English Literature: Modern
G. H. Mair

Part 3 out of 4

conceive or sympathize with the humanity of the thirteenth century, to
shudder at its cruelties and hardnesses and persecutions, or to
comprehend the spiritual elevation and insight of its rarest minds. "It
was art," said William Morris, "art in which all men shared, that made
life romantic as people called it in those days. That and not robber
barons, and inaccessible kings, with their hierarchy of serving nobles,
and other rubbish." Morris belonged to a time which knew its middle ages
better. To the eighteenth century the robber barons and the "other
rubbish" were the essence of romance. For Percy and his followers,
medievalism was a collection of what actors call "properties" gargoyles,
and odds and ends of armour and castle keeps with secret passages,
banners and gay colours, and gay shimmering obsolete words. Mistaking
what was on its surface at any rate a subtle and complex civilization,
for rudeness and quaintness, they seemed to themselves to pass back into
a freer air, where any extravagance was possible, and good breeding and
mere circumspection and restraint vanished like the wind.

A similar longing to be rid of the precision and order of everyday life
drove them to the mountains, and to the literature of Wales and the
Highlands, to Celtic, or pseudo-Celtic romance. To the fashion of the
time mountains were still frowning and horrid steeps; in Gray's Journal
of his tour in the Lakes, a new understanding and appreciation of nature
is only struggling through; and when mountains became fashionable, it
was at first and remained in part at least, till the time of Byron, for
those very theatrical qualities which had hitherto put them in
abhorrence. Wordsworth, in his _Lines written above Tintern Abbey_, in
which he sets forth the succeeding stages of his mental development,
refers to this love of the mountains for their spectacular qualities, as
the first step in the progress of his mind to poetic maturity:

"The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms were then to me
An appetite."

This same passion for the "sounding cataract" and the "tall rock," this
appetite for the deep and gloomy wood, gave its vogue in Wordsworth's
boyhood to Macpherson's _Ossian_, a book which whether it be completely
fraudulent or not, was of capital importance in the beginnings of the
romantic movement.

The love of mediaeval quaintness and obsolete words, however, led to a
more important literary event--the publication of Bishop Percy's edition
of the ballads in the Percy folio--the _Reliques of Ancient Poetry_.
Percy to his own mind knew the Middle Ages better than they knew
themselves, and he took care to dress to advantage the rudeness and
plainness of his originals. Perhaps we should not blame him. Sir Walter
Scott did the same with better tact and skill in his Border minstrelsy,
and how many distinguished editors are there, who have tamed and
smoothed down the natural wildness and irregularity of Blake? But it is
more important to observe that when Percy's reliques came to have their
influence on writing his additions were imitated as much as the poems on
which he grafted them. Chatterton's _Rowley Poems_, which in many places
seem almost inconceivably banal and artificial to us to-day, caught
their accent from the episcopal editor as much as from the ballads
themselves. None the less, whatever its fault, Percy's collection gave
its impetus to one half of the romantic movement; it was eagerly read in
Germany, and when it came to influence Scott and Coleridge it did so not
only directly, but through Burger's imitation of it; it began the modern
study and love of the ballad which has given us _Sister Helen_, the
_White Ship_ and the _Lady of Shalott_.

But the romantic revival goes deeper than any change, however momentous
of fashion or style. It meant certain fundamental changes in human
outlook. In the first place, one notices in the authors of the time an
extraordinary development of imaginative sensibility; the mind at its
countless points of contact with the sensuous world and the world of
thought, seems to become more alive and alert. It is more sensitive to
fine impressions, to finely graded shades of difference. Outward
objects and philosophical ideas seem to increase in their content and
their meaning, and acquire a new power to enrich the intensest life of
the human spirit. Mountains and lakes, the dignity of the peasant, the
terror of the supernatural, scenes of history, mediaeval architecture
and armour, and mediaeval thought and poetry, the arts and mythology of
Greece--all became springs of poetic inspiration and poetic joy. The
impressions of all these things were unfamiliar and ministered to a
sense of wonder, and by that very fact they were classed as romantic, as
modes of escape from a settled way of life. But they were also in a
sense familiar too. The mountains made their appeal to a deep implanted
feeling in man, to his native sense of his own worth and dignity and
splendour as a part of nature, and his recognition of natural scenery as
necessary, and in its fullest meaning as sufficient for his spiritual
needs. They called him back from the artificiality and complexity of the
cities he had built for himself, and the society he had weaved round
him, to the natural world in which Providence had planted him of old,
and which was full of significance for his soul. The greatest poets of
the romantic revival strove to capture and convey the influence of
nature on the mind, and of the mind on nature interpenetrating one
another. They were none the less artists because they approached nature
in a state of passive receptivity. They believed in the autocracy of the
individual imagination none the less because their mission was to
divine nature and to understand her, rather than to correct her
profusions in the name of art.

In the second place the romantic revival meant a development of the
historical sense. Thinkers like Burke and Montesquieu helped students of
politics to acquire perspective; to conceive modern institutions not as
things separate, and separately created, but as conditioned by, and
evolved from, the institutions of an earlier day. Even the revolutionary
spirit of the time looked both before and after, and took history as
well as the human perfectibility imagined by philosophers into its
purview. In France the reformers appealed in the first instance for a
States General--a mediaeval institution--as the corrective of their
wrongs, and later when they could not, like their neighbours in Belgium,
demand reform by way of the restoration of their historical rights, they
were driven to go a step further back still, beyond history to what they
conceived to be primitive society, and demand the rights of man. This
development of the historical sense, which had such a widespread
influence on politics, got itself into literature in the creation of the
historical novel. Scott and Chateaubriand revived the old romance in
which by a peculiar ingenuity of form, the adventures of a typical hero
of fiction are cast in a historical setting and set about with portraits
of real personages. The historical sense affected, too, novels dealing
with contemporary life. Scott's best work, his novels of Scottish
character, catch more than half their excellence from the richness of
colour and proportion which the portraiture of the living people
acquires when it is aided by historical knowledge and imagination.

Lastly, besides this awakened historical sense, and this quickening of
imaginative sensibility to the message of nature, the Romantic revival
brought to literature a revival of the sense of the connection between
the visible world and another world which is unseen. The supernatural
which in all but the crudest of mechanisms had been out of English
literature since _Macbeth_, took hold on the imaginations of authors,
and brought with it a new subtlety and a new and nameless horror and
fascination. There is nothing in earlier English literature to set
beside the strange and terrible indefiniteness of the _Ancient Mariner_,
and though much in this kind has been written since, we have not got far
beyond the skill and imagination with which Coleridge and Scott worked
on the instinctive fears that lie buried in the human mind.

Of all these aspects of the revival, however, the new sensitiveness and
accessibility to the influences of external nature was the most
pervasive and the most important. Wordsworth speaks for the love that is
in homes where poor men lie, the daily teaching that is in

"Woods and rills;
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The peace that is among the lonely hills."

Shelley for the wildness of the west wind, and the ubiquitous spiritual
emotion which speaks equally in the song of a skylark or a political
revolution. Byron for the swing and roar of the sea. Keats for verdurous
glooms and winding mossy ways. Scott and Coleridge, though like Byron
they are less with nature than with romance, share the same communion.

This imaginative sensibility of the romantics not only deepened their
communion with nature, it brought them into a truer relation with what
had before been created in literature and art. The romantic revival is
the Golden Age of English criticism; all the poets were critics of one
sort or another--either formally in essays and prefaces, or in passing
and desultory flashes of illumination in their correspondence.
Wordsworth, in his prefaces, in his letter to a friend of Burns which
contains such a breadth and clarity of wisdom on things that seem alien
to his sympathies, even in some of his poems; Coleridge, in his
_Biographia Literaria_, in his notes on Shakespeare, in those rhapsodies
at Highgate which were the basis for his recorded table talk; Keats in
his letters; Shelley in his _Defence of Poetry_; Byron in his satires
and journals; Scott in those lives of the novelists which contain so
much truth and insight into the works of fellow craftsmen--they are all
to be found turning the new acuteness of impression which was in the air
they breathed, to the study of literature, as well as to the study of
nature. Alongside of them were two authors, Lamb and Hazlitt, whose bent
was rather critical than creative, and the best part of whose
intelligence and sympathy was spent on the sensitive and loving
divination of our earlier literature. With these two men began the
criticism of acting and of pictorial art that have developed since into
two of the main kinds of modern critical writing.

Romantic criticism, both in its end and its method, differs widely from
that of Dr. Johnson and his school. Wordsworth and Coleridge were
concerned with deep-seated qualities and temperamental differences.
Their critical work revolved round their conception of the fancy and the
imagination, the one dealing with nature on the surface and decorating
it with imagery, the other penetrating to its deeper significances.
Hazlitt and Lamb applied their analogous conception of wit as a lower
quality than humour, in the same fashion. Dr. Johnson looked on the
other hand for correctness of form, for the subordination of the parts
to the whole, for the self-restraint and good sense which common manners
would demand in society, and wisdom in practical life. His school cared
more for large general outlines than for truth in detail. They would not
permit the idiosyncrasy of a personal or individual point of view: hence
they were incapable of understanding lyricism, and they preferred those
forms of writing which set themselves to express the ideas and feelings
that most men may be supposed to have in common. Dr. Johnson thought a
bombastic and rhetorical passage in Congreve's _Mourning Bride_ better
than the famous description of Dover cliff in _King Lear_. "The crows,
sir," he said of the latter, "impede your fall." Their town breeding,
and possibly, as we saw in the case of Dr. Johnson, an actual physical
disability, made them distrust any clear and sympathetic rendering of
the sense impressions which nature creates. One cannot imagine Dr.
Johnson caring much for the minute observations of Tennyson's nature
poems, or delighting in the verdurous and mossy alleys of Keats. His
test in such a case would be simple; he would not have liked to have
been in such places, nor reluctantly compelled to go there would he in
all likelihood have had much to say about them beyond that they were
damp. For the poetry--such as Shelley's--which worked by means of
impalpable and indefinite suggestion, he would, one may conceive, have
cared even less. New modes of poetry asked of critics new sympathies and
a new way of approach. But it is time to turn to the authors themselves.


The case of Wordsworth is peculiar. In his own day he was vilified and
misunderstood; poets like Byron, whom most of us would now regard simply
as depending from the school he created, sneered at him. Shelley and
Keats failed to understand him or his motives; he was suspected of
apostasy, and when he became poet laureate he was written off as a
turn-coat who had played false to the ideals of his youth. Now common
opinion regards him as a poet above all the others of his age, and
amongst all the English poets standing beside Milton, but a step below
Shakespeare himself--and we know more about him, more about the
processes by which his soul moved from doubts to certainties, from
troubles to triumph, than we do about any other author we have. This
knowledge we have from the poem called, _The Prelude_, which was
published after his death. It was designed to be only the opening and
explanatory section of a philosophical poem, which was never completed.
Had it been published earlier it would have saved Wordsworth from the
coldness and neglect he suffered at the hands of younger men like
Shelley; it might even have made their work different from what it is.
It has made Wordsworth very clear to us now.

Wordsworth is that rarest thing amongst poets, a complete innovator. He
looked at things in a new way. He found his subjects in new places; and
he put them into a new poetic form. At the turning point of his life, in
his early manhood, he made one great discovery, had one great vision. By
the light of that vision and to communicate that discovery he wrote his
greatest work. By and by the vision faded, the world fell back into the
light of common day, his philosophy passed from discovery to acceptance,
and all unknown to him his pen fell into a common way of writing. The
faculty of reading which has added fuel to the fire of so many waning
inspirations was denied him. He was much too self-centred to lose
himself in the works of others. Only the shock of a change of
environment--a tour in Scotland, or abroad--shook him into his old
thrill of imagination, so that a few fine things fitfully illumine the
enormous and dreary bulk of his later work. If we lost all but the
_Lyrical Ballads_, the poems of 1804, and the _Prelude_, and the
_Excursion_, Wordsworth's position as a poet would be no lower than it
is now, and he would be more readily accepted by those who still find
themselves uncertain about him.

The determining factor in his career was the French Revolution--that
great movement which besides re-making France and Europe, made our very
modes of thinking anew. While an undergraduate in Cambridge Wordsworth
made several vacation visits to France. The first peaceful phase of the
Revolution was at its height; France and the assembly were dominated by
the little group of revolutionary orators who took their name from the
south-western province from which most of them came, and with this
group--the Girondists--Wordsworth threw in his lot. Had he remained he
would probably have gone with them to the guillotine. As it was, the
commands of his guardian brought him back to England, and he was forced
to contemplate from a distance the struggle in which he burned to take
an active part. One is accustomed to think of Wordsworth as a mild old
man, but such a picture if it is thrown back as a presentment of the
Wordsworth of the nineties is a far way from the truth. This darkly
passionate man tortured himself with his longings and his horror. War
came and the prayers for victory in churches found him in his heart
praying for defeat; then came the execution of the king; then the plot
which slew the Gironde. Before all this Wordsworth trembled as Hamlet
did when he learned the ghost's story. His faith in the world was
shaken. First his own country had taken up arms against what he believed
to be the cause of liberty. Then faction had destroyed his friends whom
he believed to be its standard bearers. What was in the world, in
religion, in morality that such things could be? In the face of this
tremendous problem, Wordsworth, unlike Hamlet, was resolute and
determined. It was, perhaps, characteristic of him that in his desire to
get his feet on firm rock again he fled for a time to the exactest of
sciences--to mathematics. But though he got certainties there, they must
have been, one judges, certainties too arid for his thirsting mind. Then
he made his great discovery--helped to it, perhaps, by his sister
Dorothy and his friend Coleridge--he found nature, and in nature, peace.

Not a very wonderful discovery, you will say, but though the cleansing
and healing force of natural surroundings on the mind is a familiar
enough idea in our own day, that is only because Wordsworth found it.
When he gave his message to the world it was a new message. It is worth
while remembering that it is still an unaccepted one. Most of his
critics still consider it only Wordsworth's fun when he wrote:

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

Yet Wordsworth really believed that moral lessons and ideas were to be
gathered from trees and stones. It was the main part of his teaching. He
claimed that his own morality had been so furnished him, and he wrote
his poetry to convince other people that what had been true for him
could be true for them too.

For him life was a series of impressions, and the poet's duty was to
recapture those impressions, to isolate them and brood over them, till
gradually as a result of his contemplation emotion stirred again--an
emotion akin to the authentic thrill that had excited him when the
impression was first born in experience. Then poetry is made; this
emotion "recollected" as Wordsworth said (we may add, recreated) "in
tranquillity" passes into enduring verse. He treasured numberless
experiences of this kind in his own life. Some of them are set forth in
the _Prelude_, that for instance on which the poem _The Thorn_ in the
_Lyrical Ballads_ is based; they were one or other of them the occasion
of most of his poems; the best of them produced his finest work--such a
poem for instance as _Resolution and Independence_ or _Gipsies_, where
some chance sight met with in one of the poet's walks is brooded over
till it becomes charged with a tremendous significance for him and for
all the world. If we ask how he differentiated his experiences, which
had most value for him, we shall find something deficient. That is to
say, things which were unique and precious to him do not always appear
so to his readers. He counted as gold much that we regard as dross. But
though we may differ from his judgments, the test which he applied to
his recollected impressions is clear. He attached most value to those
which brought with them the sense of an indwelling spirit, transfusing
and interpenetrating all nature, transfiguring with its radiance, rocks
and fields and trees and the men and women who lived close enough to
them to partake of their strength--the sense, as he calls it in his
_Lines above Tintern Abbey_ of something "more deeply interfused" by
which all nature is made one. Sometimes, as in the hymn to Duty, it is
conceived as law. Duty before whom the flowers laugh, is the daughter of
the voice of God, through whom the most ancient heavens are fresh and
strong. But in most of his poems its ends do not trouble; it is
omnipresent; it penetrates everything and transfigures everything; it is
God. It was Wordsworth's belief that the perception of this indwelling
spirit weakened as age grew. For a few precious and glorious years he
had the vision

"When meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream."

Then as childhood, when "these intimations of immortality," this
perception of the infinite are most strong, passed further and further
away, the vision faded and he was left gazing in the light of common
day. He had his memories and that was all.

There is, of course, more in the matter than this, and Wordsworth's
beliefs were inextricably entangled with the conception which Coleridge
borrowed from German philosophy.

"We receive but what we give"

wrote Coleridge to his friend,

"And in our life alone doth Nature live."

And Wordsworth came to know that the light he had imagined to be
bestowed, was a light reflected from his own mind. It is easy to pass
from criticism to metaphysics where Coleridge leads, and wise not to

If Wordsworth represents that side of the Romantic Revival which is best
described as the return to Nature, Coleridge has justification for the
phrase "Renascence of Wonder." He revived the supernatural as a literary
force, emancipated it from the crude mechanism which had been applied to
it by dilettantes like Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe, and invested
it instead with that air of suggestion and indefiniteness which gives
the highest potency to it in its effect on the imagination. But
Coleridge is more noteworthy for what he suggested to others than for
what he did in himself. His poetry is, even more than Wordsworth's,
unequal; he is capable of large tracts of dreariness and flatness; he
seldom finished what he began. The _Ancient Mariner_, indeed, which was
the fruit of his close companionship with Wordsworth, is the only
completed thing of the highest quality in the whole of his work.
_Christabel_ is a splendid fragment; for years the first part lay
uncompleted and when the odd accident of an evening's intoxication led
him to commence the second, the inspiration had fled. For the second
part, by giving to the fairy atmosphere of the first a local habitation
and a name, robbed it of its most precious quality; what it gave in
exchange was something the public could get better from Scott. _Kubla
Khan_ went unfinished because the call of a friend broke the thread of
the reverie in which it was composed. In the end came opium and oceans
of talk at Highgate and fouled the springs of poetry. Coleridge never
fulfilled the promise of his early days with Wordsworth. "He never spoke
out." But it is on the lines laid down by his share in the pioneer work
rather than on the lines of Wordsworth's that the second generation of
Romantic poets--that of Shelley and Keats--developed.

The work of Wordsworth was conditioned by the French Revolution but it
hardly embodied the revolutionary spirit. What he conceived to be its
excesses revolted him, and though he sought and sang freedom, he found
it rather in the later revolt of the nationalities against the
Revolution as manifested in Napoleon himself. The spirit of the
revolution, as it was understood in France and in Europe, had to wait
for Shelley for its complete expression. Freedom is the breath of his
work--freedom not only from the tyranny of earthly powers, but from the
tyranny of religion, expressing itself in republicanism, in atheism, and
in complete emancipation from the current moral code both in conduct and
in writing. The reaction which had followed the overthrow of Napoleon at
Waterloo, sent a wave of absolutism and repression all over Europe,
Italy returned under the heel of Austria; the Bourbons were restored in
France; in England came the days of Castlereagh and Peterloo. The poetry
of Shelley is the expression of what the children of the revolution--men
and women who were brought up in and believed the revolutionary
gospel--thought about these things.

But it is more than that. Of no poet in English, nor perhaps in any
other tongue, could it be said with more surety, that the pursuit of the
spirit of beauty dominates all his work. For Shelley it interfused all
nature and to possess it was the goal of all endeavour. The visible
world and the world of thought mingle themselves inextricably in his
contemplation of it. For him there is no boundary-line between the two,
the one is as real and actual as the other. In his hands that old trick
of the poets, the simile, takes on a new and surprising form. He does
not enforce the creations of his imagination by the analogy of natural
appearances; his instinct is just the opposite--to describe and illumine
nature by a reference to the creatures of thought. Other poets, Keats
for instance, or Tennyson, or the older poets like Dante and Homer,
might compare ghosts flying from an enchanter like leaves flying before
the wind. They might describe a poet wrapped up in his dreams as being
like a bird singing invisible in the brightness of the sky. But Shelley
can write of the west wind as

"Before whose unseen presence the leaves, dead,
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,"

and he can describe a skylark in the heavens as

"Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought."

Of all English poets he is the most completely lyrical. Nothing that he
wrote but is wrought out of the anguish or joy of his own heart.

"Most wretched souls,"

he writes

"Are cradled into poetry by wrong
They learn in suffering what they teach in song."

Perhaps his work is too impalpable and moves in an air too rarefied. It
sometimes lacks strength. It fails to take grip enough of life. Had he
lived he might have given it these things; there are signs in his last
poems that he would have given it. But he could hardly have bettered the
sheer and triumphant lyricism of _The Skylark_, of some of his choruses,
and of the _Ode to Dejection_, and of the _Lines written on the Eugenoen

If the Romantic sense of the one-ness of nature found its highest
exponent in Shelley, the Romantic sensibility to outward impressions
reached its climax in Keats. For him life is a series of sensations,
felt with almost febrile acuteness. Records of sight and touch and smell
crowd every line of his work; the scenery of a garden in Hampstead
becomes like a landscape in the tropics, so extraordinary vivid and
detailed is his apprehension and enjoyment of what it has to give him.
The luxuriance of his sensations is matched by the luxuriance of his
powers of expression. Adjectives heavily charged with messages for the
senses, crowd every line of his work, and in his earlier poems overlay
so heavily the thought they are meant to convey that all sense of
sequence and structure is apt to be smothered under their weight. Not
that consecutive thought claims a place in his conception of his poetry.
His ideal was passive contemplation rather than active mental exertion.
"O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts," he exclaims in one
of his letters; and in another, "It is more noble to sit like Jove than
to fly like Mercury." His work has one message and one only, the
lastingness of beauty and its supreme truth. It is stated in _Endymion_
in lines that are worn bare with quotation. It is stated again, at the
height of his work in his greatest ode,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty: that is all
We know on earth and all we need to know."

His work has its defects; he died at twenty-six so it would be a miracle
if it were not so. He lacks taste and measure; he offends by an
over-luxuriousness and sensuousness; he fails when he is concerned with
flesh and blood; he is apt, as Mr. Robert Bridges has said, "to class
women with roses and sweetmeats." But in his short life he attained with
surprising rapidity and completeness to poetic maturity, and
perhaps from no other poet could we find things to match his
greatest--_Hyperion, Isabella_, the _Eve of St. Agnes_ and
the _Odes_.

There remains a poet over whom opinion is more sharply divided than it
is about any other writer in English. In his day Lord Byron was the
idol, not only of his countrymen, but of Europe. Of all the poets of
the time he was, if we except Scott, whose vogue he eclipsed, the only
one whose work was universally known and popular. Everybody read him; he
was admired not only by the multitude and by his equals, but by at least
one who was his superior, the German poet Goethe, who did not hesitate
to say of him that he was the greatest talent of the century Though this
exalted opinion still persists on the Continent, hardly anyone could be
found in England to subscribe to it now. Without insularity, we may
claim to be better judges of authors in our own tongue than foreign
critics, however distinguished and comprehending. How then shall be
explained Lord Byron's instant popularity and the position he won? What
were the qualities which gave him the power he enjoyed?

In the first place he appealed by virtue of his subject-matter--the
desultory wanderings of _Childe Harold_ traversed ground every mile of
which was memorable to men who had watched the struggle which had been
going on in Europe with scarcely a pause for twenty years. Descriptive
journalism was then and for nearly half a century afterwards unknown,
and the poem by its descriptiveness, by its appeal to the curiosity of
its readers, made the same kind of success that vividly written special
correspondence would to-day, the charm of metre super-added. Lord Byron
gave his readers something more, too, than mere description. He added to
it the charm of a personality, and when that personality was enforced by
a title, when it proclaimed its sorrows as the age's sorrows, endowed
itself with an air of symbolism and set itself up as a kind of scapegoat
for the nation's sins, its triumph was complete. Most men have from time
to time to resist the temptation to pose to themselves; many do not even
resist it. For all those who chose to believe themselves blighted by
pessimism, and for all the others who would have loved to believe it,
Byron and his poetry came as an echo of themselves. Shallow called to
shallow. Men found in him, as their sons found more reputably in
Tennyson, a picture of what they conceived to be the state of their own

But he was not altogether a man of pretence. He really and passionately
loved freedom; no one can question his sincerity in that. He could be a
fine and scathing satirist; and though he was careless, he had great
poetic gifts.


The age of the Romantic Revival was one of poetry rather than of prose;
it was in poetry that the best minds of the time found their means of
expression. But it produced prose of rare quality too, and there is
delightful reading in the works of its essayists and occasional writers.
In its form the periodical essay had changed little since it was first
made popular by Addison and Steele. It remained, primarily, a vehicle
for the expression of a personality, and it continued to seek the
interests of its readers by creating or suggesting an individuality
strong enough to carry off any desultory adventure by the mere force of
its own attractiveness. Yet there is all the difference in the world
between Hazlitt and Addison, or Lamb and Steele. The _Tatler_ and the
_Spectator_ leave you with a sense of artifice; Hazlitt and Lamb leave
you with a grip of a real personality--in the one case very vigorous and
combative, in the other set about with a rare plaintiveness and
gentleness, but in both absolutely sincere. Addison is gay and witty and
delightful but he only plays at being human; Lamb's essays--the
translation into print of a heap of idiosyncrasies and oddities, and
likes and dislikes, and strange humours--come straight and lovably from
a human soul.

The prose writers of the romantic movement brought back two things into
writing which had been out of it since the seventeenth century. They
brought back egotism and they brought back enthusiasm. They had the
confidence that their own tastes and experiences were enough to interest
their readers; they mastered the gift of putting themselves on paper.
But there is one wide difference between them and their predecessors.
Robert Burton was an egotist but he was an unconscious one; the same is,
perhaps, true though much less certainly of Sir Thomas Browne. In Lamb
and Hazlitt and De Quincey egotism was deliberate, consciously assumed,
the result of a compelling and shaping art. If one reads Lamb's earlier
essays and prose pieces one can see the process at work--watch him
consciously imitating Fuller, or Burton, or Browne, mirroring their
idiosyncrasies, making their quaintnesses and graces his own. By the
time he came to write the _Essays of Elia_, he had mastered the personal
style so completely that his essays seem simply the overflow of talk.
They are so desultory; they move from one subject to another so
waywardly--such an essay as a _Chapter on Ears_, for instance, passing
with the easy inconsequence of conversation from anatomy through organ
music to beer--when they quote, as they do constantly, it is
incorrectly, as in the random reminiscences of talk. Here one would say
is the cream risen to the surface of a full mind and skimmed at one
taking. How far all this is from the truth we know--know, too, how for
months he polished and rewrote these magazine articles, rubbing away
roughnesses and corners, taking off the traces of logical sequences and
argument, till in the finished work of art he mimicked inconsequence so
perfectly that his friends might have been deceived. And the personality
he put on paper was partly an artistic creation, too. In life Lamb was a
nervous, easily excitable and emotional man; his years were worn with
the memory of a great tragedy and the constantly impending fear of a
repetition of it. One must assume him in his way to have been a good man
of business--he was a clerk in the India House, then a throbbing centre
of trade, and the largest commercial concern in England, and when he
retired his employers gave him a very handsome pension. In the early
portrait by Hazlitt there is a dark and gleaming look of fire and
decision. But you would never guess it from his books. There he is the
gentle recluse, dreaming over old books, old furniture, old prints, old
plays and play-bills; living always in the past, loving in the town
secluded byways like the Temple, or the libraries of Oxford Colleges,
and in the country quiet and shaded lanes, none of the age's enthusiasm
for mountains in his soul. When he turned critic it was not to discern
and praise the power and beauty in the works of his contemporaries but
to rediscover and interpret the Elizabethan and Jacobean romantic plays.

This quality of egotism Lamb shares with other writers of the time, with
De Quincey, for instance, who left buried in work which is extensive and
unequal, much that lives by virtue of the singular elaborateness and
loftiness of the style which he could on occasion command. For the
revival of enthusiasm one must turn to Hazlitt, who brought his
passionate and combative disposition to the service of criticism, and
produced a series of studies remarkable for their earnestness and their
vigour, and for the essential justness which they display despite the
prejudice on which each of them was confessedly based.




Had it not been that with two exceptions all the poets of the Romantic
Revival died early, it might be more difficult to draw a line between
their school and that of their successors than it is. As it happened,
the only poet who survived and wrote was Wordsworth, the oldest of them
all. For long before his death he did nothing that had one touch of the
fire and beauty of his earlier work. The respect he began, after a
lifetime of neglect, to receive in the years immediately before his
death, was paid not to the conservative laureate of 1848, but to the
revolutionary in art and politics of fifty years before. He had lived on
long after his work was done

"To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
That blamed the living man."

All the others, Keats, Shelley, Byron were dead before 1830, and the
problem which might have confronted us had they lived, of adult work
running counter to the tendencies and ideals of youth, does not exist
for us. Keats or Shelley might have lived as long as Carlyle, with whom
they were almost exactly contemporary; had they done so, the age of the
Romantic Revival and the Victorian age would have been united in the
lives of authors who were working in both. We should conceive that is,
the whole period as one, just as we conceive of the Renaissance in
England, from Surrey to Shirley, as one. As it is, we have accustomed
ourselves to a strongly marked line of division. A man must be on either
one side or the other; Wordsworth, though he wrote on till 1850, is on
the further side, Carlyle, though he was born in the same year as Keats,
on the hither side. Still the accident of length of days must not blind
us to the fact that the Victorian period, though in many respects its
ideals and modes of thinking differed from those of the period which
preceded it, is essentially an extension of the Romantic Revival and not
a fresh start. The coherent inspiration of romanticism disintegrated
into separate lines of development, just as in the seventeenth century
the single inspiration of the Renaissance broke into different schools.
Along these separate lines represented by such men as Browning, the
Pre-Raphaelites, Arnold, and Meredith, literature enriched and
elaborated itself into fresh forms. None the less, every author in each
of these lines of literary activity invites his readers to understand
his direct relations to the romantic movement. Rossetti touches it
through his original, Keats; Arnold through Goethe and Byron; Browning
first through Shelley and then in item after item of his varied

In one direction the Victorian age achieved a salient and momentous
advance. The Romantic Revival had been interested in nature, in the
past, and in a lesser degree in art, but it had not been interested in
men and women. To Wordsworth the dalesmen of the lakes were part of the
scenery they moved in; he saw men as trees walking, and when he writes
about them as in such great poems as _Resolution and Independence_, the
_Brothers_, or _Michael_, it is as natural objects he treats them,
invested with the lonely remoteness that separates them from the
complexities and passions of life as it is lived. They are there, you
feel, to teach the same lesson as the landscape teaches in which they
are set. The passing of the old Cumberland beggar through villages and
past farmsteads, brings to those who see him the same kind of
consolation as the impulses from a vernal wood that Wordsworth
celebrated in his purely nature poetry. Compare with Wordsworth,
Browning, and note the fundamental change in the attitude of the poet
that his work reveals. _Pippa Passes_ is a poem on exactly the same
scheme as the _Old Cumberland Beggar_, but in treatment no two things
could be further apart. The intervention of Pippa is dramatic, and
though her song is in the same key as the wordless message of
Wordsworth's beggar she is a world apart from him, because she is
something not out of natural history, but out of life. The Victorian age
extended the imaginative sensibility which its predecessor had brought
to bear on nature and history, to the complexities of human life. It
searched for individuality in character, studied it with a loving
minuteness, and built up out of its discoveries amongst men and women a
body of literature which in its very mode of conception was more closely
related to life, and thus the object of greater interest and excitement
to its readers, than anything which had been written in the previous
ages. It is the direct result of this extension of romanticism that the
novel became the characteristic means of literary expression of the
time, and that Browning, the poet who more than all others represents
the essential spirit of his age, should have been as it were, a novelist
in verse. Only one other literary form, indeed, could have ministered
adequately to this awakened interest, but by some luck not easy to
understand, the drama, which might have done with greater economy and
directness the work the novel had to do, remained outside the main
stream of literary activity. To the drama at last it would seem that we
are returning, and it may be that in the future the direct
representation of the clash of human life which is still mainly in the
hands of our novelists, may come back to its own domain.

The Victorian age then added humanity to nature and art as the
subject-matter of literature. But it went further than that. For the
first time since the Renaissance, came an era which was conscious of
itself as an epoch in the history of mankind, and confident of its
mission. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries revolutionized
cosmography, and altered the face of the physical world. The nineteenth
century, by the discoveries of its men of science, and by the remarkable
and rapid succession of inventions which revolutionized the outward face
of life, made hardly less alteration in accepted ways of thinking. The
evolutionary theory, which had been in the air since Goethe, and to
which Darwin was able to give an incontrovertible basis of scientific
fact, profoundly influenced man's attitude to nature and to religion.
Physical as apart from natural science made scarcely less advance, and
instead of a world created in some fixed moment of time, on which had
been placed by some outward agency all the forms and shapes of nature
that we know, came the conception of a planet congealing out of a
nebula, and of some lower, simpler and primeval form of life multiplying
and diversifying itself through succeeding stages of development to form
both the animal and the vegetable world. This conception not only
enormously excited and stimulated thought, but it gave thinkers a
strange sense of confidence and certainty not possessed by the age
before. Everything seemed plain to them; they were heirs of all the
ages. Their doubts were as certain as their faith.

"There lives more faith in honest doubt
Believe me than in half the creeds."

said Tennyson; "honest doubt," hugged with all the certainty of a
revelation, is the creed of most of his philosophical poetry, and what
is more to the point was the creed of the masses that were beginning to
think for themselves, to whose awakening interest his work so strongly
appealed. There were no doubt, literary side-currents. Disraeli survived
to show that there were still young men who thought Byronically.
Rossetti and his school held themselves proudly aloof from the
rationalistic and scientific tendencies of the time, and found in the
Middle ages, better understood than they had been either by Coleridge or
Scott, a refuge from a time of factories and fact. The Oxford movement
ministered to the same tendencies in religion and philosophy; but it is
the scientific spirit, and all that the scientific spirit implied, its
certain doubt, its care for minuteness, and truth of observation, its
growing interest in social processes, and the conditions under which
life is lived, that is the central fact in Victorian literature.

Tennyson represents more fully than any other poet this essential spirit
of the age. If it be true, as has been often asserted, that the spirit
of an age is to be found best in the work of lesser men, his complete
identity with the thought of his time is in itself evidence of his
inferiority to his contemporary, Browning. Comparison between the two
men seem inevitable; they were made by readers when _In Memoriam_ and
_Men and Women_ came hot from the press, and they have been made ever
since. There could, of course, scarcely be two men more dissimilar,
Tennyson elaborating and decorating the obvious; Browning delving into
the esoteric and the obscure, and bringing up strange and unfamiliar
finds; Tennyson in faultless verse registering current newly accepted
ways of thought; Browning in advance thinking afresh for himself,
occupied ceaselessly in the arduous labour of creating an audience fit
to judge him. The age justified the accuracy with which Tennyson
mirrored it, by accepting him and rejecting Browning. It is this very
accuracy that almost forces us at this time to minimise and dispraise
Tennyson's work. We have passed from Victorian certainties, and so he is
apt when he writes in the mood of _Locksley Hall_ and the rest, to
appear to us a little shallow, a little empty, and a little pretentious.

His earlier poetry, before he took upon himself the burden of the age,
is his best work, and it bears strongly marked upon it the influence of
Keats. Such a poem for instance as _Oenone_ shows an extraordinarily
fine sense of language and melody, and the capacity caught from Keats of
conveying a rich and highly coloured pictorial effect. No other poet,
save Keats, has had a sense of colour so highly developed as Tennyson's.
From his boyhood he was an exceedingly close and sympathetic observer of
the outward forms of nature, and he makes a splendid use of what his
eyes had taught him in these earlier poems. Later his interest in
insects and birds and flowers outran the legitimate opportunity he
possessed of using it in poetry. It was his habit, his son tells us, to
keep notebooks of things he had observed in his garden or in his walks,
and to work them up afterwards into similes for the _Princess_ and the
_Idylls of the King_. Read in the books written by admirers, in which
they have been studied and collected (there are several of them) these
similes are pleasing enough; in the text where they stand they are apt
to have the air of impertinences, beautiful and extravagant
impertinences no doubt, but alien to their setting. In one of the
_Idylls of the King_ the fall of a drunken knight from his horse is
compared to the fall of a jutting edge of cliff and with it a lance-like
fir-tree, which Tennyson had observed near his home, and one cannot
resist the feeling that the comparison is a thought too great for the
thing it was meant to illustrate. So, too, in the _Princess_ when he
describes a handwriting,

"In such a hand as when a field of corn
Bows all its ears before the roaring East."

he is using up a sight noted in his walks and transmuted into poetry on
a trivial and frivolous occasion. You do not feel, in fact, that the
handwriting visualized spontaneously called up the comparison; you are
as good as certain that the simile existed waiting for use before the
handwriting was thought of.

The accuracy of his observation of nature, his love of birds and larvae
is matched by the carefulness with which he embodies, as soon as ever
they were made, the discoveries of natural and physical science.
Nowadays, possibly because these things have become commonplace to us,
we may find him a little school-boy-like in his pride of knowledge. He
knows that

"This world was once a fluid haze of light,
Till toward the centre set the starry tides
And eddied wild suns that wheeling cast
The planets."

just as he knows what the catkins on the willows are like, or the names
of the butterflies: but he is capable, on occasion of "dragging it in,"
as in

"The nebulous star we call the sun,
If that hypothesis of theirs be sound."

from the mere pride in his familiarity with the last new thing. His
dealings with science, that is, no more than his dealings with nature,
have that inevitableness, that spontaneous appropriateness that we feel
we have a right to ask from great poetry.

Had Edgar Allan Poe wanted an example for his theory of the
impossibility of writing, in modern times, a long poem, he might have
found it in Tennyson. His strength is in his shorter pieces; even where
as in _In Memoriam_ he has conceived and written something at once
extended and beautiful, the beauty lies rather in the separate parts;
the thing is more in the nature of a sonnet sequence than a continuous
poem. Of his other larger works, the _Princess_, a scarcely happy blend
between burlesque in the manner of the _Rape of the Lock_, and a serious
apostleship of the liberation of women, is solely redeemed by these
lyrics. Tennyson's innate conservatism hardly squared with the
liberalising tendencies he caught from the more advanced thought of his
age, in writing it. Something of the same kind is true of _Maud_, which
is a novel told in dramatically varied verse. The hero is morbid, his
social satire peevish, and a story which could have been completely
redeemed by the ending (the death of the hero), which artistic fitness
demands, is of value for us now through its three amazing songs, in
which the lyric genius of Tennyson reached its finest flower. It cannot
be denied, either, that he failed--though magnificently--in the _Idylls
of the King_. The odds were heavily against him in the choice of a
subject. Arthur is at once too legendary and too shadowy for an epic
hero, and nothing but the treatment that Milton gave to Satan (i.e. flat
substitution of the legendary person by a newly created character) could
fit him for the place. Even if Arthur had been more promising than he
is, Tennyson's sympathies were fundamentally alien from the moral and
religious atmosphere of Arthurian romance. His robust Protestantism left
no room for mysticism; he could neither appreciate nor render the
mystical fervour and exultation which is in the old history of the Holy
Grail. Nor could he comprehend the morality of a society where courage,
sympathy for the oppressed, loyalty and courtesy were the only essential
virtues, and love took the way of freedom and the heart rather than the
way of law. In his heart Tennyson's attitude to the ideals of chivalry
and the old stories in which they are embodied differed probably very
little from that of Roger Ascham, or of any other Protestant Englishman;
when he endeavoured to make an epic of them and to fasten to it an
allegory in which Arthur should typify the war of soul against sense,
what happened was only what might have been expected. The heroic
enterprise failed, and left us with a series of mid-Victorian novels in
verse in which the knights figure as heroes of the generic mid-Victorian

But if he failed in his larger poems, he had a genius little short of
perfect in his handling of shorter forms. The Arthurian story which
produced only middling moralizing in the _Idylls_, gave us as well the
supremely written Homeric episode of the _Morte d'Arthur_, and the sharp
and defined beauty of _Sir Galahad_ and the _Lady of Shallott_. Tennyson
had a touch of the pre-Raphaelite faculty of minute painting in words,
and the writing of these poems is as clear and naive as in the best
things of Rossetti. He had also what neither Rossetti nor any of his
contemporaries in verse, except Browning, had, a fine gift of
understanding humanity. The peasants of his English idylls are conceived
with as much breadth of sympathy and richness of humour, as purely and
as surely, as the peasants of Chaucer or Burns. A note of passionate
humanity is indeed in all his work. It makes vivid and intense his
scholarly handling of Greek myth; always the unchanging human aspect of
it attracts him most, in Oenone's grief, in the indomitableness of
Ulysses, the weariness and disillusionment in Tithonus. It has been the
cause of the comfort he has brought to sorrow; none of his generation
takes such a human attitude to death. Shelley could yearn for the
infinite, Browning treat it as the last and greatest adventure, Arnold
meet it clear eyed and resigned. To Wordsworth it is the mere return of
man the transient to Nature the eternal.

"No motion has she now; no force,
She neither hears nor sees,
Roiled round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees."

To Tennyson it brings the fundamental human home-sickness for familiar

"Ah, sad and strange as on dark summer dawns,
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square."

It is an accent which wakes an echo in a thousand hearts.


While Tennyson, in his own special way and, so to speak, in
collaboration with the spirit of the age, was carrying on the work of
Romanticism on its normal lines, Browning was finding a new style and a
new subject matter. In his youth he had begun as an imitator of Shelley,
and _Pauline_ and _Paracelsus_ remain to show what the influence of the
"sun-treader" was on his poetry. But as early as his second publication,
_Bells and Pomegranates_, he had begun to speak for himself, and with
_Men and Women_, a series of poems of amazing variety and brilliance, he
placed himself unassailably in the first rank. Like Tennyson's, his
genius continued high and undimmed while life was left him. _Men and
Women_ was followed by an extraordinary narrative poem, _The Ring and
the Book_, and it by several volumes of scarcely less brilliance, the
last of which appeared on the very day of his death.

Of the two classes into which, as we saw when we were studying Burns,
creative artists can be divided, Browning belongs to that one which
makes everything new for itself, and has in consequence to educate the
readers by whom its work can alone be judged. He was an innovator in
nearly everything he did; he thought for himself; he wrote for himself,
and in his own way. And because he refused to follow ordinary modes of
writing, he was and is still widely credited with being tortured and
obscure.[7] The charge of obscurity is unfortunate because it tends to
shut off from him a large class of readers for whom he has a sane and
special and splendid message.

[Footnote 7: The deeper causes of Browning's obscurity have been
detailed in Chapter iv. of this book. It may be added for the benefit of
the reader who fights shy on the report of it, that in nine cases out of
ten, it arises simply from his colloquial method; we go to him expecting
the smoothness and completeness of Tennyson; we find in him the
irregularities, the suppressions, the quick changes of talk--the
clipped, clever talk of much idea'd people who hurry breathlessly from
one aspect to another of a subject.]

His most important innovation in form was his device of the dramatic
lyric. What interested him in life was men and women, and in them, not
their actions, but the motives which governed their actions. To lay bare
fully the working of motive in a narrative form with himself as narrator
was obviously impossible; the strict dramatic form, though he attained
some success in it, does not seem to have attracted him, probably
because in it the ultimate stress must be on the thing done rather than
the thing thought; there remained, therefore, of the ancient forms of
poetry, the lyric. The lyric had of course been used before to express
emotions imagined and not real to the poet himself; Browning was the
first to project it to express imagined emotions of men and women,
whether typical or individual, whom he himself had created. Alongside
this perversion of the lyric, he created a looser and freer form, the
dramatic monologue, in which most of his most famous poems, _Cleon,
Sludge the Medium, Bishop Blougram's Apology_, etc., are cast. In the
convention which Browning established in it, all kinds of people are
endowed with a miraculous articulation, a new gift of tongues; they
explain themselves, their motives, the springs of those motives (for in
Browning's view every thought and act of a man's life is part of an
interdependent whole), and their author's peculiar and robust philosophy
of life. Out of the dramatic monologues he devised the scheme of _The
Ring and the Book_, a narrative poem in which the episodes, and not the
plot, are the basis of the structure, and the story of a trifling and
sordid crime is set forth as it appeared to the minds of the chief
actors in succession. To these new forms he added the originality of an
extraordinary realism in style. Few poets have the power by a word, a
phrase, a flash of observation in detail to make you see the event as
Browning makes you see it.

Many books have been written on the philosophy of Browning's poetry.
Stated briefly its message is that of an optimism which depends on a
recognition of the strenuousness of life. The base of his creed, as of
Carlyle's, is the gospel of labour; he believes in the supreme moral
worth of effort. Life is a "training school" for a future existence,
and our place in it depends on the courage and strenuousness with which
we have laboured here. Evil is in the world only as an instrument in the
process of development; by conquering it we exercise our spiritual
faculties the more. Only torpor is the supreme sin, even as in _The
Statue and the Bust_ where effort would have been to a criminal end.

"The counter our lovers staked was lost
As surely as if it were lawful coin:
And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost
Was, the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin,
Though the end in sight was a crime, I say."

All the other main ideas of his poetry fit with perfect consistency on
to his scheme. Love, the manifestation of a man's or a woman's nature,
is the highest and most intimate relationship possible, for it is an
opportunity--the highest opportunity--for spiritual growth. It can reach
this end though an actual and earthly union is impossible.

"She has lost me, I have gained her;
Her soul's mine and thus grown perfect,
I shall pass my life's remainder.
Life will just hold out the proving
Both our powers, alone and blended:
And then come the next life quickly!
This world's use will have been ended."

It follows that the reward of effort is the promise of immortality, and
that for each man, just because his thoughts and motives taken together
count, and not one alone, there is infinite hope.

The contemporaries of Tennyson and Browning in poetry divide themselves
into three separate schools. Nearest to them in temper is the school of
Matthew Arnold and Clough; they have the same quick sensitiveness to the
intellectual tendencies of the age, but their foothold in a time of
shifting and dissolving creeds is a stoical resignation very different
from the buoyant optimism of Browning, or Tennyson's mixture of science
and doubt and faith. Very remote from them on the other hand is the
backward-gazing mediaevalism of Rossetti and his circle, who revived
(Rossetti from Italian sources, Morris from Norman) a Middle age which
neither Scott nor Coleridge had more than partially and brokenly
understood. The last school, that to which Swinburne and Meredith with
all their differences unite in belonging, gave up Christianity with
scarcely so much as a regret,

"We have said to the dream that caress'd and the dread that smote us,
Good-night and good-bye."

and turned with a new hope and exultation to the worship of our
immemorial mother the earth. In both of them, the note of enthusiasm for
political liberty which had been lost in Wordsworth after 1815, and was
too early extinguished with Shelley, was revived by the Italian
Revolution in splendour and fire.


As one gets nearer one's own time, a certain change comes insensibly
over one's literary studies. Literature comes more and more to mean
imaginative literature or writing about imaginative literature. The mass
of writing comes to be taken not as literature, but as argument or
information; we consider it purely from the point of view of its subject
matter. A comparison will make this at once clear. When a man reads
Bacon, he commonly regards himself as engaged in the study of English
literature; when he reads Darwin he is occupied in the study of natural
science. A reader of Bacon's time would have looked on him as we look on
Darwin now.

The distinction is obviously illogical, but a writer on English
literature within brief limits is forced to bow to it if he wishes his
book to avoid the dreariness of a summary, and he can plead in
extenuation the increased literary output of the later age, and the
incompleteness with which time so far has done its work in sifting the
memorable from the forgettable, the ephemeral from what is going to
last. The main body of imaginative prose literature--the novel--is
treated of in the next chapter and here no attempt will be made to deal
with any but the admittedly greatest names. Nothing can be said, for
instance, of that fluent journalist and biased historian Macaulay, nor
of the mellifluousness of Newman, nor of the vigour of Kingsley or
Maurice; nor of the writings, admirable in their literary qualities of
purity and terseness, of Darwin or Huxley; nor of the culture and
apostleship of Matthew Arnold. These authors, one and all, interpose no
barrier, so to speak, between their subject-matter and their readers;
you are not when you read them conscious of a literary intention, but of
some utilitarian one, and as an essay on English literature is by no
means a handbook to serious reading they will be no more mentioned here.

In the case of one nineteenth century writer in prose, this method of
exclusion cannot apply. Both Carlyle and Ruskin were professional men of
letters; both in the voluminous compass of their works touched on a
large variety of subjects; both wrote highly individual and peculiar
styles; and both without being either professional philosophers or
professional preachers, were as every good man of letters, whether he
denies it or not, is and must be, lay moralists and prophets. Of the two
Ruskin is plain and easily read, and he derives his message; Carlyle,
his original, is apt to be tortured and obscure. Inside the body of his
work the student of nineteenth century literature is probably in need of
some guidance; outside so far as prose is concerned he can fend for

As we saw, Carlyle was the oldest of the Victorians; he was over forty
when the Queen came to the throne. Already his years of preparation in
Scotland, town and country, were over, and he had settled in that famous
little house in Chelsea which for nearly half a century to come was to
be one of the central hearths of literary London. More than that, he had
already fully formed his mode of thought and his peculiar style. _Sartor
Resartus_ was written and published serially before the Queen came to
the throne; the _French Revolution_ came in the year of her accession at
the very time that Carlyle's lectures were making him a fashionable
sensation; most of his miscellaneous essays had already appeared in the
reviews. But with the strict Victorian era, as if to justify the usually
arbitrary division of literary history by dynastic periods, there came a
new spirit into his work. For the first time he applied his peculiar
system of ideas to contemporary politics. _Chartism_ appeared in 1839;
_Past and Present_, which does the same thing as _Chartism_ in an
artistic form, three years later. They were followed by one other
book--_Latter Day Pamphlets_--addressed particularly to contemporary
conditions, and by two remarkable and voluminous historical works. Then
came the death of his wife, and for the last fifteen years of his life
silence, broken only briefly and at rare intervals.

The reader who comes to Carlyle with preconceived notions based on what
he has heard of the subject-matter of his books is certain to be
surprised by what he finds. There are histories in the canon of his
works and pamphlets on contemporary problems, but they are composed on a
plan that no other historian and no other social reformer would own. A
reader will find in them no argument, next to no reasoning, and little
practical judgment. Carlyle was not a great "thinker" in the strictest
sense of that term. He was under the control, not of his reason, but of
his emotions; deep feeling, a volcanic intensity of temperament flaming
into the light and heat of prophecy, invective, derision, or a simple
splendour of eloquence, is the characteristic of his work. Against
cold-blooded argument his passionate nature rose in fierce rebellion;
he had no patience with the formalist or the doctrinaire. Nor had he the
faculty of analysis; his historical works are a series of pictures or
tableaux, splendidly and vividly conceived, and with enormous colour and
a fine illusion of reality, but one-sided as regards the truth. In his
essays on hero-worship he contents himself with a noisy reiteration of
the general predicate of heroism; there is very little except their
names and the titles to differentiate one sort of hero from another. His
picture of contemporary conditions is not so much a reasoned indictment
as a wild and fantastic orgy of epithets: "dark simmering pit of
Tophet," "bottomless universal hypocrisies," and all the rest. In it all
he left no practical scheme. His works are fundamentally not about
politics or history or literature, but about himself. They are the
exposition of a splendid egotism, fiercely enthusiastic about one or two
deeply held convictions; their strength does not lie in their matter of

This is, perhaps, a condemnation of him in the minds of those people who
ask of a social reformer an actuarially accurate scheme for the
abolition of poverty, or from a prophet a correct forecast of the result
of the next general election. Carlyle has little help for these and no
message save the disconcerting one of their own futility. His message is
at once larger and simpler, for though his form was prose, his soul was
a poet's soul, and what he has to say is a poet's word. In a way, it is
partly Wordsworth's own. The chief end of life, his message is, is the
performance of duty, chiefly the duty of work. "Do thy little stroke of
work; this is Nature's voice, and the sum of all the commandments, to
each man." All true work is religion, all true work is worship; to
labour is to pray. And after work, obedience the best discipline, so he
says in _Past and Present_, for governing, and "our universal duty and
destiny; wherein whoso will not bend must break." Carlyle asked of every
man, action and obedience and to bow to duty; he also required of him
sincerity and veracity, the duty of being a real and not a sham, a
strenuous warfare against cant. The historical facts with which he had
to deal he grouped under these embracing categories, and in the _French
Revolution_, which is as much a treasure-house of his philosophy as a
history, there is hardly a page on which they do not appear.
"Quack-ridden," he says, "in that one word lies all misery whatsoever."

These bare elemental precepts he clothes in a garment of amazing and
bizarre richness. There is nothing else in English faintly resembling
the astonishing eccentricity and individuality of his style. Gifted with
an extraordinarily excitable and vivid imagination; seeing things with
sudden and tremendous vividness, as in a searchlight or a lightning
flash, he contrived to convey to his readers his impressions full
charged with the original emotion that produced them, and thus with the
highest poetic effect. There is nothing in all descriptive writing to
match the vividness of some of the scenes in the _French Revolution_ or
in the narrative part of _Cromwell's Letters and Speeches_, or more
than perhaps in any of his books, because in it he was setting down
deep-seated impressions of his boyhood rather than those got from
brooding over documents, in _Sartor Resartus_. Alongside this unmatched
pictorial vividness and a quite amazing richness and rhythm of language,
more surprising and original than anything out of Shakespeare, there are
of course, striking defects--a wearisome reiteration of emphasis, a
clumsiness of construction, a saddening fondness for solecisms and
hybrid inventions of his own. The reader who is interested in these (and
every one who reads him is forced to become so) will find them
faithfully dealt with in John Sterling's remarkable letter (quoted in
Carlyle's _Life of Sterling_) on _Sartor Resartus_. But gross as they
are, and frequently as they provide matter for serious offence, these
eccentricities of language link themselves up in a strange indissoluble
way with Carlyle's individuality and his power as an artist. They are
not to be imitated, but he would be much less than he is without them,
and they act by their very strength and pungency as a preservative of
his work. That of all the political pamphlets which the new era of
reform occasioned, his, which were the least in sympathy with it and are
the furthest off the main stream of our political thinking now, alone
continue to be read, must be laid down not only to the prophetic fervour
and fire of their inspiration but to the dark and violent magic of their




The faculty for telling stories is the oldest artistic faculty in the
world, and the deepest implanted in the heart of man. Before the rudest
cave-pictures were scratched on the stone, the story-teller, it is not
unreasonable to suppose, was plying his trade. All early poetry is
simply story-telling in verse. Stories are the first literary interest
of the awakening mind of a child. As that is so, it is strange that the
novel, which of all literary ways of story-telling seems closest to the
unstudied tale-spinning of talk, should be the late discovery that it
is. Of all the main forms into which the literary impulse moulds the
stuff of imagination, the novel is the last to be devised. The drama
dates from prehistoric times, so does the epic, the ballad and the
lyric. The novel, as we know it, dates practically speaking from 1740.
What is the reason it is so late in appearing?

The answer is simply that there seems no room for good drama and good
fiction at the same time in literature; drama and novels cannot exist
side by side, and the novel had to wait for the decadence of the drama
before it could appear and triumph. If one were to make a table of
succession for the various kinds of literature as they have been used
naturally and spontaneously (not academically), the order would be the
epic, the drama, the novel; and it would be obvious at once that the
order stood for something more than chronological succession, and that
literature in its function as a representation and criticism of life
passed from form to form in the search of greater freedom, greater
subtlety, and greater power. At present we seem to be at the climax of
the third stage in this development; there are signs that the fourth is
on the way, and that it will be a return to drama, not to the old,
formal, ordered kind, but, something new and freer, ready to gather up
and interpret what there is of newness and freedom in the spirit of man
and the society in which he lives.

The novel, then, had to wait for the drama's decline, but there was
literary story-telling long before that. There were mediaeval romances
in prose and verse; Renaissance pastoral tales, and stories of
adventure; collections, plenty of them, of short stories like
Boccaccio's, and those in Painter's _Palace of Pleasure_. But none of
these, not even romances which deal in moral and sententious advice like
_Euphues_, approach the essence of the novel as we know it. They are all
(except _Euphues_, which is simply a framework of travel for a book of
aphorisms) simple and objective; they set forth incidents or series of
incidents; long or short they are anecdotes only--they take no account
of character. It was impossible we should have the novel as distinct
from the tale, till stories acquired a subjective interest for us; till
we began to think about character and to look at actions not only
outwardly, but within at their springs.

As has been stated early in this book, it was in the seventeenth century
that this interest in character was first wakened. Shakespeare had
brought to the drama, which before him was concerned with actions viewed
outwardly, a psychological interest; he had taught that "character is
destiny," and that men's actions and fates spring not from outward
agencies, but from within in their own souls. The age began to take a
deep and curious interest in men's lives; biography was written for the
first time and autobiography; it is the great period of memoir-writing
both in England and France; authors like Robert Burton came, whose
delight it was to dig down into human nature in search for oddities and
individualities of disposition; humanity as the great subject of enquiry
for all men, came to its own. All this has a direct bearing on the birth
of the novel. One transient form of literature in the seventeenth
century--the Character--is an ancestor in the direct line. The
collections of them--Earle's _Microcosmography_ is the best--are not
very exciting reading, and they never perhaps quite succeeded in
naturalizing a form borrowed from the later age of Greece, but their
importance in the history of the novel to come is clear. Take them and
add them to the story of adventure--_i.e._, introduce each fresh person
in your plot with a description in the character form, and the step you
have made towards the novel is enormous; you have given to plot which
was already there, the added interest of character.

That, however, was not quite how the thing worked in actual fact. At the
heels of the "Character" came the periodical essay of Addison and
Steele. Their interest in contemporary types was of the same quality as
Earle's or Hall's, but they went a different way to work. Where these
compressed and cultivated a style which was staccato and epigrammatic,
huddling all the traits of their subject in short sharp sentences that
follow each other with all the brevity and curtness of items in a
prescription, Addison and Steele observed a more artistic plan. They
made, as it were, the prescription up, adding one ingredient after
another slowly as the mixture dissolved. You are introduced to Sir Roger
de Coverley, and to a number of other typical people, and then in a
series of essays which if they were disengaged from their setting would
be to all intents a novel and a fine one, you are made aware one by one
of different traits in his character and those of his friends, each
trait generally enshrined in an incident which illustrates it; you get
to know them, that is, gradually, as you would in real life, and not all
in a breath, in a series of compressed statements, as is the way of the
character writers. With the Coverley essays in the _Spectator_, the
novel in one of its forms--that in which an invisible and all knowing
narrator tells a story in which some one else whose character he lays
bare for us is the hero--is as good as achieved.

Another manner of fiction--the autobiographical--had already been
invented. It grew directly out of the public interest in autobiography,
and particularly in the tales of their voyages which the discoverers
wrote and published on their return from their adventures. Its
establishment in literature was the work of two authors, Bunyan and
Defoe. The books of Bunyan, whether they are told in the first person or
no, are and were meant to be autobiographical; their interest is a
subjective interest. Here is a man who endeavours to interest you, not
in the character of some other person he has imagined or observed, but
in himself. His treatment of it is characteristic of the awakening
talent for fiction of his time. _The Pilgrim's Progress_ is begun as an
allegory, and so continues for a little space till the story takes hold
of the author. When it does, whether he knew it or not, allegory goes to
the winds. But the autobiographical form of fiction in its highest art
is the creation of Defoe. He told stories of adventure, incidents
modelled on real life as many tellers of tales had done before him, but
to the form as he found it he super-added a psychological interest--the
interest of the character of the narrator. He contrived to observe in
his writing a scrupulous and realistic fidelity and appropriateness to
the conditions in which the story was to be told. We learn about
Crusoe's island, for instance, gradually just as Crusoe learns of it
himself, though the author is careful by taking his narrator up to a
high point of vantage the day after his arrival, that we shall learn
the essentials of it, as long as verisimilitude is not sacrificed, as
soon as possible. It is the paradox of the English novel that these our
earliest efforts in fiction were meant, unlike the romances which
preceded them, to pass for truth. Defoe's _Journal of the Plague Year_
was widely taken as literal fact, and it is still quoted as such
occasionally by rash though reputable historians. So that in England the
novel began with realism as it has culminated, and across two centuries
Defoe and the "naturalists" join hands. Defoe, it is proper also in this
place to notice, fixed the peculiar form of the historical novel. In his
_Memoirs of a Cavalier_, the narrative of an imaginary person's
adventures in a historical setting is interspersed with the entrance of
actual historical personages, exactly the method of historical romancing
which was brought to perfection by Sir Walter Scott.


In the eighteenth century came the decline of the drama for which the
novel had been waiting. By 1660 the romantic drama of Elizabeth's time
was dead; the comedy of the Restoration which followed, witty and
brilliant though it was, reflected a society too licentious and
artificial to secure it permanence; by the time of Addison play-writing
had fallen to journey-work, and the theatre to openly expressed
contempt. When Richardson and Fielding published their novels there was
nothing to compete with fiction in the popular taste. It would seem as
though the novel had been waiting for this favourable circumstance. In a
sudden burst of prolific inventiveness, which can be paralleled in all
letters only by the period of Marlowe and Shakespeare, masterpiece after
masterpiece poured from the press. Within two generations, besides
Richardson and Fielding came Sterne and Goldsmith and Smollett and Fanny
Burney in naturalism, and Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe in the new
way of romance. Novels by minor authors were published in thousands as
well. The novel, in fact, besides being the occasion of literature of
the highest class, attracted by its lucrativeness that under-current of
journey-work authorship which had hitherto busied itself in poetry or
plays. Fiction has been its chief occupation ever since.

Anything like a detailed criticism or even a bare narrative of this
voluminous literature is plainly impossible without the limits of a
single chapter. Readers must go for it to books on the subject. It is
possible here merely to draw attention to those authors to whom the
English novel as a more or less fixed form is indebted for its peculiar
characteristics. Foremost amongst these are Richardson and Fielding;
after them there is Walter Scott. After him, in the nineteenth century,
Dickens and Meredith and Mr. Hardy; last of all the French realists and
the new school of romance. To one or other of these originals all the
great authors in the long list of English novelists owe their method
and their choice of subject-matter.

With Defoe fiction gained verisimilitude, it ceased to deal with the
incredible; it aimed at exhibiting, though in strange and memorable
circumstances, the workings of the ordinary mind. It is Richardson's
main claim to fame that he contrived a form of novel which exhibited an
ordinary mind working in normal circumstances, and that he did this with
a minuteness which till then had never been thought of and has not since
been surpassed. His talent is very exactly a microscopical talent; under
it the common stuff of life separated from its surroundings and
magnified beyond previous knowledge, yields strange and new and deeply
interesting sights. He carried into the study of character which had
begun in Addison with an eye to externals and eccentricities, a minute
faculty of inspection which watched and recorded unconscious mental and
emotional processes.

To do this he employed a method which was, in effect, a compromise
between that of the autobiography, and that of the tale told by an
invisible narrator. The weakness of the autobiography is that it can
write only of events within the knowledge of the supposed speaker, and
that consequently the presentation of all but one of the characters of
the book is an external presentation. We know, that is, of Man Friday
only what Crusoe could, according to realistic appropriateness, tell us
about him. We do not know what he thought or felt within himself. On
the other hand the method of invisible narration had not at his time
acquired the faculty which it possesses now of doing Friday's thinking
aloud or exposing fully the workings of his mind. So that Richardson,
whose interests were psychological, whose strength and talent lay in the
presentation of the states of mind appropriate to situations of passion
or intrigue, had to look about him for a new form, and that form he
found in the novel of letters. In a way, if the end of a novel be the
presentation not of action, but of the springs of action; if the
external event is in it always of less importance than the emotions
which conditioned it, and the emotions which it set working, the novel
of letters is the supreme manner for fiction. Consider the possibilities
of it; there is a series of events in which A, B, and C are concerned.
Not only can the outward events be narrated as they appeared to all
three separately by means of letters from each to another, or to a
fourth party, but the motives of each and the emotions which each
experiences as a result of the actions of the others or them all, can be
laid bare. No other method can wind itself so completely into the
psychological intricacies and recesses which lie behind every event. Yet
the form, as everybody knows, has not been popular; even an expert
novel-reader could hardly name off-hand more than two or three examples
of it since Richardson's day. Why is this? Well, chiefly it is because
the mass of novelists have not had Richardson's knowledge of, or
interest in, the psychological under side of life, and those who have,
as, amongst the moderns, Henry James, have devised out of the convention
of the invisible narrator a method by which they can with greater
economy attain in practice fairly good results. For the mere narration
of action in which the study of character plays a subsidiary part, it
was, of course, from the beginning impossible. Scott turned aside at the
height of his power to try it in "Redgauntlet"; he never made a second

For Richardson's purpose, it answered admirably, and he used it with
supreme effect. Particularly he excelled in that side of the novelist's
craft which has ever since (whether because he started it or not) proved
the subtlest and most attractive, the presentation of women. Richardson
was one of those men who are not at their ease in other men's society,
and whom other men, to put it plainly, are apt to regard as coxcombs and
fools. But he had a genius for the friendship and confidence of women.
In his youth he wrote love-letters for them. His first novel grew out of
a plan to exhibit in a series of letters the quality of feminine virtue,
and in its essence (though with a ludicrous, and so to speak
"kitchen-maidish" misunderstanding of his own sex) adheres to the plan.
His second novel, which designs to set up a model man against the
monster of iniquity in _Pamela_, is successful only so far as it
exhibits the thoughts and feelings of the heroine whom he ultimately
marries. His last, _Clarissa Harlowe_ is a masterpiece of sympathetic
divination into the feminine mind. _Clarissa_ is, as has been well said,
the "Eve of fiction, the prototype of the modern heroine"; feminine
psychology as good as unknown before (Shakespeare's women being the
"Fridays" of a highly intelligent Crusoe) has hardly been brought
further since. But _Clarissa_ is more than mere psychology; whether she
represents a contemporary tendency or whether Richardson made her so,
she starts a new epoch. "This," says Henley, "is perhaps her finest
virtue as it is certainly her greatest charm; that until she set the
example, woman in literature as a self-suffering individuality, as an
existence endowed with equal rights to independence--of choice,
volition, action--with man had not begun to be." She had not begun to be
it in life either.

What Richardson did for the subtlest part of a novelist's business, his
dealings with psychology, Fielding did for the most necessary part of
it, the telling of the story. Before him hardly any story had been told
well; even if it had been plain and clear as in Bunyan and Defoe it had
lacked the emphasis, the light and shade of skilful grouping. On the
"picaresque" (so the autobiographical form was called abroad) convention
of a journey he grafted a structure based in its outline on the form of
the ancient epic. It proved extraordinarily suitable for his purpose.
Not only did it make it easy for him to lighten his narrative with
excursions in a heightened style, burlesquing his origins, but it gave
him at once the right attitude to his material. He told his story as
one who knew everything; could tell conversations and incidents as he
conceived them happening, with no violation of credibility, nor any
strain on his reader's imagination, and without any impropriety could
interpose in his own person, pointing things to the reader which might
have escaped his attention, pointing at parallels he might have missed,
laying bare the irony or humour beneath a situation. He allowed himself
digressions and episodes, told separate tales in the middle of the
action, introduced, as in Partridge's visit to the theatre, the added
piquancy of topical allusion; in fact he did anything he chose. And he
laid down that free form of the novel which is characteristically
English, and from which, in its essence, no one till the modern realists
has made a serious departure.

In the matter of his novels, he excels by reason of a Shakespearean
sense of character and by the richness and rightness of his faculty of
humour. He had a quick eye for contemporary types, and an amazing power
of building out of them men and women whose individuality is full and
rounded. You do not feel as you do with Richardson that his fabric is
spun silk-worm-wise out of himself; on the contrary you know it to be
the fruit of a gentle and observant nature, and a stock of fundamental
human sympathy. His gallery of portraits, Joseph Andrews, Parson Adams,
Parson Trulliber, Jones, Blifil, Partridge, Sophia and her father and
all the rest are each of them minute studies of separate people; they
live and move according to their proper natures; they are conceived not
from without but from within. Both Richardson and Fielding were
conscious of a moral intention; but where Richardson is sentimental,
vulgar, and moral only so far as it is moral (as in _Pamela_), to
inculcate selling at the highest price or (as in _Grandison_) to avoid
temptations which never come in your way, Fielding's morality is fresh
and healthy, and (though not quite free from the sentimentality of
scoundrelism) at bottom sane and true. His knowledge of the world kept
him right. His acquaintance with life is wide, and his insight is keen
and deep. His taste is almost as catholic as Shakespeare's own, and the
life he knew, and which other men knew, he handles for the first time
with the freedom and imagination of an artist.

Each of the two--Fielding and Richardson--had his host of followers.
Abroad Richardson won immediate recognition; in France Diderot went so
far as to compare him with Homer and Moses! He gave the first impulse to
modern French fiction. At home, less happily, he set going the
sentimental school, and it was only when that had passed away that--in
the delicate and subtle character-study of Miss Austen--his influence
comes to its own. Miss Austen carried a step further, and with an
observation which was first hand and seconded by intuitive knowledge,
Richardson's analysis of the feminine mind, adding to it a delicate and
finely humorous feeling for character in both sexes which was all her
own. Fielding's imitators (they number each in his own way, and with his
own graces or talent added his rival Smollett, Sterne, and Goldsmith)
kept the way which leads to Thackeray and Dickens--the main road of the
English Novel.

That road was widened two ways by Sir Walter Scott. The historical
novel, which had been before his day either an essay in anachronism with
nothing historical in it but the date, or a laborious and uninspired
compilation of antiquarian research, took form and life under his hands.
His wide reading, stored as it was in a marvellously retentive memory,
gave him all the background he needed to achieve a historical setting,
and allowed him to concentrate his attention on the actual telling of
his story; to which his genial and sympathetic humanity and his quick
eye for character gave a humorous depth and richness that was all his
own. It is not surprising that he made the historical novel a literary
vogue all over Europe. In the second place, he began in his novels of
Scottish character a sympathetic study of nationality. He is not,
perhaps, a fair guide to contemporary conditions; his interests were too
romantic and too much in the past to catch the rattle of the looms that
caught the ear of Galt, and if we want a picture of the great fact of
modern Scotland, its industrialisation, it is to Galt we must go. But in
his comprehension of the essential character of the people he has no
rival; in it his historical sense seconded his observation, and the two
mingling gave us the pictures whose depth of colour and truth make his
Scottish novels, _Old Mortality, The Antiquary, Redgauntlet_, the
greatest things of their kind in literature.


The peculiarly national style of fiction founded by Fielding and carried
on by his followers reached its culminating point in _Vanity Fair_. In
it the reader does not seem to be simply present at the unfolding of a
plot the end of which is constantly present to the mind of the author
and to which he is always consciously working, every incident having a
bearing on the course of the action; rather he feels himself to be the
spectator of a piece of life which is too large and complex to be under
the control of a creator, which moves to its close not under the
impulsion of a directing hand, but independently impelled by causes
evolved in the course of its happening. With this added complexity goes
a more frequent interposition of the author in his own person--one of
the conventions as we have seen of this national style. Thackeray is
present to his readers, indeed, not as the manager who pulls the strings
and sets the puppets in motion, but as an interpreter who directs the
reader's attention to the events on which he lays stress, and makes them
a starting-point for his own moralising. This persistent
moralizing--sham cynical, real sentimental--this thumping of death-bed
pillows as in the dreadful case of Miss Crawley, makes Thackeray's use
of the personal interposition almost less effective than that of any
other novelist. Already while he was doing it, Dickens had conquered the
public; and the English novel was making its second fresh start.

He is an innovator in more ways than one. In the first place he is the
earliest novelist to practise a conscious artistry of plot. _The Mystery
of Edwin Drood_ remains mysterious, but those who essay to conjecture
the end of that unfinished story have at last the surety that its end,
full worked out in all its details, had been in its author's mind before
he set pen to paper. His imagination was as diligent and as disciplined
as his pen, Dickens' practice in this matter could not be better put
than in his own words, when he describes himself as "in the first stage
of a new book, which consists in going round and round the idea, as you
see a bird in his cage go about and about his sugar before he touches
it." That his plots are always highly elaborated is the fruit of this
preliminary disciplined exercise of thought. The method is familiar to
many novelists now; Dickens was the first to put it into practice. In
the second place he made a new departure by his frankly admitted
didacticism and by the skill with which in all but two or three of his
books--_Bleak House_, perhaps, and _Little Dorrit_--he squared his
purpose with his art. Lastly he made the discovery which has made him
immortal. In him for the first time the English novel produced an
author who dug down into the masses of the people for his subjects;
apprehended them in all their inexhaustible character and humour and
pathos, and reproduced them with a lively and loving artistic skill.

Dickens has, of course, serious faults. In particular, readers
emancipated by lapse of time from the enslavement of the first
enthusiasm, have quarrelled with the mawkishness and sentimentality of
his pathos, and with the exaggeration of his studies of character. It
has been said of him, as it has of Thackeray, that he could not draw a
"good woman" and that Agnes Copperfield, like Amelia Sedley, is a very
doll-like type of person. To critics of this kind it may be retorted
that though "good" and "bad" are categories relevant to melodrama, they
apply very ill to serious fiction, and that indeed to the characters of
any of the novelists--the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell or the like--who lay
bare character with fullness and intimacy, they could not well be
applied at all. The faultiness of them in Dickens is less than in
Thackeray, for in Dickens they are only incident to the scheme, which
lies in the hero (his heroes are excellent) and in the grotesque
characters, whereas in his rival they are in the theme itself. For his
pathos, not even his warmest admirer could perhaps offer a satisfactory
case. The charge of exaggeration however is another matter. To the
person who complains that he has never met Dick Swiveller or Micawber or
Mrs. Gamp the answer is simply Turner's to the sceptical critic of his
sunset, "Don't you wish you could?" To the other, who objects more
plausibly to Dickens's habit of attaching to each of his characters some
label which is either so much flaunted all through that you cannot see
the character at all or else mysteriously and unaccountably disappears
when the story begins to grip the author, Dickens has himself offered an
amusing and convincing defence. In the preface to _Pickwick_ he answers
those who criticised the novel on the ground that Pickwick began by
being purely ludicrous and developed into a serious and sympathetic
individuality, by pointing to the analogous process which commonly takes
place in actual human relationships. You begin a new acquaintanceship
with perhaps not very charitable prepossessions; these later a deeper
and better knowledge removes, and where you have before seen an
idiosyncrasy you come to love a character. It is ingenious and it helps
to explain Mrs. Nickleby, the Pecksniff daughters, and many another.
Whether it is true or not (and it does not explain the faultiness of
such pictures as Carker and his kind) there can be no doubt that this
trick in Dickens of beginning with a salient impression and working
outward to a fuller conception of character is part at least of the
reason of his enormous hold upon his readers. No man leads you into the
mazes of his invention so easily and with such a persuasive hand.

The great novelists who were writing contemporarily with him--the
Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot--it is impossible to deal with
here, except to say that the last is indisputably, because of her
inability to fuse completely art and ethics, inferior to Mrs. Gaskell or
to either of the Bronte sisters. Nor of the later Victorians who added
fresh variety to the national style can the greatest, Meredith, be more
than mentioned for the exquisiteness of his comic spirit and the brave
gallery of English men and women he has given us in what is, perhaps,
fundamentally the most English thing in fiction since Fielding wrote.
For our purpose Mr. Hardy, though he is a less brilliant artist, is more
to the point. His novels brought into England the contemporary pessimism
of Schopenhaur and the Russians, and found a home for it among the
English peasantry. Convinced that in the upper classes character could
be studied and portrayed only subjectively because of the artificiality
of a society which prevented its outlet in action, he turned to the
peasantry because with them conduct is the direct expression of the
inner life. Character could be shown working, therefore, not
subjectively but in the act, if you chose a peasant subject. His
philosophy, expressed in this medium, is sombre. In his novels you can
trace a gradual realization of the defects of natural laws and the
quandary men are put to by their operation. Chance, an irritating and
trifling series of coincidences, plays the part of fate. Nature seems to
enter with the hopelessness of man's mood. Finally the novelist turns
against life itself. "Birth," he says, speaking of Tess, "seemed to her
an ordeal of degrading personal compulsion whose gratuitousness nothing
in the result seemed to justify and at best could only palliate." It is
strange to find pessimism in a romantic setting; strange, too, to find a
paganism which is so little capable of light or joy.


The characteristic form of English fiction, that in which the requisite
illusion of the complexity and variety of life is rendered by
discursiveness, by an author's licence to digress, to double back on
himself, to start may be in the middle of a story and work subsequently
to the beginning and the end; in short by his power to do whatever is
most expressive of his individuality, found a rival in the last twenty
years of the nineteenth century in the French Naturalistic or Realist
school, in which the illusion of life is got by a studied and sober
veracity of statement, and by the minute accumulation of detail. To the
French Naturalists a novel approached in importance the work of a man of
science, and they believed it ought to be based on documentary evidence,
as a scientific work would be. Above all it ought not to allow itself to
be coloured by the least gloss of imagination or idealism; it ought
never to shrink from a confrontation of the naked fact. On the contrary
it was its business to carry it to the dissecting table and there
minutely examine everything that lay beneath its surface.

The school first became an English possession in the early translations
of the work of Zola; its methods were transplanted into English fiction
by Mr. George Moore. From his novels, both in passages of direct
statement and in the light of his practice, it is possible to gather
together the materials of a manifesto of the English Naturalistic
school. The naturalists complained that English fiction lacked
construction in the strictest sense; they found in the English novel a
remarkable absence of organic wholeness; it did not fulfil their first
and broadest canon of subject-matter--by which a novel has to deal in
the first place with a single and rhythmical series of events; it was
too discursive. They made this charge against English fiction; they also
retorted the charge brought by native writers and their readers against
the French of foulness, sordidness and pessimism in their view of life.
"We do not," says a novelist in one of Mr. Moore's books, "we do not
always choose what you call unpleasant subjects, but we do try to get to
the roots of things; and the basis of life being material and not
spiritual, the analyst sooner or later finds himself invariably handling
what this sentimental age calls coarse." "The novel," says the same
character, "if it be anything is contemporary history, an exact and
complete reproduction of the social surroundings of the age we live in."
That succinctly is the naturalistic theory of the novel as a work of
science--that as the history of a nation lies hidden often in social
wrongs and in domestic grief as much as in the movements of parties or
dynasties, the novelist must do for the former what the historian does
for the latter. It is his business in the scheme of knowledge of his

But the naturalists believed quite as profoundly in the novel as a work
of art. They claimed for their careful pictures of the grey and sad and
sordid an artistic worth, varying in proportion to the intensity of the
emotion in which the picture was composed and according to the picture's
truth, but in its essence just as real and permanent as the artistic
worth of romance. "Seen from afar," writes Mr. Moore, "all things in
nature are of equal worth; and the meanest things, when viewed with the
eyes of God, are raised to heights of tragic awe which conventionality
would limit to the deaths of kings and patriots." On such a lofty theory
they built their treatment and their style. It is a mistake to suppose
that the realist school deliberately cultivates the sordid or shocking.
Examine in this connection Mr. Moore's _Mummer's Wife_, our greatest
English realist novel, and for the matter of that one of the supreme
things in English fiction, and you will see that the scrupulous fidelity
of the author's method, though it denies him those concessions to a
sentimentalist or romantic view of life which are the common implements
of fiction, denies him no less the extremities of horror or
loathsomeness. The heroine sinks into the miserable squalor of a
dipsomaniac and dies from a drunkard's disease, but her end is shown as
the ineluctable consequence of her life, its early greyness and
monotony, the sudden shock of a new and strange environment and the
resultant weakness of will which a morbid excitability inevitably
brought about. The novel, that is to say, deals with a "rhythmical
series of events and follows them to their conclusion"; it gets at the
roots of things; it tells us of something which we know to be true in
life whether we care to read it in fiction or not. There is nothing in
it of sordidness for sordidness' sake nor have the realists any
philosophy of an unhappy ending. In this case the ending is unhappy
because the sequence of events admitted of no other solution; in others
the ending is happy or merely neutral as the preceding story decides. If
what one may call neutral endings predominate, it is because they
also--notoriously--predominate in life. But the question of unhappiness
or its opposite has nothing whatever to do with the larger matter of
beauty; it is the triumph of the realists that at their best they
discovered a new beauty in things, the loveliness that lies in obscure
places, the splendour of sordidness, humility, and pain. They have
taught us that beauty, like the Spirit, blows where it lists and we know
from them that the antithesis between realism and idealism is only on
their lower levels; at their summits they unite and are one. No true
realist but is an idealist too.

Most of what is best in English fiction since has been directly
occasioned by their work; Gissing and Mr. Arnold Bennett may be
mentioned as two authors who are fundamentally realist in their
conception of the art of the novel, and the realist ideal partakes in a
greater or less degree in the work of nearly all our eminent novelists
to-day. But realism is not and cannot be interesting to the great
public; it portrays people as they are, not as they would like to be,
and where they are, not where they would like to be. It gives no
background for day-dreaming. Now literature (to repeat what has been
than more once stated earlier in this book) is a way of escape from life
as well as an echo or mirror of it, and the novel as the form of
literature which more than any other men read for pleasure, is the main
avenue for this escape. So that alongside this invasion of realism it is
not strange that there grew a revival in romance.

The main agent of it, Robert Louis Stevenson, had the romantic strain in
him intensified by the conditions under which he worked; a
weak and anaemic man, he loved bloodshed as a cripple loves
athletics--passionately and with the intimate enthusiasm of make-believe
which an imaginative man can bring to bear on the contemplation of what
can never be his. His natural attraction for "redness and juice" in life
was seconded by a delightful and fantastic sense of the boundless
possibilities of romance in every-day things. To a realist a hansom-cab
driver is a man who makes twenty-five shillings a week, lives in a back
street in Pimlico, has a wife who drinks and children who grow up with
an alcoholic taint; the realist will compare his lot with other
cab-drivers, and find what part of his life is the product of the
cab-driving environment, and on that basis he will write his book. To
Stevenson and to the romanticist generally, a hansom cab-driver is a
mystery behind whose apparent commonplaceness lie magic possibilities
beyond all telling; not one but may be the agent of the Prince of
Bohemia, ready to drive you off to some mad and magic adventure in a
street which is just as commonplace to the outward eye as the cab-driver
himself, but which implicates by its very deceitful commonness whole
volumes of romance. The novel-reader to whom _Demos_ was the repetition
of what he had seen and known, and what had planted sickness in his
soul, found the _New Arabian Nights_ a refreshing miracle. Stevenson had
discovered that modern London had its possibilities of romance. To these
two elements of his romantic equipment must be added a third--travel.
Defoe never left England, and other early romanticists less gifted with
invention than he wrote from the mind's eye and from books. To
Stevenson, and to his successor Mr. Kipling, whose "discovery" of India
is one of the salient facts of modern English letters, and to Mr. Conrad
belongs the credit of teaching novelists to draw on experience for the
scenes they seek to present. A fourth element in the equipment of modern
romanticism--that which draws its effects from the "miracles" of modern
science, has been added since by Mr. H. G. Wells, in whose latest work
the realistic and romantic schools seem to have united.



We have carried our study down to the death of Ruskin and included in it
authors like Swinburne and Meredith who survived till recently; and in
discussing the novel we have included men like Kipling and Hardy--living
authors. It would be possible and perhaps safer to stop there and make
no attempt to bring writers later than these into our survey. To do so
is to court an easily and quickly stated objection. One is anticipating
the verdict of posterity. How can we who are contemporaries tell whether
an author's work is permanent or no?

Of course, in a sense the point of view expressed by these questions is
true enough. It is always idle to anticipate the verdict of posterity.
Remember Matthew Arnold's prophecy that at the end of the nineteenth
century Wordsworth and Byron would be the two great names in Romantic
poetry. We are ten years and more past that date now, and so far as
Byron is concerned, at any rate, there is no sign that Arnold's
prediction has come true. But the obvious fact that we cannot do our
grandchildren's thinking for them, is no reason why we should refuse to
think for ourselves. No notion is so destructive to the formation of a
sound literary taste as the notion that books become literature only
when their authors are dead. Round us men and women are putting into
plays and poetry and novels the best that they can or know. They are
writing not for a dim and uncertain future but for us, and on our
recognition and welcome they depend, sometimes for their livelihood,
always for the courage which carries them on to fresh endeavour.
Literature is an ever-living and continuous thing, and we do it less
than its due service if we are so occupied reading Shakespeare and
Milton and Scott that we have no time to read Mr. Yeats, Mr. Shaw or Mr.
Wells. Students of literature must remember that classics are being
manufactured daily under their eyes, and that on their sympathy and
comprehension depends whether an author receives the success he merits
when he is alive to enjoy it.

The purpose of this chapter, then, is to draw a rough picture of some of
the lines or schools of contemporary writing--of the writing mainly,
though not altogether, of living authors. It is intended to indicate
some characteristics of the general trend or drift of literary effort as
a whole. The most remarkable feature of the age, as far as writing is
concerned, is without doubt its inattention to poetry. Tennyson was a
popular author; his books sold in thousands; his lines passed into that
common conversational currency of unconscious quotation which is the
surest testimony to the permeation of a poet's influence. Even Browning,
though his popularity came late, found himself carried into all the
nooks and corners of the reading public. His robust and masculine
morality, understood at last, or expounded by a semi-priestly class of
interpreters, made him popular with those readers--and they are the
majority--who love their reading to convey a moral lesson, just as
Tennyson's reflection of his time's distraction between science and
religion endeared them to those who found in him an answer or at least
an echo to their own perplexities. A work widely different from either
of these, Fitzgerald's _Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam_, shared and has
probably exceeded their popularity for similar reasons. Its easy
pessimism and cult of pleasure, its delightful freedom from any demand
for continuous thought from its readers, its appeal to the indolence and
moral flaccidity which is implicit in all men, all contributed to its
immense vogue; and among people who perhaps did not fully understand it
but were merely lulled by its sonorousness, a knowledge of it has passed
for the insignia of a love of literature and the possession of literary
taste. But after Fitzgerald--who? What poet has commanded the ear of the
reading public or even a fraction of it? Not Swinburne certainly, partly
because of his undoubted difficulty, partly because of a suspicion held
of his moral and religious tenets, largely from material reasons quite
unconnected with the quality of his work; not Morris, nor his
followers; none of the so-called minor poets whom we shall notice
presently--poets who have drawn the moods that have nourished their work
from the decadents of France. Probably the only writer of verse who is
at the same time a poet and has acquired a large popularity and public
influence is Mr. Kipling. His work as a novelist we mentioned in the
last chapter. It remains to say something of his achievements in verse.

Let us grant at once his faults. He can be violent, and over-rhetorical;
he belabours you with sense impressions, and with the polysyllabic
rhetoric he learned from Swinburne--and (though this is not the place
for a discussion of political ideas) he can offend by the sentimental
brutalism which too often passes for patriotism in his poetry. Not that
this last represents the total impression of his attitude as an
Englishman. His later work in poetry and prose, devoted to the
reconstruction of English history, is remarkable for the justness and
saneness of its temper. There are other faults--a lack of sureness in
taste is one--that could be mentioned but they do not affect the main
greatness of his work. He is great because he discovered a new
subject-matter, and because of the white heat of imagination which in
his best things he brought to bear on it and by which he transposed it
into poetry. It is Mr. Kipling's special distinction that the apparatus
of modern civilization--steam engines, and steamships, and telegraph
lines, and the art of flight--take on in his hands a poetic quality as
authentic and inspiring as any that ever was cast over the implements of
other and what the mass of men believe to have been more picturesque
days. Romance is in the present, so he teaches us, not in the past, and
we do it wrong to leave it only the territory we have ourselves
discarded in the advance of the race. That and the great discovery of
India--an India misunderstood for his own purposes no doubt, but still
the first presentiment of an essential fact in our modern history as a
people--give him the hold that he has, and rightly, over the minds of
his readers.

It is in a territory poles apart from Mr. Kipling's that the main stream
of romantic poetry flows. Apart from the gravely delicate and scholarly
work of Mr. Bridges, and the poetry of some others who work separately
away from their fellows, English romantic poetry has concentrated itself
into one chief school--the school of the "Celtic Revival" of which the
leader is Mr. W.B. Yeats. Two sources went to its making. In its
inception, it arose out of a group of young poets who worked in a
conscious imitation of the methods of the French decadents; chiefly of
Baudelaire and Verlaine. As a whole their work was merely imitative and
not very profound, but each of them--Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson,
who are both now dead, and others who are still living--produced enough
to show that they had at their command a vein of poetry that might have
deepened and proved more rich had they gone on working it. One of them,
Mr. W.B. Yeats, by his birth and his reading in Irish legend and
folklore, became possessed of a subject-matter denied to his fellows,
and it is from the combination of the mood of the decadents with the
dreaminess and mystery of Celtic tradition and romance--a combination
which came to pass in his poetry--that the Celtic school has sprung. In
a sense it has added to the territory explored by Coleridge and Scott
and Morris a new province. Only nothing could be further from the
objectivity of these men, than the way in which the Celtic school
approaches its material. Its stories are clear to itself, it may be, but
not to its readers. Deirdre and Conchubar, and Angus and Maeve and
Dectora and all the shadowy figures in them scarcely become embodied.
Their lives and deaths and loves and hates are only a scheme on which
they weave a delicate and dim embroidery of pure poetry--of love and
death and old age and the passing of beauty and all the sorrows that
have been since the world began and will be till the world ends. If Mr.
Kipling is of the earth earthy, if the clangour and rush of the world is
in everything he writes, Mr. Yeats and his school live consciously
sequestered and withdrawn, and the world never breaks in on their
ghostly troubles or their peace. Poetry never fails to relate itself to
its age; if it is not with it, it is against it; it is never merely
indifferent. The poetry of these men is the denial, passionately made,
of everything the world prizes. While such a denial is sincere, as in
the best of them, then the verses they make are true and fine. But when
it is assumed, as in some of their imitators, then the work they did is
not true poetry.

But the literary characteristic of the present age--the one which is
most likely to differentiate it from its predecessor, is the revival of
the drama. When we left it before the Commonwealth the great English
literary school of playwriting--the romantic drama--was already dead. It
has had since no second birth. There followed after it the heroic
tragedy of Dryden and Shadwell--a turgid, declamatory form of art
without importance--and two brilliant comic periods, the earlier and
greater that of Congreve and Wycherley, the later more sentimental with
less art and vivacity, that of Goldsmith and Sheridan. With Sheridan the
drama as a literary force died a second time. It has been born again
only in our own day. It is, of course, unnecessary to point out that the
writing of plays did not cease in the interval; it never does cease. The
production of dramatic journey-work has been continuous since the
re-opening of the theatres in 1660, and it is carried on as plentifully
as ever at this present time. Only side by side with it there has grown
up a new literary drama, and gradually the main stream of artistic
endeavour which for nearly a century has preoccupied itself with the
novel almost to the exclusion of other forms of art, has turned back to
the stage as its channel to articulation and an audience. An influence
from abroad set it in motion. The plays of Ibsen--produced, the best of
them, in the eighties of last century--came to England in the nineties.
In a way, perhaps, they were misunderstood by their worshippers hardly
less than by their enemies, but all excrescences of enthusiasm apart
they taught men a new and freer approach to moral questions, and a new
and freer dramatic technique. Where plays had been constructed on a
journeyman plan evolved by Labiche and Sardou--mid-nineteenth century
writers in France--a plan delighting in symmetry, close-jointedness,
false correspondences, an impossible use of coincidence, and a quite
unreal complexity and elaboration, they become bolder and less
artificial, more close to the likelihoods of real life. The gravity of
the problems with which they set themselves to deal heightened their
influence. In England men began to ask themselves whether the theatre
here too could not be made an avenue towards the discussion of living
difficulties, and then arose the new school of dramatists--of whom the
first and most remarkable is Mr. George Bernard Shaw. In his earlier
plays he set himself boldly to attack established conventions, and to
ask his audiences to think for themselves. _Arms and the Man_ dealt a
blow at the cheap romanticism with which a peace-living public invests
the profession of arms; _The Devil's Disciple_ was a shrewd criticism of
the preposterous self-sacrifice on which melodrama, which is the most
popular non-literary form of play-writing, is commonly based; _Mrs.
Warren's Profession_ made a brave and plain-spoken attempt to drag the
public face to face with the nauseous realities of prostitution;
_Widowers' Houses_ laid bare the sordidness of a Society which bases
itself on the exploitation of the poor for the luxuries of the rich. It
took Mr. Shaw close on ten years to persuade even the moderate number of
men and women who make up a theatre audience that his plays were worth
listening to. But before his final success came he had attained a
substantial popularity with the public which reads. Possibly his early
failure on the stage--mainly due to the obstinacy of playgoers immersed
in a stock tradition--was partly due also to his failure in constructive
power. He is an adept at tying knots and impatient of unravelling them;
his third acts are apt either to evaporate in talk or to find some
unreal and unsatisfactory solution for the complexity he has created.
But constructive weakness apart, his amazing brilliance and fecundity of
dialogue ought to have given him an immediate and lasting grip of the
stage. There has probably never been a dramatist who could invest
conversation with the same vivacity and point, the same combination of
surprise and inevitableness that distinguishes his best work.

Alongside of Mr. Shaw more immediately successful, and not traceable to
any obvious influence, English or foreign, came the comedies of Oscar
Wilde. For a parallel to their pure delight and high spirits, and to the
exquisite wit and artifice with which they were constructed, one would
have to go back to the dramatists of the Restoration. To Congreve and
his school, indeed, Wilde belongs rather than to any later period. With
his own age he had little in common; he was without interest in its
social and moral problems; when he approved of socialism it was because
in a socialist state the artist might be absolved from the necessity of
carrying a living, and be free to follow his art undisturbed. He loved
to think of himself as symbolic, but all he symbolized was a fantasy of
his own creating; his attitude to his age was decorative and withdrawn
rather than representative. He was the licensed jester to society, and
in that capacity he gave us his plays. Mr. Shaw may be said to have
founded a school; at any rate he gave the start to Mr. Galsworthy and
some lesser dramatists. Wilde founded nothing, and his works remain as
complete and separate as those of the earlier artificial dramatists of
two centuries before.

Another school of drama, homogeneous and quite apart from the rest,
remains. We have seen how the "Celtic Revival," as the Irish literary
movement has been called by its admirers, gave us a new kind of romantic
poetry. As an offshoot from it there came into being some ten years ago
an Irish school of drama, drawing its inspiration from two sources--the
body of the old Irish legends and the highly individualized and
richly-coloured life of the Irish peasants in the mountains of Wicklow
and of the West, a life, so the dramatists believed, still unspoiled by
the deepening influences of a false system of education and the wear
and tear of a civilization whose values are commercial and not spiritual
or artistic. The school founded its own theatre, trained its own actors,
fashioned its own modes of speech (the chief of which was a frank
restoration of rhythm in the speaking of verse and of cadence in prose),
and having all these things it produced a series of plays all directed
to its special ends, and all composed and written with a special
fidelity to country life as it has been preserved, or to what it
conceived to be the spirit of Irish folk-legend. It reached its zenith
quickly, and as far as the production of plays is concerned, it would
seem to be already in its decline. That is to say, what in the beginning
was a fresh and vivid inspiration caught direct from life has become a
pattern whose colours and shape can be repeated or varied by lesser
writers who take their teaching from the original discoverers. But in
the course of its brief and striking course it produced one great
dramatist--a writer whom already not three years after his death, men
instinctively class with the masters of his art.

J.M. Synge, in the earlier years of his manhood, lived entirely abroad,
leading the life of a wandering scholar from city to city and country to
country till he was persuaded to give up the Continent and the criticism
and imitation of French literature, to return to England, and to go and
live on the Aran Islands. From that time till his death--some ten
years--he spent a large part of each year amongst the peasantry of the


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