Library Of The World's Best Literature, Ancient And Modern, Vol 4
Charles Dudley Warner
Part 11 out of 11
And I a goddess am, and _cannot_ die!
O thrice-beloved, listen!--mak'st thou no reply?
"Then dies to idle air my longing wild,
As dies a dream along the paths of night;
And Cytherea widowed is, exiled
From love itself; and now--an idle sight--
The Loves sit in my halls, and all delight
My charmed girdle moves, is all undone!
Why wouldst thou, rash one, seek the maddening fight?
Why, beauteous, wouldst thou not the combat shun?"--
Thus Cytherea--and the Loves weep, all as one.
Alas for Cytherea!--he is dead.
Her hopeless sorrow breaks in tears, that rain
Down over all the fair, beloved head,--
Like summer showers, o'er wind-down-beaten grain;
They flow as fast as flows the crimson stain
From out the wound, deep in the stiffening thigh;
And lo! in roses red the blood blooms fair,
And where the tears divine have fallen close by,
Spring up anemones, and stir all tremblingly.
I weep for Adonais--he is dead!
No more, O Cypris, weep thy wooer here!
Behold a bed of leaves! Lay down his head
As if he slept--as still, as fair, as dear,--
In softest garments let his limbs appear,
As when on golden couch his sweetest sleep
He slept the livelong night, thy heart anear;
Oh, beautiful in death though sad he keep,
No more to wake when Morning o'er the hills doth creep.
And over him the freshest flowers fling--
Ah me! all flowers are withered quite away
And drop their petals wan! yet, perfumes bring
And sprinkle round, and sweetest balsams lay;--
Nay, perish perfumes since thine shall not stay!
In purple mantle lies he, and around,
The weeping Loves his weapons disarray,
His sandals loose, with water bathe his wound,
And fan him with soft wings that move without a sound.
The Loves for Cytherea raise the wail.
Hymen from quenched torch no light can shake.
His shredded wreath lies withered all and pale;
His joyous song, alas, harsh discords break!
And saddest wail of all, the Graces wake;
"The beauteous Adonais! He is dead!"
And sigh the Muses, "Stay but for our sake!"
Yet would he come, Persephone is dead;--
Cease, Cypris! Sad the days repeat their faithful tread!
Paraphrase of Anna C. Brackett, in Journal of Speculative Philosophy.
Hesper, thou golden light of happy love,
Hesper, thou holy pride of purple eve,
Moon among stars, but star beside the moon,
Hail, friend! and since the young moon sets to-night
Too soon below the mountains, lend thy lamp
And guide me to the shepherd whom I love.
No theft I purpose; no wayfaring man
Belated would I watch and make my prey:
Love is my goal; and Love how fair it is,
When friend meets friend sole in the silent night,
Thou knowest, Hesper!
Those to whom the discovery of a relishing new literary flavor means the
permanent annexation of a new tract of enjoyment have not forgotten what
happened in 1885. A slender 16mo volume entitled "Obiter Dicta",
containing seven short literary and biographic essays, came out in that
year, anonymous and unheralded, to make such way as it might among a
book-whelmed generation. It had no novelty of subject to help it to a
hearing; the themes were largely the most written-out, in all seeming,
that could have been selected,--a few great orthodox names on which
opinion was closed and analysis exhausted. Browning, Carlyle, Charles
Lamb, and John Henry Newman are indeed very beacons to warn off the
sated bookman. A paper on Benvenuto Cellini, one on Actors, and one on
Falstaff (by another hand) closed the list. Yet a few weeks made it the
literary event of the day. Among epicures of good reading the word
swiftly passed along that here was a new sensation of unusually
satisfying charm and freshness. It was a _tour de force_ like the
"Innocents Abroad", a journey full of new sights over the most staled
and beaten of tracks. The triumph was all the author's own.
[Illustration: AUGUSTINE BIRRELL]
Two years later came another volume as a "Second Series", of the same
general character but superior to the first. Among the subjects of its
eleven papers were Milton, Pope, Johnson, Burke, Lamb again, and
Emerson; with some general essays, including that on "The Office of
Literature", given below.
In 1892 appeared "Res Judicatae", really a third volume of the same
series, and perhaps even richer in matter and more acute and original in
thought. Its first two articles, prepared as lectures on Samuel
Richardson and Edward Gibbon, are indeed his high-water, mark in both
substance and style. Cowper, George Borrow, Newman again, Lamb a third
time (and fresh as ever), Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, and Sainte-Beuve are
brought in, and some excellent literary miscellanea.
A companion volume called 'Men, Women, and Books' is disappointing
because composed wholly of short newspaper articles: Mr. Birrell's
special quality needs space to make itself felt. He needs a little time
to get up steam, a little room to unpack his wares; he is no pastel
writer, who can say his say in a paragraph and runs dry in two. Hence
these snippy editorials do him no justice: he is obliged to stop every
time just as he is getting ready to say something worth while. They are
his, and therefore readable and judicious; but they give no idea of his
He has also written a life of Charlotte Bronte. But he holds his place
in the front rank of recent essayists by the three 'Obiter Dicta' and
'Res Judicatae' volumes of manly, luminous, penetrating essays, full of
racy humor and sudden wit; of a generous appreciativeness that seeks
always for the vital principle which gave the writer his hold on men;
still more, of a warm humanity and a sure instinct for all the higher
and finer things of the spirit which never fail to strike chords in the
heart as well as the brain. No writer's work leaves a better taste in
the mouth; he makes us think better of the world, of righteousness, of
ourselves. Yet no writer is less of a Puritan or a Philistine; none
writes with less of pragmatic purpose or a less obtrusive load of
positive fact. He scorns such overladen pedantry, and never loses a
chance to lash it. He tells us that he has "never been inside the
reading-room of the British Museum," and "expounds no theory save the
unworthy one that literature ought to please." He says the one question
about a book which is to be part of _literature_ is, "Does it read?"
that "no one is under any obligation to read any one else's book," and
therefore it is a writer's business to make himself welcome to readers;
that he does not care whether an author was happy or not, he wants the
author to make him happy. He puts his theory in practice: he makes
himself welcome as a companion at once stimulating and restful, of
humane spirit and elevated ideals, of digested knowledge and original
thought, of an insight which is rarely other than kindly and a deep
humor which never lapses into cynicism.
Mr. Birrell helps to justify Walter Bagehot's dictum that the only man
who can write books well is one who knows practical life well; but still
there are congruities in all things, and one feels a certain shock of
incongruity in finding that this man of books and purveyor of light
genial book-talk, who can hardly write a line without giving it a
quality of real literary savor, is a prominent lawyer and member of
Parliament, and has written a law book which ranks among recognized
legal authorities. This is a series of lectures delivered in 1896, and
collected into a volume on 'The Duties and Liabilities of Trustees.' But
some of the surprise vanishes on reading the book: even as 'Alice in
Wonderland' shows on every page the work of a logician trained to use
words precisely and criticize their misuse, so in exactly the opposite
way this book is full of the shrewd judgment, the knowledge of life, and
even the delightful humor which form so much of Birrell's best equipment
for a man of letters.
Mr. Birrell's work is not merely good reading, but is a mental clarifier
and tonic. We are much better critics of other writers through his
criticisms on his selected subjects. After every reading of 'Obiter
Dicta' we feel ashamed of crass and petty prejudice, in the face of his
lessons in disregarding surface mannerisms for the sake of vital
qualities. Only in one case does he lose his impartiality: he so objects
to treating Emerson with fairness that he even goes out of his way to
berate his idol Matthew Arnold for setting Emerson aloft. But what he
says of George Borrow is vastly more true of himself: he is one of the
writers we cannot afford to be angry with.
"Criticism," writes Johnson in the 60th Idler, "is a study by which men
grow important and formidable at a very small expense. The power of
invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labor of
learning those sciences which may by mere labor be obtained, is too
great to be willingly endured: but every man can exert such judgment as
he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and
idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of
To proceed with our task by the method of comparison is to pursue a
course open to grave objection; yet it is forced upon us when we find,
as we lately did, a writer in the Times newspaper, in the course of a
not very discriminating review of Mr. Froude's recent volumes, casually
remarking, as if it admitted of no more doubt than the day's price of
consols, that Carlyle was a greater man than Johnson. It is a good thing
to be positive. To be positive in your opinions and selfish in your
habits is the best recipe, if not for happiness, at all events for that
far more attainable commodity, comfort, with which we are acquainted. "A
noisy man," sang poor Cowper, who could not bear anything louder than
the hissing of a tea-urn, "a noisy man is always in the right," and a
positive man can seldom be proved wrong. Still, in literature it is very
desirable to preserve a moderate measure of independence, and we
therefore make bold to ask whether it is as plain as the "old hill of
Howth" that Carlyle was a greater man than Johnson? Is not the precise
contrary the truth? No abuse of Carlyle need be looked for, here or from
me. When a man of genius and of letters happens to have any striking
virtues, such as purity, temperance, honesty, the novel task of dwelling
on them has such attraction for us that we are content to leave the
elucidation of his faults to his personal friends, and to stern,
unbending moralists like Mr. Edmund Yates and the World newspaper. To
love Carlyle is, thanks to Mr. Froude's superhuman ideal of friendship,
a task of much heroism, almost meriting a pension; still it is quite
possible for the candid and truth-loving soul. But a greater than
Johnson he most certainly was not.
There is a story in Boswell of an ancient beggar-woman who, whilst
asking an alms of the Doctor, described herself to him, in a lucky
moment for her pocket, as "an old struggler." Johnson, his biographer
tells us, was visibly affected. The phrase stuck to his memory, and was
frequently applied to himself. "I too," so he would say, "am an old
struggler." So too, in all conscience, was Carlyle. The struggles of
Johnson have long been historical; those of Carlyle have just become so.
We are interested in both. To be indifferent would be inhuman. Both men
had great endowments, tempestuous natures, hard lots. They were not
amongst Dame Fortune's favorites. They had to fight their way. What they
took they took by storm. But--and here is a difference indeed--Johnson
came off victorious, Carlyle did not.
Boswell's book is an arch of triumph, through which, as we read, we see
his hero passing into eternal fame, to take up his place with those--
"Dead but sceptred sovereigns who still rule
Our spirits from their urns."
Froude's book is a tomb over which the lovers of Carlyle's genius will
never cease to shed tender but regretful tears.
We doubt whether there is in English literature a more triumphant book
than Boswell's. What materials for tragedy are wanting? Johnson was a
man of strong passions, unbending spirit, violent temper, as poor as a
church-mouse, and as proud as the proudest of Church dignitaries;
endowed with the strength of a coal-heaver, the courage of a lion, and
the tongue of Dean Swift, he could knock down booksellers and silence
bargees; he was melancholy almost to madness, "radically wretched,"
indolent, blinded, diseased. Poverty was long his portion; not that
genteel poverty that is sometimes behindhand with its rent, but that
hungry poverty that does not know where to look for its dinner. Against
all these things had this "old struggler" to contend; over all these
things did this "old struggler" prevail. Over even the fear of death,
the giving up of "this intellectual being," which had haunted his gloomy
fancy for a lifetime, he seems finally to have prevailed, and to have
met his end as a brave man should.
Carlyle, writing to his wife, says, and truthfully enough, "The more the
devil worries me the more I wring him by the nose;" but then if the
devil's was the only nose that was wrung in the transaction, why need
Carlyle cry out so loud? After buffeting one's way through the
storm-tossed pages of Froude's (Carlyle,)--in which the universe is
stretched upon the rack because food disagrees with man and cocks
crow,--with what thankfulness and reverence do we read once again the
letter in which Johnson tells Mrs. Thrale how he has been called to
endure, not dyspepsia or sleeplessness, but paralysis itself:--
"On Monday I sat for my picture, and walked a considerable way with
little inconvenience. In the afternoon and evening I felt myself light
and easy, and began to plan schemes of life. Thus I went to bed, and in
a short time waked and sat up, as has long been my custom; when I felt a
confusion in my head which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute; I was
alarmed, and prayed God that however much He might afflict my body He
would spate my understanding.... Soon after I perceived that I had
suffered a paralytic stroke, and that my speech was taken from me. I had
no pain, and so little dejection in this dreadful state that I wondered
at my own apathy, and considered that perhaps death itself, when it
should come, would excite less horror than seems now to attend it. In
order to rouse the vocal organs I took two drams.... I then went to bed,
and strange as it may seem I think slept. When I saw light it was time I
should contrive what I should do. Though God stopped my speech, He left
me my hand. I enjoyed a mercy which was not granted to my dear friend
Lawrence, who now perhaps overlooks me as I am writing, and rejoices
that I have what he wanted. My first note was necessarily to my servant,
who came in talking, and could not immediately comprehend why he should
read what I put into his hands.... How this will be received by you I
know not. I hope you will sympathize with me; but perhaps
"'My mistress, gracious, mild, and good,
Cries--Is he dumb? 'Tis time he should.'
"I suppose you may wish to know how my disease is treated by the
physicians. They put a blister upon my back, and two from my ear to my
throat, one on a side. The blister on the back has done little, and
those on the throat have not risen. I bullied and bounced (it sticks to
our last sand), and compelled the apothecary to make his salve according
to the Edinburgh dispensatory, that it might adhere better. I have now
two on my own prescription. They likewise give me salt of hartshorn,
which I take with no great confidence; but I am satisfied that what can
be done is done for me. I am almost ashamed of this querulous letter,
but now it is written let it go."
This is indeed tonic and bark for the mind.
If, irritated by a comparison that ought never to have been thrust upon
us, we ask why it is that the reader of Boswell finds it as hard to help
loving Johnson as the reader of Froude finds it hard to avoid disliking
Carlyle, the answer must be that whilst the elder man of letters was
full to overflowing with the milk of human kindness, the younger one was
full to overflowing with something not nearly so nice; and that whilst
Johnson was pre-eminently a reasonable man, reasonable in all his
demands and expectations, Carlyle was the most unreasonable mortal that
ever exhausted the patience of nurse, mother, or wife.
Of Dr. Johnson's affectionate nature nobody has written with nobler
appreciation than Carlyle himself. "Perhaps it is this Divine feeling of
affection, throughout manifested, that principally attracts us to
Johnson. A true brother of men is he, and filial lover of the earth."
The day will come when it will be recognized that Carlyle, as a critic,
is to be judged by what he himself corrected for the press, and not by
splenetic entries in diaries, or whimsical extravagances in private
Of Johnson's reasonableness nothing need be said, except that it is
patent everywhere. His wife's judgment was a sound one--"He is the most
sensible man I ever met."
As for his brutality, of which at one time we used to hear a great
deal, we cannot say of it what Hookham Frere said of Lander's
immorality, that it was--
"Mere imaginary classicality
Wholly devoid of criminal reality."
It was nothing of the sort. Dialectically the great Doctor was a great
brute. The fact is, he had so accustomed himself to wordy warfare that
he lost all sense of moral responsibility, and cared as little for men's
feelings as a Napoleon did for their lives. When the battle was over,
the Doctor frequently did what no soldier ever did that I have heard
tell of,--apologized to his victims and drank wine or lemonade with
them. It must also be remembered that for the most part his victims
sought him out. They came to be tossed and gored. And after all, are
they so much to be pitied? They have our sympathy, and the Doctor has
our applause. I am not prepared to say, with the simpering fellow with
weak legs whom David Copperfield met at Mr. Waterbrook's dinner-table,
that I would sooner be knocked down by a man with blood than picked up
by a man without any; but, argumentatively speaking, I think it would be
better for a man's reputation to be knocked down by Dr. Johnson than
picked up by Mr. Froude.
Johnson's claim to be the best of our talkers cannot, on our present
materials, be contested. For the most part we have only talk about other
talkers. Johnson's is matter of record. Carlyle no doubt was a great
talker--no man talked against talk or broke silence to praise it more
eloquently than he, but unfortunately none of it is in evidence. All
that is given us is a sort of Commination Service writ large. We soon
weary of it. Man does not live by curses alone.
An unhappier prediction of a boy's future was surely never made than
that of Johnson's by his cousin, Mr. Cornelius Ford, who said to the
infant Samuel, "You will make your way the more easily in the world as
you are content to dispute no man's claim to conversation excellence,
and they will, therefore, more willingly allow your pretensions as a
writer." Unfortunate Mr. Ford! The man never breathed whose claim to
conversation excellence Dr. Johnson did not dispute on every possible
occasion; whilst, just because he was admittedly so good a talker, his
pretensions as a writer have been occasionally slighted.
Johnson's personal character has generally been allowed to stand high.
It, however, has not been submitted to recent tests. To be the first to
"smell a fault" is the pride of the modern biographer. Boswell's artless
pages afford useful hints not lightly to be disregarded. During some
portion of Johnson's married life he had lodgings, first at Greenwich,
afterwards at Hampstead. But he did not always go home o' nights;
sometimes preferring to roam the streets with that vulgar ruffian
Savage, who was certainly no fit company for him. He once actually
quarreled with Tetty, who, despite her ridiculous name, was a very
sensible woman with a very sharp tongue, and for a season, like stars,
they dwelt apart. Of the real merits of this dispute we must resign
ourselves to ignorance. The materials for its discussion do not exist;
even Croker could not find them. Neither was our great moralist as sound
as one would have liked to see him in the matter of the payment of small
debts. When he came to die, he remembered several of these outstanding
accounts; but what assurance have we that he remembered them all? One
sum of L10 he sent across to the honest fellow from whom he had borrowed
it, with an apology for his delay; which, since it had extended over a
period of twenty years, was not superfluous. I wonder whether he ever
repaid Mr. Dilly the guinea he once borrowed of him to give to a very
small boy who had just been apprenticed to a printer. If he did not, it
was a great shame. That he was indebted to Sir Joshua in a small loan is
apparent from the fact that it was one of his three dying requests to
that great man that he should release him from it, as, of course, the
most amiable of painters did. The other two requests, it will be
remembered, were to read his Bible, and not to use his brush on Sundays.
The good Sir Joshua gave the desired promises with a full heart, for
these two great men loved one another; but subsequently discovered the
Sabbatical restriction not a little irksome, and after a while resumed
his former practice, arguing with himself that the Doctor really had no
business to extract any such promise. The point is a nice one, and
perhaps ere this the two friends have met and discussed it in the
Elysian fields. If so, I hope the Doctor, grown "angelical," kept his
temper with the mild shade of Reynolds better than on the historical
occasion when he discussed with him the question of "strong drinks."
Against Garrick, Johnson undoubtedly cherished a smoldering grudge,
which, however, he never allowed any one but himself to fan into flame.
His pique was natural. Garrick had been his pupil at Edial, near
Lichfield; they had come up to town together with an easy united fortune
of fourpence--"current coin o' the realm." Garrick soon had the world at
his feet and garnered golden grain. Johnson became famous too, but
remained poor and dingy. Garrick surrounded himself with what only money
can buy, good pictures and rare books. Johnson cared nothing for
pictures--how should he? he could not see them; but he did care a great
deal about books, and the pernickety little player was chary about
lending his splendidly bound rarities to his quondam preceptor. Our
sympathies in this matter are entirely with Garrick; Johnson was one of
the best men that ever lived, but not to lend books to. Like Lady
Slattern, he had a "most observant thumb." But Garrick had no real cause
for complaint. Johnson may have soiled his folios and sneered at his
trade, but in life Johnson loved Garrick, and in death embalmed his
memory in a sentence which can only die with the English language:--"I
am disappointed by that stroke of death which has eclipsed the gayety of
nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure."
Will it be believed that puny critics have been found to quarrel with
this colossal compliment on the poor pretext of its falsehood? Garrick's
death, urge these dullards, could not possibly have eclipsed the gayety
of nations, since he had retired from the stage months previous to his
demise. When will mankind learn that literature is one thing, and sworn
testimony another? ...
Johnson the author is not always fairly treated. Phrases are convenient
things to hand about, and it is as little the custom to inquire into
their truth as it is to read the letterpress on bank-notes. We are
content to count bank-notes and to repeat phrases. One of these phrases
is, that whilst everybody reads Boswell, nobody reads Johnson. The facts
are otherwise. Everybody does not read Boswell, and a great many people
do read Johnson. If it be asked, What do the general public know of
Johnson's nine volumes octavo? I reply, Beshrew the general public! What
in the name of the Bodleian has the general public got to do with
literature? The general public subscribes to Mudie, and has its
intellectual, like its lacteal sustenance, sent round to it in carts. On
Saturdays these carts, laden with "recent works in circulation,"
traverse the Uxbridge Road; on Wednesdays they toil up Highgate Hill,
and if we may believe the reports of travelers, are occasionally seen
rushing through the wilds of Camberwell and bumping over Blackheath. It
is not a question of the general public, but of the lover of letters. Do
Mr. Browning, Mr. Arnold, Mr. Lowell, Mr. Trevelyan, Mr. Stephen, Mr.
Morley, know their Johnson? "To doubt would be disloyalty." And what
these big men know in their big way, hundreds of little men know in
their little way. We have no writer with a more genuine literary flavor
about him than the great Cham of literature. No man of letters loved
letters better than he. He knew literature in all its branches--he had
read books, he had written books, he had sold books, he had bought
books, and he had borrowed them. Sluggish and inert in all other
directions, he pranced through libraries. He loved a catalogue; he
delighted in an index. He was, to employ a happy phrase of Dr. Holmes,
at home amongst books as a stable-boy is amongst horses. He cared
intensely about the future of literature and the fate of literary men.
"I respect Millar," he once exclaimed; "he has raised the price of
literature." Now Millar was a Scotchman. Even Horne Tooke was not to
stand in the pillory: "No, no, the dog has too much literature for
that." The only time the author of 'Rasselas' met the author of the
'Wealth of Nations' witnessed a painful scene. The English moralist gave
the Scotch one the lie direct, and the Scotch moralist applied to the
English one a phrase which would have done discredit to the lips of a
costermonger; but this notwithstanding, when Boswell reported that Adam
Smith preferred rhyme to blank verse, Johnson hailed the news as
enthusiastically as did Cedric the Saxon the English origin of the
bravest knights in the retinue of the Norman king. "Did Adam say that?"
he shouted: "I love him for it. I could hug him!" Johnson no doubt
honestly believed he held George III. in reverence, but really he did
not care a pin's fee for all the crowned heads of Europe. All his
reverence was reserved for "poor scholars." When a small boy in a
wherry, on whom had devolved the arduous task of rowing Johnson and his
biographer across the Thames, said he would give all he had to know
about the Argonauts, the Doctor was much pleased, and gave him, or got
Boswell to give him, a double fare. He was ever an advocate of the
spread of knowledge amongst all classes and both sexes. His devotion to
letters has received its fitting reward, the love and respect of all
THE OFFICE OF LITERATURE
Dr. John Brown's pleasant story has become well known, of the countryman
who, being asked to account for the gravity of his dog, replied, "Oh,
sir! life is full of sairiousness to him--he can just never get eneugh
o' fechtin'." Something of the spirit of this saddened dog seems lately
to have entered into the very people who ought to be freest from
it,--our men of letters. They are all very serious and very quarrelsome.
To some of them it is dangerous even to allude. Many are wedded to a
theory or period, and are the most uxorious of husbands--ever ready to
resent an affront to their lady. This devotion makes them very grave,
and possibly very happy after a pedantic fashion. One remembers what
Hazlitt, who was neither happy nor pedantic, has said about pedantry:--
"The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful
pursuits is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature. The common
soldier mounts the breach with joy, the miser deliberately starves
himself to death, the mathematician sets about extracting the cube-root
with a feeling of enthusiasm, and the lawyer sheds tears of delight over
'Coke upon Lyttleton.' He who is not in some measure a pedant, though he
may be a wise, cannot be a very happy man."
Possibly not; but then we are surely not content that our authors should
be pedants in order that they may be happy and devoted. As one of the
great class for whose sole use and behalf literature exists,--the class
of readers,--I protest that it is to me a matter of indifference whether
an author is happy or not. I want him to make me happy. That is his
office. Let him discharge it.
I recognize in this connection the corresponding truth of what Sydney
Smith makes his Peter Plymley say about the private virtues of Mr.
Perceval, the Prime Minister:--
"You spend a great deal of ink about the character of the present Prime
Minister. Grant all that you write--I say, I fear that he will ruin
Ireland, and pursue a line of policy destructive to the true interests
of his country; and then you tell me that he is faithful to Mrs.
Perceval and kind to the Master Percevals. I should prefer that he
whipped his boys and saved his country."
We should never confuse functions or apply wrong tests. What can books
do for us? Dr. Johnson, the least pedantic of men, put the whole matter
into a nut-shell (a cocoa-nut shell, if you will--Heaven forbid that I
should seek to compress the great Doctor within any narrower limits than
my metaphor requires) when he wrote that a book should teach us either
to enjoy life or endure it. "Give us enjoyment!" "Teach us endurance!"
Hearken to the ceaseless demand and the perpetual prayer of an ever
unsatisfied and always suffering humanity!
How is a book to answer the ceaseless demand?
Self-forgetfulness is the essence of enjoyment, and the author who would
confer pleasure must possess the art, or know the trick, of destroying
for the time the reader's own personality. Undoubtedly the easiest way
of doing this is by the creation of a host of rival personalities--hence
the number and the popularity of novels. Whenever a novelist fails, his
book is said to flag; that is, the reader suddenly (as in skating) comes
bump down upon his own personality, and curses the unskillful author. No
lack of characters, and continual motion, is the easiest recipe for a
novel, which like a beggar should always be kept "moving on." Nobody
knew this better than Fielding, whose novels, like most good ones, are
full of inns.
When those who are addicted to what is called "improving reading"
inquire of you petulantly why you cannot find change of company and
scene in books of travel, you should answer cautiously that when books
of travel are full of inns, atmosphere, and motion, they are as good as
any novel; nor is there any reason in the nature of things why they
should not always be so, though experience proves the contrary.
The truth or falsehood of a book is immaterial. George Borrow's 'Bible
in Spain' is, I suppose, true; though now that I come to think of it in
what is to me a new light, one remembers that it contains some odd
things. But was not Borrow the accredited agent of the British and
Foreign Bible Society? Did he not travel (and he had a free hand) at
their charges? Was he not befriended by our minister at Madrid, Mr.
Villiers, subsequently Earl of Clarendon in the peerage of England? It
must be true: and yet at this moment I would as lief read a chapter of
the 'Bible in Spain' as I would 'Gil Bias'; nay, I positively would give
the preference to Senor Giorgio. Nobody can sit down to read Borrow's
books without as completely forgetting himself as if he were a boy in
the forest with Gurth and Wamba.
Borrow is provoking and has his full share of faults, and though the
owner of a style, is capable of excruciating offences. His habitual use
of the odious word "individual" as a noun-substantive (seven times in
three pages of 'The Romany Rye') elicits the frequent groan, and he is
certainly once guilty of calling fish the "finny tribe." He believed
himself to be animated by an intense hatred of the Church of Rome, and
disfigures many of his pages by Lawrence-Boythorn-like tirades against
that institution; but no Catholic of sense need on this account deny
himself the pleasure of reading Borrow, whose one dominating passion was
_camaraderie_, and who hob-a-nobbed in the friendliest spirit with
priest and gipsy in a fashion as far beyond praise as it is beyond
description by any pen other than his own. Hail to thee, George Borrow!
Cervantes himself, 'Gil Bias,' do not more effectually carry their
readers into the land of the Cid than does this miraculous agent of the
Bible Society, by favor of whose pleasantness we can, any hour of the
week, enter Villafranca by night, or ride into Galicia on an Andalusian
stallion (which proved to be a foolish thing to do), without costing
anybody a _peseta_, and at no risk whatever to our necks--be they
long or short.
Cooks, warriors, and authors must be judged by the effects they produce:
toothsome dishes, glorious victories, pleasant books--these are our
demands. We have nothing to do with ingredients, tactics, or methods. We
have no desire to be admitted into the kitchen, the council, or the
study. The cook may clean her saucepans how she pleases--the warrior
place his men as he likes--the author handle his material or weave his
plot as best he can--when the dish is served we only ask, Is it good?
when the battle has been fought, Who won? when the book comes out,
Does it read?
Authors ought not to be above being reminded that it is their first duty
to write agreeably; some very disagreeable ones have succeeded in doing
so, and there is therefore no need for any one to despair. Every author,
be he grave or gay, should try to make his book as ingratiating as
possible. Reading is not a duty, and has consequently no business to be
made disagreeable. Nobody is under any obligation to read any other
Literature exists to please,--to lighten the burden of men's lives; to
make them for a short while forget their sorrows and their sins, their
silenced hearths, their disappointed hopes, their grim futures--and
those men of letters are the best loved who have best performed
literature's truest office. Their name is happily legion, and I will
conclude these disjointed remarks by quoting from one of them, as honest
a parson as ever took tithe or voted for the Tory candidate, the Rev.
George Crabbe. Hear him in 'The Frank Courtship':--
"I must be loved," said Sybil; "I must see
The man in terrors, who aspires to me:
At my forbidding frown his heart must ache,
His tongue must falter, and his frame must shake;
And if I grant him at my feet to kneel,
What trembling fearful pleasure must he feel!
Nay, such the rapture that my smiles inspire
That reason's self must for a time retire."
"Alas! for good Josiah," said the dame,
"These wicked thoughts would fill his soul with shame;
He kneel and tremble at a thing of dust!
He cannot, child:"--the child replied, "He must."
Were an office to be opened for the insurance of literary reputations,
no critic at all likely to be in the society's service would refuse the
life of a poet who could write like Crabbe. Cardinal Newman, Mr. Leslie
Stephen, Mr. Swinburne, are not always of the same way of thinking, but
all three hold the one true faith about Crabbe.
But even were Crabbe now left unread, which is very far from being the
case, his would be an enviable fame--for was he not one of the favored
poets of Walter Scott, and whenever the closing scene of the great
magician's life is read in the pages of Lockhart, must not Crabbe's name
be brought upon the reader's quivering lip?
To soothe the sorrow of the soothers of sorrow, to bring tears to the
eyes and smiles to the cheeks of the lords of human smiles and tears, is
no mean ministry, and it is Crabbe's.
Is truth-hunting one of those active mental habits which, as Bishop
Butler tells us, intensify their effects by constant use; and are weak
convictions, paralyzed intellects, and laxity of opinions amongst the
effects of Truth-hunting on the majority of minds? These are not
Let us consider briefly the probable effects of speculative habits on
The discussion of a question of conduct has the great charm of
justifying, if indeed not requiring, personal illustration; and this
particular question is well illustrated by instituting a comparison
between the life and character of Charles Lamb and those of some of his
Personal illustration, especially when it proceeds by way of comparison,
is always dangerous, and the dangers are doubled when the subjects
illustrated and compared are favorite authors. It behoves us to proceed
warily in this matter. A dispute as to the respective merits of Gray and
Collins has been known to result in a visit to an attorney and the
revocation of a will. An avowed inability to see anything in Miss
Austen's novels is reported to have proved destructive of an otherwise
good chance of an Indian judgeship. I believe, however, I run no great
risk in asserting that, of all English authors, Charles Lamb is the one
loved most warmly and emotionally by his admirers, amongst whom I reckon
only those who are as familiar with the four volumes of his 'Life and
Letters' as with 'Elia.'
But how does he illustrate the particular question now engaging our
Speaking of his sister Mary, who, as every one knows, throughout 'Elia'
is called his cousin Bridget, he says:--
"It has been the lot of my cousin, oftener perhaps than I could have
wished, to have had for her associates and mine free-thinkers, leaders
and disciples of novel philosophies and systems; but she neither
wrangles with nor accepts their opinions."
Nor did her brother. He lived his life cracking his little jokes and
reading his great folios, neither wrangling with nor accepting the
opinions of the friends he loved to see around him. To a contemporary
stranger it might well have appeared as if his life were a frivolous and
useless one as compared with those of these philosophers and thinkers.
_They_ discussed their great schemes and affected to prove deep
mysteries, and were constantly asking, "What is truth?" _He_ sipped his
glass, shuffled his cards, and was content with the humbler inquiry,
"What are trumps?" But to us, looking back upon that little group, and
knowing what we now do about each member of it, no such mistake is
possible. To us it is plain beyond all question that, judged by whatever
standard of excellence it is possible for any reasonable human being to
take, Lamb stands head and shoulders a better man than any of them. No
need to stop to compare him with Godwin, or Hazlitt, or Lloyd; let us
boldly put him in the scales with one whose fame is in all the
churches--with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "logician, metaphysician, bard."
There are some men whom to abuse is pleasant. Coleridge is not one of
them. How gladly we would love the author of 'Christabel' if we could!
But the thing is flatly impossible. His was an unlovely character. The
sentence passed upon him by Mr. Matthew Arnold (parenthetically, in one
of the 'Essays in Criticism')--"Coleridge had no morals"--is no less
just than pitiless. As we gather information about him from numerous
quarters, we find it impossible to resist the conclusion that he was a
man neglectful of restraint, irresponsive to the claims of those who had
every claim upon him, willing to receive, slow to give.
In early manhood Coleridge planned a Pantisocracy where all the virtues
were to thrive. Lamb did something far more difficult: he played
cribbage every night with his imbecile father, whose constant stream of
querulous talk and fault-finding might well have goaded a far stronger
man into practicing and justifying neglect.
That Lamb, with all his admiration for Coleridge, was well aware of
dangerous tendencies in his character, is made apparent by many letters,
notably by one written in 1796, in which he says:--
"O my friend, cultivate the filial feelings! and let no man think
himself released from the kind charities of relationship: these shall
give him peace at the last; these are the best foundation for every
species of benevolence. I rejoice to hear that you are reconciled with
all your relations."
This surely is as valuable an "aid to reflection" as any supplied by the
Lamb gave but little thought to the wonderful difference between the
"reason" and the "understanding." He preferred old plays--an odd diet,
some may think, on which to feed the virtues; but however that may be,
the noble fact remains, that he, poor, frail boy! (for he was no more,
when trouble first assailed him) stooped down, and without sigh or sign
took upon his own shoulders the whole burden of a lifelong sorrow.
Coleridge married. Lamb, at the bidding of duty, remained single,
wedding himself to the sad fortunes of his father and sister. Shall we
pity him? No; he had his reward--the surpassing reward that is only
within the power of literature to bestow. It was Lamb, and not
Coleridge, who wrote 'Dream-Children: a Reverie':--
"Then I told how for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in
despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W---- n; and as
much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness and
difficulty and denial meant in maidens--when, suddenly turning to Alice,
the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality
of representment that I became in doubt which of them stood before me,
or whose that bright hair was; and while I stood gazing, both the
children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding and still receding,
till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the
uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me
the effects of speech. 'We are not of Alice nor of thee, nor are we
children at all. The children of Alice call Bartrum father. We are
nothing, less than nothing, and dreams. We are only _what might
Godwin! Hazlitt! Coleridge! Where now are their "novel philosophies and
systems"? Bottled moonshine, which does _not_ improve by keeping.
"Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust."
Were we disposed to admit that Lamb would in all probability have been
as good a man as every one agrees he was--as kind to his father, as full
of self-sacrifice for the sake of his sister, as loving and ready a
friend--even though he had paid more heed to current speculations, it is
yet not without use in a time like this, when so much stress is laid
upon anxious inquiry into the mysteries of soul and body, to point out
how this man attained to a moral excellence denied to his speculative
contemporaries; performed duties from which they, good men as they were,
would one and all have shrunk: how, in short, he contrived to achieve
what no one of his friends, not even the immaculate Wordsworth or the
precise Southey, achieved--the living of a life the records of which are
inspiriting to read, and are indeed "the presence of a good diffused";
and managed to do it all without either "wrangling with or accepting"
the opinions that "hurtled in the air" about him.
From 'Obiter Dicta'
What a liar was Benvenuto Cellini!--who can believe a word he says? To
hang a dog on his oath would be a judicial murder. Yet when we lay down
his Memoirs and let our thoughts travel back to those far-off days he
tells us of, there we see him standing, in bold relief, against the
black sky of the past, the very man he was. Not more surely did he, with
that rare skill of his, stamp the image of Clement VII. on the papal
currency, than he did the impress of his own singular personality upon
every word he spoke and every sentence he wrote.
We ought, of course, to hate him, but do we? A murderer he has written
himself down. A liar he stands self-convicted of being. Were any one in
the nether world bold enough to call him thief, it may be doubted
whether Rhadamanthus would award him the damages for which we may be
certain he would loudly clamor. Why do we not hate him? Listen to him:--
"Upon my uttering these words, there was a general outcry, the noblemen
affirming that I promised too much. But one of them, who was a great
philosopher, said in my favor, 'From the admirable symmetry of shape and
happy physiognomy of this young man, I venture to engage that he will
perform all he promises, and more.' The Pope replied, 'I am of the same
opinion;' then calling Trajano, his gentleman of the bedchamber, he
ordered him to fetch me five hundred ducats."
And so it always ended: suspicions, aroused most reasonably, allayed
most unreasonably, and then--ducats. He deserved hanging, but he died in
his bed. He wrote his own memoirs after a fashion that ought to have
brought posthumous justice upon him, and made them a literary gibbet,
on which he should swing, a creaking horror, for all time; but nothing
of the sort has happened. The rascal is so symmetrical, and his
physiognomy, as it gleams upon us through the centuries, so happy, that
we cannot withhold our ducats, though we may accompany the gift with a
shower of abuse.
This only proves the profundity of an observation made by Mr. Bagehot--a
man who carried away into the next world more originality of thought
than is now to be found in the Three Estates of the Realm. Whilst
remarking upon the extraordinary reputation of the late Francis Horner
and the trifling cost he was put to in supporting it, Mr. Bagehot said
that it proved the advantage of "keeping an atmosphere."
The common air of heaven sharpens men's judgments. Poor Horner, but for
that kept atmosphere of his always surrounding him, would have been
bluntly asked "what he had done since he was breeched," and in reply he
could only have muttered something about the currency. As for our
special rogue Cellini, the question would probably have assumed this
shape: "Rascal, name the crime you have not committed, and account for
But these awkward questions are not put to the lucky people who keep
their own atmospheres. The critics, before they can get at them, have to
step out of the every-day air, where only achievements count and the
Decalogue still goes for something, into the kept atmosphere, which they
have no sooner breathed than they begin to see things differently, and
to measure the object thus surrounded with a tape of its own
manufacture. Horner--poor, ugly, a man neither of words nor
deeds--becomes one of our great men; a nation mourns his loss and erects
his statue in the Abbey. Mr. Bagehot gives several instances of the same
kind, but he does not mention Cellini, who is however in his own way an
You open his book--a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Lying, indeed! Why, you
hate prevarication. As for murder, your friends know you too well to
mention the subject in your hearing, except in immediate connection with
capital punishment. You are of course willing to make some allowance for
Cellini's time and place--the first half of the sixteenth century and
Italy! "Yes," you remark, "Cellini shall have strict justice at my
hands." So you say as you settle yourself in your chair and begin to
read. We seem to hear the rascal laughing in his grave. His spirit
breathes upon you from his book--peeps at you roguishly as you turn the
pages. His atmosphere surrounds you; you smile when you ought to frown,
chuckle when you should groan, and--oh, final triumph!--laugh aloud
when, if you had a rag of principle left, you would fling the book into
the fire. Your poor moral sense turns away with a sigh, and patiently
awaits the conclusion of the second volume.
How cautiously does he begin, how gently does he win your ear by his
seductive piety! I quote from Mr. Roscoe's translation:--
"It is a duty incumbent on upright and credible men of all ranks, who
have performed anything noble or praiseworthy, to record, in their own
writing, the events of their lives; yet they should not commence this
honorable task before they have passed their fortieth year. Such at
least is my opinion now that I have completed my fifty-eighth year, and
am settled in Florence, where, considering the numerous ills that
constantly attend human life, I perceive that I have never before been
so free from vexations and calamities, or possessed of so great a share
of content and health as at this period. Looking back on some delightful
and happy events of my life, and on many misfortunes so truly
overwhelming that the appalling retrospect makes me wonder how I have
reached this age in vigor and prosperity, through God's goodness I have
resolved to publish an account of my life; and ... I must, in commencing
my narrative, satisfy the public on some few points to which its
curiosity is usually directed; the first of which is to ascertain
whether a man is descended from a virtuous and ancient family.... I
shall therefore now proceed to inform the reader how it pleased God that
I should come into the world."
So you read on page i; what you read on page 191 is this:--
"Just after sunset, about eight o'clock, as this musqueteer stood at his
door with his sword in his hand, when he had done supper, I with great
address came close up to him with a long dagger, and gave him a violent
back-handed stroke, which I aimed at his neck. He instantly turned
round, and the blow, falling directly upon his left shoulder, broke the
whole bone of it; upon which he dropped his sword, quite overcome by the
pain, and took to his heels. I pursued, and in four steps came up with
him, when, raising the dagger over his head, which he lowered down, I
hit him exactly upon the nape of the neck. The weapon penetrated so
deep that, though I made a great effort to recover it again, I found it
So much for murder. Now for manslaughter, or rather Cellini's notion of
"Pompeo entered an apothecary's shop at the corner of the Chiavica,
about some business, and stayed there for some time. I was told he had
boasted of having bullied me, but it turned out a fatal adventure to
him. Just as I arrived at that quarter he was coming out of the shop,
and his bravoes, having made an opening, formed a circle round him. I
thereupon clapped my hand to a sharp dagger, and having forced my way
through the file of ruffians, laid hold of him by the throat, so quickly
and with such presence of mind that there was not one of his friends
could defend him. I pulled him towards me to give him a blow in front,
but he turned his face about through excess of terror, so that I wounded
him exactly under the ear; and upon repeating my blow, he fell down
dead. It had never been my intention to kill him, but blows are not
always under command."
We must all feel that it would never have done to have begun with these
passages; but long before the 191st page has been reached, Cellini has
retreated into his own atmosphere, and the scales of justice have been
hopelessly tampered with.
That such a man as this encountered suffering in the course of his life
should be matter for satisfaction to every well-regulated mind; but
somehow or other, you find yourself pitying the fellow as he narrates
the hardships he endured in the Castle of St. Angelo. He is so
symmetrical a rascal! Just hear him! listen to what he says well on in
the second volume, after the little incidents already quoted:--
"Having at length recovered my strength and vigor, after I had composed
myself and resumed my cheerfulness of mind, I continued to read my
Bible, and so accustomed my eyes to that darkness, that though I was at
first able to read only an hour and a half, I could at length read three
hours. I then reflected on the wonderful power of the Almighty upon the
hearts of simple men, who had carried their enthusiasm so far as to
believe firmly that God would indulge them in all they wished for; and I
promised myself the assistance of the Most High, as well through His
mercy as on account of my innocence. Thus turning constantly to the
Supreme Being, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in silent meditation on
the divine goodness, I was totally engrossed by these heavenly
reflections, and came to take such delight in pious meditations that I
no longer thought of past misfortunes. On the contrary, I was all day
long singing psalms and many other compositions of mine, in which I
celebrated and praised the Deity."
Thus torn from their context, these passages may seem to supply the best
possible falsification of the previous statement that Cellini told the
truth about himself. Judged by these passages alone, he may appear a
hypocrite of an unusually odious description. But it is only necessary
to read his book to dispel that notion. He tells lies about other
people; he repeats long conversations, sounding his own praises, during
which, as his own narrative shows, he was not present; he exaggerates
his own exploits, his sufferings--even, it may be, his crimes: but when
we lay down his book, we feel we are saying good-by to a man whom
He has introduced himself to us, and though doubtless we prefer saints
to sinners, we may be forgiven for liking the company of a live rogue
better than that of the lay-figures and empty clock-cases labeled with
distinguished names, who are to be found doing duty for men in the works
of our standard historians. What would we not give to know Julius Caesar
one-half as well as we know this outrageous rascal? The saints of the
earth, too, how shadowy they are! Which of them do we really know?
Excepting one or two ancient and modern Quietists, there is hardly one
amongst the whole number who being dead yet speaketh. Their memoirs far
too often only reveal to us a hazy something, certainly not recognizable
as a man. This is generally the fault of their editors, who, though men
themselves, confine their editorial duties to going up and down the
diaries and papers of the departed saint, and obliterating all human
touches. This they do for the "better prevention of scandals"; and one
cannot deny that they attain their end, though they pay dearly for it.
I shall never forget the start I gave when, on reading some old book
about India, I came across an after-dinner jest of Henry Martyn's. The
thought of Henry Martyn laughing over the walnuts and the wine was
almost, as Robert Browning's unknown painter says, "too wildly dear;"
and to this day I cannot help thinking that there must be a mistake
To return to Cellini, and to conclude. On laying down his Memoirs, let
us be careful to recall our banished moral sense, and make peace with
her, by passing a final judgment on this desperate sinner; which perhaps
after all, we cannot do better than by employing language of his own
concerning a monk, a fellow-prisoner of his, who never, so far as
appears, murdered anybody, but of whom Cellini none the less felt
himself entitled to say:--
"I admired his shining qualities, but his odious vices I freely censured
and held in abhorrence."
ON THE ALLEGED OBSCURITY OF MR. BROWNING'S POETRY
From 'Obiter Dicta'
In considering whether a poet is intelligible and lucid, we ought not to
grope and grub about his work in search of obscurities and oddities, but
should, in the first instance at all events, attempt to regard his whole
scope and range; to form some estimate, if we can, of his general
purport and effect, asking ourselves for this purpose such questions as
these:--How are we the better for him? Has he quickened any passion,
lightened any burden, purified any taste? Does he play any real part in
our lives? When we are in love, do we whisper him in our lady's ear?
When we sorrow, does he ease our pain? Can he calm the strife of mental
conflict? Has he had anything to say which wasn't twaddle on those
subjects which, elude analysis as they may, and defy demonstration as
they do, are yet alone of perennial interest--
"On man, on nature, and on human life,"
on the pathos of our situation, looking back on to the irrevocable and
forward to the unknown? If a poet has said, or done, or been any of
these things to an appreciable extent, to charge him with obscurity is
both folly and ingratitude.
But the subject may be pursued further, and one may be called upon to
investigate this charge with reference to particular books or poems. In
Browning's case this fairly may be done; and then another crop of
questions arises, such as: What is the book about, i.e., with what
subject does it deal, and what method of dealing does it employ? Is it
didactical, analytical, or purely narrative? Is it content to describe,
or does it aspire to explain? In common fairness these questions must be
asked and answered, before we heave our critical half-bricks at strange
poets. One task is of necessity more difficult than another. Students of
geometry who have pushed their researches into that fascinating science
so far as the fifth proposition of the first book, commonly called the
'Pons Asinorum' (though now that so many ladies read Euclid, it ought,
in common justice to them, to be at least sometimes called the 'Pons
Asinarum'), will agree that though it may be more difficult to prove
that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal, and that
if the equal sides be produced, the angles on the other side of the base
shall be equal, than it was to describe an equilateral triangle on a
given finite straight line; yet no one but an ass would say that the
fifth proposition was one whit less intelligible than the first. When we
consider Mr. Browning in his later writings, it will be useful to bear
this distinction in mind.
Looking then at the first period, we find in its front eight plays:--
1. 'Strafford,' written in 1836, when its author was twenty-four years
old, and put upon the boards of Covent Garden Theatre on the 1st of May,
1837; Macready playing Strafford, and Miss Helen Faucit Lady Carlisle.
It was received with much enthusiasm, but the company was rebellious and
the manager bankrupt; and after running five nights, the man who played
Pym threw up his part, and the theatre was closed.
2. 'Pippa Passes.'
3. 'King Victor and King Charles.'
4. 'The Return of the Druses.'
5. 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon.'
This beautiful and pathetic play was put on the stage of Drury Lane on
the 11th of February, 1843, with Phelps as Lord Tresham, Miss Helen
Faucit as Mildred Tresham, and Mrs. Stirling, still known to us all, as
Guendolen. It was a brilliant success. Mr. Browning was in the
stage-box; and if it is any satisfaction for a poet to hear a crowded
house cry "Author, author!" that satisfaction has belonged to Mr.
Browning. The play ran several nights; and was only stopped because one
of Mr. Macready's bankruptcies happened just then to intervene. It was
afterwards revived by Mr. Phelps, during his "memorable management" of
6. 'Colombe's Birthday.' Miss Helen Faucit put this upon the stage in
1852, when it was reckoned a success.
8. 'A Soul's Tragedy.'
To call any of these plays unintelligible is ridiculous; and nobody who
has ever read them ever did, and why people who have not read them
should abuse them is hard to see. Were society put upon its oath, we
should be surprised to find how many people in high places have not read
'All's Well that Ends Well,' or 'Timon of Athens'; but they don't go
about saying these plays are unintelligible. Like wise folk, they
pretend to have read them, and say nothing. In Browning's case they are
spared the hypocrisy. No one need pretend to have read 'A Soul's
Tragedy'; and it seems, therefore, inexcusable for any one to assert
that one of the plainest, most pointed and piquant bits of writing in
the language is unintelligible. But surely something more may be
truthfully said of these plays than that they are comprehensible. First
of all, they are _plays_, and not _works_--like the dropsical dramas of
Sir Henry Taylor and Mr. Swinburne. Some of them have stood the ordeal
of actual representation; and though it would be absurd to pretend that
they met with that overwhelming measure of success our critical age has
reserved for such dramatists as the late Lord Lytton, the author of
'Money,' the late Tom Taylor, the author of 'The Overland Route,' the
late Mr. Robertson, the author of 'Caste,' Mr. H. Byron, the author of
'Our Boys,' Mr. Wills, the author of 'Charles I.,' Mr. Burnand, the
author of 'The Colonel,' and Mr. Gilbert, the author of so much that is
great and glorious in our national drama; at all events they proved
themselves able to arrest and retain the attention of very ordinary
audiences. But who can deny dignity and even grandeur to 'Luria,' or
withhold the meed of a melodious tear from 'Mildred Tresham'? What
action of what play is more happily conceived or better rendered than
that of 'Pippa Passes'?--where innocence and its reverse, tender love
and violent passion, are presented with emphasis, and yet blended into a
dramatic unity and a poetic perfection, entitling the author to the very
first place amongst those dramatists of the century who have labored
under the enormous disadvantage of being poets to start with.
Passing from the plays, we are next attracted by a number of splendid
poems, on whose base the structure of Mr. Browning's fame perhaps rests
most surely,--his dramatic pieces; poems which give utterance to the
thoughts and feelings of persons other than himself, or as he puts it
when dedicating a number of them to his wife:--
"Love, you saw me gather men and women,
Live or dead, or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service,
Speak from every mouth the speech--a poem;"
or again in 'Sordello':--
"By making speak, myself kept out of view,
The very man as he was wont to do."
At a rough calculation, there must be at least sixty of these pieces.
Let me run over the names of a very few of them. 'Saul,' a poem beloved
by all true women; 'Caliban,' which the men, not unnaturally perhaps,
often prefer. The 'Two Bishops': the sixteenth-century one ordering his
tomb of jasper and basalt in St. Praxed's Church, and his
nineteenth-century successor rolling out his post-prandial _Apologia_.
'My Last Duchess,' the 'Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister,' 'Andrea del
Sarto,' 'Fra Lippo Lippi,' 'Rabbi Ben Ezra,' 'Cleon,' 'A Death in the
Desert,' 'The Italian in England,' and 'The Englishman in Italy.'
It is plain truth to say that no other English poet, living or dead,
Shakespeare excepted, has so heaped up human interest for his readers as
has Robert Browning....
Against these dramatic pieces the charge of unintelligibility fails as
completely as it does against the plays. They are all perfectly
intelligible; but--and here is the rub--they are not easy reading, like
the estimable writings of the late Mrs. Hemans. They require the same
honest attention as it is the fashion to give to a lecture of Professor
Huxley's or a sermon of Canon Liddon's; and this is just what too many
persons will not give to poetry. They
"Love to hear
A soft pulsation in their easy ear;
To turn the page, and let their senses drink
A lay that shall not trouble them to think."
* * * * *
Next to these dramatic pieces come what we may be content to call
simply poems: some lyrical, some narrative. The latter are
straightforward enough, and as a rule full of spirit and humor; but this
is more than can always be said of the lyrical pieces. Now, for the
first time in dealing with this first period, excluding 'Sordello,' we
strike difficulty. The Chinese puzzle comes in. We wonder whether it all
turns on the punctuation. And the awkward thing for Mr. Browning's
reputation is this, that these bewildering poems are for the most part
very short. We say awkward, for it is not more certain that Sarah Gamp
liked her beer drawn mild than it is that your Englishman likes his
poetry cut short; and so, accordingly, it often happens that some
estimable paterfamilias takes up an odd volume of Browning his volatile
son or moonstruck daughter has left lying about, pishes and pshaws! and
then, with an air of much condescension and amazing candor, remarks that
he will give the fellow another chance, and not condemn him unread. So
saying, he opens the book, and carefully selects the very shortest poem
he can find; and in a moment, without sign or signal, note or warning,
the unhappy man is floundering up to his neck in lines like these, which
are the third and final stanza of a poem called 'Another Way of Love':--
"And after, for pastime,
If June be refulgent
With flowers in completeness,
All petals, no prickles,
Delicious as trickles
Of wine poured at mass-time,
And choose One indulgent
To redness and sweetness;
Or if with experience of man and of spider,
She use my June lightning, the strong insect-ridder
To stop the fresh spinning,--why June will consider."
He comes up gasping, and more than ever persuaded that Browning's poetry
is a mass of inconglomerate nonsense, which nobody understands--least of
all members of the Browning Society.
We need be at no pains to find a meaning for everything Mr. Browning has
written. But when all is said and done--when these few freaks of a
crowded brain are thrown overboard to the sharks of verbal criticism
who feed on such things--Mr. Browning and his great poetical achievement
remain behind to be dealt with and accounted for. We do not get rid of
the Laureate by quoting:--
"O darling room, my heart's delight,
Dear room, the apple of my sight,
With thy two couches soft and white
There is no room so exquisite--
No little room so warm and bright
Wherein to read, wherein to write;"
or of Wordsworth by quoting:--
"At this, my boy hung down his head:
He blushed with shame, nor made reply,
And five times to the child I said,
"'Why, Edward? tell me why?'"
or of Keats by remembering that he once addressed a young lady as
"O come, Georgiana! the rose is full blown,
The riches of Flora are lavishly strown:
The air is all softness and crystal the streams,
The west is resplendently clothed in beams."
The strength of a rope may be but the strength of its weakest part; but
poets are to be judged in their happiest hours, and in their
The second period of Mr. Browning's poetry demands a different line of
argument; for it is, in my judgment, folly to deny that he has of late
years written a great deal which makes very difficult reading indeed. No
doubt you may meet people who tell you that they read 'The Ring and the
Book' for the first time without much mental effort; but you will do
well not to believe them. These poems are difficult--they cannot help
being so. What is 'The Ring and the Book'? A huge novel in twenty
thousand lines--told after the method not of Scott but of Balzac; it
tears the hearts out of a dozen characters; it tells the same story from
ten different points of view. It is loaded with detail of every kind and
description: you are let off nothing. As with a schoolboy's life at a
large school, if he is to enjoy it at all, he must fling himself into
it, and care intensely about everything--so the reader of 'The Ring and
the Book' must be interested in everybody and everything, down to the
fact that the eldest daughter of the counsel for the prosecution of
Guido is eight years old on the very day he is writing his speech, and
that he is going to have fried liver and parsley for his supper.
If you are prepared for this, you will have your reward; for the
_style_, though rugged and involved, is throughout, with the exception
of the speeches of counsel, eloquent and at times superb; and as for the
_matter_, if your interest in human nature is keen, curious, almost
professional--if nothing man, woman, or child has been, done, or
suffered, or conceivably can be, do, or suffer, is without interest for
you; if you are fond of analysis, and do not shrink from dissection--you
will prize 'The Ring and the Book' as the surgeon prizes the last great
contribution to comparative anatomy or pathology.
But this sort of work tells upon style. Browning has, I think, fared
better than some writers. To me, at all events, the step from 'A Blot in
the 'Scutcheon' to 'The Ring and the Book' is not so marked as is the
_mauvais pas_ that lies between 'Amos Barton' and 'Daniel Deronda.' But
difficulty is not obscurity. One task is more difficult than another.
The angles at the base of the isosceles triangles are apt to get mixed,
and to confuse us all--man and woman alike. 'Prince Hohenstiel'
something or another is a very difficult poem, not only to pronounce but
to read; but if a poet chooses as his subject Napoleon III.--in whom the
cad, the coward, the idealist, and the sensualist were inextricably
mixed--and purports to make him unbosom himself over a bottle of
Gladstone claret in a tavern at Leicester Square, you cannot expect that
the product should belong to the same class of poetry as Mr. Coventry
Patmore's admirable 'Angel in the House.'
It is the method that is difficult. Take the husband in 'The Ring and
the Book.' Mr. Browning remorselessly hunts him down, tracks him to the
last recesses of his mind, and there bids him stand and deliver. He
describes love, not only broken but breaking; hate in its germ; doubt at
its birth. These are difficult things to do either in poetry or prose,
and people with easy, flowing Addisonian or Tennysonian styles cannot
I seem to overhear a still, small voice asking, But are they worth
doing? or at all events, is it the province of art to do them? The
question ought not to be asked. It is heretical, being contrary to the
whole direction of the latter half of this century. The chains binding
us to the rocks of realism are faster riveted every day; and the Perseus
who is destined to cut them is, I expect, some mischievous little boy at
a Board-school. But as the question has been asked, I will own that
sometimes, even when deepest in works of this, the now orthodox school,
I have been harassed by distressing doubts whether after all this
enormous labor is not in vain; and wearied by the effort, overloaded by
the detail, bewildered by the argument, and sickened by the pitiless
dissection of character and motive, have been tempted to cry aloud,
quoting--or rather, in the agony of the moment, misquoting--Coleridge:--
"Simplicity--thou better name
Than all the family of Fame."
But this ebullition of feeling is childish and even sinful. We must take
our poets as we do our meals--as they are served up to us. Indeed, you
may, if full of courage, give a cook notice, but not the time-spirit who
makes our poets. We may be sure--to appropriate an idea of the late Sir
James Stephen--that if Robert Browning had lived in the sixteenth
century, he would not have written a poem like 'The Ring and the Book';
and if Edmund Spenser had lived in the nineteenth century he would not
have written a poem like the 'Faerie Queene.'
It is therefore idle to arraign Mr. Browning's later method and style
for possessing difficulties and intricacies which are inherent to it.
The method at all events has an interest of its own, a strength of its
own, a grandeur of its own. If you do not like it you must leave it
alone. You are fond, you say, of romantic poetry; well, then, take down
your Spenser and qualify yourself to join "the small transfigured band"
of those who are able to take their Bible-oaths they have read their
'Faerie Queene' all through. The company, though small, is delightful,
and you will have plenty to talk about without abusing Browning, who
probably knows his Spenser better than you do. Realism will not for ever
dominate the world of letters and art--the fashion of all things passeth
away--but it has already earned a great place: it has written books,
composed poems, painted pictures, all stamped with that "greatness"
which, despite fluctuations, nay, even reversals of taste and opinion,
But against Mr. Browning's later poems it is sometimes alleged that
their meaning is obscure because their grammar is bad. A cynic was once
heard to observe with reference to that noble poem 'The Grammarian's
Funeral,' that it was a pity the talented author had ever since allowed
himself to remain under the delusion that he had not only buried the
grammarian, but his grammar also. It is doubtless true that Mr. Browning
has some provoking ways, and is something too much of a verbal acrobat.
Also, as his witty parodist, the pet poet of six generations of
Cambridge undergraduates, reminds us:--
He loves to dock the smaller parts of speech,
As we curtail the already cur-tailed cur."
It is perhaps permissible to weary a little of his _i_'s and _o_'s, but
we believe we cannot be corrected when we say that Browning is a poet
whose grammar will bear scholastic investigation better than that of
most of Apollo's children.
A word about 'Sordello.' One half of 'Sordello,' and that, with Mr.
Browning's usual ill-luck, the first half, is undoubtedly obscure. It is
as difficult to read as 'Endymion' or the 'Revolt of Islam,' and for the
same reason--the author's lack of experience in the art of composition.
We have all heard of the young architect who forgot to put a staircase
in his house, which contained fine rooms, but no way of getting into
them. 'Sordello' is a poem without a staircase. The author, still in his
twenties, essayed a high thing. For his subject--
"He singled out
Sordello compassed murkily about
With ravage of six long sad hundred years.'"
He partially failed; and the British public, with its accustomed
generosity, and in order, I suppose, to encourage the others, has never
ceased girding at him because forty-two years ago he published at his
own charges a little book of two hundred and fifty pages, which even
such of them as were then able to read could not understand.
End of Volume IV.
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