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Familiar Studies of Men & Books by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Familiar Studies of Men and Books by Robert Louis Stevenson
Scanned and proofed by David Price, ccx074@coventry.ac.uk

Familiar Studies of Men and Books


THESE studies are collected from the monthly press. One
appeared in the NEW QUARTERLY, one in MACMILLAN'S, and the
rest in the CORNHILL MAGAZINE. To the CORNHILL I owe a
double debt of thanks; first, that I was received there in
the very best society, and under the eye of the very best of
editors; and second, that the proprietors have allowed me to
republish so considerable an amount of copy.

These nine worthies have been brought together from many
different ages and countries. Not the most erudite of men
could be perfectly prepared to deal with so many and such
various sides of human life and manners. To pass a true
judgment upon Knox and Burns implies a grasp upon the very
deepest strain of thought in Scotland, - a country far more
essentially different from England than many parts of
America; for, in a sense, the first of these men re-created
Scotland, and the second is its most essentially national
production. To treat fitly of Hugo and Villon would involve
yet wider knowledge, not only of a country foreign to the
author by race, history, and religion, but of the growth and
liberties of art. Of the two Americans, Whitman and Thoreau,
each is the type of something not so much realised as widely
sought after among the late generations of their countrymen;
and to see them clearly in a nice relation to the society
that brought them forth, an author would require a large
habit of life among modern Americans. As for Yoshida, I have
already disclaimed responsibility; it was but my hand that
held the pen.

In truth, these are but the readings of a literary vagrant.
One book led to another, one study to another. The first was
published with trepidation. Since no bones were broken, the
second was launched with greater confidence. So, by
insensible degrees, a young man of our generation acquires,
in his own eyes, a kind of roving judicial commission through
the ages; and, having once escaped the perils of the Freemans
and the Furnivalls, sets himself up to right the wrongs of
universal history and criticism. Now, it is one thing to
write with enjoyment on a subject while the story is hot in
your mind from recent reading, coloured with recent
prejudice; and it is quite another business to put these
writings coldly forth again in a bound volume. We are most
of us attached to our opinions; that is one of the "natural
affections" of which we hear so much in youth; but few of us
are altogether free from paralysing doubts and scruples. For
my part, I have a small idea of the degree of accuracy
possible to man, and I feel sure these studies teem with
error. One and all were written with genuine interest in the
subject; many, however, have been conceived and finished with
imperfect knowledge; and all have lain, from beginning to
end, under the disadvantages inherent in this style of

Of these disadvantages a word must here be said. The writer
of short studies, having to condense in a few pages the
events of a whole lifetime, and the effect on his own mind of
many various volumes, is bound, above all things, to make
that condensation logical and striking. For the only
justification of his writing at all is that he shall present
a brief, reasoned, and memorable view. By the necessity of
the case, all the more neutral circumstances are omitted from
his narrative; and that of itself, by the negative
exaggeration of which I have spoken in the text, lends to the
matter in hand a certain false and specious glitter. By the
necessity of the case, again, he is forced to view his
subject throughout in a particular illumination, like a
studio artifice. Like Hales with Pepys, he must nearly break
his sitter's neck to get the proper shadows on the portrait.
It is from one side only that he has time to represent his
subject. The side selected will either be the one most
striking to himself, or the one most obscured by controversy;
and in both cases that will be the one most liable to
strained and sophisticated reading. In a biography, this and
that is displayed; the hero is seen at home, playing the
flute; the different tendencies of his work come, one after
another, into notice; and thus something like a true, general
impression of the subject may at last be struck. But in the
short study, the writer, having seized his "point of view,"
must keep his eye steadily to that. He seeks, perhaps,
rather to differentiate than truly to characterise. The
proportions of the sitter must be sacrificed to the
proportions of the portrait; the lights are heightened, the
shadows overcharged; the chosen expression, continually
forced, may degenerate at length into a grimace; and we have
at best something of a caricature, at worst a calumny.
Hence, if they be readable at all, and hang together by their
own ends, the peculiar convincing force of these brief
representations. They take so little a while to read, and
yet in that little while the subject is so repeatedly
introduced in the same light and with the same expression,
that, by sheer force of repetition, that view is imposed upon
the reader. The two English masters of the style, Macaulay
and Carlyle, largely exemplify its dangers. Carlyle, indeed,
had so much more depth and knowledge of the heart, his
portraits of mankind are felt and rendered with so much more
poetic comprehension, and he, like his favourite Ram Dass,
had a fire in his belly so much more hotly burning than the
patent reading lamp by which Macaulay studied, that it seems
at first sight hardly fair to bracket them together. But the
"point of view" was imposed by Carlyle on the men he judged
of in his writings with an austerity not only cruel but
almost stupid. They are too often broken outright on the
Procrustean bed; they are probably always disfigured. The
rhetorical artifice of Macaulay is easily spied; it will take
longer to appreciate the moral bias of Carlyle. So with all
writers who insist on forcing some significance from all that
comes before them; and the writer of short studies is bound,
by the necessity of the case, to write entirely in that
spirit. What he cannot vivify he should omit.

Had it been possible to rewrite some of these papers, I hope
I should have had the courage to attempt it. But it is not
possible. Short studies are, or should be, things woven like
a carpet, from which it is impossible to detach a strand.
What is perverted has its place there for ever, as a part of
the technical means by which what is right has been
presented. It is only possible to write another study, and
then, with a new "point of view," would follow new
perversions and perhaps a fresh caricature. Hence, it will
be, at least, honest to offer a few grains of salt to be
taken with the text; and as some words of apology, addition,
correction, or amplification fall to be said on almost every
study in the volume, it will be most simple to run them over
in their order. But this must not be taken as a propitiatory
offering to the gods of shipwreck; I trust my cargo
unreservedly to the chances of the sea; and do not, by
criticising myself, seek to disarm the wrath of other and
less partial critics.

HUGO'S ROMANCES. - This is an instance of the "point of
view." The five romances studied with a different purpose
might have given different results, even with a critic so
warmly interested in their favour. The great contemporary
master of wordmanship, and indeed of all literary arts and
technicalities, had not unnaturally dazzled a beginner. But
it is best to dwell on merits, for it is these that are most
often overlooked.

BURNS. - I have left the introductory sentences on Principal
Shairp, partly to explain my own paper, which was merely
supplemental to his amiable but imperfect book, partly
because that book appears to me truly misleading both as to
the character and the genius of Burns. This seems
ungracious, but Mr. Shairp has himself to blame; so good a
Wordsworthian was out of character upon that stage.

This half apology apart, nothing more falls to be said except
upon a remark called forth by my study in the columns of a
literary Review. The exact terms in which that sheet
disposed of Burns I cannot now recall; but they were to this
effect - that Burns was a bad man, the impure vehicle of fine
verses; and that this was the view to which all criticism
tended. Now I knew, for my own part, that it was with the
profoundest pity, but with a growing esteem, that I studied
the man's desperate efforts to do right; and the more I
reflected, the stranger it appeared to me that any thinking
being should feel otherwise. The complete letters shed,
indeed, a light on the depths to which Burns had sunk in his
character of Don Juan, but they enhance in the same
proportion the hopeless nobility of his marrying Jean. That
I ought to have stated this more noisily I now see; but that
any one should fail to see it for himself, is to me a thing
both incomprehensible and worthy of open scorn. If Burns, on
the facts dealt with in this study, is to be called a bad
man, I question very much whether either I or the writer in
the Review have ever encountered what it would be fair to
call a good one. All have some fault. The fault of each
grinds down the hearts of those about him, and - let us not
blink the truth - hurries both him and them into the grave.
And when we find a man persevering indeed, in his fault, as
all of us do, and openly overtaken, as not all of us are, by
its consequences, to gloss the matter over, with too polite
biographers, is to do the work of the wrecker disfiguring
beacons on a perilous seaboard; but to call him bad, with a
self-righteous chuckle, is to be talking in one's sleep with
Heedless and Too-bold in the arbour.

Yet it is undeniable that much anger and distress is raised
in many quarters by the least attempt to state plainly, what
every one well knows, of Burns's profligacy, and of the fatal
consequences of his marriage. And for this there are perhaps
two subsidiary reasons. For, first, there is, in our drunken
land, a certain privilege extended to drunkenness. In
Scotland, in particular, it is almost respectable, above all
when compared with any "irregularity between the sexes." The
selfishness of the one, so much more gross in essence, is so
much less immediately conspicuous in its results that our
demiurgeous Mrs. Grundy smiles apologetically on its victims.
It is often said - I have heard it with these ears - that
drunkenness "may lead to vice." Now I did not think it at
all proved that Burns was what is called a drunkard; and I
was obliged to dwell very plainly on the irregularity and the
too frequent vanity and meanness of his relations to women.
Hence, in the eyes of many, my study was a step towards the
demonstration of Burns's radical badness.

But second, there is a certain class, professors of that low
morality so greatly more distressing than the better sort of
vice, to whom you must never represent an act that was
virtuous in itself, as attended by any other consequences
than a large family and fortune. To hint that Burns's
marriage had an evil influence is, with this class, to deny
the moral law. Yet such is the fact. It was bravely done;
but he had presumed too far on his strength. One after
another the lights of his life went out, and he fell from
circle to circle to the dishonoured sickbed of the end. And
surely for any one that has a thing to call a soul he shines
out tenfold more nobly in the failure of that frantic effort
to do right, than if he had turned on his heel with Worldly
Wiseman, married a congenial spouse, and lived orderly and
died reputably an old man. It is his chief title that he
refrained from "the wrong that amendeth wrong." But the
common, trashy mind of our generation is still aghast, like
the Jews of old, at any word of an unsuccessful virtue. Job
has been written and read; the tower of Siloam fell nineteen
hundred years ago; yet we have still to desire a little
Christianity, or, failing that, a little even of that rude,
old, Norse nobility of soul, which saw virtue and vice alike
go unrewarded, and was yet not shaken in its faith.

WALT WHITMAN. - This is a case of a second difficulty which
lies continually before the writer of critical studies: that
he has to mediate between the author whom he loves and the
public who are certainly indifferent and frequently averse.
Many articles had been written on this notable man. One
after another had leaned, in my eyes, either to praise or
blame unduly. In the last case, they helped to blindfold our
fastidious public to an inspiring writer; in the other, by an
excess of unadulterated praise, they moved the more candid to
revolt. I was here on the horns of a dilemma; and between
these horns I squeezed myself with perhaps some loss to the
substance of the paper. Seeing so much in Whitman that was
merely ridiculous, as well as so much more that was
unsurpassed in force and fitness, - seeing the true prophet
doubled, as I thought, in places with the Bull in a China
Shop, - it appeared best to steer a middle course, and to
laugh with the scorners when I thought they had any excuse,
while I made haste to rejoice with the rejoicers over what is
imperishably good, lovely, human, or divine, in his
extraordinary poems. That was perhaps the right road; yet I
cannot help feeling that in this attempt to trim my sails
between an author whom I love and honour and a public too
averse to recognise his merit, I have been led into a tone
unbecoming from one of my stature to one of Whitman's. But
the good and the great man will go on his way not vexed with
my little shafts of merriment. He, first of any one, will
understand how, in the attempt to explain him credibly to
Mrs. Grundy, I have been led into certain airs of the man of
the world, which are merely ridiculous in me, and were not
intentionally discourteous to himself. But there is a worse
side to the question; for in my eagerness to be all things to
all men, I am afraid I may have sinned against proportion.
It will be enough to say here that Whitman's faults are few
and unimportant when they are set beside his surprising
merits. I had written another paper full of gratitude for
the help that had been given me in my life, full of
enthusiasm for the intrinsic merit of the poems, and
conceived in the noisiest extreme of youthful eloquence. The
present study was a rifacimento. From it, with the design
already mentioned, and in a fit of horror at my old excess,
the big words and emphatic passages were ruthlessly excised.
But this sort of prudence is frequently its own punishment;
along with the exaggeration, some of the truth is sacrificed;
and the result is cold, constrained, and grudging. In short,
I might almost everywhere have spoken more strongly than I

THOREAU. - Here is an admirable instance of the "point of
view" forced throughout, and of too earnest reflection on
imperfect facts. Upon me this pure, narrow, sunnily-ascetic
Thoreau had exercised a great charm. I have scarce written
ten sentences since I was introduced to him, but his
influence might be somewhere detected by a close observer.
Still it was as a writer that I had made his acquaintance; I
took him on his own explicit terms; and when I learned
details of his life, they were, by the nature of the case and
my own PARTI-PRIS, read even with a certain violence in terms
of his writings. There could scarce be a perversion more
justifiable than that; yet it was still a perversion. The
study indeed, raised so much ire in the breast of Dr. Japp
(H. A. Page), Thoreau's sincere and learned disciple, that
had either of us been men, I please myself with thinking, of
less temper and justice, the difference might have made us
enemies instead of making us friends. To him who knew the
man from the inside, many of my statements sounded like
inversions made on purpose; and yet when we came to talk of
them together, and he had understood how I was looking at the
man through the books, while he had long since learned to
read the books through the man, I believe he understood the
spirit in which I had been led astray.

On two most important points, Dr. Japp added to my knowledge,
and with the same blow fairly demolished that part of my
criticism. First, if Thoreau were content to dwell by Walden
Pond, it was not merely with designs of self-improvement, but
to serve mankind in the highest sense. Hither came the
fleeing slave; thence was he despatched along the road to
freedom. That shanty in the woods was a station in the great
Underground Railroad; that adroit and philosophic solitary
was an ardent worker, soul and body, in that so much more
than honourable movement, which, if atonement were possible
for nations, should have gone far to wipe away the guilt of
slavery. But in history sin always meets with condign
punishment; the generation passes, the offence remains, and
the innocent must suffer. No underground railroad could
atone for slavery, even as no bills in Parliament can redeem
the ancient wrongs of Ireland. But here at least is a new
light shed on the Walden episode.

Second, it appears, and the point is capital, that Thoreau
was once fairly and manfully in love, and, with perhaps too
much aping of the angel, relinquished the woman to his
brother. Even though the brother were like to die of it, we
have not yet heard the last opinion of the woman. But be
that as it may, we have here the explanation of the "rarefied
and freezing air" in which I complained that he had taught
himself to breathe. Reading the man through the books, I
took his professions in good faith. He made a dupe of me,
even as he was seeking to make a dupe of himself, wresting
philosophy to the needs of his own sorrow. But in the light
of this new fact, those pages, seemingly so cold, are seen to
be alive with feeling. What appeared to be a lack of
interest in the philosopher turns out to have been a touching
insincerity of the man to his own heart; and that fine-spun
airy theory of friendship, so devoid, as I complained, of any
quality of flesh and blood, a mere anodyne to lull his pains.
The most temperate of living critics once marked a passage of
my own with a cross ar d the words, "This seems nonsense."
It not only seemed; it was so. It was a private bravado of
my own, which I had so often repeated to keep up my spirits,
that I had grown at last wholly to believe it, and had ended
by setting it down as a contribution to the theory of life.
So with the more icy parts of this philosophy of Thoreau's.
He was affecting the Spartanism he had not; and the old
sentimental wound still bled afresh, while he deceived
himself with reasons.

Thoreau's theory, in short, was one thing and himself
another: of the first, the reader will find what I believe to
be a pretty faithful statement and a fairly just criticism in
the study; of the second he will find but a contorted shadow.
So much of the man as fitted nicely with his doctrines, in
the photographer's phrase, came out. But that large part
which lay outside and beyond, for which he had found or
sought no formula, on which perhaps his philosophy even
looked askance, is wanting in my study, as it was wanting in
the guide I followed. In some ways a less serious writer, in
all ways a nobler man, the true Thoreau still remains to be

VILLON. - I am tempted to regret that I ever wrote on this
subject, not merely because the paper strikes me as too
picturesque by half, but because I regarded Villon as a bad
fellow. Others still think well of him, and can find
beautiful and human traits where I saw nothing but artistic
evil; and by the principle of the art, those should have
written of the man, and not I. Where you see no good,
silence is the best. Though this penitence comes too late,
it may be well, at least, to give it expression.

The spirit of Villon is still living in the literature of
France. Fat Peg is oddly of a piece with the work of Zola,
the Goncourts, and the infinitely greater Flaubert; and,
while similar in ugliness, still surpasses them in native
power. The old author, breaking with an ECLAT DE VOIX, out
of his tongue-tied century, has not yet been touched on his
own ground, and still gives us the most vivid and shocking
impression of reality. Even if that were not worth doing at
all, it would be worth doing as well as he has done it; for
the pleasure we take in the author's skill repays us, or at
least reconciles us to the baseness of his attitude. Fat Peg
(LA GROSSE MARGOT) is typical of much; it is a piece of
experience that has nowhere else been rendered into
literature; and a kind of gratitude for the author's
plainness mingles, as we read, with the nausea proper to the
business. I shall quote here a verse of an old students'
song, worth laying side by side with Villon's startling
ballade. This singer, also, had an unworthy mistress, but he
did not choose to share the wages of dishonour; and it is
thus, with both wit and pathos, that he laments her fall:-

Nunc plango florem
AEtatis tenerae
Veneris sidere:
Tunc columbinam
Mentis dulcedinem,
Nunc serpentinam
Verbo rogantes
Removes ostio,
Munera dantes
Foves cubiculo,
Illos abire praecipis
A quibus nihil accipis,
Caecos claudosque recipis,
Viros illustres decipis
Cum melle venenosa. (1)


But our illustrious writer of ballades it was unnecessary to
deceive; it was the flight of beauty alone, not that of
honesty or honour, that he lamented in his song; and the
nameless mediaeval vagabond has the best of the comparison.

There is now a Villon Society in England; and Mr. John Payne
has translated him entirely into English, a task of unusual
difficulty. I regret to find that Mr. Payne and I are not
always at one as to the author's meaning; in such cases I am
bound to suppose that he is in the right, although the
weakness of the flesh withholds me from anything beyond a
formal submission. He is now upon a larger venture,
promising us at last that complete Arabian Nights to which we
have all so long looked forward.

CHARLES OF ORLEANS. - Perhaps I have done scanty justice to
the charm of the old Duke's verses, and certainly he is too
much treated as a fool. The period is not sufficiently
remembered. What that period was, to what a blank of
imbecility the human mind had fallen, can only be known to
those who have waded in the chronicles. Excepting Comines
and La Salle and Villon, I have read no author who did not
appal me by his torpor; and even the trial of Joan of Arc,
conducted as it was by chosen clerks, bears witness to a
dreary, sterile folly, - a twilight of the mind peopled with
childish phantoms. In relation to his contemporaries,
Charles seems quite a lively character.

It remains for me to acknowledge the kindness of Mr. Henry
Pyne, who, immediately on the appearance of the study, sent
me his edition of the Debate between the Heralds: a courtesy
from the expert to the amateur only too uncommon in these

KNOX. - Knox, the second in order of interest among the
reformers, lies dead and buried in the works of the learned
and unreadable M'Crie. It remains for some one to break the
tomb and bring him forth, alive again and breathing, in a
human book. With the best intentions in the world, I have
only added two more flagstones, ponderous like their
predecessors, to the mass of obstruction that buries the
reformer from the world; I have touched him in my turn with
that "mace of death," which Carlyle has attributed to
Dryasdust; and my two dull papers are, in the matter of
dulness, worthy additions to the labours of M'Crie. Yet I
believe they are worth reprinting in the interest of the next
biographer of Knox. I trust his book may be a masterpiece;
and I indulge the hope that my two studies may lend him a
hint or perhaps spare him a delay in its composition.

Of the PEPYS I can say nothing; for it has been too recently
through my hands; and I still retain some of the heat of
composition. Yet it may serve as a text for the last remark
I have to offer. To Pepys I think I have been amply just; to
the others, to Burns, Thoreau, Whitman, Charles of Orleans,
even Villon, I have found myself in the retrospect ever too
grudging of praise, ever too disrespectful in manner. It is
not easy to see why I should have been most liberal to the
man of least pretensions. Perhaps some cowardice withheld me
from the proper warmth of tone; perhaps it is easier to be
just to those nearer us in rank of mind. Such at least is
the fact, which other critics may explain. For these were
all men whom, for one reason or another, I loved; or when I
did not love the men, my love was the greater to their books.
I had read them and lived with them; for months they were
continually in my thoughts; I seemed to rejoice in their joys
and to sorrow with them in their griefs; and behold, when I
came to write of them, my tone was sometimes hardly courteous
and seldom wholly just.

R. L. S.




Apres le roman pittoresque mais prosaique de Walter Scott il
lestera un autre roman a creer, plus beau et plus complet
encore selon nous. C'est le roman, a la fois drame et
epopee, pittoresque mais poetique, reel mais ideal, vrai mais
grand, qui enchassera Walter Scott dans Homere. - Victor Hugo

VICTOR HUGO'S romances occupy an important position in the
history of literature; many innovations, timidly made
elsewhere, have in them been carried boldly out to their last
consequences; much that was indefinite in literary tendencies
has attained to definite maturity; many things have come to a
point and been distinguished one from the other; and it is
only in the last romance of all, QUATRE VINGT TREIZE, that
this culmination is most perfect. This is in the nature of
things. Men who are in any way typical of a stage of
progress may be compared more justly to the hand upon the
dial of the clock, which continues to advance as it
indicates, than to the stationary milestone, which is only
the measure of what is past. The movement is not arrested.
That significant something by which the work of such a man
differs from that of his predecessors, goes on disengaging
itself and becoming more and more articulate and cognisable.
The same principle of growth that carried his first book
beyond the books of previous writers, carries his last book
beyond his first. And just as the most imbecile production
of any literary age gives us sometimes the very clue to
comprehension we have sought long and vainly in contemporary
masterpieces, so it may be the very weakest of an author's
books that, coming in the sequel of many others, enables us
at last to get hold of what underlies the whole of them - of
that spinal marrow of significance that unites the work of
his life into something organic and rational. This is what
has been done by QUATRE VINGT TREIZE for the earlier romances
of Victor Hugo, and, through them, for a whole division of
modern literature. We have here the legitimate continuation
of a long and living literary tradition; and hence, so far,
its explanation. When many lines diverge from each other in
direction so slightly as to confuse the eye, we know that we
have only to produce them to make the chaos plain: this is
continually so in literary history; and we shall best
understand the importance of Victor Hugo's romances if we
think of them as some such prolongation of one of the main
lines of literary tendency.

When we compare the novels of Walter Scott with those of the
man of genius who preceded him, and whom he delighted to
honour as a master in the art - I mean Henry Fielding - we
shall be somewhat puzzled, at the first moment, to state the
difference that there is between these two. Fielding has as
much human science; has a far firmer hold upon the tiller of
his story; has a keen sense of character, which he draws (and
Scott often does so too) in a rather abstract and academical
manner; and finally, is quite as humorous and quite as good-
humoured as the great Scotchman. With all these points of
resemblance between the men, it is astonishing that their
work should be so different. The fact is, that the English
novel was looking one way and seeking one set of effects in
the hands of Fielding; and in the hands of Scott it was
looking eagerly in all ways and searching for all the effects
that by any possibility it could utilise. The difference
between these two men marks a great enfranchisement. With
Scott the Romantic movement, the movement of an extended
curiosity and an enfranchised imagination, has begun. This
is a trite thing to say; but trite things are often very
indefinitely comprehended: and this enfranchisement, in as
far as it regards the technical change that came over modern
prose romance, has never perhaps been explained with any

To do so, it will be necessary roughly to compare the two
sets of conventions upon which plays and romances are
respectively based. The purposes of these two arts are so
much alike, and they deal so much with the same passions and
interests, that we are apt to forget the fundamental
opposition of their methods. And yet such a fundamental
opposition exists. In the drama the action is developed in
great measure by means of things that remain outside of the
art; by means of real things, that is, and not artistic
conventions for things. This is a sort of realism that is
not to be confounded with that realism in painting of which
we hear so much. The realism in painting is a thing of
purposes; this, that we have to indicate in the drama, is an
affair of method. We have heard a story, indeed, of a
painter in France who, when he wanted to paint a sea-beach,
carried realism from his ends to his means, and plastered
real sand upon his canvas; and that is precisely what is done
in the drama. The dramatic author has to paint his beaches
with real sand: real live men and women move about the stage;
we hear real voices; what is feigned merely puts a sense upon
what is; we do actually see a woman go behind a screen as
Lady Teazle, and, after a certain interval, we do actually
see her very shamefully produced again. Now all these
things, that remain as they were in life, and are not
transmuted into any artistic convention, are terribly
stubborn and difficult to deal with; and hence there are for
the dramatist many resultant limitations in time and space.
These limitations in some sort approximate towards those of
painting: the dramatic author is tied down, not indeed to a
moment, but to the duration of each scene or act; he is
confined to the stage, almost as the painter is confined
within his frame. But the great restriction is this, that a
dramatic author must deal with his actors, and with his
actors alone. Certain moments of suspense, certain
significant dispositions of personages, a certain logical
growth of emotion, these are the only means at the disposal
of the playwright. It is true that, with the assistance of
the scene-painter, the costumier and the conductor of the
orchestra, he may add to this something of pageant, something
of sound and fury; but these are, for the dramatic writer,
beside the mark, and do not come under the vivifying touch of
his genius. When we turn to romance, we find this no longer.
Here nothing is reproduced to our senses directly. Not only
the main conception of the work, but the scenery, the
appliances, the mechanism by which this conception is brought
home to us, have been put through the crucible of another
man's mind, and come out again, one and all, in the form of
written words. With the loss of every degree of such realism
as we have described, there is for art a clear gain of
liberty and largeness of competence. Thus, painting, in
which the round outlines of things are thrown on to a flat
board, is far more free than sculpture, in which their
solidity is preserved. It is by giving up these identities
that art gains true strength. And so in the case of novels
as compared with the stage. Continuous narration is the flat
board on to which the novelist throws everything. And from
this there results for him a great loss of vividness, but a
great compensating gain in his power over the subject; so
that he can now subordinate one thing to another in
importance, and introduce all manner of very subtle detail,
to a degree that was before impossible. He can render just
as easily the flourish of trumpets before a victorious
emperor and the gossip of country market women, the gradual
decay of forty years of a man's life and the gesture of a
passionate moment. He finds himself equally unable, if he
looks at it from one point of view - equally able, if he
looks at it from another point of view - to reproduce a
colour, a sound, an outline, a logical argument, a physical
action. He can show his readers, behind and around the
personages that for the moment occupy the foreground of his
story, the continual suggestion of the landscape; the turn of
the weather that will turn with it men's lives and fortunes,
dimly foreshadowed on the horizon; the fatality of distant
events, the stream of national tendency, the salient
framework of causation. And all this thrown upon the flat
board - all this entering, naturally and smoothly, into the
texture of continuous intelligent narration.

This touches the difference between Fielding and Scott. In
the work of the latter, true to his character of a modern and
a romantic, we become suddenly conscious of the background.
Fielding, on the other hand, although he had recognised that
the novel was nothing else than an epic in prose, wrote in
the spirit not of the epic, but of the drama. This is not,
of course, to say that the drama was in any way incapable of
a regeneration similar in kind to that of which I am now
speaking with regard to the novel. The notorious contrary
fact is sufficient to guard the reader against such a
misconstruction. All that is meant is, that Fielding
remained ignorant of certain capabilities which the novel
possesses over the drama; or, at least, neglected and did not
develop them. To the end he continued to see things as a
playwright sees them. The world with which he dealt, the
world he had realised for himself and sought to realise and
set before his readers, was a world of exclusively human
interest. As for landscape, he was content to underline
stage directions, as it might be done in a play-book: Tom and
Molly retire into a practicable wood. As for nationality and
public sentiment, it is curious enough to think that Tom
Jones is laid in the year forty-five, and that the only use
he makes of the rebellion is to throw a troop of soldiers
into his hero's way. It is most really important, however,
to remark the change which has been introduced into the
conception of character by the beginning of the romantic
movement and the consequent introduction into fiction of a
vast amount of new material. Fielding tells us as much as he
thought necessary to account for the actions of his
creatures; he thought that each of these actions could be
decomposed on the spot into a few simple personal elements,
as we decompose a force in a question of abstract dynamics.
The larger motives are all unknown to him; he had not
understood that the nature of the landscape or the spirit of
the times could be for anything in a story; and so, naturally
and rightly, he said nothing about them. But Scott's
instinct, the instinct of the man of an age profoundly
different, taught him otherwise; and, in his work, the
individual characters begin to occupy a comparatively small
proportion of that canvas on which armies manoeuvre, and
great hills pile themselves upon each other's shoulders.
Fielding's characters were always great to the full stature
of a perfectly arbitrary will. Already in Scott we begin to
have a sense of the subtle influences that moderate and
qualify a man's personality; that personality is no longer
thrown out in unnatural isolation, but is resumed into its
place in the constitution of things.

It is this change in the manner of regarding men and their
actions first exhibited in romance, that has since renewed
and vivified history. For art precedes philosophy and even
science. People must have noticed things and interested
themselves in them before they begin to debate upon their
causes or influence. And it is in this way that art is the
pioneer of knowledge; those predilections of the artist he
knows not why, those irrational acceptations and
recognitions, reclaim, out of the world that we have not yet
realised, ever another and another corner; and after the
facts have been thus vividly brought before us and have had
time to settle and arrange themselves in our minds, some day
there will be found the man of science to stand up and give
the explanation. Scott took an interest in many things in
which Fielding took none; and for this reason, and no other,
he introduced them into his romances. If he had been told
what would be the nature of the movement that he was so
lightly initiating, he would have been very incredulous and
not a little scandalised. At the time when he wrote, the
real drift of this new manner of pleasing people in fiction
was not yet apparent; and, even now, it is only by looking at
the romances of Victor Hugo that we are enabled to form any
proper judgment in the matter. These books are not only
descended by ordinary generation from the Waverley novels,
but it is in them chiefly that we shall find the
revolutionary tradition of Scott carried farther that we
shall find Scott himself, in so far as regards his conception
of prose fiction and its purposes, surpassed in his own
spirit, instead of tamely followed. We have here, as I said
before, a line of literary tendency produced, and by this
production definitely separated from others. When we come to
Hugo, we see that the deviation, which seemed slight enough
and not very serious between Scott and Fielding, is indeed
such a great gulph in thought and sentiment as only
successive generations can pass over: and it is but natural
that one of the chief advances that Hugo has made upon Scott
is an advance in self-consciousness. Both men follow the
same road; but where the one went blindly and carelessly, the
other advances with all deliberation and forethought. There
never was artist much more unconscious than Scott; and there
have been not many more conscious than Hugo. The passage at
the head of these pages shows how organically he had
understood the nature of his own changes. He has, underlying
each of the five great romances (which alone I purpose here
to examine), two deliberate designs: one artistic, the other
consciously ethical and intellectual. This is a man living
in a different world from Scott, who professes sturdily (in
one of his introductions) that he does not believe in novels
having any moral influence at all; but still Hugo is too much
of an artist to let himself be hampered by his dogmas; and
the truth is that the artistic result seems, in at least one
great instance, to have very little connection with the
other, or directly ethical result.

The artistic result of a romance, what is left upon the
memory by any really powerful and artistic novel, is
something so complicated and refined that it is difficult to
put a name upon it and yet something as simple as nature.
These two propositions may seem mutually destructive, but
they are so only in appearance. The fact is that art is
working far ahead of language as well as of science,
realising for us, by all manner of suggestions and
exaggerations, effects for which as yet we have no direct
name; nay, for which we may never perhaps have a direct name,
for the reason that these effects do not enter very largely
into the necessities of life. Hence alone is that suspicion
of vagueness that often hangs about the purpose of a romance:
it is clear enough to us in thought; but we are not used to
consider anything clear until we are able to formulate it in
words, and analytical language has not been sufficiently
shaped to that end. We all know this difficulty in the case
of a picture, simple and strong as may be the impression that
it has left with us; and it is only because language is the
medium of romance, that we are prevented from seeing that the
two cases are the same. It is not that there is anything
blurred or indefinite in the impression left with us, it is
just because the impression is so very definite after its own
kind, that we find it hard to fit it exactly with the
expressions of our philosophical speech.

It is this idea which underlies and issues from a romance,
this something which it is the function of that form of art
to create, this epical value, that I propose chiefly to seek
and, as far as may be, to throw into relief, in the present
study. It is thus, I believe, that we shall see most clearly
the great stride that Hugo has taken beyond his predecessors,
and how, no longer content with expressing more or less
abstract relations of man to man, he has set before himself
the task of realising, in the language of romance, much of
the involution of our complicated lives.

This epical value is not to be found, let it be understood,
in every so-called novel. The great majority are not works
of art in anything but a very secondary signification. One
might almost number on one's fingers the works in which such
a supreme artistic intention has been in any way superior to
the other and lesser aims, themselves more or less artistic,
that generally go hand in hand with it in the conception of
prose romance. The purely critical spirit is, in most
novels, paramount. At the present moment we can recall one
man only, for whose works it would have been equally possible
to accomplish our present design: and that man is Hawthorne.
There is a unity, an unwavering creative purpose, about some
at least of Hawthorne's romances, that impresses itself on
the most indifferent reader; and the very restrictions and
weaknesses of the man served perhaps to strengthen the vivid
and single impression of his works. There is nothing of this
kind in Hugo: unity, if he attains to it, is indeed unity out
of multitude; and it is the wonderful power of subordination
and synthesis thus displayed, that gives us the measure of
his talent. No amount of mere discussion and statement, such
as this, could give a just conception of the greatness of
this power. It must be felt in the books themselves, and all
that can be done in the present essay is to recall to the
reader the more general features of each of the five great
romances, hurriedly and imperfectly, as space will permit,
and rather as a suggestion than anything more complete.

The moral end that the author had before him in the
conception of NOTRE DAME DE PARIS was (he tells us) to
"denounce" the external fatality that hangs over men in the
form of foolish and inflexible superstition. To speak
plainly, this moral purpose seems to have mighty little to do
with the artistic conception; moreover it is very
questionably handled, while the artistic conception is
developed with the most consummate success. Old Paris lives
for us with newness of life: we have ever before our eyes the
city cut into three by the two arms of the river, the boat-
shaped island "moored" by five bridges to the different
shores, and the two unequal towns on either hand. We forget
all that enumeration of palaces and churches and convents
which occupies so many pages of admirable description, and
the thoughtless reader might be inclined to conclude from
this, that they were pages thrown away; but this is not so:
we forget, indeed, the details, as we forget or do not see
the different layers of paint on a completed picture; but the
thing desired has been accomplished, and we carry away with
us a sense of the "Gothic profile" of the city, of the
"surprising forest of pinnacles and towers and belfries," and
we know not what of rich and intricate and quaint. And
throughout, Notre Dame has been held up over Paris by a
height far greater than that of its twin towers: the
Cathedral is present to us from the first page to the last;
the title has given us the clue, and already in the Palace of
Justice the story begins to attach itself to that central
building by character after character. It is purely an
effect of mirage; Notre Dame does not, in reality, thus
dominate and stand out above the city; and any one who should
visit it, in the spirit of the Scott-tourists to Edinburgh or
the Trossachs, would be almost offended at finding nothing
more than this old church thrust away into a corner. It is
purely an effect of mirage, as we say; but it is an effect
that permeates and possesses the whole book with astonishing
consistency and strength. And then, Hugo has peopled this
Gothic city, and, above all, this Gothic church, with a race
of men even more distinctly Gothic than their surroundings.
We know this generation already: we have seen them clustered
about the worn capitals of pillars, or craning forth over the
church-leads with the open mouths of gargoyles. About them
all there is that sort of stiff quaint unreality, that
conjunction of the grotesque, and even of a certain bourgeois
snugness, with passionate contortion and horror, that is so
characteristic of Gothic art. Esmeralda is somewhat an
exception; she and the goat traverse the story like two
children who have wandered in a dream. The finest moment of
the book is when these two share with the two other leading
characters, Dom Claude and Quasimodo, the chill shelter of
the old cathedral. It is here that we touch most intimately
the generative artistic idea of the romance: are they not all
four taken out of some quaint moulding, illustrative of the
Beatitudes, or the Ten Commandments, or the seven deadly
sins? What is Quasimodo but an animated gargoyle? What is
the whole book but the reanimation of Gothic art?

It is curious that in this, the earliest of the five great
romances, there should be so little of that extravagance that
latterly we have come almost to identify with the author's
manner. Yet even here we are distressed by words, thoughts,
and incidents that defy belief and alienate the sympathies.
The scene of the IN PACE, for example, in spite of its
strength, verges dangerously on the province of the penny
novelist. I do not believe that Quasimodo rode upon the
bell; I should as soon imagine that he swung by the clapper.
And again the following two sentences, out of an otherwise
admirable chapter, surely surpass what it has ever entered
into the heart of any other man to imagine (vol. ii. p. 180):
"Il souffrait tant que par instants il s'arrachait des
And, p. 181: "Ses pensees etaient si insupportables qu'il
prenait sa tete a deux mains et tachait de l'arracher de ses

One other fault, before we pass on. In spite of the horror
and misery that pervade all of his later work, there is in it
much less of actual melodrama than here, and rarely, I should
say never, that sort of brutality, that useless insufferable
violence to the feelings, which is the last distinction
between melodrama and true tragedy. Now, in NOTRE DAME, the
whole story of Esmeralda's passion for the worthless archer
is unpleasant enough; but when she betrays herself in her
last hiding-place, herself and her wretched mother, by
calling out to this sordid hero who has long since forgotten
her - well, that is just one of those things that readers
will not forgive; they do not like it, and they are quite
right; life is hard enough for poor mortals, without having
it indefinitely embittered for them by bad art.

We look in vain for any similar blemish in LES MISERABLES.
Here, on the other hand, there is perhaps the nearest
approach to literary restraint that Hugo has ever made: there
is here certainly the ripest and most easy development of his
powers. It is the moral intention of this great novel to
awaken us a little, if it may be - for such awakenings are
unpleasant - to the great cost of this society that we enjoy
and profit by, to the labour and sweat of those who support
the litter, civilisation, in which we ourselves are so
smoothly carried forward. People are all glad to shut their
eyes; and it gives them a very simple pleasure when they can
forget that our laws commit a million individual injustices,
to be once roughly just in the general; that the bread that
we eat, and the quiet of the family, and all that embellishes
life and makes it worth having, have to be purchased by death
- by the deaths of animals, and the deaths of men wearied out
with labour, and the deaths of those criminals called tyrants
and revolutionaries, and the deaths of those revolutionaries
called criminals. It is to something of all this that Victor
Hugo wishes to open men's eyes in LES MISERABLES; and this
moral lesson is worked out in masterly coincidence with the
artistic effect. The deadly weight of civilisation to those
who are below presses sensibly on our shoulders as we read.
A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find
Society rejecting, again and again, the services of the most
serviceable; setting Jean Valjean to pick oakum, casting
Galileo into prison, even crucifying Christ. There is a
haunting and horrible sense of insecurity about the book.
The terror we thus feel is a terror for the machinery of law,
that we can hear tearing, in the dark, good and bad between
its formidable wheels with the iron stolidity of all
machinery, human or divine. This terror incarnates itself
sometimes and leaps horribly out upon us; as when the
crouching mendicant looks up, and Jean Valjean, in the light
of the street lamp, recognises the face of the detective; as
when the lantern of the patrol flashes suddenly through the
darkness of the sewer; or as when the fugitive comes forth at
last at evening, by the quiet riverside, and finds the police
there also, waiting stolidly for vice and stolidly satisfied
to take virtue instead. The whole book is full of
oppression, and full of prejudice, which is the great cause
of oppression. We have the prejudices of M. Gillenormand,
the prejudices of Marius, the prejudices in revolt that
defend the barricade, and the throned prejudices that carry
it by storm. And then we have the admirable but ill-written
character of Javert, the man who had made a religion of the
police, and would not survive the moment when he learned that
there was another truth outside the truth of laws; a just
creation, over which the reader will do well to ponder.

With so gloomy a design this great work is still full of life
and light and love. The portrait of the good Bishop is one
of the most agreeable things in modern literature. The whole
scene at Montfermeil is full of the charm that Hugo knows so
well how to throw about children. Who can forget the passage
where Cosette, sent out at night to draw water, stands in
admiration before the illuminated booth, and the huckster
behind "lui faisait un peu l'effet d'etre le Pere eternel?"
The pathos of the forlorn sabot laid trustingly by the
chimney in expectation of the Santa Claus that was not, takes
us fairly by the throat; there is nothing in Shakespeare that
touches the heart more nearly. The loves of Cosette and
Marius are very pure and pleasant, and we cannot refuse our
affection to Gavroche, although we may make a mental
reservation of our profound disbelief in his existence. Take
it for all in all, there are few books in the world that can
be compared with it. There is as much calm and serenity as
Hugo has ever attained to; the melodramatic coarsenesses that
disfigured NOTRE DAME are no longer present. There is
certainly much that is painfully improbable; and again, the
story itself is a little too well constructed; it produces on
us the effect of a puzzle, and we grow incredulous as we find
that every character fits again and again into the plot, and
is, like the child's cube, serviceable on six faces; things
are not so well arranged in life as all that comes to. Some
of the digressions, also, seem out of place, and do nothing
but interrupt and irritate. But when all is said, the book
remains of masterly conception and of masterly development,
full of pathos, full of truth, full of a high eloquence.

Superstition and social exigency having been thus dealt with
in the first two members of the series, it remained for LES
TRAVAILLEURS DE LA MER to show man hand to hand with the
elements, the last form of external force that is brought
against him. And here once more the artistic effect and the
moral lesson are worked out together, and are, indeed, one.
Gilliat, alone upon the reef at his herculean task, offers a
type of human industry in the midst of the vague "diffusion
of forces into the illimitable," and the visionary
development of "wasted labour" in the sea, and the winds, and
the clouds. No character was ever thrown into such strange
relief as Gilliat. The great circle of sea-birds that come
wanderingly around him on the night of his arrival, strikes
at once the note of his pre-eminence and isolation. He fills
the whole reef with his indefatigable toil; this solitary
spot in the ocean rings with the clamour of his anvil; we see
him as he comes and goes, thrown out sharply against the
clear background of the sea. And yet his isolation is not to
be compared with the isolation of Robinson Crusoe, for
example; indeed, no two books could be more instructive to
set side by side than LES TRAVAILLEURS and this other of the
old days before art had learnt to occupy itself with what
lies outside of human will. Crusoe was one sole centre of
interest in the midst of a nature utterly dead and utterly
unrealised by the artist; but this is not how we feel with
Gilliat; we feel that he is opposed by a "dark coalition of
forces," that an "immense animosity" surrounds him; we are
the witnesses of the terrible warfare that he wages with "the
silent inclemency of phenomena going their own way, and the
great general law, implacable and passive:" "a conspiracy of
the indifferency of things" is against him. There is not one
interest on the reef, but two. Just as we recognise Gilliat
for the hero, we recognise, as implied by this indifferency
of things, this direction of forces to some purpose outside
our purposes, yet another character who may almost take rank
as the villain of the novel, and the two face up to one
another blow for blow, feint for feint, until, in the storm,
they fight it epically out, and Gilliat remains the victor; -
a victor, however, who has still to encounter the octopus. I
need say nothing of the gruesome, repulsive excellence of
that famous scene; it will be enough to remind the reader
that Gilliat is in pursuit of a crab when he is himself
assaulted by the devil fish, and that this, in its way, is
the last touch to the inner significance of the book; here,
indeed, is the true position of man in the universe.

But in LES TRAVAILLEURS, with all its strength, with all its
eloquence, with all the beauty and fitness of its main
situations, we cannot conceal from ourselves that there is a
thread of something that will not bear calm scrutiny. There
is much that is disquieting about the storm, admirably as it
begins. I am very doubtful whether it would be possible to
keep the boat from foundering in such circumstances, by any
amount of breakwater and broken rock. I do not understand
the way in which the waves are spoken of, and prefer just to
take it as a loose way of speaking, and pass on. And lastly,
how does it happen that the sea was quite calm next day? Is
this great hurricane a piece of scene-painting after all?
And when we have forgiven Gilliat's prodigies of strength
(although, in soberness, he reminds us more of Porthos in the
Vicomte de Bragelonne than is quite desirable), what is to be
said to his suicide, and how are we to condemn in adequate
terms that unprincipled avidity after effect, which tells us
that the sloop disappeared over the horizon, and the head
under the water, at one and the same moment? Monsieur Hugo
may say what he will, but we know better; we know very well
that they did not; a thing like that raises up a despairing
spirit of opposition in a man's readers; they give him the
lie fiercely, as they read. Lastly, we have here already
some beginning of that curious series of English blunders,
that makes us wonder if there are neither proof-sheets nor
judicious friends in the whole of France, and affects us
sometimes with a sickening uneasiness as to what may be our
own exploits when we touch upon foreign countries and foreign
tongues. It is here that we shall find the famous "first of
the fourth," and many English words that may be
comprehensible perhaps in Paris. It is here that we learn
that "laird" in Scotland is the same title as "lord" in
England. Here, also, is an account of a Highland soldier's
equipment, which we recommend to the lovers of genuine fun.

In L'HOMME QUI RIT, it was Hugo's object to 'denounce' (as he
would say himself) the aristocratic principle as it was
exhibited in England; and this purpose, somewhat more
unmitigatedly satiric than that of the two last, must answer
for much that is unpleasant in the book. The repulsiveness
of the scheme of the story, and the manner in which it is
bound up with impossibilities and absurdities, discourage the
reader at the outset, and it needs an effort to take it as
seriously as it deserves. And yet when we judge it
deliberately, it will be seen that, here again, the story is
admirably adapted to the moral. The constructive ingenuity
exhibited throughout is almost morbid. Nothing could be more
happily imagined, as a REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM of the
aristocratic principle, than the adventures of Gwynplaine,
the itinerant mountebank, snatched suddenly out of his little
way of life, and installed without preparation as one of the
hereditary legislators of a great country. It is with a very
bitter irony that the paper, on which all this depends, is
left to float for years at the will of wind and tide. What,
again, can be finer in conception than that voice from the
people heard suddenly in the House of Lords, in solemn
arraignment of the pleasures and privileges of its splendid
occupants? The horrible laughter, stamped for ever "by order
of the king" upon the face of this strange spokesman of
democracy, adds yet another feature of justice to the scene;
in all time, travesty has been the argument of oppression;
and, in all time, the oppressed might have made this answer:
"If I am vile, is it not your system that has made me so?"
This ghastly laughter gives occasion, moreover, for the one
strain of tenderness running through the web of this
unpleasant story: the love of the blind girl Dea, for the
monster. It is a most benignant providence that thus
harmoniously brings together these two misfortunes; it is one
of those compensations, one of those afterthoughts of a
relenting destiny, that reconcile us from time to time to the
evil that is in the world; the atmosphere of the book is
purified by the presence of this pathetic love; it seems to
be above the story somehow, and not of it, as the full moon
over the night of some foul and feverish city.

There is here a quality in the narration more intimate and
particular than is general with Hugo; but it must be owned,
on the other hand, that the book is wordy, and even, now and
then, a little wearisome. Ursus and his wolf are pleasant
enough companions; but the former is nearly as much an
abstract type as the latter. There is a beginning, also, of
an abuse of conventional conversation, such as may be quite
pardonable in the drama where needs must, but is without
excuse in the romance. Lastly, I suppose one must say a word
or two about the weak points of this not immaculate novel;
and if so, it will be best to distinguish at once. The large
family of English blunders, to which we have alluded already
in speaking of LES TRAVAILLEURS, are of a sort that is really
indifferent in art. If Shakespeare makes his ships cast
anchor by some seaport of Bohemia, if Hugo imagines Tom-Tim-
Jack to be a likely nickname for an English sailor, or if
either Shakespeare, or Hugo, or Scott, for that matter, be
guilty of "figments enough to confuse the march of a whole
history - anachronisms enough to overset all, chronology,"
(1) the life of their creations, the artistic truth and
accuracy of their work, is not so much as compromised. But
when we come upon a passage like the sinking of the "Ourque"
in this romance, we can do nothing but cover our face with
our hands: the conscientious reader feels a sort of disgrace
in the very reading. For such artistic falsehoods, springing
from what I have called already an unprincipled avidity after
effect, no amount of blame can be exaggerated; and above all,
when the criminal is such a man as Victor Hugo. We cannot
forgive in him what we might have passed over in a third-rate
sensation novelist. Little as he seems to know of the sea
and nautical affairs, he must have known very well that
vessels do not go down as he makes the "Ourque" go down; he
must have known that such a liberty with fact was against the
laws of the game, and incompatible with all appearance of
sincerity in conception or workmanship.

(1) Prefatory letter to PEVERIL OF THE PEAK.

In each of these books, one after another, there has been
some departure from the traditional canons of romance; but
taking each separately, one would have feared to make too
much of these departures, or to found any theory upon what
was perhaps purely accidental. The appearance of QUATRE
VINGT TREIZE has put us out of the region of such doubt.
Like a doctor who has long been hesitating how to classify an
epidemic malady, we have come at last upon a case so well
marked that our uncertainty is at an end. It is a novel
built upon "a sort of enigma," which was at that date laid
before revolutionary France, and which is presented by Hugo
to Tellmarch, to Lantenac, to Gauvain, and very terribly to
Cimourdain, each of whom gives his own solution of the
question, clement or stern, according to the temper of his
spirit. That enigma was this: "Can a good action be a bad
action? Does not he who spares the wolf kill the sheep?"
This question, as I say, meets with one answer after another
during the course of the book, and yet seems to remain
undecided to the end. And something in the same way,
although one character, or one set of characters, after
another comes to the front and occupies our attention for the
moment, we never identify our interest with any of these
temporary heroes nor regret them after they are withdrawn.
We soon come to regard them somewhat as special cases of a
general law; what we really care for is something that they
only imply and body forth to us. We know how history
continues through century after century; how this king or
that patriot disappears from its pages with his whole
generation, and yet we do not cease to read, nor do we even
feel as if we had reached any legitimate conclusion, because
our interest is not in the men, but in the country that they
loved or hated, benefited or injured. And so it is here:
Gauvain and Cimourdain pass away, and we regard them no more
than the lost armies of which we find the cold statistics in
military annals; what we regard is what remains behind; it is
the principle that put these men where they were, that filled
them for a while with heroic inspiration, and has the power,
now that they are fallen, to inspire others with the same
courage. The interest of the novel centres about
revolutionary France: just as the plot is an abstract
judicial difficulty, the hero is an abstract historical
force. And this has been done, not, as it would have been
before, by the cold and cumbersome machinery of allegory, but
with bold, straightforward realism, dealing only with the
objective materials of art, and dealing with them so
masterfully that the palest abstractions of thought come
before us, and move our hopes and fears, as if they were the
young men and maidens of customary romance.

The episode of the mother and children in QUATRE VINGT TREIZE
is equal to anything that Hugo has ever written. There is
one chapter in the second volume, for instance, called "SEIN
GUERI, COEUR SAIGNANT," that is full of the very stuff of
true tragedy, and nothing could be more delightful than the
humours of the three children on the day before the assault.
The passage on La Vendee is really great, and the scenes in
Paris have much of the same broad merit. The book is full,
as usual, of pregnant and splendid sayings. But when thus
much is conceded by way of praise, we come to the other scale
of the balance, and find this, also, somewhat heavy. There
is here a yet greater over-employment of conventional
dialogue than in L'HOMME QUI RIT; and much that should have
been said by the author himself, if it were to be said at
all, he has most unwarrantably put into the mouths of one or
other of his characters. We should like to know what becomes
of the main body of the troop in the wood of La Saudraie
during the thirty pages or so in which the foreguard lays
aside all discipline, and stops to gossip over a woman and
some children. We have an unpleasant idea forced upon us at
one place, in spite of all the good-natured incredulity that
we can summon up to resist it. Is it possible that Monsieur
Hugo thinks they ceased to steer the corvette while the gun
was loose? Of the chapter in which Lantenac and Halmalho are
alone together in the boat, the less said the better; of
course, if there were nothing else, they would have been
swamped thirty times over during the course of Lantenac's
harangue. Again, after Lantenac has landed, we have scenes
of almost inimitable workmanship that suggest the epithet
"statuesque" by their clear and trenchant outline; but the
tocsin scene will not do, and the tocsin unfortunately
pervades the whole passage, ringing continually in our ears
with a taunting accusation of falsehood. And then, when we
come to the place where Lantenac meets the royalists, under
the idea that he is going to meet the republicans, it seems
as if there were a hitch in the stage mechanism. I have
tried it over in every way, and I cannot conceive any
disposition that would make the scene possible as narrated.

Such then, with their faults and their signal excellences,
are the five great novels.

Romance is a language in which many persons learn to speak
with a certain appearance of fluency; but there are few who
can ever bend it to any practical need, few who can ever be
said to express themselves in it. It has become abundantly
plain in the foregoing examination that Victor Hugo occupies
a high place among those few. He has always a perfect
command over his stories; and we see that they are
constructed with a high regard to some ulterior purpose, and
that every situation is informed with moral significance and
grandeur. Of no other man can the same thing be said in the
same degree. His romances are not to be confused with "the
novel with a purpose" as familiar to the English reader: this
is generally the model of incompetence; and we see the moral
clumsily forced into every hole and corner of the story, or
thrown externally over it like a carpet over a railing. Now
the moral significance, with Hugo, is of the essence of the
romance; it is the organising principle. If you could
distinctive lesson, you would find that the story had lost
its interest and the book was dead.

Having thus learned to subordinate his story to an idea, to
make his art speak, he went on to teach it to say things
heretofore unaccustomed. If you look back at the five books
of which we have now so hastily spoken, you will be
astonished at the freedom with which the original purposes of
story-telling have been laid aside and passed by. Where are
now the two lovers who descended the main watershed of all
the Waverley novels, and all the novels that have tried to
follow in their wake? Sometimes they are almost lost sight
of before the solemn isolation of a man against the sea and
sky, as in LES TRAVAILLEURS; sometimes, as in LES MISERABLES,
they merely figure for awhile, as a beautiful episode in the
epic of oppression; sometimes they are entirely absent, as in
MISERABLES it is an old man: in L'HOMME QUI RIT it is a
monster: in QUATRE VINGT TREIZE it is the Revolution. Those
elements that only began to show themselves timidly, as
adjuncts, in the novels of Walter Scott, have usurped ever
more and more of the canvas; until we find the whole interest
of one of Hugo's romances centring around matter that
Fielding would have banished from his altogether, as being
out of the field of fiction. So we have elemental forces
occupying nearly as large a place, playing (so to speak)
nearly as important a ROLE, as the man, Gilliat, who opposes
and overcomes them. So we find the fortunes of a nation put
upon the stage with as much vividness as ever before the
fortunes of a village maiden or a lost heir; and the forces
that oppose and corrupt a principle holding the attention
quite as strongly as the wicked barons or dishonest attorneys
of the past. Hence those individual interests that were
supreme in Fielding, and even in Scott, stood out over
everything else and formed as it were the spine of the story,
figure here only as one set of interests among many sets, one
force among many forces, one thing to be treated out of a
whole world of things equally vivid and important. So that,
for Hugo, man is no longer an isolated spirit without
antecedent or relation here below, but a being involved in
the action and reaction of natural forces, himself a centre
of such action and reaction or an unit in a great multitude,
chased hither and thither by epidemic terrors and
aspirations, and, in all seriousness, blown about by every
wind of doctrine. This is a long way that we have travelled:
between such work and the work of Fielding is there not,
indeed, a great gulph in thought and sentiment?

Art, thus conceived, realises for men a larger portion of
life, and that portion one that it is more difficult for them
to realise unaided; and, besides helping them to feel more
intensely those restricted personal interests which are
patent to all, it awakes in them some consciousness of those
more general relations that are so strangely invisible to the
average man in ordinary moods. It helps to keep man in his
place in nature, and, above all, it helps him to understand
more intelligently the responsibilities of his place in
society. And in all this generalisation of interest, we
never miss those small humanities that are at the opposite
pole of excellence in art; and while we admire the intellect
that could see life thus largely, we are touched with another
sentiment for the tender heart that slipped the piece of gold
into Cosette's sabot, that was virginally troubled at the
fluttering of her dress in the spring wind, or put the blind
girl beside the deformity of the laughing man. This, then,
is the last praise that we can award to these romances. The
author has shown a power of just subordination hitherto
unequalled; and as, in reaching forward to one class of
effects, he has not been forgetful or careless of the other,
his work is more nearly complete work, and his art, with all
its imperfections, deals more comprehensively with the
materials of life than that of any of his otherwise more sure
and masterly predecessors.

These five books would have made a very great fame for any
writer, and yet they are but one facade of the monument that
Victor Hugo has erected to his genius. Everywhere we find
somewhat the same greatness, somewhat the same infirmities.
In his poems and plays there are the same unaccountable
protervities that have already astonished us in the romances.
There, too, is the same feverish strength, welding the fiery
iron of his idea under forge-hammer repetitions - an emphasis
that is somehow akin to weaknesses - strength that is a
little epileptic. He stands so far above all his
contemporaries, and so incomparably excels them in richness,
breadth, variety, and moral earnestness, that we almost feel
as if he had a sort of right to fall oftener and more heavily
than others; but this does not reconcile us to seeing him
profit by the privilege so freely. We like to have, in our
great men, something that is above question; we like to place
an implicit faith in them, and see them always on the
platform of their greatness; and this, unhappily, cannot be
with Hugo. As Heine said long ago, his is a genius somewhat
deformed; but, deformed as it is, we accept it gladly; we
shall have the wisdom to see where his foot slips, but we
shall have the justice also to recognise in him one of the
greatest artists of our generation, and, in many ways, one of
the greatest artists of time. If we look back, yet once,
upon these five romances, we see blemishes such as we can lay
to the charge of no other man in the number of the famous;
but to what other man can we attribute such sweeping
innovations, such a new and significant presentment of the
life of man, such an amount, if we merely think of the
amount, of equally consummate performance?


To write with authority about another man, we must have
fellow-feeling and some common ground of experience with our
subject. We may praise or blame according as we find him
related to us by the best or worst in ourselves; but it is
only in virtue of some relationship that we can be his
judges, even to condemn. Feelings which we share and
understand enter for us into the tissue of the man's
character; those to which we are strangers in our own
experience we are inclined to regard as blots, exceptions,
inconsistencies, and excursions of the diabolic; we conceive
them with repugnance, explain them with difficulty, and raise
our hands to heaven in wonder when we find them in
conjunction with talents that we respect or virtues that we
admire. David, king of Israel, would pass a sounder judgment
on a man than either Nathaniel or David Hume. Now, Principal
Shairp's recent volume, although I believe no one will read
it without respect and interest, has this one capital defect
- that there is imperfect sympathy between the author and the
subject, between the critic and the personality under
criticism. Hence an inorganic, if not an incoherent,
presentation of both the poems and the man. Of HOLY WILLIE'S
PRAYER, Principal Shairp remarks that "those who have loved
most what was best in Burns's poetry must have regretted that
it was ever written." To the JOLLY BEGGARS, so far as my
memory serves me, he refers but once; and then only to remark
on the "strange, not to say painful," circumstance that the
same hand which wrote the COTTER'S SATURDAY NIGHT should have
stooped to write the JOLLY BEGGARS. The SATURDAY NIGHT may
or may not be an admirable poem; but its significance is
trebled, and the power and range of the poet first appears,
when it is set beside the JOLLY BEGGARS. To take a man's
work piecemeal, except with the design of elegant extracts,
is the way to avoid, and not to perform, the critic's duty.
The same defect is displayed in the treatment of Burns as a
man, which is broken, apologetical, and confused. The man
here presented to us is not that Burns, TERES ATQUE ROTUNDUS
- a burly figure in literature, as, from our present vantage
of time, we have begun to see him. This, on the other hand,
is Burns as he may have appeared to a contemporary clergyman,
whom we shall conceive to have been a kind and indulgent but
orderly and orthodox person, anxious to be pleased, but too
often hurt and disappointed by the behaviour of his red-hot
PROTEGE, and solacing himself with the explanation that the
poet was "the most inconsistent of men." If you are so
sensibly pained by the misconduct of your subject, and so
paternally delighted with his virtues, you will always be an
excellent gentleman, but a somewhat questionable biographer.
Indeed, we can only be sorry and surprised that Principal
Shairp should have chosen a theme so uncongenial. When we
find a man writing on Burns, who likes neither HOLY WILLIE,
nor the BEGGARS, nor the ORDINATION, nothing is adequate to
the situation but the old cry of Geronte: "Que diable allait-
il faire dans cette galere?" And every merit we find in the
book, which is sober and candid in a degree unusual with
biographies of Burns, only leads us to regret more heartily
that good work should be so greatly thrown away.

It is far from my intention to tell over again a story that
has been so often told; but there are certainly some points
in the character of Burns that will bear to be brought out,
and some chapters in his life that demand a brief rehearsal.
The unity of the man's nature, for all its richness, has
fallen somewhat out of sight in the pressure of new
information and the apologetical ceremony of biographers.
Mr. Carlyle made an inimitable bust of the poet's head of
gold; may I not be forgiven if my business should have more
to do with the feet, which were of clay?


Any view of Burns would be misleading which passed over in
silence the influences of his home and his father. That
father, William Burnes, after having been for many years a
gardener, took a farm, married, and, like an emigrant in a
new country, built himself a house with his own hands.
Poverty of the most distressing sort, with sometimes the near
prospect of a gaol, embittered the remainder of his life.
Chill, backward, and austere with strangers, grave and
imperious in his family, he was yet a man of very unusual
parts and of an affectionate nature. On his way through life
he had remarked much upon other men, with more result in
theory than practice; and he had reflected upon many subjects
as he delved the garden. His great delight was in solid
conversation; he would leave his work to talk with the
schoolmaster Murdoch; and Robert, when he came home late at
night, not only turned aside rebuke but kept his father two
hours beside the fire by the charm of his merry and vigorous
talk. Nothing is more characteristic of the class in
general, and William Burnes in particular, than the pains he
took to get proper schooling for his boys, and, when that was
no longer possible, the sense and resolution with which he
set himself to supply the deficiency by his own influence.
For many years he was their chief companion; he spoke with
them seriously on all subjects as if they had been grown men;
at night, when work was over, he taught them arithmetic; he
borrowed books for them on history, science, and theology;
and he felt it his duty to supplement this last - the trait
is laughably Scottish - by a dialogue of his own composition,
where his own private shade of orthodoxy was exactly
represented. He would go to his daughter as she stayed
afield herding cattle, to teach her the names of grasses and
wild flowers, or to sit by her side when it thundered.
Distance to strangers, deep family tenderness, love of
knowledge, a narrow, precise, and formal reading of theology
- everything we learn of him hangs well together, and builds
up a popular Scotch type. If I mention the name of Andrew
Fairservice, it is only as I might couple for an instant
Dugald Dalgetty with old Marshal Loudon, to help out the
reader's comprehension by a popular but unworthy instance of
a class. Such was the influence of this good and wise man
that his household became a school to itself, and neighbours
who came into the farm at meal-time would find the whole
family, father, brothers, and sisters, helping themselves
with one hand, and holding a book in the other. We are
surprised at the prose style of Robert; that of Gilbert need
surprise us no less; even William writes a remarkable letter
for a young man of such slender opportunities. One anecdote
marks the taste of the family. Murdoch brought TITUS
ANDRONICUS, and, with such dominie elocution as we may
suppose, began to read it aloud before this rustic audience;
but when he had reached the passage where Tamora insults
Lavinia, with one voice and "in an agony of distress" they
refused to hear it to an end. In such a father and with such
a home, Robert had already the making of an excellent
education; and what Murdoch added, although it may not have
been much in amount, was in character the very essence of a
literary training. Schools and colleges, for one great man
whom they complete, perhaps unmake a dozen; the strong spirit
can do well upon more scanty fare.

Robert steps before us, almost from the first, in his
complete character - a proud, headstrong, impetuous lad,
greedy of pleasure, greedy of notice; in his own phrase
"panting after distinction," and in his brother's "cherishing
a particular jealousy of people who were richer or of more
consequence than himself:" with all this, he was emphatically
of the artist nature. Already he made a conspicuous figure
in Tarbolton church, with the only tied hair in the parish,
"and his plaid, which was of a particular colour, wrapped in
a particular manner round his shoulders." Ten years later,
when a married man, the father of a family, a farmer, and an
officer of Excise, we shall find him out fishing in
masquerade, with fox-skin cap, belted great-coat, and great
Highland broadsword. He liked dressing up, in fact, for its
own sake. This is the spirit which leads to the extravagant
array of Latin Quarter students, and the proverbial velveteen
of the English landscape-painter; and, though the pleasure
derived is in itself merely personal, it shows a man who is,
to say the least of it, not pained by general attention and
remark. His father wrote the family name BURNES; Robert
early adopted the orthography BURNESS from his cousin in the
Mearns; and in his twenty-eighth year changed it once more to
BURNS. It is plain that the last transformation was not made
without some qualm; for in addressing his cousin he adheres,
in at least one more letter, to spelling number two. And
this, again, shows a man preoccupied about the manner of his
appearance even down to the name, and little willing to
follow custom. Again, he was proud, and justly proud, of his
powers in conversation. To no other man's have we the same
conclusive testimony from different sources and from every
rank of life. It is almost a commonplace that the best of
his works was what he said in talk. Robertson the historian
"scarcely ever met any man whose conversation displayed
greater vigour;" the Duchess of Gordon declared that he
"carried her off her feet;" and, when he came late to an inn,
the servants would get out of bed to hear him talk. But, in
these early days at least, he was determined to shine by any
means. He made himself feared in the village for his tongue.
He would crush weaker men to their faces, or even perhaps -
for the statement of Sillar is not absolute - say cutting
things of his acquaintances behind their back. At the church
door, between sermons, he would parade his religious views
amid hisses. These details stamp the man. He had no genteel
timidities in the conduct of his life. He loved to force his
personality upon the world. He would please himself, and
shine. Had he lived in the Paris of 1830, and joined his lot
with the Romantics, we can conceive him writing JEHAN for
JEAN, swaggering in Gautier's red waistcoat, and horrifying
Bourgeois in a public cafe with paradox and gasconnade.

A leading trait throughout his whole career was his desire to
be in love. NE FAIT PAS CE TOUR QUI VEUT. His affections
were often enough touched, but perhaps never engaged. He was
all his life on a voyage of discovery, but it does not appear
conclusively that he ever touched the happy isle. A man
brings to love a deal of ready-made sentiment, and even from
childhood obscurely prognosticates the symptoms of this vital
malady. Burns was formed for love; he had passion,
tenderness, and a singular bent in the direction; he could
foresee, with the intuition of an artist, what love ought to
be; and he could not conceive a worthy life without it. But
he had ill-fortune, and was besides so greedy after every
shadow of the true divinity, and so much the slave of a
strong temperament, that perhaps his nerve was relaxed and
his heart had lost the power of self-devotion before an
opportunity occurred. The circumstances of his youth
doubtless counted for something in the result. For the lads
of Ayrshire, as soon as the day's work was over and the
beasts were stabled, would take the road, it might be in a
winter tempest, and travel perhaps miles by moss and moorland
to spend an hour or two in courtship. Rule 10 of the
Bachelors' Club at Tarbolton provides that "every man proper
for a member of this Society must be a professed lover of ONE
OR MORE of the female sex." The rich, as Burns himself
points out, may have a choice of pleasurable occupations, but
these lads had nothing but their "cannie hour at e'en." It
was upon love and flirtation that this rustic society was
built; gallantry was the essence of life among the Ayrshire
hills as well as in the Court of Versailles; and the days
were distinguished from each other by love-letters, meetings,
tiffs, reconciliations, and expansions to the chosen
confidant, as in a comedy of Marivaux. Here was a field for
a man of Burns's indiscriminate personal ambition, where he
might pursue his voyage of discovery in quest of true love,
and enjoy temporary triumphs by the way. He was "constantly
the victim of some fair enslaver " - at least, when it was
not the other way about; and there were often underplots and
secondary fair enslavers in the background. Many - or may we
not say most? - of these affairs were entirely artificial.
One, he tells us, he began out of "a vanity of showing his
parts in courtship," for he piqued himself on his ability at
a love-letter. But, however they began, these flames of his
were fanned into a passion ere the end; and he stands
unsurpassed in his power of self-deception, and positively
without a competitor in the art, to use his own words, of
"battering himself into a warm affection," - a debilitating
and futile exercise. Once he had worked himself into the
vein, "the agitations of his mind and body" were an
astonishment to all who knew him. Such a course as this,
however pleasant to a thirsty vanity, was lowering to his
nature. He sank more and more towards the professional Don
Juan. With a leer of what the French call fatuity, he bids
the belles of Mauchline beware of his seductions; and the
same cheap self-satisfaction finds a yet uglier vent when he
plumes himself on the scandal at the birth of his first
bastard. We can well believe what we hear of his facility in
striking up an acquaintance with women: he would have
conquering manners; he would bear down upon his rustic game
with the grace that comes of absolute assurance - the
Richelieu of Lochlea or Mossgiel. In yet another manner did
these quaint ways of courtship help him into fame. If he
were great as principal, he was unrivalled as confidant. He
could enter into a passion; he could counsel wary moves,
being, in his own phrase, so old a hawk; nay, he could turn a
letter for some unlucky swain, or even string a few lines of
verse that should clinch the business and fetch the
hesitating fair one to the ground. Nor, perhaps, was it only
his "curiosity, zeal, and intrepid dexterity" that
recommended him for a second in such affairs; it must have
been a distinction to have the assistance and advice of RAB
THE RANTER; and one who was in no way formidable by himself
might grow dangerous and attractive through the fame of his

I think we can conceive him, in these early years, in that
rough moorland country, poor among the poor with his seven
pounds a year, looked upon with doubt by respectable elders,
but for all that the best talker, the best letter-writer, the
most famous lover and confidant, the laureate poet, and the
only man who wore his hair tied in the parish. He says he
had then as high a notion of himself as ever after; and I can
well believe it. Among the youth he walked FACILE PRINCEPS,
an apparent god; and even if, from time to time, the Reverend
Mr. Auld should swoop upon him with the thunders of the
Church, and, in company with seven others, Rab the Ranter
must figure some fine Sunday on the stool of repentance,
would there not be a sort of glory, an infernal apotheosis,
in so conspicuous a shame? Was not Richelieu in disgrace
more idolised than ever by the dames of Paris? and when was
the highwayman most acclaimed but on his way to Tyburn? Or,
to take a simile from nearer home, and still more exactly to
the point, what could even corporal punishment avail,
administered by a cold, abstract, unearthly school-master,
against the influence and fame of the school's hero?

And now we come to the culminating point of Burns's early
period. He began to be received into the unknown upper
world. His fame soon spread from among his fellow-rebels on
the benches, and began to reach the ushers and monitors of
this great Ayrshire academy. This arose in part from his lax
views about religion; for at this time that old war of the
creeds and confessors, which is always grumbling from end to
end of our poor Scotland, brisked up in these parts into a
hot and virulent skirmish; and Burns found himself identified
with the opposition party, - a clique of roaring lawyers and
half-heretical divines, with wit enough to appreciate the
value of the poet's help, and not sufficient taste to
moderate his grossness and personality. We may judge of
their surprise when HOLY WILLIE was put into their hand; like
the amorous lads of Tarbolton, they recognised in him the
best of seconds. His satires began to go the round in
manuscript; Mr. Aiken, one of the lawyers, "read him into
fame;" he himself was soon welcome in many houses of a better
sort, where his admirable talk, and his manners, which he had
direct from his Maker, except for a brush he gave them at a
country dancing school, completed what his poems had begun.
We have a sight of him at his first visit to Adamhill, in his
ploughman's shoes, coasting around the carpet as though that
were sacred ground. But he soon grew used to carpets and
their owners; and he was still the superior of all whom he
encountered, and ruled the roost in conversation. Such was
the impression made, that a young clergyman, himself a man of
ability, trembled and became confused when he saw Robert
enter the church in which he was to preach. It is not
surprising that the poet determined to publish: he had now
stood the test of some publicity, and under this hopeful
impulse he composed in six winter months the bulk of his more
important poems. Here was a young man who, from a very
humble place, was mounting rapidly; from the cynosure of a
parish, he had become the talk of a county; once the bard of
rural courtships, he was now about to appear as a bound and
printed poet in the world's bookshops.

A few more intimate strokes are necessary to complete the
sketch. This strong young plough-man, who feared no
competitor with the flail, suffered like a fine lady from
sleeplessness and vapours; he would fall into the blackest
melancholies, and be filled with remorse for the past and
terror for the future. He was still not perhaps devoted to
religion, but haunted by it; and at a touch of sickness
prostrated himself before God in what I can only call unmanly
penitence. As he had aspirations beyond his place in the
world, so he had tastes, thoughts, and weaknesses to match.
He loved to walk under a wood to the sound of a winter
tempest; he had a singular tenderness for animals; he carried
a book with him in his pocket when he went abroad, and wore
out in this service two copies of the MAN OF FEELING. With
young people in the field at work he was very long-suffering;
and when his brother Gilbert spoke sharply to them - "O man,
ye are no for young folk," he would say, and give the
defaulter a helping hand and a smile. In the hearts of the
men whom he met, he read as in a book; and, what is yet more
rare, his knowledge of himself equalled his knowledge of
others. There are no truer things said of Burns than what is
to be found in his own letters. Country Don Juan as he was,
he had none of that blind vanity which values itself on what
it is not; he knew his own strength and weakness to a hair:
he took himself boldly for what he was, and, except in
moments of hypochondria, declared himself content.


On the night of Mauchline races, 1785, the young men and
women of the place joined in a penny ball, according to their
custom. In the same set danced Jean Armour, the master-
mason's daughter, and our dark-eyed Don Juan. His dog (not
the immortal Luath, but a successor unknown to fame, CARET
QUIA VATE SACRO), apparently sensible of some neglect,
followed his master to and fro, to the confusion of the
dancers. Some mirthful comments followed; and Jean heard the
poet say to his partner - or, as I should imagine, laughingly
launch the remark to the company at large - that "he wished
he could get any of the lasses to like him as well as his
dog." Some time after, as the girl was bleaching clothes on
Mauchline green, Robert chanced to go by, still accompanied
by his dog; and the dog, "scouring in long excursion,"
scampered with four black paws across the linen. This
brought the two into conversation; when Jean, with a somewhat
hoydenish advance, inquired if "he had yet got any of the
lasses to like him as well as his dog?"

It is one of the misfortunes of the professional Don Juan
that his honour forbids him to refuse battle; he is in life
like the Roman soldier upon duty, or like the sworn physician
who must attend on all diseases. Burns accepted the
provocation; hungry hope reawakened in his heart; here was a
girl - pretty, simple at least, if not honestly stupid, and
plainly not averse to his attentions: it seemed to him once
more as if love might here be waiting him. Had he but known
the truth! for this facile and empty-headed girl had nothing
more in view than a flirtation; and her heart, from the first
and on to the end of her story, was engaged by another man.
Burns once more commenced the celebrated process of
"battering himself into a warm affection;" and the proofs of
his success are to be found in many verses of the period.
Nor did he succeed with himself only; Jean, with her heart
still elsewhere, succumbed to his fascination, and early in
the next year the natural consequence became manifest. It
was a heavy stroke for this unfortunate couple. They had
trifled with life, and were now rudely reminded of life's
serious issues. Jean awoke to the ruin of her hopes; the
best she had now to expect was marriage with a man who was a
stranger to her dearest thoughts; she might now be glad if
she could get what she would never have chosen. As for
Burns, at the stroke of the calamity he recognised that his
voyage of discovery had led him into a wrong hemisphere -
that he was not, and never had been, really in love with
Jean. Hear him in the pressure of the hour. "Against two
things," he writes, "I am as fixed as fate - staying at home,
and owning her conjugally. The first, by heaven, I will not
do! - the last, by hell, I will never do!" And then he adds,
perhaps already in a more relenting temper: "If you see Jean,
tell her I will meet her, so God help me in my hour of need."
They met accordingly; and Burns, touched with her misery,
came down from these heights of independence, and gave her a
written acknowledgment of marriage. It is the punishment of
Don Juanism to create continually false positions - relations
in life which are wrong in themselves, and which it is
equally wrong to break or to perpetuate. This was such a
case. Worldly Wiseman would have laughed and gone his way;
let us be glad that Burns was better counselled by his heart.
When we discover that we can be no longer true, the next best
is to be kind. I daresay he came away from that interview
not very content, but with a glorious conscience; and as he
went homeward, he would sing his favourite, "How are Thy
servants blest, O Lord!" Jean, on the other hand, armed with
her "lines," confided her position to the master-mason, her
father, and his wife. Burns and his brother were then in a
fair way to ruin themselves in their farm; the poet was an
execrable match for any well-to-do country lass; and perhaps
old Armour had an inkling of a previous attachment on his
daughter's part. At least, he was not so much incensed by
her slip from virtue as by the marriage which had been
designed to cover it. Of this he would not hear a word.
Jean, who had besought the acknowledgment only to appease her
parents, and not at all from any violent inclination to the
poet, readily gave up the paper for destruction; and all
parties imagined, although wrongly, that the marriage was
thus dissolved. To a proud man like Burns here was a
crushing blow. The concession which had been wrung from his
pity was now publicly thrown back in his teeth. The Armour
family preferred disgrace to his connection. Since the
promise, besides, he had doubtless been busy "battering
himself" back again into his affection for the girl; and the
blow would not only take him in his vanity, but wound him at
the heart.

He relieved himself in verse; but for such a smarting affront
manuscript poetry was insufficient to console him. He must
find a more powerful remedy in good flesh and blood, and
after this discomfiture, set forth again at once upon his
voyage of discovery in quest of love. It is perhaps one of
the most touching things in human nature, as it is a
commonplace of psychology, that when a man has just lost hope
or confidence in one love, he is then most eager to find and
lean upon another. The universe could not be yet exhausted;
there must be hope and love waiting for him somewhere; and
so, with his head down, this poor, insulted poet ran once
more upon his fate. There was an innocent and gentle
Highland nursery-maid at service in a neighbouring family;
and he had soon battered himself and her into a warm
affection and a secret engagement. Jean's marriage lines had
not been destroyed till March 13, 1786; yet all was settled
between Burns and Mary Campbell by Sunday, May 14, when they
met for the last time, and said farewell with rustic
solemnities upon the banks of Ayr. They each wet their hands
in a stream, and, standing one on either bank, held a Bible
between them as they vowed eternal faith. Then they
exchanged Bibles, on one of which Burns, for greater
security, had inscribed texts as to the binding nature of an
oath; and surely, if ceremony can do aught to fix the
wandering affections, here were two people united for life.
Mary came of a superstitious family, so that she perhaps
insisted on these rites; but they must have been eminently to
the taste of Burns at this period; for nothing would seem
superfluous, and no oath great enough, to stay his tottering

Events of consequence now happened thickly in the poet's
life. His book was announced; the Armours sought to summon
him at law for the aliment of the child; he lay here and
there in hiding to correct the sheets; he was under an
engagement for Jamaica, where Mary was to join him as his
wife; now, he had "orders within three weeks at latest to
repair aboard the NANCY, Captain Smith;" now his chest was
already on the road to Greenock; and now, in the wild autumn
weather on the moorland, he measures verses of farewell:-

"The bursting tears my heart declare;
Farewell the bonny banks of Ayr!"

But the great master dramatist had secretly another intention
for the piece; by the most violent and complicated solution,
in which death and birth and sudden fame all play a part as
interposing deities, the act-drop fell upon a scene of
transformation. Jean was brought to bed of twins, and, by an
amicable arrangement, the Burnses took the boy to bring up by
hand, while the girl remained with her mother. The success
of the book was immediate and emphatic; it put 20 pounds at
once into the author's purse; and he was encouraged upon all
hands to go to Edinburgh and push his success in a second and
larger edition. Third and last in these series of
interpositions, a letter came one day to Mossgiel Farm for
Robert. He went to the window to read it; a sudden change
came over his face, and he left the room without a word.
Years afterwards, when the story began to leak out, his
family understood that he had then learned the death of
Highland Mary. Except in a few poems and a few dry
indications purposely misleading as to date, Burns himself
made no reference to this passage of his life; it was an
adventure of which, for I think sufficient reasons, he
desired to bury the details. Of one thing we may be glad: in
after years he visited the poor girl's mother, and left her
with the impression that he was "a real warm-hearted chield."

Perhaps a month after he received this intelligence, he set
out for Edinburgh on a pony he had borrowed from a friend.
The town that winter was "agog with the ploughman poet."
Robertson, Dugald Stewart, Blair, "Duchess Gordon and all the
gay world," were of his acquaintance. Such a revolution is
not to be found in literary history. He was now, it must be
remembered, twenty-seven years of age; he had fought since
his early boyhood an obstinate battle against poor soil, bad
seed, and inclement seasons, wading deep in Ayrshire mosses,
guiding the plough in the furrow wielding "the thresher's
weary flingin'-tree;" and his education, his diet, and his
pleasures, had been those of a Scotch countryman. Now he
stepped forth suddenly among the polite and learned. We can
see him as he then was, in his boots and buckskins, his blue
coat and waistcoat striped with buff and blue, like a farmer
in his Sunday best; the heavy ploughman's figure firmly
planted on its burly legs; his face full of sense and
shrewdness, and with a somewhat melancholy air of thought,
and his large dark eye "literally glowing" as he spoke. "I
never saw such another eye in a human head," says Walter
Scott, "though I have seen the most distinguished men of my
time." With men, whether they were lords or omnipotent
critics, his manner was plain, dignified, and free from
bashfulness or affectation. If he made a slip, he had the
social courage to pass on and refrain from explanation. He
was not embarrassed in this society, because he read and
judged the men; he could spy snobbery in a titled lord; and,
as for the critics, he dismissed their system in an epigram.
"These gentlemen," said he, "remind me of some spinsters in
my country who spin their thread so fine that it is neither
fit for weft nor woof." Ladies, on the other hand, surprised
him; he was scarce commander of himself in their society; he
was disqualified by his acquired nature as a Don Juan; and
he, who had been so much at his ease with country lasses,
treated the town dames to an extreme of deference. One lady,
who met him at a ball, gave Chambers a speaking sketch of his
demeanour. "His manner was not prepossessing - scarcely, she
thinks, manly or natural. It seemed as if he affected a
rusticity or LANDERTNESS, so that when he said the music was
`bonnie, bonnie,' it was like the expression of a child."
These would be company manners; and doubtless on a slight
degree of intimacy the affectation would grow less. And his
talk to women had always "a turn either to the pathetic or
humorous, which engaged the attention particularly."

The Edinburgh magnates (to conclude this episode at once)
behaved well to Burns from first to last. Were heaven-born
genius to revisit us in similar guise, I am not venturing too
far when I say that he need expect neither so warm a welcome
nor such solid help. Although Burns was only a peasant, and
one of no very elegant reputation as to morals, he was made
welcome to their homes. They gave him a great deal of good
advice, helped him to some five hundred pounds of ready
money, and got him, as soon as he asked it, a place in the
Excise. Burns, on his part, bore the elevation with perfect
dignity; and with perfect dignity returned, when the time had
come, into a country privacy of life. His powerful sense
never deserted him, and from the first he recognised that his
Edinburgh popularity was but an ovation and the affair of a
day. He wrote a few letters in a high-flown, bombastic vein
of gratitude; but in practice he suffered no man to intrude
upon his self-respect. On the other hand, he never turned
his back, even for a moment, on his old associates; and he
was always ready to sacrifice an acquaintance to a friend,
although the acquaintance were a duke. He would be a bold
man who should promise similar conduct in equally exacting
circumstances. It was, in short, an admirable appearance on
the stage of life - socially successful, intimately self-
respecting, and like a gentleman from first to last.

In the present study, this must only be taken by the way,
while we return to Burns's love affairs. Even on the road to
Edinburgh he had seized upon the opportunity of a flirtation,
and had carried the "battering" so far that when next he
moved from town, it was to steal two days with this anonymous
fair one. The exact importance to Burns of this affair may
be gathered from the song in which he commemorated its
occurrence. "I love the dear lassie," he sings, "because she
loves me;" or, in the tongue of prose: "Finding an
opportunity, I did not hesitate to profit by it, and even
now, if it returned, I should not hesitate to profit by it
again." A love thus founded has no interest for mortal man.
Meantime, early in the winter, and only once, we find him
regretting Jean in his correspondence. "Because" - such is
his reason - "because he does not think he will ever meet so
delicious an armful again;" and then, after a brief excursion
into verse, he goes straight on to describe a new episode in
the voyage of discovery with the daughter of a Lothian farmer
for a heroine. I must ask the reader to follow all these
references to his future wife; they are essential to the
comprehension of Burns's character and fate. In June, we
find him back at Mauchline, a famous man. There, the Armour
family greeted him with a "mean, servile compliance," which
increased his former disgust. Jean was not less compliant; a
second time the poor girl submitted to the fascination of the
man whom she did not love, and whom she had so cruelly
insulted little more than a year ago; and, though Burns took
advantage of her weakness, it was in the ugliest and most
cynical spirit, and with a heart absolutely indifferent judge
of this by a letter written some twenty days after his return
- a letter to my mind among the most degrading in the whole
collection - a letter which seems to have been inspired by a
boastful, libertine bagman. "I am afraid," it goes, "I have
almost ruined one source, the principal one, indeed, of my
former happiness - the eternal propensity I always had to
fall in love. My heart no more glows with feverish rapture;
I have no paradisiacal evening interviews." Even the process
of "battering" has failed him, you perceive. Still he had
some one in his eye - a lady, if you please, with a fine
figure and elegant manners, and who had "seen the politest
quarters in Europe." "I frequently visited her," he writes,
"and after passing regularly the intermediate degrees between
the distant formal bow and the familiar grasp round the
waist, I ventured, in my careless way, to talk of friendship
in rather ambiguous terms; and after her return to - , I
wrote her in the same terms. Miss, construing my remarks
further than even I intended, flew off in a tangent of female
dignity and reserve, like a mounting lark in an April
morning; and wrote me an answer which measured out very

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