Essays in Little
Part 1 out of 4
This etext was prepared from the 1891 Henry and Co. edition
by David Price, email email@example.com
Essays in Little
by Andrew Lang
Mr. Stevenson's works
Thomas Haynes Bayly
Theodore de Banville
Homer and the Study of Greek
The Last Fashionable Novel
Adventures of Buccaneers
Charles Lever: His books, adventures and misfortunes
The poems of Sir Walter Scott
To a Young Journalist
Mr. Kipling's stories
Of the following essays, five are new, and were written for this
volume. They are the paper on Mr. R. L. Stevenson, the "Letter to a
Young Journalist," the study of Mr. Kipling, the note on Homer, and
"The Last Fashionable Novel." The article on the author of "Oh, no!
we never mention Her," appeared in the New York Sun, and was
suggested by Mr. Dana, the editor of that journal. The papers on
Thackeray and Dickens were published in Good Words, that on Dumas
appeared in Scribner's Magazine, that on M. Theodore de Banville in
The New Quarterly Review. The other essays were originally written
for a newspaper "Syndicate." They have been re-cast, augmented,
and, to a great extent, re-written.
Alexandre Dumas is a writer, and his life is a topic, of which his
devotees never weary. Indeed, one lifetime is not long enough
wherein to tire of them. The long days and years of Hilpa and
Shalum, in Addison--the antediluvian age, when a picnic lasted for
half a century and a courtship for two hundred years, might have
sufficed for an exhaustive study of Dumas. No such study have I to
offer, in the brief seasons of our perishable days. I own that I
have not read, and do not, in the circumstances, expect to read, all
of Dumas, nor even the greater part of his thousand volumes. We
only dip a cup in that sparkling spring, and drink, and go on,--we
cannot hope to exhaust the fountain, nor to carry away with us the
well itself. It is but a word of gratitude and delight that we can
say to the heroic and indomitable master, only an ave of friendship
that we can call across the bourne to the shade of the Porthos of
fiction. That his works (his best works) should be even still more
widely circulated than they are; that the young should read them,
and learn frankness, kindness, generosity--should esteem the tender
heart, and the gay, invincible wit; that the old should read them
again, and find forgetfulness of trouble, and taste the anodyne of
dreams, that is what we desire.
Dumas said of himself ("Memoires," v. 13) that when he was young he
tried several times to read forbidden books--books that are sold
sous le manteau. But he never got farther than the tenth page, in
"scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type;"
he never made his way so far as
"the woful sixteenth print."
"I had, thank God, a natural sentiment of delicacy; and thus, out of
my six hundred volumes (in 1852) there are not four which the most
scrupulous mother may not give to her daughter." Much later, in
1864, when the Censure threatened one of his plays, he wrote to the
Emperor: "Of my twelve hundred volumes there is not one which a
girl in our most modest quarter, the Faubourg Saint-Germain, may not
be allowed to read." The mothers of the Faubourg, and mothers in
general, may not take Dumas exactly at his word. There is a
passage, for example, in the story of Miladi ("Les Trois
Mousquetaires") which a parent or guardian may well think
undesirable reading for youth. But compare it with the original
passage in the "Memoires" of D'Artagnan! It has passed through a
medium, as Dumas himself declared, of natural delicacy and good
taste. His enormous popularity, the widest in the world of letters,
owes absolutely nothing to prurience or curiosity. The air which he
breathes is a healthy air, is the open air; and that by his own
choice, for he had every temptation to seek another kind of vogue,
and every opportunity.
Two anecdotes are told of Dumas' books, one by M. Edmond About, the
other by his own son, which show, in brief space, why this novelist
is so beloved, and why he deserves our affection and esteem. M.
Villaud, a railway engineer who had lived much in Italy, Russia, and
Spain, was the person whose enthusiasm finally secured a statue for
Dumas. He felt so much gratitude to the unknown friend of lonely
nights in long exiles, that he could not be happy till his gratitude
found a permanent expression. On returning to France he went to
consult M. Victor Borie, who told him this tale about George Sand.
M. Borie chanced to visit the famous novelist just before her death,
and found Dumas' novel, "Les Quarante Cinq" (one of the cycle about
the Valois kings) lying on her table. He expressed his wonder that
she was reading it for the first time.
"For the first time!--why, this is the fifth or sixth time I have
read 'Les Quarante Cinq,' and the others. When I am ill, anxious,
melancholy, tired, discouraged, nothing helps me against moral or
physical troubles like a book of Dumas." Again, M. About says that
M. Sarcey was in the same class at school with a little Spanish boy.
The child was homesick; he could not eat, he could not sleep; he was
almost in a decline.
"You want to see your mother?" said young Sarcey.
"No: she is dead."
"Your father, then?"
" No: he used to beat me."
"Your brothers and sisters?"
"I have none."
"Then why are you so eager to be back in Spain?"
"To finish a book I began in the holidays."
"And what was its name?"
"'Los Tres Mosqueteros'!"
He was homesick for "The Three Musketeers," and they cured him
That is what Dumas does. He gives courage and life to old age, he
charms away the half-conscious nostalgie, the Heimweh, of childhood.
We are all homesick, in the dark days and black towns, for the land
of blue skies and brave adventures in forests, and in lonely inns,
on the battle-field, in the prison, on the desert isle. And then
Dumas comes, and, like Argive Helen, in Homer, he casts a drug into
the wine, the drug nepenthe, "that puts all evil out of mind." Does
any one suppose that when George Sand was old and tired, and near
her death, she would have found this anodyne, and this stimulant, in
the novels of M. Tolstoi, M. Dostoiefsky, M. Zola, or any of the
"scientific" observers whom we are actually requested to hail as the
masters of a new art, the art of the future? Would they make her
laugh, as Chicot does? make her forget, as Porthos, Athos, and
Aramis do? take her away from the heavy, familiar time, as the
enchanter Dumas takes us? No; let it be enough for these new
authors to be industrious, keen, accurate, precieux, pitiful,
charitable, veracious; but give us high spirits now and then, a
light heart, a sharp sword, a fair wench, a good horse, or even that
old Gascon rouncy of D'Artagnan's. Like the good Lord James
Douglas, we had liefer hear the lark sing over moor and down, with
Chicot, than listen to the starved-mouse squeak in the bouge of
Therese Raquin, with M. Zola. Not that there is not a place and an
hour for him, and others like him; but they are not, if you please,
to have the whole world to themselves, and all the time, and all the
praise; they are not to turn the world into a dissecting-room, time
into tedium, and the laurels of Scott and Dumas into crowns of
There is no complete life of Alexandre Dumas. The age has not
produced the intellectual athlete who can gird himself up for that
labour. One of the worst books that ever was written, if it can be
said to be written, is, I think, the English attempt at a biography
of Dumas. Style, grammar, taste, feeling, are all bad. The author
does not so much write a life as draw up an indictment. The spirit
of his work is grudging, sneering, contemptuous, and pitifully
peddling. The great charge is that Dumas was a humbug, that he was
not the author of his own books, that his books were written by
"collaborators"--above all, by M. Maquet. There is no doubt that
Dumas had a regular system of collaboration, which he never
concealed. But whereas Dumas could turn out books that live,
whoever his assistants were, could any of his assistants write books
that live, without Dumas? One might as well call any barrister in
good practice a thief and an impostor because he has juniors to
"devil" for him, as make charges of this kind against Dumas. He
once asked his son to help him; the younger Alexandre declined. "It
is worth a thousand a year, and you have only to make objections,"
the sire urged; but the son was not to be tempted. Some excellent
novelists of to-day would be much better if they employed a friend
to make objections. But, as a rule, the collaborator did much more.
Dumas' method, apparently, was first to talk the subject over with
his aide-de-camp. This is an excellent practice, as ideas are
knocked out, like sparks (an elderly illustration!), by the contact
of minds. Then the young man probably made researches, put a rough
sketch on paper, and supplied Dumas, as it were, with his "brief."
Then Dumas took the "brief" and wrote the novel. He gave it life,
he gave it the spark (l'etincelle); and the story lived and moved.
It is true that he "took his own where he found it," like Molere and
that he took a good deal. In the gallery of an old country-house,
on a wet day, I came once on the "Memoires" of D'Artagnan, where
they had lain since the family bought them in Queen Anne's time.
There were our old friends the Musketeers, and there were many of
their adventures, told at great length and breadth. But how much
more vivacious they are in Dumas! M. About repeats a story of
Dumas and his ways of work. He met the great man at Marseilles,
where, indeed, Alexandre chanced to be "on with the new love" before
being completely "off with the old." Dumas picked up M. About,
literally lifted him in his embrace, and carried him off to see a
play which he had written in three days. The play was a success;
the supper was prolonged till three in the morning; M. About was
almost asleep as he walked home, but Dumas was as fresh as if he had
just got out of bed. "Go to sleep, old man," he said: "I, who am
only fifty-five, have three feuilletons to write, which must be
posted to-morrow. If I have time I shall knock up a little piece
for Montigny--the idea is running in my head." So next morning M.
About saw the three feuilletons made up for the post, and another
packet addressed to M. Montigny: it was the play L'Invitation e la
Valse, a chef-d'oeuvre! Well, the material had been prepared for
Dumas. M. About saw one of his novels at Marseilles in the
chrysalis. It was a stout copy-book full of paper, composed by a
practised hand, on the master's design. Dumas copied out each
little leaf on a big leaf of paper, en y semant l'esprit e pleines
mains. This was his method. As a rule, in collaboration, one man
does the work while the other looks on. Is it likely that Dumas
looked on? That was not the manner of Dumas. "Mirecourt and
others," M. About says, "have wept crocodile tears for the
collaborators, the victims of his glory and his talent. But it is
difficult to lament over the survivors (1884). The master neither
took their money--for they are rich, nor their fame--for they are
celebrated, nor their merit--for they had and still have plenty.
And they never bewailed their fate: the reverse! The proudest
congratulate themselves on having been at so good a school; and M.
Auguste Maquet, the chief of them, speaks with real reverence and
affection of his great friend." And M. About writes "as one who had
taken the master red-handed, and in the act of collaboration."
Dumas has a curious note on collaboration in his "Souvenirs
Dramatiques." Of the two men at work together, "one is always the
dupe, and HE is the man of talent."
There is no biography of Dumas, but the small change of a biography
exists in abundance. There are the many volumes of his "Memoires,"
there are all the tomes he wrote on his travels and adventures in
Africa, Spain, Italy, Russia; the book he wrote on his beasts; the
romance of Ange Pitou, partly autobiographical; and there are plenty
of little studies by people who knew him. As to his "Memoires," as
to all he wrote about himself, of course his imagination entered
into the narrative. Like Scott, when he had a good story he liked
to dress it up with a cocked hat and a sword. Did he perform all
those astonishing and innumerable feats of strength, skill, courage,
address, in revolutions, in voyages, in love, in war, in cookery?
The narrative need not be taken "at the foot of the letter"; great
as was his force and his courage, his fancy was greater still.
There is no room for a biography of him here. His descent was noble
on one side, with or without the bend sinister, which he said he
would never have disclaimed, had it been his, but which he did not
happen to inherit. On the other side he MAY have descended from
kings; but, as in the case of "The Fair Cuban," he must have added,
"African, unfortunately." Did his father perform these mythical
feats of strength? did he lift up a horse between his legs while
clutching a rafter with his hands? did he throw his regiment before
him over a wall, as Guy Heavistone threw the mare which refused the
leap ("Memoires," i. 122)? No doubt Dumas believed what he heard
about this ancestor--in whom, perhaps, one may see a hint of the
giant Porthos. In the Revolution and in the wars his father won the
name of Monsieur de l'Humanite, because he made a bonfire of a
guillotine; and of Horatius Cocles, because he held a pass as
bravely as the Roman "in the brave days of old."
This was a father to be proud of; and pluck, tenderness, generosity,
strength, remained the favourite virtues of Dumas. These he
preached and practised. They say he was generous before he was
just; it is to be feared this was true, but he gave even more freely
than he received. A regiment of seedy people sponged on him always;
he could not listen to a tale of misery but he gave what he had, and
sometimes left himself short of a dinner. He could not even turn a
dog out of doors. At his Abbotsford, "Monte Cristo," the gates were
open to everybody but bailiffs. His dog asked other dogs to come
and stay: twelve came, making thirteen in all. The old butler
wanted to turn them adrift, and Dumas consented, and repented.
"Michel," he said, "there are some expenses which a man's social
position and the character which he has had the ill-luck to receive
from heaven force upon him. I don't believe these dogs ruin me.
Let them bide! But, in the interests of their own good luck, see
they are not thirteen, an unfortunate number!"
"Monsieur, I'll drive one of them away."
"No, no, Michel; let a fourteenth come. These dogs cost me some
three pounds a month," said Dumas. "A dinner to five or six friends
would cost thrice as much, and, when they went home, they would say
my wine was good, but certainly that my books were bad." In this
fashion Dumas fared royally "to the dogs," and his Abbotsford ruined
him as certainly as that other unhappy palace ruined Sir Walter.
He, too, had his miscellaneous kennel; he, too, gave while he had
anything to give, and, when he had nothing else, gave the work of
his pen. Dumas tells how his big dog, Mouton once flew at him and
bit one of his hands, while the other held the throat of the brute.
"Luckily my hand, though small, is powerful; what it once holds it
holds long--money excepted." He could not "haud a guid grip o' the
gear." Neither Scott nor Dumas could shut his ears to a prayer or
his pockets to a beggar, or his doors on whoever knocked at them.
"I might at least have asked him to dinner," Scott was heard
murmuring, when some insufferable bore at last left Abbotsford,
after wasting his time and nearly wearing out his patience. Neither
man PREACHED socialism; both practised it on the Aristotelian
principle: the goods of friends are common, and men are our
The death of Dumas' father, while the son was a child, left Madame
Dumas in great poverty at Villers Cotterets. Dumas' education was
sadly to seek. Like most children destined to be bookish, he taught
himself to read very young: in Buffon, the Bible, and books of
mythology. He knew all about Jupiter--like David Copperfield's Tom
Jones, "a child's Jupiter, an innocent creature"--all about every
god, goddess, fawn, dryad, nymph--and he never forgot this useful
information. Dear Lempriere, thou art superseded; but how much more
delightful thou art than the fastidious Smith or the learned
Preller! Dumas had one volume of the "Arabian Nights," with
Aladdin's lamp therein, the sacred lamp which he was to keep burning
with a flame so brilliant and so steady. It is pleasant to know
that, in his boyhood, this great romancer loved Virgil. "Little as
is my Latin, I have ever adored Virgil: his tenderness for exiles,
his melancholy vision of death, his foreboding of an unknown God,
have always moved me; the melody of his verses charmed me most, and
they lull me still between asleep and awake." School days did not
last long: Madame Dumas got a little post--a licence to sell
tobacco--and at fifteen Dumas entered a notary's office, like his
great Scotch forerunner. He was ignorant of his vocation for the
stage--Racine and Corneille fatigued him prodigiously--till he saw
Hamlet: Hamlet diluted by Ducis. He had never heard of
Shakespeare, but here was something he could appreciate. Here was
"a profound impression, full of inexplicable emotion, vague desires,
fleeting lights, that, so far, lit up only a chaos."
Oddly enough, his earliest literary essay was the translation of
Burger's "Lenore." Here, again, he encounters Scott; but Scott
translated the ballad, and Dumas failed. Les mortes vont vite! the
same refrain woke poetry in both the Frenchman and the Scotchman.
"Ha! ha! the Dead can ride with speed:
Dost fear to ride with me?"
So Dumas' literary career began with a defeat, but it was always a
beginning. He had just failed with "Lenore," when Leuven asked him
to collaborate in a play. He was utterly ignorant, he says; he had
not succeeded in gallant efforts to read through "Gil Blas" and "Don
Quixote." "To my shame," he writes, "the man has not been more
fortunate with those masterpieces than the boy." He had not yet
heard of Scott, Cooper, Goethe; he had heard of Shakespeare only as
a barbarian. Other plays the boy wrote--failures, of course--and
then Dumas poached his way to Paris, shooting partridges on the
road, and paying the hotel expenses by his success in the chase. He
was introduced to the great Talma: what a moment for Talma, had he
known it! He saw the theatres. He went home, but returned to
Paris, drew a small prize in a lottery, and sat next a gentleman at
the play, a gentleman who read the rarest of Elzevirs, "Le
Pastissier Francais," and gave him a little lecture on Elzevirs in
general. Soon this gentleman began to hiss the piece, and was
turned out. He was Charles Nodier, and one of the anonymous authors
of the play he was hissing! I own that this amusing chapter lacks
verisimilitude. It reads as if Dumas had chanced to "get up" the
subject of Elzevirs, and had fashioned his new knowledge into a
little story. He could make a story out of anything--he "turned all
to favour and to prettiness." Could I translate the whole passage,
and print it here, it would be longer than this article; but, ah,
how much more entertaining! For whatever Dumas did he did with such
life, spirit, wit, he told it with such vivacity, that his whole
career is one long romance of the highest quality. Lassagne told
him he must read--must read Goethe, Scott, Cooper, Froissart,
Joinville, Brantome. He read them to some purpose. He entered the
service of the Duc d'Orleans as a clerk, for he wrote a clear hand,
and, happily, wrote at astonishing speed. He is said to have
written a short play in a cottage where he went to rest for an hour
or two after shooting all the morning. The practice in a notary's
office stood him, as it stood Scott, in good stead. When a dog bit
his hand he managed to write a volume without using his thumb. I
have tried it, but forbear--in mercy to the printers. He performed
wild feats of rapid caligraphy when a clerk under the Duc d'Orleans,
and he wrote his plays in one "hand," his novels in another. The
"hand" used in his dramas he acquired when, in days of poverty, he
used to write in bed. To this habit he also attributed the
brutalite of his earlier pieces, but there seems to be no good
reason why a man should write like a brute because it is in bed that
In those days of small things he fought his first duel, and made a
study of Fear and Courage. His earliest impulse was to rush at
danger; if he had to wait, he felt his courage oozing out at the
tips of his fingers, like Bob Acres, but in the moment of peril he
was himself again. In dreams he was a coward, because, as he
argues, the natural man IS a poltroon, and conscience, honour, all
the spiritual and commanding part of our nature, goes to sleep in
dreams. The animal terror asserts itself unchecked. It is a theory
not without exceptions. In dreams one has plenty of conscience (at
least that is my experience), though it usually takes the form of
remorse. And in dreams one often affronts dangers which, in waking
hours, one might probably avoid if one could.
Dumas' first play, an unimportant vaudeville, was acted in 1825.
His first novels were also published then; he took part of the risk,
and only four copies were sold. He afterward used the ideas in more
mature works, as Mr. Sheridan Le Fanu employed three or four times
(with perfect candour and fairness) the most curious incident in
"Uncle Silas." Like Mr. Arthur Pendennis, Dumas at this time wrote
poetry "up to" pictures and illustrations. It is easy, but seldom
lucrative work. He translated a play of Schiller's into French
verse, chiefly to gain command of that vehicle, for his heart was
fixed on dramatic success. Then came the visit of Kean and other
English actors to Paris. He saw the true Hamlet, and, for the first
time on any stage, "the play of real passions." Emulation woke in
him: a casual work of art led him to the story of Christina of
Sweden, he wrote his play Christine (afterward reconstructed); he
read it to Baron Taylor, who applauded; the Comedie Francaise
accepted it, but a series of intrigues disappointed him, after all.
His energy at this moment was extraordinary, for he was very poor,
his mother had a stroke of paralysis, his bureau was always bullying
and interfering with him. But nothing could snub this "force of
nature," and he immediately produced his Henri Trois, the first
romantic drama of France. This had an instant and noisy success,
and the first night of the play he spent at the theatre, and at the
bedside of his unconscious mother. The poor lady could not even
understand whence the flowers came that he laid on her couch, the
flowers thrown to the young man--yesterday unknown, and to-day the
most famous of contemporary names. All this tale of triumph,
checkered by enmities and diversified by duels, Dumas tells with the
vigour and wit of his novels. He is his own hero, and loses nothing
in the process; but the other characters--Taylor, Nodier, the Duc
d'Orleans, the spiteful press-men, the crabbed old officials--all
live like the best of the persons in his tales. They call Dumas
vain: he had reason to be vain, and no candid or generous reader
will be shocked by his pleasant, frank, and artless enjoyment of
himself and of his adventures. Oddly enough, they are small-minded
and small-hearted people who are most shocked by what they call
"vanity" in the great. Dumas' delight in himself and his doings is
only the flower of his vigorous existence, and in his "Memoires," at
least, it is as happy and encouraging as his laugh, or the laugh of
Porthos; it is a kind of radiance, in which others, too, may bask
and enjoy themselves. And yet it is resented by tiny scribblers,
frozen in their own chill self-conceit.
There is nothing incredible (if modern researches are accurate) in
the stories he tells of his own success in Hypnotism, as it is
called now, Mesmerism or Magnetism as it was called then. Who was
likely to possess these powers, if not this good-humoured natural
force? "I believe that, by aid of magnetism, a bad man might do
much mischief. I doubt whether, by help of magnetism, a good man
can do the slightest good," he says, probably with perfect justice.
His dramatic success fired Victor Hugo, and very pleasant it is to
read Dumas' warm-hearted praise of that great poet. Dumas had no
jealousy--no more than Scott. As he believed in no success without
talent, so he disbelieved in genius which wins no success. "Je ne
crois pas au talent ignore, au genie inconnu, moi." Genius he
saluted wherever he met it, but was incredulous about invisible and
inaudible genius; and I own to sharing his scepticism. People who
complain of Dumas' vanity may be requested to observe that he seems
just as "vain" of Hugo's successes, or of Scribe's, as of his own,
and just as much delighted by them.
He was now struck, as he walked on the boulevard one day, by the
first idea of Antony--an idea which, to be fair, seems rather absurd
than tragic, to some tastes. "A lover, caught with a married woman,
kills her to save her character, and dies on the scaffold." Here is
indeed a part to tear a cat in!
The performances of M. Dumas during the Revolution of 1830, are they
not written in the Book of the Chronicles of Alexandre the Great?
But they were not literary excellences which he then displayed, and
we may leave this king-maker to hover, "like an eagle, above the
storms of anarchy."
Even to sketch his later biography is beyond our province. In 1830
he had forty years to run, and he filled the cup of the Hours to the
brim with activity and adventure. His career was one of
unparalleled production, punctuated by revolutions, voyages, exiles,
and other intervals of repose. The tales he tells of his prowess in
1830, and with Garibaldi, seem credible to me, and are borne out, so
far, by the narrative of M. Maxime Ducamp, who met him at Naples, in
the Garibaldian camp. Like Mr. Jingle, in "Pickwick," he "banged
the field-piece, twanged the lyre," and was potting at the foes of
the republic with a double-barrelled gun, when he was not composing
plays, romances, memoirs, criticisms. He has told the tale of his
adventures with the Comedie Francaise, where the actors laughed at
his Antony, and where Madame Mars and he quarrelled and made it up
again. His plays often won an extravagant success; his novels--his
great novels, that is--made all Europe his friend. He gained large
sums of money, which flowed out of his fingers, though it is said by
some that his Abbotsford, Monte Cristo, was no more a palace than
the villa which a retired tradesman builds to shelter his old age.
But the money disappeared as fast as if Monte Cristo had really been
palatial, and worthy of the fantasy of a Nero. He got into debt,
fled to Belgium, returned, founded the Mousquetaire, a literary
paper of the strangest and most shiftless kind. In "Alexandre Dumas
e la Maison d'Or," M. Philibert Audebrand tells the tale of this
Micawber of newspapers. Everything went into it, good or bad, and
the name of Dumas was expected to make all current coin. For Dumas,
unluckily, was as prodigal of his name as of his gold, and no
reputation could bear the drafts he made on his celebrity. His son
says, in the preface to Le Fils Naturel: "Tragedy, dramas, history,
romance, comedy, travel, you cast all of them in the furnace and the
mould of your brain, and you peopled the world of fiction with new
creations. The newspaper, the book, the theatre, burst asunder, too
narrow for your puissant shoulders; you fed France, Europe, America
with your works; you made the wealth of publishers, translators,
plagiarists; printers and copyists toiled after you in vain. In the
fever of production you did not always try and prove the metal which
you employed, and sometimes you tossed into the furnace whatever
came to your hand. The fire made the selection: what was your own
is bronze, what was not yours vanished in smoke."
The simile is noble and worthy of the Cyclopean craftsman, Dumas.
His great works endured; the plays which renewed the youth of the
French stage, the novels which Thackeray loved to praise, these
remain, and we trust they may always remain, to the delight of
mankind and for the sorrow of prigs.
So much has been written of Dumas' novels that criticism can hardly
hope to say more that is both new and true about them. It is
acknowledged that, in such a character as Henri III., Dumas made
history live, as magically as Scott revived the past in his Louis
XI., or Balfour of Burley. It is admitted that Dumas' good tales
are told with a vigour and life which rejoice the heart; that his
narrative is never dull, never stands still, but moves with a
freedom of adventure which perhaps has no parallel. He may fall
short of the humour, the kindly wisdom, the genial greatness of Sir
Walter at his best, and he has not that supernatural touch, that
tragic grandeur, which Scott inherits from Homer and from
Shakespeare. In another Homeric quality, [Greek text], as Homer
himself calls it, in the "delight of battle" and the spirit of the
fray, Scott and Dumas are alike masters. Their fights and the
fights in the Icelandic sagas are the best that have ever been drawn
by mortal man. When swords are aloft, in siege or on the
greensward, or in the midnight chamber where an ambush is laid,
Scott and Dumas are indeed themselves. The steel rings, the
bucklers clash, the parry and lunge pass and answer too swift for
the sight. If Dumas has not, as he certainly has not, the noble
philosophy and kindly knowledge of the heart which are Scott's, he
is far more swift, more witty, more diverting. He is not prolix,
his style is not involved, his dialogue is as rapid and keen as an
assault at arms. His favourite virtues and graces, we repeat it,
are loyalty, friendship, gaiety, generosity, courage, beauty, and
strength. He is himself the friend of the big, stupid, excellent
Porthos; of Athos, the noble and melancholy swordsman of sorrow; of
D'Artagnan, the indomitable, the trusty, the inexhaustible in
resource; but his heart is never on the side of the shifty Aramis,
with all his beauty, dexterity, bravery, and brilliance. The brave
Bussy, and the chivalrous, the doomed La Mole, are more dear to him;
and if he embellishes their characters, giving them charms and
virtues that never were theirs, history loses nothing, and romance
and we are the gainers. In all he does, at his best, as in the
"Chevalier d'Harmenthal," he has movement, kindness, courage, and
gaiety. His philosophy of life is that old philosophy of the sagas
and of Homer. Let us enjoy the movement of the fray, the faces of
fair women, the taste of good wine; let us welcome life like a
mistress, let us welcome death like a friend, and with a jest--if
death comes with honour.
Dumas is no pessimist. "Heaven has made but one drama for man--the
world," he writes, "and during these three thousand years mankind
has been hissing it." It is certain that, if a moral censorship
could have prevented it, this great drama of mortal passions would
never have been licensed, at all, never performed. But Dumas, for
one, will not hiss it, but applauds with all his might--a charmed
spectator, a fortunate actor in the eternal piece, where all the men
and women are only players. You hear his manly laughter, you hear
his mighty hands approving, you see the tears he sheds when he had
"slain Porthos"--great tears like those of Pantagruel.
His may not be the best, nor the ultimate philosophy, but it IS a
philosophy, and one of which we may some day feel the want. I read
the stilted criticisms, the pedantic carpings of some modern men who
cannot write their own language, and I gather that Dumas is out of
date. There is a new philosophy of doubts and delicacies, of
dallyings and refinements, of half-hearted lookers-on, desiring and
fearing some new order of the world. Dumas does not dally nor
doubt: he takes his side, he rushes into the smoke, he strikes his
foe; but there is never an unkind word on his lip, nor a grudging
thought in his heart.
It may be said that Dumas is not a master of words and phrases, that
he is not a raffine of expression, nor a jeweller of style. When I
read the maunderings, the stilted and staggering sentences, the
hesitating phrases, the far-sought and dear-bought and worthless
word-juggles; the sham scientific verbiage, the native pedantries of
many modern so-called "stylists," I rejoice that Dumas was not one
of these. He told a plain tale, in the language suited to a plain
tale, with abundance of wit and gaiety, as in the reflections of his
Chicot, as in all his dialogues. But he did not gnaw the end of his
pen in search of some word that nobody had ever used in this or that
connection before. The right word came to him, the simple
straightforward phrase. Epithet-hunting may be a pretty sport, and
the bag of the epithet-hunter may contain some agreeable epigrams
and rare specimens of style; but a plain tale of adventure, of love
and war, needs none of this industry, and is even spoiled by
inopportune diligence. Speed, directness, lucidity are the
characteristics of Dumas' style, and they are exactly the
characteristics which his novels required. Scott often failed, his
most loyal admirers may admit, in these essentials; but it is rarely
that Dumas fails, when he is himself and at his best.
In spite of his heedless education, Dumas had true critical
qualities, and most admired the best things. We have already seen
how he writes about Shakespeare, Virgil, Goethe, Scott. But it may
be less familiarly known that this burly man-of-all-work, ignorant
as he was of Greek, had a true and keen appreciation of Homer.
Dumas declares that he only thrice criticised his contemporaries in
an unfavourable sense, and as one wishful to find fault. The
victims were Casimir Delavigne, Scribe, and Ponsard. On each
occasion Dumas declares that, after reflecting, he saw that he was
moved by a little personal pique, not by a disinterested love of
art. He makes his confession with a rare nobility of candour; and
yet his review of Ponsard is worthy of him. M. Ponsard, who, like
Dumas, was no scholar, wrote a play styled Ulysse, and borrowed from
the Odyssey. Dumas follows Ponsard, Odyssey in hand, and while he
proves that the dramatist failed to understand Homer, proves that he
himself was, in essentials, a capable Homeric critic. Dumas
understands that far-off heroic age. He lives in its life and
sympathises with its temper. Homer and he are congenial; across the
great gulf of time they exchange smiles and a salute.
"Oh! ancient Homer, dear and good and noble, I am minded now and
again to leave all and translate thee--I, who have never a word of
Greek--so empty and so dismal are the versions men make of thee, in
verse or in prose."
How Dumas came to divine Homer, as it were, through a language he
knew not, who shall say? He DID divine him by a natural sympathy of
excellence, and his chapters on the "Ulysse" of Ponsard are worth a
wilderness of notes by learned and most un-Homeric men. For,
indeed, who can be less like the heroic minstrel than the academic
This universality deserves note. The Homeric student who takes up a
volume of Dumas at random finds that he is not only Homeric
naturally, but that he really knows his Homer. What did he nor
know? His rapidity in reading must have been as remarkable as his
pace with the pen. As M. Blaze de Bury says: "Instinct,
experience, memory were all his; he sees at a glance, he compares in
a flash, he understands without conscious effort, he forgets nothing
that he has read." The past and present are photographed
imperishably on his brain, he knows the manners of all ages and all
countries, the names of all the arms that men have used, all the
garments they have worn, all the dishes they have tasted, all the
terms of all professions, from swordsmanship to coach-building.
Other authors have to wait, and hunt for facts; nothing stops Dumas:
he knows and remembers everything. Hence his rapidity, his
facility, his positive delight in labour: hence it came that he
might be heard, like Dickens, laughing while he worked.
This is rather a eulogy than a criticism of Dumas. His faults are
on the surface, visible to all men. He was not only rapid, he was
hasty, he was inconsistent; his need of money as well as his love of
work made him put his hand to dozens of perishable things. A
beginner, entering the forest of Dumas' books, may fail to see the
trees for the wood. He may be counselled to select first the cycle
of d'Artagnan--the "Musketeers," "Twenty Years After," and the
"Vicomte de Bragelonne." Mr. Stevenson's delightful essay on the
last may have sent many readers to it; I confess to preferring the
youth of the "Musketeers" to their old age. Then there is the cycle
of the Valois, whereof the "Dame de Monsereau" is the best--perhaps
the best thing Dumas ever wrote. The "Tulipe Noire" is a novel
girls may read, as Thackeray said, with confidence. The "Chevalier
d'Harmenthal" is nearly (not quite) as good as "Quentin Durward."
"Monte Cristo" has the best beginning--and loses itself in the
sands. The novels on the Revolution are not among the most
alluring: the famed device "L. P. D." (lilia pedibus destrue) has
the bad luck to suggest "London Parcels Delivery." That is an
accident, but the Revolution is in itself too terrible and pitiful,
and too near us (on both sides!) for fiction.
On Dumas' faults it has been no pleasure to dwell. In a recent work
I find the Jesuit Le Moyne quoted, saying about Charles V.: "What
need that future ages should be made acquainted so religious an
Emperor was not always chaste!" The same reticence allures one in
regard to so delightful an author as Dumas. He who had enriched so
many died poor; he who had told of conquering France, died during
the Terrible Year. But he could forgive, could appreciate, the
valour of an enemy. Of the Scotch at Waterloo he writes: "It was
not enough to kill them: we had to push them down." Dead, they
still stood "shoulder to shoulder." In the same generous temper an
English cavalry officer wrote home, after Waterloo, that he would
gladly have given the rest of his life to have served, on that day,
in our infantry or in the French cavalry. These are the spirits
that warm the heart, that make us all friends; and to the great, the
brave, the generous Dumas we cry, across the years and across the
tomb, our Ave atque vale!
MR. STEVENSON'S WORKS
Perhaps the first quality in Mr. Stevenson's works, now so many and
so various, which strikes a reader, is the buoyancy, the survival of
the child in him. He has told the world often, in prose and verse,
how vivid are his memories of his own infancy. This retention of
childish recollections he shares, no doubt, with other people of
genius: for example, with George Sand, whose legend of her own
infancy is much more entertaining, and perhaps will endure longer,
than her novels. Her youth, like Scott's and like Mr. Stevenson's,
was passed all in fantasy: in playing at being some one else, in
the invention of imaginary characters, who were living to her, in
the fabrication of endless unwritten romances. Many persons, who do
not astonish the world by their genius, have lived thus in their
earliest youth. But, at a given moment, the fancy dies out of them:
this often befalls imaginative boys in their first year at school.
"Many are called, few chosen"; but it may be said with probable
truth, that there has never been a man of genius in letters, whose
boyhood was not thus fantastic, "an isle of dreams." We know how
Scott and De Quincey inhabited airy castles; and Gillies tells us,
though Lockhart does not, that Scott, in manhood, was occasionally
so lost in thought, that he knew not where he was nor what he was
The peculiarity of Mr. Stevenson is not only to have been a
fantastic child, and to retain, in maturity, that fantasy ripened
into imagination: he has also kept up the habit of dramatising
everything, of playing, half consciously, many parts, of making the
world "an unsubstantial fairy place." This turn of mind it is that
causes his work occasionally to seem somewhat freakish. Thus, in
the fogs and horrors of London, he plays at being an Arabian tale-
teller, and his "New Arabian Nights" are a new kind of romanticism--
Oriental, freakish, like the work of a changeling. Indeed, this
curious genius, springing from a family of Scottish engineers,
resembles nothing so much as one of the fairy children, whom the
ladies of Queen Proserpina's court used to leave in the cradles of
Border keeps or of peasants' cottages. Of the Scot he has little
but the power of touching us with a sense of the supernatural, and a
decided habit of moralising; for no Scot of genius has been more
austere with Robert Burns. On the other hand, one element of Mr.
Stevenson's ethical disquisitions is derived from his dramatic
habit. His optimism, his gay courage, his habit of accepting the
world as very well worth living in and looking at, persuaded one of
his critics that he was a hard-hearted young athlete of iron frame.
Now, of the athlete he has nothing but his love of the open air: it
is the eternal child that drives him to seek adventures and to
sojourn among beach-combers and savages. Thus, an admiring but far
from optimistic critic may doubt whether Mr. Stevenson's content
with the world is not "only his fun," as Lamb said of Coleridge's
preaching; whether he is but playing at being the happy warrior in
life; whether he is not acting that part, himself to himself. At
least, it is a part fortunately conceived and admirably sustained:
a difficult part too, whereas that of the pessimist is as easy as
Mr. Stevenson's work has been very much written about, as it has
engaged and delighted readers of every age, station, and character.
Boys, of course, have been specially addressed in the books of
adventure, children in "A Child's Garden of Verse," young men and
maidens in "Virginibus Puerisque,"--all ages in all the curiously
varied series of volumes. "Kidnapped" was one of the last books
which the late Lord Iddesleigh read; and I trust there is no harm in
mentioning the pleasure which Mr. Matthew Arnold took in the same
story. Critics of every sort have been kind to Mr. Stevenson, in
spite of the fact that the few who first became acquainted with his
genius praised it with all the warmth of which they were masters.
Thus he has become a kind of classic in his own day, for an
undisputed reputation makes a classic while it lasts. But was ever
so much fame won by writings which might be called scrappy and
desultory by the advocatus diaboli? It is a most miscellaneous
literary baggage that Mr. Stevenson carries. First, a few magazine
articles; then two little books of sentimental journeyings, which
convince the reader that Mr. Stevenson is as good company to himself
as his books are to others. Then came a volume or two of essays,
literary and social, on books and life. By this time there could be
no doubt that Mr. Stevenson had a style of his own, modelled to some
extent on the essayists of the last century, but with touches of
Thackeray; with original breaks and turns, with a delicate
freakishness, in short, and a determined love of saying things as
the newspapers do not say them. All this work undoubtedly smelt a
trifle of the lamp, and was therefore dear to some, and an offence
to others. For my part, I had delighted in the essays, from the
first that appeared in Macmillan's Magazine, shortly after the
Franco-German war. In this little study, "Ordered South," Mr.
Stevenson was employing himself in extracting all the melancholy
pleasure which the Riviera can give to a wearied body and a mind
resisting the clouds of early malady,
"Alas, the worn and broken board,
How can it bear the painter's dye!
The harp of strained and tuneless chord,
How to the minstrel's skill reply!
To aching eyes each landscape lowers,
To feverish pulse each gale blows chill,
And Araby's or Eden's bowers
Were barren as this moorland hill," -
wrote Scott, in an hour of malady and depression. But this was not
the spirit of "Ordered South": the younger soul rose against the
tyranny of the body; and that familiar glamour which, in illness,
robs Tintoretto of his glow, did not spoil the midland sea to Mr.
Stevenson. His gallant and cheery stoicism were already with him;
and so perfect, if a trifle overstudied, was his style, that one
already foresaw a new and charming essayist.
But none of those early works, nor the delightful book on Edinburgh,
prophesied of the story teller. Mr. Stevenson's first published
tales, the "New Arabian Nights," originally appeared in a quaintly
edited weekly paper, which nobody read, or nobody but the writers in
its columns. They welcomed the strange romances with rejoicings:
but perhaps there was only one of them who foresaw that Mr.
Stevenson's forte was to be fiction, not essay writing; that he was
to appeal with success to the large public, and not to the tiny
circle who surround the essayist. It did not seem likely that our
incalculable public would make themselves at home in those fantastic
purlieus which Mr. Stevenson's fancy discovered near the Strand.
The impossible Young Man with the Cream Tarts, the ghastly revels of
the Suicide Club, the Oriental caprices of the Hansom Cabs--who
could foresee that the public would taste them! It is true that Mr.
Stevenson's imagination made the President of the Club, and the
cowardly member, Mr. Malthus, as real as they were terrible. His
romance always goes hand in hand with reality; and Mr. Malthus is as
much an actual man of skin and bone, as Silas Lapham is a man of
flesh and blood. The world saw this, and applauded the "Noctes of
Prince Floristan," in a fairy London.
Yet, excellent and unique as these things were, Mr. Stevenson had
not yet "found himself." It would be more true to say that he had
only discovered outlying skirts of his dominions. Has he ever hit
on the road to the capital yet? and will he ever enter it laurelled,
and in triumph? That is precisely what one may doubt, not as
without hope. He is always making discoveries in his realm; it is
less certain that he will enter its chief city in state. His next
work was rather in the nature of annexation and invasion than a
settling of his own realms. "Prince Otto" is not, to my mind, a
ruler in his proper soil. The provinces of George Sand and of Mr.
George Meredith have been taken captive. "Prince Otto" is fantastic
indeed, but neither the fantasy nor the style is quite Mr.
Stevenson's. There are excellent passages, and the Scotch soldier
of fortune is welcome, and the ladies abound in subtlety and wit.
But the book, at least to myself, seems an extremely elaborate and
skilful pastiche. I cannot believe in the persons. I vaguely smell
a moral allegory (as in "Will of the Mill"). I do not clearly
understand what it is all about. The scene is fairyland; but it is
not the fairyland of Perrault. The ladies are beautiful and witty;
but they are escaped from a novel of Mr. Meredith's, and have no
business here. The book is no more Mr. Stevenson's than "The Tale
of Two Cities" was Mr. Dickens's.
It was probably by way of mere diversion and child's play that Mr.
Stevenson began "Treasure Island." He is an amateur of boyish
pleasures of masterpieces at a penny plain and twopence coloured.
Probably he had looked at the stories of adventure in penny papers
which only boys read, and he determined sportively to compete with
their unknown authors. "Treasure Island" came out in such a
periodical, with the emphatic woodcuts which adorn them. It is said
that the puerile public was not greatly stirred. A story is a
story, and they rather preferred the regular purveyors. The very
faint archaism of the style may have alienated them. But, when
"Treasure Island" appeared as a real book, then every one who had a
smack of youth left was a boy again for some happy hours. Mr.
Stevenson had entered into another province of his realm: the king
had come to his own again.
They say the seamanship is inaccurate; I care no more than I do for
the year 30. They say too many people are killed. They all died in
fair fight, except a victim of John Silver's. The conclusion is a
little too like part of Poe's most celebrated tale, but nobody has
bellowed "Plagiarist!" Some people may not look over a fence: Mr.
Stevenson, if he liked, might steal a horse,--the animal in this
case is only a skeleton. A very sober student might add that the
hero is impossibly clever; but, then, the hero is a boy, and this is
a boy's book. For the rest, the characters live. Only genius could
have invented John Silver, that terribly smooth-spoken mariner.
Nothing but genius could have drawn that simple yokel on the island,
with his craving for cheese as a Christian dainty. The blustering
Billy Bones is a little masterpiece: the blind Pew, with his
tapping stick (there are three such blind tappers in Mr. Stevenson's
books), strikes terror into the boldest. Then, the treasure is
thoroughly satisfactory in kind, and there is plenty of it. The
landscape, as in the feverish, fog-smothered flat, is gallantly
painted. And there are no interfering petticoats in the story.
As for the "Black Arrow," I confess to sharing the disabilities of
the "Critic on the Hearth," to whom it is dedicated. "Kidnapped" is
less a story than a fragment; but it is a noble fragment. Setting
aside the wicked old uncle, who in his later behaviour is of the
house of Ralph Nickleby, "Kidnapped" is all excellent--perhaps Mr.
Stevenson's masterpiece. Perhaps, too, only a Scotchman knows how
good it is, and only a Lowland Scot knows how admirable a character
is the dour, brave, conceited David Balfour. It is like being in
Scotland again to come on "the green drive-road running wide through
the heather," where David "took his last look of Kirk Essendean, the
trees about the manse, and the big rowans in the kirkyard, where his
father and mother lay." Perfectly Scotch, too, is the mouldering,
empty house of the Miser, with the stamped leather on the walls.
And the Miser is as good as a Scotch Trapbois, till he becomes
homicidal, and then one fails to recognise him unless he is a little
mad, like that other frantic uncle in "The Merry Men." The scenes
on the ship, with the boy who is murdered, are better--I think more
real--than the scenes of piratical life in "The Master of
Ballantrae." The fight in the Round House, even if it were
exaggerated, would be redeemed by the "Song of the Sword of Alan."
As to Alan Breck himself, with his valour and vanity, his good
heart, his good conceit of himself, his fantastic loyalty, he is
absolutely worthy of the hand that drew Callum Bey and the Dougal
creature. It is just possible that we see, in "Kidnapped," more
signs of determined labour, more evidence of touches and retouches,
than in "Rob Roy." In nothing else which it attempts is it
inferior; in mastery of landscape, as in the scene of the lonely
rock in a dry and thirsty land, it is unsurpassed. If there are
signs of laboured handling on Alan, there are none in the sketches
of Cluny and of Rob Roy's son, the piper. What a generous artist is
Alan! "Robin Oig," he said, when it was done, "ye are a great
piper. I am not fit to blow in the same kingdom with you. Body of
me! ye have mair music in your sporran than I have in my head."
"Kidnapped," we said, is a fragment. It ends anywhere, or nowhere,
as if the pen had dropped from a weary hand. Thus, and for other
reasons, one cannot pretend to set what is not really a whole
against such a rounded whole as "Rob Roy," or against "The Legend of
Montrose." Again, "Kidnapped" is a novel without a woman in it:
not here is Di Vernon, not here is Helen McGregor. David Balfour is
the pragmatic Lowlander; he does not bear comparison, excellent as
he is, with Baillie Nicol Jarvie, the humorous Lowlander: he does
not live in the memory like the immortal Baillie. It is as a series
of scenes and sketches that "Kidnapped" is unmatched among Mr.
In "The Master of Ballantrae" Mr. Stevenson makes a gallant effort
to enter what I have ventured to call the capital of his kingdom.
He does introduce a woman, and confronts the problems of love as
well as of fraternal hatred. The "Master" is studied, is polished
ad unguem; it is a whole in itself, it is a remarkably daring
attempt to write the tragedy, as, in "Waverley," Scott wrote the
romance, of Scotland about the time of the Forty-Five. With such a
predecessor and rival, Mr. Stevenson wisely leaves the pomps and
battles of the Forty-Five, its chivalry and gallantry, alone. He
shows us the seamy side: the intrigues, domestic and political; the
needy Irish adventurer with the Prince, a person whom Scott had not
studied. The book, if completely successful, would be Mr.
Stevenson's "Bride of Lammermoor." To be frank, I do not think it
completely successful--a victory all along the line. The obvious
weak point is Secundra Dass, that Indian of unknown nationality; for
surely his name marks him as no Hindoo. The Master could not have
brought him, shivering like Jos Sedley's black servant, to Scotland.
As in America, this alien would have found it "too dam cold." My
power of belief (which verges on credulity) is staggered by the
ghastly attempt to reanimate the buried Master. Here, at least to
my taste, the freakish changeling has got the better of Mr.
Stevenson, and has brought in an element out of keeping with the
steady lurid tragedy of fraternal hatred. For all the rest, it were
a hard judge that had anything but praise. The brilliant
blackguardism of the Master; his touch of sentiment as he leaves
Durisdeer for the last time, with a sad old song on his lips; his
fascination; his ruthlessness; his irony;--all are perfect. It is
not very easy to understand the Chevalier Bourke, that Barry Lyndon,
with no head and with a good heart, that creature of a bewildered
kindly conscience; but it is easy to like him. How admirable is his
undeflected belief in and affection for the Master! How excellent
and how Irish he is, when he buffoons himself out of his perils with
the pirates! The scenes are brilliant and living, as when the
Master throws the guinea through the Hall window, or as in the
darkling duel in the garden. It needed an austere artistic
conscience to make Henry, the younger brother, so unlovable with all
his excellence, and to keep the lady so true, yet so much in shadow.
This is the best woman among Mr. Stevenson's few women; but even she
is almost always reserved, veiled as it were.
The old Lord, again, is a portrait as lifelike as Scott could have
drawn, and more delicately touched than Scott would have cared to
draw it: a French companion picture to the Baron Bradwardine. The
whole piece reads as if Mr. Stevenson had engaged in a struggle with
himself as he wrote. The sky is never blue, the sun never shines:
we weary for a "westland wind." There is something "thrawn," as the
Scotch say, about the story; there is often a touch of this sinister
kind in the author's work. The language is extraordinarily artful,
as in the mad lord's words, "I have felt the hilt dirl on his
breast-bone." And yet, one is hardly thrilled as one expects to be,
when, as Mackellar says, "the week-old corpse looked me for a moment
in the face."
Probably none of Mr. Stevenson's many books has made his name so
familiar as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde." I read it first in
manuscript, alone, at night; and, when the Butler and Mr. Urmson
came to the Doctor's door, I confess that I threw it down, and went
hastily to bed. It is the most gruesome of all his writings, and so
perfect that one can complain only of the slightly too obvious
moral; and, again, that really Mr. Hyde was more of a gentleman than
the unctuous Dr. Jekyll, with his "bedside manner."
So here, not to speak of some admirable short stories like "Thrawn
Janet," is a brief catalogue--little more--of Mr. Stevenson's
literary baggage. It is all good, though variously good; yet the
wise world asks for the masterpiece. It is said that Mr. Stevenson
has not ventured on the delicate and dangerous ground of the novel,
because he has not written a modern love story. But who has? There
are love affairs in Dickens, but do we remember or care for them?
Is it the love affairs that we remember in Scott? Thackeray may
touch us with Clive's and Jack Belsize's misfortunes, with Esmond's
melancholy passion, and amuse us with Pen in so many toils, and
interest us in the little heroine of the "Shabby Genteel Story."
But it is not by virtue of those episodes that Thackeray is so
great. Love stories are best done by women, as in "Mr. Gilfil's
Love Story"; and, perhaps, in an ordinary way, by writers like
Trollope. One may defy critics to name a great English author in
fiction whose chief and distinguishing merit is in his pictures of
the passion of Love. Still, they all give Love his due stroke in
the battle, and perhaps Mr. Stevenson will do so some day. But I
confess that, if he ever excels himself, I do not expect it to be in
a love story.
Possibly it may be in a play. If he again attempt the drama, he has
this in his favour, that he will not deal in supernumeraries. In
his tales his minor characters are as carefully drawn as his chief
personages. Consider, for example, the minister, Henderland, the
man who is so fond of snuff, in "Kidnapped," and, in the "Master of
Ballantrae," Sir William Johnson, the English Governor. They are
the work of a mind as attentive to details, as ready to subordinate
or obliterate details which are unessential. Thus Mr. Stevenson's
writings breathe equally of work in the study and of inspiration
from adventure in the open air, and thus he wins every vote, and
pleases every class of reader.
THOMAS HAYNES BAYLY
I cannot sing the old songs, nor indeed any others, but I can read
them, in the neglected works of Thomas Haynes Bayly. The name of
Bayly may be unfamiliar, but every one almost has heard his ditties
chanted--every one much over forty, at all events. "I'll hang my
Harp on a Willow Tree," and "I'd be a Butterfly," and "Oh, no! we
never mention Her," are dimly dear to every friend of Mr. Richard
Swiveller. If to be sung everywhere, to hear your verses uttered in
harmony with all pianos and quoted by the world at large, be fame,
Bayly had it. He was an unaffected poet. He wrote words to airs,
and he is almost absolutely forgotten. To read him is to be carried
back on the wings of music to the bowers of youth; and to the bowers
of youth I have been wafted, and to the old booksellers. You do not
find on every stall the poems of Bayly; but a copy in two volumes
has been discovered, edited by Mr. Bayly's widow (Bentley, 1844).
They saw the light in the same year as the present critic, and
perhaps they ceased to be very popular before he was breeched. Mr.
Bayly, according to Mrs. Bayly, "ably penetrated the sources of the
human heart," like Shakespeare and Mr. Howells. He also "gave to
minstrelsy the attributes of intellect and wit," and "reclaimed even
festive song from vulgarity," in which, since the age of Anacreon,
festive song has notoriously wallowed. The poet who did all this
was born at Bath in Oct. 1797. His father was a genteel solicitor,
and his great-grandmother was sister to Lord Delamere, while he had
a remote baronet on the mother's side. To trace the ancestral
source of his genius was difficult, as in the case of Gifted
Hopkins; but it was believed to flow from his maternal grandfather,
Mr. Freeman, whom his friend, Lord Lavington, regarded as "one of
the finest poets of his age." Bayly was at school at Winchester,
where he conducted a weekly college newspaper. His father, like
Scott's, would have made him a lawyer; but "the youth took a great
dislike to it, for his ideas loved to dwell in the regions of
fancy," which are closed to attorneys. So he thought of being a
clergyman, and was sent to St. Mary's Hall, Oxford. There "he did
not apply himself to the pursuit of academical honours," but fell in
love with a young lady whose brother he had tended in a fatal
illness. But "they were both too wise to think of living upon love,
and, after mutual tears and sighs, they parted never to meet again.
The lady, though grieved, was not heartbroken, and soon became the
wife of another." They usually do. Mr. Bayly's regret was more
profound, and expressed itself in the touching ditty:
"Oh, no, we never mention her,
Her name is never heard,
My lips are now forbid to speak
That once familiar word;
From sport to sport they hurry me
To banish my regret,
And when they only worry me -
[I beg Mr. Bayly's pardon]
"And when they win a smile from me,
They fancy I forget.
"They bid me seek in change of scene
The charms that others see,
But were I in a foreign land
They'd find no change in me.
'Tis true that I behold no more
The valley where we met;
I do not see the hawthorn tree,
But how can I forget?"
* * *
"They tell me she is happy now,
[And so she was, in fact.]
The gayest of the gay;
They hint that she's forgotten me;
But heed not what they say.
Like me, perhaps, she struggles with
Each feeling of regret:
'Tis true she's married Mr. Smith,
But, ah, does she forget!"
The temptation to parody is really too strong; the last lines,
actually and in an authentic text, are:
"But if she loves as I have loved,
She never can forget."
Bayly had now struck the note, the sweet, sentimental note, of the
early, innocent, Victorian age. Jeames imitated him:
"R. Hangeline, R. Lady mine,
Dost thou remember Jeames!"
We should do the trick quite differently now, more like this:
"Love spake to me and said:
'Oh, lips, be mute;
Let that one name be dead,
That memory flown and fled,
Untouched that lute!
Go forth,' said Love, 'with willow in thy hand,
And in thy hair
Dead blossoms wear,
Blown from the sunless land.
"'Go forth,' said Love; 'thou never more shalt see
Her shadow glimmer by the trysting tree;
But SHE is glad,
With roses crowned and clad,
Who hath forgotten thee!'
But I made answer: 'Love!
Tell me no more thereof,
For she has drunk of that same cup as I.
Yea, though her eyes be dry,
She garners there for me
Tears salter than the sea,
Even till the day she die.'
So gave I Love the lie."
I declare I nearly weep over these lines; for, though they are only
Bayly's sentiment hastily recast in a modern manner, there is
something so very affecting, mouldy, and unwholesome about them,
that they sound as if they had been "written up to" a sketch by a
disciple of Mr. Rossetti's.
In a mood much more manly and moral, Mr. Bayly wrote another poem to
the young lady:
"May thy lot in life be happy, undisturbed by thoughts of me,
The God who shelters innocence thy guard and guide will be.
Thy heart will lose the chilling sense of hopeless love at last,
And the sunshine of the future chase the shadows of the past."
It is as easy as prose to sing in this manner. For example:
"In fact, we need not be concerned; 'at last' comes very soon, and
our Emilia quite forgets the memory of the moon, the moon that shone
on her and us, the woods that heard our vows, the moaning of the
waters, and the murmur of the boughs. She is happy with another,
and by her we're quite forgot; she never lets a thought of us bring
shadow on her lot; and if we meet at dinner she's too clever to
repine, and mentions us to Mr. Smith as 'An old flame of mine.' And
shall I grieve that it is thus? and would I have her weep, and lose
her healthy appetite and break her healthy sleep? Not so, she's not
poetical, though ne'er shall I forget the fairy of my fancy whom I
once thought I had met. The fairy of my fancy! It was fancy, most
things are; her emotions were not steadfast as the shining of a
star; but, ah, I love her image yet, as once it shone on me, and
swayed me as the low moon sways the surging of the sea."
Among other sports his anxious friends hurried the lovelorn Bayly to
Scotland, where he wrote much verse, and then to Dublin, which
completed his cure. "He seemed in the midst of the crowd the gayest
of all, his laughter rang merry and loud at banquet and hall." He
thought no more of studying for the Church, but went back to Bath,
met a Miss Hayes, was fascinated by Miss Hayes, "came, saw, but did
NOT conquer at once," says Mrs. Haynes Bayly (nee Hayes) with
widow's pride. Her lovely name was Helena; and I deeply regret to
add that, after an education at Oxford, Mr. Bayly, in his poems,
accentuated the penultimate, which, of course, is short.
"Oh, think not, Helena, of leaving us yet,"
he carolled, when it would have been just as easy, and a hundred
times more correct, to sing -
"Oh, Helena, think not of leaving us yet."
Miss Hayes had lands in Ireland, alas! and Mr. Bayly insinuated
that, like King Easter and King Wester in the ballad, her lovers
courted her for her lands and her fee; but he, like King Honour,
"For her bonny face
And for her fair bodie."
In 1825 (after being elected to the Athenaeum) Mr. Bayly "at last
found favour in the eyes of Miss Hayes." He presented her with a
little ruby heart, which she accepted, and they were married, and at
first were well-to-do, Miss Hayes being the heiress of Benjamin
Hayes, Esq., of Marble Hill, in county Cork. A friend of Mr.
Bayly's described him thus:
"I never have met on this chilling earth
So merry, so kind, so frank a youth,
In moments of pleasure a smile all mirth,
In moments of sorrow a heart of truth.
I have heard thee praised, I have seen thee led
By Fashion along her gay career;
While beautiful lips have often shed
Their flattering poison in thine ear."
Yet he says that the poet was unspoiled. On his honeymoon, at Lord
Ashdown's, Mr. Bayly, flying from some fair sirens, retreated to a
bower, and there wrote his world-famous "I'd be a Butterfly."
"I'd be a butterfly, living a rover,
Dying when fair things are fading away."
The place in which the deathless strains welled from the singer's
heart was henceforth known as "Butterfly Bower." He now wrote a
novel, "The Aylmers," which has gone where the old moons go, and he
became rather a literary lion, and made the acquaintance of Theodore
Hook. The loss of a son caused him to write some devotional verses,
which were not what he did best; and now he began to try comedies.
One of them, Sold for a Song, succeeded very well. In the stage-
coach between Wycombe Abbey and London he wrote a successful little
lever de rideau called Perfection; and it was lucky that he opened
this vein, for his wife's Irish property got into an Irish bog of
dishonesty and difficulty. Thirty-five pieces were contributed by
him to the British stage. After a long illness, he died on April
22nd, 1829. He did not live, this butterfly minstrel, into the
winter of human age.
Of his poems the inevitable criticism must be that he was a Tom
Moore of much lower accomplishments. His business was to carol of
the most vapid and obvious sentiment, and to string flowers, fruits,
trees, breeze, sorrow, to-morrow, knights, coal-black steeds,
regret, deception, and so forth, into fervid anapaestics. Perhaps
his success lay in knowing exactly how little sense in poetry
composers will endure and singers will accept. Why, "words for
music" are almost invariably trash now, though the words of
Elizabethan songs are better than any music, is a gloomy and
difficult question. Like most poets, I myself detest the sister
art, and don't know anything about it. But any one can see that
words like Bayly's are and have long been much more popular with
musical people than words like Shelley's, Keats's, Shakespeare's,
Fletcher's, Lovelace's, or Carew's. The natural explanation is not
flattering to musical people: at all events, the singing world
doted on Bayly.
"She never blamed him--never,
But received him when he came
With a welcome sort of shiver,
And she tried to look the same.
"But vainly she dissembled,
For whene'er she tried to smile,
A tear unbidden trembled
In her blue eye all the while."
This was pleasant for "him"; but the point is that these are lines
to an Indian air. Shelley, also, about the same time, wrote Lines
to an Indian air; but we may "swear, and save our oath," that the
singers preferred Bayly's. Tennyson and Coleridge could never equal
the popularity of what follows. I shall ask the persevering reader
to tell me where Bayly ends, and where parody begins:
"When the eye of beauty closes,
When the weary are at rest,
When the shade the sunset throws is
But a vapour in the west;
When the moonlight tips the billow
With a wreath of silver foam,
And the whisper of the willow
Breaks the slumber of the gnome, -
Night may come, but sleep will linger,
When the spirit, all forlorn,
Shuts its ear against the singer,
And the rustle of the corn
Round the sad old mansion sobbing
Bids the wakeful maid recall
Who it was that caused the throbbing
Of her bosom at the ball."
Will this not do to sing just as well as the original? and is it not
true that "almost any man you please could reel it off for days
together"? Anything will do that speaks of forgetting people, and
of being forsaken, and about the sunset, and the ivy, and the rose.
"Tell me no more that the tide of thine anguish
Is red as the heart's blood and salt as the sea;
That the stars in their courses command thee to languish,
That the hand of enjoyment is loosened from thee!
"Tell me no more that, forgotten, forsaken,
Thou roamest the wild wood, thou sigh'st on the shore.
Nay, rent is the pledge that of old we had taken,
And the words that have bound me, they bind thee no more!
"Ere the sun had gone down on thy sorrow, the maidens
Were wreathing the orange's bud in thy hair,
And the trumpets were tuning the musical cadence
That gave thee, a bride, to the baronet's heir.
"Farewell, may no thought pierce thy breast of thy treason;
Farewell, and be happy in Hubert's embrace.
Be the belle of the ball, be the bride of the season,
With diamonds bedizened and languid in lace."
This is mine, and I say, with modest pride, that it is quite as good
"Go, may'st thou be happy,
Though sadly we part,
In life's early summer
Grief breaks not the heart.
"The ills that assail us
As speedily pass
As shades o'er a mirror,
Which stain not the glass."
Anybody could do it, we say, in what Edgar Poe calls "the mad pride
of intellectuality," and it certainly looks as if it could be done
by anybody. For example, take Bayly as a moralist. His ideas are
out of the centre. This is about his standard:
"'Break not the thread the spider
Is labouring to weave.'
I said, nor as I eyed her
Could dream she would deceive.
"Her brow was pure and candid,
Her tender eyes above;
And I, if ever man did,
Fell hopelessly in love.
"For who could deem that cruel
So fair a face might be?
That eyes so like a jewel
Were only paste for me?
"I wove my thread, aspiring
Within her heart to climb;
I wove with zeal untiring
For ever such a time!
"But, ah! that thread was broken
All by her fingers fair,
The vows and prayers I've spoken
Are vanished into air!"
Did Bayly write that ditty or did I? Upon my word, I can hardly
tell. I am being hypnotised by Bayly. I lisp in numbers, and the
numbers come like mad. I can hardly ask for a light without
abounding in his artless vein. Easy, easy it seems; and yet it was
Bayly after all, not you nor I, who wrote the classic -
"I'll hang my harp on a willow tree,
And I'll go to the war again,
For a peaceful home has no charm for me,
A battlefield no pain;
The lady I love will soon be a bride,
With a diadem on her brow.
Ah, why did she flatter my boyish pride?
She is going to leave me now!"
It is like listening, in the sad yellow evening, to the strains of a
barrel organ, faint and sweet, and far away. A world of memories
come jigging back--foolish fancies, dreams, desires, all beckoning
and bobbing to the old tune:
"Oh had I but loved with a boyish love,
It would have been well for me."
How does Bayly manage it? What is the trick of it, the obvious,
simple, meretricious trick, which somehow, after all, let us mock as
we will, Bayly could do, and we cannot? He really had a slim,
serviceable, smirking, and sighing little talent of his own; and--
well, we have not even that. Nobody forgets
"The lady I love will soon be a bride."
Nobody remembers our cultivated epics and esoteric sonnets, oh
brother minor poet, mon semblable, mon frere! Nor can we rival,
though we publish our books on the largest paper, the buried
"Gaily the troubadour
Touched his guitar
When he was hastening
Home from the war,
Singing, "From Palestine
Hither I come,
Lady love! Lady love!
Welcome me home!"
Of course this is, historically, a very incorrect rendering of a
Languedoc crusader; and the impression is not mediaeval, but of the
comic opera. Any one of us could get in more local colour for the
money, and give the crusader a cithern or citole instead of a
guitar. This is how we should do "Gaily the Troubadour" nowadays:-
"Sir Ralph he is hardy and mickle of might,
Ha, la belle blanche aubepine!
Soldans seven hath he slain in fight,
Honneur e la belle Isoline!
"Sir Ralph he rideth in riven mail,
Ha, la belle blanche aubepine!
Beneath his nasal is his dark face pale,
Honneur e la belle Isoline!
"His eyes they blaze as the burning coal,
Ha, la belle blanche aubepine!
He smiteth a stave on his gold citole,
Honneur e la belle Isoline!
"From her mangonel she looketh forth,
Ha, la belle blanche aubepine!
'Who is he spurreth so late to the north?'
Honneur e la belle Isoline!
"Hark! for he speaketh a knightly name,
Ha, la belle blanche aubepine!
And her wan cheek glows as a burning flame,
Honneur e la belle Isoline!
"For Sir Ralph he is hardy and mickle of might,
Ha, la belle blanche aubepine!
And his love shall ungirdle his sword to-night,
Honneur e la belle Isoline!"
Such is the romantic, esoteric, old French way of saying -
"Hark, 'tis the troubadour
Breathing her name
Under the battlement
Softly he came,
Singing, "From Palestine
Hither I come.
Lady love! Lady love!
Welcome me home!"
The moral of all this is that minor poetry has its fashions, and
that the butterfly Bayly could versify very successfully in the
fashion of a time simpler and less pedantic than our own. On the
whole, minor poetry for minor poetry, this artless singer, piping
his native drawing-room notes, gave a great deal of perfectly
harmless, if highly uncultivated, enjoyment.
It must not be fancied that Mr. Bayly had only one string to his
bow--or, rather, to his lyre. He wrote a great deal, to be sure,
about the passion of love, which Count Tolstoi thinks we make too
much of. He did not dream that the affairs of the heart should be
regulated by the State--by the Permanent Secretary of the Marriage
Office. That is what we are coming to, of course, unless the
enthusiasts of "free love" and "go away as you please" failed with
their little programme. No doubt there would be poetry if the State
regulated or left wholly unregulated the affections of the future.
Mr. Bayly, living in other times, among other manners, piped of the
hard tyranny of a mother:
"We met, 'twas in a crowd, and I thought he would shun me.
He came, I could not breathe, for his eye was upon me.
He spoke, his words were cold, and his smile was unaltered,
I knew how much he felt, for his deep-toned voice faltered.
I wore my bridal robe, and I rivalled its whiteness;
Bright gems were in my hair,--how I hated their brightness!
He called me by my name as the bride of another.
Oh, thou hast been the cause of this anguish, my mother!"
In future, when the reformers of marriage have had their way, we
"The world may think me gay, for I bow to my fate;
But thou hast been the cause of my anguish, O State!"
For even when true love is regulated by the County Council or the
village community, it will still persist in not running smooth.
Of these passions, then, Mr. Bayly could chant; but let us remember
that he could also dally with old romance, that he wrote:
"The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall."
When the bride unluckily got into the ancient chest,
"It closed with a spring. And, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasped in her living tomb,"
so that her lover "mourned for his fairy bride," and never found out
her premature casket. This was true romance as understood when Peel
was consul. Mr. Bayly was rarely political; but he commemorated the
heroes of Waterloo, our last victory worth mentioning:
"Yet mourn not for them, for in future tradition
Their fame shall abide as our tutelar star,
To instil by example the glorious ambition
Of falling, like them, in a glorious war.
Though tears may be seen in the bright eyes of beauty,
One consolation must ever remain:
Undaunted they trod in the pathway of duty,
Which led them to glory on Waterloo's plain."
Could there be a more simple Tyrtaeus? and who that reads him will
not be ambitious of falling in a glorious war? Bayly, indeed, is
always simple. He is "simple, sensuous, and passionate," and Milton
asked no more from a poet.
"A wreath of orange blossoms,
When next we met, she wore.
The expression of her features
Was more thoughtful than before."
On his own principles Wordsworth should have admired this unaffected
statement; but Wordsworth rarely praised his contemporaries, and
said that "Guy Mannering" was a respectable effort in the style of
Mrs. Radcliffe. Nor did he even extol, though it is more in his own
"Of what is the old man thinking,
As he leans on his oaken staff?"
My own favourite among Mr. Bayly's effusions is not a sentimental
ode, but the following gush of true natural feeling:-
"Oh, give me new faces, new faces, new faces,
I've seen those around me a fortnight and more.
Some people grow weary of things or of places,
But persons to me are a much greater bore.
I care not for features, I'm sure to discover
Some exquisite trait in the first that you send.
My fondness falls off when the novelty's over;
I want a new face for an intimate friend."
This is perfectly candid: we should all prefer a new face, if
pretty, every fortnight:
"Come, I pray you, and tell me this,
All good fellows whose beards are grey,
Did not the fairest of the fair
Common grow and wearisome ere
Ever a month had passed away?"
For once Mr. Bayly uttered in his "New Faces" a sentiment not
usually expressed, but universally felt; and now he suffers, as a
poet, because he is no longer a new face, because we have welcomed
his juniors. To Bayly we shall not return; but he has one rare
merit,--he is always perfectly plain-spoken and intelligible.
"Farewell to my Bayly, farewell to the singer
Whose tender effusions my aunts used to sing;
Farewell, for the fame of the bard does not linger,
My favourite minstrel's no longer the thing.
But though on his temples has faded the laurel,
Though broken the lute, and though veiled is the crest,
My Bayly, at worst, is uncommonly moral,
Which is more than some new poets are, at their best."
Farewell to our Bayly, about whose songs we may say, with Mr.
Thackeray in "Vanity Fair," that "they contain numberless good-
natured, simple appeals to the affections." We are no longer
affectionate, good-natured, simple. We are cleverer than Bayly's
audience; but are we better fellows?
THEODORE DE BANVILLE
There are literary reputations in France and England which seem,
like the fairies, to be unable to cross running water. Dean Swift,
according to M. Paul de Saint-Victor, is a great man at Dover, a
pigmy at Calais--"Son talent, qui enthousiasme l'Angleterre,
n'inspire ailleurs qu'un morne etonnement." M. Paul De Saint-Victor
was a fair example of the French critic, and what he says about
Swift was possibly true,--for him. There is not much resemblance
between the Dean and M. Theodore de Banville, except that the latter
too is a poet who has little honour out of his own country. He is a
charming singer at Calais; at Dover he inspires un morne etonnement
(a bleak perplexity). One has never seen an English attempt to
describe or estimate his genius. His unpopularity in England is
illustrated by the fact that the London Library, that respectable
institution, does not, or did not, possess a single copy of any one
of his books. He is but feebly represented even in the collection
of the British Museum. It is not hard to account for our
indifference to M. De Banville. He is a poet not only intensely
French, but intensely Parisian. He is careful of form, rather than
abundant in manner. He has no story to tell, and his sketches in
prose, his attempts at criticism, are not very weighty or
instructive. With all his limitations, however, he represents, in
company with M. Leconte de Lisle, the second of the three
generations of poets over whom Victor Hugo reigned.
M. De Banville has been called, by people who do not like, and who
apparently have not read him, un saltimbanque litteraire (a literary
rope-dancer). Other critics, who do like him, but who have limited
their study to a certain portion of his books, compare him to a
worker in gold, who carefully chases or embosses dainty processions
of fauns and maenads. He is, in point of fact, something more
estimable than a literary rope-dancer, something more serious than a
working jeweller in rhymes. He calls himself un raffine; but he is
not, like many persons who are proud of that title, un indifferent
in matters of human fortune. His earlier poems, of course, are much
concerned with the matter of most early poems--with Lydia and
Cynthia and their light loves. The verses of his second period
often deal with the most evanescent subjects, and they now retain
but a slight petulance and sparkle, as of champagne that has been
too long drawn. In a prefatory plea for M. De Banville's poetry one
may add that he "has loved our people," and that no poet, no critic,
has honoured Shakespeare with brighter words of praise.
Theodore de Banville was born at Moulin, on March 14th 1823, and he
is therefore three years younger than the dictionaries of biography
would make the world believe. He is the son of a naval officer,
and, according to M. Charles Baudelaire, a descendant of the
Crusaders. He came much too late into the world to distinguish
himself in the noisy exploits of 1830, and the chief event of his
youth was the publication of "Les Cariatides" in 1842. This first
volume contained a selection from the countless verses which the
poet produced between his sixteenth and his nineteenth year.
Whatever other merits the songs of minors may possess, they have
seldom that of permitting themselves to be read. "Les Cariatides"
are exceptional here. They are, above all things, readable. "On
peut les lire e peu de frais," M. De Banville says himself. He
admits that his lighter works, the poems called (in England) vers de
societe, are a sort of intellectual cigarette. M. Emile de Girardin
said, in the later days of the Empire, that there were too many
cigarettes in the air. Their stale perfume clings to the literature
of that time, as the odour of pastilles yet hangs about the verse of
Dorat, the designs of Eisen, the work of the Pompadour period.
There is more than smoke in M. De Banville's ruling inspiration, his
lifelong devotion to letters and to great men of letters--
Shakespeare, Moliere, Homer, Victor Hugo. These are his gods; the
memory of them is his muse. His enthusiasm is worthy of one who,
though born too late to see and know the noble wildness of 1830, yet
lives on the recollections, and is strengthened by the example, of
that revival of letters. Whatever one may say of the renouveau, of
romanticism, with its affectations, the young men of 1830 were
sincere in their devotion to liberty, to poetry, to knowledge. One
can hardly find a more brilliant and touching belief in these great
causes than that of Edgar Quinet, as displayed in the letters of his
youth. De Banville fell on more evil times.
When "Les Cariatides" was published poets had begun to keep an eye
on the Bourse, and artists dabbled in finance. The new volume of
song in the sordid age was a November primrose, and not unlike the
flower of Spring. There was a singular freshness and hopefulness in
the verse, a wonderful "certitude dans l'expression lyrique," as
Sainte-Beuve said. The mastery of musical speech and of various
forms of song was already to be recognised as the basis and the note
of the talent of De Banville. He had style, without which a man may
write very nice verses about heaven and hell and other matters, and
may please thousands of excellent people, but will write poetry--
never. Comparing De Banville's boy's work with the boy's work of
Mr. Tennyson, one observes in each--"Les Cariatides" as in "The
Hesperides"--the timbre of a new voice. Poetry so fresh seems to
make us aware of some want which we had hardly recognised, but now
are sensible of, at the moment we find it satisfied.
It is hardly necessary to say that this gratifying and welcome
strangeness, this lyric originality, is nearly all that M. De
Banville has in common with the English poet whose two priceless
volumes were published in the same year as "Les Cariatides?" The
melody of Mr. Tennyson's lines, the cloudy palaces of his
"As Ilion, like a mist rose into towers,"
when Apollo sang. The architecture was floating at first, and
confused; while the little theatre of M. De Banville's poetry, where
he sat piping to a dance of nixies, was brilliantly lit and elegant
with fresh paint and gilding. "The Cariatides" support the pediment
and roof of a theatre or temple in the Graeco-French style. The
poet proposed to himself
"A cote de Venus et du fils de Latone
Peindre la fee et la peri."
The longest poem in the book, and the most serious, "La Voie
Lactee," reminds one of the "Palace of Art," written before the
after-thought, before the "white-eyed corpses" were found lurking in
corners. Beginning with Homer, "the Ionian father of the rest," -
"Ce dieu, pere des dieux qu'adore Ionie," -
the poet glorifies all the chief names of song. There is a long
procession of illustrious shadows before Shakespeare comes--
Shakespeare, whose genius includes them all.
"Toute creation e laquelle on aspire,
Tout reve, toute chose, emanent de Shakespeare."
His mind has lent colour to the flowers and the sky, to
"La fleur qui brode un point sur les manteau des plaines,
Les nenuphars penches, et les pales roseaux
Qui disent leur chant sombre au murmure des eaux."
One recognises more sincerity in this hymn to all poets, from
Orpheus to Heine, than in "Les Baisers de Pierre"--a clever
imitation of De Musset's stories in verse. Love of art and of the
masters of art, a passion for the figures of old mythology, which
had returned again after their exile in 1830, gaiety, and a revival
of the dexterity of Villon and Marot,--these things are the
characteristics of M. De Banville's genius, and all these were
displayed in "Les Cariatides." Already, too, his preoccupation with
the lighter and more fantastic sort of theatrical amusements shows
itself in lines like these:
"De son lit e baldaquin
Le soleil de son beau globe
Avait l'air d'un arlequin
Etalant sa garde-robe;
"Et sa soeur au front changeant
Mademoiselle la Lune
Avec ses grands yeux d'argent
Regardait la terre brune."
The verse about "the sun in bed," unconsciously Miltonic, is in a
vein of bad taste which has always had seductions for M. De
Banville. He mars a fine later poem on Roncevaux and Roland by a
similar absurdity. The angel Michael is made to stride down the
steps of heaven four at a time, and M. De Banville fancies that this
sort of thing is like the simplicity of the ages of faith.
In "Les Cariatides," especially in the poems styled "En Habit
Zinzolin," M. De Banville revived old measures--the rondeau and the
"poor little triolet." These are forms of verse which it is easy to
write badly, and hard indeed to write well. They have knocked at
the door of the English muse's garden--a runaway knock. In "Les
Cariatides" they took a subordinate place, and played their pranks
in the shadow of the grave figures of mythology, or at the close of
the procession of Dionysus and his Maenads. De Banville often
recalls Keats in his choice of classical themes. "Les Exiles," a
poem of his maturity, is a French "Hyperion." "Le Triomphe de
Bacchus" reminds one of the song of the Bassarids in "Endymion" -
"So many, and so many, and so gay."
There is a pretty touch of the pedant (who exists, says M. De
Banville, in the heart of the poet) in this verse:
"Il reve e Cama, l'amour aux cinq fleches fleuries,
Qui, lorsque soupire au milieu des roses prairies
La douce Vasanta, parmi les bosquets de santal,
Envoie aux cinq sens les fleches du carquois fatal."
The Bacchus of Titian has none of this Oriental languor, no memories
of perfumed places where "the throne of Indian Cama slowly sails."
One cannot help admiring the fancy which saw the conquering god
still steeped in Asiatic ease, still unawakened to more vigorous
passion by the fresh wind blowing from Thrace. Of all the
Olympians, Diana has been most often hymned by M. De Banville: his
imagination is haunted by the figure of the goddess. Now she is
manifest in her Hellenic aspect, as Homer beheld her, "taking her
pastime in the chase of boars and swift deer; and with her the wild
wood-nymphs are sporting the daughters of Zeus; and Leto is glad at
heart, for her child towers over them all, and is easy to be known
where all are fair" (Odyssey, vi.). Again, Artemis appears more
thoughtful, as in the sculpture of Jean Goujon, touched with the
sadness of moonlight. Yet again, she is the weary and exiled spirit
that haunts the forest of Fontainebleau, and is a stranger among the
woodland folk, the fades and nixies. To this goddess, "being triple
in her divided deity," M. De Banville has written his hymn in the
characteristic form of the old French ballade. The translator may
borrow Chaucer's apology -
"And eke to me it is a grete penaunce,
Syth rhyme in English hath such scarsete
To folowe, word by word, the curiosite
Of Banville, flower of them that make in France."
"BALLADE SUR LES HOTES MYSTERIEUX DE LA FORET
"Still sing the mocking fairies, as of old,
Beneath the shade of thorn and holly tree;
The west wind breathes upon them pure and cold,
And still wolves dread Diana roving free,
In secret woodland with her company.
Tis thought the peasants' hovels know her rite
When now the wolds are bathed in silver light,
And first the moonrise breaks the dusky grey,
Then down the dells, with blown soft hair and bright,
And through the dim wood Dian thrids her way.
"With water-weeds twined in their locks of gold
The strange cold forest-fairies dance in glee;
Sylphs over-timorous and over-bold
Haunt the dark hollows where the dwarf may be,
The wild red dwarf, the nixies' enemy;
Then, 'mid their mirth, and laughter, and affright,
The sudden goddess enters, tall and white,
With one long sigh for summers passed away;
The swift feet tear the ivy nets outright,
And through the dim wood Dian thrids her way.
"She gleans her sylvan trophies; down the wold
She hears the sobbing of the stags that flee,
Mixed with the music of the hunting rolled,
But her delight is all in archery,
And nought of ruth and pity wotteth she
More than the hounds that follow on the flight;
The tall nymph draws a golden bow of might,
And thick she rains the gentle shafts that slay,
She tosses loose her locks upon the night,
And Dian through the dim wood thrids her way.
"Prince, let us leave the din, the dust, the spite,
The gloom and glare of towns, the plague, the blight;
Amid the forest leaves and fountain spray
There is the mystic home of our delight,
And through the dim wood Dian thrids her way."
The piece is characteristic of M. De Banville's genius. Through his
throng of operatic nixies and sylphs of the ballet the cold Muse
sometimes passes, strange, but not unfriendly. He, for his part,
has never degraded the beautiful forms of old religion to make the
laughing-stock of fools. His little play, Diane au Bois, has grace,
and gravity, and tenderness like the tenderness of Keats, for the
failings of immortals. "The gods are jealous exceedingly if any
goddess takes a mortal man to her paramour, as Demeter chose
Iasion." The least that mortal poets can do is to show the
Olympians an example of toleration.
"Les Cariatides" have delayed us too long. They are wonderfully
varied, vigorous, and rich, and full of promise in many ways. The
promise has hardly been kept. There is more seriousness in "Les
Stalactites" (1846), it is true, but then there is less daring.
There is one morsel that must be quoted,--a fragment fashioned on
the air and the simple words that used to waken the musings of
George Sand when she was a child, dancing with the peasant children:
"Nous n'irons plus an bois: les lauries sont coupes,
Les amours des bassins, les naiades en groupe
Voient reluire au soleil, en cristaux decoupes
Les flots silencieux qui coulaient de leur coupe,
Les lauriers sont coupes et le cerf aux abois
Tressaille au son du cor: nous n'irons plus au bois!
Ou des enfants joueurs riait la folle troupe
Parmi les lys d'argent aux pleurs du ciel trempes,
Voici l'herbe qu'on fauche et les lauriers qu'on coupe;
Nous n'irons plus au bois; les lauriers sont coupes."
In these days Banville, like Gerard de Nerval in earlier times,
RONSARDISED. The poem 'A la Font Georges,' full of the memories of
childhood, sweet and rich with the air and the hour of sunset, is
written in a favourite metre of Ronsard's. Thus Ronsard says in his
lyrical version of five famous lines of Homer -
"La gresle ni la neige
N'ont tels lieux pour leur siege
Ne la foudre oncques le
(The snow, and wind, and hail
May never there prevail,
Nor thunderbolt doth fall,
Nor rain at all.)
De Banville chose this metre, rapid yet melancholy, with its sad
emphatic cadence in the fourth line, as the vehicle of his childish
"O champs pleins de silence,
Ou mon heureuse enfance
Avait des jours encor
Tout files d'or!"
O ma vieille Font Georges,
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