OTHER ESSAYS (4)
1. Review of The Ballad-Book: a Selection of the Choicest British Ballads by William Allingham.
2. Review of Essays on Robert Browning’s Poetry by John T. Nettleship and A Study of the Works of Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet-Laureate by Edward Campbell Tainsh
3. Review of Graffiti d’Italia by W. W. Story and Beatrice, and other Poems by the Hon. Roden Noel
4. Wylie’s Life of Thomas Carlyle
5. A Talk With George Eliot
6. The Landlord-Shooters
From The Athenæum - 21 January, 1865 - No. 1943, pp. 83-84.
The Ballad-Book: a Selection of the Choicest British Ballads. By William Allingham. Golden Treasury Series. (Macmillan & Co.)
THE series of which this volume forms a portion began with Mr. Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury” of English poems and lyrics,—emphatically a. good book, fitted for men of taste, as distinguished from the clever selections so frequently put forward by men of ability. Now comes ‘The Ballad-Book,’ “which,” says the Preface, “is intended to present, for the delight of the lovers of poetry, some fourscore of the best Old Ballads, in at once the best and most authentic attainable form.” Under the circumstances, it must be admitted that Mr. Allingham has made his selections fairly well; his space was limited; and the many beautiful and familiar faces that we miss could only have been included in a volume of greater size. So far well; and we regret that Mr. Allingham went any further. Had he stopped short when he had done his garnering, and arranged his materials in the decent order in which we find them, we should have had no reason to complain, and sensitive lovers of the early ballads might have read his book with safety. As it is, he has chosen to present himself to us as a compound of the loving critic, the lazy editor, and the original poet. As loving critic, he shows a commendable appreciation, a subdued enthusiasm for whatever is good and beautiful; as lazy editor, he deals somewhat harshly with the memories of such men as Percy, Ritson and Ellis. “The ballads which we give,” writes Mr. Allingham, “have, one and all, no connexion of the slightest importance with history. Things that did really happen are, no doubt, shadowed forth in many of them, but with such a careless confusion of names, places and times, now thrice and thirty times confounded by alterations in course of oral transmission, various versions, personal and local adaptations, not to speak of editorial adaptations, that it is mere waste of time and patience to read (if any one ever does read) those grave disquisitions, historical and antiquarian, wherewith it has been the fashion to encumber many of these rudely picturesque and pathetic poems.” Certainly, the historical and antiquarian disquisitions here so summarily dealt with, would have been out of place in a little volume like the present; but to deny their value and interest is quite another thing. It is too much the fashion to write books lollingly (if we may be allowed the expression),—to get one’s information at second-hand, in small doses coated with sugar,—to look with smiles of elegant pity on the labours of the antiquary. Do not let us forget, however, the vast debt we owe to Percy, but for whose learned explorations the rich mines of English metrical romance might have been hidden to this day, and to his indefatigable successors. At a time when it was the habit to look upon such work as laborious trifling, they discovered riches which would certainly have been unappreciated had no editorial light been thrown upon them. The cumbrous antiquarianism itself lends a solemnity to things which might otherwise have appeared but idle; and even a learned squabble over a doubtful text served to show the public that the subjects of discussion were interesting to men of high acquirements and culture. Further, to read the “grave disquisitions” is far from being “a mere waste of time and trouble”; in such works as Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ the explanatory matter is not the least attractive. We shall not, however, quarrel with Mr. Allingham on this head. It is in his character of original poet that we have most fault to find with him. He is fond of spoiling rough but honest originals with his own love for smoothness and grace, forgetting that it is quite as difficult a task to “touch up” the thistle as to paint the lily and adorn the rose. He is too fastidious,—is as angry with an ill rhyme as with a. breach of decorum,—slices out whatever is not up to the standard of his modern taste,—sucks the pith out of strong verses, and blows in odour of roses,—mutilates with his delicate pen even the grand old ballad of ‘Sir Patrick Spens.’ It is rather too bad to talk sneeringly of editorial adaptations, and then to set to work with paste and scissors. True, there have been sinners in this respect before Mr. Allingham—sinners of a much more reckless and original tendency, who occasionally hit on something with the genuine ring in it: Jamieson, for instance. But we shall show that Mr. Allingham alters what is unobjectionable; and that very often, when he operates on what is bad, he merely succeeds in changing bad into worse. We waive the conviction that to doctor our old ballads, unless in cases where some connecting link is wanting to the narrative, is objectionable and unprofitable, generally resulting as fatally as the famous operation on the healthy athlete with bandy legs. We merely
demand that such doctoring, if done at all, should be done well; at the same time expressing our opinion that Mr. Allingham, if he had had as complete a knowledge of his subject as his more learned predecessors, would have succeeded better.
We have commended Mr. Allingham for the good taste evinced in his selections; but there are one or two cases in which, we think, he is in error. Why, for instance, print the abominable thing called ‘Hugh of Lincoln,’ describing the atrocious cruelty of a Jewish maiden to a Christian child? The subject is nearly the same as the story put into the mouth of Chaucer’s Prioress, whose sombre bigotry somewhat subdues the glaring ugliness of the details. Sickening, and calculated to produce bad feeling, ‘Hugh of Lincoln’ should have been suppressed; and if something dreadful was wanted instead, we might have had ‘Sir Roland,’ that marvellous ballad printed in Motherwell’s collection, and suggested as the original whence Shakspeare gave the line,—
Childe Rowland to the dark tower came.
Again, what is there in ‘The Frolicksome Duke, or the Tinker’s Good Fortune,’ that it should appear in a collection of the choicest ballads? Its only merit is that it reminds us of Christopher Sly. If a humorous piece was wanted, would not the first part of ‘The King and the Miller of Mansfield’ have been preferable? That is a question of taste. No one, however, will question the super-excellent music and brisk humour of the ‘Gaberlunzie Man,’ sometimes attributed to the pen of King James the Fifth of Scotland, and first printed in Ramsay’s ‘Tea-Table Miscellany.’ This piece, however, finds no place in ‘The Ballad-Book.’ Another bit of genuine humour—scarcely suitable, however, for Mr. Allingham’s purpose—is so little known that we transcribe it here. It was taken down from the recitation of a gentleman in Riddesdale, and was first printed in Blackie & Son’s ‘Scottish Ballads.’ We print the first verse literally, but in others suppress the iteration:
THE KEACH I’ THE CREEL.
A fair young May went up the street,
Some white fish for to buy;
And a bonnie clerk’s fa’en in love wi’ her,
And he’s followed her by and by—by;
And he’s followed her by and by.
“O where live ye, my bonnie lass,
I pray thee tell to me;
For gin the nicht were ever sae mlrk,
I wad come and visit thee—”
“O my father he aye locks the door,
My mither keeps the key;
And gin ye were ever sic a wily wight,
Ye canna win in to me—”
But the clerk he had ae true brother,
And a wily wight was he;
And he has made a lang ladder,
Was thirty steps and three—
He has made a cleek but and a creel—
A creel but and a pin;
And he’s away to the chimley-top,
And he’s letten the bonnie clerk in—
The auld wife, being not asleep,
Heard something that was said;
“I’ll lay my life,” quo’ the silly auld wife,
“There’s a man i’ our dochter’s bed—”
The old man he gat owre the bed,
To see if the thing was true;
But she’s ta’en the bonnie clerk in her arms,
And cover’d him owre wi’ blue—
“O where are ye gaun now, father,” she says,
“And where are ye gaun sae late?
Ye’ve disturb’d me in my evening prayers,
And O but they were sweet—”
“O ill betide ye, silly auld wife,
And an ill death may ye die:
She has the mucklc buik in her arms,
And she’s prayin’ for you and me—”
The auld wife she got owre the bed,
To see if the thing was true;
But what the wrack took the auld wife’s fit?
For into the creel she flew—
The man that was at the chimley-top,
Finding the creel was fu’,
He wrappit the rape round his left shouther,
And fast to him he drew—
“O help, O help, O hinny, now help;
O help, O hinny, now;
For him that ye aye wished me to,
He’s carryin’ me off just now—”
“O if the foul thief’s gotten ye,
I wish he may keep his hand;
For a’ the lee lang winter nicht
Ye’ll never lie in your bed—”
He’s towed her up, he’s towed her down,
He’s gi’en her a richt down fa’,
Till every rib i’ the auld wife’s side
Play‘d nick-nack on the wa’—
O the blue, the bonnie, bonnie blue;
And I wish the blue may do weel:
And every auld wife that’s sae jealous o’ her dochter,
May she get a good keach i’ the creel.
There will be little question that this ‘Keach i’ the Creel,’ strong as is the resemblance it bears to stories by both Boccaccio and Chaucer, is as unobjectionable as most of the old ballads in their genuine state. The ‘Gaberlunzie Man,’ with the exception of two lines, however, is quite innocent, and we wonder at its absence from this collection. In spite of certain remarks in the preface, it seems to us that the greater number of the selections in ‘The Ballad-Book’ belong, in strict justice, to the North; and undoubtedly those of avowedly Scottish origin surpass all the rest in poetic merit. Mr. Allingham seems to have had considerable difficulty with his English specimens, and almost apologizes for inserting the ‘Lyttell Geste of Robin Hood’—a rhyme which many will like.
Mr. Allingham describes the manner in which his labours have been conducted. “The set of ballads in our own volume,” he writes, “is, we believe, much nearer to what the sung and recited ballads really were, at their best, than those which we have all accepted as the Old Ballads in the collections of Percy, Jamieson, Scott, and other editors. Many modern interpolations, confessed or obvious, are now left out, greatly, if we mistake not, to the improvement of the ballads. Where re-arrangement, or selection from different copies (freely practised by preceding editors), appeared desirable, it has been done with diligent examination of a large mass of materials, and with the most punctilious caution; and where the present editor found occasion, which was rarely, to supply some link, repair some dropt stitch, he has dealt merely with things neutral, carefully avoiding to foist in any touches of pseudo-antique, whether in incident, language or costume. A very few words are altered for manners’ sake. Substantially he has added nothing to the ballads.” This has a promising and honest sound. Let us turn to the ballads themselves, and select one or two specimens for examination.
Our first sample shall be ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ undoubtedly the finest of the old ballads, and perhaps the most ancient. The version given here is mainly that found in Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy’; but Mr. Allingham follows Buchan in describing the object of the voyage as the conveyance of the king’s daughter to Norway, there to be crowned queen. Up to the middle of the poem our editor sins but little beyond a few verbal alterations—such as printing “hoisted” instead of “hoysed,” and capriciously suppressing the capital stanza—
The first word that Sir Patrick read,
Sae loud loud laughed he;
The next word that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his e’e—
lines full, we think, of dramatic force and effect. But midway occur suppressions and alterations of the most capricious description; to show which fully we must give the final portions of the ballad in the two versions of Scott and Allingham. We begin with the return
They hadna sail’d a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
And gurly grew the sea.
The ankers brak, and the topmasts lap,
It was sic a deadly storm;
And the waves cam’ o’er the broken ship,
Till a’ her sides were torn.
“O where will I get a gude sailor,
To take my helm in hand,
Till I get up to the tall top-mast,
To see if I can spy land?”
“O here am I, a sailor gude,
To take the helm in hand,
Till you go up to the tall top-mast;
But I fear you’ll ne’er spy land.”
He hadna gane a step, a step,
A step but barely ane,
When a boult flew out of our goodly ship,
And the salt sea it came in.
“Gae, fetch a web o’ the silken claith,
Another o’ the twine,
And wap them into on ship’s side,
And let nae the sea come in.”
They fetch’d a web o’ the silken claith,
Another o’ the twine,
And they wapp’d them round that gude ship’s side,
But still the sea came in.
O laith, laith, were our gude Scots lords
To weet their cork-heel’d shoon!
But lang or a’ the play was play’d,
They wat their hats aboon.
And mony was the feather bed
That floated on the faem;
And mony was the gude lord’s son,
That never mair came hame.
The ladyes wrang their fingers white,
The maidens tore their hair,
A’ for the sake of their true loves—
For them they’ll see nae mair.
O lang, lang may the ladyes sit,
Wi’ their fans into their hand,
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the strand!
And lang, lang, may the maidens sit,
With their goud kaims in their hair,
A’ waiting for their ain dear loves!
For them they’ll see nae mair.
Half owre, half owre to Aberdour,
’Tis fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet!
They hadna sail’d upon the sea
A day but barely three,
Till loud and boisterous grew the wind,
And gurly grew the sea.
“O where will I get a gude sailor
To tak’ my helm in hand,
Till I gae up to the tall topmast
To see if I can spy land?”
“O here am I, a sailor gude,
To tak’ the helm in hand,
Till you gae up to the tall topmast,—
But I fear you’ll ne’er spy land.”
He hadna gane a step, a step,
A step but barely ane,
When a bolt flew out o’ our goodly ship,
And the salt sea it came in.
“Gae fetch a web o’ the silken claith,
Anither o’ the twine,
And wap them into our ship’s side,
And letna the sea come in.”
They fetched a web o’ the silken claith,
Anither o’ the twine,
And they wapped them into that gude ship’s side,
But still the sea cam’ in.
O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
To weet their milk-white hands;
But lang ere a’ the play was owre
They wat their gouden bands.
O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
To weet their cork-heel’d shoon;
But lang ere a’ the play was play’d
They wat their hats aboon.
O lang, lang may the ladies sit
Wi’ their fans into their hand,
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land!
And lang, lang may the maidens sit
Wi’ their goud kaims in their hair,
Awaiting for their ain dear loves,
For them they’ll see nae mair.
Half ower, half ower to Aberdour,
It’s fifty fathoms deep;
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet.
We have italicized only those portions which Mr. Allingham has either altered or suppressed; and we appeal to our readers if any one of the alterations or suppressions is an improvement. “Loud and boisterous grew the wind,” is a poor apology for the strong line in Scott’s version; though possibly one is as genuine as the other. The seventh verse of the second version printed above is original, we presume, and is given to us instead of the lines—
And mony was the feather bed
That floated on the faem!—
which add to the description, while Mr. Allingham’s are tautological. In other cases Mr. Allingham is not nearly so gentle. His version of ‘Young Beichan’ is full of alterations, many of them for the better, but in one or two cases it is sadly at fault. It was a great mistake to slice out the last verse, which is full of stir and brilliance and bustle, and winds up the story merrily, as with a peal of music:—
Fy! gar a’ our cooks mak’ ready !
Fy! gar a’ our pipers play!
Fy! gar trumpets gang thro’ the toun,
That Lord Beichan is married twice in a day!
But Mr. Allingham’s treatment is still more apparent in ‘Sweet William’s Ghost.’ The editor cuts in two the ballad published by Ramsay, and does the same with Motherwell’s ‘William and Marjorie,’ and then patches the two fragments together. In doing this, he entirely loses the fine iteration of such verses as—
O sweet Marg’ret! O dear Marg’ret!
I pray thee speak to me—
Give me my faith and troth, Marg’ret,
As I gave it to thee!—
and regales us instead with the following:—
O Marjorie sweet! O Marjorie dear!
For faith and charitie,
Will ye gie me back my faith and troth,
That I gave once to thee?—
the last three lines of which are from Motherwell, and the first by Allingham.
But to prolong these instances is useless. We do not exaggerate in the slightest degree when we say that it is impossible to read many of Mr. Allingham’s versions without either missing something that we esteem or finding something that we deem worthless. ‘Tamlane’ is spoiled by the omission of certain verses, which, though somewhat indelicate, are absolutely essential to the unity of the story; it would have been better either to have let the ballad alone or to have softened and printed the suppressed stanzas. In this, as in other cases, we do not for a moment question the difficulty of the task which Mr. Allingham has had to perform; our only regret is that he has performed it unsuccessfully. “On the general effect of his labours,” he writes, “he would be content to leave the verdict either to half-a-dozen true knowers of English poetry (if so many could be found at one time) or else to any group of ordinary listeners, men, women and children, who care to listen to the like—such a group as ballads were made to please. Let, for example, ‘Earl Mar’s Daughter’ be read as here given, or ‘Young Redin,’ or ‘The Jolly Goshawk,’ or ‘Etric,’ or ‘Binnorie,’ or ‘Little Musgrave,’ or ‘Willie’s Lady,’ and also those versions of the same which are printed in any other collection.” This challenge is fair. In the cases cited we confess that Mr. Allingham has some reason for self-congratulation. The ballads mentioned all demanded improvement of some sort, being more or less diffuse or disconnected; yet a careful perusal of the new version will lead to the detection of numerous alterations—trifling, no doubt, but significant—where alteration was quite superfluous.
After all, perhaps, this editing of old and familiar ballads is a thankless task; and unsatisfactorily as Mr. Allingham seems to have done his work, we can point to no living person who could have done it better.
William Allingham replied to Buchanan’s review in the following issue.
The Athenæum (18 February, 1865 - No. 1947, p.242)
Old Ballads.—On “the Debatable Ground” sprung up many of our Old Ballads; and on a literary Debatable Ground these wild flowers of our poesy must still chiefly be gathered. It is dangerous business to edit Old Ballads, and dangerous also to answer a Reviewer. On questions of taste or opinion I should not dream of replying; but when a suspicion of dishonesty is publicly thrown out, one ought perhaps to say a few words. Brief let me be. The only definite charges against me by the writer of the notice of ‘The Ballad-Book’ in the Athenæum of the 21st of January are founded on the version therein given of ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ which he compares with that given in Scott’s ‘Border Minstrelsy.’ By-the-by, your reviewer’s quotation of the verse, “And many was the feather-bed,” &c. (upon which he specially remarks) is incorrect; the ‘Minstrelsy’ having it “flattered on the faem,” not “floated.” 1 do not object to anybody’s preferring Scott’s version of this “grand old ballad,” but why must it needs be considered as the authorized version? There are four principal versions of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ (or Spence)—Percy’s, Scott’s, Jamieson’s, Buchan’s—each of
which differs very much from all the rest; and there are also numerous minor variations in recited copies (see Motherwell’s ‘Minstrelsy,’ xliv). Percy’s Ballad (1755) is “given from two MS. copies transmitted from Scotland”; Scott’s (1802) is “taken from two MS. copies collated with several verses recited by the editor’s friend, Robert Hamilton, Esq.”; Jamieson’s (1806) is that one of the two above-mentioned MSS. which “seemed the most perfect” to Scott himself (note in ‘Border Minstrelsy’), and now printed verbatim. It differs in every verse from Scott’s previously published version. The stanza, “The first word that Sir Patrick read,” &c. (one of those stanzas, by the way, which are common property with reciters, and used in many ballads, sometimes with but little fitness), is not found in Jamieson’s version. Buchan’s version (1828), the longest and fullest, was taken down from the recitation of “a wandering minstrel, blind from his infancy, [who] has been travelling in the north as a mendicant for these last fifty years. He learned it in his youth from a very old person; and the words are exactly as recited, free from those emendations which have ruined so many of our best Scottish ballads.” The line in Buchan,
Till loud and boisterous grew the wind,
seems to me simpler and better than
When the lift grew dark, and the wind grew loud;
and the stanza, which your reviewer “presumes” is original, but which is from the same source,
O laith laith were our gude Scots lords
To weet their milk-white hands;
But lang ere a’ the play was ower
They wat their gouden bands,
pleases me much; but these are matters of taste. I have not added a line or a word to the ballad. Of the four versions of ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ Scott’s (whether or not the best poetically) is, I can have no doubt, judging both from external and internal evidence, the least trustworthy as authority. On the general charges of “laziness” and lack of information, I do not feel at all guilty. The easy or lazy method of editing would surely have been to tick off here and there a ballad in certain familiar books and hand them over to the printer for reproduction. On this plan, ‘The Ballad-Book’ would have been a week’s work, and escaped all censure. Naturally fond of ballads, I have not only read but studied every attainable version of every ballad that interested me; have made a pretty large collection of ballads in volumes, in broad-sheets and in flying slips; have searched in the British Museum for curiosities in that kind; have visited some of the chief ballad printing-offices of our day, and have also obtained original oral versions of several famous ballads. This, of my own bent, during a good many years; in addition whereto I have given care and study to the special task of editing the little volume in question. If I have failed, it is not from laziness. If I have spoken slightingly of certain dissertations, it is not because I have not studied them, but because I have, and have found them astonishingly incoherent and unsatisfactory. To any one who will give me a new available fact or suggestion in regard to the ballads contained in my book, I shall be really thankful. One sentence in the volume (along with a few misprints) I have corrected, relating to the word “applegray.” Motherwell was doubtless right in printing it thus, as it came from his old woman’s mouth, considering the principles on which his volume was composed; though at the same time, in a volume edited on other principles, it would be equally right to put the word “dapplegray” in its place. Our Old Ballads is an interesting little subject, and far from exhausted; as it seems to me, we are only beginning the study of it.
EDITOR OF ‘THE BALLAD-BOOK.’
Burd.—In ‘The Ballad-Book,’ edited by Mr. Allingham, and recently reviewed in your columns, the word “burd,” which appears in ‘Burd Ellen’ and ‘Helen of Kirkconnell,’ is, in a note to the latter, explained as being an old form of our “bird.” It should have been explained as being an old form of our “bride.” The same word appears in the description of the Flood, among those poems of the fourteenth century which have been edited by Mr. Richard Morris (Trübner & Co.), and are conjectured by him to have been written in Lancashire. The word is there spelt “burde.”
Combe, Oxon, Feb. 13, 1865.
Buchanan mentions Allingham’s reply to his review in a letter to William Hepworth Dixon of 20th February, 1865.]
Back to Essays
From The Athenæum - 27 June, 1868 - No. 2122, pp. 891-892.
Essays on Robert Browning’s Poetry. By John T. Nettleship. (Macmillan & Co.)
A Study of the Works of Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet-Laureate. By Edward Campbell Tainsh. (Chapman & Hall.)
THERE is little reason now for the plaint which reached us from all quarters some years ago, to the effect that ours was a generation barren of true poetic literature. The genius of Mr. Tennyson has met with all but universal recognition:—Mr. Browning has emerged from comparative obscurity into the bright blaze of at least six editions. The merit of these writers is undisputed, however differently it may be calculated. Then we have the younger brotherhood of singers,—Arnold, Morris, Buchanan, Swinburne,—each attempting, in his own peculiar way, to get undisputed ground of ’vantage. If we have had no “great poems,” we have had some great poetry,—much that will assuredly not perish with this generation. It is to be regretted, perhaps, that some of the finest recent work, like that of Mr. Morris, is rather reproductive than creative, or smacks little of the soil from which it grows. Of all contemporary poets, up to the present point, only Tennyson and Browning can be said to have actually introduced new lines of meaning and fresh philosophical suggestions into modern thought. The time of the others is not yet ripe; but it may be said of Mr. Morris that, with all his exquisite narrative power and mastery over Saxon idiom, the somewhat archaic and retrograde character of his sympathy must, more or less, exclude him from the hierarchy of leaders in thought or poetry.
Much has been said, and said invidiously, concerning the respective qualities of the two poets whose works furnish the basis of the comments by Messrs. Tainsh and Nettleship. But in this, as in most other cases, comparisons are of little avail. Browning has nothing in common with the Laureate beyond the mere habit of writing in verse. Of all living poets, he is the least explicit and most grotesque; but of all living poets, he shows certainly the profoundest passion for humanity. Great scholastic seclusion and long banishment from his native country have, to some extent, misdirected his choice of themes and embarrassed his style; but his English poetry is as perfectly English as any we possess,—witness, for example, the delicious little bits of landscape in the lyrics. His greatness is manifest in many ways,—in his subtle thought, in his generous and mighty human sympathy, in his theologic enthusiasm, in his exquisite insight into simple and complex passion. His originality is unprecedented; though it is partly explained by the fact that he has drunk at foreign, not at English fountains. He says something we never heard before, and he says it in a way no man ever adopted before. His thought may be involved and slightly Jesuitical; but it is perfect thought of its kind. His speech may be barbarous at times; but his is the barbarism of veritable power.
The genius of the Laureate is quite different. It is almost as indisputable, if less original. The result of several generations of English poets, Tennyson has thrown upon the surface of contemporary life several lines of thought which are very much his own, but which are the direct product, partly of Wordsworth’s meditation, partly of Keats’ vivid emotion. The Tennysonian group of idyls, for example, are directly inspired from Wordsworth, and even Southey,—the common daisy transformed, by cultivation, into the garden “bachelor’s button.” The Tennysonian blank verse would have been impossible without the blank verse of Keats and Shelley. It may be said, further, that Tennyson has nowhere evinced that high dramatic faculty which sympathizes with the broad movements of national life as breaking in individuals. His ‘Northern Farmer’ is solitary. Everywhere in this consummate artist we miss what we may call (for want of better words) the large-mindedness and humanity of Browning. It may be that Tennyson is highly sympathetic; but he shows no noble heat in this direction. His sweetest mood is academic and lyrical; his largest faculty radiates self-illumination. It is by no means to be wondered at that he is more popular than his rival with average men and women. The middle-class world particularly finds its culture and temper admirably represented in Tennyson’s best poems.
The different qualities of the two writers are well represented in their two present commentators. Mr. Tainsh is a gentleman of average intelligence,—well educated, familiar with literary forms. Mr. Nettleship is a gentleman of far more than average intelligence; not critical, but particularly acute in his sympathies. We cannot honestly say that we should have missed much if neither had put pen to paper. Mr. Tainsh tells nothing new, and a few things that are not true; while Mr. Nettleship, with all his faculty, is rather wearisome,—a cicerone who will be of no service to competent students of Browning, knowing all about the matter for themselves, and who will never persuade outsiders to trouble their heads with his mysteries. Here is an example of criticism which is no criticism,—writing showing the extraordinary fascination which the French writers have had for small authors like the present:—
“Possessing an intimate knowledge of nature, Tennyson puts his knowledge to a distinctive use. He does not make it the subject of his poetry. Everywhere, his poetry is about man. Yet everywhere, nature enters largely into his poetry. It enters, too, in a close and peculiar connexion with the human characters which form the subjects of the poetry. He does not draw the man, and then draw the nature around him; but he enters into the man, and sees nature through his eyes—nature, at the same time, so adapting herself to the mood of the man, that her spirit and his seem one. This relation I have expressed by the name sensuo-sympathetic. There is nothing like it in the poetry of Wordsworth, or of Shelley, or of Keats. In each of these, nature, after one manner or another, masters the man. In Keats, she subdues him; in Shelley, she transfigures him; in Wordsworth, she is his teacher. But in Tennyson, she is one with him. As she presents herself to his senses, she is in absolute sympathy with him. His pain and fear, his hopes and questionings, are hers. All through ‘In Memoriam’ one feels this.”
Wise-looking nonsense such as the above might be manufactured by the yard, and it is a fair specimen of Mr. Tainsh’s scholastic and profound manner. Hearken, in the next place, to Mr. Nettleship:—
“The piece called ‘Respectability,’ though very short, is very significant:—
Dear, had the world in its caprice
Deigned to proclaim, “I know you both,
Have recognized your plighted troth,
Am sponsor for you: live in peace!”
How many precious months and years
Of youth had passed, that speed so fast,
Before we found it out at last—
The world, and what it fears?
The idea expressed is that the independence of thought and action which forms the necessary groundwork for the making of a character, is incomplete unless it is itself founded upon the love of a woman for the man, of a man for the woman, begun and carried through in perfect indifference to, and if need be defiance of, the laws of society.
How much of priceless life were spent
With men that every virtue decks,
And women models of their sex—
Society’s true ornament—
Ere we dared wander, nights like this,
Thro’ wind and rain, and watch the Seine,
And feel the Boulevart break again
To warmth and light and bliss?
Had their love been first recognized by the world, they, becoming by that recognition the world’s debtors, would have been compelled to conform to its rules, all the while wearying their strength by chafing under the restraint. But now that the two have dared to do without that recognition, instead of passing many years of fruitless striving against those fetters of conventionality which, through their obligation to society and their ignorance of its weak points, they could not have broken save at the expense of years of toil, which would have wasted their powers, the two have had all the priceless years of their youth to spend in developing their true instincts, their pure and unchecked sympathies.”
The above is not Mr. Nettleship’s best, but it shows his style of working. Now, will it be seriously maintained by anybody that the fine little poem called ‘Respectability’ is one whit the clearer or better for the comment—a comment quite sensible and natural, but entirely supererogatory in this instance? Indeed, poetry which needs to be so paraphrased would have to be placed in the fatal catalogue of total failures; for verse which does not explain itself clearly, and better represent itself than any paraphrase, however subtle, is more contemptible than the vilest prose. Browning is generally quite lucid to one competent to follow thought so subtle. He eludes common readers, not because he fails in speech, but because they fail in apprehension. Will such readers be a bit wiser for the following?—
“Take the cloak from his face, and at first
Let the corpse do its worst.
How he lies in his rights of a man!
Death has done all death can.
And absorbed in the new life he leads,
He recks not, he heeds
Nor his wrong nor my vengeance—both strike
On his senses alike,
And are lost in the solemn and strange
Surprise of the change.
Ha! what avails death to erase
His offence, my disgrace?
I would we were boys as of old
In the field, by the fold;
His outrage, God’s patience, man’s scorn
Were so easily borne.
I stand here now, he lies in his place;
Cover the face.
After the fight, all the impulses which God gave to man to blind his tenderness when right must be done, ebb and still; and in the great mercy of that God, the memory of the tendernesses of a loving past, of the innocence and youth of their past companionship, comes surging up to choke and overwhelm the champion who a moment ago was so terrible. For God keeps Himself veiled for a purpose; He will not let it be known by clear manifestation what He thinks right, what He thinks wrong, lest thereby men lose all sense of responsibility, and become mere vegetables. Still He keeps a veil of doubt hanging over them, and will not let the clear light be seen, lest men be blinded and lose their sight, lest they die in the swooning splendour of a perfect day. Thus it is that what seemed right on the other side of a deed seems wrong on this: thus it is that before the mystic uncertain face of death the proudest courage quails. Shall we say that this man’s death was of no use? Had he lived, where would have been the yearning backward thoughts of the time when, indeed, he was innocent and pure? Where would have been that very tenderness of life, that rising of an inexpressible sympathy? But now, the lesson God has taught is this: you shall find out what is right and what is wrong for yourselves; you shall strive blindly for the right, and shall in striving to get it buffet many men, and suffer much yourself. But do not despair. Every unworthy buffet given to others shall remind you in its consequences that you are not infallible; that you might perhaps have looked deeper, and seen clearer. Thus you will have learned one lesson: thus you will gain in courage, in sympathy, in experience, in all that makes a man.”
Here, again, the explanation is tedious and offensive. There is more excuse for the comment on ‘Sordello,’ but the subject was hardly worth so much trouble. ‘Sordello’ is in every sense
a failure, not to be redeemed by its beautiful purpose.
It is to be noticed that both these books of comment are explanatory, not critical. The story of Tennyson is a mixed business, but Mr. Nettleship paraphrases invariably. Mr. Tainsh is not very brilliant either in his explanations or his criticisms, and we hope he will not publish any more “studies.” But Mr. Nettleship has brains, and we hope to hear of him again. If, instead of translating the meanings of his beloved poet, he would produce a thoroughly thought-out critical study on the same subject, we are sure that the result would be very welcome.
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From The Athenæum - 13 March, 1869 - No. 2159, pp. 368-369.
Graffiti d’Italia. By W. W. Story. (Blackwood & Sons.)
Beatrice, and other Poems. By the Hon. Roden Noel. (Macmillan & Co.)
IN the noble epilogue to ‘Men and Women,’ addressed to his wife, Mr. Browning touches with his own peculiar subtlety and force on a subject which, has interested most thinkers—hinting how, in certain supreme moments, a man’s own natural speech becomes inadequate, and the soul demands special expression in some unusual and perhaps less perfect form. Raphael, he says, once wrote a century of sonnets, Dante once essayed to paint a picture—the desire in each case being to glorify a beautiful mistress; and as for those lesser beings who can only employ one art, all they can do is to sigh and to “stand on their attainment.” Doubtless, most great artists, triumphant in some one direction, have longed to reach out their hands further. The poet has yearned to compose music, the painter has wished to carve in marble, not for mere fame’s sake, but because the arts are actually so intimate that one and the same soul pants melodiously through them all, and is never altogether peaceful when limited to poem, picture or sonata. But for evermore, the awful Technicalities, inexorable as the Fates, intervene with warning forefinger. Each art has her technical δαιμων, only to be conciliated by long service and constant sacrifice. Perhaps the δαιμων of verse is the easiest of all to be appeased; but her acquiescence is often very fickle, and too often leads the rash intruder to a pitiful doom. Mindful of all this, it was with no hopeful anticipations that we took up 'Graffiti d’Italia.’ No one who has seen the ‘Cleopatra’ or the ‘Sibyl' can doubt that Mr. Story’s natural speech is in marble—that he is a great sculptor. The special gift is there, the precise limitation, the power to catch thought and image at the moment when they naturally crystallize into mental form. This power is quite distinct from the painter’s sensitiveness to colour and the musician’s command over emotional sounds; but, not content with its triumphant manifestation, Mr. Story has been quietly and studiously working at a little set of cabinet sketches in verse, the technical δαιμων of which he has certainly conquered completely. Not altogether forgetful of his peculiar power, which has nothing to do with colour, he executes his little poems, as it were, in neutral tint; trusting for his effects to a certain fine freedom of handling and a striking force in the shades. It would be gross flattery to say that he is a master of poetry in the same sense that he is a master of sculpture. Far from that, he must still “stand on his attainment”; but he actually exhibits in verse a power and melodiousness much above the average of minor poets, and a far-reaching thought which a great artist, either painter or sculptor, is certainly not called upon to possess. What he is as mere artist we gather from his stone achievements. It is the mission of this volume to exhibit, in a less perfect and more intellectual way, what tastes, studies and sympathies he possesses merely as a reflective human being. We suppose that Raphael’s sonnets were very inferior as poems, although invaluable as a clue to the mighty master's character in a moment of supreme passion.
It was a mistake, we think, to try to turn the stone ‘Cleopatra’ into verse. What Mr. Story meant to tell in that face he can certainly not convey in any words. It required the full, natural expression of his soul, and that was the marble statue. It is the mystic power, the indefinite and miraculous silence of a living or a marble face that fascinates the eye and troubles the mind; and when Mr. Story tries to follow his statue’s thoughts, and give us a monologue of ‘Cleopatra,’ he is trying himself by a test which is totally unfair to his conception or his art. If ‘Cleopatra’ had meant no more than this—had this only been conveyed in it, it would have troubled our thoughts little; but a great statue meant far more than any one—even the sculptor himself—can ever translate into speech. It is like putting words to a sonata by Beethoven. Yet the poem is in itself very powerful. This is force:—
Fling down that lute—I hate it!
Take rather his buckler and sword,
And crash them and clash them together
Till this sleeping world is stirred!
Altogether, this poem, this “translation” from one art into another, is disappointing, in spite of its sinewy force. There are much finer things in the book. The art-critical poems are very limpid and interesting; the stories clever, and full of human knowledge. ‘Zia Nica’ is something more—fresh, concentrated and profound. The poems, as a whole, have certain statuesque qualities which do not improve them as verse—a tendency to exaggerate single moods, an absence of vivid emotion, a certain coldness of diction. As a sculptor's sketches in a sort of poetic neutral tint, they are of great value, quite apart from their intrinsic value as poems.
Quite of another kind is ‘Beatrice, and other Poems.’ If Mr. Story's pieces resemble drawings in neutral tint, Mr. Noel's look like brilliant paintings in water colour. Every page is flooded with light and tint; every poem is a posy of varicoloured flowers, reminding us, in these and other respects, of the ‘Endymion’ and the delicious descriptive sketches published in Keats’s first volume. Beyond the fact that both poets use rich tints invariably, there is no resemblance between Keats and Mr. Noel. The latter, indeed, has a faculty of his own, noticeable even in these days of splendid promise and wretched fulfilment, and very fascinating in its quaint originality and its fantastic combinations of style. For a peculiar tendency to translate into verse certain lines of philosophical thought, and for a still more striking habit of recording very subtle external impressions, his volume would be noticeable at any period; and although these peculiarities are as yet too indefinitely manifested to warrant any final judgment as to the powers of the writer, it is nevertheless clear that his powers are those of genius, and, what is better, of genius specifically poetic.
The volume is full of pictures in the modern pre-Raphaelite style; details exaggerated and painted carefully in the open air; and therefore, while bits of wonderful word-painting abound, it is difficult to find a picture which is altogether satisfactory. Take ‘Summer Clouds and a Swan,’ in many respects a most remarkable piece of sensuous painting. It is late summer, and the writer is standing by a piece of water, dreamily contemplating the sky reflected in that crystal mirror—
Oh, what a sky! in yonder hazy blue
Floats a white cloudlet shading into grey;
A drift of white, soft-outlined bright and pure,
Tranquilly floating in a blue profound!
Then, with an almost morbid sensitiveness, he broods over every detail of the little image, until the sense of the reader becomes painfully overstrained in striving to follow. Not a tint is missed, not a loose wreath of film escapes; so the picture is overloaded; until, as if overburdened with the intensity of sight, the writer seeks relief in exclamation—adjective on adjective melodiously piled!—
How prodigal of lovely wayward change
In cloudland subtle, silent, unaware,
Ravelling, unravelling tissues gossamer,
Not to be prisoned in colour or in word,
Pageant regarding not if any see!
Light of a stilly summer afternoon,
Drowsy, voluptuous and sumptuous,
Rich, honey-heavy, sheeny, breathing balm!
But suddenly, the vision changes:—
Now in the lower reflected gulf of blue
A swan sails tranquil with a stately neck
Arched long, with orange beak, and lifted wing
Sail-like on either side, how soft and pure!
Have they not fallen these wings from yonder blue,
Out of the soft white cloud there, so akin
They seem to it? And O the tenderness
Of the blue shadow, scarcely shadow or blue,
Haunting yon dells of down behind the wing!
Surely the white cloud when it fell from heaven
Fell with the heavenly motion lingering in it,
For do but note how tranquil and how still
The cloud sails yonder and the swan sails here!
Yet lo! a sudden impulse of the bosom
Thrills all the placid water feeling it
To dimpling smiles that waft luxurious light
Into the pendulous faces of sweet flowers,
Lush grasses, harebell, eyebright, sorrel leaves
That fringe the flood whose heart enshrines them all.
While his dim double the swan floats upon
Flickers beneath him with the twin-born ripple
From his breast sloping either side away,
Melts like snow dropped in water, yet remains.
He ruffles yielding wavering images
Of church and tree, and of the sky above,
But all the fragments gather as he goes.
We have italicized two wonderful bits, but the whole passage should be italicized. The slenderness of subject conceded, writing more exquisite it would not be easy to find in contemporary poetry. For a companion picture, nearly as delicious, and perhaps more compressed, we should have to go back to Coleridge.
Out of Coleridge, moreover, it would not be easy to find any philosophical poetry finer than certain portions of Mr. Noel’s ‘Pan,’—a poem very striking and quite original,—forming a sort of grandiose pantheistic hymn to Nature, and showing in one or two passages an invaluable faculty of turning philosophic ore into poetic gold. In this fine passage, for example, one of the commonest philosophical topics becomes original poetry by mere verbal spiritualization:—
Thou fated slayer. slay not like a beast,
In a blind panic, but remembering.
Look steadily till through the loathly crust
A soul puts forth a feeler seeking thine!
Creatures uncouth, yet these are on their way,
Blind and still distant from the goal you touch,
Yet fellow pilgrims verily with you;
Dare you affirm there live not anywhere,
Nor in the teeming infinite dark womb
Of awful Nature ever shall be born,
Beings of glory so transcending yours
As ye transcend some annulated worm?
Nay day by day the lower forms are lost,
Yield all their own and re-emerge in man:
And so the coral of our myriad lives
Accumulates the sunny reef to be—
While yet in part, a soothing dream to me,
We may remingle with the lowlier life. . .
‘Pan’ contains more original passages than this; but it is a poem to be read from beginning to end, not cut up into extracts. As mere blank verse it is very striking,—resonant, grandiose, and full of motion,—merits somewhat uncommon in Mr. Noel’s poems. Still more perfect than ‘Pan’ is ‘Ganymede,’ an idyl thoroughly and tremendously Greek, a bit of work which reads like Theocritus in the original; too Greek, too worthy of Theocritus, some will say, but artistically a finished gem. It remains in the eye like a small Turner,—the youth in the green dale, the “imperial eagle amorous” miraculously descending, a golden haze of dreamy sunlight irradiating all into a picture not to be forgotten.
As a rule, Mr. Noel’s blank verse is finer than his rhyme; but the rhymed couplet is managed with splendid effect in ‘To Whom shall We Go?’ and some of the lyrics—all of a very fragile intellectual beauty—are very musical indeed. Surely the following is exquisite:
Now the soft warm gleam uncertain
In the little chamber stays,
On the spotless falling curtain,
By the bedside where she prays:
From the shadow round her kneeling
Slender hands are raised appealing.
Down below the shadow resteth,
O’er blush-alabaster feet,
Simple robe of white investeth
Up to where bows, childlike sweet,
Gentle head in hands half hidden,
Whence the shadow falls forbidden.
From our dusk her hands are lifting,
And the light, in answer bland,
Down her sleek brown tresses drifting,
Seems to smooth them with a hand—
Solemn hand from forth the splendour,
Where this child hath those that tend her!
These love-tears may cloud my vision;
Yet about this humble room
Do not faces dim, Elysian,
Yearn down o’er her through the gloom?
Even the shades are glory colder,
Warming softer as they fold her!
So bathe her feet our earth’s chill sorrow,
Never cling more dark than this;
From her gentle spirit borrow
Even the hues and warmth of bliss,
While her soul inhales the heaven,
Praying thus at morn and even!
Her, life’s darkling pilgrim haileth;
Mountain forest, haunted nook,
As on high serene she saileth,
Smile beneath her sainted look!
Only worldlings, foul in feeling,
Curse the childlike light revealing.
Spirit music, souls of flowers,
Here luxuriate to shape,
Charming far the baleful powers:
Blessed moment, wherefore ’scape?
Hold her young, so griefless praying,
Hold these trancèd eyes from straying!
In moods like these,—in a softly-tinted sentiment closely akin to his delicately sensuous feeling for natural colour,—Mr. Noel has no rival. He sings with fairy-like and subtle power.
We have been throughout so caught by Mr. Noel’s little cabinet pictures, and his tender philosophical paraphrases, that we have left ourselves no space to speak of ‘Beatrice,’ the poem which gives the book its name. It is an interesting story, well told, in a style sufficiently ornate, and relieved with some delightful lyrics. With general readers, perhaps, it will be more popular than anything else in the volume. But loving students of poetry will turn elsewhere, to the more intensely emotional ‘Summer Clouds’ and ‘Autumn in Ireland,’ and to the powerfully-painted Egyptian poem of ‘Mencheres.’ Few people, students or otherwise, will remain long in doubt that we have among us another young writer of great originality and sweetness, whose specially poetic faculty is as unmistakable as the taste of good Falernian or the smell of a musk rose.
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From The Contemporary Review - May, 1881 - Vol. 39, pp. 792-803
WYLIE’S LIFE OF THOMAS CARLYLE.
Thomas Carlyle: The Man and his Books. Illustrated by personal Reminiscences, Table-Talk, and Anecdotes of Himself and his Friends. By W. HOWIE WYLIE. Marshall Japp & Co.
IT is not yet the time, when a distinguished man has only just been carried to his grave, and when the first thrill communicated to society by the loss of him, has scarcely passed away, to speak the whole truth concerning his career, or to dwell with undue emphasis on those points in his character which are least agreeable. Criticism is hushed in the shadow of death; censure is forgotten, in the contemplation of those tender humanities which are hung like flowery garlands on every famous grave. But in the case of Thomas Carlyle, who has so recently departed in the full twilight of his long life, the circumstances have been especially deplorable. The hasty and ill-advised publication of the “Reminiscences,” abounding in unfortunate matter, given to the world with feminine zeal but without even the pretence of clear-headed editorial supervision, has certainly let loose the full tongue of detraction.
“And o’er him, ere he scarce be cold,
Begins the scandal and the cry!”
Nor is this greatly to be wondered at, when we call to mind the circulation of those bitter and miserable personalities which were deplored by a very sympathetic writer in the last number of this REVIEW.* For my own part, I cannot be accused or suspected of blindly idolizing the famous Scotchman who has passed away. In this REVIEW and in others I have endeavoured to point out, at one period and another, those very limitations of his sagacity which critics are now unduly emphasizing for the first time, and to utter a protest against that portion of his transcendental teaching which is most repugnant to modern culture. To one living a literary life during the present decade, and feeling his thoughts shaped more or less by the breath of new-born science, it is difficult
* “A Study of Carlyle:” CONTEMPORARY REVIEW for April, 1881.
793 even to comprehend the charm which Carlyle once had for a stormier generation. But that is neither here nor there. Although in common with many others, I believe that the literary pretensions of Carlyle have been vastly overstated, and that as a thinker and philosopher he possessed no such spiritual method as is likely to make his influence either precious or permanent, I would gladly, at this juncture, think of nothing less pleasant than his rugged yet charming personality. How sadly that personality has been obscured by the “Reminiscences,” we all know. Fortunately, however, while the very bane is before us, the antidote is at hand. With a celerity that is perfectly extraordinary, considering the difficulty and importance of the task to be performed, a brother Scotchman, Mr. W. H. Wylie, has put out one of the most masterly little biographies it has ever been my lot to read; a picture deftly painted and pleasant, yet far above the mere art of the portrait-painter; appreciative to the verge of hero-worship, but stopping short at that point where hero-worship becomes idolatry:—a bit of work, indeed, which it would be hard to surpass for sympathy, delicacy, liberality of view, and wealth of friendly insight. Read, as it must and should be read, just after the “Reminiscenccs,” it simply purifies, with the honest oxygen of kindly humanity, the fetid memory of certain ignoble moods, and its representation of the man in his habit as he lived, tenacious, pugnacious, truthful, and not too generous, yet full of personal affection and genuine if somewhat provincial humour, is as good in its way as Carlyle’s own presentation of those saturnine historical heroes with which he had most sympathy.
Mr. Wylie begins, as a good biographer should, at the beginning, his first chapter being devoted to a review—under the title of “The Carlyles and their Country”—of Carlyle’s ancestry. In nine cases out of ten, such a retrospect would be tedious and superfluous; but in the case of a prophetic swashbuckler like the author of “Frederick,” it is important to know from what sources he drew his strength, his veracity, and what one may call, without seeming irreverent, his superabundant stock of bile. Specially interesting is it to learn that, from time immemorial, the Carlyles were sturdy king’s men and king-lovers. Under the Scottish Bruces they held land in Annandale, and the head of the house afterwards became brother-in-law to King Robert Bruce himself. Thenceforward, under one vicissitude and another, the family seems to have been generally on the winning side. In 1455, at the Battle of Langholm, Sir John Carlyle of Torthorwald was one of the leaders of the victorious royal army; and fifteen years later he was ennobled as Lord Carlyle of Torthorwald. There is one solitary record, however, of a Carlyle siding with a forlorn cause, and sympathizing with a minority. In 1570, when the Dumfriesshire friends of Mary Stuart were assailed by an English force under Lord Scrope, Lord Carlyle led his followers against the enemy, was beaten, and taken prisoner. From that time forth, the genealogical tree seems to have drooped and degenerated. 794 At all events, nothing is heard of the Carlyles during the great struggle of the seventeenth century, when the Irvings made themselves so conspicuous on the Royalist side. In 1580, the peerage passed to a woman, who carried over the estates to a Douglas. The eldest this union, Sir James Douglas, was in 1609 created Lord Carlyle Torthorwald, and by his son the title was resigned in 1638 to the Earl of Queensferry, who had acquired the estate. A certain George Carlyle, from Wales, claimed and got the estate, by a decree of the House of Lords, in 1770; but after dissipating his substance for some little period, he disappeared. From that time forth, the Dumfriesshirc Carlyles appear to have dwindled lower and lower, until they reached the level of almost complete obscurity. But in the month of December, 1795, there was born at Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, the Carlyle who was destined, by turning the stream of family genius into another channel, to revive the fame of the Carlyles as king’s-men and king-lovers—as sturdy and consistent adherents, in fact, of the Verities, or “powers that be.” Certainly, if Thomas Carlyle the author, was born with any special mission to edify his generation, the “Might is right” theory was at the heart of that mission. He was a king’s man by inheritance, by heredity, by natural temperament and disposition. Revolt, simply as revolt, was constitutionally distasteful to him, and he had no sympathy whatever with really forlorn causes. It is, indeed, curious to note, in going through his voluminous writings, how little speculative and forward-looking insight he possesses, and how the most part of his human argument takes the shape of authoritative references to the standing armies of morality and religion. Feebleness in any form, even the feebleness of innocence, was beyond the sphere of his affection; and his very sympathy with kings flagged when kings belied their birthright and ceased to be strong.
There was, therefore, no inconsistency whatever in the fact that from his pen came the first literary apotheosis of Oliver Cromwell. The great Protector, in his vindication of the Verities, of the Eternal Order, was essentially a monarch, and almost uniformly successful. Besides, he stood in Carlyle’s mind, as Knox stood, for the earthly representative of that greater King who is reverenced (chiefly, we fear, on the score of supreme success) by orthodox and unorthodox alike. The hopeless limitation of the king-loving intellect is not perceived, till that intellect comes into collision with those other agencies which represent, not merely authorities, but principles. All its savage humour serves it little, when it encounters the serene logic of a Mill, or ruffles beneath the poignant wit of a Voltaire.
It may be remarked here, by the way, that Carlyle’s want of sympathy with weakness was manifested very early by a strong intolerance of physical feebleness and flabbiness. We may see this intolerance in the allusions to Coleridge, to Shelley, to Keats, to Charles Lamb, and to Voltaire, quite as clearly as in the diatribe 795 against both the black slave and the white. And yet, when all was said and done, Carlyle was pre-eminently a kindly man—only the Scotchman, the Annandale man in him, with its hard and almost aggressive identity, was generally pushed to the front in his literary criticisms. Nothing could better illustrate his critical temperament than his remarks, in private conversation with Mr. Wylie, on the subject of Lamb. Mr. Wylie, during some discursive chat, took occasion to ask him if he had much personal acquaintance with “Elia?” What followed must be quoted in full:—
“‘What makes you ask?—what interest have you in Lamb?’ ‘I like his humour.’ ‘Humour—he had no humour.’ We mildly submitted our belief that he had. ‘You are mistaken—it was only a thin streak of Cockney wit;’ this phrase uttered with a shrill shout expressive of ineffable contempt; and then the speaker added, ‘I dare say you must have known some—I have known scores of Scotch moorland farmers, who for humour could have blown Lamb into the zenith!’ The pictorial effect of this figure, delivered in a high Annandale key, especially when the speaker came to the last clause of the sentence, it is impossible for print to convey—the listener saw poor Lamb spinning off into space, propelled thither by the contemptuous kick of a lusty Dandie Dinmont, in hodden grey, from the moors of Galloway or Ayrshire.
“‘The only thing really humorous about Lamb,’ he continued, ‘was his personal appearance. His suit of rusty black, his spindle-shanks, his knee-breeches, the bit ribbons fleein’ at the knees o’ him: indeed he was humour personified!’ this last clause again in the high key, making the figure effective and mirth-compelling to a degree. And then he told us how the first occasion on which he met ‘the puir drucken body’ was at Enfield, in 1829, at the house of a most respectable lady. It was the forenoon; but Lamb, who had been ‘tasting’ before he came, immediately demanded gin, and because he could not get it ‘kicked up a terrible row.’ Moral disgust at poor ‘Elia’s’ misconduct was evidently at the root of the feeling of antipathy evinced by Carlyle in speaking of his humour. Lamb was not a humourist because he got drunk, and because he demanded gin in the forenoon at a lady’s house.
“Then we were told, as an example of Lamb’s Cockney wit, how at Enfield, on the same occasion, he had expressed his regret that the Royalists had not taken Milton’s head off at the Restoration. That was one of the bright remarks which he invariably fired off whenever he met anybody for the first time; Carlyle had often afterwards heard him repeat it. At Enfield he gave it for Carlyle’s benefit, to astonish the stranger from Scotland. ‘But Lamb was a Liberal,’ we remarked; ‘he could not have wished such a fate for Milton?’ ‘Ah, you don’t see his point; he wished the Royalists had taken Milton’s head off in order that they might have damned themselves to all eternity!’ Then, sotte voce, Carlyle added, ‘Puir silly cratur!’
It will, perhaps, be admitted that there must have been something radically defective in the man to whom Lamb was only “a puir drucken body” and a “puir silly cratur.” On the other hand, he had, as we all know, the fullest and most cordial appreciation of the essentially robust and manly genius of Burns. The stalwart Ayrshire ploughman, who shared with him the fatal power of personal caricature, attracted him as no other Scotchman could do, except, perhaps, John Knox. It is more difficult, though not quite impossible, to understand his huge liking for Leigh Hunt; but Hunt was by habit and repute a 796 hero-worshipper, and took no pains to conceal his admiration for Carlyle and all his domestic circle.
The early chapters of Mr. Wylie’s biography, dealing with Carlyle’s home training, his schools and schoolmasters, and his university, are very interesting; particularly so is the account of Carlyle’s father, a man who, to quote his son’s words, “could not tolerate anything fictitious in books, and walked as a man in the full presence of Heaven, and Hell, and the Judgment”—of the two latter, we may add, more particularly. Carlyle thought his father, all things considered, the best man he had known, though it will be remembered that he applied the same description, on one occasion, to Edward Irving. “He was a far cleverer man than I am, or ever will be.” One particular form of his cleverness—a power of using nicknames—was transmitted in full strength to his son. “What a root of a bodie he was!” cried an old Scottish lady who had known him well; “ay, a curious bodie; he beat this world. A speerited bodie; he would sit on nae man’s coat tails. And sic stories he could tell. Sic sayings, too! Sic names he would gie to things and folk! But he was always a very strict old bodie, and could bide nae contradiction.”
Much also, of a more amiable kind, did Carlyle inherit from his worthy mother, who was his father’s second wife. She had been a domestic servant, and only when advanced in life, and the mother of a family, did she teach herself to read and write. “The quality of her mind, both as to its strength and independence,” says Mr. Wylie, “is sufficiently attested by the fact that it was she who first suggested to her son that new theory as to the character of Cromwell which he was the first to lay before the world.” I don’t know on what authority Mr. Wylie makes this extraordinary statement; but if, as is very probable, it is based upon the conversations of Carlyle himself, it is doubtless a somewhat exaggerated impression, having its origin in deep filial reverence and affection. For the rest, we have preserved for us, in “Sartor Resartus,” the living lineaments of both father and mother, and of the obscure village where they lived. Father Andrews and Gretchen are, as Mr. Wylie points out, simply Germanized pictures of James Carlyle and his wife, and Entepfuhl is, translated into plain Scotch, Ecclefechan. The chapter in which Mr. Wylie traces these resemblances is one of the most interesting in the book.
The literary life of Carlyle can scarcely be said to have begun in earnest until, in 1827, he became a full-blown Edinburgh Reviewer, contributing to the “Blue and Yellow” articles on Jean Paul, German Literature, Burns, and Characteristics. “I fear Carlyle will not do,” wrote Jeffrey to Macvey Napier in 1832, “that is, if you do not take the liberties and pains that I did with him, by striking out freely and writing in occasionally. The misfortune is that he is very obstinate, and I fear very conceited.” Despite this disparaging judgment of the true and cock-sure oracle of Craigcrook,—despite the liberties and pains 797 taken with him, Carlyle had begun to discover his strength, and to find that his literary efforts would do. At the very moment when the Edinburgh Review gave him notice to quit, he was ready with “Sartor Resartus,” a work which, with all its affectations, obscurities (I do not hesitate to add, insincerities), has taken a strong hold on the imaginations of that large section of the public which does not go to the poets for its edification, but prefers the fashioners of “mystical” prose.
The essays on German literature and “Sartor Resartus” were the fruit, individually and collectively, of a six years’ isolation in the wilds of Craigenputtock. Of his life here, Carlyle gave a memorable description in a letter to Goethe, dated 25th December, 1828.
“You inquire with such warm interest respecting our present abode and occupations, that I am obliged to say a few words about both, while there is still room left. Dumfries is a pleasant town, containing about fifteen thousand inhabitants, and to be considered the centre of the trade and judicial system of a district which possesses some importance in the sphere of Scottish activity. Our residence is not in the town itself, but fifteen miles to the north-west of it, among the granite hills and the black morasses, which stretch westward through Galloway, almost to the Irish Sea. In this wilderness of heath and rock, our estate stands forth a green oasis, a tract of ploughed, partly enclosed and planted ground, where corn ripens and trees afford a shade, although surrounded by sea-mews and rough-woolled sheep. Here, with no small effort, have we built and furnished a neat, substantial dwelling; here, in the absence of a professional or other office, we live to cultivate literature according to our strength, and in our own peculiar way. We wish a joyful growth to the roses and flowers of our garden; we hope for health and peaceful thoughts to further our aims. The roses, indeed, are still in part to be planted, but they blossom already in anticipation. Two ponies which carry us everywhere, and the mountain air, are the best medicines for weak nerves. This daily exercise, to which I am much devoted, is my only recreation; for this nook of ours is the loneliest in Britain, six miles removed from any one likely to visit me. Here Rousseau would have been as happy as on his island of St. Pierre. My town friends, indeed, ascribe my sojourn here to a similar disposition, and forebode me no good result. But I came hither solely with the design to simplify my way of life, and to secure the independence through which I could be enabled to remain true to myself. This bit of earth is our own: here we can live, write, and think, as best pleases ourselves, even though Zoilus himself were to be crowned the monarch of literature. Nor is the solitude of such great importance; for a stage-coach takes us speedily to Edinburgh, which we look upon as our British Weimar. And have I not, too, at this moment, piled upon the table of my little library a whole cartload of French, German, American, and English journals and periodicals—whatever may be their worth? Of antiquarian studies, too, there is no lack. From some of our heights can descry, about a day’s journey to the west, the hill where Agricola and his Romans left a camp behind them. At the foot of it I was born, and there both father and mother still live to love me. And so one must let time work.”
These six years were, perhaps, the happiest of his life. He had his “Jeanie” to sit by his side, his quiet home, his piles of books, and now and then a visitor, who did not stop too long. Nevertheless, his contentment was so far superficial that it did not prevent him from plotting hard to make some considerable stir in the world. “I have some thoughts,” he wrote to Professor Wilson, “of beginning to prophesy 798 next year, if I prosper; that seems the best style, could one strike into it rightly.” Odd enough is the notion that prophecy may be possible if prosperity comes; quite reversing the popular notion that prophets are unprosperous persons—that, in other words—
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song,—
or in prophecy. Still, there can be doubt that Carlyle, in a not uncomfortable state of mind, being cosy, confident, and bent on securing the contemporary ear, deliberately put on the prophet’s robes and began to prepare impeachments against his generation. So ere long the public became aware of a voice crying in the wilderness that “the god-like had vanished from the world,” that Byron was “cursing his day,” and Shelley “wailing inarticulately” like an infant; that men wandered without faith from doubt to doubt, finally returning, like Frederick Schlegel, back to orthodoxy, “as a child, who has roamed all day over a silenced battlefield, goes back at night to the heart of its dead mother.” No wonder that prophecy of this kind put poor Jeffrey into a flutter! It was not at all the sort of stuff to which the “Blue and Yellow” was accustomed. I can almost picture to myself the trouble in the prophet’s eye, as he read over the proof-sheets of these deliberate pieces of prophetic impromptu, and shrewdly calculated their effect on a decorous Whig editor and a highly respectable public.
In “Sartor Resartus,” the traces of literary conventionalism were kicked over altogether. The work might be called a wild hotch-potch of German mysticism, Lowland Scotch, broad caricature, and literal autobiography. In its long-windedness, in the zeal with which the one solitary idea, or “Clothes” theory, was worked to death, it was certainly very German. But with all its defects,—or rather, perhaps, inconsequence of its defects,—it was a work of genius. Nevertheless, it is a fact that “Sartor Resartus,” completed in 1831, could not find a publisher, at least in this country, till 1838. Carlyle himself tells us that the publishers “to a man, with that total contempt of grammar which Jedidiah Cleisbotham also complained of, declined the article.” Elsewhere he writes, in a letter to Macvey Napier,—“All manner of perplexities have occurred in the publication of my poor book, which perplexities I could only cut asunder, not unloose; so the MS., like an unhappy ghost, still lingers on the wrong side of Styx; the Charon of —— Street durst not risk it in his sutilis symba, so it leapt ashore again.” But, as Mr. Wylie happily expresses it, “the daughter’s loving appreciation rebuked the mother’s cold neglect,” and America accorded to this book the entrée denied to it by England.
It was published at Boston in 1836, with a preface by a young man of the name of Emerson, and soon became popular. Not until two years later appeared the first English edition, before which devout consummation, the young man of the name of Emerson had actually made a 799 pilgrimage to Europe, and met the young man of the name of Carlyle on the classic soil of Craigenputtock.
Emerson has described the meeting in one of the most charming chapters that ever came even from his “silver pen.”
“No public coach passed near it, so I took a private carriage from the inn. I found the house amid desolate heathery hills, where the lonely scholar nourished his mighty heart. Carlyle was a man from his youth, an author who did not need to hide from his readers, and an absolute man of the world, unknown and exiled on that hill-farm, as if holding on his own terms what is best in London. He was tall and gaunt, with a cliff-Iike brow, self-possessed, and holding his extraordinary powers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northern accent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote, and with a streaming humour, which floated everything he looked upon. His talk playfully exalting the familiar objects, put the companion at once into an acquaintance with his Lars and Lemurs, and it was very pleasant to learn what was predestined to be a pretty mythology. Few were the objects and lonely the man, ‘not a person to speak to within sixteen miles except the minister of Dunscore;’ so that books inevitably made his topics.
“He had names of his own for all the matters familiar to his discourse. Blackwood’s was the ‘sand magazine;’ Fraser’s nearer approach to possibility of life was the ‘mud magazine;’ a piece of road near by that marked some failed enterprise was the ‘grave of the last sixpence.’ When too much praise of any genius annoyed him, he professed hugely to admire the talent shown by his pig. He had spent much time and contrivance in confining the poor beast to one enclosure in his pen, but pig, by great strokes of judgment, had found out how to let a board down, and had foiled him. For all that, he still thought man the most plastic little fellow in the planet, and he liked Nero’s death, ‘Qualis artifex pereo!’ better than most history. He worships a man that will manifest any truth to him. At one time he had inquired and read a good deal about America. Landor’s principle was mere rebellion, and that he feared was the American principle. The best thing he knew of that country was that in it a man can have meat for his labour. He had read in Stuart’s book, that when he inquired in a New York hotel for the Boots, he had been shown across the street, and had found Mungo in his own house dining on roast turkey.
“We talked of books. Plato he does not read, and he disparaged Socrates; and, when pressed, persisted in making Mirabeau a hero. Gibbon he called the splendid bridge from the old world to the new. His own reading had been multifarious. ‘Tristram Shandy’ was one of his first books after ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and Robertson’s ‘America’ an early favourite. Rousseau’s ‘Confessions’ had discovered to him that he was not a dunce; and it was now ten years since he had learned German by the advice of a man who told him he would find in that language what he wanted.
“He took despairing or satirical views of literature at this moment; recounted the incredible sums paid in one year by the great booksellers for puffing. Hence it comes that no newspaper is trusted now, no books are bought, and the booksellers are on the eve of bankruptcy.”
Well might the lonely scholar grumble at the booksellers, and assert that they were on the verge of bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic member of the tribe who published “Sartor” a few years later failed to realize a fortune. The English public were slow to appreciate the book. Even the author’s personal friends, and among them John Stuart Mill, took a long time to understand it. “It came at last to be regarded,” says Mr. Wylie, “as the greatest work of its author, 800 perhaps the greatest of our century;” and he adds that “as a picture of the human soul battling with the haggard spirits of Doubt and Fear, it has certainly never been equalled.”
If this be really the case, then the spiritual literature of our century is barren indeed. The work, in reality, is one of reiterated negation; and very poor is the part played in it by the “Everlasting Yea,” as contrasted with the extraordinary performances of the “Everlasting Nay.” The substance of its teaching seems to be that, although Life is a sham and Eternity a dream, man can always get out of his difficulties by knuckling down to hard work; in fact, the very condition of his being is that he must work, as the only means of forgetting a problem which would otherwise turn him crazy. This is all very well as far as it goes; but surely modern speculation craves for a little more. Again, it is not always easy to understand what Carlyle means by Work, any more than it is to understand what he means by the Verities. Mr. Gradgrind, in the novel, had his conception of Work, or Fact, and other teachers have defined Work “as doing one’s duty in that sphere of life in which God has placed us.” If Work means simply labouring hard in some useful vocation, from carrying bricks to making books, scorning to beg, being truthful and upright, respecting the proprietors, and reverencing the terrestrial and celestial authorities, how does human Work—any more than the pertinacity of the ant, or the zeal of the bee—assist us to a solution of the problem of the Universe? Simply by ignoring the problem altogether, with a reservation in favour of the religion sanctioned by majorities. This, at least, was what Carlyle’s “Everlasting Yea” came to—to a detestation of revolt and revolters; to a glorification of what is self-assertive and self-conscious, as opposed to what is vicarious and altruistic, in human nature; to a polemic which derided all humanitarian teachers, from Shelley downwards, as sentimental “wailers;” to a philosophy which garlanded the gallows, and characterized the negro as “a servant” to all eternity; and to the sheer impotence of a political creed which glorified Deutschthumm, and treated as irrelevant all the divine services of Frenchmen and of France.
After all is said and done, then, the question emerges, what was Carlyle’s religious creed—his explanation, in other words, of the problem of the Universe? Work, as I have said, explains nothing; it may be righteous, it may be salutary, but it is an expedient, not a solution. Now, singularly enough, Carlyle, who could be explicit enough when he chose, nowhere tells us what he personally believes. To a friend of Mr. Wylie’s, who happened to say that he had the same religious views as himself, Carlyle retorted irritably, “My religious views! And who told you what my religious views are?” Apropos of this point, a writer in the St. James’s Gazette has said:—“The reason why Carlyle did not state his views plainly and simply are obvious enough. In the first place, if he had done so years ago, he would not only have lost all influence, but would have starved. In the next place, he would have 801 taken up the position which, of all others, was most unwelcome to him—namely, that of a rebel and a revolutionist.” I quite agree with Mr. Wylie that this amounts to a charge of positive disingenuousness, from which Carlyle must at once be acquitted. The real fact of the matter possibly was, that Carlyle, like many men of genius, was content to exist in the centre of nebulous religious emotions, without definite form and without real tangibility. Even in this, perhaps, there was a certain want of veracity, but it was unconscious. When sorely driven by stress of adverse argument, he invariably uttered the old phrase, laborare est orare; and turned to the practical business of his life. His feeling towards modern Science, which he never took the most trifling pains to understand, was infantine; he looked upon it with positive detestation. He thought Mr. Darwin a very “good sort of man, and well meaning, but with very little intellect;” and he exclaimed, “And this is what we have got to! All things from frog-spawn; the Gospel of Dirt the order of the day. The older I grow—and now I stand on the brink of eternity—the more comes back to me the sentence in the Catechism which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper it becomes: ‘What is the chief end of Man? To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.’ No gospel of dirt, teaching that men have descended from frogs, through monkeys, can ever set that aside.” How strange it seems that such a man, with so much poetry in his soul, should have failed to see the sublime vistas of poetic possibility which modern science has revealed; or should have found anything in modern philosophical speculation, at its best and highest, antagonistic to the religious aspirations of humanity. Surely, on such a theme, the Apostle of Veracity might have had something better to say.
After the publication of “Sartor Rcsartus,” Carlyle removed to London, occupying the house, No. 5, Cheyne Row, Chelsea, which he continued to occupy until his death. From that time forward, he became a man of letters by profession—indeed, perhaps the most noticeable man of letters, as distinguished from dilettante followers of literature, of his generation. Very interesting is the account Mr. Wylie gives of his early lectures,—during the delivery of which he felt, as he expressed it, as if he were “going to be hanged.” Of these lectures, only those on “Heroes and Hero-worship” are preserved; the others, which were delivered extempore, are not even preserved in the newspaper files of the period.
For nearly half a century, Carlyle continued to “make books” as remarkable for their industry as for their genius; but despite the long catalogue of his writings, “Sartor Resartus” remains the most characteristic of his achievements. As a monument of what human pertinacity can compass, the “History of Frederick” remains phenomenal; but Carlyle himself came to the conclusion that it was labour wasted, and I quite agree with Mr. Wylie that it did its author’s reputation far more harm than good, and greatly weakened his spiritual influence. 802 As age came stealing on, honours crowded upon him. By a large section of the public, he was reverenced as a Seer; in all literary circles he was respected as a great leader of literature. His life was solitary and uneventful, but on the whole very happy. To the last, he retained his homely countryfied appearance and his broad Scotch accent, preserving at seventy-five years of age (says Mr. Wylie) “such a face and form as we had come across hundreds of times in the glens and moorlands of Western Scotland—mending a feal dyke, seeing to the shecp, or hoeing potatoes in a cottage kailyard by the roadside.”
Not the least charming part of Mr. Wylie’s book is the account of conversations with him at this period of his life; but the gem of the whole biography is the picture, given by a Scottish schoolboy, of the old Prophet, just before the final summons came, and Thomas Carlyle and the Eternal Verities were face to face for ever. This schoolboy, who was one of the sons of the late Alexander Munro, the sculptor, who died young in 1871, went with a brother to see his father’s old friend in the May of 1880, and was led up the stairs into a well-lighted cheerful room, with the little old picture of Cromwell on the wall and Mrs. Carlyle’s sketch of her Haddington home on the mantelpiece. In this room Carlyle had spent nearly all his time, since he had given up working fourteen years before. The rest must be told in the schoolboy’s own simple words:—
“The maid went forward and said something to Carlyle, and left the room. He was sitting before a fire in an arm-chair, propped up with pillows, with his feet on a stool, and looked much older than I had expected. The lower part of his face was covered with a rather shaggy beard, almost quite white. His eyes were bright blue, but looked filmy from age. He had on a sort of coloured night-cap, and a long gown reaching to his ankles, and slippers on his feet A rest attached to the arm of his chair supported a book before him. I could not quite see the name, but I think it was Channing’s works. Leaning against the fireplace was a long clay pipe, and there was a slight smell of tobacco in the room. We advanced and shook hands, and he invited us to sit down, and began, I think, by asking where we were living. He talked of our father affectionately, speaking in a low tone as if to himself, and stopping now and then for a moment and sighing. He mentioned the last time they met, and said one took a long walk to see the other (I could not catch which), and ‘then he went away to Cannes and died,’ and he paused and sighed. ‘And your grandfather, he is dead too.’ He said he had done much good work, and written several books of reference, mentioning particularly his having explained who the people mentioned in Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ were. All this was in a low tone, and rather confused and broken, so I cannot put it clearly down. He said he liked my grandfather very much. I said I thought every one did. He agreed, and spoke very highly of him as a ‘most amiable man.’ He asked what I was going to be. I said I was not sure, but I thought of going to college for the present. He asked something of which I only caught the words ‘good scholars.’ I said I hoped we should turn out so. He said there could be no doubt about it, if we only kept fast to what is right and true, and we certainly ought to, as the sons of such a respectable man. He strongly exhorted us to be always perfectly true and open, not deceiving ourselves or others, adding something about the common habits of deceit. He went on, ‘I am near the end of my course, and the sooner the better is my own feeling.’ He said he still reads 803 a little, but has not many books he cares to read now, and is ‘continually disturbed by foolish interruptions from people who do not know the value of an old man’s leisure.’ His hands were very thin and wasted; he showed us how they shook and trembled unless he rested them on something, and said they were failing him from weakness. He asked, ‘Where did you say you were staying, and what are you doing there?’ I told him we were at Bromley for our holidays, which ended on Thursday, when we returned to school. He asked if we were at school at Bromley. I told him we were at Charterhouse. ‘Well, I’ll just bid you good-bye.’ We shook hands. He asked our names. He could not quite hear Henry’s at first. ‘I am a little deaf, but I can hear well enough talking,’ or words to that effect. ‘I wish you God’s blessing, good-bye.’ We shook hands once more and went away. I was not at all shy. He seemed such a venerable old man, and so worn and old-looking that I was very much affected. Our visit was on Tuesday, May 18, 1880, at about 2 P.M.”
A few months later, the arm-chair was empty, and the old widower had gone to join his darling “Jeanie,” for whom his love had ever been stronger than death.
In the space of this perfunctory sketch, I have merely sought to draw attention to some of the leading features of a biography which should be in the hands of every admirer of Carlyle; it has been quite impossible to do full justice to the industry, the cleverness, and the reverence with which the work is executed. Mr. Wylie is, in fact, a biographer after Carlyle’s own heart, sparing no pains to verify the most trifling details, and executing the whole as a labour of zealous love; yet not the least of his merits is the fact that he joins issue with Carlyle, again and again, on some of the main points of his teaching, and is at no time a blind partisan. Appearing at the present moment, the book has a special grace and charm. Other and fuller biographies of Carlyle may possibly be forthcoming; but the present work has too much intellectual breadth and literary finish to be easily superseded.
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From the New-York Daily Tribune - 18 January, 1885 - p.9.
(Reprinted in A Look Round Literature (London: Ward and Downey, 1887).)
A TALK WITH GEORGE ELIOT
ON AGE AND IMMORTALITY.
ROBERT BUCHANAN TELLS THE STORY OF AN AFTERNOON—
A DESCRIPTION OF HUSBAND AND WIFE—GEORGE ELIOT’S PET.
The Priory, North Bank, Regent’s Park, London, is a largish, not uncommodious, house enclosed in its own grounds of about an acre and a half, with trees and shrubs all round, a high front wall facing the street, to which it communicates through a massive doorway. The neighborhood is quiet, abounding in the cots of those soiled doves who haunt what have been christened (for North Bank is a portion of St. John’s Wood) the shady groves of the Evangelist. An actor, Mr. Wilson Barrett, now inhabits the Priory; he has enlarged and altered it to suit his needs, and made it æsthetically resplendent with dados, peacock-papers, and stained glass windows. But in the old days when I haunted it, it was the unpretentious abode of the most famous woman and the cleverest man in England. “George Eliot” dwelt there with her husband, George Henry Lewes; she, known far and wide as the bright genius whose fine creations in fiction began with “Adam Bede;” he, distinguished in many ways as a litterateur, a man of science, and a dilettante.
An afternoon at the Priory, beginning with a modest lunch in the eastern chamber, half study, half drawing-room, and ending with a long chat and tea in the pretty drawing-room, was surely a thing to be remembered. As I look backward, I recall many such afternoons; but one particularly I remember, when the full sunshine of success and happiness dwelt in that little household, and when, to ears eager to listen to me, and hearts full of sympathy, I first told the story of the life and death of David Gray—the young Scottish poet who came with me to seek his fortune in the great world of London, and on the very threshold of his career was smitten down to die a lingering death.
Conceive a little narrow-shouldered man of between forty and fifty, with long, straight hair, a magnificent forehead, dark yet brilliant eyes, and a manner full of alertness and intellectual grace. This was George Lewes, whom Douglas Jerrold had once stigmatised as “the ugliest man in London,” averring at the same time that he had caused the chimpanzee in the Zoological Gardens to die “out of jealousy, because there existed close by a creature more hideous than itself!” But George Lewes, though not an Adonis, was certainly not ugly. The great defects of his face were the coarse, almost sensual mouth, with its protruding teeth partly covered by a bristly moustache, and the small retreating chin; but when the face lighted up, and the eyes sparkled, and the mouth began its eloquent discourse, every imperfection was forgotten. Conceive, next, the tenth Muse, or Sibyl, lounging in an arm-chair and shading her face idly with a hand-screen; a powerful-looking, middle-aged woman, with a noticeable nose and chin, a low forehead, a fresh complexion, and full and very mobile mouth. Dress, on this occasion, a plainly cut, tight-fitting dress of blue cashmere, fastened at the throat with a cameo brooch. This was “Mawrian Evans,” as Carlyle called her, the George Eliot of the novels. She realized in face and form the description I afterward gave to her in the “Session of the Poets”
George Eliot gazed on the company boldly
With the limbs of a sylph and the head of John Locke!
I had been particularly struck by her resemblance to Locke’s well-known portrait, engraved as a frontispiece to the famous “Essay.” At that time her figure was graceful to elegance. When I last saw her, shortly before her husband’s death, she stooped painfully as she walked, and wore an old-fashioned crinoline.
“Tell that story to the public, too,” cried Lewes, when I had finished my tale. “Poor fellow! What a pity he ever came to London.”
“Lord Houghton says that your friend was very like the busts of Shelley,” said George Eliot, in her deep contralto voice.
“Very like,” I answered; “he was curiously feminine in form, and had the most wonderful eyes in the world. Even Tito yonder was not more beautiful,” I added, pointing to one of the proof engravings of Du Maurier’s illustrations to “Romola,” which hung framed over the mantelpiece.
“I don’t think, by the way,” observed Lewes, “that David Gray can be classed among the true victims of the Babylonian monster, London; at any rate, he was not exactly a literary struggler, at the mercy of what his countryman Alexander Smith called
The terrible city whose neglect is death,
Whose smile is fame!
He was struck down before he began the struggle at all; indeed, I have no doubt whatever, from your description of him, that the strumous taint, or predisposition, was in him from birth, and that, under any circumstances, his fate would have been the same.”
George Eliot— Quem Di diligunt, etc. After all, is not Ganymede to be envied? Better to be snatched up suddenly into the heaven of heavens, in all the prime of youth and happiness, than to grow old in a world which is full of sorrow, and in which old age is the least beautiful of human phenomena.
Lewes—You are quite right there. It is the exaggeration of sentiment which makes the poets give old age a sort of moral halo. There is nothing so pitiful, so horrible, as the slow and certain decay of the human faculties.
Myself—But is not that decay beautiful too?
Lewes—Apart from the pathetic fallacy, as Ruskin calls it, not at all. Your favorite Catullus describes it perfectly:
Cana tempus anilitas
Omnia omnes annuit!
In other words and Scotch ones, “a’ nodding, nid-nid-nodding”; a condition, in short, of ever-increasing imbecility, or vacuity.
George Eliot (smiling)—We are wandering toward deep waters. But it is quite true, I think, that the gradual obliteration of the human faculties and senses, one by one, is the strongest argument against the popular conception of a personal immortality.
George Eliot—Not only do men, under circumstances of physical decay, become feeble and imbecile; when a moral sense remains, it frequently becomes perverted. I have seen an old gentleman, hitherto known as an immaculate and honest merchant, gradually acquire habits of kleptomania, and another, well known for his benevolence, become spiteful, almost homicidal. We are absolutely the creatures of our secretions. So true is this, that the slightest disturbance of the cerebral circulation, say a temporary congestion, will pervert the entire stream of moral sentiments.
Myself—All that is doubtless very correct. I hold, nevertheless, that the soul, the Ego, is invulnerable, despite all temporary aberrations—clouds obscuring the moon’s disc, so to speak.
George Eliot—Say rather, disintegrations within the very substance of the moon itself. Where the very substance of the luminary is decaying, what hope is there for the permanence of your—moonlight?
Myself—The analogy is imperfect; but to pursue it, the lunar elements remain indestructible, and after transformations, may cohere again into some splendid identity.
George Eliot—Moonlight is sunlight reflected on a material mirror; thought, consciousness, life itself, are conditions dependent on the physical medium, and on the brightness of the external environment. Cogito, ergo sum should be transposed and altered. Sum materies, ergo cogito.
Lewes—And yet, after all, there are psychic phenomena which seem to evade the material definition!
George Eliot—Not one. And science has established clearly that, while functional disturbance may be evanescent, structural destruction is absolute and irremediable. An organism, once destroyed, is incapable of resurrection.
Myself—Then life is merely mechanism, after all.
George Eliot—Undoubtedly. It is very pitiful, but absolutely true.
Lewes—But what mechanism! How wonderful, how perfect in its adaptation of means to ends! Even if we hold thought to be a secretion, does that lessen the beauty of its manifestations?
Myself—Or the mystery of its origin?
George Eliot—The mystery, doubtless, consists only in our ignorance. There was a time, not very long ago, when men knew nothing of that marvellous truth, the circulation of the blood. In time, no doubt, we shall discover the precise process by which we think.
So speaking, the Sibyl glanced, not without admiration, at her husband, who was engaged at that very period, as I knew, in experiments concerning the mechanism of thought. He had long before abandoned the metaphysicians, as bewildering and misleading guides, and had completed, in the last edition of his “History of Philosophy,” his survey of the progress of thought from its past stage of credulity to its last stage of verification. Now, my sympathies were strongly in the other direction, though I had little or no enthusiasm for what may be termed the “ich and the nicht ich schools of metaphysics.” So I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders, saying something to this effect; that if thought was simply mechanism, as they suggested, man was no better than the “beasts that perish.”
At this moment there appeared upon the scene another individual, entering quietly through the drawing-room door, which was partly open. The newcomer was a dog, a splendid bull-terrier, who belonged to George Eliot, and generally accompanied Lewes in his walks about the neighborhood. He came in with a languid wag of the tail, and a general air of importance, glanced patronizingly at me, yawned lazily, and stretched himself on the hearthrug at the feet of his mistress.
George Eliot—“The beasts that perish.” Here is somebody who, if he could speak, would express a strong opinion upon that subject; for he is wise in his generation, and magnanimous almost beyond human conception. Do you know what he did once, before he was given to us? The friend to whom he belonged had a little boy, who inherited in full measure the predilections of the archetypal ape.
Lewes (parenthetically)—The true and only substitute for Plato’s archetypal Man!
George Eliot—One day, our friend had some acquaintances to luncheon. As they sat together they were startled by a sharp cry of pain from underneath the table; and lifting the edge of the table-cloth, they saw the small human monkey squatted on the carpet, in the act of slitting the dog’s ear with a large pair of scissors! Out crept the dog, panting and bleeding, followed by his little tormentor. Papa, of course, was very indignant, and seizing the child, who began to sob with terror, announced his intention of administering condign punishment, which he would have done instantly had not the victim interfered. Wagging his tail (just as he is doing now, for he knows I’m telling about him!) the noble fellow rose up, put his paws on the child’s shoulders, and affectionately licked his face; then looking at his master, said plainly, in the canine deaf and dumb alphabet, “Don’t beat him! please don’t! He’s only an undeveloped human being; he knows no better, and—I love him!” Could human kindness and magnanimity go further? Yet I don’t suppose you will contend that the poor dog’s loving instinct was enough to distinguish him from the other “beasts that perish.”
Myself—I’m not sure! Why should not even a dog have a soul like any other respectable Christian?
Lewes—Why not, indeed! I have known many so-called Christians who have neither the amiability nor the discrimination of this dog.
George Eliot—Then here we halt on the horns of a dilemma. Every one with a large acquaintance among decent and “gentleman-like” dogs (as Launce would put it) must admit their share in the highest humanities; and what is true of them is true, to a greater or less extent, of animals generally. Yet shall we, because we walk on our hind feet, assume to ourselves only the privilege of imperishability? Shall we, who are even as they, though we wag our tongues and not our tails, demand a special Providence and a selfish salvation?
Lewes (laughing)— Buchanan, like all young men, is an optimist! His spiritual scheme embraces every form of existence, as well as the whole human race.
George Eliot—And why, even, the whole human race? Go into the slums and dens of the city, visit our prisons and inspect our criminals, not to speak of the inmates of our lunatic asylums; and what do you find? Beasts in human likeness, monsters with appetites and instincts, often even the cleverness, of men and women. Are these immortal souls too, independent of physical limitations, and journeying to an eternal Home?
Myself—Certainly. There is no form of humanity, however degraded, which is beyond the possibility of moral regeneration.
Lewes—Optimism with a vengeance! Optimism which leaves out of sight all the great physical factors of moral conduct—hereditary disease, cerebral malformations, thought-perverting congestions, all the endless ills that flesh is heir to. I’m afraid, after all, that the dream of a personal immortality is a selfish one. It would come, in the long run, merely to the survival of the fittest, who would build their heavenly mansion on a hecatomb of human failure. . . . But there, we’ve talked enough of things at present inscrutable. Come out into the garden, and soothe your mechanism with a cigar.
We left the Sibyl to her meditations, and walked out into the open air. As we strolled smoking along the garden walks, we heard faintly, as from a distance, the murmur of the great city.
“Do you really believe,” I said presently, “that the divine thought of Shakespeare was a mere secretion, and that the last word of Science will be one of sheer negation and despair?”
He looked at me thoughtfully, then watched the wreaths of smoke as they curled from his mouth up into the air.
“Man is predoomed to aspiration, as the smoke flies upward. The last word of Science will not be spoken for many a century yet. Who can guess what it will be?”
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From the New-York Daily Tribune - 1 February, 1885 - p.4.
ROBERT BUCHANAN’S PERSONAL EXPERIENCES.
In the autumn of 1880, I rented a small furnished lodge, with a large stretch of somewhat barren “grouse-shooting” at Mulrany, County Mayo, a wild and lonely place flanked by gloomy mountains and looking southward on the island-studded waters of Clew Bay. It was by no means my first visit to Ireland, for I had resided during the greater part of several winters in the still more desolate region of Erris, on those lonely shores which look out on the stags of Broadhaven, but thitherto I had found everything peaceful enough and had learned to love and sympathize with a kindly and much-enduring tenantry. At Mulrany, however, it was different. Though the great outrages which startled the world had not yet begun, trouble was in the air; men came and went with a threatening look of pre-occupation; and the very day of our arrival was signalized by one of those wild deeds which had already earned for the district an unenviable notoriety.
For weeks past, Mr. Smith, Lord Sligo’s agent, had been warned that he would be “shot,” whenever he ventured upon the gloomy road which winds between the mountains, from Ballycroy to Mulrany. What his precise offence was I was never able to learn, but for one reason or another, he was a “marked” man. With a characteristic refinement of politeness, his secret enemies had notified him of his doom, had indicated the place, and conditionally the time of his assassination. Nothing, it will be confessed, could have been more considerate. Mr. Smith seems to have understood his danger perfectly, though he frequently made light of it; and for some time he was careful not to venture on the scene fixed for the murder. At last, however, he found it absolutely necessary to travel along that very road.
On the afternoon in question Mr. Smith dined with the Rev. Mr. Ramsay, minister of Ballycroy. He lingered for some time over his wine, but finally, when the evening shades were falling, ordered his horse and car to be made ready and prepared to go.
“Why hurry away so early?” asked the hospitable minister, who knew nothing of the state of affairs. “It is going to be a fine night.”
“Just so,” replied the agent, smiling rather nervously; “but the fact is, I have an appointment on the highway beyond Ballycroy.”
“Indeed!—rather a lonely place for an appointment!”
“The lonelier the better, since it is an appointment to be murdered!” returned Mr. Smith, producing from his pocket the last threatening letter, in which the place was so ingenuously specified. “On the whole, you will agree that I had better be going before the night has entirely fallen.”
Rejecting all entreaties to remain till morning, and pass through the dangerous neighborhood in the full light of day, the courageous agent mounted his Irish car, and drove away. His only companion (with the exception of the driver, a grim plucky fellow, famous for his narrow escapes when conducting “marked” passengers from place to place) was his own son, a youth between eighteen and nineteen years of age. Mr. Smith carried loaded pistols, young Smith was armed, curiously enough, with a small rifle, such as is used for shooting rooks.
They passed along rapidly in the shadow of the hills, through such a scene of desolation as is to be found only in Ireland, between gloomy reaches of bog and moorland, and often along the very edge of a great estuary of the sea. Here and there was a mud cabin, with troglodytes clustering at the door; but upon the lonely road itself, they scarcely met a soul. Nothing happened till they passed Ballyveeny, a desolate and deserted lodge about midway between Ballycroy and Mulrany. Here the road winds right under the mountains. The scene was forbidding in the extreme, and it was already almost dark.
Nevertheless, they were congratulating themselves on their safety, and smiling at the danger which they now thought they had exaggerated, when suddenly, as they passed over a small bridge, spanning a tiny runlet, wild figures rose on the roadside, and the ambuscade was revealed!
Bang! bang! bang! went several guns; slugs and bullets whistled in the air. The horse started off at full gallop, with shots raining round its head. Strange to say, not a soul was a penny the worse! But young Smith, before the car had flown many yards, jumped from his seat, and with rifle in hand, stood, ready to face the enemy, in the road-side.
By this time they were in full flight; all save one had disappeared; but that one, running up a small hillock twenty yards away, and gripping a two-barrelled gun, was preparing to turn and fire a parting shot. In a moment the boy covered him, and fired. The ruffian fell forward on his face, stone-dead—shot through the heart!
Meantime the driver had reined up his horse, some hundreds of yards away. Young Smith ran on, joined his father, and explained what had occurred. Then they drove on rapidly to Mulrany, gave information to the police, and hastened on to Westport, twenty miles away.
The news soon spread far and wide. Before the police reached the spot some of us galloped over, headed by young Dr. Croly, from the Island of Achill. We found the dead man lying where he had fallen, with his gun under him, and his right forefinger crooked in the act to reach the trigger. One barrel was loaded with heavy slugs.
“Sure he’s as dead as a door-nail,” said Doctor Tom, turning the ghastly face up to the light. “It was a clean shot anyhow, bad luck to him!”
The dead man was a powerful, thick-set fellow, about forty years old, with a good forehead, long thick-set jaw, and small deep-sunken eyes. His dress was coarse but not ragged, and on his great feet were heavy laced-up boots.
Presently a party of Irish constabulary arrived with a stretcher, and while they were placing the dead man upon it, we made a cursory examination of the spot where the would-have-been assassins had lain in ambush. It was a heathery nook, or hollow, close to the road, and lying in it, they must have been totally hidden from any passers-by. But from the marks and signs about, it appeared that they had been there for some time, perhaps for several nights. The grass and heather were beaten down where they had lain, fragments of loose paper were scattered here and there, and lying perdu among the grass was an empty whiskey bottle.
“Sure, now,” cried Doctor Tom, “isn’t it a miracle how they missed the car? A sober man might have hit it with a stone, for they weren’t a dozen yards away. But I’ll go bail for it, the spalpeens were roaring drunk. Devil a one of them could have hit a barn door!”
And, indeed, that seemed the only possible explanation of the agent’s miraculous escape. The men, tired with waiting for their victim, had taken liberally to the bottle, and had possibly been startled, by the car’s approach, from a semi-drunken sleep. They were obviously amateurs, exhibiting in their want of finish and awkwardness of method an inexperience unusual among accomplished landlord shooters.
That night, the first we spent in Mulrany lodge, was memorable to the ladies of our party. All night the population thronged upon the roads, “keening” and uttering threats of vengeance. Our door was barricaded, and our guns stood loaded, ready in case of emergencies. I fear the fair ones got little sleep.
Fortunately, the dead man was a stranger in the district, whom no one knew; otherwise, the result might have been serious. After-inquiry revealed that he was a sort of ’ostler, hailing from a distant part of Mayo, and that he had received a good round sum to do the “job” which had ended so unfortunately for himself.
Next day, I strolled round to the police barrack. The body was lying in the stone-paven back yard, the face turned up to the open sky and smeared with dark gore. All around, the place was like a slaughter-house. A post-mortem had been made by the local doctor (not our lively friend from Achill) who, for lack of proper instruments, had simply used a chisel! The blood, which, after the mortal wound, had extravased into the internal cavities, had spouted forth in a thick fountain when those cavities were opened. It was a hideous sight. Curious it was to note again the forefinger of the right hand still crooked in the act to touch the trigger, and now fixed as hard as stone by rigor mortis.
At the inquest, which took place a little later at Ballycroy, a verdict was returned acquitting young Smith of intentional murder. He and his father were brought over under strong escorts of police, amid the execrations of the populace. It rained threatening letters. Besides the two Smiths every one of the jurymen received them. Some endeavor was made to trace the accomplices of the dead man, but without avail. One of the jurymen, a gentleman popular in the district, deposed at the first meeting that he recognized the gun found in the dead man’s possession, as a gun belonging to an innkeeper in Ballycroy. Questioned and cross-questioned, he swore that he could not be mistaken. “I know the marks of it,” he said, “and I’ve often had it in my hand.” But at the second meeting, a few days later, his memory entirely failed him. When the gun was placed before him he looked at it vacantly, and when asked if he recognized it, sadly shook his head. Taxed with his former statement, he refused in any way to corroborate it; “Sure I must have been dreaming, or in drink,” he said. Of course the explanation of the change was very simple. The gentleman had been informed that short work would certainly be made of him, if he persisted in having so good a memory.
Nothing more was ever known of the planners of this outrage. The excitement of the people gradually died away. Young Smith quietly left the country, for a time at least, and was careful not to leave his address; and Mr. Smith, senior, betook himself to Dublin.
Meantime, we had become quite at home in Mulrany, and we soon realized that life and property, apart from agrarian outrages, were quite as safe there as in any part of the world. Yet it was a “warm” district. A Scotch farmer had been shot dead there at broad noon, one Sunday, when seated on his car, with his wife by his side. His wife remained on the farm, a formidable “widdy” woman. If trespassers or cattle came upon her land she drove them off savagely, and, when the peasants remonstrated, she cried, “You killed my husband, you cowards! Kill me, too, if you have the courage!” Curiously enough, they were very gentle with her, and respected her grief.
In my own fishing and shooting expeditions I became very familiar with the landlord shooters. One of them, whom I frequently employed as gillie, fisherman or boatman, was notorious in the district as the man who had been chosen to polish off Mr. Granite (as I shall call him), a rich Englishman who owned most of the land about Mulrany. O’Connor, my factotum, was a little, pale, pertinacious fellow of about thirty, good tempered, with a deal of native wit and drollery.
I questioned him more than once as to the truth of the rumors about himself; I pointed out the wickedness and the folly of assassination. He answered me with a smile that was childlike and bland.
“Sure, now, your honor, I put it to yourself. What harm would there be to kill a tyrant?”
But when I went further and questioned him of the reasons which made him hate his own landlord, and mine, so much, he became transformed. With moist eyes and quivering lips, he told me such a tale of his own experiences as almost converted me, for the moment, to his own avenging creed.
All this time the said Mr. Granite was going about under police protection. He himself went armed to the teeth, and a cockney servant of his, also primed like a mitrailleuse, generally attended him. O’Connor himself delighted in perceiving the especial terror with which the landlord regarded him whenever they happened to meet. On one occasion, when I was out seal-shooting, with O’Connor and a stalwart Connaught man in attendance, we saw, passing along the shore some hundreds of yards away, a strange procession. First crawled a car with several armed policemen. Next came a high dog-cart with Mr. Granite driving, and the cockney servant, a pistol in each hand, seated at his side and craning his neck to search every corner of the road. Last came a couple more policemen with rifles, on foot.
At sight of the procession my two boatmen exploded with laughter.
“It’s a mighty fine funeral,” said O’Connor, “and Sam the footman looks in mourning for his master already. Sure now, your honor, you’d never like to be drawn about like that!”
“Try a shot at him, sor!” cried the other, grinning savagely and pointing to the rifle at my side.
“Excuse me,” I replied, “I am shooting seals, not landlords!”
Here O’Connor, fairly trembling, but forcing a sickly smile, bent toward me eagerly. His face was quite white and bloodless, and his whole manner had undergone a transformation.
“Lend me the gun, your honor!” he exclaimed.
“Certainly not. What on earth do you want to do?”
“Just to fire one shot at him, for fun to myself! I wouldn’t harm the omadhaun this turn but whistle a bullet clane over his head. Mona mondiaul, how that would scare him!”
Seeing that I would be no party to such a joke (if he really meant it as a joke, which I very much doubt), O’Connor, still pale and trembling, with quivering nostrils, watched the procession till it faded out of sight. Then he began rowing wildly and crooning to himself some wild song in the Irish brogue, with a refrain in which his companion joined from time to time.
“What’s that you’re singing, O’Connor?” I asked presently.
He leant upon his oar and looked at me with an ominous smile.
“Sure it’s a song of old times, your honor, about a battle between an O’Connor and one that he had sworn to kill.”
“You rascal,” I cried, half laughing, “you’re as bloodthirsty as a carrion crow.”
“Bad luck to him that made me what I am!” he answered. “It’s neither God nor man would save him if I had my fingers at his throat. But the dark nights are coming, thank the Lord!”
I knew both the phrase and the formula, and on the whole I was rather thankful, at that moment, not to be wearing Mr. Granite’s shoes.
Harriett Jay mentions this incident in Chapter XXI of her biography of Buchanan, but places it immediately after the failure of Light (which would have been October 1878). Buchanan also gets the year wrong. The attack on Mr. Smith occurred on 30th September, 1879. Press reports of the shooting are available here:
The Freeman’s Journal (2 October, 1879 - p.5)
Reynolds’s Newspaper (5 October, 1879 - p.5).]
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