Old and New Masters
Robert Lynd

Part 1 out of 4

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Mr. George Moore once summed up _Crime and Punishment_ as "Gaboriau with
psychological sauce." He afterwards apologized for the epigram, but he
insisted that all the same there is a certain amount of truth in it. And
so there is.

Dostoevsky's visible world was a world of sensationalism. He may in the
last analysis be a great mystic or a great psychologist; but he almost
always reveals his genius on a stage crowded with people who behave like
the men and women one reads about in the police news. There are more
murders and attempted murders in his books than in those of any other
great novelist. His people more nearly resemble madmen and wild beasts
than normal human beings.

He releases them from most of the ordinary inhibitions. He is fascinated
by the loss of self-control--by the disturbance and excitement which
this produces, often in the most respectable circles. He is beyond all
his rivals the novelist of "scenes." His characters get drunk, or go mad
with jealousy, or fall in epileptic fits, or rave hysterically. If
Dostoevsky had had less vision he would have been Strindberg. If his
vision had been aesthetic and sensual, he might have been D'Annunzio.

Like them, he is a novelist of torture. Turgenev found in his work
something Sadistic, because of the intensity with which he dwells on
cruelty and pain. Certainly the lust of cruelty--the lust of destruction
for destruction's sake--is the most conspicuous of the deadly sins in
Dostoevsky's men and women. He may not be a "cruel author." Mr. J.
Middleton Murry, in his very able "critical study," _Dostoevsky_, denies
the charge indignantly. But it is the sensational drama of a cruel world
that most persistently haunts his imagination.

Love itself is with him, as with Strindberg and D'Annunzio, for the most
part only a sort of rearrangement of hatred. Or, rather, both hatred and
love are volcanic outbursts of the same passion. He does also portray an
almost Christ-like love, a love that is outside the body and has the
nature of a melting and exquisite charity. He sometimes even portrays
the two kinds of love in the same person. But they are never in balance;
they are always in demoniacal conflict. Their ups and downs are like the
ups and downs in a fight between cat and dog. Even the lust is never, or
hardly ever, the lust of a more or less sane man. It is always lust with
a knife.

Dostoevsky could not have described the sin of Nekhludov in
_Resurrection_. His passions are such as come before the criminal rather
than the civil courts. His people are possessed with devils as the
people in all but religious fiction have long ceased to be. "This is a
madhouse," cries some one in _The Idiot_. The cry is, I fancy, repeated
in others of Dostoevsky's novels. His world is an inferno.

One result of this is a multiplicity of action. There was never so much
talk in any other novels, and there was never so much action. Even the
talk is of actions more than of ideas. Dostoevsky's characters describe
the execution of a criminal, the whipping of an ass, the torture of a
child. He sows violent deeds, not with the hand, but with the sack. Even
Prince Myshkin, the Christ-like sufferer in _The Idiot_, narrates
atrocities, though he perpetrates none. Here, for example, is a
characteristic Dostoevsky story put in the Prince's mouth:

In the evening I stopped for the night at a provincial hotel, and a
murder had been committed there the night before.... Two peasants,
middle-aged men, friends who had known each other for a long time
and were not drunk, had had tea and were meaning to go to bed in
the same room. But one had noticed during those last two days that
the other was wearing a silver watch on a yellow bead chain, which
he seems not to have seen on him before. The man was not a thief;
he was an honest man, in fact, and by a peasant's standard by no
means poor. But he was so taken with that watch and so fascinated
by it that at last he could not restrain himself. He took a knife,
and when his friend had turned away, he approached him cautiously
from behind, took aim, turned his eyes heavenwards, crossed
himself, and praying fervently "God forgive me, for Christ's sake!"
he cut his friend's throat at one stroke like a sheep and took his

One would not accept that incident from any Western author. One would
not even accept it from Tolstoi or Turgenev. It is too abnormal, too
obviously tainted with madness. Yet to Dostoevsky such aberrations of
conduct make a continuous and overwhelming appeal. The crimes in his
books seem to spring, not from more or less rational causes, but from
some seed of lunacy.

He never paints Everyman; he always projects Dostoevsky, or a nightmare
of Dostoevsky. That is why _Crime and Punishment_ belongs to a lower
range of fiction than _Anna Karenina_ or _Fathers and Sons_.
Raskolnikov's crime is the cold-blooded crime of a diseased mind. It
interests us like a story from Suetonius or like _Bluebeard_. But there
is no communicable passion in it such as we find in _Agamemnon_ or
_Othello_. We sympathize, indeed, with the fears, the bravado, the
despair that succeed the crime. But when all is said, the central figure
of the book is born out of fantasy. He is a grotesque made alive by
sheer imaginative intensity and passion. He is as distantly related to
the humanity we know in life and the humanity we know in literature as
the sober peasant who cut his friend's throat, saying, "God forgive me,
for Christ's sake!"

One does not grudge an artist an abnormal character or two. Dostoevsky,
however, has created a whole flock of these abnormal characters and
watches over them as a hen over her chickens. He invents vicious
grotesques as Dickens invents comic grotesques. In _The Brothers
Karamazov_ he reveals the malignance of Smerdyakov by telling us that he
was one who, in his childhood,

was very fond of hanging cats, and burying them with great
ceremony. He used to dress up in a sheet as though it were a
surplice, and sang, and waved some object over the dead cat as
though it were a censer.

As for the Karamazovs themselves, he portrays the old father and the
eldest of his sons hating each other and fighting like brutal maniacs:

Dmitri threw up both hands and suddenly clutched the old man by the
two tufts of hair that remained on his temples, tugged at them, and
flung him with a crash on the floor. He kicked him two or three
times with his heel in the face. The old man moaned shrilly. Ivan,
though not so strong as Dmitri, threw his arms round him, and with
all his might pulled him away. Alyosha helped him with his slender
strength, holding Dmitri in front.

"Madman! You've killed him!" cried Ivan.

"Serve him right!" shouted Dmitri, breathlessly. "If I haven't
killed him, I'll come again and kill him."

It is easy to see why Dostoevsky has become a popular author. Incident
follows breathlessly upon incident. No melodramatist ever poured out
incident upon the stage from such a horn of plenty. His people are
energetic and untamed, like cowboys or runaway horses. They might be
described as runaway human beings.

And Dostoevsky knows how to crowd his stage as only the inveterate
melodramatists know. Scenes that in an ordinary novel would take place
with two or three figures on the stage are represented in Dostoevsky as
taking place before a howling, seething mob. "A dozen men have broken
in," a maid announces in one place in _The Idiot_, "and they are all
drunk." "Show them all in at once," she is bidden. Dostoevsky is always
ready to show them all in at once.

It is one of the triumphs of his genius that, however many persons he
introduces, he never allows them to be confused into a hopeless chaos.
His story finds its way unimpeded through the mob. On two opposite pages
of _The Idiot_ one finds the following characters brought in by name:
General Epanchin, Prince S., Adelaida Ivanovna, Lizaveta Prokofyevna,
Yevgeny Pavlovitch Radomsky, Princess Byelokonsky, Aglaia, Prince
Myshkin, Kolya Ivolgin, Ippolit, Varya, Ferdyshchenko, Nastasya
Filippovna, Nina Alexandrovna, Ganya, Ptitsyn, and General Ivolgin. And
yet practically all of them remain separate and created beings. That is
characteristic at once of Dostoevsky's mastery and his monstrous

But the secret of Dostoevsky's appeal is something more than the
multitude and thrill of his incidents and characters. So incongruous,
indeed, is the sensational framework of his stories with the immense and
sombre genius that broods over them that Mr. Murry is inclined to regard
the incidents as a sort of wild spiritual algebra rather than as events
occurring on the plane of reality. "Dostoevsky," he declares, "is not a
novelist. What he is is more difficult to define."

Mr. Murry boldly faces the difficulty and attempts the definition. To
him Dostoevsky's work is "the record of a great mind seeking for a way
of life; it is more than a record of struggle, it is the struggle
itself." Dostoevsky himself is a man of genius "lifted out of the living
world," and unable to descend to it again. Mr. Murry confesses that at
times, as he reads him, he is "seized by a supersensual terror."

For an awful moment I seem to see things with the eye of eternity,
and have a vision of suns grown cold, and hear the echo of voices
calling without sound across the waste and frozen universe. And
those voices take shape in certain unforgettable fragments of
dialogue that have been spoken by one spirit to another in some
ugly, mean tavern, set in surrounding darkness.

Dostoevsky's people, it is suggested, "are not so much men and women as
disembodied spirits who have for the moment put on mortality."

They have no physical being. Ultimately they are the creations, not
of a man who desired to be, but of a spirit which sought to know.
They are the imaginations of a God-tormented mind. ... Because they
are possessed they are no longer men and women.

This is all in a measure true. Dostoevsky was no realist. Nor, on the
other hand, was he a novelist of horrors for horrors' sake. He could
never have written _Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar_ like Poe for the
sake of the aesthetic thrill.

None the less he remains a novelist who dramatized his spiritual
experiences through the medium of actions performed by human beings.
Clearly he believed that human beings--though not ordinary human
beings--were capable of performing the actions he narrates with such
energy. Mr. Murry will have it that the actions in the novels take place
in a "timeless" world, largely because Dostoevsky has the habit of
crowding an impossible rout of incidents into a single day. But surely
the Greeks took the same license with events. This habit of packing into
a few hours actions enough to fill a lifetime seems to me in Dostoevsky
to be a novelist's device rather than the result of a spiritual escape
into timelessness.

To say this is not to deny the spiritual content of Dostoevsky's
work--the anguish of the imprisoned soul as it battles with doubt and
denial and despair. There is in Dostoevsky a suggestion of Caliban
trying to discover some better god than Setebos. At the same time one
would be going a great deal too far in accepting the description of
himself as "a child of unbelief." The ultimate attitude of Dostoevsky is
as Christian as the Apostle Peter's, "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine
unbelief!" When Dostoevsky writes, "If any one could prove to me that
Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ,
I shall prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth," Mr. Murry
interprets this as a denial of Christ. It is surely a kind of faith,
though a despairing kind. And beyond the dark night of suffering, and
dissipating the night, Dostoevsky still sees the light of Christian
compassion. His work is all earthquake and eclipse and dead stars apart
from this.

He does not, Mr. Murry urges, believe, as has often been said, that men
are purified by suffering. It seems to me that Dostoevsky believes that
men are purified, if not by their own sufferings, at least by the
sufferings of others. Or even by the compassion of others, like Prince
Myshkin in _The Idiot_. But the truth is, it is by no means easy to
systematize the creed of a creature at war with life, as Dostoevsky
was--a man tortured by the eternal conflict of the devilish and the
divine in his own breast.

His work, like his face, bears the mark of this terrible conflict. The
novels are the perfect image of the man. As to the man himself, the
Vicomte de Voguee described him as he saw him in the last years of his

Short, lean, neurotic, worn and bowed down with sixty years of
misfortune, faded rather than aged, with a look of an invalid of
uncertain age, with a long beard and hair still fair, and for all
that still breathing forth the "cat-life." ... The face was that of
a Russian peasant; a real Moscow mujik, with a flat nose, small,
sharp eyes deeply set, sometimes dark and gloomy, sometimes gentle
and mild. The forehead was large and lumpy, the temples were hollow
as if hammered in. His drawn, twitching features seemed to press
down on his sad-looking mouth.... Eyelids, lips, and every muscle
of his face twitched nervously the whole time. When he became
excited on a certain point, one could have sworn that one had seen
him before seated on a bench in a police-court awaiting trial, or
among vagabonds who passed their time begging before the prison
doors. At all other times he carried that look of sad and gentle
meekness seen on the images of old Slavonic saints.

That is the portrait of the man one sees behind Dostoevsky's novels--a
portrait one might almost have inferred from the novels. It is a figure
that at once fascinates and repels. It is a figure that leads one to the
edge of the abyss. One cannot live at all times with such an author. But
his books will endure as the confession of the most terrible spiritual
and imaginative experiences that modern literature has given us.



Jane Austen has often been praised as a natural historian. She is a
naturalist among tame animals. She does not study man (as Dostoevsky
does) in his wild state before he has been domesticated. Her men and
women are essentially men and women of the fireside.

Nor is Jane Austen entirely a realist in her treatment even of these.
She idealizes them to the point of making most of them good-looking, and
she hates poverty to such a degree that she seldom can endure to write
about anybody who is poor. She is not happy in the company of a
character who has not at least a thousand pounds. "People get so
horridly poor and economical in this part of the world," she writes on
one occasion, "that I have no patience with them. Kent is the only place
for happiness; everybody is rich there." Her novels do not introduce us
to the most exalted levels of the aristocracy. They provide us, however,
with a natural history of county people and of people who are just below
the level of county people and live in the eager hope of being taken
notice of by them. There is more caste snobbishness, I think, in Jane
Austen's novels than in any other fiction of equal genius. She, far more
than Thackeray, is the novelist of snobs.

How far Jane Austen herself shared the social prejudices of her
characters it is not easy to say. Unquestionably, she satirized them. At
the same time, she imputes the sense of superior rank not only to her
butts, but to her heroes and heroines, as no other novelist has ever
done. Emma Woodhouse lamented the deficiency of this sense in Frank
Churchill. "His indifference to a confusion of rank," she thought,
"bordered too much on inelegance of mind." Mr. Darcy, again, even when
he melts so far as to become an avowed lover, neither forgets his social
position, nor omits to talk about it. "His sense of her inferiority, of
its being a degradation ... was dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due
to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend
his suit." On discovering, to his amazement, that Elizabeth is offended
rather than overwhelmed by his condescension, he defends himself warmly.
"Disguise of every sort," he declares, "is my abhorrence. Nor am I
ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you
expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To
congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is
so decidedly beneath my own?"

It is perfectly true that Darcy and Emma Woodhouse are the butts of Miss
Austen as well as being among her heroes and heroines. She mocks
them--Darcy especially--no less than she admires. She loves to let her
wit play about the egoism of social caste. She is quite merciless in
deriding, it when it becomes overbearing, as in Lady Catherine de
Bourgh, or when it produces flunkeyish reactions, as in Mr. Collins. But
I fancy she liked a modest measure of it. Most people do. Jane Austen,
in writing so much about the sense of family and position, chose as her
theme one of the most widespread passions of civilized human nature.

She was herself a clergyman's daughter. She was the seventh of a family
of eight, born in the parsonage at Steventon, in Hampshire. Her life
seems to have been far from exciting. Her father, like the clergy in her
novels, was a man of leisure--of so much leisure, as Mr. Cornish reminds
us, that he was able to read out Cowper to his family in the mornings.
Jane was brought up to be a young lady of leisure. She learned French
and Italian and sewing: she was "especially great in satin-stitch." She
excelled at the game of spillikins.

She must have begun to write at an early age. In later life, she urges
an ambitious niece, aged twelve, to give up writing till she is sixteen,
adding that "she had herself often wished she had read more and written
less in the corresponding years of her life." She was only twenty when
she began to write _First Impressions_, the perfect book which was not
published till seventeen years later with the title altered to _Pride
and Prejudice_. She wrote secretly for many years. Her family knew of
it, but the world did not--not even the servants or the visitors to the
house. She used to hide the little sheets of paper on which she was
writing when any one approached. She had not, apparently, a room to
herself, and must have written under constant threat of interruption.
She objected to having a creaking door mended on one occasion, because
she knew by it when any one was coming.

She got little encouragement to write. _Pride and Prejudice_ was offered
to a publisher in 1797: he would not even read it. _Northanger Abbey_
was written in the next two years. It was not accepted by a publisher,
however, till 1803; and he, having paid ten pounds for it, refused to
publish it. One of Miss Austen's brothers bought back the manuscript at
the price at which it had been sold twelve or thirteen years later; but
even then it was not published till 1818, when the author was dead.

The first of her books to appear was _Sense and Sensibility_. She had
begun to write it immediately after finishing _Pride and Prejudice_. It
was published in 1811, a good many years later, when Miss Austen was
thirty-six years old. The title-page merely said that it was written "By
a Lady." The author never put her name to any of her books. For an
anonymous first novel, it must be admitted, _Sense and Sensibility_ was
not unsuccessful. It brought Miss Austen L150--"a prodigious
recompense," she thought, "for that which had cost her nothing." The
fact, however, that she had not earned more than L700 from her novels by
the time of her death shows that she never became a really popular
author in her lifetime.

She was rewarded as poorly in credit as in cash, though the Prince
Regent became an enthusiastic admirer of her books, and kept a set of
them in each of his residences. It was the Prince Regent's librarian,
the Rev. J.S. Clarke, who, on becoming chaplain to Prince Leopold of
Saxe-Coburg, made the suggestion to her that "an historical romance,
illustrative of the history of the august House of Coburg, would just
now be very interesting." Mr. Collins, had he been able to wean himself
from Fordyce's _Sermons_ so far as to allow himself to take an interest
in fiction, could hardly have made a proposal more exquisitely
grotesque. One is glad the proposal was made, however, not only for its
own sake, but because it drew an admirable reply from Miss Austen on the
nature of her genius. "I could not sit seriously down," she declared,
"to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life;
and, if it were indispensable for me to keep it up, and never relax into
laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before
I had finished the first chapter."

Jane Austen knew herself for what she was, an inveterate laugher. She
belonged essentially to the eighteenth century--the century of the wits.
She enjoyed the spectacle of men and women making fools of themselves,
and she did not hide her enjoyment under a pretence of unobservant
good-nature. She observed with malice. It is tolerably certain that Miss
Mitford was wrong in accepting the description of her in private life as
"perpendicular, precise, taciturn, a poker of whom every one is afraid."
Miss Austen, one is sure, was a lady of good-humour, as well as a
novelist of good-humour; but the good-humour had a flavour. It was the
good-humour of the satirist, not of the sentimentalizer. One can imagine
Jane Austen herself speaking as Elizabeth Bennet once spoke to her
monotonously soft-worded sister. "That is the most unforgiving speech,"
she said, "that I ever heard you utter. Good girl!"

Miss Austen has even been accused of irreverence, and we occasionally
find her in her letters as irreverent in the presence of death as Mr.
Shaw. "Only think," she writes in one letter--a remark she works into a
chapter of _Emma_, by the way--"of Mrs. Holder being dead! Poor woman,
she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make
one cease to abuse her." And on another occasion she writes: "Mrs. Hall,
of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks
before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares
to look at her husband." It is possible that Miss Austen's sense of the
comic ran away with her at times as Emma Woodhouse's did. I do not know
of any similar instance of cruelty in conversation on the part of a
likeable person so unpardonable as Emma Woodhouse's witticism at the
expense of Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic. Miss Austen makes Emma
ashamed of her witticism, however, after Mr. Knightley has lectured her
for it. She sets a limit to the rights of wit, again, in _Pride and
Prejudice_, when Elizabeth defends her sharp tongue against Darcy. "The
wisest and best of men," ... he protests, "may be rendered ridiculous by
a person whose first object in life is a joke." "I hope I never ridicule
what is wise or good," says Elizabeth in the course of her answer.
"Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, _do_ divert me, I own,
and I laugh at them whenever I can." The six novels that Jane Austen has
left us might be described as the record of the diversions of a
clergyman's daughter.

The diversions of Jane Austen were, beyond those of most novelists, the
diversions of a spectator. (That is what Scott and Macaulay meant by
comparing her to Shakespeare.) Or, rather, they were the diversions of a
listener. She observed with her ears rather than with her eyes. With
her, conversation was three-fourths of life. Her stories are stories of
people who reveal themselves almost exclusively in talk. She wastes no
time in telling us what people and places looked like. She will dismiss
a man or a house or a view or a dinner with an adjective such as
"handsome." There is more description of persons and places in Mr.
Shaw's stage-directions than in all Miss Austen's novels. She cuts the
'osses and comes to the cackle as no other English novelist of the same
eminence has ever done. If we know anything of the setting or character
or even the appearance of her men and women, it is due far more to what
they say than to anything that is said about them. And yet how perfect
is her gallery of portraits! One can guess the very angle of Mr.
Collins's toes.

One seems, too, to be able to follow her characters through the trivial
round of the day's idleness as closely as if one were pursuing them
under the guidance of a modern realist. They are the most unoccupied
people, I think, who ever lived in literature. They are people in whose
lives a slight fall of snow is an event. Louisa Musgrave's jump on the
Cobb at Lyme Regis produces more commotion in the Jane Austen world than
murder and arson do in an ordinary novel. Her people do not even seem,
for the most part, to be interested in anything but their opinions of
each other. They have few passions beyond match-making. They are
unconcerned about any of the great events of their time. Almost the only
reference in the novels to the Napoleonic Wars is a mention of the
prize-money of naval officers. "Many a noble fortune," says Mr. Shepherd
in _Persuasion_, "has been made during the war." Miss Austen's principal
use of the Navy outside _Mansfield Park_ is as a means of portraying the
exquisite vanity of Sir Walter Elliott--his inimitable manner of
emphasizing the importance of both rank and good looks in the make-up
of a gentleman. "The profession has its utility," he says of the Navy,
"but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it." He
goes on to explain his reasons:

It is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of
objection to it. First as being the means of bringing persons of
obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours
which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and,
secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most terribly; a
sailor grows older sooner than any other man.

Sir Walter complains that he had once had to give place at dinner to
Lord St. Ives, the son of a curate, and "a certain Admiral Baldwin, the
most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine: his face the colour
of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree, all lines and
wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at

"In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?" said I to a friend
of mine who was standing near (Sir Basil Morley). "Old fellow!"
cried Sir Basil, "it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age
to be?" "Sixty," said I, "or perhaps sixty-two." "Forty," replied
Sir Basil, "forty, and no more." Picture to yourselves my
amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw
quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but
to a degree, I know, it is the same with them all; they are all
knocked about, and exposed to every climate and every weather, till
they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on
the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age.

That, I think, is an excellent example of Miss Austen's genius for
making her characters talk. Luckily, conversation was still formal in
her day, and it was as possible for her as for Congreve to make middling
men and women talk first-rate prose. She did more than this, however.
She was the first English novelist before Meredith to portray charming
women with free personalities. Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse have
an independence (rare in English fiction) of the accident of being
fallen in love with. Elizabeth is a delightful prose counterpart of

Miss Austen has another point of resemblance to Meredith besides that
which I have mentioned. She loves to portray men puffed up with
self-approval. She, too, is a satirist of the male egoist. Her books are
the most finished social satires in English fiction. They are so perfect
in the delicacy of their raillery as to be charming. One is conscious in
them, indeed, of the presence of a sparkling spirit. Miss Austen comes
as near being a star as it is possible to come in eighteenth-century
conversational prose. She used to say that, if ever she should marry,
she would fancy being Mrs. Crabbe. She had much of Crabbe's realism,
indeed; but what a dance she led realism with the mocking light of her




It was Mr. Shaw who, in the course of a memorable controversy, invented
a fantastic pantomime animal, which he called the "Chester-Belloc." Some
such invention was necessary as a symbol of the literary comradeship of
Mr. Hilaire Belloc and Mr. Gilbert Chesterton. For Mr. Belloc and Mr.
Chesterton, whatever may be the dissimilarities in the form and spirit
of their work, cannot be thought of apart from each other. They are as
inseparable as the red and green lights of a ship: the one illumines
this side and the other that, but they are both equally concerned with
announcing the path of the good ship "Mediaevalism" through the
dangerous currents of our times. Fifty years ago, when philology was one
of the imaginative arts, it would have been easy enough to gain credit
for the theory that they are veritable reincarnations of the Heavenly
Twins going about the earth with corrupted names. Chesterton is merely
English for Castor, and Belloc is Pollux transmuted into French.
Certainly, if the philologist had also been an evangelical Protestant,
he would have felt a double confidence in identifying the two authors
with Castor and Pollux as the

Great Twin Brethren,
Who fought so well for Rome.

A critic was struck some years ago by the propriety of the fact that Mr.
Chesterton and Mr. Belloc brought out books of the same kind and the
same size, through the same publisher, almost in the same week. Mr.
Belloc, to be sure, called his volume of essays _This, That, and the
Other_, and Mr. Chesterton called his _A Miscellany of Men._ But if Mr.
Chesterton had called his book _This, That, and the Other_ and Mr.
Belloc had called his _A Miscellany of Men_, it would not have made a
pennyworth of difference. Each book is simply a ragbag of essays--the
riotous and fantastically joyous essays of Mr. Chesterton, the sardonic
and arrogantly gay essays of Mr. Belloc. Each, however, has a unity of
outlook, not only an internal unity, but a unity with the other. Each
has the outlook of the mediaevalist spirit--the spirit which finds
crusades and miracles more natural than peace meetings and the
discoveries of science, which gives Heaven and Hell a place on the map
of the world, which casts a sinister eye on Turks and Jews, which brings
its gaiety to the altar as the tumbler in the story brought his cap and
bells, which praises dogma and wine and the rule of the male, which
abominates the scientific spirit, and curses the day on which Bacon was
born. Probably, neither of the authors would object to being labelled a
mediaevalist, except in so far as we all object to having labels affixed
to us by other people. Mr. Chesterton's attitude on the matter, indeed,
is clear from that sentence in _What's Wrong with the World_, in which
he affirms: "Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather
mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout." And
if, on learning some of the inferences he makes from this, you protest
that he is reactionary, and is trying to put back the hands of the
clock, he is quite unashamed, and replies that the moderns "are always
saying 'you can't put the clock back.' The simple and obvious answer is,
'You can.' A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored
by the human finger to any figure or hour." The effrontery of an answer
like that is so magnificent that it takes one's breath away. The chief
difficulty of Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Belloc, however, seems to be that
they want their clock to point to two different hours at the same time,
neither of which happens to be the hour which the sun has just marked at
Greenwich. They want it to point at once to 878 and 1789--to Ethandune
and the French Revolution.

Similar though they are in the revolutio-mediaevalist background of
their philosophy, however, Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Belloc are as unlike
as possible in the spirit in which they proclaim it. If Mr. Chesterton
gets up on his box to prophesy against the times, he seems to do so out
of a passionate and unreasoning affection for his fellows. If Mr. Belloc
denounces the age, he seems also to be denouncing the human race. Mr.
Chesterton is jovial and democratic; Mr. Belloc is (to some extent)
saturnine and autocratic. Mr. Chesterton belongs to the exuberantly
lovable tradition of Dickens; indeed, he is, in the opinion of many
people, the most exuberantly lovable personality which has expressed
itself in English literature since Dickens. Mr. Belloc, on the other
hand, has something of the gleaming and solitary fierceness of Swift and
Hazlitt. Mr. Chesterton's vision, coloured though it is with the colours
of the past, projects itself generously into the future. He is
foretelling the eve of the Utopia of the poor and the oppressed when he
speaks of

the riot that all good men, even the most conservative, really
dream of, when the sneer shall be struck from the face of the
well-fed; when the wine of honour shall be poured down the throat
of despair; when we shall, so far as to the sons of flesh is
possible, take tyranny, and usury, and public treason, and bind
them into bundles, and burn them.

There is anger, as well as affection, in this eloquence--anger as of a
new sort of knight thirsting to spill the blood of a new sort of
barbarian in the name of Christ. Mr. Belloc's attack on the barbarians
lacks the charity of these fiery sentences. He concludes his essay on
the scientific spirit, as embodied in Lombroso, for instance, with the
words, "The Ass!" And he seems to sneer the insult where Mr. Chesterton
would have roared it. Mr. Chesterton and he may be at one in the way in
which they regard the scientific criminologists, eugenists,
collectivists, pragmatists, post-impressionists, and most of the other
"ists" of recent times, as an army of barbarians invading the
territories of mediaeval Christendom. But while Mr. Chesterton is in the
gap of danger, waving against his enemies the sword of the spirit, Mr.
Belloc stands on a little height apart, aiming at them the more cruel
shafts of the intellect. It is not that he is less courageous than Mr.
Chesterton, but that he is more contemptuous. Here, for example, is how
he meets the barbarian attack, especially as it is delivered by M.
Bergson and his school:--

In its most grotesque form, it challenges the accuracy of
mathematics; in its most vicious, the processes of the human
reason. The Barbarian is as proud as a savage in a top hat when he
talks of the elliptical or the hyperbolic universe, and tries to
picture parallel straight lines converging or diverging--but never
doing anything so vulgarly old-fashioned as to remain parallel.

The Barbarian, when he has graduated to be a "pragmatist," struts
like a nigger in evening clothes, and believes himself superior to
the gift of reason, etc., etc.

It would be unfair to offer this passage as an example of Mr. Belize's
dominating genius, but it is an excellent example of his domineering
temper. His genius and his temper, one may add, seem, in these essays,
to, be always trying to climb on one another's shoulders, and it is when
his genius gets uppermost that he becomes one of the most biting and
exhilarating writers of his time. On such occasions his malice ceases to
be a talent, and rises into an enthusiasm, as in _The Servants of the
Rich_, where, like a mediaeval bard, he shows no hesitation in housing
his enemies in the circles of Hell. His gloating proclamation of the
eternal doom of the rich men's servants is an infectious piece of
humour, at once grim and irresponsible:--

Their doom is an eternal sleeplessness and a nakedness in the
gloom.... These are those men who were wont to come into the room
of the Poor Guest at early morning, with a steadfast and assured
step, and a look of insult. These are those who would take the
tattered garments and hold them at arm's length, as much as to say:
"What rags these scribblers wear!" and then, casting them over the
arm, with a gesture that meant: "Well, they must be brushed, but
Heaven knows if they will stand it without coming to pieces!" would
next discover in the pockets a great quantity of middle-class
things, and notably loose tobacco....

... Then one would see him turn one's socks inside out, which is a
ritual with the horrid tribe. Then a great bath would be trundled
in, and he would set beside it a great can, and silently pronounce
the judgment that, whatever else was forgiven the middle-class, one
thing would not be forgiven them--the neglect of the bath, of the
splashing about of the water, and of the adequate wetting of the

All these things we have suffered, you and I, at their hands. But
be comforted. They writhe in Hell with their fellows.

Mr. Belloc is not one of those authors who can be seen at their best in
quotations, but even the mutilated fragment just given suggests to some
extent the mixture of gaiety and malice that distinguishes his work from
the work of any of his contemporaries. His gifts run to satire, as Mr.
Chesterton's run to imaginative argument. It is this, perhaps, which
accounts for the fact that, of these two authors, who write with their
heads in the Middle Ages, it is Mr. Chesterton who is the more
comprehensive critic of his own times. He never fights private, but
always public, battles in his essays. His mediaevalism seldom
degenerates into a prejudice, as it often does with Mr. Belloc. It
represents a genuine theory of the human soul, and of human freedom. He
laments as he sees men exchanging the authority of a spiritual
institution, like the Church, for the authority a carnal institution,
like a bureaucracy. He rages as he sees them abandoning charters that
gave men rights, and accepting charters that only give them
prohibitions. It has been the custom for a long time to speak of Mr.
Chesterton as an optimist; and there was, indeed, a time when he was so
rejoiced by the discovery that the children of men were also the
children of God, that he was as aggressively cheerful as Whitman and
Browning rolled into one. But he has left all that behind him. The
insistent vision of a world in full retreat from the world of Alfred and
Charlemagne and the saints and the fight for Jerusalem--from this and
the allied world of Danton and Robespierre, and the rush to the
Bastille--has driven him back upon a partly well-founded and partly
ill-founded Christian pessimism. To him it now seems as if Jerusalem had
captured the Christians rather than the Christians Jerusalem. He sees
men rushing into Bastilles, not in order to tear them down, but in order
to inhabit the accursed cells.

When I say that this pessimism is partly ill-founded, I mean that it is
arrived at by comparing the liberties of the Middle Ages with the
tyrannies of to-day, instead of by comparing the liberties of the Middle
Ages with the liberties of to-day, or the tyrannies of the Middle Ages
with the tyrannies of to-day. It is the result, sometimes, of playing
with history and, sometimes, of playing with words. Is it not playing
with words, for instance, to glorify the charters by which medieval
kings guaranteed the rights and privileges of their subjects, and to
deny the name of charter to such a law as that by which a modern State
guarantees some of the rights and privileges of children--to deny it
simply on the ground that the latter expresses itself largely in
prohibitions? It may be necessary to forbid a child to go into a
gin-palace in order to secure it the privilege of not being driven into
a gin-palace. Prohibitions are as necessary to human liberty as permits
and licences.

At the same time, quarrel as we may with Mr. Chesterton's mediaevalism,
and his application of it to modern problems, we can seldom quarrel with
the motive with which he urges it upon us. His high purpose throughout
is to keep alive the human view of society, as opposed to the mechanical
view to which lazy politicians are naturally inclined. If he has not
been able to give us any very, coherent vision of a Utopia of his own,
he has, at least, done the world a service in dealing some smashing
blows at the Utopia of machinery. None the less, he and Mr. Belloc would
be the most dangerous of writers to follow in a literal obedience. In
regard to political and social improvements, they are too often merely
Devil's Advocates of genius. But that is a necessary function, and they
are something more than that. As I have suggested, above all the
arguments and the rhetoric and the humours of the little political
battles, they do bear aloft a banner with a strange device, reminding us
that organized society was made for man, and not man for organized
society. That, in the last analysis, is the useful thing for which Mr.
Chesterton and Mr. Belloc stand in modern politics. It almost seems at
times, however, as though they were ready to see us bound again with the
fetters of ancient servitudes, in order to compel us to take part once
more in the ancient struggle for freedom.


Mr. Belloc has during the last four or five years become a public man.
Before that he had been acknowledged a man of genius. But even the fact
that he had sat in the House of Commons never led any great section of
Englishmen to regard him as a figure or an institution. He was generally
looked on as one who made his bed aggressively among heretics, as a kind
of Rabelaisian dissenter, as a settled interrupter, half-rude and
half-jesting. And yet there was always in him something of the
pedagogue who has been revealed so famously in these last months. Not
only had he a passion for facts and for stringing facts upon theories.
He had also a high-headed and dogmatic and assured way of imparting his
facts and theories to the human race as it sat--or in so far as it could
be persuaded to sit--on its little forms.

It is his schoolmasterishness which chiefly distinguishes the genius of
Mr. Belloc from the genius of his great and uproarious comrade, Mr.
Chesterton. Mr. Belloc is not a humorist to anything like the same
degree as Mr. Chesterton. If Mr. Chesterton were a schoolmaster he would
give all the triangles noses and eyes, and he would turn the Latin verbs
into nonsense rhymes. Humour is his breath and being. He cannot speak of
the Kingdom of Heaven or of Robert Browning without it any more than of
asparagus. He is a laughing theologian, a laughing politician, a
laughing critic, a laughing philosopher. He retains a fantastic
cheerfulness even amid the blind furies--and how blindly furious he can
sometimes be!--of controversy. With Mr. Belloc, on the other hand,
laughter is a separate and relinquishable gift. He can at will lay aside
the mirth of one who has broken bounds for the solemnity of the man in
authority. He can be scapegrace prince and sober king by turns, and in
such a way that the two personalities seem scarcely to be related to
each other. Compared with Mr. Chesterton he is like a man in a mask, or
a series of masks. He reveals more of his intellect to the world than of
his heart. He is not one of those authors whom one reads with a sense of
personal intimacy. He is too arrogant even in his merriment for that.

Perhaps the figure we see reflected most obtrusively in his works is
that of a man delighting in immense physical and intellectual energies.
It is this that makes him one of the happiest of travellers. On his
travels, one feels, every inch and nook of his being is intent upon the
passing earth. The world is to him at once a map and a history and a
poem and a church and an ale-house. The birds in the greenwood, the
beer, the site of an old battle, the meaning of an old road, sacred
emblems by the roadside, the comic events of way-faring--he has an equal
appetite for them all. Has he not made a perfect book of these things,
with a thousand fancies added, in _The Four Men_? In _The Four Men_ he
has written a travel-book which more than any other of his works has
something of the passion of a personal confession. Here the pilgrim
becomes nearly genial as he indulges in his humours against the rich and
against policemen and in behalf of Sussex against Kent and the rest of
the inhabited world.

Mr. Chesterton has spoken of Mr. Belloc as one who "did and does humanly
and heartily love England, not as a duty but as a pleasure, and almost
an indulgence." And _The Four Men_ expresses this love humorously,
inconsequently, and with a grave stepping eloquence. There are few
speeches in modern books better than the conversations in _The Four
Men._ Mr. Belloc is not one of those disciples of realism who believe
that the art of conversation is dead, and that modern people are only
capable of addressing each other in one-line sentences. He has the
traditional love of the fine speech such as we find it in the ancient
poets and historians and dramatists and satirists. He loves a monologue
that passes from mockery to regret, that gathers up by the way anecdote
and history and essay and foolery, that is half a narrative of things
seen and half an irresponsible imagination. He can describe a runaway
horse with the farcical realism of the authors of _Some Experiences of
an Irish R.M._, can parody a judge, can paint a portrait, and can steep
a landscape in vision. Two recent critics have described him as "the
best English prose writer since Dryden," but that only means that Mr.
Belloc's rush of genius has quite naturally swept them off their feet.

If Mr. Belloc's love of country is an indulgence, his moods of
suspicion and contempt are something of the same kind. He is nothing of
a philanthropist in any sense of the word. He has no illusions about the
virtue of the human race. He takes pleasure in scorn, and there is a
flavour of bitterness in his jests. His fiction largely belongs to the
comedy of corruption. He enjoys--and so do we--the thought of the poet
in Sussex who had no money except three shillings, "and a French penny,
which last some one had given him out of charity, taking him for a
beggar a little way-out of Brightling that very day." When he describes
the popular rejoicings at the result of Mr. Clutterbuck's election, he
comments: "The populace were wild with joy at their victory, and that
portion of them who as bitterly mourned defeat would have been roughly
handled had they not numbered quite half this vast assembly of human
beings." He is satirist and ironist even more than historian. His
ironical essays are the best of their kind that have been written in
recent years.

Mr. Mandell and Mr. Shanks in their little study, _Hilaire Belloc: the
Man and his Work_, are more successful in their exposition of Mr.
Belloc's theory of history and the theory of politics which has risen
out of it--or out of which it has risen--than they are in their
definition of him as a man of letters. They have written a lively book
on him, but they do not sufficiently communicate an impression of the
kind of his exuberance, of his thrusting intellectual ardour, of his
pomp as a narrator, of his blind and doctrinaire injustices, of his
jesting like a Roman Emperor's, of the strength of his happiness upon a
journey, of his buckishness, of the queer lack of surprising phrases in
his work, of his measured omniscience, of the immense weight of
tradition in the manner of his writing. There are many contemporary
writers whose work seems to be a development of journalism. Mr.
Belloc's is the child of four literatures, or, maybe, half a dozen. He
often writes carelessly, sometimes dully but there is the echo of
greatness in his work. He is one of the few contemporary men of genius
whose books are under-estimated rather than over-estimated. He is an
author who has brought back to the world something of the copiousness,
fancy, appetite, power, and unreason of the talk that, one imagines, was
once to be heard in the Mermaid Tavern.


I cannot help wishing at times that Mr. Chesterton could be divided in
two. One half of him I should like to challenge to mortal combat as an
enemy of the human race. The other half I would carry shoulder-high
through the streets. For Mr. Chesterton is at once detestable and
splendid. He is detestable as a doctrinaire: he is splendid as a sage
and a poet who juggles with stars and can keep seven of them in the air
at a time. For, if he is a gamester, it is among the lamps of Heaven. We
can see to read by his sport. He writes in flashes, and hidden and
fantastic truths suddenly show their faces in the play of his sentences.

Unfortunately, his two personalities have become so confused that his
later books sometimes strike one as being not so much a game played with
light as a game of hide-and-seek between light and darkness. In the
darkness he mutters incantations to the monstrous tyrannies of old time:
in the light he is on his knees to liberty. He vacillates between
superstition and faith. His is a genius at once enslaved and
triumphantly rebel. This fatal duality is seen again and again in his
references to the tyrannies of the Middle Ages. Thus he writes: "It need
not be repeated that the case despotism is democratic. As a rule its
cruelty to the strong is kindness to the weak." I confess I do not know
the "rule" to which Mr. Chesterton refers. The picture of the despot as
a good creature who shields the poor from the rich is not to be found
among the facts of history. The ordinary despot, in his attitude to the
common people suffering from the oppressions of their lords, is best
portrayed in the fable--if it be a fable--of Marie Antoinette and her
flippancy about eating cake.

I fancy, however, Mr. Chesterton's defence of despots is not the result
of any real taste for them or acquaintance with their history: it is due
simply to his passion for extremes. He likes a man, as the vulgar say,
to be either one thing or the other. You must be either a Pope or a
revolutionist to please him. He loves the visible rhetoric of things,
and the sober suits of comfortable citizens seem dull and neutral in
comparison with the red of cardinals on the one hand, and of caps of
liberty on the other. This, I think, explains Mr. Chesterton's
indifference to, if not dislike of, Parliaments. Parliaments are
monuments of compromise, and are guilty of the sin of unpicturesqueness.
One would imagine that a historian of England who did not care for
Parliaments would be as hopelessly out of his element as a historian of
Greece who did not care for the arts. And it is because Mr. Chesterton
is indifferent to so much in the English genius and character that he
has given us in his recent short _History of England_, instead of a
History of England, a wild and wonderful pageant of argument. "Already,"
he cries, as he relates how Parliament "certainly encouraged, and almost
certainly obliged" King Richard to break his pledge to the people after
the Wat Tyler insurrection:--

Already Parliament is not merely a governing body, but a governing

The history of England is to Mr. Chesterton largely the history of the
rise of the governing class. He blames John Richard Green for leaving
the people out of his history; but Mr. Chesterton himself has left out
the people as effectually as any of the historians who went before him.
The obsession of "the governing class" has thrust the people into the
background. History resolves itself with him into a disgraceful epic of
a governing class which despoiled Pope and King with the right hand, and
the people with the left. It is a disgraceful epic patched with splendid
episodes, but it culminates in an appalling cry of doubt whether, after
all, it might not be better for England to perish utterly in the great
war while fighting for liberty than to survive to behold the triumph of
the "governing class" in a servile State of old-age pensions and
Insurance Acts.

This theory of history, as being largely the story of the evolution of
the "governing class," is an extremely interesting and even "fruitful"
theory. But it is purely fantastic unless we bear in mind that the
governing class has been continually compelled to enlarge itself, and
that its tendency is reluctantly to go on doing so until in the end it
will be coterminous with the "governed class." History is a tale of
exploitation, but it is also a tale of liberation, and the over-emphasis
that Mr. Chesterton lays on exploitation by Parliaments as compared with
exploitation by Popes and Kings, can only be due to infidelity in regard
to some of the central principles of freedom. Surely it is possible to
condemn the Insurance Act, if it must be condemned, without apologizing
either for the Roman Empire or for the Roman ecclesiastical system. Mr.
Chesterton, however, believes in giving way to one's prejudices. He says
that history should be written backwards; and what does this mean but
that it should be dyed in prejudice? thus, he cannot refer to the
Hanoverian succession without indulging in a sudden outburst of heated
rhetoric such as one might expect rather in a leading article in
war-time. He writes:--

With George there entered England something that had scarcely been
seen there before; something hardly mentioned in mediaeval or
Renascence writing, except as one mentions a Hottentot--the
barbarian from beyond the Rhine.

Similarly, his characterization of the Revolution of 1688 is largely a
result of his dislike of the governing classes at the present hour:--

The Revolution reduced us to a country wholly governed by
gentlemen; the popular universities and schools of the Middle Ages,
like their guilds and abbeys, had been seized and turned into what
they are--factories of gentlemen when they are not merely factories
of snobs.

Both of these statements contain a grain of truth, but neither of them
contains enough truth to be true. One might describe them as sweetmeats
of history of small nutritious value. One might say the same of his
comment on the alliance between Chatham and Frederick the Great:--

The cannibal theory of a commonwealth, that it can of its nature
eat other commonwealths, had entered Christendom.

How finely said! But, alas! the cannibal theory of a commonwealth
existed long before Chatham and Frederick the Great. The instinct to
exploit is one of the most venerable instincts of the human race,
whether in individual men or in nations of men; and ancient Hebrew and
ancient Greek and ancient Roman had exhausted the passion of centuries
in obedience to it before the language spoken either by Chatham or by
Frederick was born. Christian Spain, Christian France, and Christian
England had not in this matter disowned the example of their Jewish and
Pagan forerunners.

What we are infinitely grateful to Mr. Chesterton for, however, is that
he has sufficient imagination to loathe cannibalism wherever he sees it.
True, he seems to forgive certain forms of cannibalism on the ground
that it is an exaggeration to describe the flesh of a rich man as the
flesh of a human being. But he does rage with genius at the continual
eating of men that went on in England, especially after the spoliation
of the monasteries in the reign of Henry the Eighth gave full scope to
the greed of the strong. He sees that the England which Whig and Tory
combined to defend as the perfection of the civilized world in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an England governed by men whose
chief claim to govern was founded on the fact that they had seized their
country and were holding it against their countrymen. Mr. Chesterton
rudely shatters the mirror of perfection in which the possessing class
have long seen themselves. He writes in a brilliant passage:--

It could truly be said of the English gentleman, as of another
gallant and gracious individual, that his honour stood rooted in
dishonour. He was, indeed, somewhat in the position of such an
aristocrat of romance, whose splendour has the dark spot of a
secret and a sort of blackmail.... His glory did not come from the
Crusades, but from the Great Pillage.... The oligarchs were
descended from usurers and thieves. That, for good or evil, was the
paradox of England; the typical aristocrat was the typical upstart.

But the secret was worse; not only was such a family founded on
stealing, but the family was stealing still. It is a grim truth
that, all through the eighteenth century, all through the great
Whig speeches about liberty, all through the great Tory speeches
about patriotism, through the period of Wandiwash and Plassey,
through the period of Trafalgar and Waterloo, one process was
steadily going on in the central senate of the nation. Parliament
was passing Bill after Bill for the enclosure by the great
landlords of such of the common lands as had survived out of the
great communal system of the Middle Ages. It is much more than a
pun, it is the prime political irony of our history that the
Commons were destroying the commons.

It would be folly to suggest, however, that, conscious though Mr.
Chesterton is of the crimes of history, he has turned history into a
mere series of floggings of criminals. He is for ever laying down the
whip and inviting the criminals to take their seats while he paints
gorgeous portraits of them in all the colours of the rainbow. His praise
of the mighty rhetoricians of the eighteenth century could in some
passages scarcely be more unstinted if he were a Whig of the Whigs. He
cannot but admire the rotund speech and swelling adventures of those
days. If we go farther back, we find him portraying even the Puritans
with a strange splendour of colour:--

They were, above all things, anti-historic, like the Futurists in
Italy; and there was this unconscious greatness about them, that
their very sacrilege was public and solemn, like a sacrament; and
they were ritualists even as iconoclasts. It was, properly
considered, but a very secondary example of their strange and
violent simplicity that one of them, before a mighty mob at
Whitehall, cut off the anointed head of the sacramental man of the
Middle Ages. For another, far away in the western shires, cut down
the thorn of Glastonbury, from which had grown the whole story of

This last passage is valuable, not only because it reveals Mr.
Chesterton as a marvellous rhetorician doing the honours of prose to his
enemies, but because it helps to explain the essentially tragic view he
takes of English history. I exaggerated a moment ago when I said that to
Mr. Chesterton English history is the story of the rise of a governing
class. What it really is to him is the story of a thorn-bush cut down by
a Puritan. He has hung all the candles of his faith on the sacred thorn,
like the lights on a Christmas-tree, and lo! it has been cut down and
cast out of England with as little respect as though it were a verse
from the Sermon on the Mount. It may be that Mr. Chesterton's sight is
erratic, and that what he took to be the sacred thorn was really a
Upas-tree. But in a sense that does not matter. He is entitled to his
own fable, if he tells it honestly and beautifully; and it is as a
tragic fable or romance of the downfall of liberty in England that one
reads his _History_. He himself contends in the last chapter of the book
that the crisis in English history came "with the fall of Richard II,
following on his failures to use mediaeval despotism in the interests
of mediaeval democracy." Mr. Chesterton's history would hardly be worth
reading, if he had made nothing more of it than is suggested in that
sentence. His book (apart from occasional sloughs of sophistry and
fallacious argument) remains in the mind as a song of praise and dolour
chanted by the imagination about an England that obeyed not God and
despised the Tree of Life, but that may yet, he believes, hear once more
the ancestral voices, and with her sons arrayed in trade unions and
guilds, march riotously back into the Garden of Eden.




Dorothy Wordsworth--whom Professor Harper has praised not beyond reason
as "the most delightful, the most fascinating woman who has enriched
literary history"--once confessed in a letter about her brother William
that "his person is not in his favour," and that he was "certainly
rather plain." He is the most difficult of all the great poets whom one
reverences to portray as an attractive person. "'Horse-face,' I have
heard satirists say," Carlyle wrote of him, recalling a comparison of
Hazlitt's; and the horse-face seems to be symbolic of something that we
find not only in his personal appearance, but in his personality and his

His faults do not soften us, as the faults of so many favourite writers
do. They were the faults, not of passion, but of a superior person, who
was something of a Sir Willoughby Patterne in his pompous
self-satisfaction. "He says," records Lamb in one of his letters, "he
does not see much difficulty in writing like Shakespeare, if he had a
mind to try it." Lamb adds: "It is clear that nothing is wanting but the

Leigh Hunt, after receiving a visit from Wordsworth in 1815, remarked
that "he was as sceptical on the merit of all kinds of poetry but one as
Richardson was on those of the novels of Fielding." Keats, who had
earlier spoken of the reverence in which he held Wordsworth, wrote to
his brother in 1818: "I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad
impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, vanity, and
bigotry." There was something frigidly unsympathetic in his judgment of
others, which was as unattractive as his complacency in regard to his
own work. When Trelawny, seeing him at Lausanne and, learning who he
was, went up to him as he was about to step into his carriage and asked
him what he thought of Shelley as a poet, he replied: "Nothing." Again,
Wordsworth spoke with solemn reprobation of certain of Lamb's
friendships, after Lamb was dead, as "the indulgences of social humours
and fancies which were often injurious to himself and causes of severe
regrets to his friends, without really benefiting the object of his
misapplied kindness."

Nor was this attitude of Johnny Head-in-Air the mark only of his later
years. It appeared in the days when he and Coleridge collaborated in
bringing out _Lyrical Ballads._ There is something sublimely egotistical
in the way in which he shook his head over _The Ancient Mariner_ as a
drag upon that miraculous volume. In the course of a letter to his
publisher, he wrote:--

From what I can gather it seems that _The Ancyent Marinere_ has, on
the whole, been an injury to the volume; I mean that the old words
and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If
the volume should come to a second edition, I would put in its
place some little things which would be more likely to suit the
common taste.

It is when one reads sentences like these that one begins to take a
mischievous delight in the later onslaught of a Scottish reviewer who,
indignant that Wordsworth should dare to pretend to be able to
appreciate Burns, denounced him as "a retired, pensive, egotistical,
_collector of stamps_," and as--

a melancholy, sighing, half-parson sort of gentleman, who lives in
a small circle of old maids and sonneteers, and drinks tea now and
then with the solemn Laureate.

One feels at times that no ridicule or abuse of this stiff-necked old
fraud could be excessive; for, if he were not Wordsworth, as what but a
fraud could we picture him in his later years, as he protests against
Catholic Emancipation, the extension of the franchise, the freedom of
the Press, and popular education? "Can it, in a _general_ view," he
asks, "be good that an infant should learn much which its _parents do
not know?_ Will not a child arrogate a superiority unfavourable to love
and obedience?" He shuddered again at the likelihood that Mechanics'
Institutes would "make discontented spirits and insubordinate and
presumptuous workmen." He opposed the admission of Dissenters to
Cambridge University, and he "desired that a medical education should be
kept beyond the reach of a poor student," on the ground that "the better
able the parents are to incur expense, the stronger pledge have we of
their children being above meanness and unfeeling and sordid habits."
One might go on quoting instance after instance of this piety of
success, as it might be called. Time and again the words seem to come
from the mouth, not of one of the inspired men of the modern world, but
of some puffed-up elderly gentleman in a novel by Jane Austen. His
letter to a young relation who wished to marry his daughter Dora is a
letter that Jane Austen might have invented:--

If you have thoughts of marrying, do look out for some lady with a
sufficient fortune for both of you. What I say to you now I would
recommend to every naval officer and clergyman who is without
prospect of professional advancement. Ladies of some fortune are as
easily won as those without, and for the most part as deserving.
Check the first liking to those who have nothing.

One is tempted to say that Wordsworth, like so many other poets, died
young, and that a pensioner who inherited his name survived him.

When one has told the worst about Wordsworth, however, one is as far as
ever from having painted a portrait of him in which anybody could
believe while reading the _Ode on Intimations of Immortality--Ode_ as
it was simply called when it was first published--or _I wandered lonely
as a cloud_, or the sonnet composed on Westminster Bridge. Nor does the
portrait of a stern, unbending egotist satisfy us when we remember the
life-long devotion that existed between him and Dorothy, and the fact
that Coleridge loved him, and that Lamb and Scott were his friends. He
may have been a niggard of warm-heartedness to the outside world, but it
is clear from his biography that he possessed the genius of a good heart
as well as of a great mind.

And he was as conspicuous for the public as for the private virtues. His
latest biographer has done well to withdraw our eyes from the portrait
of the old man with the stiffened joints and to paint in more glowing
colours than any of his predecessors the early Wordsworth who rejoiced
in the French Revolution, and, apparently as a consequence, initiated a
revolution in English poetry. The later period of the life is not
glossed over; it is given, indeed, in cruel detail, and Professor
Harper's account of it is the most lively and fascinating part of his
admirable book. But it is to the heart of the young revolutionary, who
dreamed of becoming a Girondist leader and of seeing England a republic,
that he traces all the genius and understanding that we find in the

"Wordsworth's connection," he writes, "with the English 'Jacobins,' with
the most extreme element opposed to the war or actively agitating in
favour of making England a republic, was much closer than has been
generally admitted." He points out that Wordsworth's first books of
verse, _An Evening Walk_, and _Descriptive Sketches_, were published by
Joseph Johnson, who also published Dr. Priestley, Horne Tooke, and Mary
Wollstonecraft, and whose shop was frequented by Godwin and Paine.
Professor Harper attempts to strengthen his case by giving brief
sketches of famous "Jacobins," whom Wordsworth may or may not have met,
but his case is strong enough without their help. Wordsworth's
reply--not published at the time, or, indeed, till after his death--to
the Bishop of Llandaff's anti-French-Revolution sermon on _The Wisdom
and Goodness of God in having made both Rich and Poor_, was signed
without qualification, "By a Republican." He refused to join in "the
idle Cry of modish lamentation" over the execution of the French King,
and defended the other executions in France as necessary. He condemned
the hereditary principle, whether in the Monarchy or the House of Lords.
The existence of a nobility, he held, "has a necessary, tendency to
dishonour labour." Had he published this pamphlet when it was written,
in 1793, he might easily have found himself in prison, like many other
sympathizers with the French.

Wordsworth gives us an idea in _The Prelude_--how one wishes one had the
original and unamended version of the poem as it was finished in
1805!--of the extreme lengths to which his Republican idealism carried
him. When war was declared against France, he tells us, he prayed for
French victories, and--

Exulted in the triumph of my soul,
When Englishmen by thousands were o'erthrown,
Left without glory on the field, or driven,
Brave hearts! to shameful flight.

Two years later we, find him at Racedown planning satires against the
King, the Prince of Wales, and various public men, one of the couplets
on the King and the Duke of Norfolk running:--

Heavens! who sees majesty in George's face?
Or looks at Norfolk, and can dream of grace?

But these lines, he declared, were given to him by Southey.

By 1797 a Government spy seems to have been looking after him and his
friends: he was living at the time at Alfoxden, near Coleridge, who, in
the previous year, had brought out _The Watchman_ to proclaim, as the
prospectus said, "the state of the political atmosphere, and preserve
Freedom and her Friends from the attacks of Robbers and Assassins."
Wordsworth at a later period did not like the story of the spy, but it
is certain that about the time of the visit he got notice to quit
Alfoxden, obviously for political reasons, from the lady who owned the

Professor Harper's originality as a biographer, however, does not lie in
his narration of facts like these, but in the patience with which he
traces the continuance of French sympathies in Wordsworth on into the
opening years of the nineteenth century. He has altered the proportions
in the Wordsworth legend, and made the youth of the poet as long in the
telling as his age. This was all the more necessary because various
biographers have followed too closely the example of the official
_Life_, the materials for which Wordsworth entrusted to his nephew, the
Bishop, who naturally regarded Wordsworth, the pillar of Church and
State, as a more eminent and laudable figure than Wordsworth, the young
Revolutionary. Whether the Bishop deliberately hushed up the fact that,
during his early travels in France, Wordsworth fell in love with an
aristocratic French lady who bore him an illegitimate child, I do not
know. Professor Harper, taking a more ruthless view of the duties of a
biographer, now relates the story, though in a rather vague and
mysterious way. One wishes that, having told us so much, he had told us
a little more. Even with all we know about the early life of Wordsworth,
we are still left guessing at his portrait rather than with a clear idea
of it. He was a figure in his youth, a character in his old age. The
character we know down to the roots of his hair. But the figure remains
something of a secret.

As a poet, Wordsworth may almost be called the first of the democrats.
He brought into literature a fresh vision--a vision bathing the world
and its inhabitants in a strange and revolutionary light. He was the
first great poet of equality and fraternity in the sense that he
portrayed the lives of common country, people in their daily
surroundings as faithfully as though they had been kings. It would be
absurd to suggest that there are no anticipations of this democratic
spirit in English literature from Chaucer down to Burns, but Wordsworth,
more than any other English writer, deserves the credit of having
emancipated the poor man into being a fit subject for noble poetry. How
revolutionary a change this was it is difficult to realize at the
present day, but Jeffrey's protest against it in the _Edinburgh Review_
in 1802 enables one to realize to what a degree the poor man was
regarded as an outcast from literature when Wordsworth was young. In the
course of an attack on _Lyrical Ballads_ Jeffrey wrote:--

The love, or grief, or indignation, of an enlightened and refined
character is not only expressed in a different language, but is in
itself a different emotion from the love, or grief, or anger, of a
clown, a tradesman, or a market-wench. The things themselves are
radically and obviously distinct.... The poor and vulgar may
interest us, in poetry, by their _situation_; but never, we
apprehend, by any sentiments that are peculiar to their condition,
and still less by any language that is peculiar to it.

When one takes sides with Wordsworth against Jeffrey on this matter it
is not because one regards Wordsworth as a portrait-painter without
faults. His portraits are marred in several cases by the intrusion of
his own personality with its "My good man" and "My little man" air. His
human beings have a way of becoming either lifeless or absurd when they
talk. _The Leech-Gatherer_ and _The Idiot Boy_ are not the only poems of
Wordsworth that are injured by the insertion of banal dialogue. It is as
though there were, despite his passion for liberty, equality, and
fraternity, a certain gaucherie in his relations with other human
beings, and he were at his happiest as a solitary. His nature, we may
grant, was of mixed aspects, but, even as early as the 1807 _Poems in
Two Volumes_ had he not expressed his impatience of human society in a

I am not one who much or oft delight
To season my fireside with personal talk--
Of friends, who live within an easy walk,
Or neighbours, daily, weekly, in _my_ sight:
And, for my chance-acquaintance, ladies bright,
Sons, mothers, maidens withering on the stalk,
These all wear out of me, like forms, with chalk
Painted on rich men's floors, for one feast-night.

Better than such discourse doth silence long,
Long, barren silence, square with my desire;
To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,
In the loved presence of my cottage fire,
And listen to the flapping of the flame,
Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.

With Wordsworth, indeed, the light of revelation did not fall upon human
beings so unbrokenly as upon the face of the earth. He knew the birds of
the countryside better than the old men, and the flowers far better than
the children. He noticed how light plays like a spirit upon all living
things. He heard every field and valley echoing with new songs. He saw
the daffodils dancing by the lake, the green linnet dancing among the
hazel leaves, and the young lambs bounding, as he says in an unexpected
line, "as to the tabor's sound," and his heart danced to the same music,
like the heart of a mystic caught up in holy rapture. Here rather than
in men did he discover the divine speech. His vision of men was always
troubled by his consciousness of duties. Nature came to him as a
liberator into spiritual existence. Not that he ceased to be a
philosopher in his reveries. He was never the half-sensual kind of
mystic. He was never a sensualist in anything, indeed. It is significant
that he had little sense of smell--the most sensual of the senses. It
is, perhaps, because of this that he is comparatively so roseless a

But what an ear he had, what a harvesting eye! One cannot read _The
Prelude_ or _The Ode_ or _Tintern Abbey_ without feeling that seldom can
there have been a poet with a more exquisite capacity for the enjoyment
of joyous things. In his profounder moments he reaches the very sources
of joy as few poets have done. He attracts many readers like a prospect
of cleansing and healing streams.

And he succeeds in being a great poet in two manners. He is a great poet
in the grand tradition of English literature, and he is a great poet in
his revolutionary simplicity. _The Idiot Boy_, for all its banalities,
is as immortal as _The Ode_, and _The Solitary Reaper_ will live side by
side with the great sonnets while the love of literature endures. While
we read these poems we tell ourselves that it is almost irrelevant to
mourn the fact that the man who wrote them gave up his faith in humanity
for faith in Church and State. His genius survives in literature: it was
only his courage as a politician that perished. At the same time, he
wished to impress himself upon the world as a politician even more
perhaps than as a poet. And, indeed, if he had died at the age at which
Byron died, his record in politics would have been as noble as his
record in poetry. Happily or unhappily, however, he lived on, a worse
politician and a worse poet. His record as both has never before been
set forth with the same comprehensiveness as in Professor Harper's
important and, after one has ploughed through some heavy pages,
fascinating volumes.


"Just for a handful of silver he left us." Browning was asked if he
really meant the figure in _The Lost Leader_ for Wordsworth, and he
admitted that, though it was not a portrait, he had Wordsworth vaguely
in his mind. We do not nowadays believe that Wordsworth changed his
political opinions in order to be made distributor of stamps for the
county of Westmoreland, or even (as he afterwards became in addition)
for the county of Cumberland. Nor did Browning believe this. He did
believe, however, that Wordsworth was a turncoat, a renegade--a poet who
began as the champion of liberty and ended as its enemy. This is the
general view, and it seems to me to be unassailable.

Mr. A.V. Dicey, in a recent book, _The Statesmanship of Wordsworth_,
attempts to portray Wordsworth as a sort of early Mazzini--one who "by
many years anticipated, thought out, and announced the doctrine of
Nationalism, which during at least fifty years of the nineteenth century
(1820-70) governed or told upon the foreign policy of every European
country." I think he exaggerates, but it cannot be denied that
Wordsworth said many wise things about nationality, and that he showed a
true liberal instinct in the French wars, siding with the French in the
early days while they were fighting for liberty, and afterwards siding
against them when they were fighting for Napoleonic Imperialism.
Wordsworth had not yet abandoned his ardour for liberty when, in 1809,
he published his _Tract on the Convention of Cintra._ Those who accuse
him of apostasy have in mind not his "Tract" and his sonnets of
war-time, but the later lapse of faith which resulted in his opposing
Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Bill, and in his sitting down
seriously to write sonnets in favour in capital punishment.

He began with an imagination which emphasized the natural goodness of
man: he ended with an imagination which emphasized the natural evil of
man. He began with faith in liberty; he ended with faith in restraint.
Mr. Dicey admits much of the case against the later Wordsworth, but his
very defence of the poet is in itself an accusation. He contends, for
instance, that "it was natural that a man, who had in his youth seen
face to face the violence of the revolutionary struggle in France,
should have felt the danger of the Reform Act becoming the commencement
of anarchy and revolution in England." Natural it may have been, but
none the less it was a right-about-turn of the spirit. Wordsworth had
ceased to believe in liberty.

There is very little evidence, indeed, that in his later years
Wordsworth remained interested in liberty at all. The most important
evidence of the kind is that of Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, author of
_The Purgatory of Suicides_, who visited him in 1846 after serving a
term in prison on a charge of sedition. Wordsworth received him and said
to him: "You Chartists are right: you have a right to votes, only you
take the wrong way to obtain them. You must avoid physical violence."
Referring to the conversation, Mr. Dicey comments:--

At the age of seventy-six the spirit of the old revolutionist and
of the friend of the Girondins was still alive. He might not think
much of the Whigs, but within four years of his death Wordsworth
was certainly no Tory.

There is no reason, however, why we should trouble our heads over the
question whether at the age of seventy-six Wordsworth was a Tory or not.
It is only by the grace of God that any man escapes being a Tory long
before that. What is of interest to us is his attitude in the days of
his vitality, not of his senility. In regard to this, I agree that it
would be grossly unfair to accuse him of apostasy, simply because he at
first hailed the French Revolution as the return of the Golden Age--

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

--and ten or fifteen years later was to be found gloomily prophesying
against a premature peace with Napoleon. One cannot be sure that, if one
had been living in those days oneself, one's faith in the Revolution
would have survived the September massacres and Napoleon undiminished.
Those who had at first believed that the reign of righteousness had
suddenly come down from Heaven must have been shocked to find that human
nature was still red in tooth and claw in the new era. Not that the
massacres immediately alienated Wordsworth. In the year following them
he wrote in defence of the French Revolution, and incidentally
apologized for the execution of King Louis. "If you had attended," he
wrote in his unpublished _Apology for the French Revolution_ in 1793,
"to the history of the French Revolution as minutely as its importance
demands, so far from stopping to bewail his death, you would rather have
regretted that the blind fondness of his people had placed a human being
in that monstrous situation which rendered him unaccountable before a
human tribunal." In _The Prelude_, too (which, it will be remembered,
though it was written early, Wordsworth left to be published after his
death), we are given a perfect answer to those who would condemn the
French Revolution, or any similar uprising, on account of its incidental

When a taunt
Was taken up by scoffers in their pride,
Saying, "Behold the harvest that we reap
From popular government and equality,"
I clearly saw that neither these nor aught
Of wild belief engrafted on their views
By false philosophy had caused the woe,
But a terrific reservoir of guilt
And ignorance filled up from age to age.
That would no longer hold its loathsome charge,
But burst and spread in deluge through the land.

Mr. Dicey insists that Wordsworth's attitude in regard to the horrors
of September proves "the statesmanlike calmness and firmness of his
judgment." Wordsworth was hardly calm, but he remained on the side of
France with sufficiently firm enthusiasm to pray for the defeat of his
own countrymen in the war of 1793. He describes, in _The Prelude_, how
he felt at the time in an English country church:--

When, in the congregation bending all
To their great Father, prayers were offered up,
Or praises for our country's victories;
And, 'mid the simple worshippers, perchance
I only, like an uninvited guest
Whom no one owned, sate silent, shall I add,
Fed on the day of vengeance yet to come.

The faith that survived the massacres, however, could not survive
Napoleon. Henceforth Wordsworth began to write against France in the
name of Nationalism and Liberty.

He now becomes a political thinker--a great political thinker, in the
judgment of Mr. Dicey. He sets forth a political philosophy--the
philosophy of Nationalism. He grasped the first principle of Nationalism
firmly, which is, that nations should be self-governed, even if they are
governed badly. He saw that the nation which is oppressed from within is
in a far more hopeful condition than the nation which is oppressed from
without. In his _Tract_ he wrote:--

The difference between inbred oppression and that which is from
without [i.e. imposed by foreigners] is _essential_; inasmuch as
the former does not exclude, from the minds of the people, the
feeling of being self-governed; does not imply (as the latter does,
when patiently submitted to) an abandonment of the first duty
imposed by the faculty of reason.

And he went on:--

If a country have put on chains of its own forging; in the name of
virtue, let it be conscious that to itself it is accountable: let
it not have cause to look beyond its own limits for reproof:
and--in the name of humanity--if it be self-depressed, let it have
its pride and some hope within itself. The poorest peasant, in an
unsubdued land, feels this pride. I do not appeal to the example of
Britain or of Switzerland, for the one is free, and the other
lately was free (and, I trust, will ere long be so again): but talk
with the Swede; and you will see the joy he finds in these
sensations. With him animal courage (the substitute for many and
the friend of all the manly virtues) has space to move in: and is
at once elevated by his imagination, and softened by his
affections: it is invigorated also; for the whole courage of his
country is in his breast.

That is an admirable statement of the Liberal faith. Sir Henry
Campbell-Bannerman was putting the same truth in a sentence when he said
that good government was no substitute for self-government. Wordsworth,
however, was not an out-and-out Nationalist. He did not regard the
principles of Nationalism as applicable to all nations alike, small and
great. He believed in the "balance of power," in which "the smaller
states must disappear, and merge in the large nations of widespread
language." He desired national unity for Germany and for Italy (which
was in accordance with the principles of Nationalism), but he also
blessed the union of Ireland with Great Britain (which was a violation
of the principles of Nationalism). He introduced "certain limitations,"
indeed, into the Nationalist creed, which enable even an Imperialist
like Mr. Dicey to look like a kind of Nationalist.

At the same time, though he acquiesced in the dishonour of the Irish
Union, his patriotism never became perverted into Jingoism. He regarded
the war between England and France, not as a war between angel and
devil, but as a war between one sinner doing his best and another sinner
doing his worst. He was gloomy as a Hebrew prophet in his summoning of
England to a change of heart in a sonnet written in 1803:--

England! the time is come when thou shouldst wean
Thy heart from its emasculating food;
The truth should now be better understood;
Old things have been unsettled; we have seen
Fair seed-time, better harvest might have been
But for thy trespasses; and, at this day,
If for Greece, Egypt, India, Africa,
Aught good were destined, thou wouldst step between.
England! all nations in this charge agree:
But worse, more ignorant in love and hate,
Far, far more abject is thine Enemy:
Therefore the wise pray for thee, though the freight
Of thy offences be a heavy weight:
Oh grief, that Earth's best hopes rest all with Thee!

All this means merely that the older Wordsworth grew, the more he became
concerned with the duties rather than the rights of man. The
revolutionary creed seems at times to involve the belief that, if you
give men their rights, they will perform their duties as a necessary
consequence. The Conservative creed, on the other hand, appears to be
based on the theory that men, as a whole, are scarcely fit for rights
but must be kept to their duties with a strong hand. Neither belief is
entirely true. As Mazzini saw, the French Revolution failed because it
emphasized the rights so disproportionately in comparison with the
duties of man. Conservatism fails, on the other hand, because its
conception of duty inevitably ceases before long to be an ethical
conception: duty in the mouth of reactionaries usually means simply
obedience to one's "betters." The melancholy sort of moralist frequently
hardens into a reactionary of this sort. Burke and Carlyle and
Ruskin--all of them blasphemed the spirit of liberty in the name of
duty. Mr. Dicey contends that Burke's and Wordsworth's political
principles remained essentially consistent throughout. They assuredly
did nothing of the sort. Burke's principles during the American War and
his principles at the time of the French Revolution were divided from
each other like crabbed age and youth. Burke lost his beliefs as he did
his youth. And so did Wordsworth. It seems to me rather a waste of time
to insist at all costs on the consistency of great men. The great
question is, not whether they were consistent, but when they were right.
Wordsworth was in the main right in his enthusiasm for the French
Revolution, and he was in the main right in his hatred of Napoleonism.
But, when once the Napoleonic Wars were over, he had no creed left for
mankind. He lived on till 1850, but he ceased to be able to say anything
that had the ancient inspiration. He was at his greatest an inspired
child of the Revolution. He learned from France that love of liberty
which afterwards led him to oppose France. Speaking of those who, like
himself, had changed in their feelings towards France, he wrote:--

Though there was a shifting in temper of hostility in their minds
as far as regarded persons, they only combated the same enemy
opposed to them under a different shape; and that enemy was the
spirit of selfish tyranny and lawless ambition.

That is a just defence. But the undeniable fact is that, after that
time, Wordsworth ceased to combat the spirit of selfish tyranny and
lawless ambition as he once had done. There is no need to blame him:
also there is no need to defend him. He was human; he was tired; he was
growing old. The chief danger of a book like Mr. Dicey's is that, in
accepting its defence of Wordsworth's maturity, we may come to disparage
his splendid youth. Mr. Dicey's book, however, is exceedingly
interesting in calling attention to the great part politics may play in
the life of a poet. Wordsworth said, in 1833, that "although he was
known to the world only as a poet, he had given twelve hours' thought to
the condition and prospects of society, for one to poetry." He did not
retire into a "wise passiveness" as regards the world's affairs until he
had written some of the greatest political literature--and, in saying
this, I am thinking of his sonnets rather than of his political
prose--that has appeared in England since the death of Milton.




Sir Sidney Colvin deserves praise for the noble architecture of the
temple he has built in honour of Keats. His great book, _John Keats: His
Life and Poetry; His Friends, Critics, and After-fame_, is not only a
temple, indeed, but a museum. Sir Sidney has brought together here the
whole of Keats's world, or at least all the relics of his world that the
last of a band of great collectors has been able to recover; and in the
result we can accompany Keats through the glad and sad and mad and bad
hours of his short and marvellous life as we have never been able to do
before under the guidance of a single biographer. We are still left in
the dark, it is true, as to Keats's race and descent. Whether Keats's
father came to London from Cornwall or not, Sir Sidney has not been able
to decide on the rather shaky evidence that has been put forward. If it
should hereafter turn out that Keats was a Cornishman at one remove,
Matthew Arnold's conjecture as to the "Celtic element" in him, as in
other English poets, may revive in the general esteem.

In the present state of our knowledge, however, we must be content to
accept Keats as a Londoner without ancestors beyond the father who was
head-ostler at the sign of the "Swan and Hoop," Finsbury Pavement, and
married his master's daughter. It was at the stable at the "Swan and
Hoop"--not a public-house, by the way, but a livery-stable--that Keats
was prematurely born at the end of October 1795. He was scarcely nine
years old when his father was killed by a fall from a horse. He was only
fourteen when his mother (who had re-married unhappily and then been
separated from her husband) died, a victim of chronic rheumatism and
consumption. It is from his mother that Keats seems to have inherited
his impetuous and passionate nature. There is the evidence of a certain
wholesale tea-dealer--the respectability of whose trade may have
inclined him to censoriousness--to the effect that, both as girl and
woman, she "was a person of unbridled temperament, and that in her later
years she fell into loose ways, and was no credit to the family." That
she had other qualities besides those mentioned by the tea-dealer is
shown by the passionate affection that existed between her and her son
John. "Once as a young child, when she was ordered to be kept quiet
during an illness, he is said to have insisted on keeping watch at her
door with an old sword, and allowing no one to go in." As she lay dying,
"he sat up whole nights with her in a great chair, would suffer nobody
to give her medicine, or even cook her food, but himself, and read
novels to her in her intervals of ease." The Keats children were
fortunately not left penniless. Their grandfather, the proprietor of the
livery-stable, had bequeathed a fortune of L13,000, a little of which
was spent on sending Keats to a good school till the age of sixteen, and
afterwards enabled him to attend Guy's Hospital as a medical student.

It is almost impossible to credit the accepted story that he passed all
his boyhood without making any attempt at writing poetry. "He did not
begin to write," says Sir Sidney Colvin, "till he was near eighteen." If
this is so, one feels all the more grateful to his old schoolfellow,
Cowden Clarke, who lent him _The Faery Queene_, with a long list of
other books, and in doing so presented him with the key that unlocked
the unsuspected treasure of his genius. There is only one person,
indeed, in all the Keats circle to whom one is more passionately
grateful than to Cowden Clarke: that is Fanny Brawne. Keats no doubt had
laboured to some purpose--occasionally, to fine purpose--with his genius
before the autumn of 1818, when he met Fanny Brawne for the first time.
None the less, had he died before that date, he would have been
remembered in literature not as a marvellous original artist, but rather
as one of those "inheritors of unfulfilled renown" among whom Shelley
surprisingly placed him. Fanny Brawne may (or may not) have been the bad
fairy of Keats as a man. She was unquestionably his good fairy as a

This is the only matter upon which one is seriously disposed to quarrel
with Sir Sidney Colvin as a biographer. He does not emphasize as he
ought the debt we are under to Fanny Brawne as the intensifier of
Keats's genius--the "minx," as Keats irritably called her, who
transformed him in a few months from a poet of still doubtful fame into
a master and an immortal. The attachment, Sir Sidney thinks, was a
misfortune for him, though he qualifies this by adding that "so probably
under the circumstances must any passion for a woman have been." Well,
let us test this "misfortune" by its consequences. The meeting with
Fanny took place, as I have said, in the autumn of 1818. During the
winter Keats continued to write _Hyperion_, which he seems already to
have begun. In January 1819 he wrote _The Eve of St. Agnes_. During the
spring of that year, he wrote the _Ode to Psyche_, the _Ode on a Grecian
Urn_, the _Ode to a Nightingale_, and _La Belle Dame sans Merci_. In the
autumn he finished _Lamia_, and wrote the _Ode to Autumn_. To the same
year belongs the second greatest of his sonnets, _Bright star, would I
were steadfast as thou art_. In other words, practically all the fine
gold of Keats's work was produced in the months in which his passion for
Fanny Brawne was consuming him as with fire. His greatest poems we
clearly owe to that heightened sense of beauty which resulted from his
translation into a lover. It seems to me a treachery to Keats's memory
to belittle a woman who was at least the occasion of such a passionate
expenditure of genius. Sir Sidney Colvin does his best to be fair to
Fanny, but his presentation of the story of Keats's love for her will, I
am afraid, be regarded by the long line of her disparagers as an
endorsement of their blame.

I can understand the dislike of Fanny Brawne on the part of those who
dislike Keats and all his works. But if we accept Keats and _The Eve of
St. Agnes_, we had better be honest and also accept Fanny, who inspired
them. Keats, it must be remembered, was a sensualist. His poems belong
to the literature of the higher sensualism. They reveal him as a man not
altogether free from the vulgarities of sensualism, as well as one who
was able to transmute it into perfect literature. He seems to have
admired women vulgarly as creatures whose hands were waiting to be
squeezed, rather than as equal human beings; the eminent exception to
this being his sister-in-law, Georgiana. His famous declaration of
independence of them--that he would rather give them a sugar-plum than
his time--was essentially a cynicism in the exhausted-Don-Juan mood.
Hence, Keats was almost doomed to fall in love with provocation rather
than with what the Victorians called "soul." His destiny was not to be a
happy lover, but the slave of a "minx." It was not a slavery without
dignity, however. It had the dignity of tragedy. Sir Sidney Colvin
regrets that the love-letters of Keats to Fanny were ever published. It
would be as reasonable, in my opinion, to regret the publication of _La
Belle Dame sans Merci_. _La Belle Dame sans Merci_ says in literature
merely what the love-letters say in autobiography. The love-letters,
indeed, like the poem, affect us as great literature does. They
unquestionably take us down into the depths of suffering--those depths
in which tortured souls cry out almost inarticulately in their anguish.
The torture of the dying lover, as he sails for Italy and leaves Fanny,
never to see her again, has almost no counterpart in biographical
literature. "The thought of leaving Miss Brawne," he writes to Brown
from Yarmouth, "is beyond everything horrible--the sense of darkness
coming over me--I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing." And
when he reaches Naples he writes to the same friend:--

I can bear to die--I cannot bear to leave her. O God! God! God!
Everything that I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes
through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling
cap scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her--I
see her--I hear her.... O that I could be buried near where she
lives! I am afraid to write to her--to receive a letter from her.
To see her handwriting would break my heart--even to hear of her
anyhow, to see her name written, would be more than I can bear.

Sir Sidney Colvin does not attempt to hide Keats's love-story away in a
corner. Where he goes wrong, it seems to me, is in his failure to
realize that this love-story was the making of Keats as a man of genius.
Had Sir Sidney fully grasped the part played by Fanny Brawne as, for
good or evil, the presiding genius of Keats as a poet, he would, I
fancy, have found a different explanation of the changes introduced into
the later version of _La Belle Dame sans Merci_. Sir Sidney is all in
favour--and there is something to be said for his preference--of the
earlier version, which begins:--

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering!

But he does not perceive the reasons that led Keats to alter this in the
version he published in Leigh Hunt's _Indicator_ to:--

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,

and so on. Sir Sidney thinks that this and other changes, "which are
all in the direction of the slipshod and the commonplace, were made on
Hunt's suggestion, and that Keats acquiesced from fatigue or
indifference." To accuse Hunt of wishing to alter "knight-at-arms" to
"wretched wight" seems to me unwarrantable guessing. Surely a much more
likely explanation is that Keats, who in this poem wrote his own
biography as an unfortunate lover, came in a realistic mood to dislike
"knight-at-arms" as a too romantic image of himself. He decided, I
conjecture, that "wretched wight" was a description nearer the bitter
truth. Hence his emendation. The other alterations also seem to me to
belong to Keats rather than to Hunt. This does not mean that the
"knight-at-arms" version is not also beautiful. But, in spite of this, I
trust the Delegates of the Oxford University Press will not listen to
Sir Sidney Colvin's appeal to banish the later version from their
editions of Keats. Every edition of Keats ought to contain both versions
just as it ought to contain both versions of _Hyperion_.

Nothing that I have written will be regarded, I trust, as depreciating
the essential excellence, power, and (in its scholarly way) even the
greatness of Sir Sidney Colvin's book. But a certain false emphasis here
and there, an intelligible prejudice in favour of believing what is good
of his subject, has left his book almost too ready to the hand of those
who cannot love a man of genius without desiring to "respectabilize"
him. Sir Sidney sees clearly enough the double nature of Keats--his
fiery courage, shown in his love of fighting as a schoolboy, his
generosity, his virtue of the heart, on the one hand, and his luxurious
love of beauty, his tremulous and swooning sensitiveness in the presence
of nature and women, his morbidness, his mawkishness, his fascination as
by serpents, on the other. But in the resultant portrait, it is a too
respectable and virile Keats that emerges. Keats was more virile as a
man than is generally understood. He does not owe his immortality to his
virility, however. He owes it to his servitude to golden images, to his
citizenship of the world of the senses, to his bondage to physical love.
Had he lived longer he might have invaded other worlds. His recasting of
_Hyperion_ opens with a cry of distrust in the artist who is content to
live in the little world of his art. His very revulsion against the
English of Milton was a revulsion against the dead language of formal
beauty. But it is in formal beauty--the formal beauty especially of the
_Ode on a Grecian Urn_, which has never been surpassed in
literature--that his own achievement lies. He is great among the pagans,
not among the prophets. Unless we keep this clearly in mind our praise
of him will not be appreciation. It will be but a sounding funeral
speech instead of communion with a lovely and broken spirit, the
greatest boast of whose life was: "I have loved the principle of beauty
in all things."


Matthew Arnold has often been attacked for his essay on Shelley. His
essay on Keats, as a matter of fact, is much less sympathetic and
penetrating. Here, more than anywhere else in his work, he seems to be a
professor with whiskers drinking afternoon tea and discoursing on
literature to a circle of schoolgirls. It is not that Matthew Arnold
under-estimated Keats. "He is with Shakespeare," he declared; and in
another sentence: "In what we call natural magic, he ranks with
Shakespeare." One may disagree with this--for in natural magic Keats
does not rank even with Shelley--and, at the same time, feel that
Matthew Arnold gives Keats too little rather than too much appreciation.
He divorced Keats's poetry too gingerly from Keats's life. He did not
sufficiently realize the need for understanding all that passion and
courage and railing and ecstasy of which the poems are the expression.
He was a little shocked; he would have liked to draw a veil; he did not
approve of a young man who could make love in language so unlike the
measured ardour of one of Miss Austen's heroes. The impression left by
the letters to Fanny Brawne, he declared, was "unpleasing." After
quoting one of the letters, he goes on to comment:--

One is tempted to say that Keats's love-letter is the love-letter
of a surgeon's apprentice. It has in its relaxed self-abandonment
something underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up,
without the training which teaches us that we must put some
constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them. It is
the sort of love-letter of a surgeon's apprentice, which one might
hear read out in a breach of promise case, or in the Divorce Court.

Applied to the letter which Arnold had just quoted there could not be a
more foolish criticism. Keats was dogged by a curious vulgarity (which
produced occasional comic effects in his work), but his self-abandonment
was not vulgar. It may have been in a sense immoral: he was an artist
who practised the philosophy of exquisite moments long before Pater
wrote about it. He abandoned himself to the sensations of love and the
sensations of an artist like a voluptuary. The best of his work is
day-dreams of love and art. The degree to which his genius fed itself
upon art and day-dreams of art is suggested by the fact that the most
perfect of his early poems, written at the age of twenty, was the sonnet
on Chapman's Homer, and that the most perfect of his later poems was the
_Ode on a Grecian Urn_. His magic was largely artistic magic, not
natural magic. He writes about Pan and the nymphs, but we do not feel
that they were shapes of earth and air to him, as they were to Shelley;
rather they seem like figures copied out of his friends' pictures.
Consider, for example, the picture of a nymph who appeared to

It was a nymph uprising to the breast
In the fountain's pebbly margin, and she stood
'Mong lilies, like the youngest of her brood.
To him her dripping hand she softly kist,
And anxiously began to plait and twist

The gestures of the nymph are as ludicrous as could be found in an
Academy or Salon picture. Keats's human or quasi-human beings are seldom
more than decorations, but this is a commonplace decoration. The figures
in _The Eve of St. Agnes_ and the later narratives are a part of the
general beauty of the poems; but even there they are made, as it were,
to match the furniture. It is the same in all his best poems. Keats's
imagination lived in castles, and he loved the properties, and the men
and women were among the properties. We may forget the names of Porphyro
and Madeline, but we do not forget the background of casement and arras
and golden dishes and beautiful sensual things against which we see
them, charming figures of love-sickness. Similarly, in _Lamia_, we may
remember the name of the serpent-woman's lover with difficulty; but who
can forget the colours of her serpent-skin or the furnishing of her
couch and of her palace in Corinth:--

That purple-lined palace of sweet sin?

In Keats every palace has a purple lining.

So much may be said in definition of Keats's genius. It was essentially
an aesthetic genius. It anticipated both William Morris and Oscar Wilde.
There is in Keats a passion for the luxury of the world such as we do
not find in Wordsworth or Shelley. He had not that bird-like quality of
song which they had--that happiness to be alive and singing between the
sky and the green earth. He looked on beautiful things with the intense
devotion of the temple-worshipper rather than with the winged pleasure
of the great poets. He was love-sick for beauty as Porphyro for
Madeline. His attitude to beauty--the secret and immortal beauty--is one
of "love shackled with vain-loving." It is desire of an almost bodily
kind. Keats's work, indeed, is in large measure simply the beautiful
expression of bodily desire, or of something of the same nature as
bodily desire. His conception of love was almost entirely physical. He
was greedy for it to the point of green-sickness. His intuition told him
that passion so entirely physical had in it something fatal. Love in his
poems is poisonous and secret in its beauty. It is passion for a Lamia,
for La Belle Dame sans Merci. Keats's ecstasies were swooning ecstasies.
They lacked joy. It is not only in the _Ode to a Nightingale_ that he
seems to praise death more than life. This was temperamental with him.
He felt the "cursed spite" of things as melancholily as Hamlet did. He
was able to dream a world nearer his happiness than this world of
dependence and church bells and "literary jabberers"; and he could come
to no terms except with his fancy. I do not mean to suggest that he
despised the beauty of the earth. Rather he filled his eyes with it:--

Hill-flowers running wild
In pink and purple chequer--


The cloudy rack slow journeying in the West,
Like herded elephants.

But the simple pleasure in colours and shapes grows less in his later
poems. It becomes overcast. His great poems have the intensity and
sorrow of a farewell.

It would be absurd, however, to paint Keats as a man without vitality,
without pugnacity, without merriment. His brother declared that "John
was the very soul of manliness and courage, and as much like the Holy
Ghost as Johnny Keats"--the Johnny Keats who had allowed himself to be
"snuffed out by an article." As a schoolboy he had been fond of
fighting, and as a man he had his share of militancy. He had a quite
healthy sense of humour, too--not a subtle sense, but at least
sufficient to enable him to regard his work playfully at times, as when
he commented on an early version of _La Belle Dame sans Merci_
containing the lines:--

And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

"Why four kisses?" he writes to his brother:--

Why four kisses--you will say--why four? Because I wish to restrain
the headlong impetuosity of my Muse--she would have fain said
"score" without hurting the rhyme--but we must temper the
imagination, as the critics say, with judgment. I was obliged to
choose an even number, that both eyes might have fair play, and to
speak truly I think two apiece quite sufficient. Suppose I had said
seven, there would have been three and-a-half apiece--a very
awkward affair, and well got out of on my side.

That was written nearly a year after the famous _Quarterly_ article on
_Endymion_, in which the reviewer had so severely taken to task "Mr.
Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his
senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody)." It suggests that
Keats retained at least a certain share of good spirits, in spite of the
_Quarterly_ and Fanny Brawne and the approach of death. His observation,
too, was often that of a spirited common-sense realist rather than an
aesthete, as in his first description of Fanny Brawne:--

She is about my height--with a fine style and countenance of the
lengthened sort--she wants sentiment in every feature--she manages
to make her hair look well--her nostrils are fine--though a little


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