a few of his plays known to the reader. As long since as 1880,
a very free version of “A Doll’s House,” under the title “Breaking a
Butterfly,” had been made for the theatre by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones and
a collaborator. The French critic, M. Augustin Filon, in his book, “The
English Stage” (1897), ventures a guess that the Ibsen brand of realism
will be found to agree better with the English character than the
article furnished by Dumas _fils_ and other French dramatists; and he
even suggests the somewhat fantastic theory that an audience of the
fellow countrymen of Darwin and Huxley will listen with a peculiar
sympathy to such a play as “Ghosts,” in which the doctrine of heredity
is so forcibly preached. Ibsen’s masterly construction, quite as much as
his ideas, has been studied with advantage by our dramatists. Thus it is
thought that Pinero, who has shown, in general, very little of Ibsen’s
influence, may have taken a hint from him in the inconclusive ending of
“The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith.” The inconclusive ending is a
practice—perhaps a principle—of the latest realistic schools of drama
and fiction. Life, they contend, has no artificial closes, but flows
continually on, and a play is only a “bleeding slice of life.” In old
tragedy, death is the end. “Troilus and Cressida” is Shakespeare’s only
episodical tragedy, the only one in which the protagonist is not
killed—and, perhaps for that reason, the quarto title-page describes it
as a comedy. But in Ibsenite drama the hero or heroine does not always
die. Sometimes he or she goes away, or sometimes just accepts the
situation and stays on. The sound of the door shutting in “A Doll’s
House” tells us that Nora has gone out into the world to begin a new
career. In “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” one of Shaw’s strongest “Plays
Unpleasant,”—so unpleasant that its production on the boards was
forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain,—when Vivie discovers what her
mother’s profession is, and where the money comes from that sent her to
Newnham, she does nothing melodramatic, but simply utilizes her
mathematical education by entering an actuary’s office. The curtain
falls to the stage direction, “Then she goes at her work with a plunge,
and soon becomes absorbed in her figures.”

Shaw is a convinced Ibsenite and took up the foils for the master in a
series of articles in the _Saturday Review_ in 1895. The new woman, the
emancipated woman so much in evidence in Ibsen, goes in and out through
Shaw’s plays, short-skirted, cigarette-smoking, a business woman with no
nonsense about her, a good fellow, calling her girl friends by their
last names and treating male associates with a brusque _camaraderie_.
But, as he satirizes everything, himself included, he has his laugh at
the Ibsen cult in “The Philanderer.” There is an Ibsen Club, with a bust
of the Norse divinity over the library mantelpiece. One of the rules is
that no womanly woman is to be admitted. At the first symptom of
womanliness, a woman forfeits her membership. What Shaw chiefly shares
with Ibsen is his impatience of heroics, cant, social lies, respectable
prejudices, the conventions of a traditional morality. Face facts, call
things by their names, drag the skeleton out of the closet. Ibsen
brushes these cobwebs aside with a grave logic and a savage contempt; he
makes their hollow unreality the source of tragic wrong. But Shaw’s
lighter temperament is wholly that of the comic artist, and he attacks
cant with the weapons of irony. His favorite characters are audacious,
irreverent young men and women, without illusions and incapable of being
shocked, but delighting in shocking their elders. The clergy are the
professional trustees of this conventional morality and are treated by
Ibsen and Shaw with scant respect. Mrs. Alving in “Ghosts” shows the
same contemptuous toleration of the scruples of the rabbit-like Parson
Manders, as Candida shows for her clerical husband’s preaching and
phrase-making. The present season has witnessed the first appearance on
the American stage of Mr. Shaw’s gayest farce comedy, “You Never Can

I asked an actor, a university graduate, what he thought of the future
of verse drama in acted plays. He inclined to believe that its day had
gone by, even in tragedy; and that the language of the modern serious
drama would be prose, colloquial, never stilted (as it was in “George
Barnwell” and “Richelieu”), but rising, when necessary, into eloquence
and a kind of unmetrical poetry. He instanced several passages in
Pinero’s “Sweet Lavender” and later plays. Still, the blank verse
tradition dies hard. Probably the leading representative of ideal or
poetic drama in the contemporary theatre is Stephen Phillips, whose
“Paolo and Francesca” (1899), “Herod” (1900), and “Ulysses” (1902) have
all been shown upon the boards and highly acclaimed, at least by the
critics. There is no doubt that they are fine dramatic poems with many
passages of delicate, and some of noble, beauty. But whether they are
anything more than excellent closet drama is not yet proved. Mr.
Phillips’s experience as an actor has given him a practical knowledge of
technic; and it may be conceded that his plays are nearer the
requirements of the stage than Browning’s or Tennyson’s. They are
simple, as Browning’s are not; and they have quick movement, where
Tennyson’s are lumbering. Neither is it much against them that their
subjects are antique, taken from Dante, Josephus, and Homer. But they
appear to me poetically rather than dramatically imagined. Shakespeare
and Racine dealt with remote or antique life; yet, each in his own way
modernized and realized it. It is a hackneyed observation that Racine’s
Greeks, Romans, and Turks are French gentlemen and ladies of the court
of Louis XIV. Shakespeare’s Homeric heroes are very un-Homeric. There is
little in either of local color or historical perspective: there is in
both a fulness of handling, an explication of sentiments and characters.
The people are able talkers and reasoners. Mr. Phillips’s method is
implicit, and the atmosphere of things old and foreign is kept, the
distance which lends enchantment to mediaeval Italy, or the later Roman
Empire, or the heroic age. It is as if the “Idylls of the King” were
dramatized,—as, indeed, “Elaine” was dramatized for one of the New York
playhouses by George Lathrop,—retaining all their romantic charm and
all their dramatic unreality.

Still, there are moments of genuine dramatic passion in all three of
these plays: in “Herod,” for instance, where Mariamne acknowledges to
the tetrarch that her love for him is dead. And in “Ulysses,”
Telemachus’s recognition of his father moves one very deeply, producing
its impression, too, by a few speeches in a perfectly simple,
unembroidered diction, by means properly scenic, not poetic like
Tennyson’s. “Ulysses” seems the best of Mr. Phillips’s pieces, more
loosely built than the others, but of more varied interest and more
lifelike. The gods speak in rhyme and the human characters in blank
verse, while some of the more familiar dialogue is in prose; Ctesippus,
an elderly wooer of Penelope, is a comic figure; and there is a good
deal of rough, natural fooling among the wooers, shepherds, and maids in
the great hall of Ithaca. In its use of popular elements and its
romantic freedom of handling, the play contrasts with Robert Bridges’s
“The Return of Ulysses,” which Mr. Yeats praises for its “classical
gravity” and “lyric and meditative” quality. Mr. Phillips opens his
scene on Calypso’s island, and brings his wandering hero home only after
making him descend to the shades. His Ulysses shoots the wooers in full
view of the audience. In Mr. Bridges’s play the action begins in Ithaca,
the unities of time and place are observed, and so is dramatic decency.
The wooers are slain outside, and their slaying is described to Penelope
by a handmaid who sees it from the door. Yet, upon the whole, Mr.
Phillips’s constructive formula is more Sophoclean than Shakespearean.
Not that he adheres to the external conventions of Attic tragedy, the
chorus, the unities, etc., like Matthew Arnold in “Merope”; but that his
plot evolution exhibits the straight, slender line of Sophocles, rather
than the rich composite pattern of Elizabethan tragi-comedy. I have been
told by some who saw “Ulysses” played, that the descent _ad inferos_ was
grotesque in effect. But “Paolo and Francesca” might have gained from an
infusion of grotesque. D’Annunzio’s almost precisely contemporary
version of the immortal tale has just the solid, materialistic treatment
which makes you feel the brutal realities of mediaeval life, the gross
soil in which this “lily of Tartarus” found root. Mr. Phillips’s latest
piece, “The Sin of David,” a tragedy of Cromwell’s England, is now in
its first season.

Among the most interesting of recent dramatic contributions are William
Butler Yeats’s “Plays for an Irish Theatre.” Mr. Yeats’s recent visit to
this country is still fresh in recollection; and doubtless many of my
readers have seen his beautiful little fairy piece, “The Land of Heart’s
Desire.” Probably allegory, or at least symbolism, is the only form in
which the supernatural has any chance in modern drama. The old-fashioned
ghost is too robust an apparition to produce in a sceptical generation
that “willing suspension of disbelief” which, says Coleridge,
constitutes dramatic illusion. Hamlet’s father talks too much; and the
ghosts in “Richard III” are so sociable a company as to quite keep each
other in countenance. The best ghost in Shakespeare is Banquo’s, which
is invisible—a mere “clot on the brain”—and has no “lines” to speak.
The elves in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the elemental spirits in
“The Tempest” are nothing but machinery. The other world is not the
subject of the play. Hauptmann’s “_Die Versunkene Glocke_” is symbolism,
and so is “The Land of Heart’s Desire.” Maeterlinck’s “_Les Aveugles_”
and Yeats’s “Cathleen Ni Hoolihan” are more formally allegorical. The
poor old woman, in the latter, who takes the bridegroom from his bride,
is Ireland, from whom strangers have taken her “four beautiful green
fields”—the ancient kingdoms of Munster, Leinster, Ulster, and

These Irish plays, indeed, are the nearest thing we have to the work of
the Belgian symbolist, to dramas like “_Les Aveugles_” and
“_L’Intruse_.” And, as in those, the people are peasants, and the
dialogue is homely prose. No brogue: only a few idioms and sometimes not
even that, the whole being supposed to be a translation from the Gaelic
into standard English. Maeterlinck’s dramas have been played on many
theatres. Mr. William Sharp, who twice saw “_L’Intruse_” at Paris, found
it much less impressive in the acting than in the reading, and his
experience was not singular. As for the more romantic pieces, like “_Les
Sept Princesses_” and “_Aglavaine et Sélysette_,” they are about as
shadowy as one of Tieck’s tales. Those who saw Mrs. Patrick Campbell in
“_Pelléas et Mélisande_” will doubtless agree that these dreamlike poems
are hurt by representation. It may be that Maeterlinck, like Baudelaire,
has invented a new shudder. But the matinée audiences laughed at many
things which had thrilled the closet reader.

Yeats’s tragedies, like Maeterlinck’s, belong to the _drame intime_, the
_théâtre statique_. The popular drama—what Yeats calls the “theatre of
commerce”—is dynamic. The true theatre is the human will. Brunetière
shows by an analysis of any one of Racine’s plays—say
“_Andromaque_”—how the action moves forward by a series of decisions.
But Maeterlinck’s people are completely passive: they suffer: they do
not act, but are acted upon by the unearthly powers of which they are
the sport. Yeats’s plays, too, are “plays for marionettes,” spectral
puppet-shows of the Celtic twilight. True, his characters do make
choices: the young wife in “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” the bridegroom
in “Cathleen Ni Hoolihan” make choices, but their apparently free will
is supernaturally influenced. The action is in two worlds. In antique
tragedy, too, man is notoriously the puppet of fate; but, though he acts
in ignorance of the end to which destiny is shaping his deed, he acts
with vigorous self-determination. There is nothing dreamlike about
Orestes or Oedipus or Antigone.

It is said that the plays of another Irishman, Oscar Wilde, are now
great favorites in Germany: “Salome,” in particular, and “Lady
Windermere’s Fan” and “A Woman of No Importance” (“_Eine unbedeutende
Frau_”). This is rather surprising in the case of the last two, which
are society dramas with little action and an excess of cynical wit in
the dialogue. It is hard to understand how the unremitting fire of
repartee, paradox, and “reversed epigram” in such a piece as “Lady
Windermere’s Fan,” the nearest recent equivalent of Congreve comedy—can
survive translation or please the German public.

This “new drama” is very new indeed. In 1882, William Archer, the
translator of Ibsen, published his book, “English Dramatists of To-day,”
in the introduction to which he acknowledged that the English literary
drama did not exist. “I should like to see in England,” he wrote, “a
body of playwrights whose works are not only acted, but printed and
_read_.” Nine years later, Henry Arthur Jones, in the preface to his
printed play, “Saints and Sinners,” denied that there was any relation
between English literature and the modern English drama. A few years
later still, in his introduction to the English translation of M.
Filon’s book, “The English Stage” (1897), Mr. Jones is more hopeful. “If
any one will take the trouble,” he writes, “to examine the leading
English plays of the last ten years, and will compare them with the
serious plays of our country during the last three centuries, I shall be
mistaken if he will not find evidence of the beginnings of an English
drama of greater import and vitality, and of wider aim, than any school
of drama the English theatre has known since the Elizabethans.”

In his book on “The Renaissance of the Drama,” and in many other places,
Mr. Jones has pleaded for a theatre which should faithfully reflect
contemporary life; and in his own plays he has endeavored to furnish
examples of what such a drama should be. His first printed piece,
“Saints and Sinners” (exhibited in 1884), was hardly literature, and did
not stamp its author as a first-class talent. It is a seduction play of
the familiar type, with a set of stock characters: the villain; the
forsaken maid; the steadfast lover who comes back from Australia with a
fortune in the nick of time; the _père noble_, a country clergyman
straight out of “The Vicar of Wakefield”; and a pair of hypocritical
deacons in a dissenting chapel—very much overdone, _pace_ Matthew
Arnold, who complimented Mr. Jones on those concrete examples of
middle-class Philistinism, with its alliterative mixture of business and
bethels. Mr. Jones, like Mr. Shaw, is true to the tradition of the stage
in being fiercely anti-Puritan, and wastes many words in his prefaces in
vindicating the right of the theatre to deal with religious hypocrisy;
as if Tartuffe and Tribulation Wholesome had not been familiar comedy
heroes for nearly three hundred years!

This dramatist served his apprenticeship in melodrama, as Pinero did in
farce; and there are signs of the difference in his greater seriousness,
or heaviness. Indeed, an honest feeling and an earnest purpose are among
his best qualities. M. Filon thinks him the most English of contemporary
writers for the stage. And, as Pinero’s art has gained in depth, Jones’s
has gained in lightness. Crude at first, without complexity or shading
in his character-drawing, without much art in comic dialogue or much
charm and distinction in serious, he has advanced steadily in grasp and
skill and sureness of touch, and stands to-day in the front rank of
modern British dramatists. “The Crusaders,” “The Case of Rebellious
Susan,” “The Masqueraders,” “Judah,” “The Liars,” are all good
plays—or, at least plays with good features—and certainly fall within
the line which divides literary drama from the mere stage play. “Judah,”
for instance, is a solidly built piece, with two or three strong
situations. The heroine is a fasting girl and miraculous healer, a
subject of a kind which Hawthorne often chose; or reminding one of Mr.
Howells’s charlatans in “The Undiscovered Country” and Mr. James’s in
“The Bostonians.” The characterization of the leading persons is sound,
and there is a brace of very diverting broad comedy figures, a male and
a female scientific prig. They are slightly caricatured—Jones is still
a little heavy-handed—but the theatre must over-accentuate now and
again, just as actresses must rouge.

In this play and in “The Crusaders,” social satire is successfully
essayed at the expense of prevailing fads, such as fashionable
philanthropy, slumming parties, neighborhood guilds, and the like. There
is a woman in “The Crusaders,”—a campaigner, a steamboat, a specimen of
the loud, energetic, public, organizing, speech-making, committee and
platform, subscription-soliciting woman,—nearly as good as anything in
our best fiction. Mr. Joseph Knight, who writes a preface to “Judah”
(first put on at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 1890), compares its
scientific faddists with the women who swarm to chemistry and biology
lectures in that favorite Parisian comedy, “_Le monde où l’on
s’ennuie_.” There is capital satire of the downright kind in these
plays, but surely it is dangerous to suggest comparison with the gay
irony, the courtly grace, the dash and sparkle of Pailleron’s little
masterpiece. There are no such winged shafts in any English quiver. Upon
the whole, “The Liars” seems to me the best comedy of Mr. Jones’s that I
have read,—I have not read them all,—the most evenly sustained at
every point of character and incident, a fine piece of work in both
invention and construction. The subject, however, is of that
disagreeable variety which the English drama has so often borrowed from
the French, the rescue of a married woman from a compromising position,
by a comic conspiracy in her favor.

The Puritans have always been halfway right in their opposition to the
theatre. The drama, in the abstract and as a form of literature, is of
an ancient house and a noble. But the professional stage tends naturally
to corruption, and taints what it receives. The world pictured in these
contemporary society plays—or in many of them—we are unwilling to
accept as typical. Its fashion is fast and not seldom vulgar. It is a
vicious democracy in which divorces are frequent and the “woman with a
past” is the usual heroine; in which rowdy peers mingle oddly with
manicurists, clairvoyants, barmaids, adventuresses, comic actresses,
faith-healers, etc., and the contact between high life and low-life has
commonly disreputable motives. Surely this is not English life, as we
know it from the best English fiction. And, if the drama is to take
permanent rank with the novel, it must redistribute its emphasis.


[4] This article was printed in the _North American Review_ in two
instalments, in May, 1905, and July, 1907. The growth of the literary
drama in the last fifteen years has been so marked, and plays of such
high quality have been put upon the stage by new writers like Barrie,
Synge, Masefield, Kennedy, Moody, Sheldon, and others, that these
prophecies and reflections may seem out of date. The article is
retained, notwithstanding, for whatever there may be in it that is true
of drama in general.


WITH the exception of Goldsmith’s comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer,” the
only eighteenth century plays that still keep the stage are Sheridan’s
three, “The Rivals,” “The Critic,” and “The School for Scandal.” Once in
a while, to be sure, a single piece by one or another of Goldsmith’s and
Sheridan’s contemporaries makes a brief reappearance in the modern
theatre. I have seen Goldsmith’s earlier and inferior comedy, “The
Good-natured Man,” as well as Towneley’s farce, “High Life Below
Stairs,” both given by amateurs; and I have seen Colman’s “Heir at Law”
(1797) acted by professionals. Doubtless other eighteenth century plays,
such as Cumberland’s “West Indian” and Holcroft’s “Road to Ruin,” are
occasionally revived and run for a few nights. Sometimes this happens
even to an earlier piece, such as Farquhar’s “Beaux’ Stratagem” (1707),
which retained its popularity all through the eighteenth century. But
things of this sort, though listened to with a certain respectful
attention, are plainly tolerated as interesting literary survivals, like
an old miracle or morality play, say the “_Secunda Pastorum_” or
“Everyman,” revisiting the glimpses of the moon. They do not belong to
the repertoire.

Sheridan’s plays, on the other hand, have never lost their popularity as
acting dramas. “The School for Scandal” has been played oftener than any
other English play outside of Shakespeare; and “The Rivals” is not far
behind it. Even “The Critic,” which is a burlesque and depends for its
effect not upon plot and character but upon the sheer wit of the
dialogue and the absurdity of the situations—even “The Critic”
continues to be presented both at private theatricals and upon the
public stage, and seldom fails to amuse. There is no better proof of
Sheridan’s extraordinary dramatic aptitude than is afforded by a
comparison of “The Critic” with its model, Buckingham’s “Rehearsal.” To
Boswell’s question why “The Rehearsal” was no longer played, Dr. Johnson
answered, “Sir, it had not wit enough to keep it sweet”; then paused and
added in good Johnsonese, “it had not vitality sufficient to preserve it
from putrefaction.” “The Rehearsal” did have plenty of wit, but it was
of the kind which depends for its success upon a knowledge of the
tragedies it burlesqued. These are forgotten, and so “The Rehearsal” is
dead. But “The Critic” is not only very much brighter, but it satirizes
high tragedy in general and not a temporary literary fashion or a
particular class of tragedy: and, therefore, nearly a century and a half
after its first performance, “The Critic” is still very much alive. The
enduring favor which Sheridan’s plays have won must signify one of two
things: either that they touch the springs of universal comedy, _la
comédie humaine_—the human comedy, as Balzac calls it: go down to the
deep source of laughter, which is also the fountain of tears; or else
that, whatever of shallowness or artificiality their picture of life may
have, their cleverness and artistic cunning are such that they keep
their freshness after one hundred and fifty years. Such is the
antiseptic power of art.

The latter, I think, is Sheridan’s case. His quality was not genius, but
talent, yet talent raised to a very high power. His comedy lacks the
depth and mellowness of the very greatest comedy. His place is not among
the supreme creative humorists, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Aristophanes,
Molière. Taine says that in Sheridan all is brilliant, but that the
metal is not his own, nor is it always of the best quality. Yet he
acknowledges the wonderful vivacity of the dialogue, and the animated
movement of every scene and of the play as a whole. Sheridan, in truth,
was inventive rather than original. His art was eclectic, derivative,
but his skill in putting together his materials was unfailing. He wrote
the comedy of manners: not the comedy of character. In the greatest
comedy, in “The Merchant of Venice,” or “_Le Misanthrope_,” or “Peer
Gynt” there is poetry, or at least there is seriousness. But in the
comedy of manners, or in what is called classical comedy, i.e., pure,
unmixed comedy, the purpose is merely to amuse.

He never drives his plowshare through the crust of good society into the
substratum of universal ideas. We are not to look in the comedy of
manners for wisdom and far-reaching thoughts; nor yet for profound,
vital, subtle studies of human nature. Sheridan’s comedies are the
sparkling foam on the crest of the wave: the bright, consummate flower
of high life: finished specimens of the playwright’s art: not great
dramatic works.

Yet when all deductions have been made, Sheridan’s is a most dazzling
figure. The brilliancy and versatility of his talents were indeed
amazing. Byron said: “Whatsoever Sheridan has done, or chosen to do, has
been _par excellence_ always the best of its kind. He has written the
best comedy, the best drama, the best farce and the best address; and,
to crown all, delivered the very best oration ever conceived or heard in
this country.” By the best comedy Byron means “The School for Scandal”;
the best drama was “The Duenna,” an opera or music drama; the best
address was the monologue on Garrick; and the best oration was the
famous speech on the Begums of Oude in the impeachment proceedings
against Warren Hastings: a speech which held the attention of the House
of Commons for over five hours at a stretch, and was universally
acknowledged to have outdone the most eloquent efforts of Burke and Pitt
and Fox.

Sheridan came naturally by his aptitude for the theatre. His father was
an actor and declamation master and had been manager of the Theatre
Royal in Dublin. His mother had written novels and plays. Her unfinished
comedy, “A Journey to Bath,” furnished a few hints towards “The Rivals,”
the scene of which, you will remember, is at Bath, the fashionable
watering place which figures so largely in eighteenth century letters:
in Smollett’s novel, “Humphrey Clinker,” in Horace Walpole’s
correspondence, in Anstey’s satire, “The New Bath Guide,” and in
Goldsmith’s life of Beau Nash, the King of the Pumproom. Histrionic and
even dramatic ability has been constantly inherited. There are families
of actors, like the Kembles and the Booths; and it is noteworthy how
large a proportion of our dramatic authors have been actors, or in
practical touch with the stage: Marlowe, Greene, Jonson, Shakespeare,
Otway, Lee, Cibber, the Colmans, father and son, Macklin, Garrick,
Foote, Knowles, Boucicault, Robertson, Tom Taylor, Pinero, Stephen
Phillips. These names by no means exhaust the list of those who have
both written and acted plays. Sheridan’s career was full of adventure.
He eloped from Bath with a beautiful girl of eighteen, a concert singer,
daughter of Linley, the musical composer, and was married to her in
France. In the course of this affair he fought two duels, in one of
which he was dangerously wounded. Now what can be more romantic than a
duel and an elopement? Yet notice how the identical adventures which
romance uses in one way, classical comedy uses in quite another. These
personal experiences doubtless suggested some of the incidents in “The
Rivals”; but in that comedy the projected duel and the projected
elopement end in farce, and common sense carries it over romance, which
it is the whole object of the play to make fun of, as it is embodied in
the person of Miss Lydia Languish.

It was Sheridan who said that easy writing was sometimes very hard
reading. Nevertheless, whatever he did had the air of being dashed off
carelessly. All his plays were written before he was thirty. He was a
man of the world, who was only incidentally a man of letters. He sat
thirty years in the House of Commons, was Under Secretary for Foreign
Affairs under Fox, and Secretary to the Treasury under the coalition
ministry. He associated intimately with that royal fribble, the Prince
Regent, and the whole dynasty of dandies, and became, as Thackeray said
of his forerunner, Congreve, a tremendous swell, but on a much slenderer
capital. It is one of the puzzles of Sheridan’s biography where he got
the money to pay for Drury Lane Theatre, of which he became manager and
lessee. He was a shining figure in the world of sport and the world of
politics, as well as in the world of literature and the drama. He had
the sanguine, improvident temperament, and the irregular,
procrastinating habits of work which are popularly associated with
genius. The story is told that the fifth act of “The School for Scandal”
was still unwritten while the earlier acts were being rehearsed for the
first performance; and that Sheridan’s friends locked him up in a room
with pen, ink, and paper, and a bottle of claret, and would not let him
out till he had finished the play. This anecdote is not, I believe,
authentic; but it shows the current impression of his irresponsible
ways. His reckless expenses, his betting and gambling debts resulted in
his arrest and imprisonment, and writs were served upon him in his last
illness. I do not think that Sheridan affected a contempt for the
profession of letters; but there was perhaps a touch of affectation in
his rather _dégagé_ attitude toward his own performances. It is an
attitude not uncommon in literary men who are also—like
Congreve—“tremendous swells.” “I hate your authors who are _all_
author,” wrote Byron, who was himself a bit of a snob. When Voltaire
called upon Congreve, the latter disclaimed the character of author, and
said he was merely a private gentleman, who wrote for his own amusement.
“If you were merely a private gentleman,” replied Voltaire, “I would not
have thought it worth while to come to see you.”

Dramatic masterpieces are not tossed off lightly from the nib of the
pen; and doubtless Sheridan worked harder at his plays than he chose to
have the public know and was not really one of that “mob of gentlemen
who write with ease” at whom Pope sneers. Byron and many others testify
to the coruscating wit of his conversation; and it is well-known that he
did not waste his good things, but put them down in his notebooks and
worked them up to a high polish in the dialogue of his plays. It is
noticeable how thriftily he leads up to his jokes, laying little traps
for his speakers to fall into. Thus in “The Rivals,” where Faulkland is
complaining to Captain Absolute about Julia’s heartless high spirits in
her lover’s absence, he appeals to his friend to mark the contrast:

    “Why Jack, have _I_ been the joy and spirit of the company?”

    “No, indeed, you have not,” acknowledges the Captain.

    “Have _I_ been lively and entertaining?” asks Faulkland.

    “O, upon my word, I acquit you,” answers his friend.

    “Have _I_ been full of wit and humor?” pursues the jealous

    “No, faith, to do you justice,” says Absolute, “you have been
    confoundedly stupid.”

The Captain could hardly have missed this rejoinder; it was fairly put
into his mouth by the wily dramatist.

Again observe how carefully the way is prepared for the repartee in the
following bit of dialogue from “The School for Scandal”: Sir Peter
Teazle has married a country girl and brought her up to London, where
she shows an unexpected zest for the pleasures of the town. He is
remonstrating with her about her extravagance and fashionable ways.

Sir Peter: “Madam, I pray had you any of these elegant expenses when you
married me?”

Lady Teazle: “Lud, Sir Peter, would you have me be out of the fashion?”

Sir Peter: “The fashion indeed! What had you to do with the fashion
before you married me?”

Lady Teazle: “For my part—I should think you would like to have your
wife thought a woman of taste.”

Sir Peter: “Aye, there again—Taste! Zounds, Madam, you had no taste
when you married me.”

The retort is inevitable and a modern playwriter—say, Shaw or
Pinero—would leave the audience to make it, Lady Teazle answering
merely with an ironical bow. But Sheridan was not addressing subtle
intellects, and he doesn’t let us off from the lady’s answer in good
blunt terms: “That’s very true indeed, Sir Peter! After having married
you I should never pretend to taste again, I allow.” But why expose
these tricks of the trade? All playwrights have them, and Sheridan uses
them very cleverly, if rather transparently. Another time-honored stage
convention which Sheridan practises is the labelling of his characters.
Names like Malaprop, O’Trigger, Absolute, Languish, Acres, etc., are
descriptive; and the realist might ask how their owners came by them, if
he were pedantic enough to cross-question the innocent old comedy
tradition, which is of course unnatural and indefensible enough if we
choose to take such things seriously.

About the comparative merits of Sheridan’s two best plays, tastes have
differed. “The Rivals” has more of humor; “The School for Scandal” more
of wit; but both have plenty of each. On its first appearance, January
17, 1775, “The Rivals” was a failure, owing partly to its excessive
length, partly to bad acting, partly to a number of outrageous puns and
similar witticisms which the author afterwards cut out, and partly to
the offense given by the supposed caricature of an Irish gentleman in
the person of Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Sheridan withdrew the play and
revised it thoroughly, shortening the acting time by an hour and
redistributing the parts among the members of the Covent Garden Theatre
company. At its second performance, eleven days later, it proved a
complete success, and has remained so ever since. It has always been a
favorite play with the actors, because it offers so many fine rôles to
an all-star company. It affords at least four first-class parts to the
comic artist: Sir Anthony Absolute, Mrs. Malaprop, Bob Acres, and Sir
Lucius O’Trigger: while it has an unusually spirited _jeune premier_, a
charming though utterly unreasonable heroine, a good soubrette in Lucy,
and entertaining minor characters in Fag and David.

As we have no manuscript of the first draft of “The Rivals,” it is
impossible to say exactly what changes the author made in it. But as the
text now stands it is hard to understand why Sir Lucius O’Trigger was
regarded as an insult to the Irish nation. Sheridan was an Irishman and
he protested that he would have been the last man to lampoon his
compatriots. Sir Lucius is a fortune hunter, indeed, and he is always
spoiling for a fight; but he is a gentleman and a man of courage; and
even in his fortune hunting he is sensitive upon the point of honor: he
will get Mrs. Malaprop’s consent to his addresses to her niece, and “do
everything fairly,” for, as he says very finely, “I am so poor that I
can’t afford to do a dirty action.” The comedy Irishman was nothing new
in Sheridan’s time. He goes back to Jonson and Shakespeare. In the
eighteenth century his name was Teague; in the nineteenth, Pat or Mike.
We are familiar with this stock figure of the modern stage, his brogue,
his long-skirted coat and knee breeches, the blackthorn shillalah in his
fist and the dudeen stuck into his hatband. The Irish naturally resent
this grotesque: their history has been tragical and they wish to be
taken seriously. We have witnessed of late their protest against one of
their own comedies, “The Playboy of the Western World.” But perhaps they
have become over touchy. There is not any too much fun in the world, and
if we are to lose all the funny national peculiarities from caricature
and farce and dialect story, if the stage Irishman has got to go, and
also the stage Yankee, Dutchman, Jew, Ole Olsen, John Bull, and the
burnt cork artist of the negro minstrel show, this world will be a
gloomier place. Be that as it may, Sir Lucius O’Trigger is no
caricature: he doesn’t even speak in brogue, and perhaps the nicest
stroke in his portrait is that innocent inconsequence which is the
essence of an Irish bull. “Hah, my little ambassadress,” he says to
Lucy, with whom he has an appointment, “I have been looking for you; I
have been on the South Parade this half hour.”

“O gemini!” cries Lucy, “and I have been waiting for your worship on the

“Faith,” answers Sir Lucius, “maybe that was the reason we did not

A great pleasure in the late sixties and early seventies used to be the
annual season of English classical comedy at Wallack’s old playhouse;
and not the least pleasant feature of this yearly revival was the
performance of “The Rivals,” with John Gilbert cast for the part of Sir
Anthony, Mrs. Gilbert as Mrs. Malaprop, and Lester Wallack himself, if I
remember rightly, in the rôle of the Captain. But, of course, the comic
hero of the piece is Bob Acres; and this, I think, was Jefferson’s great
part. I saw him three times in Bob Acres, at intervals of years, and it
was a masterpiece of high comedy acting: so natural, so utterly without
consciousness of the presence of spectators, that it was less like
acting than like the thing itself. The interpretation of the character,
too, was so genial and sympathetic that one was left with a feeling of
great friendliness toward the unwarlike Bob, and his cowardice excited
not contempt but only amusement. The last time that I saw Joe Jefferson
in “The Rivals,” he was a very old man, and there was a pathetic
impression of fatigue about his performance, though the refinement and
the warm-heartedness with which he carried the part had lost nothing
with age.

Historically Sheridan’s plays represent a reaction against sentimental
comedy, which had held the stage for a number of years, beginning,
perhaps, with Steele’s “Tender Husband” (1703) and numbering, among its
triumphs, pieces like Moore’s “Foundling” (1748), Kelly’s “False
Delicacy,” and several of Cumberland’s plays. Cumberland, by the way,
who was intensely jealous of Sheridan, was the original of Sir Fretful
Plagiary in “The Critic,” Sheridan’s only condescension to personal
satire. He was seemingly a vain and pompous person, and well deserved
his castigation. The story is told of Cumberland that he took his
children to see “The School for Scandal” and when they laughed rebuked
them, saying that he saw nothing to laugh at in this comedy. When this
was reported to Sheridan, his comment was, “I think that confoundedly
ungrateful, for I went to see Cumberland’s last tragedy and laughed
heartily at it all the way through.”

With Goldsmith and Sheridan gayety came back to the English stage. In
their prefaces and prologues both of them complain that the comic muse
is dying and is being succeeded by “a mawkish drab of spurious breed who
deals in sentimentals,” genteel comedy, to wit, who comes from France
where comedy has now become so very elevated and sentimental that it has
not only banished humor and Molière from the stage, but it has banished
all spectators too. Goldsmith laments the disgusting solemnity that had
lately infected literature and sneers at the moralizing comedies that
deal with the virtues and distresses of private life instead of
ridiculing its faults. Joseph Surface in “The School for Scandal” is
Sheridan’s portrait of the sentimental, moralizing hypocrite, whose
catchword is “the man of sentiment”; and whose habit of uttering lofty
moralities is so ingrained that he vents them even when no one is
present who can be deceived by them.

Surface: “The man who does not share in the distresses of a
brother—even though merited by his own misconduct—deserves—”

“O Lud,” interrupts Lady Sneerwell, “you are going to be moral, and
forget that you are among friends.”

“Egad, that’s true,” rejoins Joseph, “I’ll keep that sentiment till I
see Sir Peter.”

“The Critic” has a slap or two at sentimental comedy. A manuscript play
has been submitted to Mr. Dangle, who reads this stage direction,
“_Bursts into tears and exit_,” and naturally asks, “What is this, a
tragedy?” “No,” explains Mr. Sneer, “that’s a genteel comedy, not a
translation—only taken from the French: it is written in a style which
they have lately tried to run down; the true sentimental and nothing
ridiculous in it from the beginning to the end. . . . The theatre, in
proper hands, might certainly be made the school of morality; but now, I
am sorry to say it, people seem to go there principally for their
entertainment.” Another of these moral comedies is entitled “‘The
Reformed Housebreaker’ where, by the mere force of humour, housebreaking
is put in so ridiculous a light, that if the piece has its proper run
. . . bolts and bars will be entirely useless by the end of the season.”

Sheridan has often been called the English Beaumarchais. The comedies of
Beaumarchais, “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” were
precisely contemporaneous with Sheridan’s, and, like the latter, they
were a reaction against sentimentalism, against the so-called _comédie
larmoyante_ or tearful comedies of La Chaussée and other French
dramatists. With Beaumarchais laughter and mirth returned once more to
the French stage. He goes back for a model to Molière, as Sheridan goes
back to English Restoration comedy, and particularly to Congreve, whom
he resembles in the wit of his dialogue and the vivacity of his
character painting, but whom he greatly excels in the invention of plot
and situation. Congreve’s plots are intricate and hard to follow, highly
improbable and destitute of climaxes. On the other hand, Sheridan is a
master of plot. The duel scene in “The Rivals,” the auction scene and
the famous screen scene in “The School for Scandal” are three of the
most skilfully managed situations in English comedy. Congreve’s best
play, “The Way of the World” (1700), was a failure on the stage. But
whatever Sheridan’s shortcomings, a want of practical effectiveness, of
acting quality, was never one of them. Sheridan revived society drama,
what Lamb called the artificial comedy of the seventeenth century. Lydia
Languish, with her romantic notions, and Mrs. Malaprop with her “nice
derangement of epitaphs” are artificial characters. Bob Acres is for the
most part delightfully natural, but his system of referential or
sentimental swearing—“Odds blushes and blooms” and the like—is an
artificial touch. The weakest feature of “The Rivals” is the underplot,
the love affairs of Faulkland and Julia. Faulkland’s particular variety
of jealousy is a “humor” of the Ben Jonsonian sort, a sentimental alloy,
as Charles Lamb pronounced it, and anyway infinitely tiresome. In modern
acting versions this business is usually abridged. As Jefferson played
it, Julia’s part was cut out altogether, and Faulkland makes only one
appearance (Act II, Scene I), where his presence is necessary for the
going on of the main action.

There is one particular in which Congreve and Sheridan sin alike. They
make all the characters witty. “Tell me if Congreve’s fools are fools
indeed,” wrote Pope. And Sheridan can never resist the temptation of
putting clever sayings into the mouths of simpletons. The romantic Miss
Languish is nearly as witty as the very unromantic Lady Teazle. I need
not quote the good things that Fag and Lucy say, but Thomas the
coachman, and the stupid old family servant David say things equally
good. It is David, e.g., who, when his master remarks that if he is
killed in the duel his honor will follow him to the grave, rejoins, “Now
that’s just the place where I could make shift to do without it.” Sir
Anthony is witty, Bob Acres himself is witty, and even Mrs.
Malaprop—foolish old woman—delivers repartees. Mrs. Malaprop’s verbal
blunders, by the way, are a good instance of that artificial high polish
so characteristic of Sheridan’s art. There are people in earlier
comedies who make ludicrous misapplications of words—Shakespeare’s
Dogberry, e.g., or Dame Quickly, but they do it naturally and
occasionally. Sheridan reduces these accidents to a system—a science.
No one in real life was ever so perseveringly and so brilliantly wrong
as Mrs. Malaprop.

Dramatically this is out of character and is, therefore, a fault, though
a fault easy to forgive since it results in so much clever talk. It is a
fault, as I have said, which Congreve shares with Sheridan, his heir and
continuator. Perhaps the lines of character are not cut quite so deep in
Sheridan as in Congreve nor has his dialogue the elder dramatist’s
condensed, epigrammatic solidity. But on the whole, “The Rivals” and
“The School for Scandal” are better plays than Congreve ever wrote.

                      THE POETRY OF THE CAVALIERS

THE spirit of the seventeenth century Cavaliers has been made familiar
to us by historians and romancers, but it did not find very adequate
expression in contemporary verse. There are two perfect songs by
Lovelace, “To Althea from Prison” and “To Lucasta, on Going to the
Wars.” But if we look into collections like Charles Mackay’s “Songs of
the Cavaliers,” we are disappointed. These consist mainly of political
campaign songs little removed from doggerel, satires by Butler and
Cleveland, and rollicking ballad choruses by Alexander Brome, Sir Roger
L’Estrange, Sir Richard Fanshawe, who was Prince Rupert’s secretary; or
haply by that gallant royalist gentleman, Arthur Lord Capel, executed,
though a prisoner of war, after the surrender of Colchester. You may
remember Milton’s sonnet “To the Lord General Fairfax at the Siege of
Colchester.” These were the marks of a Cavalier ballad: to abuse the
Roundheads, to be convivial and profane, to profess a reckless daring in
fight, devotion to the ladies, and loyalty to church and king. The gay
courage of the Cavalier contrasted itself with the grim and stubborn
valor of the Roundhead. The bitterest drop in the cup of the defeated
kingsmen was that they were beaten by their social inferiors, by muckers
and religious fanatics who cropped their hair, wore narrow bands instead
of lace collars, and droned long prayers through their noses; people
like the butcher Harrison and the leather-seller, Praise-God Barebones,
and the brewers, cobblers, grocers and like mechanical trades who
figured as the preachers in Cromwell’s New Model army. The usual
commonplaces of anti-Puritan satire, the alleged greed and hypocrisy of
the despised but victorious faction, their ridiculous solemnity, their
illiteracy, contentiousness, superstition, and hatred of all liberal
arts, are duly set forth in such pieces as “The Anarchie,” “The Geneva
Ballad,” and “Hey then, up go we.” The most popular of all these was the
famous song, “When the King enjoys his own again,” which Ritson indeed
calls—but surely with much exaggeration—the most famous song of any
time or country.

                  And though today we see Whitehall
                  With cobwebs hung around the wall,
                  Yet Heaven shall make amends for all
                  When the King enjoys his own again.

But somehow the finer essence of the Cavalier spirit escapes us in these
careless verses. Better are the recorded sayings in prose of many
gallant gentlemen in the King’s service. There, for instance, was Sir
Edmund Verney, the royal standard bearer who was killed at Edgehill. He
was offered his life by a throng of his enemies if he would deliver the
standard. He answered that his life was his own, but the standard was
his and their sovereign’s and he would not deliver it while he lived. At
the outbreak of the war he had said to Hyde: “I have eaten his [the
King’s] bread and served him near thirty years, and will not do so base
a thing as to forsake him; I choose rather to lose my life—which I am
sure to do—to preserve and defend those things which are against my
conscience to preserve and defend; for I will deal freely with you: I
have no reverence for bishops for whom this quarrel subsists.”

And there was that high-hearted nobleman, the Marquis of Winchester,
whose fortress of Basing House, with its garrison of five hundred men
and their families, held out for years against the Parliament. It was
continuously besieged from July, 1643, to November, 1645, and at one
time Sir William Waller attacked it in vain, with a force of seven
thousand. At last Cromwell took it by storm, whereupon the Marquis, made
prisoner, “broke out and said that if the King had no more ground in
England but Basing House, he would adventure as he did, and so maintain
it to the uttermost; comforting himself in this disaster that Basing
House was called Loyalty.” The sack of this great stronghold yielded
over 200,000 pounds, and Clarendon says that on its every windowpane was
written with a diamond point “_Aimez Loyauté_.”

The Cavalier spirit prolonged itself down into the Jacobite songs of the
eighteenth century which centre about the two attempts of the Stuarts to
regain their crown—in 1715 and in “the Forty-five.”

                  It was a’ for our rightfu’ King
                  That we left fair Scotland’s strand:
                  It was a’ for our rightfu’ King
                  That we e’er saw Irish land.
                  He turned his charger as he spake
                      Beside the river shore:
                  He gave his bridle rein a shake,
                  Cried “Adieu for evermore, my love;
                      Adieu for evermore.”

The Hanoverians have been good enough constitutional monarchs but
without much appeal to the imagination. “I never can think of that
German fellow as King of England,” says Harry Warrington in “The
Virginians,” who has just been snubbed by George II, the sovereign who
hated “boetry and bainting.” The Stuarts were bad kings, but they
managed to inspire a passionate loyalty in their adherents, a devotion
which went proudly into battle, into exile, and onto the scaffold: which
followed them through their misfortunes and survived their final
downfall. They were a native, or at least a Scottish dynasty; and
Scotland, though upon the whole Presbyterian in religion and Whiggish in
politics, was most tenacious of the Jacobite tradition. Consider the
loss to British romance if the Stuarts had never reigned and sinned and
suffered! Half of the Waverley novels and all the royalist songs, from
Lovelace toasting in prison “the sweetness, mercy, majesty, and glories
of his King,” down to Burns’s “Lament for Culloden” and the secret
healths to “Charlie over the water.” Three centuries divide Chastelard,
dying for Mary Stuart, from Walter Scott, paralytic, moribund, standing
by the tomb of the Young Pretender in St. Peter’s and murmuring to
himself of “Charlie and his men.” Nay, is there not even to-day a White
Rose Society which celebrates yearly the birthday of St. Charles, the
martyr: some few score gentlemen with their committees, organs,
propaganda, still bent on dethroning the Hanoverians and bringing in
some remote collateral descendant? thinnest ghost of legitimism, walking
in the broad sunlight of the twentieth century, under the nose of crown
and parliament, disregarded of all men except, here and there, a writer
of humorous paragraphs for the newspapers?

For the passion of loyalty is extinct—extinct as the dodo. It was not
patriotism, as we know it; nor was it the personal homage paid to great
men, to the Cromwells, Washingtons, Bonapartes, and Bismarcks. It was a
loyalty to the king as king, to a symbol, a fetich whom divinity doth
hedge. In the political creed of the Stuarts, such homage was a
prerogative of the crown, and right royally did they exact it, accepting
all sacrifices and repaying them with neglect, ingratitude, and
betrayal. Yes, loyalty is obsolete, and the Stuarts were unworthy of it.
But no matter, it was a fine old passion.

After all, one of the finest things ever said of Charles I was said by a
political opponent, the poet Andrew Marvell, Milton’s assistant in the
secretaryship for foreign tongues, when speaking of the King’s dignified
behavior upon the scaffold, he wrote:—

                He nothing common did or mean,
                Upon that memorable scene
                But, with his keener eye,
                The axe’s edge did try;
                Nor called the gods, with vulgar spite,
                To vindicate his helpless right,
                But bowed his comely head
                Down as upon a bed.

The Cavalier stood for the church as well as for the king, but he was
not commonly a deeply religions man. The church poetry of that
generation is often sweetly or fervently devout, but it was written
mostly by clergymen, like George Herbert or Herrick—a rather worldly
parson: now and then by a college recluse, like Crashaw—who became a
Roman Catholic priest; or sometimes by a layman like Vaughan—who was a
doctor; or Francis Quarles, whose gloomy religious verses have little to
distinguish them from Puritan poetry. These poets were royalists but
hardly Cavaliers. The real Cavaliers, the courtly and secular poets like
Suckling, Lovelace, Cleveland, and the rest, stood for the church for
social reasons. It was the church of their class, ancient, conservative,
aristocratic. Carlyle, of Scotch Presbyterian antecedents, speaks
disrespectfully of the English Church, “with its singular old rubrics
and its four surplices at All-hallowtide,” and describes the Hampton
Court Conference of 1604 as “decent ceremonialism facing awful, devout
Puritanism.” Charles II tried to persuade the Scotch Earl of Lauderdale
to become an Episcopalian, assuring him that Presbyterianism was no
religion for a gentleman. Says the spirit in Dipsychus:—

                The Church of England I belong to
                And think dissenters not far wrong too;
                They’re vulgar dogs, but for his _creed_
                I hold that no man will be d——d.

The Cavalier was the inheritor of the mediaeval knight and the
forerunner of the modern gentleman. To the stern Puritan conscience he
opposed, as his guiding motive, the knightly sense of honor, a sort of
artificial or aristocratic conscience. The Puritan looked upon himself
as an instrument of the divine will. He acted as ever in his great
taskmaster’s eye: his sword was the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.
Hence his sturdy, sublime courage. You cannot lick a Calvinist who knows
that God is with him. But honor is not so much a regard for God as for
oneself—a finer kind of self-respect. Inferior in momentum to the
Puritan’s sense of duty, there is something gallant and chivalrous about
it. The Cavalier spirit was not so grave as the knight’s. Though he
fought for church and king, there was lacking the vow of knighthood, the
religious dedication of oneself to the service of the cross and of one’s
feudal suzerain. But you notice how the Cavalier, like the knight,
relates his honor to the service of his lady. Lovelace’s famous lines:—

                 I could not love thee, dear, so much,
                     Loved I not honour more,

may stand for the Cavalier motto.

Like the knight, the chevalier of the Middle Ages, the seventeenth
century Cavalier too, as his name implies, was a horseman. Rupert’s
cavalry was the strongest arm of the King’s service. Prince Rupert or
Ruprecht, the nephew of the King, was the son of that Elizabeth Stuart,
nicknamed the Queen of Hearts, whom Sir Henry Wotton celebrated in his
lofty lines “On his Mistress, the Queen of Bohemia,”

                 You meaner beauties of the night
                 That poorly satisfy our eyes,
                 More by your number than your light;
                 You common people of the skies;
                 What are you when the moon shall rise?

The impetuous charges of Rupert’s cavalry won the day at Edgehill and
all but won it at Marston Moor. But they were an undisciplined troop and
much given to plunder—a German word, by the way, which Prince Rupert
introduced into England. Perhaps you have seen the once popular
engraving entitled “The Cavalier’s Pets.” A noble staghound is guarding
a pair of riding boots, a pair of gauntlets, a pair of cavalry pistols
and a wide hat with sweeping plume. The careless Cavalier songs have the
air of being composed on horseback and written down on the saddle
leather: riding ballads in a very different sense from the old riding
ballads of the Scottish Border. Robert Browning has reproduced very
exactly the characteristics of the species in his “Cavalier Tunes.” In
“Give a Rouse” he presents the Cavalier drinking; in “Boot and Saddle”
the Cavalier riding, and in all of them the Cavalier swearing, laughing,
and cheering for the King.

    Kentish Sir Byng stood for his King,
    Bidding the crop-headed Parliament swing;
    And, pressing a troop unable to stoop
    And see the rogues flourish and honest folk droop,
    Marched them along, fifty-score strong,
    Great-hearted gentlemen, singing this song.
    God for King Charles! Pym and such carles
    To the Devil that prompts ’em their treasonous parles!
    Hampden to hell, and his obsequies’ knell
    Serve Hazelrig, Fiennes, and young Harry as well!
    Hold by the right, you double your might;
    So, onward to Nottingham, fresh for the fight.

Indeed many modern poets, such as Burns, Scott, Browning, George Walter
Thornbury, and Aytoun in his “Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers,” have
caught and prolonged the ancient note, with a literary skill not often
vouchsafed to the actual, contemporary singers.

Here, for instance, is a single stanza from Thornbury’s overlong ballad,
“The Three Troopers”:—

    Into the Devil Tavern three booted troopers strode,
    From spur to feather spotted and splashed
    With the mud of a winter road.
    In each of their cups they dropped a crust
    And stared at the guests with a frown;
    Then drew their swords and roared, for a toast,
    “God send this Crum-well-down!”

The singing and fighting Cavalier was most nobly represented by James
Graham, Marquis of Montrose, a hero of romance and a great partisan
leader. With a handful of wild Irish and West Highland
clansmen,—Gordons, Camerons, McDonalds,—with no artillery, no
commissariat, and hardly any cavalry, Montrose defeated the armies of
the Covenant, took the towns of Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, and
Edinburgh, and in one brief and brilliant campaign, reconquered Scotland
for the King. Nothing more romantic in the history of the Civil War than
Montrose’s descent upon Clan Campbell at Inverlochy, rushing down from
Ben Nevis in the early morning fogs upon the shores of wild Loch Eil.
You may read of this exploit in Walter Scott’s “Legend of Montrose,” as
you may read of the great Marquis’s death in Aytoun’s ballad, “The
Execution of Montrose.” For his success was short. He could not hold his
wild army together: with the coming of harvest the clansmen dispersed to
the glens and hills. Montrose escaped to Holland and, after the death of
the King, venturing once more into the Highlands, with a commission from
Charles II, he was defeated, taken prisoner, sentenced to death in
Edinburgh, hanged, drawn, and quartered. His head was fixed on an iron
spike on the pinnacle of the tollbooth; one hand set over the gate of
Perth and one over the gate of Stirling; one leg over the gate of
Aberdeen, the other over the gate of Glasgow. Montrose wrote only a
handful of poems, rough, soldierly pieces,—one on the night before his
execution, one on learning, at the Hague, of the King’s death. But by
far the best and the best known of these are the famous lines of which I
will quote a part. You will notice that, under the form of a lover
addressing his mistress, it is really the King speaking to his kingdom.
You will notice also the fine Celtic boastfulness of the strain and the
high-hearted courage of its most familiar passage—the gambler’s courage
who stakes his all on a single throw.

    My dear and only love, I pray that little world of thee
    Be governed by no other sway than purest monarchy;
    For if confusion have a part, which virtuous souls abhor,
    I’ll hold a synod in my heart and never love thee more.
    As Alexander I will reign and I will reign alone;
    My thoughts did ever more disdain a rival on my throne.
    He either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small,
    Who dares not put it to the touch, to gain or lose it all,
    But if no faithless action stain thy love and constant word,
    I’ll make thee glorious by my pen and famous by my sword:
    I’ll serve thee in such noble ways was never heard before:
    I’ll crown and deck thee all with bays and love thee more and more.

I have dwelt almost exclusively upon the military and political aspect
of Cavalier verse. A wider view would include the miscellaneous poetry,
and especially the love poetry of Carew, Herrick, Waller, Haberton,
Lovelace, Suckling, Cowley, and others, who, if not, strictly speaking,
Cavaliers, were royalists. For the only poets in England who took the
Parliament’s side were Milton, George Wither, and Andrew Marvell. Of
those I have named, some had much to do with public affairs and others
had little. Thomas Carew, the court poet, died before the outbreak of
the Civil War. Herrick was a country minister in Devonshire, who was
deprived of his parish by Parliament and spent the interregnum in
London. Edmund Waller, a member of the House of Commons, intrigued for
the king and came near losing his head; but, being a cousin of Oliver
Cromwell and very rich, was let off with a heavy fine and went to
France. Sir John Suckling, a very brilliant and dissipated court
favorite, a very typical Cavalier, had raised a troop of horse for the
King in the Bishops’ War: had conspired against Parliament, fled to the
continent, and died at Paris by his own hand. Colonel Richard Lovelace
fought in the royal armies, was twice imprisoned, spent all his large
fortune in the cause and hung about London in great poverty, dying
shortly before the Restoration. Cowley was a Cambridge scholar who lost
his fellowship and went to France with the exiled court: became
secretary to the queen, Henrietta Maria, and carried on correspondence
in cipher between her and the captive King.

The love verses of these poets were in many keys: Carew’s polished,
courtly, and somewhat artificial; Herrick’s warm, natural, sweet, but
richly sensuous rather than passionate; Cowley’s coldly ingenious;
Lovelace’s and Haberton’s serious and tender; Suckling’s careless, gay,
and “agreeably impudent,” the poetry of gallantry rather than love, with
a dash of cynicism: on its way to become the poetry of the Restoration

                             ABRAHAM COWLEY

COWLEY has been constantly used to point a moral. He is the capital
instance, in our literary history, of the instability of fame; or,
rather, of the wide variation between contemporary rating and the
judgment of posterity. Time has given its ironical answer to the very
first line in the first poem of his collection:—

                  What shall I do to be forever known?

When Cowley died in 1667 and was buried in Westminster Abbey near the
tombs of Chaucer and Spenser, he was, in general opinion, the greatest
English poet since the latter. “Paradise Lost” appeared in that same
year, but at this date Milton’s fame was not comparable with Cowley’s,
his junior by ten years. Milton’s miscellaneous poems, first collected
in 1645, did not reach a second edition till 1673. Meanwhile Cowley’s
works went through eight impressions.

I believe that the only contemporaries who rivaled him in popularity
were Herbert and Cleveland, for Waller did not come to his own until
after Cowley’s death. Herbert’s “Temple,” posthumously printed in 1634,
had already become a religious classic. Masson computes its annual sale
at a thousand copies for the first twenty years of its publication. Of
Cleveland’s poems eleven editions were issued during his lifetime—and
none afterward. Apropos of the author’s arrest at Norwich in 1655 and
his magniloquent letter to Cromwell on that occasion, Carlyle
caustically remarks: “This is John Cleveland, the famed Cantab scholar,
Royalist Judge Advocate, and thrice illustrious satirist and son of the
muses, who had gone through eleven editions in those times, far
transcending all Miltons and all mortals—and does not now need any
twelfth edition that we hear of.” This was true till 1903 when Professor
Berdan brought out the first modern and critical, and probably the
final, edition of Cleveland. But neither Herbert nor Cleveland enjoyed
anything like Cowley’s literary eminence. Cleveland was a sharp
political lampooner whose verses had a temporary vogue like “M’Fingal”
or “The Gospel according to Benjamin.” A few years later Butler did the
same thing ten times as cleverly. Even “Hudibras” has lost much of its
point, though its originality, learning, and wit have given it a certain
sort of immortality, while Cleveland is utterly extinct. Herbert’s work
is, of course, more permanent than Cleveland’s, and he is a truer poet
than Cowley, though his appeal is to a smaller public, and he has but a
single note.

For many years after his death, Cowley’s continued to be a great name
and fame; yet the swift decay of his real influence became almost
proverbial. Dryden, who learned much from him; Addison, who uses him as
a dreadful example in his essay on mixed wit; and Pope, who speaks of
him with a traditional respect, all testify to this rapid loss of his
hold upon the community of readers. It was in 1737 that Pope asked, “Who
now reads Cowley?” which is much as if one should ask to-day, “Who now
reads Byron?” or as if our grandchildren should inquire in 1960, “Who
reads Tennyson?”

Cowley’s literary fortunes have been in marked contrast with those of
his contemporary, Robert Herrick, whose “Hesperides” fell silently from
the press in 1643, and who died unnoticed in his remote Devonshire
vicarage in 1674. You may search the literature of England for a hundred
and fifty years without finding a single acknowledgment of Herrick’s
gift to that literature. The folio edition of Cowley’s works, 1668, was
accompanied with an imposing account of his life and writings by Thomas
Sprat, afterwards Bishop of Rochester. Dr. Johnson’s “Lives of the
English Poets,” 1779–1781, begins with the life of Cowley, in which he
gives his famous analysis of the metaphysical school, the _locus
classicus_ on that topic. And although Cowley’s poetry had faded long
ago and he had lost his readers, Johnson treats him as a dignified
memory, worthy of a solid monument. No one had thought it worth while to
write Herrick’s biography, to address him in complimentary verse, to
celebrate his death in elegy, to comment on his work, or even to mention
his name. Dryden, Addison, Johnson, all the critics of three successive
generations are quite dumb concerning Herrick. But for the circumstance
that some of his little pieces, with the musical airs to which they were
set, were included in several seventeenth century songbooks, there is
nothing to show that there was any English poet named Herrick, until Dr.
Nott reprinted a number of selections from “Hesperides” in 1810. But now
Herrick is thoroughly revived and almost a favorite. His best things are
in all the anthologies, and many of them are set to music by modern
composers, and sung to the piano, as once to the lute. The critics rank
him with Shelley among our foremost lyrical poets. Swinburne thought him
the best of English song writers. The “Hesperides” is frequently
reprinted, sometimes in _editions de luxe_, with sympathetic
illustrations by Mr. Abbey and other distinguished artists.

There are several reasons why Cowley cut so disproportionate a figure in
his own generation. In the first place, he was a marvel of precocity. He
wrote an epic at the age of ten and another at twelve. His first volume
of verse, “Poetical Blossoms,” was published in his fifteenth year, and
one or two of the pieces in it were as good as anything that he did
afterward. Chatterton was perhaps equally wonderful; while Milton, Pope,
Keats, and Bryant all produced work, while still under age, which
outranks Cowley’s. Yet none of them showed quite so early maturity.

Again Cowley’s personal character, learning, and public employments
conferred dignity upon his literary work. He was the darling of
Cambridge; and, when ejected by the parliament, joined the king at
Oxford, and then followed the queen to Paris. He was a steadfast
loyalist; but among the reckless, intriguing, dissolute Cavaliers who
formed the entourage of the exiled court, Cowley’s serious and
thoroughly respectable character stood out in high relief. He took a
medical degree from Oxford, and became proficient in botany, composing a
Latin poem on plants. Dr. Johnson thought his Latin verse better than
Milton’s. After 1660 a member of the triumphant party, he was,
notwithstanding, highly esteemed by political opponents. He held a
position of authority like Addison’s or Southey’s at a later day. When
he died, Charles II said that Mr. Cowley had not left a better man
behind him in England.

But, after all, the chief reason why Cowley was rated so high by his
contemporaries was that his poetry fell in with the prevailing taste.
Matthew Arnold said that the trouble with the Queen Anne poetry was that
it was conceived in the wits and not in the soul. Cowley’s poetry was
cerebral, “stiff with intellection,” as Coleridge said of another. He
anticipated Dryden in his power of reasoning in verse. He is
pedantically learned, bookish, scholastic, smells of the lamp, crams his
verse with allusions and images drawn from physics, metaphysics,
geography, alchemy, astronomy, history, school divinity, logic, grammar,
and constitutional law. Above all, he had the quality on which his
century placed such an abnormal value—wit: i.e., ingenuity in devising
far-fetched conceits and detecting remote analogies. Without the
subtlety of Donne and the quaintness of Herbert, he coldly carried out
the method of the _concetti_ poets into a system. At its best, this
fashion now and then struck out a brilliant effect, as where Donne says
of Mistress Elizabeth Drury:

                          Her pure and eloquent blood
              Spoke in her cheek, and so divinely wrought
              That one might almost say her body thought.

Or in Crashaw’s celebrated line about the miracle at Cana:

                  Nympha pudica deum vidit et ernbuit,

Englished by Dryden as

              The conscious water saw its God and blushed.

But except in such rarely felicitous instances, this manner of writing
is deplorable. Some of its most flagrant offenses are still notorious.
Crashaw’s description of Mary Magdalene’s eyes as:

                Two walking baths, two weeping motions,
                Portable and compendious oceans.

Or Carew’s lines on Maria Wentworth:

                   Else the soul grew so fast within
                   It burst the outward shell of sin,
                   And so was hatched a cherubin.

Cowley is full of these tasteless, unnatural conceits. His sins of the
kind have been so insisted upon by Johnson and others that I need give
but a single illustration. In an ode to his friend, Dr. Scarborough, he
thus compliments him upon his skill in operating for calculus:

    The cruel stone, that restless pain,
    That’s sometimes rolled away in vain
    But still, like Sisyphus his stone, returns again,
    Thou break’st and melt’st by learned juices’ force
    (A greater work, though short the way appear,
            Than Hannibal’s by vinegar).
    Oppressed Nature’s necessary course
    It stops in vain; like Moses, thou
    Strik’st but the rock, and straight the waters freely flow.

Here, in a passage of nine lines, the stone which the doctor removes
from his patient’s bladder is successively compared to the stone rolled
away from Christ’s sepulchre, the stone of Sisyphus, the Alps that
Hannibal split with vinegar, and the rock which Moses smote for water.
Manifestly this way of writing lends itself least of all to the poetry
of passion. Cowley’s love poems are his very worst failures. One can
take a kind of pleasure in the sheer mental exercise of tracking the
thought through one of his big Pindaric odes—the kind of pleasure one
gets from solving a riddle or an equation, but not the kind which we ask
of poetry. It is as Pope says: his epic and Pindaric art is forgotten;
forgotten the four books, in rimed couplets, of the “Davideis”;
forgotten the odes on Brutus, on the plagues of Egypt, on his Majesty’s
restoration, to Mr. Hobbes, and to the Royal Society. Cowley had a
genius for friendship, and his elegies are among his best things. There
are passages well worthy of remembrance in his elegy on Crashaw, and
several fine stanzas in his memorial verses on his Cambridge friend
Hervey; though the piece, as a whole, is too long, and Dr. Johnson is
probably singular in preferring it to “Lycidas.” A hundred readers are
familiar with the invocation to light in “Paradise Lost,” for one who
knows Cowley’s ingenious and, in many parts, really beautiful “Hymn to

The only writings of Cowley which keep afloat on time’s current are his
simplest and least ambitious—what Pope called “the language of his
heart.” His prose essays may still be read with enjoyment, though Lowell
somewhat cruelly describes them as Montaigne and water. His translations
from the Pseudo-Anacreon are standard, particularly the first ode, Θέλω
λέγειν Ἀτρείδας; the Τέττιξ, or cicada; and the ode in praise of
drinking, Ἡ γῆ μέλαινα πίνει. There is one little poem which remains an
anthology favorite, “The Chronicle,” Cowley’s solitary experiment in
society verse, a catalogue of the quite imaginary ladies with whom he
has been in love. This is well enough, but compared with the “agreeable
impudence,” the Cavalier gayety and ease of a genuine society verser,
like Suckling, it is sufficiently tame. For the Cowleian wit is so
different from the spirit of comedy that one would have predicted that
anything which he might undertake for the stage would surely fail.
Nevertheless, one of his plays, “Cutter of Coleman Street,” has been
selected by Professor Gayley for his series of representative comedies,
as a noteworthy transition drama, with “political and religious satire
of great importance.”

The scene is London in 1658, the year when Cromwell died, and Cowley,
though under bonds, escaped a second time to Paris. The plot in outline
is this: Colonel Jolly, a gentleman whose estate was confiscated in the
late troubles for taking part with the King at Oxford, finds himself in
desperate straits for money. He has two disreputable hangers-on, “merry,
sharking fellows about the town,” who have been drinking and feasting at
his expense. One of these, Cutter of Coleman Street, pretends to have
been a colonel in the royal army and to have fought at Newbury—the
action, it will be remembered, in which Clarendon’s friend, Lord
Falkland, met his tragic death (1643); or, as Carlyle rather brutally
puts it, “Poor Lord Falkland, in his ‘clean shirt,’ was killed here.”
Worm, the other rascal, professes likewise to have been in the King’s
service and to have been at Worcester and shared in the romantic escape
of the royal fugitive. This precious pair are new types in English
comedy and are evidently from the life. They represent the class of
swashbucklers, impostors, and soldiers of fortune, who lurked about the
lowest purlieus of London during the interregnum, living at free
quarters on loyalist sympathizers. They were parodies of the true
“distressed Cavaliers,” such as Colonel Richard Lovelace, who died in
London in this same year, 1658, in some obscure lodging and in abject
poverty, having spent all his large fortune in the King’s cause.

When “Cutter of Coleman Street”[5] was first given in 1661, the
characters of Cutter and Worm were ill received by the audience at the
Duke’s Theatre; and, in his preface to the printed play, the author
defended himself against the charge “that it was a piece intended for
abuse and satire against the king’s party. Good God! Against the king’s
party! After having served it twenty years, during all the time of their
misfortunes and afflictions, I must be a very rash and imprudent person
if I chose out that of their restitution to begin a quarrel with them.”
The representation of those two scoundrels, “as pretended officers of
the royal army, was made for no other purpose but to show the world that
the vices and extravagancies imputed vulgarly to the cavaliers were
really committed by aliens who only usurped that name.”

Colonel Jolly is guardian to his niece, Lucia, who has an inheritance of
five thousand pounds which, by the terms of her father’s will, is to be
forfeited if she marries without her uncle’s consent. This is now a very
stale bit of dramatic convention. Experienced play readers do not need
to be reminded that “forfeited if transferred” is written large over the
fortune of nearly every heiress in eighteenth century comedy. Colonel
Jolly sees through his rascally followers, but is so reduced in purse
that he offers Lucia’s hand to whichever of the two can gain her
consent, on condition that the favored suitor will make over to him one
thousand pounds out of his niece’s dowry. Of course she rejects both of
them. This unprincipled bargain was quite properly censured as out of
keeping with the character of an honorable old Cavalier gentleman who
had fought for the King. And again the dramatist defends himself in his
preface. “They were angry that the person whom I made a true gentleman
and one both of considerable quality and sufferings in the royal party
. . . should submit, in his great extremities, to wrong his niece for
his own relief. . . . The truth is I did not intend the character of a
hero . . . but an ordinary jovial gentleman, commonly called a good
fellow, one not so conscientious as to starve rather than do the least

The failure of his plan puts the colonel upon an almost equally
desperate enterprise, which is no less than to espouse the widow of
Fear-the-Lord Barebottle, a saint and a soap-boiler, who had bought
Jolly’s confiscated estate, and whose name is an evident allusion to the
leather-seller, Praise-God Barebones, who gave baptism to the famous
Barebones’ Parliament. The colonel succeeds in this matrimonial venture;
although, to ingratiate himself with the soap-boiler’s widow, he has to
feign conversion. His daughter Aurelia tries to dissuade him from the
match. “Bless us,” she says, “what humming and hawing will be in this
house; what preaching and howling and fasting and eating among the
saints! Their first pious work will be to banish Fletcher and Ben Jonson
out o’ the parlour, and bring in their rooms Martin Mar Prelate and
Posies of Holy Honeysuckles and A Salve-Box for a wounded Conscience and
a Bundle of Grapes from Canaan. . . . But, Sir, suppose the king should
come in again and you have your own again of course. You’d be very proud
of a soap-boiler’s widow then in Hyde Park, Sir.” “O,” replies her
father, “then the bishops will come in, too, and she’ll away to New

Here comes in the satire on the Puritans which is the most interesting
feature of the play. Anti-Puritan satire was nothing new on the stage in
1661, and it had been much better done in Jonson’s “Alchemist” and
“Bartholomew Fair” nearly a half century before. The thing that is new
in Cowley’s play is its picture of the later aspects of the Puritan
revolution; when what had been in Jonson’s time a despised faction had
now been seated in power for sixteen years, and had developed all those
extravagances of fanaticism which Carlyle calls “Calvinistic
Sansculottism.” Widow Barebottle is a Brownist and a parishioner of Rev.
Joseph Knockdown, of the congregation of the spotless in Coleman Street.
But her daughter Tabitha is of the Fifth Monarchy persuasion and was
wont to go afoot every Sunday over the bridge to hear Mr. Feak,[6] when
he was a prisoner in Lambeth House. Visions and prophesyings have been
vouchsafed to Tabitha. And when Cutter, following his patron’s lead,
pays court to her in a puritanical habit, he assures her that it has
been revealed to him that he is no longer to be called Cutter, a name of
Cavalero darkness: “My name is now Abednego. I had a vision, which
whispered to me through a keyhole, ‘Go call thyself Abednego. It is a
name that signifies fiery furnaces and tribulation and martyrdom.’” He
is to suffer martyrdom and return miraculously upon “a purple dromedary,
which signifies magistracy, with an axe in my hand that is called
reformation; and I am to strike with that axe upon the gate of
Westminster Hall and cry ‘Down, Babylon,’ and the building called
Westminster Hall is to run away and cast itself into the river; and then
Major General Harrison is to come in green sleeves from the north upon a
sky-colored mule which signifies heavenly instruction . . . and he is to
have a trumpet in his mouth as big as a steeple and, at the sounding of
that trumpet, all the churches in London shall fall down . . . and then
Venner shall march up to us from the west in the figure of a wave of the
sea, holding in his hand a ship that shall be called the ark of the

All this is frankly farcical but has a certain historical basis. The
Venner here mentioned was a Fifth Monarchist cooper whose followers held
a rendezvous at Mile-End Green, and who issued a pamphlet entitled “A
Standard Set Up,” adopting as his ensign the Lion of the Tribe of Judah,
with the motto, “Who shall rouse him up?” The passage furthermore seems
to allude to one John Davy, to whom in 1654 the spirit revealed that his
true name was Theauro John; and who was arrested at the door of the
Parliament House for knocking and laying about him with a drawn sword.
“Poor Davy,” comments Carlyle, “his labors, life-adventures, financial
arrangements, painful biography in general, are all unknown to us; till,
on this ‘Saturday, 30th December, 1654,’ he very clearly knocks loud at
the door of the Parliament House, as much as to say, ‘what is this _you_
are upon?’ and ‘lays about him with a drawn sword.’”

The dialogue abounds in the biblical phrases and the peculiar cant of
the later Puritanism, familiar in “Hudibras.” Brother Abednego is joined
to Tabitha in the holy bond of sanctified matrimony at a zealous
shoemaker’s habitation by that chosen vessel, Brother Zephaniah Fats, an
opener of revelations to the worthy in Mary White-Chapel. But as soon as
they are safely married, the newly converted Cutter throws off his
Puritan disguise and dons a regular Cavalier costume, hat and feather,
sword and belt, broad laced band and periwig, and proceeds to pervert
his bride. He makes her drink healths in sack, and sing and dance home
after the fiddlers, under the threat of taking coach and carrying her
off to the opera. Tabitha, after a faint resistance, falls into his
humor and proves an apt pupil in the ways of worldliness. For it is a
convention of seventeenth century, as it is of twentieth century, comedy
that all Puritans are hypocrites and that

                    Every woman is at heart a rake.


[5] An earlier version, entitled “The Guardian,” had been acted in 1641.

[6] An Anabaptist preacher. See Carlyle’s “Cromwell’s Letters and
Speeches,” iv. 3.

                         MILTON’S TERCENTENARY

IT is right that this anniversary should be kept in all
English-speaking lands. Milton is as far away from us in time as Dante
was from him; destructive criticism has been busy with his great poem;
formidable rivals of his fame have arisen—Dryden and Pope, Wordsworth
and Byron, Tennyson and Browning, not to speak of lesser names—poets
whom we read perhaps oftener and with more pleasure. Yet still his
throne remains unshaken. By general—by well-nigh universal—consent, he
is still the second poet of our race, the greatest, save one, of all who
have used the English speech.

The high epics, the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, do not appear to us as
they appeared to their contemporaries, nor as they appeared to the
Middle Ages, or to the men of the Renaissance or of the eighteenth
century. These peaks of song we see foreshortened or in changed
perspective or from a different angle of observation. Their parallax
varies from age to age, yet their stature does not dwindle; they tower
forever, “like Teneriffe or Atlas unremoved.” “Paradise Lost” does not
mean the same thing to us that it meant to Addison or Johnson or
Macaulay, and much that those critics said of it now seems mistaken.
Works of art, as of nature, have perishable elements, and suffer a loss
from time’s transshifting. Homer’s gods are childish, Dante’s hell
grotesque; and the mythology of the one and the scholasticism of the
other are scarcely more obsolete to-day than Milton’s theology. Yet in
the dryest parts of “Paradise Lost” we feel the touch of the master. Two
things in particular, the rhythm and the style, go on victoriously as by
their own momentum. God the Father may be a school divine and Adam a
member of parliament, but the verse never flags, the diction never
fails. The poem may grow heavy, but not languid, thin, or weak. I
confess that there are traits of Milton which repel or irritate; that
there are poets with whom sympathy is easier. And if I were speaking
merely as an impressionist, I might prefer them to him. But this does
not affect my estimate of his absolute greatness.

All poets, then, and lovers of poetry, all literary critics and students
of language must honor in Milton the almost faultless artist, the
supreme master of his craft. But there is a reason why, not alone the
literary class, but all men of English stock should celebrate Milton’s
tercentenary. There have been poets whose technique was exquisite, but
whose character was contemptible. John Milton was not simply a great
poet, but a great man, a heroic soul; and his type was
characteristically English, both in its virtues and its shortcomings. Of
Shakespeare, the man, we know next to nothing. But of Milton personally
we know all that we need to know, more than is known of many a modern
author. There is abundance of biography and autobiography. Milton had a
noble self-esteem, and he was engaged for twenty years in hot
controversies. Hence those passages of apologetics scattered through his
prose works, from which the lives of their author have been largely
compiled. Moreover he was a pamphleteer and journalist, as well as a
poet, uttering himself freely on the questions of the day. We know his
opinions on government, education, religion, marriage and divorce, the
freedom of the press, and many other subjects. We know what he thought
of eminent contemporaries, Charles I, Cromwell, Vane, Desborough,
Overton, Fairfax. It was not then the fashion to write critical essays,
literary reviews, and book notices. Yet, aside from his own practice,
his writings are sown here and there with incidental judgments of books
and authors, from which his literary principles may be gathered. He has
spoken now and again of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, of Spenser, Chaucer,
Euripides, Homer, the book of Job, the psalms of David, the Song of
Solomon, the poems of Tasso and Ariosto, the Arthur and Charlemagne
romances: of Bacon and Selden, the dramatic unities, blank verse vs.
rhyme, and similar topics.

In some aspects and relations, harsh and unlovely, egotistical and
stubborn, the total impression of Milton’s personality is singularly
imposing. His virtues were manly virtues. Of the four cardinal moral
virtues,—the so-called Aristotelian virtues,—temperance, justice,
fortitude, prudence, which Dante symbolizes by the group of stars—

                Non viste mai fuor ch’ alla prima gente—

Milton had a full share. He was not always, though he was most commonly,
just. Prudence, the only virtue, says Carlyle, which gets its reward on
earth, prudence he had, yet not a timid prudence. Of temperance—the
Puritan virtue—and all that it includes, chastity, self-reverence,
self-control, “Comus” is the beautiful hymn. But, above all, Milton had
the heroic virtue, fortitude; not only passively in the proud and
sublime endurance of the evil days and evil tongues on which he had
fallen; of the darkness, dangers, solitude that compassed him round; but
actively in “the unconquerable will . . . and courage never to submit or
yield”; the courage which “bates no jot of heart or hope, but still
bears up and steers right onward.”

There is nothing more bracing in English poetry than those passages in
the sonnets, in “Paradise Lost” and in “Samson Agonistes” where Milton
speaks of his blindness. Yet here it is observable that Milton, who is
never sentimental, is also never pathetic but when he speaks of himself,
in such lines, e.g., as Samson’s

              My race of glory run, and race of shame,
              And I shall shortly be with them that rest.

Dante has this same touching dignity in alluding to his own sorrows; but
his hard and rare pity is more often aroused by the sorrows of others:
by Ugolino’s little starving children, or by the doom of Francesca and
her lover. Milton is untender. Yet virtue with him is not always
forbidding and austere. As he was a poet, he felt the “beauty of
holiness,” though in another sense than Archbishop Laud’s use of that
famous phrase. It was his “natural haughtiness,” he tells us, that saved
him from sensuality and base descents of mind. His virtue was a kind of
good taste, a delicacy almost womanly. It is the “Lady of Christ’s”
speaking with the lips of the lady in “Comus,” who says,

                —That which is not good is not delicious
                To a well governed and wise appetite.

But there is a special fitness in this commemoration at this place. For
Milton is the scholar poet. He is the most learned, the most classical,
the most bookish—I was about to say the most academic—of English
poets; but I remember that academic, through its use in certain
connections, might imply a timid conformity to rules and models, a lack
of vital originality which would not be true of Milton. Still, Milton
was an academic man in a broad sense of the word. A hard student of
books, he injured his eyes in boyhood by too close application, working
every day till midnight. He spent seven years at his university. He was
a teacher and a writer on education. I need not give the catalogue of
his acquirements further than to say that he was the best educated
Englishman of his generation.

Mark Pattison, indeed, who speaks for Oxford, denies that Milton was a
regularly learned man, like Usher or Selden. That is, I understand, he
had made no exhaustive studies in professional fields of knowledge such
as patristic theology or legal antiquities. Of course not: Milton was a
poet: he was studying for power, for self-culture and inspiration, and
had little regard for a merely retrospective scholarship which would not
aid him in the work of creation.

Be that as it may, all Milton’s writings in prose and verse are so
saturated with learning as greatly to limit the range of their appeal. A
poem like “Lycidas,” loaded with allusions, can be fully enjoyed only by
the classical scholar who is in the tradition of the Greek pastoralists,
who “knows the Dorian water’s gush divine.” I have heard women and young
people and unlettered readers who have a natural taste for poetry, and
enjoy Burns and Longfellow, object to this classical stiffness in Milton
as pedantry. Now pedantry is an ostentation of learning for its own
sake, and none has said harder things of it than Milton.

                              . . . Who reads
    Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
    A spirit and judgment equal or superior . . .
    Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
    Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.

Cowley was the true pedant: his erudition was crabbed and encumbered the
free movement of his mind, while Milton made his the grace and ornament
of his verse.

    How charming is divine philosophy!
    Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose,
    But musical as is Apollo’s lute.

I think we may attribute Milton’s apparent pedantry, not to a wish for
display, but to an imagination familiarized with a somewhat special
range of associations. This is a note of the Renaissance, and Milton’s
culture was Renaissance culture. That his mind derived its impetus more
directly from books than from life; that his pages swarm with the
figures of mythology and the imagery of the ancient poets is true. In
his youthful poems he accepted and perfected Elizabethan, that is,
Renaissance, forms: the court masque, the Italian sonnet, the artificial
pastoral. But as he advanced in art and life, he became classical in a
severer sense, discarding the Italianate conceits of his early verse,
rejecting rhyme and romance, replacing decoration with construction; and
finally, in his epic and tragedy modelled on the pure antique, applying
Hellenic form to Hebraic material. His political and social, no less
than his literary, ideals were classical. The English church ritual,
with its Catholic ceremonies; the universities, with their scholastic
curricula; the feudal monarchy, the mediaeval court and peerage—of all
these barbarous survivals of the Middle Ages he would have made a clean
sweep, to set up in their stead a commonwealth modelled on the
democracies of Greece and Rome, schools of philosophy like the Academy
and the Porch, and voluntary congregations of Protestant worshippers
without priest, liturgy or symbol, practising a purely rational and
spiritual religion. He says to the parliament: “How much better I find
ye esteem it to imitate the old and elegant humanity of Greece than the
barbaric pride of a Hunnish and Norwegian stateliness.” And elsewhere:
“Those ages to whose polite wisdom and letters we owe that we are not
yet Goths and Jutlanders.”

So, in his treatment of public questions, Milton had what Bacon calls
“the humor of a scholar.” He was an idealist and a doctrinaire, with
little historic sense and small notion of what is practicable here and
now. England is still a monarchy; the English church is still prelatical
and has its hireling clergy; parliament keeps its two chambers, and the
bishops sit and vote in the house of peers; ritualism and tractarianism
gain apace upon low church and evangelical; the “Areopagitica” had no
effect whatever in hastening the freedom of the press; and, ironically
enough, Milton himself, under the protectorate, became an official book

England was not ripe for a republic; she was returning to her idols,
“choosing herself a captain back to Egypt.” It took a century and a half
for English liberty to recover the ground lost at the Restoration.
Nevertheless, that little group of republican idealists, Vane, Bradshaw,
Lambert and the rest, with Milton their literary spokesman, must always
interest us as Americans and republicans. Let us, however, not mistake.
Milton was no democrat. His political principles were republican, or
democratic if you please, but his personal feelings were intensely
aristocratic. Even that free commonwealth which he thought he saw so
easy and ready a way to establish, and the constitution of which he
sketched on the eve of the Restoration, was no democracy, but an
aristocratic, senatorial republic like Venice, a government of the
_optimates_, not of the populace. For the trappings of royalty, the pomp
and pageantry, the servility and flunkeyism of a court, Milton had the
contempt of a plain republican:

                    How poor their outworn coronets
              Beside one leaf of that plain civic wreath!

But for the people, as a whole, he had an almost equal contempt. They
were “the ungrateful multitude,” “the inconsiderate multitude,” the
_profanum vulgus_, “the throng and noises of vulgar and irrational men.”
There was not a popular drop of blood in him. He had no faith in
universal suffrage or majority rule. “More just it is,” he wrote, “that
a less number compel a greater to retain their liberty, than that a
greater number compel a less to be their fellow slaves,” i.e., to bring
back the king by a _plébescite_. And again: “The best affected and best
principled of the people stood not numbering or computing on which side
were most voices in Parliament, but on which side appeared to them most

Milton was a Puritan; and the Puritans, though socially belonging, for
the most part, among the plain people, and though made by accident the
champions of popular rights against privilege, were yet a kind of
spiritual aristocrats. Calvinistic doctrine made of the elect a chosen
few, a congregation of saints, set apart from the world. To this feeling
of religious exclusiveness Milton’s pride of intellect added a personal
intensity. He respects distinction and is always rather scornful of the
average man, the _pecus ignavum silentûm_, the herd of the obscure and

    Nor do I name of men the common rout
    That, wandering loose about,
    Grow up and perish like the summer fly,
    Heads without names, no more remembered.

Hazlitt insisted that Shakespeare’s principles were aristocratic,
chiefly, I believe, because of his handling of the tribunes and the
plebs in “Coriolanus.” Shakespeare does treat his mobs with a kindly and
amused contempt. They are fickle, ignorant, illogical, thick-headed,
easily imposed upon. Still he makes you feel that they are composed of
good fellows at bottom, quickly placated and disposed to do the fair
thing. I think that Shakespeare’s is the more democratic nature; that
his distrust of the people is much less radical than Milton’s. Walt
Whitman’s obstreperous democracy, his all-embracing _camaraderie_, his
liking for the warm, gregarious pressure of the crowd, was a spirit
quite alien from his whose “soul was like a star and dwelt apart.”
Anything vulgar was outside or below the sympathies of this Puritan
gentleman. Falstaff must have been merely disgusting to him; and fancy
him reading Mark Twain! In Milton’s references to popular pastimes there
is always a mixture of disapproval, the air of the superior person. “The
people on their holidays,” says Samson, are “impetuous, insolent,
unquenchable.” “Methought,” says the lady in “Comus,”

                          . . . it was the sound
    Of riot and ill managed merriment,
    Such as the jocund flute or gamesome pipe
    Stirs up among the loose, unlettered hinds
    When, for their teeming flocks and granges full,
    In wanton dance they praise the bounteous Pan
    And thank the gods amiss.

Milton liked to be in the minority, to bear up against the pressure of
hostile opinion. “God intended to prove me,” he wrote, “whether I durst
take up alone a rightful cause against a world of disesteem, and found I
durst.” The seraph Abdiel is a piece of self-portraiture; there is no
more characteristic passage in all his works:

        . . . The Seraph Abdiel, faithful found
    Among the faithless, faithful only he . . .
    Nor number nor example with him wrought
    To swerve from truth or change his constant mind,
    Though single. From amidst them forth he past
    Long way through hostile scorn which he sustained
    Superior, nor of violence feared aught;
    And with retorted scorn his back he turned
    On those proud towers to swift destruction doomed.

Milton was no democrat; equality and fraternity were not his trade,
though liberty was his passion. Liberty he defended against the tyranny
of the mob, as of the king. He preferred a republic to a monarchy, since
he thought it less likely to interfere with the independence of the
private citizen. Political liberty, liberty of worship and belief,
freedom of the press, freedom of divorce, he asserted them all in turn
with unsurpassed eloquence. He proposed a scheme of education reformed
from the clogs of precedent and authority. Even his choice of blank
verse for “Paradise Lost” he vindicated as a case of “ancient _liberty_
recovered to heroic song from this troublesome and modern bondage of

There is yet one reason more why we at Yale should keep this
anniversary. Milton was the poet of English Puritanism, and therefore he
is _our_ poet. This colony and this college were founded by English
Puritans; and here the special faith and manners of the Puritans
survived later than at the other great university of New
England—survived almost in their integrity down to a time within the
memory of living men. When Milton left Cambridge in 1632, “church-outed
by the prelates,” it was among the possibilities that, instead of
settling down at his father’s country house at Horton, he might have
come to New England. Winthrop had sailed, with his company, two years
before. In 1635 three thousand Puritans emigrated to Massachusetts,
among them Sir Henry Vane, the younger,—the “Vane, young in years, but
in sage counsels old,” of Milton’s sonnet,—who was made governor of the
colony in the following year. Or in 1638, the year of the settlement of
New Haven, when Milton went to Italy for culture, it would not have been
miraculous had he come instead to America for freedom. It was in that
same year that, according to a story long believed though now
discredited, Cromwell, Pym, Hampden and Hazelrig, despairing of any
improvement in conditions at home, were about to embark for New England
when they were stopped by orders in council. Is it too wild a dream that
“Paradise Lost” might have been written in Boston or in New Haven? But
it was not upon the cards. The literary class does not willingly
emigrate to raw lands, or separate itself from the thick and ripe
environment of an old civilization. However, we know that Vane and Roger
Williams were friends of Milton; and he must have known and been known
to Cromwell’s chaplain, Hugh Peters, who had been in New England; and
doubtless to others among the colonists. It is, at first sight,
therefore rather strange that there is no mention of Milton, so far as I
have observed, in any of our earlier colonial writers. It is said, I
know not on what authority, that there was not a single copy of
Shakespeare’s plays in New England in the seventeenth century. That is
not so strange, considering the Puritan horror of the stage. But one
might have expected to meet with mention of Milton, as a
controversialist if not as a poet. The French Huguenot poet Du Bartas,
whose poem “La Semaine” contributed some items to the account of the
creation in “Paradise Lost,” was a favorite author in New England—I
take it, in Sylvester’s translation, “The Divine Weeks and Works.” It is
also said that the “Emblems” of Milton’s contemporary, Francis Quarles,
were much read in New England. But Tyler supposes that Nathaniel Ames,
in his Almanac for 1725, “pronounced there for the first time the name
of Milton, together with chosen passages from his poems.” And he thinks
it worth noting that Lewis Morris, of Morrisania, ordered an edition of
Milton from a London bookseller in 1739.[7]

The failure of our forefathers to recognize the great poet of their
cause may be explained partly by the slowness of the growth of Milton’s
fame in England. His minor poems, issued in 1645, did not reach a second
edition till 1673. “Paradise Lost,” printed in 1667, found its fit
audience, though few, almost immediately. But the latest literature
travelled slowly in those days into a remote and rude province.
Moreover, the educated class in New England, the ministers, though a
learned, were not a literary set, as is abundantly shown by their own
experiments in verse. It is not unlikely that Cotton Mather or Michael
Wigglesworth would have thought Du Bartas and Quarles better poets than
Milton if they had read the latter’s works.

We are proud of being the descendants of the Puritans; perhaps we are
glad that we are their descendants only, and not their contemporaries.
Which side would you have been on, if you had lived during the English
civil war of the seventeenth century? Doubtless it would have depended
largely on whether you lived in Middlesex or in Devon, whether your
parents were gentry or tradespeople, and on similar accidents. We think
that we choose, but really choices are made for us. We inherit our
politics and our religion. But if free to choose, I know in which camp I
would have been, and it would not have been that in which Milton’s
friends were found. The New Model army had the discipline—and the
prayer meetings. I am afraid that Rupert’s troopers plundered, gambled,
drank, and swore most shockingly. There was good fighting on both sides,
but the New Model had the right end of the quarrel and had the victory,
and I am glad that it was so. Still there was more fun in the king’s
army, and it was there that most of the good fellows were.

The influence of Milton’s religion upon his art has been much discussed.
It was owing to his Puritanism that he was the kind of poet that he was,
but it was in spite of his Puritanism that he was a poet at all. He was
the poet of a cause, a party, a sect whose attitude towards the graces
of life and the beautiful arts was notoriously one of distrust and
hostility. He was the poet, not only of that Puritanism which is a
permanent element in English character, but of much that was merely
temporary and local. How sensitive then must his mind have been to all
forms of loveliness, how powerful the creative instinct in him, when his
genius emerged without a scar from the long struggle of twenty years,
during which he had written pamphlet after pamphlet on the angry
questions of the day, and nothing at all in verse but a handful of
sonnets mostly provoked by public occasions!

The fact is, there were all kinds of Puritans. There were dismal
precisians, like William Prynne, illiberal and vulgar fanatics, the
Tribulation Wholesomes, Hope-on-high Bombys, and Zeal-of-the-land Busys,
whose absurdities were the stock in trade of contemporary satirists from
Jonson to Butler. But there were also gentlemen and scholars, like
Fairfax, Marvell, Colonel Hutchinson, Vane, whose Puritanism was
consistent with all elegant tastes and accomplishments. Was Milton’s
Puritanism hurtful to his art? No and yes. It was in many ways an
inspiration; it gave him _zeal_, a Puritan word much ridiculed by the
Royalists; it gave refinement, distinction, selectness, elevation to his
picture of the world. But it would be uncritical to deny that it also
gave a certain narrowness and rigidity to his view of human life.

It is curious how Milton’s early poems have changed places in favor with
“Paradise Lost.” They were neglected for over a century. Joseph Warton
testifies in 1756 that they had only “very lately met with a suitable
regard”; had lain “in a sort of obscurity, the private enjoyment of a
few curious readers.” And Dr. Johnson exclaims: “Surely no man could
have fancied that he read ‘Lycidas’ with pleasure, had he not known its
author.” There can be little doubt that nowadays Milton’s _juvenilia_
are more read than “Paradise Lost,” and by many—perhaps by a majority
of readers—rated higher. In this opinion I do not share. “Paradise
Lost” seems to me not only greater work, more important, than the minor
pieces, but better poetry, richer and deeper. Yet one quality these
early poems have which “Paradise Lost” has not—charm. Milton’s epic
astonishes, moves, delights, but it does not fascinate. The youthful
Milton was sensitive to many attractions which he afterwards came to
look upon with stern disapproval. He went to the theatre and praised the
comedies of Shakespeare and Jonson; he loved the romances of chivalry
and fairy tales; he had no objection to dancing, ale drinking, the music
of the fiddle, and rural sports; he writes to Diodati of the pretty
girls on the London streets; he celebrates the Catholic and Gothic
elegancies of English church architecture and ritual, the cloister’s
pale, the organ music and full-voiced choir, the high embowed roof, and
the storied windows which his military friends were soon to smash at
Ely, Salisbury, Canterbury, Lichfield, as popish idolatries. But in
“Iconoclastes” we find him sneering at the king for keeping a copy of
Shakespeare in his closet. In his treatise “Of Reformation” he denounces
the prelates for “embezzling the treasury of the church on painted and
gilded walls of temples, wherein God hath testified to have no delight.”
Evidently the Anglican service was one of those “gay religions, rich
with pomp and gold,” to which he alludes in “Paradise Lost.” A chorus
commends Samson the Nazarite for drinking nothing but water. Modern
tragedies are condemned for “mixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and
gravity, or introducing trivial and vulgar persons”—as Shakespeare
does. In “Paradise Lost” the poet speaks with contempt of the romances
whose “chief mastery” it was

                            . . . to dissect,
    With long and tedious havoc, fabled knights
    In battles feigned.

And in “Paradise Regained” he even disparages his beloved classics,
preferring the psalms of David, the Hebrew prophecies and the Mosaic
law, to the poets, philosophers, and orators of Athens.

The Puritans were Old Testament men. Their God was the Hebrew Jehovah,
their imaginations were filled with the wars of Israel and the militant
theocracy of the Jews. In Milton’s somewhat patronizing attitude toward
women, there is something Mosaic—something almost Oriental. He always
remained susceptible to beauty in women, but he treated it as a
weakness, a temptation. The bitterness of his own marriage experience
mingles with his words. I need not cite the well-known passages about
Dalila and Eve, where he who reads between the lines can always detect
the figure of Mary Powell. There is no gallantry in Milton, but a deal
of common sense. The love of the court poets, cavaliers and sonneteers,
their hyperboles of passion, their abasement before their ladies he
doubtless scorned as the fopperies of chivalry, fantastic and unnatural
exaggerations, the insincerities of “vulgar amourists,” the fume of

                  . . . court amour,
    Mixt dance, or wanton mask, or midnight ball,
    Or serenate which the starved lover sings
    To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.

To the Puritan, woman was at best the helpmate and handmaid of man. Too
often she was a snare, or a household foe, “a cleaving mischief far
within defensive arms.” “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” are the only
poems of Milton in which he surrenders himself spontaneously to the joy
of living, to “unreproved pleasures free,” with no _arrière pensée_, or
intrusion of the conscience. Even in those pleasant Horatian lines to
Lawrence, inviting him to spend a winter day by the fire, drink wine,
and hear music, he ends with a fine Puritan touch:

    He who of these delights can judge, yet spare
    To interpose them oft, is truly wise.

“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more
cakes and ale?” inquires Sir Toby of Shakespeare’s only Puritan.

“Yes,” adds the clown, “and ginger shall be hot in the mouth, too.” And
“wives may be merry and yet honest,” asserts Mistress Page.

It is not without astonishment that one finds Emerson writing, “To this
antique heroism Milton added the genius of the Christian sanctity . . .
laying its chief stress on humility.” Milton had a zeal for
righteousness, a noble purity and noble pride. But if you look for
saintly humility, for the spirit of the meek and lowly Jesus, the spirit
of charity and forgiveness, look for them in the Anglican Herbert, not
in the Puritan Milton. Humility was no fruit of the system which Calvin
begot and which begot John Knox. The Puritans were great invokers of the
sword of the Lord and of Gideon—the sword of Gideon and the dagger of
Ehud. There went a sword out of Milton’s mouth against the enemies of
Israel, a sword of threatenings, the wrath of God upon the ungodly. The
temper of his controversial writings is little short of ferocious. There
was not much in him of that “sweet reasonableness” which Matthew Arnold
thought the distinctive mark of Christian ethics. He was devout, but not
with the Christian devoutness. I would not call him a Christian at all,
except, of course, in his formal adherence to the creed of Christianity.
Very significant is the inferiority of “Paradise Regained” to “Paradise
Lost.” And in “Paradise Lost” itself, how weak and faint is the
character of the Saviour! You feel that he is superfluous, that the poet
did not need him. He is simply the second person of the Trinity, the
executive arm of the Godhead; and Milton is at pains to invent things
for him to do—to drive the rebellious angels out of heaven, to preside
over the six days’ work of creation, etc. I believe it was Thomas
Davidson who said that in “Paradise Lost” “Christ is God’s good boy.”

We are therefore not unprepared to discover, from Milton’s “Treatise of
Christian Doctrine,” that he had laid aside the dogma of vicarious
sacrifice and was, in his last years, a Unitarian. It was this Latin
treatise, translated and published in 1824, which called out Macaulay’s
essay, so urbanely demolished by Matthew Arnold, and which was
triumphantly reviewed by Dr. Channing in the _North American_. It was
lucky for Dr. Channing, by the way, that he lived in the nineteenth
century and not in the seventeenth. Two Socinians, Leggatt and Wightman,
were burned at the stake as late as James the First’s reign, one at
Lichfield and the other at Smithfield.

Milton, then, does not belong with those broadly human, all tolerant,
impartial artists, who reflect, with equal sympathy and infinite
curiosity, every phase of life: with Shakespeare and Goethe or, on a
lower level, with Chaucer and Montaigne; but with the intense, austere
and lofty souls whose narrowness is likewise their strength. His place
is beside Dante, the Catholic Puritan.


[7] Mr. Charles Francis Adams informs me that a letter of inquiry sent
by him to the _Evening Post_ has brought out three or four references to
Milton in the “Magnalia,” besides other allusions to him in the
publications of the period. Mr. Adams adds, however, that there is
nothing to show that “Paradise Lost” was much read in New England prior
to 1750. The “Magnalia” was published in 1702.


THE one contribution of the Elizabethan stage to the literature of the
world is the plays of Shakespeare. It seems unaccountable to us to-day
that the almost infinite superiority of his work to that of all his
contemporaries was not recognized in his own lifetime. There is frequent
mention in the literature of his time, of “the excellent dramatic
writer, Master Wm. Shakespeare” and usually in the way of praise, but in
the same category with other excellent dramatic writers, like Jonson,
Chapman, Webster, and Beaumont, and with no apparent suspicion that he
is in a quite different class from these, and forms indeed a class by
himself—is _sui generis_. In explanation of this blindness it should be
said, first that time is required to give the proper perspective to
literary values, and secondly that there is an absence of critical
documents from the Elizabethan period. There were no reviews or book
notices or literary biographies. A man in high place who was
incidentally an author, a great philosopher and statesman like Bacon, a
diplomatist and scholar like Sir Henry Wotton, a bishop or a learned
divine, like Sanderson, Donne or Herbert, might be thought worthy to
have his life recorded. But a mere man of letters—still more a mere
playwriter—was not entitled to a biography. Nowadays every writer of
fair pretensions has his literary portrait in the magazines. His work is
criticized, assayed, analyzed; and as soon as he is dead, his life and
letters appear in two volumes. We do not know what Shakespeare’s
contemporaries thought of him, except for a few complimentary verses,
and a few brief notices scattered through the miscellaneous books and
pamphlets of the time; and these in no wise characterize or distinguish
him, or set him apart from the crowd of fellow playwrights, from among
whom he has since so thoroughly emerged. Aside from the almost universal
verdict of posterity that Shakespeare is one of the greatest, if not
actually the greatest literary genius of all time, there are two
testimonies to his continued vitality. One of these is the fact that his
plays have never ceased to be played. At least twenty of his plays still
belong to the acted drama. Several of the others, less popular, are
revived from time to time. We do not often have a chance in England or
America to see “Troilus and Cressida,” or “Measure for Measure,” or
“Richard II”—all pieces of the highest intellectual interest—to see
them behind the footlights. But all of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays
are given annually in Germany. Indeed, the Germans claim to have
appropriated Shakespeare and to have made him their own.

Now the only seventeenth century play outside of Shakespeare which still
keeps the stage is Massinger’s comedy, “A New Way to Pay Old Debts.”
This has frequently been given in America, with artists like Edwin Booth
and E. L. Davenport in the leading rôle, Sir Giles Overreach. A number
of the plays of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Dekker, Heywood,
Middleton, and perhaps other Elizabethan dramatists continued to be
played down to the middle of the eighteenth century, and a few of them
as late as 1788. Fletcher’s comedy, “Rule a Wife and Have a Wife,” was
acted in 1829; and Dekker’s “Old Fortunatus”[8] enjoyed a run of twelve
performances in 1819. But these were sporadic revivals. Professor Gayley
concludes that of the two hundred and fifty comedies, exclusive of
Shakespeare’s, produced between 1600 and 1625, “only twenty-six survived
upon the stage in the middle of the eighteenth century: in 1825, five;
and after 1850, but one,—‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts,’—while at the
present-day no fewer than sixteen out of Shakespeare’s seventeen
comedies are fixtures upon the stage.” Now and then a favorite
Elizabethan play like Ben Jonson’s “Alchemist,” or Dekker’s “Shoemaker’s
Holiday,” or Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Knight of the Burning Pestle” is
presented by amateurs before a college audience or a dramatic club, or
some other semi-private bunch of spectators. Middleton’s “Spanish Gipsy”
was thus presented in 1898 before the Elizabethan Stage Society and was
rather roughly handled by the newspaper critics. But these are literary
curiosities and mean something very different from the retention of a
play on the repertoire of the professional public theatres. It is a case
of revival, not of survival.

But even if Shakespeare’s plays should cease to be shown,—a thing by no
means impossible, since theatrical conditions change,—they would never
cease to be read. Already he has a hundred readers for one spectator.
And one proof of this eternity of fame is the extent to which his
language has taken possession of the English tongue. In Bartlett’s
“Dictionary of Quotations” there are over one hundred and twenty pages
of citations from Shakespeare, including hundreds of expressions which
are in daily use and are as familiar as household words. These include
not merely maxims and sentences universally current, such as “Brevity is
the soul of wit,” “The course of true love never did run smooth,” “One
touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” but detached phrases: “wise
saws and modern instances,” “a woman’s reason,” “the sere, the yellow
leaf,” “damnable iteration,” “sighing like a furnace,” “the funeral
baked meats,” “the primrose path of dalliance,” “a bright, particular
star,” “to gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” “the bubble
reputation,” “Richard’s himself again,” “Such stuff as dreams are made
on.” There is only one other book—the English Bible—which has so
wrought itself into the very tissue of our speech. This is not true of
the work of Shakespeare’s fellow dramatists. I cannot, at the moment,
recall any words of theirs that have this stamp of universal currency
except Christopher Marlowe’s “Love me little, so you love me long.”
Coleridge prophesied that the works of the other Elizabethan playwrights
would in time be reduced to notes on Shakespeare: i.e., they would be
used simply to illustrate or explain difficult passages in Shakespeare’s
text. This is an extreme statement and I cannot believe it true. For the
dramas of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Marlowe, Webster,
Middleton, and many others will never lack readers, though they will
find them not among general readers, but among scholars, men of letters,
and those persons, not so very few in number, who have a strong appetite
for plays of all kinds. Moreover, vast as is the distance between
Shakespeare and his contemporaries, historically he was one of them. The
stage was his occasion, his opportunity. Without the Elizabethan theatre
there would have been no Shakespeare. Let us seek to get some idea,
then, of what this Elizabethan drama was, which formed the Shakespearean
background and environment. Of course, in the short space at my
disposal, I cannot take up individual authors, still less individual
plays. I shall have to give a very general outline of the matter as a

What is loosely called the Elizabethan drama, consists of the plays
written, performed, or printed in England between the accession of the
queen in 1558 and the closing of the theatres by the Long Parliament at
the breaking out of the civil war in 1642. But if we are looking for
work of literary and artistic value, we need hardly go back of 1576, the
date of the building of the first London playhouse. This was soon
followed by others and by the formation of permanent stock companies.
Heretofore there had been bands of strolling players, under the
patronage of various noblemen, exhibiting sometimes at court, sometimes
in innyards, bear-baiting houses, and cockpits, and even in churches.
Plays of an academic character both in Latin and English had also been
performed at the universities and the inns of court. But now the drama
had obtained a local habitation and a certain professional independence.
Actors and playwriters could make a living—some of them, indeed, like
Burbage, Alleyn, and Shakespeare made a very substantial living, or even
became rich and endowed colleges (Dulwich College, e.g.). One Henslow,
an owner and manager, had at one time three theatres going and a long
list of dramatic authors on his payroll; was, in short, a kind of
Elizabethan theatrical syndicate, and from Henslow’s diary we learn most
of what we know about the business side of the old drama. In those days
London was a walled town of not more than 125,000 inhabitants. As five
theatre companies, and sometimes seven, counting the children of Paul’s
and of the Queen’s Chapel, were all playing at the same time, a public
of that size was fairly well served. You have doubtless read
descriptions, or seen pictures, of these old playhouses, The Theatre,
The Curtain, The Rose, The Swan, The Fortune, The Globe, The Belle
Savage, The Red Bull, The Black Friars. They varied somewhat in details
of structure and arrangement, and some points about them are still
uncertain, but their general features are well ascertained. They were
built commonly outside the walls, at Shoreditch or on the Bankside
across the Thames, in order to be outside the jurisdiction of the mayor
and council, who were mostly Puritan and were continually trying to stop
the show business. They were of wood, octagonal on the outside, circular
on the inside, with two or three tiers of galleries, partitioned off in
boxes. The stage and the galleries were roofed, but the pit, or yard,
was unroofed and unpaved; the ordinary, twopenny spectators
unaccommodated with seats but _standing_ on the bare ground and being
liable to a wetting if it rained. The most curious feature of the old
playhouse to a modern reader is the stage. This was not, as in our
theatres, a recessed or picture frame stage, but a platform stage, which
projected boldly out into the auditorium. The “groundlings” or yard
spectators, surrounded it on three sides, and it was about on a level
with their shoulders. The building specifications for The Swan playhouse
called for an auditorium fifty-five feet across, the stage to be
twenty-seven feet in depth, so that it reached halfway across the pit,
and was entirely open on three sides. At the rear of the stage was a
traverse, or draw curtain, with an alcove, or small inner stage behind
it, and a balcony overhead. There was little or no scenery, but
properties of various kinds were in use, chairs, beds, tables, etc. When
it is added to this that shilling spectators were allowed to sit upon
the stage, where for an extra sixpence they were accommodated with
stools, and could send the pages for pipes and tobacco, and that from
this vantage ground they could jeer at the actors, and exchange jokes
and sometimes missiles, like nuts or apples, with the common people in
the pit, why, it becomes almost incomprehensible to the modern mind how
the players managed to carry on the action at all; and fairly marvellous
how under such rude conditions, the noble blank verse declamations and
delicate graces of romantic poetry with which the old dramas abound
could have got past. A modern audience will hardly stand poetry, or
anything, in fact, but brisk action and rapid dialogue. Cut out the
soliloquies, cut out the reflections and the descriptions. Elizabethan
plays are stuffed with full-length descriptions of scenes and places:
Dover Cliff; the apothecary’s shop where Romeo bought the poison; the
brook in which Ophelia drowned herself; the forest spring where
Philaster found Bellario weeping and playing with wild flowers. In this
way they make up for the want of stage scenery. It would seem as if the
seventeenth century audiences were more naïve than twentieth century
ones, more willing to lend their imaginations to the artist, more eager
for strong sensation and more impressible by beauty of language, and
less easily disturbed by the incongruous and the absurd in the external
machinery of the theatre, which would be fatal to illusion in modern
audiences with our quick sense of the ridiculous. You know, for example,
that there were no actresses on the Elizabethan stage, but the female
parts were taken by boys. This is one practical reason for those
numerous plots in the old drama where the heroine disguises herself as a
young man. I need mention only Viola, Portia, Rosalind, Imogen, and
Julia in Shakespeare. And the romantic plays of Beaumont and Fletcher
and many others are full of similar situations. Now if you have seen
college dramatics, where the same practice obtains, you have doubtless
noticed an inclination in the spectators to laugh at the deep bass
voices, the masculine strides, and the muscular arms of the ladies in
the play. But trifles like these did not apparently trouble our simple

In the eighty-four years from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign to the
closing of the theatres we know the names of 200 writers who contributed
to the stage, and there were beside many anonymous pieces. All told,
there were produced over 1500 plays; and if we count masques and
pageants, and court and university plays, and other quasi-dramatic
species the number does not fall much short of 2000. Less than half of
these are now extant. It is not probable that any important play of
Shakespeare’s is lost, although no collection of his plays was made
until 1623, seven years after his death. Meanwhile about half of them
had come out singly in small quartos, surreptitiously issued and very
incorrectly printed. We probably have all, or nearly all, of Beaumont
and Fletcher’s fifty-three plays. And Ben Jonson collected his own works
carefully and saw them through the press. But Thomas Heywood wrote,
either alone or in collaboration, upwards of 220, and of these only
twenty-four remain. Dekker is credited with seventy-six and Rowley with
fifty-five, comparatively few of which are now known to exist. One
reason why such a large proportion of the Elizabethan plays is missing,
is that the theatre companies which owned the stage copies were
unwilling to have them printed and thereby made accessible to readers
and liable to be pirated by other companies. Manuscript plays were a
valuable asset, and were likely to remain in manuscript until they were
destroyed or disappeared. There are still many unpublished plays of that
period. Thus the manuscript of one of Heywood’s missing plays was
discovered and printed as late as 1885. A curious feature of the old
drama was the practice of collaboration. A capital instance of this was
the long partnership of Beaumont and Fletcher. But often three, or
sometimes four dramatists collaborated in a single piece. It is
difficult, often impossible, to assign the different parts of the play
to the respective authors and much critical ingenuity has been spent
upon the problem, often with very inconclusive results. To increase the
difficulty of assigning a certain authorship, many old plays were worked
over into new versions. It is surmised that Shakespeare himself
collaborated with Fletcher in “Henry VIII,” as well as in “The Two Noble
Kinsmen,” a tragi-comedy which is not included in the Shakespeare folio;
that in “Henry VI” he simply revamped old chronicle-history plays; that
“Hamlet” was founded on a lost original by Kyd; that “Titus Andronicus”
and possibly “Richard III” owe a great deal to Marlowe; and that the
underplot of “The Taming of the Shrew” and a number of scenes in “Timon
of Athens” were composed, not by Shakespeare but by some unknown
collaborator. In short we are to look upon the Elizabethan theatre as a
great factory and school of dramatic art, producing at its most active
period, the last ten years of the queen’s reign, say, from 1593–1603,
some forty or fifty new plays every year: masters and scholars working
together in partnership, not very careful to claim their own, not very
scrupulous about helping themselves to other people’s literary property:
something like the mediaeval guilds who built the cathedrals; or the
schools of Italian painters in the fifteenth century, where it is not
always possible to determine whether a particular piece of work is by
the master painter or by one of the pupils in his workshop. Instances of
collaboration are not unknown in modern drama. Robert Louis Stevenson
and W. E. Henley wrote several plays in partnership. Charles Reade in
his comedy, “Masks and Faces,” called in the aid of Tom Taylor, who was
an actor and practical maker of plays. But these are exceptions. Modern
dramatic authorship is individual: Elizabethan was largely corporate.
And the mention of Tom Taylor reminds me that Elizabethan drama was, in
an important degree, the creation of the actor-playwright. Peele,
Jonson, Shakespeare, Heywood, Munday, and Rowley certainly, Marlowe,
Kyd, Greene, and many others probably, were actors as well as authors.
Beaumont’s father was a judge, and Fletcher’s father was the Bishop of
London, but they lodged near the playhouses, and consorted with
Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the Mermaid or the Devil Tavern or the
Triple Tun or the other old Elizabethan ordinaries which were the
meeting places of the wits. In fact, it is evident that the university
wits; the Bohemians and hack writers in Henslow’s pay; gentlemen and men
with professions, who wrote on the side, such as Thomas Lodge who was a
physician; in short, the whole body of Elizabethan dramatists kept
themselves in close touch with the actual stage. The Elizabethan drama
was a popular, yes, a national institution. All classes of people
frequented the rude wooden playhouses, some of which are reckoned to
have held 3000 spectators. The theatre was to the public of that day
what the daily newspaper, the ten-cent pictorial magazine, the popular
novel, the moving picture show, the concert, and the public lecture all
combined are to us. And I might almost add the club, the party caucus,
and the political speech. For though there were social convivial
gatherings like Ben Jonson’s Apollo Club, which met at the Devil Tavern,
the playhouse was a place of daily resort. And there were political
plays. Middleton’s “A Game at Chess,” e.g., which attracted enormous
crowds and had the then unexampled run of nine successive performances,
was a satirical attack on the foreign policy of the government; in which
the pieces of the game were thinly disguised representatives of
well-known public personages, after the manner of Aristophanes. The
Spanish ambassador, Gondomar, who figured as the Black Knight,
remonstrated with the privy council, the further performance of the play
was forbidden, and the author and several of the company were sent to
prison. Similarly the comedy of “Eastward Ho!” written by Jonson,
Chapman, Marston, and Dekker, which made fun of James I’s Scotch
knights, gave great offense to the king, and was stopped and all hands
imprisoned. The Earl of Essex had the tragedy of “Richard II,” perhaps
Shakespeare’s,—or perhaps another play on the same subject,—rehearsed
before his fellow conspirators just before the outbreak of his
rebellion, and the players found themselves arrested for treason.

The English drama was self-originated and self-developed, like the
Spanish, but unlike the classical stages of Italy and France. Coming
down from the old scriptural and allegorical plays, the miracles and
moralities of the Middle Ages, it began to lay its hands on subject
matter of all sorts: Italian and Spanish romances and pastorals, the
chronicles of England, contemporary French history, ancient history and
mythology, Bible stories and legends of saints and martyrs, popular
ballad and folklore, everyday English life and the dockets of the
criminal courts. It treated all this miscellaneous stuff with perfect
freedom, striking out its own methods. Admitting influences from many
quarters, it naturally owed something to the classic drama, the Latin
tragedies of Seneca, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence, but it did
not allow itself to be shackled by classical rules and models, like the
rule of the three unities; or the precedent which forbade the mixture of
tragedy and comedy in the same play; or the other precedents which
allowed only three speakers on the stage at once and kept all violent
action off the scene, to be reported by a messenger, rather than pass
before the eyes of spectators. The Elizabethans favored strong action,
masses of people, spectacular elements: mobs, battles, single combats,
trial scenes, deaths, processions. The English instinct was for quantity
of life, the Greek and the French for neatness of construction. The
ghost which stalks in Elizabethan tragedy: in “Hamlet,” “Richard III,”
Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy,” and Marston’s “Antonio and Mellida” comes
straight from Seneca. But except for a few direct imitations of Latin
plays like “Gorboduc” and “The Misfortunes of Arthur”—mostly academic
performances—Elizabethan tragedy was not at all Senecan in
construction. Let us take a few forms of drama, which, though not
strictly peculiar to our sixteenth century theatre, were most
representative of it, and were the forms in which native genius
expressed itself most characteristically. I will select the
tragi-comedy, the chronicle-history, and the romantic melodrama or
tragedy of blood. In 1579 Sir Philip Sidney, who was a classical
scholar, complained that English plays were neither right tragedies nor
right comedies, but mongrel tragi-comedies which mingled kings and
clowns, funerals and hornpipes. Nearly a century and a half later,
Addison, also a classical scholar, wrote: “The tragi-comedy, which is
the product of the English theatre, is one of the most monstrous
inventions that ever entered into a poet’s thoughts. An author might as
well think of weaving the adventures of Aeneas and Hudibras into one
poem as of writing such a motley piece of mirth and sorrow.” Sidney’s
and Addison’s principles would have condemned about half the plays of
Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As to the chronicle-history play,
Ben Jonson, who was a classicist writing in a romantic age, had his
fling at those who with “some few foot and half-foot words fight over
York and Lancaster’s long jars.” I do not know that any other nation
possesses anything quite like this series of English kings by
Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bale, Peele, Ford, and many others, which taken
together cover nearly four centuries of English history. You know that
the Duke of Marlboro said that all he knew of English history he had
learned from Shakespeare’s plays; and these big, patriotic military
dramas must have given a sort of historical education to the audiences
of their time. The material, to be sure, was much of it epic rather than
properly dramatic, and in the hands of inferior artists it remained
lumpy and shockingly crude. To obtain comic relief, the playwrights
sandwiched in between the serious parts, scenes of horseplay,
buffoonery, and farce, which had little to do with the history. But in
the hands of a great artist, all this was reduced to harmony. Henry IV,
Part I, is not only a great literary work, but a first-class acting
play. The tragedy is very high tragedy and the Falstaff scenes very
broad comedy, but they are blended so skilfully that each heightens the
effect of the other without disturbing the unity of impression. As to
the romantic melodrama or tragedy of blood, the Elizabethans had a
strong appetite for sensation, and many of their most powerful plays
were of this description: Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine,” Shakespeare’s “Lear,”
Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Maid’s Tragedy,” Middleton’s “Changeling,”
Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi,” and scores of others, which employ what
has been called solution by massacre, and whose stage in the fifth act
is as bloody as a shambles. Even in the best of these, great art is
required to reconcile the nerves of the modern reader to the numerous
killings. In the extreme examples of the type, like “Titus Andronicus”
(doubtfully Shakespeare’s), Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta,” or the old
“Spanish Tragedy,” or Cyril Tourneur’s “Revenger’s Tragedy,” the theme
is steeped so deeply in horrors and monstrosities, that it passes over
into farce. For the great defect of Elizabethan drama is excess,
extravagance. In very few plays outside of Shakespeare do we find that
naturalness, that restraint, decorum and moderation which is a part of
the highest and finest art. Too many of the plots and situations are
fantastically improbable: too many of the passions and characters
strained and exaggerated, though life and vigor are seldom wanting. This
is seen in their comedies as well as in their tragedies. Thus, Ben
Jonson, an admirable comic artist, ranking next, I think, after
Shakespeare, a very learned man and exhaustless in observation and
invention; very careful, too, in construction and endeavoring a reform
of comedy along truly classical lines—Ben Jonson, I say, chose for his
province the comedy of humors; i.e., the exhibition of all varieties of
oddity, eccentricity, whim, affectation. Read his “Every Man in His
Humour” or his “Bartholomew Fair” and you will find a satirical picture
of all the queer fashions and follies of his contemporary London. His
characters are sharply distinguished but they are _too_ queer, too
overloaded with traits, so that we seem to be in an asylum for cranks
and monomaniacs, rather than in the broad, natural, open daylight of
Shakespeare’s creations. So the tyrants and villains of Elizabethan
melodrama are too often incredible creatures beyond the limits of

It is perhaps due to their habit of mixing tragedy and comedy that the
Elizabethan dramatists made so much use of the double plot; for the main
plot was often tragical and the underplot comical or farcical.
Shakespeare, who at all points was superior to his fellows, knew how to
knit his duplicate plots together and make them interdependent. But in
pieces like Middleton’s “Changeling” or “The Mayor of Queensboro,” the
main plot and the subplot have nothing to do with each other and simply
run along in alternate scenes, side by side. This is true of countless
plays of the time and is ridiculed by Sheridan in his burlesque play
“The Critic.” Let it also be remembered that an Elizabethan tragedy was
always a poem—always in verse. Prose was reserved for comedy, or for
the comedy scenes in a tragedy. The only prose tragedy that has come
down to us from those times is the singular little realistic piece
entitled “The Yorkshire Tragedy,” the story of a murder. A very constant
feature of the old drama was the professional fool, jester, or kept
clown, with his motley coat, truncheon, and cap and bells. In most plays
he was simply a stock fun maker, though Shakespeare made a profound and
subtle use of him in “As You Like It” and in “Lear.” The last court
jester or king’s fool was Archie Armstrong, fool of Charles I. After the
Restoration he was considered as old-fashioned and disappeared from the
stage along with puns and other obsolete forms of wit. Opera and
pantomime were not introduced into England until late in the seventeenth
century: but the Elizabethans had certain forms of quasi-dramatic
entertainment such as the court masque, the pageant, and the pastoral,
which have since gone out. They were responsible for some fine poetry
like Fletcher’s “Faithful Shepherdess,” Jonson’s fragment “The Sad
Shepherd” and Milton’s “Comus.” Of late years the pageant has been
locally revived in England, at Oxford, at Coventry, and elsewhere.

Now since it has ceased to be performed, what is the value of the old
drama, as literature, as a body of reading plays? Of the 200 known
writers for the theatre, ten at least were men of creative genius,
Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, Jonson, Dekker, Webster, Middleton,
Fletcher, Beaumont, and Massinger. At least a dozen more were men of
high and remarkable talents, Lyly, Peele, Greene, Marston, Ford,
Heywood, Shirley, Tourneur, Kyd, Day, Rowley, Brome. Scarcely one of
them but has contributed single scenes of great excellence, or invented
one or two original and interesting characters, or written passages of
noble blank verse and lovely lyrics. Even the poorest of them were
inheritors or partakers of a great poetic tradition, a gift of style, so
that, in plays very defective, as a whole, we are constantly coming upon
lines of startling beauty like Middleton’s

      Ha! what art thou that taks’t away the light
    Betwixt that star and me?

or Marston’s

    Night, like a masque, has entered heaven’s high hall,
    With thousand torches ushering the way.

or Beaumont’s

    Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young.

But when all has been said, and in spite of enthusiasts like Lamb and
Hazlitt and Swinburne, I fear it must be acknowledged that, outside of
Shakespeare, our old dramatists produced no plays of the absolutely
first rank; no tragedies so perfect as those of Sophocles and Euripides;
no comedies equal to Molière’s. Nay, I would go further, and affirm that
not only has the Elizabethan drama—excluding Shakespeare—nothing to
set against the first part of Goethe’s “Faust,” but that its best plays
are inferior, as a whole, to the best of Aristophanes, of Calderon, of
Racine, of Schiller, even perhaps of Victor Hugo, Sheridan and
Beaumarchais. It is as Coleridge said: great beauties, counterbalanced
by great faults. Ben Jonson is heavy-handed and laborious; Beaumont and
Fletcher graceful, fluent and artistic, but superficial and often false
in characterization; Webster, intense and powerful in passion, but
morbid and unnatural; Middleton, frightfully uneven; Marlowe and Chapman
high epic poets but with no flexibility and no real turn for drama.

Yet unsatisfactory as it is, when judged by any single play, the work of
the Elizabethans, when viewed as a whole, makes an astonishing
impression of fertility, of force, of range, variety, and richness, both
in invention and in expression.


[8] “Every Man in his Humor” lasted well down into the nineteenth
century on the stage. And here are a few haphazard dates of late
performances of Elizabethan plays: “The Pilgrim,” 1812; “Philaster,”
1817; “The Chances,” 1820; “The Wild Goose Chase,” 1820; “The City
Madam,” 1822; “The Humorous Lieutenant,” 1817; “The Spanish Curate,”

                  PRINTED BY E. L. HILDRETH & COMPANY,
                     BRATTLEBORO, VERMONT, U. S. A.

                           TRANSCRIBER NOTES

Misspelled words and printer errors have been corrected. Where multiple
spellings occur, majority use has been employed.

Punctuation has been maintained except where obvious printer errors

[The end of _The Connecticut Wits and Other Essays_, by Henry A.
(Augustin) Beers.]

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