Atlantic Monthly, Volume 8, No. 47, September, 1861
Part 5 out of 5
been stored up for the benefit of more than the persons to whom these
letters were addressed. And while we wait patiently for this great
pleasure, which must sooner or later be enjoyed and appreciated, we may
gather a foretaste of Mrs. Browning's power in prose-writing from her
early essays, and from the admirable preface to the "Poems before
Congress." The latter is simple in its style, and grand in teachings
that find few followers among _nations_ in these _enlightened_ days.
Some are prone to moralize over precious stones, and see in them the
petrified souls of men and women. There is no stone so sympathetic as
the opal, which one might fancy to be a concentration of Mrs. Browning's
genius. It is essentially the _woman-stone_, giving out a sympathetic
warmth, varying its colors from day to day, as though an index of the
heart's barometer. There is the topmost purity of white, blended with
the delicate, perpetual verdure of hope, and down in the opal's centre
lies the deep crimson of love. The red, the white, and the green,
forming as they do the colors of Italy, render the opal doubly like Mrs.
Browning. It is right that the woman-stone should inclose the symbols of
the "Woman Country."
Feeling all these things of Mrs. Browning, it becomes the more painful
to place on record an account of those last days that have brought with
them so universal a sorrow. Mrs. Browning's illness was only of a week's
duration. Having caught a severe cold of a more threatening nature than
usual, medical skill was summoned; but, although anxiety in her behalf
was necessarily felt, there was no whisper of great danger until the
third or fourth night, when those who most loved her said they had never
seen her so ill; on the following morning, however, she was better, and
from that moment was thought to be improving in health. She herself
believed this; and all had such confidence in her wondrous vitality, and
the hope was so strong that God would spare her for still greater good,
that a dark veil was drawn over what might be. It is often the case,
where we are accustomed to associate constant suffering with dear
friends, that we calmly look danger in the face without misgivings. So
little did Mrs. Browning realize her critical condition, that, until the
last day, she did not consider herself sufficiently indisposed to remain
in bed, and then the precaution was accidental. So much encouraged
did she feel with regard to herself, that, on this final evening, an
intimate female friend was admitted to her bedside and found her in good
spirits, ready at pleasantry and willing to converse on all the old
loved subjects. Her ruling passion had prompted her to glance at the
"Athenaeum" and "Nazione"; and when this friend repeated the opinions
she had heard expressed by an acquaintance of the new Italian Premier,
Ricasoli, to the effect that his policy and Cavour's were identical,
Mrs. Browning "smiled like Italy," and thankfully replied,--"I am glad
of it; I thought so." Even then her thoughts were not of self. This near
friend went away with no suspicion of what was soon to be a terrible
reality. Mrs. Browning's own bright boy bade his mother goodnight,
cheered by her oft-repeated, "I am better, dear, much better." Inquiring
friends were made happy by these assurances.
One only watched her breathing through the night,--he who for fifteen
years had ministered to her with all the tenderness of a woman. It was a
night devoid of suffering _to her_. As morning approached, and for
two hours previous to the dread moment, she seemed to be in a partial
ecstasy; and though not apparently conscious of the coming on of death,
she gave her husband all those holy words of love, all the consolation
of an oft-repeated blessing, whose value death has made priceless.
Such moments are too sacred for the common pen, which pauses as the
woman-poet raises herself up to die in the arms of her poet-husband. He
knew not that death had robbed him of his treasure, until the drooping
form grew chill and froze his heart's blood.
At half-past four, on the morning of the 29th of June, Elizabeth Barrett
Browning died of congestion of the lungs. Her last words were, "_It is
beautiful!_" God was merciful to the end, sparing her and hers the agony
of a frenzied parting, giving proof to those who were left of the glory
and happiness in store for her, by those few words, "_It is beautiful!_"
The spirit could see its future mission even before shaking off the dust
of the earth.
Gazing on her peaceful face with its eyes closed on us forever, our cry
was _her_ "Cry of the Human."
"We tremble by the harmless bed
Of one loved and departed;
Our tears drop on the lips that said
Last night, 'Be stronger-hearted!'
O God! to clasp those fingers close,
And yet to feel so lonely!
To see a light upon such brows,
Which is the daylight only!
Be pitiful, O God!"
On the evening of July 1st, the lovely English burying-ground without
the walls of Florence opened its gates to receive one more occupant. A
band of English, Americans, and Italians, sorrowing men and women,
whose faces as well as dress were in mourning, gathered around the bier
containing all that was mortal of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Who of
those present will forget the solemn scene, made doubly impressive by
the grief of the husband and son? "The sting of death is sin," said the
clergyman. Sinless in life, _her_ death, then, was without sting; and
turning our thoughts inwardly, we murmured _her_ prayers for the dead,
and wished that they might have been her burial-service. We heard her
"And friends, dear friends, when it shall be
That this low breath is gone from me,
And round my bier ye come to weep,
Let one most loving of you all
Say, 'Not a tear must o'er her fall,--
He giveth His beloved sleep.'"
But the tears would fall, as they bore her up the hill, and lowered "His
beloved" into her resting-place, the grave. The sun itself was sinking
to rest behind the western hills, and sent a farewell smile of love
into the east, that it might glance on the lowering bier. The distant
mountains hid their faces in a misty veil, and the tall cypress-trees
of the cemetery swayed and sighed as Nature's special mourners for her
favored child; and there they are to stand keeping watch over her.
"Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little
birds sang west,
And I said in under-breath, All our life is
mixed with death,
And who knoweth which is best?
* * * * *
"Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little
birds sang west,
And I 'paused' to think God's greatness
flowed around our incompleteness,--
Round our restlessness, His rest."
Dust to dust,--and the earth fell with a dull echo on the coffin. We
gathered round to take one look, and saw a double grave, too large for
her;--may it wait long and patiently for _him!_
And now a mound of earth marks the spot where sleeps Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. A white wreath to mark her woman's purity lies on her head;
the laurel wreath of the poet lies at her feet; and friendly hands
scatter white flowers over the grave of a week as symbols of the dead.
We feel as she wrote,--
"God keeps a niche
In heaven to hold our idols; and albeit
He brake them to our faces, and denied
That our close kisses should impair their white,
I know we shall behold them raised, complete,
The dust swept from their beauty, glorified,
New Memnons singing in the great God-light."
It is strange that Cavour and Mrs. Browning should have died in the same
month, within twenty-three days of each other,--the one the head, the
other the heart of Italy. As head and heart made up the perfect life,
so death was not complete until Heaven welcomed both. It seemed also
strange, that on the night after Mrs. Browning's decease an unexpected
comet should glare ominously out of the sky. For the moment we were
superstitious, and believed in it as a minister of woe.
Great as is this loss, Mrs. Browning's death is not without a sad
consolation. From the shattered condition of her lungs, the physician
feels assured that existence could not at the farthest have been
prolonged for more than six months. Instead of a sudden call to God,
life would have slowly ebbed away; and, too feeble for the slightest
exertion, she must have been denied the solace of books, of friends, of
writing, perhaps of thought even. God saved her from a living grave,
and her husband from protracted misery. Seeking for the shadow of Mrs.
Browning's self in her poetry, (for she was a rare instance of an
author's superiority to his work,) many an expression is found that
welcomes the thought of a change which would free her from the suffering
inseparable from her mortality. There is a yearning for a more fully
developed life, to be found most frequently in her sonnets. She writes
at times as though, through weakness of the body, her wings were tied:--
"When I attain to utter forth in verse
Some inward thought, my soul throbs audibly
Along my pulses, yearning to be free,
And something farther, fuller, higher rehearse,
To the individual true, and the universe,
In consummation of right harmony!
But, like a wind-exposed, distorted tree,
We are blown against forever by the curse
Which breathes through Nature. Oh, the world is weak;
The effluence of each is false to all;
Add what we best conceive, we fail to speak!
Wait, soul, until thine ashen garments fall,
And then resume thy broken strains, and seek
Fit peroration without let or thrall!"
The "ashen garments" have fallen,--
"And though we must have and have had
Right reason to be earthly sad,
Thou Poet-God art great and glad!"
It was meet that Mrs. Browning should come home to die in her Florence,
in her Casa Guidi, where she had passed her happy married life, where
her boy was born, and where she had watched and rejoiced over the second
birth of a great nation. Her heart-strings did not entwine themselves
around Rome as around Florence, and it seems as though life had been so
eked out that she might find a lasting sleep in Florence. Rome holds
fast its Shelley and Keats, to whose lowly graves there is many a
reverential pilgrimage; and now Florence, no less honored, has its
shrine sacred to the memory of Theodore Parker and Elizabeth Barrett
The present Florence is not the Florence of other days. It can never be
the same to those who loved it as much for Mrs. Browning's sake as for
its own. Her reflection remains and must ever remain; for,
"while she rests, her songs in troops
Walk up and down our earthly slopes,
Companioned by diviner hopes."
The Italians have shown much feeling at the loss which they, too, have
sustained,--more than might have been expected, when it is considered
that few of them are conversant with the English language, and that to
those few English poetry (Byron excepted) is unknown.
A battalion of the National Guard was to have followed Mrs. Browning's
remains to the grave, had not a misunderstanding as to time frustrated
this testimonial of respect. The Florentines have expressed great
interest in the young boy, Tuscan-born, and have even requested that
he should be educated as an Italian, when any career in the new Italy
should be open to him. Though this offer will not be accepted, it was
most kindly meant, and shows with what reverence Florence regards the
name of Browning. Mrs. Browning's friends are anxious that a tablet to
her memory should be placed in the Florentine Pantheon, the Church of
Santa Croce. It is true she was not a Romanist, neither was she an
Italian,--yet she was Catholic, and more than an Italian. Her genius and
what she has done for Italy entitle her to companionship with Galileo,
Michel Angelo, Dante, and Alfieri. The friars who have given their
permission for the erection of a monument to Cavour in Santa Croce ought
willingly to make room for a tablet on which should be inscribed,
SHE SANG THE SONG OF ITALY.
SHE WROTE "AURORA LEIGH."
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
_Edwin of Deira._ By ALEXANDER SMITH. London: Macmillan & Co. Boston:
Ticknor & Fields. 16mo.
A third volume of verse by Alexander Smith certainly claims a share of
public attention. We should not be at all surprised, if this, his latest
venture, turn out his most approved one. The volcanic lines in his
earlier pieces drew upon him the wrath of Captain Stab and many younger
officers of justice, till then innocent of ink-shed. The old weapons
will, no doubt, be drawn upon him profusely enough now. Suffice it for
us, this month, if we send to the printer a taste of Alexander's last
feast and ask him to "hand it round."
* * * * *
"So, in the very depth of pleasant May,
When every hedge was milky white, the lark
A speck against a cape of sunny cloud,
Yet heard o'er all the fields, and when his heart
Made all the world as happy as itself,--
Prince Edwin, with a score of lusty knights,
Rode forth a bridegroom to bring home his bride.
Brave sight it was to see them on their way,
Their long white mantles ruffling in the wind,
Their jewelled bridles, horses keen as flame
Crushing the flowers to fragrance as they moved!
Now flashed they past the solitary crag,
Now glimmered through the forest's dewy gloom,
Now issued to the sun. The summer night
Hung o'er their tents, within the valley pitched,
Her transient pomp of stars. When that had paled,
And when the peaks of all the region stood
Like crimson islands in a sea of dawn,
They, yet in shadow, struck their canvas town;
For Love shook slumber from him as a foe,
And would not be delayed. At height of noon,
When, shining from the woods afar in front,
The Prince beheld the palace-gates, his heart
Was lost in its own beatings, like a sound
In echoes. When the cavalcade drew near,
To meet it, forth the princely brothers pranced,
In plume and golden scale; and when they met,
Sudden, from out the palace, trumpets rang
Gay wedding music. Bertha, among her maids,
Upstarted, as she caught the happy sound,
Bright as a star that brightens 'gainst the night.
When forth she came, the summer day was dimmed;
For all its sunshine sank into her hair,
Its azure in her eyes. The princely man
Lord of a happiness unknown, unknown,
Which cannot all be known for years and years,--
Uncomprehended as the shapes of hills
When one stands in the midst! A week went by,
Deepening from feast to feast; and at the close,
The gray priest lifted up his solemn hands,
And two fair lives were sweetly blent in one,
As stream in stream. Then once again the knights
Were gathered fair as flowers upon the sward,
While in the distant chambers women wept,
And, crowding, blessed the little golden head,
So soon to lie upon a stranger's breast,
And light that place no more. The gate stood wide:
Forth Edwin came enclothed with happiness;
She trembled at the murmur and the stir
That heaved around,--then, on a sudden, shrank,
When through the folds of downcast lids she felt
Burn on her face the wide and staring day,
And all the curious eyes. Her brothers cried,
When she was lifted on the milky steed,
'Ah! little one, 't will soon be dark to-night!
A hundred times we'll miss thee in a day,
A hundred times we'll rise up to thy call,
And want and emptiness will come on us!
Now, at the last, our love would hold thee back!
Let this kiss snap the cord! Cheer up, my girl!
We'll come and see thee when thou hast a boy
To toss up proudly to his father's face,
To let him hear it crow!' Away they rode;
And still the brethren watched them from the door,
Till purple distance took them. How she wept,
When, looking back, she saw the things she knew--
The palace, streak of waterfall, the mead,
The gloomy belt of forest--fade away
Into the gray of mountains! With a chill
The wide strange world swept round her, and she clung
Close to her husband's side. A silken tent
They spread for her, and for her tiring-girls,
Upon the hills at sunset. All was hushed
Save Edwin; for the thought that Bertha slept
In that wild place,--roofed by the moaning wind,
The black blue midnight with its fiery pulse,--
So good, so precious, woke a tenderness
In which there lived uneasily a fear
That kept him still awake. And now, high up,
There burned upon the mountain's craggy top
Their journey's rosy signal. On they went;
And as the day advanced, upon a ridge,
They saw their home o'ershadowed by a cloud;
And, hanging but a moment on the steep,
A sunbeam touched it into dusty rain;
And, lo, the town lay gleaming 'mong the woods,
And the wet shores were bright. As nigh they drew,
The town was emptied to its very babes,
And spread as thick as daisies o'er the fields.
The wind that swayed a thousand chestnut cones,
And sported in the surges of the rye,
Forgot its idle play, and, smit with love,
Dwelt in her fluttering robe. On every side
The people leaped like billows for a sight,
And closed behind, like waves behind a ship.
Yet, in the very hubbub of the joy,
A deepening hush went with her on her way;
She was a thing so exquisite, the hind
Felt his own rudeness; silent women blessed
The lady, as her beauty swam in eyes
Sweet with unwonted tears. Through crowds she passed,
Distributing a largess of her smiles;
And as she entered through the palace-gate,
The wondrous sunshine died from out the air,
And everything resumed its common look.
The sun dropped down into the golden west,
Evening drew on apace; and round the fire
The people sat and talked of her who came
That day to dwell amongst them, and they praised
Her sweet face, saying she was good as fair.
"So, while the town hummed on as was its wont,
With mill, and wheel, and scythe, and lowing steer
In the green field,--while, round a hundred hearths,
Brown Labor boasted of the mighty deeds
Done in the meadow swaths, and Envy hissed
Its poison, that corroded all it touched,--
Rusting a neighbor's gold, mildewing wheat,
And blistering the pure skin of chastest maid,--
Edwin and Bertha sat in marriage joy,
From all removed, as heavenly creatures winged,
Alit upon a hill-top near the sun,
When all the world is reft of man and town
By distance, and their hearts the silence fills--
Not long: for unto them, as unto all,
Down from love's height unto the world of men
Occasion called with many a sordid voice.
So forth they fared with sweetness in their hearts,
That took the sense of sharpness from the thorn.
Sweet is love's sun within the heavens alone,
But not less sweet when tempered by a cloud
Of daily duties! Love's elixir, drained
From out the pure and passionate cup of youth,
Is sweet; but better, providently used,
A few drops sprinkled in each common dish
Wherewith the human table is set forth,
Leavening all with heaven. Seated high
Among his people, on the lofty dais,
Dispensing judgment,--making woodlands ring
Behind a flying hart with hound and horn,--
Talking with workmen on the tawny sands,
'Mid skeletons of ships, how best the prow
May slice the big wave and shake off the foam,--
Edwin preserved a spirit calm, composed,
Still as a river at the full of tide;
And in his eye there gathered deeper blue,
And beamed a warmer summer. And when sprang
The angry blood, at sloth, or fraud, or wrong,
Something of Bertha touched him into peace
And swayed his voice. Among the people went
Queen Bertha, breathing gracious charities,
And saw but smiling faces; for the light
Aye looks on brightened colors. Like the dawn
(Beloved of all the happy, often sought
In the slow east by hollow eyes that watch)
She seemed to husked find clownish gratitude,
That could but kneel and thank. Of industry
She was the fair exemplar, us she span
Among her maids; and every day she broke
Bread to the needy stranger at her gate.
All sloth and rudeness fled at her approach;
The women blushed and courtesied as she passed,
Preserving word and smile like precious gold;
And where on pillows clustered children's heads,
A shape of light she floated through their dreams."
_History, Theory, and Practice of the Electric Telegraph_. By GEORGE B.
PRESCOTT, Superintendent of Electric Telegraph Lines. Boston: Ticknor
and Fields. 1861. 12mo.
It may be safely said that no one of the wonder-working agencies of the
nineteenth century, of an importance in any degree equal to that of the
Electric Telegraph, is so little understood in its practical details by
the world at large. Its results come before us daily, to satisfy
our morning and evening appetite for news; but how few have a clear
knowledge of even the simplest rules which govern its operation, to say
nothing of the vast and complicated system by which these results are
made so universal! The general intelligence, at present, doubtless
outruns the dull apprehension of the typical Hibernian, who, in earlier
telegraphic times, wasted the better part of a day in watching for the
passage of a veritable letter over the wires; but even now,--after
twenty years of Electric Telegraphy, during which the progress of the
magic wire has been so rapid that it has already reached an extent of
nearly sixty thousand miles in the United States alone,--even now the
ideas of men in general as to the _modus operandi_ of this great
agency are, to say the least, extremely vague. Even the chronic and
pamphlet-producing quarrel between the managers of our telegraphic
system and their Briarean antagonist, the daily-newspaper-press, fails
to convey to our general sense anything beyond the impression that
the most gigantic benefits may be so abused as to tempt us into an
occasional wish that they had never existed.
One reason of this general ignorance has been the absence of any
text-book or manual on the subject, giving a clear and thorough
exposition of its mysteries. The present is the first American work
which takes the subject in hand from the beginning and carries it
through the entire process which leads to the results we have spoken of.
Its author brings to his work the best possible qualification,--a
long familiarity with the subject in the every-day details of its
development. His Introduction informs the reader that he has been
engaged for thirteen years in the business of practical telegraphing.
He is thus sure of his ground, from the best of sources, personal
We shall not criticize the work in detail, but shall rest satisfied with
saying that the author has succeeded in his design of making the whole
subject clear to any reader who will follow his lucid and systematic
exposition. The plan of the work is simple, and the arrangement orderly
and proper. A concise statement is given of the fundamental principles
of electricity, and of the means of its artificial propagation. This
includes, of course, a description of the various batteries used in
telegraphing. Then follows a chapter upon electro-magnetism and its
application to the telegraph. This prepares the way for a statement
of the physical conditions under which the electrical current may be
conveyed. The author then describes the instruments necessary for the
transmission and recording of intelligible signs, under which general
head of "Electric Telegraph Apparatus" the various telegraphic systems
are made the subject of careful description. A chapter is given to the
history of each system,--the Morse, the Needle, the House, the Bain, the
Hughes, the Combination, and others of less note. These chapters are
very complete and very interesting, embodying, as they do, the history
of each instrument, the details of its use, and a statement of its
capabilities. The system most used in America is the Combination
system, the printing instrument of which is the result of an ingenious
combination of the most desirable qualities of the House and Hughes
systems. Of this fine instrument a full-page engraving is given, which,
with Mr. Prescott's careful explanation, renders the recording process
The next division of the work relates to subterranean and submarine
telegraphic lines. Of this the greater portion is devoted to the
Atlantic cable, the great success and the great failure of our time.
The chapter devoted to this unfortunate enterprise gives the completest
account of its rise, progress, and decline that we have ever seen. It
seems to set at rest, so far as evidence can do it, the mooted question
whether any message ever did really pass through the submerged cable,--a
point upon which there are many unbelievers, even at the present day. We
think these unbelievers would do well to read the account before us. Mr.
Prescott informs us, that, from the first laying of the cable to the day
when it ceased to work, no less than four hundred messages were actually
transmitted: one hundred and twenty-nine from Valentia to Trinity Bay,
and two hundred and seventy-one from Trinity Bay to Valentia. The
curious reader may find copies of all these messages chronologically set
down in this volume. Mr. Prescott expresses entire confidence in the
restoration of telegraphic communication between the two hemispheres. It
may be reasonably doubted, however, if _direct submarine_ communication
will ever be resumed. Two other routes are suggested as more likely
to become the course of the international wires. One is that lately
examined by Sir Leopold M'Clintock and Captain Young, under the auspices
of the British Government. This route, taking the extreme northern coast
of Scotland as its point of departure, and touching the Faroe Islands,
Iceland, and Greenland, strikes our continent upon the coast of
Labrador, making the longest submarine section eight hundred miles,
about one-third the length of the Atlantic cable. There is not a little
doubt, however, as to the practicability of this route; and as the
British Government has already expended several hundred thousand pounds
in experimenting upon submarine cables, it is not likely that it will
venture much more upon any project not holding out a very absolute
promise of success. What seems more likely is, that our telegraphic
communication with Europe will be made eventually through Asia. Even
now the Russian Government is vigorously pushing its telegraphic lines
eastward from Moscow; and its own interest affords a strong guaranty
that telegraphic communication will soon be established between its
commercial metropolis and its military and trading posts on the Pacific
border. A project has also recently taken form to establish a line
between Quebec and the Hudson Bay Company's posts north of the Columbia
River. With the two extremes so near meeting, a submarine wire would
soon be laid over Behring's Straits, or crossing at a more southern
point and touching the Aleutian Islands in its passage.
Two of the chapters of this work will be recognized by readers of the
"Atlantic" as having first appeared in its pages,--a chapter upon the
Progress and Present Condition of the Electric Telegraph in the various
countries of the world, and a description of the Electrical Influence
of the Aurora Borealis upon the Working of the Telegraph. These, with
a curiously interesting chapter upon the Various Applications of the
Telegraph, and an amusing miscellaneous chapter showing that the
Telegraph has a literature of its own, complete the chief popular
elements of the volume. The remainder is devoted mainly to a technical
treatise on the proper method of constructing telegraphic lines,
perfecting insulation, etc. In an Appendix we have a more careful
consideration of Galvanism, and a more detailed examination of the
qualities and capacities of the various batteries.
As is becoming in any, and especially in an American, treatise upon this
great subject, Mr. Prescott devotes some space to a detailed account of
the labors of Professor Morse, which have led to his being regarded as
the father of our American system of telegraphing. In a chapter entitled
"Early Discoveries in Electro-Dynamics," he publishes for the first time
some interesting facts elicited during the trial, in the Supreme Court
of the United States, of the suit of the Morse patentees against the
House Company for alleged infringement of patent. In this chapter we
have a _resume_ of the evidence before the Court, and an abstract of the
decision of Judge Woodbury. This leads clearly to the conclusion, that,
although Professor Morse had no claims to any merit of actual invention,
yet he had the purely mechanical merit of having gone beyond all his
compeers in the application of discoveries and inventions already made,
and that he was the first to contrive and set in operation a thoroughly
Mr. Prescott has produced a very readable and useful book. It has been
thoroughly and appropriately illustrated, and is a very elegant specimen
of the typographer's art.
_Great Expectations_. By CHARLES DICKENS. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson &
The very title of this book indicates the confidence of conscious
genius. In a new aspirant for public favor, such a title might have been
a good device to attract attention; but the most famous novelist of the
day, watched by jealous rivals and critics, could hardly have selected
it, had he not inwardly felt the capacity to meet all the expectations
he raised. We have read it, as we have read all Mr. Dickens's previous
works, as it appeared in instalments, and can testify to the felicity
with which expectation was excited and prolonged, and to the series of
surprises which accompanied the unfolding of the plot of the story. In
no other of his romances has the author succeeded so perfectly in at
once stimulating and baffling the curiosity of his readers. He stirred
the dullest minds to guess the secret of his mystery; but, so far as
we have learned, the guesses of his most intelligent readers have been
almost as wide of the mark as those of the least apprehensive. It has
been all the more provoking to the former class, that each surprise was
the result of art, and not of trick; for a rapid review of previous
chapters has shown that the materials of a strictly logical development
of the story were freely given. Even after the first, second, third, and
even fourth of these surprises gave their pleasing electric shocks
to intelligent curiosity, the _denouement_ was still hidden, though
confidentially foretold. The plot of the romance is therefore
universally admitted to be the best that Dickens has ever invented. Its
leading events are, as we read the story consecutively, artistically
necessary, yet, at the same time, the processes are artistically
concealed. We follow the movement of a logic of passion and character,
the real premises of which we detect only when we are startled by the
The plot of "Great Expectations" is also noticeable as indicating,
better than any of his previous stories, the individuality of Dickens's
genius. Everybody must have discerned in the action of his mind two
diverging tendencies, which, in this novel, are harmonized. He possesses
a singularly wide, clear, and minute power of accurate observation,
both of things and of persons; but his observation, keen and true to
actualities as it independently is, is not a dominant faculty, and is
opposed or controlled by the strong tendency of his disposition to
pathetic or humorous idealization. Perhaps in "The Old Curiosity Shop"
these qualities are best seen in their struggle and divergence, and
the result is a magnificent juxtaposition of romantic tenderness,
melodramatic improbabilities, and broad farce. The humorous
characterization is joyously exaggerated into caricature,--the serious
characterization into romantic unreality, Richard Swiveller and Little
Nell refuse to combine. There is abundant evidence of genius both in the
humorous and the pathetic parts, but the artistic impression is one of
anarchy rather than unity.
In "Great Expectations," on the contrary, Dickens seems to have attained
the mastery of powers which formerly more or less mastered him. He has
fairly discovered that he cannot, like Thackeray, narrate a story as if
he were a mere looker-on, a mere "knowing" observer of what he describes
and represents; and he has therefore taken observation simply as the
basis of his plot and his characterization. As we read "Vanity Fair" and
"The Newcomes," we are impressed with the actuality of the persons and
incidents. There is an absence both of directing ideas and disturbing
idealizations. Everything drifts to its end, as in real life. In "Great
Expectations" there is shown a power of external observation finer and
deeper even than Thackeray's; and yet, owing to the presence of other
qualities, the general impression is not one of objective reality. The
author palpably uses his observations as materials for his creative
faculties to work upon; he does not record, but invents; and he produces
something which is natural only under conditions prescribed by his own
mind. He shapes, disposes, penetrates, colors, and contrives everything,
and the whole action, is a series of events which could have occurred
only in his own brain, and which it is difficult to conceive of as
actually "happening." And yet in none of his other works does he
evince a shrewder insight into real life, and a clearer perception
and knowledge of what is called "the world." The book is, indeed, an
artistic creation, and not a mere succession of humorous and pathetic
scenes, and demonstrates that Dickens is now in the prime, and not in
the decline of his great powers.
The characters of the novel also show how deeply it has been meditated;
for, though none of them may excite the personal interest which clings
to Sam Weller or little Dombey, they are better fitted to each other and
to the story in which they appear than is usual with Dickens. They all
combine to produce that unity of impression which the work leaves on
the mind. Individually they will rank among the most original of the
author's creations. Magwitch and Joe Gargery, Jaggers and Wemmick,
Pip and Herbert, Wopsle, Pumblechook, and "the Aged," Miss Havisham,
Estella, and Biddy, are personages which the most assiduous readers of
Dickens must pronounce positive additions to the characters his rich and
various genius had already created.
Pip, the hero, from whose mind the whole representation takes its form
and color, is admirably delineated throughout. Weak, dreamy, amiable,
apprehensive, aspiring, inefficient, the subject and the victim of
"Great Expectations," his individuality is, as it were, diffused through
the whole narrative. Joe is a noble character, with a heart too great
for his powers of expression to utter in words, but whose patience,
fortitude, tenderness, and beneficence shine lucidly through his
confused and mangled English. Magwitch, the "warmint" who "grew up took
up," whose memory extended only to that period of his childhood when he
was "a-thieving turnips for his living" down in Essex, but in whom a
life of crime had only intensified the feeling of gratitude for the one
kind action of which he was the object, is hardly equalled in grotesque
grandeur by anything which Dickens has previously done. The character
is not only powerful in itself, but it furnishes pregnant and original
hints to all philosophical investigators into the phenomena of crime. In
this wonderful creation Dickens follows the maxim of the great master of
characterization, and seeks "the soul of goodness in things evil."
The style of the romance is rigorously close to things. The author is so
engrossed with the objects before his mind, is so thoroughly in earnest,
that he has fewer of those humorous caprices of expression in which
formerly he was wont to wanton. Some of the old hilarity and play of
fancy is gone, but we hardly miss it in our admiration of the effects
produced by his almost stern devotion to the main idea of his work.
There are passages of description and narrative in which we are hardly
conscious of the words, in our clear apprehension of the objects and
incidents they convey. The quotable epithets and phrases are less
numerous than in "Dombey & Son" and "David Copperfield"; but the scenes
and events impressed on the imagination are perhaps greater in number
and more vivid in representation. The poetical element of the writer's
genius, his modification of the forms, hues, and sounds of Nature by
viewing them through the medium of an imagined mind, is especially
prominent throughout the descriptions with which the work abounds.
Nature is not only described, but individualized and humanized.
Altogether we take great joy in recording our conviction that "Great
Expectations" is a masterpiece. We have never sympathized in the mean
delight which some critics seem to experience in detecting the signs
which subtly indicate the decay of power in creative intellects. We
sympathize still less in the stupid and ungenerous judgments of those
who find a still meaner delight in wilfully asserting that the last book
of a popular writer is unworthy of the genius which produced his first.
In our opinion, "Great Expectations" is a work which proves that we may
expect from Dickens a series of romances far exceeding in power and
artistic skill the productions which have already given him such a
preeminence among the novelists of the age.
_Tom Brown at Oxford: A Sequel to School-Days at Rugby_. By the Author
of "School-Days at Rugby," "Scouring of the White Horse," etc. Boston:
Ticknor & Fields. 2 vols. 16mo.
Thomas Hughes, the author of these volumes, does not, on a superficial
examination, seem to deserve the wide reputation he has obtained. We
hunt his books in vain for any of those obvious peculiarities of style,
thought, and character which commonly distinguish a man from his
fellows. He does not possess striking wit, or humor, or imagination, or
power of expression. In every quality, good or bad, calculated to create
"a sensation," he is remarkably deficient. Yet everybody reads him with
interest, and experiences for him a feeling of personal affection and
esteem. An unobtrusive, yet evident nobility of character, a sound,
large, "round-about" common-sense, a warm sympathy with English and
human kind, a practical grasp of human life as it is lived by ordinary
people, and an unmistakable sincerity and earnestness of purpose animate
everything he writes. His "School-Days at Rugby" delighted men as well
as boys by the freshness, geniality, and truthfulness with which it
represented boyish experiences; and the Tom Brown who, in that book,
gained so many friends wherever the English tongue is spoken, parts with
none of his power to interest and charm in this record of his collegiate
life. Mr. Hughes has the true, wholesome English love of home, the
English delight in rude physical sports, the English hatred of hypocrisy
and cant, the English fidelity to facts, the English disbelief in all
piety and morality which are not grounded in manliness. The present work
is full of illustrations of these healthy qualities of his nature,
and they are all intimately connected with an elevated, yet eminently
sagacious spirit of Christian philanthropy. Tom Brown at Oxford, as well
as Tom Brown at Rugby, will, so far as he exerts any influence, exert
one for good. He has a plentiful lack of those impossible virtues which
disgust boys and young men with the models set up as examples for them
to emulate in books deliberately moral and religious; but he none the
less shows how a manly and Christian character can be attained by
methods which are all the more influential by departing from the common
mechanical contrivances for fashioning lusty youths into consumptive
saints, incompetent to do the work of the Lord in this world, however
they may fare in the next. Mr. Hughes can hardly be called a disciple of
"Muscular Christianity," except so far as muscle is necessary to give
full efficiency to mind; but he feels all the contempt possible to such
a tolerant nature for that spurious piety which kills the body in order
to give a sickly appearance of life to the soul.
* * * * *
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