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Hearts of Controversy by Alice Meynell

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David Price, email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk

Hearts of Controversy


Some Thoughts of a Reader of Tennyson
Dickens as a Man of Letters
Swinburne's Lyrical Poetry
Charlotte and Emily Bronte
The Century of Moderation


Fifty years after Tennyson's birth he was saluted a great poet by
that unanimous acclamation which includes mere clamour. Fifty
further years, and his centenary was marked by a new detraction. It
is sometimes difficult to distinguish the obscure but not unmajestic
law of change from the sorry custom of reaction. Change hastes not
and rests not, reaction beats to and fro, flickering about the
moving mind of the world. Reaction--the paltry precipitancy of the
multitude--rather than the novelty of change, has brought about a
ferment and corruption of opinion on Tennyson's poetry. It may be
said that opinion is the same now as it was in the middle of the
nineteenth century--the same, but turned. All that was not worth
having of admiration then has soured into detraction now. It is of
no more significance, acrid, than it was, sweet. What the herding
of opinion gave yesterday it is able to take away to-day, that and
no more.

But besides the common favour-disfavour of the day, there is the
tendency of educated opinion, once disposed to accept the whole of
Tennyson's poetry as though he could not be "parted from himself,"
and now disposed to reject the whole, on the same plea. But if ever
there was a poet who needed to be thus "parted"--the word is his
own--it is he who wrote both narrowly for his time and liberally for
all time, and who--this is the more important character of his
poetry--had both a style and a manner: a masterly style, a magical
style, a too dainty manner, nearly a trick; a noble landscape and in
it figures something ready-made. He is a subject for our
alternatives of feeling, nay, our conflicts, as is hardly another
poet. We may deeply admire and wonder, and, in another line or
hemistich, grow indifferent or slightly averse. He sheds the
luminous suns of dreams upon men & women who would do well with
footlights; waters their way with rushing streams of Paradise and
cataracts from visionary hills; laps them in divine darkness; leads
them into those touching landscapes, "the lovely that are not
beloved;" long grey fields, cool sombre summers, and meadows
thronged with unnoticeable flowers; speeds his carpet knight--or is
that hardly a just name for one whose sword "smites" so well?--upon
a carpet of authentic wild flowers; pushes his rovers, in costume,
from off blossoming shores, on the keels of old romance. The style
and the manner, I have said, run side by side. If we may take one
poet's too violent phrase, and consider poets to be "damned to
poetry," why, then, Tennyson is condemned by a couple of sentences,
"to run concurrently." We have the style and the manner locked
together at times in a single stanza, locked and yet not mingled.
There should be no danger for the more judicious reader lest
impatience at the peculiar Tennyson trick should involve the great
Tennyson style in a sweep of protest. Yet the danger has in fact
proved real within the present and recent years, and seems about to
threaten still more among the less judicious. But it will not long
prevail. The vigorous little nation of lovers of poetry, alive one
by one within the vague multitude of the nation of England, cannot
remain finally insensible to what is at once majestic and magical in
Tennyson. For those are not qualities they neglect in their other
masters. How, valuing singleness of heart in the sixteenth century,
splendour in the seventeenth, composure in the eighteenth; how, with
a spiritual ear for the note--commonly called Celtic, albeit it is
the most English thing in the world--the wild wood note of the
remoter song; how, with the educated sense of style, the liberal
sense of ease; how, in a word, fostering Letters and loving Nature,
shall that choice nation within England long disregard these virtues
in the nineteenth-century master? How disregard him, for more than
the few years of reaction, for the insignificant reasons of his
bygone taste, his insipid courtliness, his prettiness, or what not?
It is no dishonour to Tennyson, for it is a dishonour to our
education, to disparage a poet who wrote but the two--had he written
no more of their kind--lines of "The Passing of Arthur," of which,
before I quote them, I will permit myself the personal remembrance
of a great contemporary author's opinion. Mr. Meredith, speaking to
me of the high-water mark of English style in poetry and prose,
cited those lines as topmost in poetry:-

On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

Here is no taint of manner, no pretty posture or habit, but the
simplicity of poetry and the simplicity of Nature, something on the
yonder side of imagery. It is to be noted that this noble passage
is from Tennyson's generally weakest kind of work--blank verse; and
should thus be a sign that the laxity of so many parts of the
"Idylls" and other blank verse poems was a quite unnecessary fault.
Lax this form of poetry undoubtedly is with Tennyson. His blank
verse is often too easy; it cannot be said to fly, for the
paradoxical reason that it has no weight; it slips by, without
halting or tripping indeed, but also without the friction of the
movement of vitality. This quality, which is so near to a fault,
this quality of ease, has come to be disregarded in our day. That
Horace Walpole overpraised this virtue is not good reason that we
should hold it for a vice. Yet we do more than undervalue it; and
several of our authors, in prose and poetry, seem to find much merit
in the manifest difficulty; they will not have a key to turn, though
closely and tightly, in oiled wards; let the reluctant iron catch
and grind, or they would even prefer to pick you the lock.

But though we may think it time that the quality once over-prized
should be restored to a more proportionate honour, our great poet
Tennyson shows us that of all merits ease is, unexpectedly enough,
the most dangerous. It is not only, with him, that the wards are
oiled, it is also that the key turns loosely. This is true of much
of the beautiful "Idylls," but not of their best passages, nor of
such magnificent heroic verse as that of the close of "A Vision of
Sin," or of "Lucretius." As to the question of ease, we cannot have
a better maxim than Coventry Patmore's saying that poetry "should
confess, but not suffer from, its difficulties." And we could
hardly find a more curious example of the present love of verse that
not only confesses but brags of difficulties, and not only suffers
from them but cries out under the suffering, and shows us the
grimace of the pain of it, than I have lighted upon in the critical
article of a recent quarterly. Reviewing the book of a "poet" who
manifestly has an insuperable difficulty in hacking his work into
ten-syllable blocks, and keeping at the same time any show of
respect for the national grammar, the critic gravely invites his
reader to "note" the phrase "neath cliffs" (apparently for "beneath
the cliffs") as "characteristic." Shall the reader indeed "note"
such a matter? Truly he has other things to do. This is by the
way. Tennyson is always an artist, and the finish of his work is
one of the principal notes of his versification. How this finish
comports with the excessive ease of his prosody remains his own
peculiar secret. Ease, in him, does not mean that he has any
unhandsome slovenly ways. On the contrary, he resembles rather the
warrior with the pouncet box. It is the man of "neath cliffs" who
will not be at the trouble of making a place for so much as a
definite article. Tennyson certainly WORKED, and the exceeding ease
of his blank verse comes perhaps of this little paradox--that he
makes somewhat too much show of the hiding of his art.

In the first place the poet with the great welcome style and the
little unwelcome manner, Tennyson is, in the second place, the
modern poet who withstood France. (That is, of course, modern
France--France since the Renaissance. From medieval Provence there
is not an English poet who does not own inheritance.) It was some
time about the date of the Restoration that modern France began to
be modish in England. A ruffle at the Court of Charles, a couplet
in the ear of Pope, a tour de phrase from Mme. de Sevigne much to
the taste of Walpole, later the good example of French painting--
rich interest paid for the loan of our Constable's initiative--later
still a scattering of French taste, French critical business, over
all the shallow places of our literature--these have all been phases
of a national vanity of ours, an eager and anxious fluttering or
jostling to be foremost and French. Matthew Arnold's essay on
criticism fostered this anxiety, and yet I find in this work of his
a lack of easy French knowledge, such as his misunderstanding of the
word brutalite, which means no more, or little more, than roughness.
Matthew Arnold, by the way, knew so little of the French character
as to be altogether ignorant of French provincialism, French
practical sense, and French "convenience." "Convenience" is his
dearest word of contempt, "practical sense" his next dearest, and he
throws them a score of times in the teeth of the English. Strange
is the irony of the truth. For he bestows those withering words on
the nation that has the fifty religions, and attributes "ideas"--as
the antithesis of "convenience" and "practical sense"--to the nation
that has the fifty sauces. And not for a moment does he suspect
himself of this blunder, so manifest as to be disconcerting to his
reader. One seems to hear an incurably English accent in all this,
which indeed is reported, by his acquaintance, of Matthew Arnold's
actual speaking of French. It is certain that he has not the
interest of familiarity with the language, but only the interest of
strangeness. Now, while we meet the effect of the French coat in
our seventeenth century, of the French light verse in our earlier
eighteenth century, and of French philosophy in our later, of the
French revolution in our Wordsworth, of the French painting in our
nineteenth-century studios, of French fiction--and the dregs are
still running--in our libraries, of French poetry in our Swinburne,
of French criticism in our Arnold, Tennyson shows the effect of
nothing French whatever. Not the Elizabethans, not Shakespeare, not
Jeremy Taylor, not Milton, not Shelley were (in their art, not in
their matter) more insular in their time. France, by the way, has
more than appreciated the homage of Tennyson's contemporaries;
Victor Hugo avers, in Les Miserables, that our people imitate his
people in all things, and in particular he rouses in us a delighted
laughter of surprise by asserting that the London street-boy
imitates the Parisian street-boy. There is, in fact, something of a
street-boy in some of our late more literary mimicries.

We are apt to judge a poet too exclusively by his imagery. Tennyson
is hardly a great master of imagery. He has more imagination than
imagery. He sees the thing, with so luminous a mind's eye, that it
is sufficient to him; he needs not to see it more beautifully by a
similitude. "A clear-walled city" is enough; "meadows" are enough--
indeed Tennyson reigns for ever over all meadows; "the happy birds
that change their sky"; "Bright Phosphor, fresher for the night";
"Twilight and evening bell"; "the stillness of the central sea";
"that friend of mine who lives in God"; "the solitary morning";
"Four grey walls and four grey towers"; "Watched by weeping queens";
these are enough, illustrious, and needing not illustration.

If we do not see Tennyson to be the lonely, the first, the ONE that
he is, this is because of the throng of his following, though a
number that are of that throng hardly know, or else would deny,
their flocking. But he added to our literature not only in the way
of cumulation, but by the advent of his single genius. He is one of
the few fountain-head poets of the world. The new landscape which
was his--the lovely unbeloved--is, it need hardly be said, the
matter of his poetry and not its inspiration. It may have seemed to
some readers that it is the novelty, in poetry, of this homely
unscenic scenery--this Lincolnshire quality--that accounts for
Tennyson's freshness of vision. But it is not so. Tennyson is
fresh also in scenic scenery; he is fresh with the things that
others have outworn; mountains, desert islands, castles, elves, what
you will that is conventional. Where are there more divinely poetic
lines than those, which will never be wearied with quotation,
beginning, "A splendour falls"? What castle walls have stood in
such a light of old romance, where in all poetry is there a sound
wilder than that of those faint "horns of elfland"? Here is the
remoteness, the beyond, the light delirium, not of disease but of
more rapturous and delicate health, the closer secret of poetry.
This most English of modern poets has been taunted with his mere
gardens. He loved, indeed, the "lazy lilies," of the exquisite
garden of "The Gardener's Daughter," but he betook his ecstatic
English spirit also far afield and overseas; to the winter places of
his familiar nightingale:-

When first the liquid note beloved of men
Comes flying over many a windy wave;

to the lotus-eaters' shore; to the outland landscapes of "The Palace
of Art"--the "clear-walled city by the sea," the "pillared town,"
the "full-fed river"; to the "pencilled valleys" of Monte Rosa; to
the "vale in Ida"; to that tremendous upland in the "Vision of

At last I heard a voice upon the slope
Cry to the summit, Is there any hope?
To which an answer pealed from that high land,
But in a tongue no man could understand.

The Cleopatra of "The Dream of Fair Women" is but a ready-made
Cleopatra, but when in the shades of her forest she remembers the
sun of the world, she leaves the page of Tennyson's poorest manner
and becomes one with Shakespeare's queen:-

We drank the Libyan sun to sleep.

Nay, there is never a passage of manner but a great passage of style
rebukes our dislike and recalls our heart again. The dramas, less
than the lyrics, and even less than the "Idylls," are matter for the
true Tennysonian. Their action is, at its liveliest rather
vivacious than vital, and the sentiment, whether in "Becket" or in
"Harold," is not only modern, it is fixed within Tennyson's own
peculiar score or so of years. But that he might have answered, in
drama, to a stronger stimulus, a sharper spur, than his time
administered, may be guessed from a few passages of "Queen Mary,"
and from the dramatic terror of the arrow in "Harold." The line has
appeared in prophetic fragments in earlier scenes, and at the moment
of doom it is the outcry of unquestionable tragedy:-

Sanguelac--Sanguelac--the arrow--the arrow!--Away!

Tennyson is also an eminently all-intelligible poet. Those whom he
puzzles or confounds must be a flock with an incalculable liability
to go wide of any road--"down all manner of streets," as the
desperate drover cries in the anecdote. But what are streets,
however various, to the ways of error that a great flock will take
in open country--minutely, individually wrong, making mistakes upon
hardly perceptible occasions, or none--"minute fortuitous variations
in any possible direction," as used to be said in exposition of the
Darwinian theory? A vast outlying public, like that of Tennyson,
may make you as many blunders as it has heads; but the accurate
clear poet proved his meaning to all accurate perceptions. Where he
hesitates, his is the sincere pause of process and uncertainty. It
has been said that Tennyson, midway between the student of material
science and the mystic, wrote and thought according to an age that
wavered, with him, between the two minds, and that men have now
taken one way or the other. Is this indeed true, and are men so
divided and so sure? Or have they not rather already turned, in
numbers, back to the parting, or meeting, of eternal roads? The
religious question that arises upon experience of death has never
been asked with more sincerity and attention than by him. If "In
Memoriam" represents the mind of yesterday it represents no less the
mind of to-morrow. It is true that pessimism and insurrection in
their ignobler forms--nay, in the ignoblest form of a fashion--have,
or had but yesterday, the control of the popular pen. Trivial
pessimism or trivial optimism, it matters little which prevails.
For those who follow the one habit to-day would have followed the
other in a past generation. Fleeting as they are, it cannot be
within their competence to neglect or reject the philosophy of "In
Memoriam." To the dainty stanzas of that poem, it is true, no great
struggle of reasoning was to be committed, nor would any such
dispute be judiciously entrusted to the rhymes of a song of sorrow.
Tennyson here proposes, rather than closes with, the ultimate
question of our destiny. The conflict, for which he proves himself
strong enough, is in that magnificent poem of a thinker,
"Lucretius." But so far as "In Memoriam" attempts, weighs, falters,
and confides, it is true to the experience of human anguish and

I say intellect advisedly. Not for him such blunders of thought as
Coleridge's in "The Ancient Mariner" or Wordsworth's in "Hartleap
Well." Coleridge names the sun, moon, and stars as when, in a
dream, the sleeping imagination is threatened with some significant
illness. We see them in his great poem as apparitions. Coleridge's
senses are infinitely and transcendently spiritual. But a candid
reader must be permitted to think the mere story silly. The
wedding-guest might rise the morrow morn a sadder but he assuredly
did not rise a wiser man.

As for Wordsworth, the most beautiful stanzas of "Hartleap Well" are
fatally rebuked by the truths of Nature. He shows us the ruins of
an aspen wood, a blighted hollow, a dreary place, forlorn because an
innocent stag, hunted, had there broken his heart in a leap from the
rocks above; grass would not grow there.

This beast not unobserved by Nature fell,
His death was mourned by sympathy divine.

And the signs of that sympathy are cruelly asserted by the poet to
be these woodland ruins--cruelly, because the daily sight of the
world blossoming over the agonies of beast and bird is made less
tolerable to us by such a fiction.

The Being that is in the clouds and air
. . .
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creature whom He loves.

The poet offers us as a proof of that "reverential care," the
visible alteration of Nature at the scene of suffering--an
alteration we have to dispense with every day we pass in the woods.
We are tempted to ask whether Wordsworth himself believed in a
sympathy he asks us--on such grounds!--to believe in? Did he think
his faith to be worthy of no more than a fictitious sign and a false

Nowhere in the whole of Tennyson's thought is there such an attack
upon our reason and our heart. He is more serious than the solemn

IN MEMORIAM, with all else that Tennyson wrote, tutors, with here
and there a subtle word, this nature-loving nation to perceive land,
light, sky, and ocean, as he perceived. To this we return, upon
this we dwell. He has been to us, firstly, the poet of two
geniuses--a small and an immense; secondly, the modern poet who
answered in the negative that most significant modern question,
French or not French? But he was, before the outset of all our
study of him, of all our love of him, the poet of landscape, and
this he is more dearly than pen can describe him. This eternal
character of his is keen in the verse that is winged to meet a
homeward ship with her "dewy decks," and in the sudden island

The clover sod,
That takes the sunshine and the rains,
Or where the kneeling hamlet drains
The chalice of the grapes of God.

It is poignant in the garden-night:-

A breeze began to tremble o'er
The large leaves of the sycamore,
. . .
And gathering freshlier overhead,
Rocked the full-foliaged elm, and swung
The heavy-folded rose, and flung
The lilies to and fro, and said
"The dawn, the dawn," and died away.

His are the exalted senses that sensual poets know nothing of. I
think the sense of hearing as well as the sense of sight, has never
been more greatly exalted than by Tennyson:-

As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry.

As to this garden-character so much decried I confess that the
"lawn" does not generally delight me, the word nor the thing. But
in Tennyson's page the word is wonderful, as though it had never
been dull: "The mountain lawn was dewy-dark." It is not that he
brings the mountains too near or ranks them in his own peculiar
garden-plot, but that the word withdraws, withdraws to summits,
withdraws into dreams; the lawn is aloft, alone, and as wild as
ancient snow. It is the same with many another word or phrase
changed, by passing into his vocabulary, into something rich and
strange. His own especially is the March month--his "roaring moon."
His is the spirit of the dawning month of flowers and storms; the
golden, soft names of daffodil and crocus are caught by the gale as
you speak them in his verse, in a fine disproportion with the energy
and gloom. His was a new apprehension of nature, an increase in the
number, and not only in the sum, of our national apprehensions of
poetry in nature. Unaware of a separate angel of modern poetry is
he who is insensible to the Tennyson note--the new note that we
reaffirm even with the notes of Vaughan, Traherne, Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Blake well in our ears--the Tennyson note of splendour,
all-distinct. He showed the perpetually transfigured landscape in
transfiguring words. He is the captain of our dreams. Others have
lighted a candle in England, he lit a sun. Through him our daily
suns, and also the backward and historic suns long since set, which
he did not sing, are magnified; and he bestows upon us an exalted
retrospection. Through him Napoleon's sun of Austerlitz rises, for
us, with a more brilliant menace upon arms and the plain; through
him Fielding's "most melancholy sun" lights the dying man to the
setting-forth on that last voyage of his with such an immortal
gleam, denying hope, as would not have lighted, for us, the memory
of that seaward morning, had our poetry not undergone the
illumination, the transcendent vision, of Tennyson's genius.

Emerson knew that the poet speaks adequately then only when he
speaks "a little wildly, or with the flower of the mind." Tennyson,
the clearest-headed of poets, is our wild poet; wild,
notwithstanding that little foppery we know of in him--that walking
delicately, like Agag; wild, notwithstanding the work, the ease, the
neatness, the finish; notwithstanding the assertion of manliness
which, in asserting, somewhat misses that mark; a wilder poet than
the rough, than the sensual, than the defiant, than the accuser,
than the denouncer. Wild flowers are his--great poet--wild winds,
wild lights, wild heart, wild eyes!


It was said for many years, until the reversal that now befalls the
sayings of many years had happened to this also, that Thackeray was
the unkind satirist and Dickens the kind humourist. The truth seems
to be that Dickens imagined more evil people than did Thackeray, but
that he had an eager faith in good ones. Nothing places him so
entirely out of date as his trust in human sanctity, his love of it,
his hope for it, his leap at it. He saw it in a woman's face first
met, and drew it to himself in a man's hand first grasped. He
looked keenly for it. And if he associated minor degrees of
goodness with any kind of folly or mental ineptitude, he did not so
relate sanctity; though he gave it, for companion, ignorance; and
joined the two, in Joe Gargery, most tenderly. We might paraphrase,
in regard to these two great authors, Dr. Johnson's famous sentence:
"Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no joys." Dickens has
many scoundrels, but Thackeray has no saints. Helen Pendennis is
not holy, for she is unjust and cruel; Amelia is not holy, for she
is an egoist in love; Lady Castlewood is not holy, for she too is
cruel; and even Lady Jane is not holy, for she is jealous; nor is
Colonel Newcome holy, for he is haughty; nor Dobbin, for he turns
with a taunt upon a plain sister; nor Esmond, for he squanders his
best years in love for a material beauty; and these are the best of
his good people. And readers have been taught to praise the work of
him who makes none perfect; one does not meet perfect people in
trains or at dinner, and this seemed good cause that the novelist
should be praised for his moderation; it seemed to imitate the usual
measure and moderation of nature.

But Charles Dickens closed with a divine purpose divinely different.
He consented to the counsels of perfection. And thus he made Joe
Gargery, not a man one might easily find in a forge; and Esther
Summerson, not a girl one may easily meet at a dance; and Little
Dorrit, who does not come to do a day's sewing; not that the man and
the women are inconceivable, but that they are unfortunately
improbable. They are creatures created through a creating mind that
worked its six days for the love of good, and never rested until the
seventh, the final Sabbath. But granting that they are the
counterpart, the heavenly side, of caricature, this is not to
condemn them. Since when has caricature ceased to be an art good
for man--an honest game between him and nature? It is a tenable
opinion that frank caricature is a better incident of art than the
mere exaggeration which is the more modern practice. The words mean
the same thing in their origin--an overloading. But, as we now
generally delimit the words, they differ. Caricature, when it has
the grotesque inspiration, makes for laughter, and when it has the
celestial, makes for admiration; in either case there is a good
understanding between the author and the reader, or between the
draughtsman and the spectator. We need not, for example, suppose
that Ibsen sat in a room surrounded by a repeating pattern of his
hair and whiskers on the wallpaper, but it makes us most exceedingly
mirthful and joyous to see him thus seated in Mr. Max Beerbohm's
drawing; and perhaps no girl ever went through life without
harbouring a thought of self, but it is very good for us all to know
that such a girl was thought of by Dickens, that he loved his
thought, and that she is ultimately to be traced, through Dickens,
to God.

But exaggeration establishes no good understanding between the
reader and the author. It is a solemn appeal to our credulity, and
we are right to resent it. It is the violence of a weakling hand--
the worst manner of violence. Exaggeration is conspicuous in the
newer poetry, and is so far, therefore, successful, conspicuousness
being its aim. But it was also the vice of Swinburne, and was the
bad example he set to the generation that thought his tunings to be
the finest "music." For instance, in an early poem he intends to
tell us how a man who loved a woman welcomed the sentence that
condemned him to drown with her, bound, his impassioned breast
against hers, abhorring. He might have convinced us of that welcome
by one phrase of the profound exactitude of genius. But he makes
his man cry out for the greatest bliss and the greatest imaginable
glory to be bestowed upon the judge who pronounces the sentence.
And this is merely exaggeration. One takes pleasure in rebuking the
false ecstasy by a word thus prim and prosaic. The poet intended to
impose upon us, and he fails; we "withdraw our attention," as Dr.
Johnson did when the conversation became foolish. In truth we do
more, for we resent exaggeration if we care for our English
language. For exaggeration writes relaxed, and not elastic, words
and verses; and it is possible that the language suffers something,
at least temporarily--during the life of a couple of generations,
let us say--from the loss of elasticity and rebound brought about by
such strain. Moreover, exaggeration has always to outdo itself
progressively. There should have been a Durdles to tell this
Swinburne that the habit of exaggerating, like that of boasting,
"grows upon you."

It may be added that later poetry shows us an instance of
exaggeration in the work of that major poet, Mr. Lascelles
Abercrombie. His violence and vehemence, his extremity, are
generally signs not of weakness but of power; and yet once he
reaches a breaking-point that power should never know. This is
where his Judith holds herself to be so smirched and degraded by the
proffer of a reverent love (she being devoted to one only, a dead
man who had her heart) that thenceforth no bar is left to her entire
self-sacrifice to the loathed enemy Holofernes. To this, too, the
prim rebuke is the just one, a word for the mouth of governesses:
"My dear, you exaggerate."

It may be briefly said that exaggeration takes for granted some
degree of imbecility in the reader, whereas caricature takes for
granted a high degree of intelligence. Dickens appeals to our
intelligence in all his caricature, whether heavenly, as in Joe
Gargery, or impish, as in Mrs. Micawber. The word "caricature" that
is used a thousand times to reproach him is the word that does him
singular honour.

If I may define my own devotion to Dickens, it may be stated as
chiefly, though not wholly, admiration of his humour, his dramatic
tragedy, and his watchfulness over inanimate things and landscape.
Passages of his books that are ranged otherwise than under those
characters often leave me out of the range of their appeal or else
definitely offend me. And this is not for the customary reason--
that Dickens could not draw a gentleman, that Dickens could not draw
a lady. It matters little whether he could or not. But as a fact
he did draw a gentleman, and drew him excellently well, in Cousin
Feenix, as Mr. Chesterton has decided. The question of the lady we
may waive; if it is difficult to prove a negative, it is difficult
also to present one; and to the making, or producing, or liberating,
or detaching, or exalting, of the character of a lady there enter
many negatives; and Dickens was an obvious and a positive man.
Esther Summerson is a lady, but she is so much besides that her
ladyhood does not detach itself from her sainthood and her
angelhood, so as to be conspicuous--if, indeed, conspicuousness may
be properly predicated of the quality of a lady. It is a
conventional saying that sainthood and angelhood include the quality
of a lady, but that saying is not true; a lady has a great number of
negatives all her own, and also some things positive that are not at
all included in goodness. However this may be--and it is not
important--Dickens, the genial Dickens, makes savage sport of women.
Such a company of envious dames and damsels cannot be found among
the persons of the satirist Thackeray. Kate Nickleby's beauty
brings upon her at first sight the enmity of her workshop
companions; in the innocent pages of "Pickwick" the aunt is jealous
of the niece, and the niece retorts by wounding the vanity of the
aunt as keenly as she may; and so forth through early books and
late. He takes for granted that the women, old and young, who are
not his heroines, wage this war within the sex, being disappointed
by defect of nature and fortune. Dickens is master of wit, humour,
and derision; and it must be confessed that his derision is
abundant, and is cast upon an artificially exposed and helpless
people; that is, he, a man, derides the women who miss what a man
declared to be their "whole existence."

The advice which M. Rodin received in his youth from Constant--
"Learn to see the other side; never look at forms only in extent;
learn to see them always in relief"--is the contrary of the counsel
proper for a reader of Dickens. That counsel should be, "Do not
insist upon seeing the immortal figures of comedy 'in the round.'
You are to be satisfied with their face value, the face of two
dimensions. It is not necessary that you should seize Mr. Pecksniff
from beyond, and grasp the whole man and his destinies." The
hypocrite is a figure dreadful and tragic, a shape of horror; and
Mr. Pecksniff is a hypocrite, and a bright image of heart-easing
comedy. For comic fiction cannot exist without some such paradox.
Without it, where would our laugh be in response to the generous
genius which gives us Mr. Pecksniff's parenthesis to the mention of
sirens ("Pagan, I regret to say"); and the scene in which Mr.
Pecksniff, after a stormy domestic scene within, goes as it were
accidentally to the door to admit the rich kinsman he wishes to
propitiate? "Then Mr. Pecksniff, gently warbling a rustic stave,
put on his garden hat, seized a spade, and opened the street door,
as if he thought he had, from his vineyard, heard a modest rap, but
was not quite certain." The visitor had thundered at the door while
outcries of family strife had been rising in the house. "'It is an
ancient pursuit, gardening. Primitive, my dear sir; for, if I am
not mistaken, Adam was the first of the calling. My Eve, I grieve
to say, is no more, sir; but' (and here he pointed to his spade, and
shook his head, as if he were not cheerful without an effort) 'but I
do a little bit of Adam still.' He had by this time got them into
the best parlour, where the portrait by Spiller and the bust by
Spoker were." And again, Mr. Pecksniff, hospitable at the supper
table: "'This,' he said, in allusion to the party, not the wine,
'is a Mingling that repays one for much disappointment and vexation.
Let us be merry.' Here he took a captain's biscuit. 'It is a poor
heart that never rejoices; and our hearts are not poor. No!' With
such stimulants to merriment did he beguile the time and do the
honours of the table." Moreover it is a mournful thing and an
inexplicable, that a man should be as mad as Mr. Dick. None the
less is it a happy thing for any reader to watch Mr. Dick while
David explains his difficulty to Traddles. Mr. Dick was to be
employed in copying, but King Charles the First could not be kept
out of the manuscripts; "Mr. Dick in the meantime looking very
deferentially and seriously at Traddles, and sucking his thumb."
And the amours of the gentleman in gaiters who threw the vegetable-
marrows over the garden wall. Mr. F.'s aunt, again! And Augustus
Moddle, our own Moddle, whom a great French critic most justly and
accurately brooded over. "Augustus, the gloomy maniac," says Taine,
"makes us shudder." A good medical diagnosis. Long live the
logical French intellect!

Truly, Humour talks in his own language, nay, his own dialect,
whereas Passion and Pity speak the universal tongue.

It is strange--it seems to me deplorable--that Dickens himself was
not content to leave his wonderful hypocrite--one who should stand
imperishable in comedy--in the two dimensions of his own admirable
art. After he had enjoyed his own Pecksniff, tasting him with the
"strenuous tongue" of Keats's voluptuary bursting "joy's grapes
against his palate fine," Dickens most unfairly gives himself the
other and incompatible joy of grasping his Pecksniff in the third
dimension, seizes him "in the round," horsewhips him out of all
keeping, and finally kicks him out of a splendid art of fiction into
a sorry art of "poetical justice," a Pecksniff not only defeated but

And yet Dickens's retribution upon sinners is a less fault than his
reforming them. It is truly an act denoting excessive simplicity of
mind in him. He never veritably allows his responsibility as a man
to lapse. Men ought to be good, or else to become good, and he does
violence to his own excellent art, and yields it up to his sense of
morality. Ah, can we measure by years the time between that day and
this? Is the fastidious, the impartial, the non-moral novelist only
the grandchild, and not the remote posterity, of Dickens, who would
not leave Scrooge to his egoism, or Gradgrind to his facts, or Mercy
Pecksniff to her absurdity, or Dombey to his pride? Nay, who makes
Micawber finally to prosper? Truly, the most unpardonable thing
Dickens did in those deplorable last chapters of his was the
prosperity of Mr. Micawber. "Of a son, in difficulties"--the
perfect Micawber nature is respected as to his origin, and then
perverted as to his end. It is a pity that Mr. Peggotty ever came
back to England with such tidings. And our last glimpse of the
emigrants had been made joyous by the sight of the young Micawbers
on the eve of emigration; "every child had its own wooden spoon
attached to its body by a strong line," in preparation for Colonial
life. And then Dickens must needs go behind the gay scenes, and
tell us that the long and untiring delight of the book was over.
Mr. Micawber, in the Colonies, was never again to make punch with
lemons, in a crisis of his fortunes, and "resume his peeling with a
desperate air"; nor to observe the expression of his friends' faces
during Mrs. Micawber's masterly exposition of the financial
situation or of the possibilities of the coal trade; nor to eat
walnuts out of a paper bag what time the die was cast and all was
over. Alas! nothing was over until Mr. Micawber's pecuniary
liabilities were over, and the perfect comedy turned into dulness,
the joyous impossibility of a figure of immortal fun into cold

There are several such late or last chapters that one would gladly
cut away: that of Mercy Pecksniff's pathos, for example; that of
Mr. Dombey's installation in his daughter's home; that which
undeceives us as to Mr. Boffin's antic disposition. But how true
and how whole a heart it was that urged these unlucky conclusions!
How shall we venture to complain? The hand that made its Pecksniff
in pure wit, has it not the right to belabour him in earnest--albeit
a kind of earnest that disappoints us? And Mr. Dombey is Dickens's
own Dombey, and he must do what he will with that finely wrought
figure of pride. But there is a little irony in the fact that
Dickens leaves more than one villain to his orderly fate for whom we
care little either way; it is nothing to us, whom Carker never
convinced, that the train should catch him, nor that the man with
the moustache and the nose, who did but weary us, should be crushed
by the falling house. Here the end holds good in art, but the art
was not good from the first. But then, again, neither does Bill
Sikes experience a change of heart, nor Jonas Chuzzlewit; and the
end of each is most excellently told.

George Meredith said that the most difficult thing to write in
fiction was dialogue. But there is surely one thing at least as
difficult--a thing so rarely well done that a mere reader might
think it to be more difficult than dialogue; and that is the telling
WHAT HAPPENED. Something of the fatal languor and preoccupation
that persist beneath all the violence of our stage--our national
undramatic character--is perceptible in the narrative of our
literature. The things the usual modern author says are
proportionately more energetically produced than those he tells.
But Dickens, being simple and dramatic and capable of one thing at a
time, and that thing whole, tells us what happened with a perfect
speed which has neither hurry nor delays. Those who saw him act
found him a fine actor, and this we might know by reading the murder
in Oliver Twist, the murder in Martin Chuzzlewit, the coming of the
train upon Carker, the long moment of recognition when Pip sees his
guest, the convict, reveal himself in his chambers at night. The
swift spirit, the hammering blow of his narrative, drive the great
storm in David Copperfield through the poorest part of the book--
Steerforth's story. There is surely no greater gale to be read of
than this: from the first words, "'Don't you think that,' I said to
the coachman, 'a very remarkable sky?'" to the end of a magnificent
chapter. "Flying clouds tossed up into most remarkable heaps,
suggesting greater heights in the clouds than there were depths
below them. . . There had been a wind all day; and it was rising
then with an extraordinary great sound . . . Long before we saw the
sea, its spray was on our lips . . . The water was out over the flat
country, and every sheet and puddle lashed its banks, and had its
stress of little breakers. When we came within sight of the sea,
the waves on the horizon, caught at intervals above the boiling
abyss, were like glimpses of another shore, with towers and
buildings. . . The people came to their doors all aslant, and with
streaming hair." David dreams of a cannonade, when at last he
"fell--off a tower and down a precipice--into the depths of sleep."
In the morning, "the wind might have lulled a little, though not
more sensibly than if the cannonading I had dreamed of had been
diminished by the silencing of half a dozen guns out of hundreds."
"It went from me with a shock, like a ball from a rifle," says David
in another place, after the visit of a delirious impulse; here is
the volley of departure, the shock of passion vanishing more
perceptibly than it came.

The tempest in David Copperfield combines Dickens's dramatic tragedy
of narrative with his wonderful sense of sea and land. But here are
landscapes in quietness: "There has been rain this afternoon, and a
wintry shudder goes among the little pools in the cracked, uneven
flag-stones. . . Some of the leaves, in a timid rush, seek sanctuary
within the low-arched cathedral door; but two men coming out resist
them, and cast them out with their feet:" The autumn leaves fall
thick, "but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead
lightness." Again, "Now the woods settle into great masses as if
they were one profound tree." And yet again, "I held my mother in
my embrace, and she held me in hers; and among the still woods in
the silence of the summer day there seemed to be nothing but our two
troubled minds that was not at peace." Yet, with a thousand great
felicities of diction, Dickens had no BODY of style.

Dickens, having the single and simple heart of a moralist, had also
the simple eyes of a free intelligence, and the light heart. He
gave his senses their way, and well did they serve him. Thus his
eyes--and no more modern man in anxious search of "impressions" was
ever so simple and so masterly: "Mr. Vholes gauntly stalked to the
fire, and warmed his funereal gloves." "'I thank you,' said Mr.
Vholes, putting out his long black sleeve, to check the ringing of
the bell, 'not any.'" Mr. and Mrs. Tope "are daintily sticking
sprigs of holly into the carvings and sconces of the cathedral
stalls, as if they were sticking them into the button-holes of the
Dean & Chapter." The two young Eurasians, brother and sister, "had
a certain air upon them of hunter and huntress; yet withal a certain
air of being the objects of the chase rather than the followers."
This phrase lacks elegance--and Dickens is not often inelegant, as
those who do not read him may be surprised to learn--but the
impression is admirable; so is that which follows: "An indefinable
kind of pause coming and going on their whole expression, both of
face and form." Here is pure, mere impression again: "Miss
Murdstone, who was busy at her writing-desk, gave me her cold
finger-nails." Lady Tippins's hand is "rich in knuckles." And here
is vision with great dignity: "All beyond his figure was a vast
dark curtain, in solemn movement towards one quarter of the

With that singleness of sight--and his whole body was full of the
light of it--he had also the single hearing; the scene is in the
Court of Chancery on a London November day: "Leaving this address
ringing in the rafters of the roof, the very little counsel drops,
and the fog knows him no more." "Mr. Vholes emerged into the
silence he could scarcely be said to have broken, so stifled was his
tone." "Within the grill-gate of the chancel, up the steps
surmounted loomingly by the fast-darkening organ, white robes could
be dimly seen, and one feeble voice, rising and falling in a cracked
monotonous mutter, could at intervals be faintly heard . . . until
the organ and the choir burst forth and drowned it in a sea of
music. Then the sea fell, and the dying voice made another feeble
effort; and then the sea rose high and beat its life out, and lashed
the roof, and surged among the arches, and pierced the heights of
the great tower; and then the sea was dry and all was still. And
this is how a listener overheard men talking in the cathedral
hollows: "The word 'confidence,' shattered by the echoes, but still
capable of being pieced together, is uttered."

Wit, humour, derision--to each of these words we assign by custom a
part in the comedy of literature; and (again) those who do not read
Dickens--perhaps even those who read him a little--may acclaim him
as a humourist and not know him as a wit. But that writer is a wit,
whatever his humour, who tells us of a member of the Tite Barnacle
family who had held a sinecure office against all protest, that "he
died with his drawn salary in his hand." But let it be granted that
Dickens the humourist is foremost and most precious. For we might
well spare the phrase of wit just quoted rather than the one
describing Traddles (whose hair stood up), as one who looked "as
though he had seen a cheerful ghost." Or rather than this:-

He was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg
naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer that he
might be expected--if his development received no untimely check--to
be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months.

Or rather than the incident of the butcher and the beef-steak. He
gently presses it, in a cabbage leaf, into Tom Pinch's pocket.
"'For meat,' he said with some emotion, 'must be humoured, not

A generation, between his own and the present, thought Dickens to be
vulgar; if the cause of that judgement was that he wrote about
people in shops, the cause is discredited now that shops are the
scenes of the novelist's research. "High life" and most wretched
life have now given place to the little shop and its parlour, during
a year or two. But Dr. Brown, the author of Rab and His Friends,
thought that Dickens committed vulgarities in his diction. "A good
man was Robin" is right enough; but "He was a good man, was Robin"
is not so well, and we must own that it is Dickensian; but assuredly
Dickens writes such phrases as it were dramatically, playing the
cockney. I know of but two words that Dickens habitually misuses,
and Charles Lamb misuses one of them precisely in Dickens's manner;
it is not worth while to quote them. But for these his English is
admirable; he chooses what is good and knows what is not. A little
representative collection of the bad or foolish English of his day
might be made by gathering up what Dickens forbore and what he
derided; for instance, Mr. Micawber's portly phrase, "gratifying
emotions of no common description," and Littimer's report that "the
young woman was partial to the sea." This was the polite language
of that time, as we conclude when we find it to be the language that
Charlotte Bronte shook off; but before she shook it off she used it.
Dickens, too, had something to throw off; in his earlier books there
is an inflation--rounded words fill the inappropriate mouth of Bill
Sikes himself--but he discarded them with a splendid laugh. They
are charged upon Mr. Micawber in his own character as author. See
him as he sits by to hear Captain Hopkins read the petition in the
debtors' prison "from His Most Gracious Majesty's unfortunate
subjects." Mr. Micawber listened, we read, "with a little of an
author's vanity, contemplating (not severely) the spikes upon the
opposite wall." It should be remembered that when Dickens shook
himself free of everything that hampered his genius he was not so
much beloved or so much applauded as when he gave to his cordial
readers matter for facile sentiment and for humour of the second
order. His public were eager to be moved and to laugh, and he gave
them Little Nell and Sam Weller; he loved to please them, and it is
evident that he pleased himself also. Mr. Micawber, Mr. Pecksniff,
Mrs. Nickleby, Mrs. Chick, Mrs. Pipchin, Mr. Augustus Moddle, Mrs.
Jellyby, Mrs. Plornish, are not so famous as Sam Weller and Little
Nell, nor is Traddles, whose hair looked as though he had seen a
cheerful ghost.

We are told of the delight of the Japanese man in a chance finding
of something strange-shaped, an asymmetry that has an accidental
felicity, an interest. If he finds such a grace or disproportion--
whatever the interest may be--in a stone or a twig that has caught
his ambiguous eye at the roadside, he carries it to his home to
place it in its irregularly happy place. Dickens seems to have had
a like joy in things misshapen or strangely shapen, uncommon or
grotesque. He saddled even his heroes--those heroes are, perhaps,
his worst work, young men at once conventional and improbable--with
whimsically ugly names; while his invented names are whimsically
perfect: that of Vholes for the predatory silent man in black, and
that of Tope for the cathedral verger. A suggestion of dark and
vague flight in Vholes; something of old floors, something
respectably furtive and musty, in Tope. In Dickens, the love of
lurking, unusual things, human and inanimate--he wrote of his
discoveries delightedly in his letters--was hypertrophied; and it
has its part in the simplest and the most fantastic of his humours,
especially those that are due to his child-like eyesight; let us
read, for example, of the rooks that seemed to attend upon Dr.
Strong (late of Canterbury) in his Highgate garden, "as if they had
been written to about him by the Canterbury rooks and were observing
him closely in consequence"; and of Master Micawber, who had a
remarkable head voice--"On looking at Master Micawber again I saw
that he had a certain expression of face as if his voice were behind
his eyebrows"; and of Joe in his Sunday clothes, "a scarecrow in
good circumstances"; and of the cook's cousin in the Life Guards,
with such long legs that "he looked like the afternoon shadow of
somebody else"; and of Mrs. Markleham, "who stared more like a
figure-head intended for a ship to be called the Astonishment, than
anything else I can think of." But there is no reader who has not a
thousand such exhilarating little sights in his memory of these
pages. From the gently grotesque to the fantastic run Dickens's
enchanted eyes, and in Quilp and Miss Mowcher he takes his joy in
the extreme of deformity; and a spontaneous combustion was an
accident much to his mind.

Dickens wrote for a world that either was exceedingly excitable and
sentimental, or had the convention or tradition of great sentimental
excitability. All his people, suddenly surprised, lose their
presence of mind. Even when the surprise is not extraordinary their
actions are wild. When Tom Pinch calls upon John Westlock in
London, after no very long separation, John, welcoming him at
breakfast, puts the rolls into his boots, and so forth. And this
kind of distraction comes upon men and women everywhere in his
books--distractions of laughter as well. All this seems artificial
to-day, whereas Dickens in his best moments is the simplest, as he
is the most vigilant, of men. But his public was as present to him
as an actor's audience is to the actor, and I cannot think that this
immediate response was good for his art. Assuredly he is not
solitary. We should not wish him to be solitary as a poet is, but
we may wish that now and again, even while standing applauded and
acclaimed, he had appraised the applause more coolly and more
justly, and within his inner mind.

Those critics who find what they call vulgarisms think they may
safely go on to accuse Dickens of bad grammar. The truth is that
his grammar is not only good but strong; it is far better in
construction than Thackeray's, the ease of whose phrase sometimes
exceeds and is slack. Lately, during the recent centenary time, a
writer averred that Dickens "might not always be parsed," but that
we loved him for his, etc., etc. Dickens's page is to be parsed as
strictly as any man's. It is, apart from the matter of grammar, a
wonderful thing that he, with his little education, should have so
excellent a diction. In a letter that records his reluctance to
work during a holiday, the word "wave" seems to me perfect:
"Imaginary butchers and bakers wave me to my desk." In his
exquisite use of the word "establishment" in the following phrase,
we find his own perfect sense of the use of words in his own day;
but in the second quotation given there is a most beautiful sign of
education. "Under the weight of my wicked secret" (the little boy
Pip had succoured his convict with his brother-in-law's provisions)
"I pondered whether the Church would be powerful enough to shield me
. . if I divulged to that establishment." And this is the phrase
that may remind us of the eighteenth-century writers of prose, and
among those writers of none so readily as of Bolingbroke: it occurs
in that passage of Esther's life in which, having lost her beauty,
she resolves to forego a love unavowed. "There was nothing to be
undone; no chain for him to drag or for me to break."

If Dickens had had the education which he had not, his English could
not have been better; but if he had had the usage du monde which as
a young man he had not, there would have been a difference. He
would not, for instance, have given us the preposterous scenes in
Nicholas Nickleby in which parts are played by Lord Frederick
Verisopht, Sir Mulberry Hawke, and their friends; the scene of the
hero's luncheon at a restaurant and the dreadful description of the
mirrors and other splendours would not have been written. It is a
very little thing to forgive to him whom we have to thank for--well,
not perhaps for the "housefull of friends" for the gift of whom a
stranger, often quoted, once blessed him in the street; we may not
wish for Mr. Feeder, or Major Bagstock, or Mrs. Chick, or Mrs.
Pipchin, or Mr. Augustus Moddle, or Mr. F.'s aunt, or Mr. Wopsle, or
Mr. Pumblechook, as an inmate of our homes. Lack of knowledge of
the polite world is, I say, a very little thing to forgive to him
whom we thank most chiefly for showing us these interesting people
just named as inmates of the comedy homes that are not ours. We
thank him because they are comedy homes, and could not be ours or
any man's; that is, we thank him for his admirable art.


The makers of epigrams, of phrases, of pages--of all more or less
brief judgements--assuredly waste their time when they sum up any
one of all mankind; and how do they squander it when their matter is
a poet! They may hardly describe him; nor shall any student's care,
or psychologist's formula, or man-of-letters' summary, or wit's
sentence define him. Definitions, because they must not be inexact
or incomprehensive, sweep too wide, and the poet is not held within
them; and out of the mere describer's range and capture he may
escape by as many doors as there are outlets from a forest. But
much ready-made platitude brings about the world's guesses at a
poet, and false and flat thought lies behind its epigrams. It is
not long since the general guess-work assigned melancholy, without
authority, to a poet lately deceased. Real poets, it was said, are
unhappy, and this was one exceptionally real. How unhappy must he,
then, certainly have been! And the blessed Blake himself was
incidentally cited as one of the company of depression and despair!
It is, perhaps, a liking for symmetry that prompts these futile
syllogisms; perhaps, also, it is the fear of human mystery. The
biographer used to see "the finger of God" pat in the history of a
man; he insists now that he shall at any rate see the finger of a
law, or rather of a rule, a custom, a generality. Law I will not
call it; there is no intelligible law that, for example, a true poet
should be an unhappy man; but the observer thinks he has noticed a
custom or habit to that effect, and Blake, who lived and died in
bliss, is named at ignorant random, rather than that an example of
the custom should be lost.

But it is not only such a platitude of observation, such a cheap
generality, that is silenced in the presence of the poet whose name
is at the head of these pages. For if ever Nature showed us a poet
in whom our phrases, and the judgements they record, should be
denied, defeated, and confused, Swinburne is he. We predicate of a
poet a great sincerity, a great imagination, a great passion, a
great intellect; these are the master qualities, and yet we are
compelled to see here--if we would not wilfully be blind or
blindfold--a poet, yes, a true poet, with a perfervid fancy rather
than an imagination, a poet with puny passions, a poet with no more
than the momentary and impulsive sincerity of an infirm soul, a poet
with small intellect--and thrice a poet.

And, assuredly, if the creative arts are duly humbled in the
universal contemplation of Nature, if they are accused, if they are
weighed, if they are found wanting; if they are excused by nothing
but our intimate human sympathy with dear and interesting
imperfection; if poetry stands outdone by the passion and experience
of an inarticulate soul, and painting by the splendour of the day,
and building by the forest and the cloud, there is another art also
that has to be humiliated, and this is the art and science of
criticism, confounded by its contemplation of such a poet. Poor
little art of examination and formula! The miracle of day and night
and immortality are needed to rebuke the nobler arts; but our art,
the critic's, mine to-day, is brought to book, and its heart is
broken, and its sincerity disgraced, by the paradoxes of the truth.
Not in the heavens nor in the sub-celestial landscape does this
minor art find its refutation, but in the puzzle between a man and
his gift; and in part the man is ignoble and leads us by distasteful
paths, and compels us to a reluctant work of literary detection.
Useful is the critical spirit, but it loses heart when (to take a
very definite instance) it has to ask what literary sincerity--what
value for art and letters--lived in Swinburne, who hailed a certain
old friend, in a dedication, as "poet and painter" when he was
pleased with him, and declared him "poetaster and dauber" when
something in that dead man's posthumous autobiography offended his
own self-love; when, I say, criticism finds itself called upon, amid
its admiration, to do such scavenger work, it loses heart as well as
the clue, and would gladly go out into the free air of greater arts,
and, with them, take exterior Nature's nobler reprobation.

I have to cite this instance of a change of mind, or of terms and
titles, in Swinburne's estimate of art and letters, because it is
all-important to my argument. It is a change he makes in published
print, and, therefore, no private matter. And I cite it, not as a
sign of moral fault, with which I have no business, but as a sign of
a most significant literary insensibility--insensibility, whether to
the quality of a poetaster when he wrote "poet;' or to that of a
poet when he wrote "poetaster," is of no matter.

Rather than justify the things I have ventured to affirm as to
Swinburne's little intellect, and paltry degree of sincerity, and
rachitic passion, and tumid fancy--judgement-confounding things to
predicate of a poet--I turn to the happier task of praise. A vivid
writer of English was he, and would have been one of the recurring
renewers of our often-renewed and incomparable language, had his
words not become habitual to himself, so that they quickly lost the
light, the breeze, the breath; one whose fondness for beauty
deserved the serious name of love; one whom beauty at times favoured
and filled so visibly, by such obvious visits and possessions,
favours so manifest, that inevitably we forget we are speaking
fictions and allegories, and imagine her a visiting power exterior
to her poet; a man, moreover, of a less, not more, than manly
receptiveness and appreciation, so that he was entirely and easily
possessed by admirations. Less than manly we must call his
extraordinary recklessness of appreciation; it is, as it were,
ideally feminine; it is possible, however, that no woman has yet
been capable of so entire an emotional impulse and impetus; more
than manly it might have been but for the lack of a responsible
intellect in that impulse; had it possessed such an intellectual
sanction, Swinburne's admiration of Victor Hugo, Mazzini, Dickens,
Baudelaire, and Theophile Gautier might have added one to the great
generosities of the world.

We are inclined to complain of such an objection to Swinburne's
poetry as was prevalent at his earlier appearance and may be found
in criticisms of the time, before the later fashion of praise set
in--the obvious objection that it was as indigent in thought as
affluent in words; for, though a truth, it is an inadequate truth.
It might be affirmed of many a verse-writer of not unusual talent
and insignificance, whose affluence of words was inselective and
merely abundant, and whose poverty of thought was something less
than a national disaster. Swinburne's failure of intellect was, in
the fullest and most serious sense, a national disaster, and his
instinct for words was a national surprise. It is in their beauty
that Swinburne's art finds its absolution from the obligations of
meaning, according to the vulgar judgement; and we can hardly

I wish it were not customary to write of one art in the terms of
another, and I use the words "music" and "musical" under protest,
because the world has been so delighted to call any verse pleasant
to the ear "musical," that it has not supplied us with another and
more specialised and appropriate word. Swinburne is a complete
master of the rhythm and rhyme, the time and accent, the pause, the
balance, the flow of vowel and clash of consonant, that make the
"music" for which verse is popular and prized. We need not complain
that it is for the tune rather than for the melody--if we must use
those alien terms--that he is chiefly admired, and even for the
jingle rather than for the tune: he gave his readers all three, and
all three in perfection. Nineteen out of twenty who take pleasure
in this art of his will quote you first

When the hounds of Spring are on winter's traces
The Mother of months, in meadow and plain,

and the rest of the buoyant familiar lines. I confess there is
something too obvious, insistent, emphatic, too dapper, to give me
more than a slight pleasure; but it is possible that I am prejudiced
by a dislike of English anapaests (I am aware that the classic terms
are not really applicable to our English metres, but the reader will
underhand that I mean the metre of the lines just quoted.) I do not
find these anapaests in the Elizabethan or in the seventeenth-
century poets, or most rarely. They were dear to the eighteenth
century, and, much more than the heroic couplet, are the distinctive
metre of that age. They swagger--or, worse, they strut--in its
lighter verse, from its first year to its last. Swinburne's
anapaests are far too delicate for swagger or strut; but for all
their dance, all their spring, all their flight, all their flutter,
we are compelled to perceive that, as it were, they PERFORM. I love
to see English poetry move to many measures, to many numbers, but
chiefly with the simple iambic and the simple trochaic foot. Those
two are enough for the infinite variety, the epic, the drama, the
lyric, of our poetry. It is, accordingly, in these old traditional
and proved metres that Swinburne's music seems to me most worthy,
most controlled, and most lovely. THERE is his best dignity, and
therefore his best beauty. For even beauty is not to be thrust upon
us; she is not to solicit us or offer herself thus to the first
comer; and in the most admired of those flying lyrics she is thus
immoderately lavish of herself. "He lays himself out," wrote
Francis Thompson in an anonymous criticism, "to delight and seduce.
The great poets entice by a glorious accident . . . but allurement,
in Mr. Swinburne's poetry, is the alpha and omega." This is true of
all that he has written, but it is true, in a more fatal sense, of
these famous tunes of his "music." Nay, delicate as they are, we
are convinced that it is the less delicate ear that most surely
takes much pleasure in them, the dull ear that chiefly they delight.

Compare with such luxurious canterings the graver movement of this
"Vision of Spring in Winter":

Sunrise it sees not, neither set of star,
Large nightfall, nor imperial plenilune,
Nor strong sweet shape of the full-breasted noon;
But where the silver-sandalled shadows are,
Too soft for arrows of the sun to mar,
Moves with the mild gait of an ungrown moon.

Even more valuable than this exquisite rhymed stanza is the blank
verse which Swinburne released into new energies, new liberties, and
new movements. Milton, it need hardly be said, is the master of
those who know how to place and displace the stress and accent of
the English heroic line in epic poetry. His most majestic hand
undid the mechanical bonds of the national line and made it obey the
unwritten laws of his genius. His blank verse marches, pauses,
lingers, and charges. It feels the strain, it yields, it resists;
it is all-expressive. But if the practice of some of the poets
succeeding him had tended to make it rigid and tame again, Swinburne
was a new liberator. He writes, when he ought, with a finely
appropriate regularity, as in the lovely line on the forest glades

That fear the faun's and know the dryad's foot,

in which the rule is completely kept, every step of the five
stepping from the unaccented place to the accented without a tremor.
(I must again protest that I use the word "accent" in a sense that
has come to be adapted to English prosody, because it is so used by
all writers on English metre, and is therefore understood by the
reader, but I think "stress" the better word.) But having written
this perfect English-iambic line so wonderfully fit for the
sensitive quiet of the woods, he turns the page to the onslaught of
such lines--heroic lines with a difference--as report the short-
breathed messenger's reply to Althea's question by whose hands the
boar of Calydon had died:

A maiden's and a prophet's and thy son's.

It is lamentable that in his latest blank verse Swinburne should
have made a trick and a manner of that most energetic device of his
by which he leads the line at a rush from the first syllable to the
tenth, and on to the first of the line succeeding, with a great
recoil to follow, as though a rider brought a horse to his haunches.
It is in the same boar hunt:

And fiery with invasive eyes,
And bristling with intolerable hair,
Plunged; -

Sometimes we may be troubled with a misgiving that Swinburne's fine
narrative, as well as his descriptive writing of other kinds, has a
counterpart in the programme-music of some now by-gone composers.
It is even too descriptive, too imitative of things, and seems to
out-run the province of words, somewhat as that did the province of
notes. But, though this hunting, and checking, and floating, and
flying in metre may be to strain the arts of prosody and diction,
with how masterly a hand is the straining accomplished! The spear,
the arrow, the attack, the charge, the footfall, the pinion, nay,
the very stepping of the moon, the walk of the wind, are mimicked in
this enchanting verse. Like to programme-music we must call it, but
I wish the concert-platform had ever justified this slight
perversion of aim, this excess--almost corruption--of one kind of
skill, thus miraculously well.

Now, if Swinburne's exceptional faculty of diction led him to
immoderate expressiveness, to immodest sweetness, to a jugglery, and
prestidigitation, and conjuring of words, to transformations and
transmutations of sound--if, I say, his extraordinary gift of
diction brought him to this exaggeration of the manner, what a part
does it not play in the matter of his poetry! So overweening a
place does it take in this man's art that I believe the words to
hold and use his meaning, rather than the meaning to compass and
grasp and use the word. I believe that Swinburne's thoughts have
their source, their home, their origin, their authority and mission
in those two places--his own vocabulary and the passion of other
men. This is a grave charge.

First, then, in regard to the passion of other men. I have given to
his own emotion the puniest name I could find for it; I have no
nobler name for his intellect. But other men had thoughts, other
men had passions; political, sexual, natural, noble, vile, ideal,
gross, rebellious, agonising, imperial, republican, cruel,
compassionate; and with these he fed his verses. Upon these and
their life he sustained, he fattened, he enriched his poetry.
Mazzini in Italy, Gautier and Baudelaire in France, Shelley in
England, made for him a base of passionate and intellectual
supplies. With them he kept the all-necessary line of
communication. We cease, as we see their active hearts possess his
active art, to think a question as to his sincerity seriously worth
asking; what sincerity he has is so absorbed in the one excited act
of receptivity. That, indeed, he performs with all the will, all
the precipitation, all the rush, all the surrender, all the
wholehearted weakness of his subservient and impetuous nature. I
have not named the Greeks, nor the English Bible, nor Milton, as his
inspirers. These he would claim; they are not his. He received too
partial, too fragmentary, too arbitrary an inheritance of the Greek
spirit, too illusory an idea of Milton, of the English Bible little
more than a tone;--this poet of eager, open capacity, this poet who
is little more, intellectually, than a too-ready, too-vacant
capacity, for those three august seventies has not room enough.

Charged, then, with other men's purposes--this man's Italian
patriotism; this man's love of sin (by that name, for sin has been
denied, as a fiction, but Swinburne, following Baudelaire,
acknowledges it to love it); this man's despite against the Third
Empire or what not; this man's cry for a political liberty granted
or gained long ago--a cry grown vain; this man's contempt for the
Boers--nay, was it so much as a man, with a man's evil to answer
for, that furnished him here; was it not rather that less guilty
judge, the crowd?--this man's--nay, this boy's--erotic sickness, or
his cruelty--charged with all these, Swinburne's poetry is primed;
it explodes with thunder and fire. But such sharing is somewhat too
familiar for dignity; such community of goods parodies the
Franciscans. As one friar goes darned for another's rending, having
no property in cassock or cowl, so does many a poet, not in
humility, but in a paradox of pride, boast of the past of others.
And yet one might rather choose to make use of one's fellow-men's
old shoes than to put their old secrets to usufruct, and dress
poetry in a motley of shed passions, twice corrupt. Promiscuity of
love we have heard of; Pope was accused, by Lord Hervey's
indignation and wit, of promiscuity of hatred, and of scattering his
disfavours in the stews of an indiscriminate malignity; and here is
another promiscuity--that of memories, and of a licence partaken.

But by the unanimous poets' splendid love of the landscape and the
skies, by this also was Swinburne possessed, and in this he
triumphed. By this, indeed, he profited; here he joined an
innumerable company of that heavenly host of earth. Let us
acknowledge then his honourable alacrity here, his quick fellowship,
his agile adoption, and his filial tenderness--nay, his fraternal
union with his poets. No tourist's admiration for all things
French, no tourist's politics in Italy--and Swinburne's French and
Italian admirations have the tourist manner of enthusiasm--prompts
him here. Here he aspires to brotherhood with the supreme poets of
supreme England, with the sixteenth century, the seventeenth, and
the nineteenth, the impassioned centuries of song. Happy is he to
be admitted among these, happy is he to merit by his wonderful voice
to sing their raptures. Here is no humiliation in ready-made
lendings; their ecstasy becomes him. He is glorious with them, and
we can imagine this benign and indulgent Nature confounding together
the sons she embraces, and making her poets--the primary and the
secondary, the greater and the lesser--all equals in her arms. Let
us see him in that company where he looks noble amongst the noble;
let us not look upon him in the company of the ignoble, where he
looks ignobler still, being servile to them; let us look upon him
with the lyrical Shakespeare, with Vaughan, Blake, Wordsworth,
Patmore, Meredith; not with Baudelaire and Gautier; with the poets
of the forest and the sun, and not with those of the alcove. We can
make peace with him for love of them; we can imagine them thankful
to him who, poor and perverse in thought in so many pages, could yet
join them in such a song as this:

And her heart sprang in Iseult, and she drew
With all her spirit and life the sunrise through,
And through her lips the keen triumphant air
Sea-scented, sweeter than land-roses were,
And through her eyes the whole rejoicing east
Sun-satisfied, and all the heaven at feast
Spread for the morning; and the imperious mirth
Of wind and light that moved upon the earth,
Making the spring, and all the fruitful might
And strong regeneration of delight
That swells the seedling leaf and sapling man.

He, nevertheless, who was able, in high company, to hail the sea
with such fine verse, was not ashamed, in low company, to sing the
famous absurdities about "the lilies and languors of virtue and the
roses and raptures of vice," with many and many a passage of like
character. I think it more generous, seeing I have differed so much
from the Nineteenth Century's chorus of excessive praise, to quote
little from the vacant, the paltry, the silly--no word is so fit as
that last little word--among his pages. Therefore, I have justified
my praise, but not my blame. It is for the reader to turn to the
justifying pages: to "A Song of Italy," "Les Noyades,"
"Hermaphroditus," "Satia te Sanguine," "Kissing her Hair," "An
Interlude," "In a Garden," or such a stanza as the one beginning

O thought illimitable and infinite heart
Whose blood is life in limbs indissolute
That all keep heartless thine invisible part
And inextirpable thy viewless root
Whence all sweet shafts of green and each thy dart
Of sharpening leaf and bud resundering shoot.

It is for the reader who has preserved rectitude of intellect,
sincerity of heart, dignity of nerves, unhurried thoughts, an
unexcited heart, and an ardour for poetry, to judge between such
poems and an authentic passion, between such poems and truth, I will
add between such poems and beauty.

Imagery is a great part of poetry; but out, alas! vocabulary has
here too the upper hand. For in what is still sometimes called the
magnificent chorus in "Atalanta" the words have swallowed not the
thought only but the imagery. The poet's grievance is that the
pleasant streams flow into the sea. What would he have? The
streams turned loose all over the unfortunate country? There is, it
is true, the river Mole in Surrey. But I am not sure that some
foolish imagery against the peace of the burrowing river might not
be due from a poet of facility. I am not censuring any insincerity
of thought; I am complaining of the insincerity of a paltry, shaky,
and unvisionary image.

Having had recourse to the passion of stronger minds for his
provision of emotions, Swinburne had direct recourse to his own
vocabulary as a kind of "safe" wherein he stored what he needed for
a song. Claudius stole the precious diadem of the kingdom from a
shelf and put it in his pocket; Swinburne took from the shelf of
literature--took with what art, what touch, what cunning, what
complete skill!--the treasure of the language, and put it in his

He is urgent with his booty of words, for he has no other treasure.
Into his pocket he thrusts a hand groping for hatred, and draws
forth "blood" or "Hell"--generally "Hell," for I have counted many
"Hells" in a quite short poem. In search of wrath he takes hold of
"fire"; anxious for wildness he takes "foam," for sweetness he
brings out "flower," much linked, so that "flower-soft" has almost
become his, and not Shakespeare's. For in that compound he labours
to exaggerate Shakespeare, and by his insistence and iteration goes
about to spoil for us the "flower-soft hands" of Cleopatra's rudder-
maiden; but he shall not spoil Shakespeare's phrase for us. And
behold, in all this fundamental fumbling Swinburne's critics saw
only a "mannerism," if they saw even thus much offence.

One of the chief pocket-words was "Liberty." O Liberty! what verse
is committed in thy name! Or, to cite Madame Roland more
accurately, O Liberty, how have they "run" thee!

Who, it has been well asked by a citizen of a modern free country,
is thoroughly free except a fish? Et encore--even the "silent and
footless herds" may have more inter-accommodation than we are aware.
But in the pocket of the secondary poet how easy and how ready a
word is this, a word implying old and true heroisms, but significant
here of an excitable poet's economies. Yes, economies of thought
and passion. This poet, who is conspicuously the poet of excess, is
in deeper truth the poet of penury and defect.

And here is a pocket-word which might have astonished us had we not
known how little anyway it signified. It occurs in something
customary about Italy:

Hearest thou,
Italia? Tho' deaf sloth hath sealed thine ears,
The world has heard thy children--and God hears.

Was ever thought so pouched, so produced, so surely a handful of
loot, as the last thought of this verse?

What, finally, is his influence upon the language he has ransacked?
A temporary laying-waste, undoubtedly. That is, the contemporary
use of his vocabulary is spoilt, his beautiful words are wasted,
spent, squandered, gaspilles. The contemporary use--I will not say
the future use, for no critic should prophesy. But the past he has
not been able to violate. He has had no power to rob of their
freshness the sixteenth-century flower, the seventeenth-century
fruit, or by his violence to shake from either a drop of their dews.

At the outset I warned the judges and the pronouncers of sentences
how this poet, with other poets of quite different character, would
escape their summaries, and he has indeed refuted that maxim which I
had learned at illustrious knees, "You may not dissociate the matter
and manner of any of the greatest poets; the two are so fused by
integrity of fire, whether in tragedy or epic or in the simplest
song, that the sundering is the vainest task of criticism." But I
cannot read Swinburne and not be compelled to divide his secondhand
and enfeebled and excited matter from the successful art of his
word. Of that word Francis Thompson has said again, "It imposes a
law on the sense." Therefore, he too perceived that fatal division.
Is, then, the wisdom of the maxim confounded? Or is Swinburne's a
"single and excepted case"? Excepted by a thousand degrees of
talent from any generality fitting the obviously lesser poets, but,
possibly, also excepted by an essential inferiority from this great
maxim fitting only the greatest?


The controversy here is with those who admire Charlotte Bronte
throughout her career. She altered greatly. She did, in fact,
inherit a manner of English that had been strained beyond
restoration, fatigued beyond recovery, by the "corrupt following" of
Gibbon; and there was within her a sense of propriety that caused
her to conform. Straitened and serious elder daughter of her time,
she kept the house of literature. She practised those verbs, to
evince, to reside, to intimate, to peruse. She wrote "communicating
instruction" for teaching; "an extensive and eligible connexion"; "a
small competency"; "an establishment on the Continent"; "It operated
as a barrier to further intercourse"; and of a child (with a
singular unfitness with childhood) "For the toys he possesses he
seems to have contracted a partiality amounting to affection." I
have been already reproached for a word on Gibbon written by way of
parenthesis in the course of an appreciation of some other author.
Let me, therefore, repeat that I am writing of the corrupt following
of that apostle and not of his own style. Gibbon's grammar is
frequently weak, but the corrupt followers have something worse than
poor grammar. Gibbon set the fashion of "the latter" and "the
former." Our literature was for at least half a century strewn with
the wreckage of Gibbon. "After suppressing a competitor who had
assumed the purple at Mentz, he refused to gratify his troops with
the plunder of the rebellious city," writes the great historian.
When Mr. Micawber confesses "gratifying emotions of no common
description" he conforms to a lofty and a distant Gibbon. So does
Mr. Pecksniff when he says of the copper-founder's daughter that she
"has shed a vision on my path refulgent in its nature." And when an
author, in a work on "The Divine Comedy," recently told us that
Paolo and Francesca were to receive from Dante "such alleviation as
circumstances would allow," that also is a shattered, a waste
Gibbon, a waif of Gibbon. For Johnson less than Gibbon inflated the
English our fathers inherited; because Johnson did not habitually or
often use imagery, whereas Gibbon did use habitual imagery, and such
use is what deprives a language of elasticity, and leaves it either
rigid or languid, oftener languid. Encumbered by this drift and
refuse of English, Charlotte Bronte yet achieved the miracle of her
vocabulary. It is less wonderful that she should have appeared out
of such a parsonage than that she should have arisen out of such a

A re-reading of her works is always a new amazing of her reader who
turns back to review the harvest of her English. It must have been
with rapture that she claimed her own simplicity. And with what a
moderation, how temperately, and how seldom she used her mastery!
To the last she has an occasional attachment to her bonds; for she
was not only fire and air. In one passage of her life she may
remind us of the little colourless and thrifty hen-bird that Lowell
watched nest-building with her mate, and cutting short the
flutterings and billings wherewith he would joyously interrupt the
business; Charlotte's nesting bird was a clergyman. He came, lately
affianced, for a week's visit to her parsonage, and she wrote to her
friend before his arrival: "My little plans have been disarranged
by an intimation that Mr.--is coming on Monday"; and afterwards, in
reference to her sewing, "he hindered me for a full week."

In alternate pages Villette is a book of spirit and fire, and a
novel of illiberal rancour, of ungenerous, uneducated anger,
ungentle, ignoble. In order to forgive its offences, we have to
remember in its author's favour not her pure style set free, not her
splendour in literature, but rather the immeasurable sorrow of her
life. To read of that sorrow again is to open once more a wound
which most men perhaps, certainly most women, received into their
hearts in childhood. For the Life of Charlotte Bronte is one of the
first books of biography put into the hands of a child, to whom Jane
Eyre is allowed only in passages. We are young when we first hear
in what narrow beds "the three are laid"--the two sisters and the
brother--and in what a bed of living insufferable memories the one
left lay alone, reviewing the hours of their death--alone in the
sealed house that was only less narrow than their graves. The rich
may set apart and dedicate a room, the poor change their street, but
Charlotte Bronte, in the close captivity of the fortunes of
mediocrity, rested in the chair that had been her dying sister's,
and held her melancholy bridals in the dining room that had been the
scene of terrible and reluctant death.

But closer than the conscious house was the conscious mind. Locked
with intricate wards within the unrelaxing and unlapsing thoughts of
this lonely sister, dwelt a sorrow inconsolable. It is well for the
perpetual fellowship of mankind that no child should read this life
and not take therefrom a perdurable scar, albeit her heart was
somewhat frigid towards childhood, and she died before her
motherhood could be born.

Mistress of some of the best prose of her century, Charlotte Bronte
was subject to a Lewes, a Chorley, a Miss Martineau: that is, she
suffered what in Italian is called SOGGEZIONE in their presence.
When she had met six minor contemporary writers--by-products of
literature--at dinner, she had a headache and a sleepless night.
She writes to her friend that these contributors to the quarterly
press are greatly feared in literary London, and there is in her
letter a sense of tremor and exhaustion. And what nights did the
heads of the critics undergo after the meeting? Lewes, whose own
romances are all condoned, all forgiven by time and oblivion, who
gave her lessons, who told her to study Jane Austen? The others,
whose reviews doubtless did their proportionate part in still
further hunting and harrying the tired English of their day? And
before Harriet Martineau she bore herself reverently. Harriet
Martineau, albeit a woman of masculine understanding (we may imagine
we hear her contemporaries give her the title), could not thread her
way safely in and out of two or three negatives, but wrote--about
this very Charlotte Bronte: "I did not consider the book a coarse
one, though I could not answer for it that there were no traits
which, on a second leisurely reading, I might not dislike." Mrs.
Gaskell quotes the passage with no consciousness of anything amiss.

As for Lewes's vanished lesson upon the methods of Jane Austen, it
served one only sufficient purpose. Itself is not quoted by anyone
alive, but Charlotte Bronte's rejoinder adds one to our little
treasury of her incomparable pages. If they were twenty, they are
twenty-one by the addition of this, written in a long-neglected
letter and saved for us by Mr. Shorter's research, for I believe his
is the only record: "What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves
flexibly, it suits her to study; but what throbs fast and full,
though hidden, what blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of
life and the sentient target of death--that Miss Austen ignores."

When the author of Jane Eyre faltered before six authors, more or
less, at dinner in London, was it the writer of her second-class
English who was shy? or was it the author of the passages here to
follow?--and therefore one for whom the national tongue was much the
better? There can be little doubt. The Charlotte Bronte who used
the English of a world long corrupted by "one good custom"--the good
custom of Gibbon's Latinity grown fatally popular--could at any time
hold up her head amongst her reviewers; for her there was no
sensitive interior solitude in that society. She who cowered was
the Charlotte who made Rochester recall "the simple yet sagacious
grace" of Jane's first smile; she who wrote: "I looked at my love;
it shivered in my heart like a suffering child in a cold cradle";
who wrote: "To see what a heavy lid day slowly lifted, what a wan
glance she flung upon the hills, you would have thought the sun's
fire quenched in last night's floods." This new genius was solitary
and afraid, and touched to the quick by the eyes and voice of
judges. In her worse style there was no "quick." Latin-English,
whether scholarly or unscholarly, is the mediate tongue. An
unscholarly Latin-English is proof against the world. The scholarly
Latin-English wherefrom it is disastrously derived is, in its own
nobler measure, a defence against more august assaults than those of
criticism. In the strength of it did Johnson hold parley with his
profounder sorrows--hold parley (by his phrase), make terms (by his
definition), give them at last lodging and entertainment after
sentence and treaty.

And the meaner office of protection against reviewers and the world
was doubtless done by the meaner Latinity. The author of the phrase
"The child contracted a partiality for his toys" had no need to fear
any authors she might meet at dinner. Against Charlotte Bronte's
sorrows her worse manner of English never stands for a moment.
Those vain phrases fall from before her face and her bared heart.
To the heart, to the heart she took the shafts of her griefs. She
tells them therefore as she suffered them, vitally and mortally. "A
great change approached. Affliction came in that shape which to
anticipate is dread; to look back on, grief. My sister Emily first
declined. Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that
lay before her, and she did not linger now. She made haste to leave
us." "I remembered where the three were laid--in what narrow, dark
dwellings." "Do you know this place? No, you never saw it; but you
recognize the nature of these trees, this foliage--the cypress, the
willow, the yew. Stone crosses like these are not unfamiliar to
you, nor are these dim garlands of everlasting flowers. Here is the
place." "Then the watcher approaches the patient's pillow, and sees
a new and strange moulding of the familiar features, feels at once
that the insufferable moment draws nigh." In the same passage comes
another single word of genius, "the sound that so wastes our
strength." And, fine as "wastes," is the "wronged" of another
sentence--"some wronged and fettered wild beast or bird."

It is easy to gather such words, more difficult to separate the best
from such a mingled page as that on "Imagination": "A spirit,
softer and better than human reason, had descended with quiet flight
to the waste"; and "My hunger has this good angel appeased with food
sweet and strange"; and "This daughter of Heaven remembered me to-
night; she saw me weep, and she came with comfort; 'Sleep,' she
said, 'sleep sweetly--I gild thy dreams.'" "Was this feeling dead?
I do not know, but it was buried. Sometimes I thought the tomb

Perhaps the most "eloquent" pages are unluckily those wherein we
miss the friction--friction of water to the oar, friction of air to
the pinion--friction that sensibly proves the use, the buoyancy, the
act of language. Sometimes an easy eloquence resembles the easy
labours of the daughters of Danaus. To draw water in a sieve is an
easy art, rapid and relaxed.

But no laxity is ever, I think, to be found in her brief passages of
landscape. "The keen, still cold of the morning was succeeded,
later in the day, by a sharp breathing from the Russian wastes; the
cold zone sighed over the temperate zone and froze it fast." "Not
till the destroying angel of tempest had achieved his perfect work
would he fold the wings whose waft was thunder, the tremor of whose
plumes was storm." "The night is not calm: the equinox still
struggles in its storms. The wild rains of the day are abated: the
great single cloud disappears and rolls away from Heaven, not
passing and leaving a sea all sapphire, but tossed buoyant before a
continued, long-sounding, high-rushing moonlight tempest. . . No
Endymion will watch for his goddess to-night: there are no flocks
on the mountains." See, too, this ocean: "The sway of the whole
Great Deep above a herd of whales rushing through the livid and
liquid thunder down from the frozen zone." And this promise of the
visionary Shirley: "I am to be walking by myself on deck, rather
late of an August evening, watching and being watched by a full
harvest moon: something is to rise white on the surface of the sea,
over which that moon mounts silent, and hangs glorious. . . I think
I hear it cry with an articulate voice. . . I show you an image fair
as alabaster emerging from the dim wave."

Charlotte Bronte knew well the experience of dreams. She seems to
have undergone the inevitable dream of mourners--the human dream of
the Labyrinth, shall I call it? the uncertain spiritual journey in
search of the waiting and sequestered dead, which is the obscure
subject of the "Eurydice" of Coventry Patmore's Odes. There is the
lately dead, in exile, remote, betrayed, foreign, indifferent, sad,
forsaken by some vague malice or neglect, sought by troubled love

In Charlotte Bronte's page there is an autumnal and tempestuous
dream. "A nameless experience that had the hue, the mien, the
terror, the very tone of a visitation from eternity. . . Suffering
brewed in temporal or calculable measure tastes not as this
suffering tasted." Finally, is there any need to cite the passage
of Jane Eyre that contains the avowal, the vigil in the garden?
Those are not words to be forgotten. Some tell you that a fine
style will give you the memory of a scene and not of the recording
words that are the author's means. And others again would have the
phrase to be remembered foremost. Here, then, in Jane Eyre, are
both memories equal. The night is perceived, the phrase is an
experience; both have their place in the reader's irrevocable past.
"Custom intervened between me and what I naturally and inevitably
loved." "Jane, do you hear that nightingale singing in the wood?"
"A waft of wind came sweeping down the laurel walk, and trembled
through the boughs of the chestnut; it wandered away to an infinite
distance. . . The nightingale's voice was then the only voice of the
hour; in listening I again wept."

Whereas Charlotte Bronte walked, with exultation and enterprise,
upon the road of symbols, under the guidance of her own visiting
genius, Emily seldom went out upon those far avenues. She was one
who practised imagery sparingly. Her style had the key of an inner
prose which seems to leave imagery behind in the way of approaches--
the apparelled and arrayed approaches and ritual of literature--and
so to go further and to be admitted among simple realities and

Charlotte Bronte also knew that simple goal, but she loved her
imagery. In the passage of Jane Eyre that tells of the return to
Thornfield Hall, in ruins by fire, she bespeaks her reader's
romantic attention to an image which in truth is not all golden.
She has moments, on the other hand, of pure narrative, whereof each
word is such a key as I spoke of but now, and unlocks an inner and
an inner plain door of spiritual realities. There is, perhaps, no
author who, simply telling what happened, tells it with so great a
significance: "Jane, did you hear that nightingale singing in the
wood?" and "She made haste to leave us." But her characteristic
calling is to images, those avenues and temples oracular, and to the
vision of symbols.

You may hear the poet of great imagery praised as a great mystic.
Nevertheless, although a great mystical poet makes images, he does
not do so in his greatest moments. He is a great mystic, because he
has a full vision of the mystery of realities, not because he has a
clear invention of similitudes.

Of many thousand kisses the poor last,


Now with his love, now in the colde grave

are lines on the yonder side of imagery. So is this line also:

Sad with the promise of a different sun,


Piteous passion keen at having found,
After exceeding ill, a little good.

Shakespeare, Chaucer and Patmore yield us these great examples.
Imagery is for the time when, as in these lines, the shock of
feeling (which must needs pass, as the heart beats and pauses) is
gone by:

Thy heart with dead winged innocence filled,
Even as a nest with birds,
After the old ones by the hawk are killed.

I cite these lines of Patmore's because of their imagery in a poem
that without them would be insupportably close to spiritual facts;
and because it seems to prove with what a yielding hand at play the
poet of realities holds his symbols for a while. A great writer is
both a major and a minor mystic, in the self-same poem; now suddenly
close to his mystery (which is his greater moment) and anon making
it mysterious with imagery (which is the moment of his most
beautiful lines).

The student passes delighted through the several courts of poetry,
from the outer to the inner, from riches to more imaginative riches,
and from decoration to more complex decoration; and prepares himself
for the greater opulence of the innermost chamber. But when he
crosses the last threshold he finds this mid-most sanctuary to be a
hypaethral temple, and in its custody and care a simple earth and a
space of sky.

Emily Bronte seems to have a nearly unparalleled unconsciousness of
the delays, the charms, the pauses and preparations of imagery. Her
strength does not dally with the parenthesis, and her simplicity is
ignorant of those rites. Her lesser work, therefore, is plain
narrative, and her greater work is no more. On the hither side--the
daily side--of imagery she is still a strong and solitary writer; on
the yonder side she has written some of the most mysterious passages
in all plain prose. And with what direct and incommunicable art!
"'Let me alone, let me alone,' said Catherine. 'If I've done wrong,
I'm dying for it. You left me too . . . I forgive you. Forgive
me!' 'It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes and feel
those wasted hands,' he answered. 'Kiss me again, and don't let me
see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my
murderer--but YOURS! How can I?' They were silent, their faces hid
against each other, and washed by each other's tears." "So much the
worse for me that I am strong," cries Heathcliff in the same scene.
"Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you--Oh
God, would you like to live with your soul in the grave?"

Charlotte Bronte's noblest passages are her own speech or the speech
of one like herself acting the central part in the dreams and dramas
of emotion that she had kept from her girlhood--the unavowed custom
of the ordinary girl by her so splendidly avowed in a confidence
that comprised the world. Emily had no such confessions to publish.
She contrived--but the word does not befit her singular spirit of
liberty, that knew nothing of stealth--to remove herself from the
world; as her person left no pen-portrait, so her "I" is not heard
here. She lends her voice in disguise to her men and women; the
first narrator of her great romance is a young man, the second a
servant woman; this one or that among the actors takes up the story,
and her great words sound at times in paltry mouths. It is then
that for a moment her reader seems about to come into her immediate
presence, but by a fiction she denies herself to him. To a somewhat
trivial girl (or a girl who would be trivial in any other book, but
Emily Bronte seems unable to create anything consistently meagre)--
to Isabella Linton she commits one of her most memorable passages,
and one which has the rare image, one of a terrifying little company
of visions amid terrifying facts: "His attention was roused, I saw,
for his eyes rained down tears among the ashes. . . The clouded
windows of hell flashed for a moment towards me; the fiend which
usually looked out was so dimmed and drowned." But in Heathcliff's
own speech there is no veil or circumstance. "I'm too happy; and
yet I'm not happy enough. My soul's bliss kills my body, but does
not satisfy itself." "I have to remind myself to breathe, and
almost to remind my heart to beat." "Being alone, and conscious two
yards of loose earth was the sole barrier between us, I said to
myself: 'I'll have her in my arms again.' If she be cold, I'll
think it is this north wind that chills me; and if she be
motionless, it is sleep." What art, moreover, what knowledge, what
a fresh ear for the clash of repetition; what a chime in that
phrase: "I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper,
with my heart stopped, and my cheek frozen against hers."

Emily Bronte was no student of books. It was not from among the
fruits of any other author's labour that she gathered these eminent
words. But I think I have found the suggestion of this action of
Heathcliff's--the disinterment. Not in any inspiring ancient Irish
legend, as has been suggested, did Emily Bronte find her incident;
she found it (but she made, and did not find, its beauty) in a mere
costume romance of Bulwer Lytton, whom Charlotte Bronte, as we know,
did not admire. And Emily showed no sign at all of admiration when
she did him so much honour as to borrow the action of his studio-

Heathcliff's love for Catherine's past childhood is one of the
profound surprises of this unparalleled book; it is to call her
childish ghost--the ghost of the little girl--when she has been a
dead adult woman twenty years that the inhuman lover opens the
window of the house on the Heights. Something is this that the
reader knew not how to look for. Another thing known to genius and
beyond a reader's hope is the tempestuous purity of those passions.
This wild quality of purity has a counterpart in the brief passages
of nature that make the summers, the waters, the woods, and the
windy heights of that murderous story seem so sweet. The "beck"
that was audible beyond the hills after rain, the "heath on the top
of Wuthering Heights" whereon, in her dream of Heaven, Catherine,
flung out by angry angels, awoke sobbing for joy; the bird whose
feathers she--delirious creature--plucks from the pillow of her
deathbed ("This--I should know it among a thousand--it's a
lapwing's. Bonny bird; wheeling over our heads in the middle of the
moor. It wanted to get to its nest, for the clouds had touched the
swells and it felt rain coming"); the only two white spots of snow
left on all the moors, and the brooks brim-full; the old apple-
trees, the smell of stocks and wallflowers in the brief summer, the
few fir-trees by Catherine's window-bars, the early moon--I know not
where are landscapes more exquisite and natural. And among the
signs of death where is any fresher than the window seen from the
garden to be swinging open in the morning, when Heathcliff lay
within, dead and drenched with rain?

None of these things are presented by images. Nor is that signal
passage wherewith the book comes to a close. Be it permitted to
cite it here again. It has taken its place, it is among the
paragons of our literature. Our language will not lapse or derogate
while this prose stands for appeal: "I lingered . . . under that
benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and
harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass,
and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the
sleepers in that quiet earth."

Finally, of Emily Bronte's face the world holds only an obviously
unskilled reflection, and of her aspect no record worth having.
Wild fugitive, she vanished, she escaped, she broke away, exiled by
the neglect of her contemporaries, banished by their disrespect
outlawed by their contempt, dismissed by their indifference. And
such an one was she as might rather have pronounced upon these the
sentence passed by Coriolanus under sentence of expulsion; she might
have driven the world from before her face and cast it out from her
presence as he condemned his Romans: "I banish you."


"She is not Cleopatra, but she is at least Charmian," wrote Keats,
conscious that his damsel was not in the vanward of the pageant of
ladies. One may divine that he counted the ways wherein she was not
Cleopatra, the touches whereby she fell short of and differed from,
nay, in which she mimicked, the Queen.

In like manner many of us have for some years past boasted of our
appreciation of the inferior beauty, the substitute, the waiting
gentlewoman of corrupt or corruptible heart; Keats confessed, but
did not boast. It is a vaunt now, an emulation, who shall discover
her beauty, who shall discern her.

She is most conspicuous in the atmosphere in smoke "effects," in the
"lurid," the "mystery"; such are the perfervid words. But let us
take the natural and authentic light as our symbol of Cleopatra, her
sprightly port, her infinite jest, her bluest vein, her variety, her
laugh. "O Eastern star!"

Men in cities look upward not much more than animals, and these--
except the dog when he bays the moon--look skyward not at all. The
events of the sky do not come and go for the citizens, do not
visibly approach and withdraw, threaten and pardon; they merely
happen. And even when the sun so condescends as to face them at the
level of their own horizon (say from the western end of the
Bayswater Road), when he searches out the eyes that have neglected
him all day, finds a way between their narrowing lids, looks
straight into their unwelcoming pupils, explores the careful
wrinkles, singles and numbers the dull hairs, even, I say, to sudden
sunset in our dim climate, the Londoner makes no reply; he would
rather look into puddles than into the pools of light among clouds.

Yet the light is as characteristic of a country as is its landscape.
So that I would travel for the sake of a character of early morning,
for a quality of noonday, or a tone of afternoon, or an accident of
moonrise, or a colour of dusk, at least as far as for a mountain, a
cathedral, rivers, or men. The light is more important than what it
illuminates. When Mr. Tomkins--a person of Dickens's earliest
invention--calls his fellow-boarders from the breakfast-table to the
window, and with emotion shows them the effect of sunshine upon the
left side of a neighbouring chimney-pot, he is far from cutting the
grotesque figure that the humourist intended to point out to banter.
I am not sure that the chimney-pot with the pure light upon it was
not more beautiful than a whole black Greek or a whole black Gothic
building in the adulterated light of a customary London day. Nor is
the pleasure that many writers, and a certain number of painters,
tell us they owe to such adulteration anything other than a sign of
derogation--in a word, a pleasure in the secondary thing.

Are we the better artists for our preference of the waiting-woman?
It is a strange claim. The search for the beauty of the less-
beautiful is a modern enterprise, ingenious in its minor pranks,
insolent in its greater. And its chief ignobility is the love of
marred, defiled, disordered, dulled, and imperfect skies, the skies
of cities.

Some will tell us that the unveiled light is too clear or sharp for
art. So much the worse for art; but even on that plea the
limitations of art are better respected by natural mist, cloudy
gloom of natural rain, natural twilight before night, or natural
twilight--Corot's--before day, than by the artificial dimness of our
unlovely towns. Those, too, who praise the "mystery" of smoke are
praising rather a mystification than a mystery; and must be unaware
of the profounder mysteries of light. Light is all mystery when you
face the sun, and every particle of the innumerable atmosphere
carries its infinitesimal shadow.

Moreover, it is only in some parts of the world that we should ask
for even natural veils. In California we may, not because the light
is too luminous, but because it is not tender. Clear and not tender
in California, tender and not clear in England; light in Italy and
in Greece is both tender and clear.

When one complains of the ill-luck of modern utilities, the
sympathetic listener is apt to agree, but to agree wrongly by
denouncing the electric light as something modern to be deplored.
But the electric light is the one success of the last century. It
is never out of harmony with natural things--villages, ancient
streets of cities, where it makes the most beautiful of all street-
lighting, swung from house to opposite house in Genoa or Rome. With
no shock, except a shock of pleasure, does the judicious traveller,
entering some small sub-alpine hamlet, find the electric light,
fairly, sparingly spaced, slung from tree to tree over the little
road, and note it again in the frugal wine-shop, and solitary and
clear over the church portal.

Yet, forsooth, if yielding to the suggestions of your restless
hobby, you denounce, in any company, the spoiling of your Italy, the
hearer, calling up a "mumping visnomy," thinks he echoes your
complaint by his sigh, "Ah, yes--the electric light; you meet it
everywhere now; so modern, so disenchanting." It is, on the
contrary, enchanting. It is as natural as lightning. By all means
let all the waterfalls in all the Alps be "harnessed," as the
lamentation runs, if their servitude gives us electric light. For
thus the power of the waterfall kindles a lovely lamp. All this to
be done by the simple force of gravitation--the powerful fall of
water. "Wonderful, all that water coming down!" cried the tourist
at Niagara, and the Irishman said, "Why wouldn't it?" He recognised
the simplicity of that power. It is a second-rate passion--that for
the waterfall, and often exacting in regard to visitors from town.
"I trudged unwillingly," says Dr. Johnson, "and was not sorry to
find it dry." It was very, very second-rate of an American admirer
of scenery to name a waterfall in the Yosemite Valley (and it bears
the name to-day) the "Bridal Veil." His Indian predecessor had
called it, because it was most audible in menacing weather, "The
Voice of the Evil Wind." In fact, your cascade is dearer to every
sentimentalist than the sky. Standing near the folding-over place
of Niagara, at the top of the fall, I looked across the perpetual
rainbow of the foam, and saw the whole further sky deflowered by the
formless, edgeless, languid, abhorrent murk of smoke from the
nearest town. Much rather would I see that water put to use than
the sky so outraged. As it is, only by picking one's way between
cities can one walk under, or as it were in, a pure sky. The
horizon in Venice is thick and ochreous, and no one cares; the sky
of Milan is defiled all round. In England I must choose a path
alertly; and so does now and then a wary, fortunate, fastidious wind
that has so found his exact, uncharted way, between this smoke and
that, as to clear me a clean moonrise, and heavenly heavens.

There was an ominous prophecy to Charmian. "You shall outlive the
lady whom you serve." She has outlived her in every city in Europe;
but only for the time of setting straight her crown--the last
servility. She could not live but by comparison with the Queen.


After a long literary revolt--one of the recurrences of imperishable
Romance--against the eighteenth-century authors, a reaction was due,
and it has come about roundly. We are guided back to admiration of
the measure and moderation and shapeliness of the Augustan age. And
indeed it is well enough that we should compare--not necessarily
check--some of our habits of thought and verse by the mediocrity of
thought and perfect propriety of diction of Pope's best
contemporaries. If this were all! But the eighteenth century was
not content with its sure and certain genius. Suddenly and
repeatedly it aspired to a "noble rage." It is not to the wild
light hearts of the seventeenth century that we must look for
extreme conceits and for extravagance, but to the later age, to the
faultless, to the frigid, dissatisfied with their own propriety.
There were straws, I confess, in the hair of the older poets; the
eighteenth-century men stuck straws in their periwigs.

That time--surpassing and correcting the century then just past in
"taste"--was resolved to make a low leg to no age, antique or
modern, in the chapter of the passions--nay, to show the way, to
fire the nations. Addison taught himself, as his hero "taught the
doubtful battle," "where to rage." And in the later years of the
same literary century Johnson himself summoned the lapsed and alien
and reluctant fury. Take such a word as "madded"--"the madded
land"; there indeed is a word created for the noble rage, as the
eighteenth century understood it. Look you, Johnson himself could
lodge the fury in his responsible breast:

And dubious title shakes the madded land.

There is no author of that time of moderation and good sense who
does not thus more or less eat a crocodile. It is not necessary to
go to the bad poets; we need go no lower than the good.

And gasping Furies thirst for blood in vain,

says Pope seriously (but the sense of burlesque never leaves the
reader). Also

There purple vengeance bath'd in gore retires.

In the only passage of the Dunciad meant to be poetic and not ironic
and spiteful, he has "the panting gales" of a garden he describes.
Match me such an absurdity among the "conceits" of the age

A noble and ingenious author, so called by high authority but left
anonymous, pretends (it is always pretending with these people,
never fine fiction or a frank lie) that on the tomb of Virgil he had
had a vision of that deceased poet:

Crowned with eternal bays my ravished eyes
Beheld the poet's awful form arise.

Virgil tells the noble and ingenious one that if Pope will but write
upon some graver themes,

Envy to black Cocytus shall retire
And howl with furies in tormenting fire.

"Genius," says another authoritative writer in prose, "is caused by
a furious joy and pride of soul."

If, leaving the great names, we pass in review the worse poets we
find, in Pope's essay "On the Art of Sinking in Poetry," things like
these, gathered from the grave writings of his contemporaries:

In flaming heaps the raging ocean rolls,
Whose livid waves involve despairing souls;
The liquid burnings dreadful colours shew,
Some deeply red, and others faintly blue.

And a war-horse!

His eye-balls burn, he wounds the smoking plain,
And knots of scarlet ribbon deck his mane.

And a demon!

Provoking demons all restraint remove.

Here is more eighteenth-century "propriety":

The hills forget they're fixed, and in their fright
Cast off their weight, and ease themselves for flight.
The woods, with terror winged, out-fly the wind,
And leave the heavy, panting hills behind.

Again, from Nat Lee's Alexander the Great:

When Glory, like the dazzling eagle, stood
Perched on my beaver in the Granic flood;
When Fortune's self my standard trembling bore,
And the pale Fates stood 'frighted on the shore.

Of these lines, with another couplet, Dr. Warburton said that they
"contain not only the most sublime but the most judicious imagery
that poetry could conceive or paint." And here are lines from a
tragedy, for me anonymous:

Should the fierce North, upon his frozen wings,
Bear him aloft above the wondering clouds,
And seat him in the Pleiads' golden chariot,
Thence should my fury drag him down to tortures.


Kiss, while I watch thy swimming eye-balls roll,
Watch thy last gasp, and catch thy springing soul.

It was the age of common-sense, we are told, and truly; but of
common-sense now and then dissatisfied, common-sense here and there
ambitious, common-sense of a distinctively adult kind taking on an
innocent tone. I find this little affectation in Pope's word "sky"
where a simpler poet would have "skies" or "heavens." Pope has
"sky" more than once, and always with a little false air of
simplicity. And one instance occurs in that masterly and most
beautiful poem, the "Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady":

Is there no bright reversion in the sky?

"Yes, my boy, we may hope so," is the reader's implicit mental
aside, if the reader be a man of humour. Let me, however, suggest
no disrespect towards this lovely elegy, of which the last eight
lines have an inimitable greatness, a tenderness and passion which
the "Epistle of Eloisa" makes convulsive movements to attain but
never attains. And yet how could one, by an example, place the
splendid seventeenth century in closer--in slighter yet more
significant--comparison with the eighteenth than thus? Here is Ben

What beckoning ghost, besprent with April dew,
Hails me so solemnly to yonder yew?

And this is Pope's improvement:

What beckoning ghost along the moonlight shade
Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?

But Pope follows this insipid couplet with two lines as exquisitely
and nobly modulated as anything I know in that national metre:

'Tis she! but why that bleeding bosom gored,
Why dimly gleams the visionary sword?

That indeed is "music" in English verse--the counterpart of a great
melody, not of a tune.

The eighteenth century matched its desire for wildness in poetry
with a like craving in gardens. The symmetrical and architectural
garden, so magnificent in Italy, and stately though more rigid and
less glorious in France, was scorned by the eighteenth-century poet-
gardeners. Why? Because it was "artificial," and the eighteenth
century must have "nature"--nay passion. There seems to be some
plan of passion in Pope's grotto, stuck with spar and little shells.

Truly the age of the "Rape of the Lock" and the "Elegy" was an age
of great wit and great poetry. Yet it was untrue to itself. I
think no other century has cherished so persistent a self-conscious
incongruity. As the century of good sense and good couplets it
might have kept uncompromised the dignity we honour. But such
inappropriate pranks have come to pass in history now and again.
The Bishop of Hereford, in merry Barnsdale, "danced in his boots";
but he was coerced by Robin Hood.

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