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'An _obiter dictum_, in the language of the law, is
a gratuitous opinion, an individual impertinence, which,
whether it be wise or foolish, right or wrong, bindeth
none--not even the lips that utter it.'
_PREFACE TO THE AMERICAN EDITION.
This seems a very little book to introduce to so large a continent. No
such enterprise would ever have suggested itself to the home-keeping
mind of the Author, who, none the less, when this edition was proposed
to him by Messrs. Scribner on terms honorable to them and grateful to
him, found the notion of being read in America most fragrant and
London, February 13, 1885._
* * * * *
ON THE ALLEGED OBSCURITY OF MR. BROWNING'S POETRY
A ROGUE'S MEMOIRS
THE VIA MEDIA
The accomplishments of our race have of late become so varied, that it
is often no easy task to assign him whom we would judge to his proper
station among men; and yet, until this has been done, the guns of our
criticism cannot be accurately levelled, and as a consequence the
greater part of our fire must remain futile. He, for example, who
would essay to take account of Mr. Gladstone, must read much else
besides Hansard; he must brush up his Homer, and set himself to
acquire some theology. The place of Greece in the providential order
of the world, and of laymen in the Church of England, must be
considered, together with a host of other subjects of much apparent
irrelevance to a statesman's life. So too in the case of his
distinguished rival, whose death eclipsed the gaiety of politics and
banished epigram from Parliament: keen must be the critical faculty
which can nicely discern where the novelist ended and the statesman
began in Benjamin Disraeli.
Happily, no such difficulty is now before us. Thomas Carlyle was a
writer of books, and he was nothing else. Beneath this judgment he
would have winced, but have remained silent, for the facts are so.
Little men sometimes, though not perhaps so often as is taken for
granted, complain of their destiny, and think they have been hardly
treated, in that they have been allowed to remain so undeniably small;
but great men, with hardly an exception, nauseate their greatness, for
not being of the particular sort they most fancy. The poet Gray was
passionately fond, so his biographers tell us, of military history;
but he took no Quebec. General Wolfe took Quebec, and whilst he was
taking it, recorded the fact that he would sooner have written Gray's
'Elegy'; and so Carlyle--who panted for action, who hated eloquence,
whose heroes were Cromwell and Wellington, Arkwright and the 'rugged
Brindley,' who beheld with pride and no ignoble envy the bridge at
Auldgarth his mason-father had helped to build half a century before,
and then exclaimed, 'A noble craft, that of a mason; a good building
will last longer than most books--than one book in a million'; who
despised men of letters, and abhorred the 'reading public'; whose
gospel was Silence and Action--spent his life in talking and writing;
and his legacy to the world is thirty-four volumes octavo.
There is a familiar melancholy in this; but the critic has no need to
grow sentimental. We must have men of thought as well as men of
action: poets as much as generals; authors no less than artizans;
libraries at least as much as militia; and therefore we may accept and
proceed critically to examine Carlyle's thirty-four volumes, remaining
somewhat indifferent to the fact that had he had the fashioning of his
own destiny, we should have had at his hands blows instead of books.
Taking him, then, as he was--a man of letters--perhaps the best type
of such since Dr. Johnson died in Fleet Street, what are we to say of
his thirty-four volumes?
In them are to be found criticism, biography, history, politics,
poetry, and religion. I mention this variety because of a foolish
notion, at one time often found suitably lodged in heads otherwise
empty, that Carlyle was a passionate old man, dominated by two or
three extravagant ideas, to which he was for ever giving utterance in
language of equal extravagance. The thirty-four volumes octavo render
this opinion untenable by those who can read. Carlyle cannot be killed
by an epigram, nor can the many influences that moulded him be
referred to any single source. The rich banquet his genius has spread
for us is of many courses. The fire and fury of the Latter-Day
Pamphlets may be disregarded by the peaceful soul, and the preference
given to the 'Past' of 'Past and Present,' which, with its intense and
sympathetic mediaevalism, might have been written by a Tractarian. The
'Life of Sterling' is the favourite book of many who would sooner pick
oakum than read 'Frederick the Great' all through; whilst the mere
student of _belles lettres_ may attach importance to the essays
on Johnson, Burns, and Scott, on Voltaire and Diderot, on Goethe and
Novalis, and yet remain blankly indifferent to 'Sartor Resartus' and
'The French Revolution.'
But true as this is, it is none the less true that, excepting possibly
the 'Life of Schiller,' Carlyle wrote nothing not clearly recognisable
as his. All his books are his very own--bone of his bone, and flesh of
his flesh. They are not stolen goods, nor elegant exhibitions of
recently and hastily acquired wares.
This being so, it may be as well if, before proceeding any further, I
attempt, with a scrupulous regard to brevity, to state what I take to
be the invariable indications of Mr. Carlyle's literary handiwork--the
tokens of his presence--'Thomas Carlyle, his mark.'
First of all, it may be stated, without a shadow of a doubt, that he
is one of those who would sooner be wrong with Plato than right with
Aristotle; in one word, he is a mystic. What he says of Novalis may
with equal truth be said of himself: 'He belongs to that class of
persons who do not recognise the syllogistic method as the chief organ
for investigating truth, or feel themselves bound at all times to stop
short where its light fails them. Many of his opinions he would
despair of proving in the most patient court of law, and would remain
well content that they should be disbelieved there.' In philosophy we
shall not be very far wrong if we rank Carlyle as a follower of Bishop
Berkeley; for an idealist he undoubtedly was. 'Matter,' says he,
'exists only spiritually, and to represent some idea, and body it
forth. Heaven and Earth are but the time-vesture of the Eternal. The
Universe is but one vast symbol of God; nay, if thou wilt have it,
what is man himself but a symbol of God? Is not all that he does
symbolical, a revelation to sense of the mystic God-given force that
is in him?--a gospel of Freedom, which he, the "Messias of Nature,"
preaches as he can by act and word.' 'Yes, Friends,' he elsewhere
observes, 'not our logical mensurative faculty, but our imaginative
one, is King over us, I might say Priest and Prophet, to lead us
heavenward, or magician and wizard to lead us hellward. The
understanding is indeed thy window--too clear thou canst not make it;
but phantasy is thy eye, with its colour-giving retina, healthy or
diseased.' It would be easy to multiply instances of this, the most
obvious and interesting trait of Mr. Carlyle's writing; but I must
bring my remarks upon it to a close by reminding you of his two
favourite quotations, which have both significance. One from
'We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep;'
the other, the exclamation of the Earth-spirit, in Goethe's
''Tis thus at the roaring loom of Time I ply,
And weave for God the garment thou seest Him by.'
But this is but one side of Carlyle. There is another as strongly
marked, which is his second note; and that is what he somewhere calls
'his stubborn realism.' The combination of the two is as charming as
it is rare. No one at all acquainted with his writings can fail to
remember his almost excessive love of detail; his lively taste for
facts, simply as facts. Imaginary joys and sorrows may extort from him
nothing but grunts and snorts; but let him only worry out for himself,
from that great dust-heap called 'history,' some undoubted fact of
human and tender interest, and, however small it may be, relating
possibly to some one hardly known, and playing but a small part in the
events he is recording, and he will wax amazingly sentimental, and
perhaps shed as many real tears as Sterne or Dickens do sham ones over
their figments. This realism of Carlyle's gives a great charm to his
histories and biographies. The amount he tells you is something
astonishing--no platitudes, no rigmarole, no common-form, articles
which are the staple of most biography, but, instead of them, all the
facts and features of the case--pedigree, birth, father and mother,
brothers and sisters, education, physiognomy, personal habits, dress,
mode of speech; nothing escapes him. It was a characteristic criticism
of his, on one of Miss Martineau's American books, that the story of
the way Daniel Webster used to stand before the fire with his hands in
his pockets was worth all the politics, philosophy, political economy,
and sociology to be found in other portions of the good lady's
writings. Carlyle's eye was indeed a terrible organ: he saw
everything. Emerson, writing to him, says: 'I think you see as
pictures every street, church, Parliament-house, barracks, baker's
shop, mutton-stall, forge, wharf, and ship, and whatever stands,
creeps, rolls, or swims thereabout, and make all your own.' He crosses
over, one rough day, to Dublin; and he jots down in his diary the
personal appearance of some unhappy creatures he never saw before or
expected to see again; how men laughed, cried, swore, were all of huge
interest to Carlyle. Give him a fact, he loaded you with thanks;
propound a theory, you were rewarded with the most vivid abuse.
This intense love for, and faculty of perceiving, what one may call
the 'concrete picturesque,' accounts for his many hard sayings about
fiction and poetry. He could not understand people being at the
trouble of inventing characters and situations when history was full
of men and women; when streets were crowded and continents were being
peopled under their very noses. Emerson's sphynx-like utterances
irritated him at times, as they well might; his orations and the like.
'I long,' he says, 'to see some _concrete thing_, some Event--
Man's Life, American Forest, or piece of Creation which this Emerson
loves and wonders at, well _Emersonised_, depicted by Emerson--
filled with the life of Emerson, and cast forth from him then to live
by itself.' [*] But Carlyle forgot the sluggishness of the ordinary
imagination, and, for the moment, the stupendous dulness of the
ordinary historian. It cannot be matter for surprise that people
prefer Smollett's 'Humphrey Clinker' to his 'History of England.'
[* Footnote: One need scarcely add, nothing of the sort
ever proceeded from Emerson. How should it? Where was it
to come from? When, to employ language of Mr. Arnold's
own, 'any poor child of nature' overhears the author of
'Essays in Criticism' telling two worlds that Emerson's
'Essays' are the most valuable prose contributions to the
literature of the century, his soul is indeed filled 'with
an unutterable sense of lamentation and mourning and woe.'
Mr. Arnold's silence was once felt to be provoking.
Wordsworth's lines kept occurring to one's mind--
'Poor Matthew, all his frolics o'er,
Is silent as a standing pool.'
But it was better so.]
The third and last mark to which I call attention is his humour.
Nowhere, surely, in the whole field of English literature, Shakespeare
excepted, do you come upon a more abundant vein of humour than
Carlyle's, though I admit that the quality of the ore is not of the
finest. His every production is bathed in humour. This must never be,
though it often has been, forgotten. He is not to be taken literally.
He is always a humourist, not unfrequently a writer of burlesque, and
occasionally a buffoon.
Although the spectacle of Mr. Swinburne taking Mr. Carlyle to task, as
he recently did, for indelicacy, has an oddity all its own, so far as
I am concerned I cannot but concur with this critic in thinking that
Carlyle has laid himself open, particularly in his 'Frederick the
Great,' to the charge one usually associates with the great and
terrible name of Dean Swift; but it is the Dean with a difference, and
the difference is all in Carlyle's favour. The former deliberately
pelts you with dirt, as did in old days gentlemen electors their
parliamentary candidates; the latter only occasionally splashes you,
as does a public vehicle pursuing on a wet day its uproarious course.
These, then, I take to be Carlyle's three principal marks or notes:
mysticism in thought, realism in description, and humour in both.
To proceed now to his actual literary work.
First, then, I would record the fact that he was a great critic, and
this at a time when our literary criticism was a scandal. He more than
any other has purged our vision and widened our horizons in this great
matter. He taught us there was no sort of finality, but only nonsense,
in that kind of criticism which was content with laying down some
foreign masterpiece with the observation that it was not suited for
the English taste. He was, if not the first, almost the first critic,
who pursued in his criticism the historical method, and sought to make
us understand what we were required to judge. It has been said that
Carlyle's criticisms are not final, and that he has not said the last
word about Voltaire, Diderot, Richter, and Goethe. I can well believe
it. But reserving 'last words' for the use of the last man (to whom
they would appear to belong), it is surely something to have said the
_first_ sensible words uttered in English on these important
subjects. We ought not to forget the early days of the _Foreign and
Quarterly Review_. We have critics now, quieter, more reposeful
souls, taking their ease on Zion, who have entered upon a world ready
to welcome them, whose keen rapiers may cut velvet better than did the
two-handed broadsword of Carlyle, and whose later date may enable them
to discern what their forerunner failed to perceive; but when the
critics of this century come to be criticized by the critics of the
next, an honourable, if not the highest place will be awarded to
Turn we now to the historian and biographer. History and biography
much resemble one another in the pages of Carlyle, and occupy more
than half his thirty-four volumes; nor is this to be wondered at,
since they afford him fullest scope for his three strong points--his
love of the wonderful; his love of telling a story, as the children
say, 'from the very beginning;' and his humour. His view of history is
sufficiently lofty. History, says he, is the true epic poem, a
universal divine scripture whose plenary inspiration no one out of
Bedlam shall bring into question. Nor is he quite at one with the
ordinary historian as to the true historical method. 'The time seems
coming when he who sees no world but that of courts and camps, and
writes only how soldiers were drilled and shot, and how this
ministerial conjurer out-conjured that other, and then guided, or at
least held, something which he called the rudder of Government, but
which was rather the spigot of Taxation, wherewith in place of
steering he could tax, will pass for a more or less instructive
Gazetteer, but will no longer be called an Historian.'
Nor does the philosophical method of writing history please him any
'Truly if History is Philosophy teaching by examples, the writer
fitted to compose history is hitherto an unknown man. Better were it
that mere earthly historians should lower such pretensions, more
suitable for omniscience than for human science, and aiming only at
some picture of the things acted, which picture itself will be a poor
approximation, leave the inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged
secret--or at most, in reverent faith, pause over the mysterious
vestiges of Him whose path is in the great deep of Time, whom History
indeed reveals, but only all History and in Eternity will clearly
This same transcendental way of looking at things is very noticeable
in the following view of Biography: 'For, as the highest gospel was a
Biography, so is the life of every good man still an indubitable
gospel, and preaches to the eye and heart and whole man, so that
devils even must believe and tremble, these gladdest tidings. Man is
heaven-born--not the thrall of circumstances, of necessity, but the
victorious subduer thereof.' These, then, being his views, what are we
to say of his works? His three principal historical works are, as
everyone knows, 'Cromwell,' 'The French Revolution,' and 'Frederick
the Great,' though there is a very considerable amount of other
historical writing scattered up and down his works. But what are we to
say of these three? Is he, by virtue of them, entitled to the rank and
influence of a great historian? What have we a right to demand of an
historian? First, surely, stern veracity, which implies not merely
knowledge but honesty. An historian stands in a fiduciary position
towards his readers, and if he withholds from them important facts
likely to influence their judgment, he is guilty of fraud, and, when
justice is done in this world, will be condemned to refund all moneys
he has made by his false professions, with compound interest. This
sort of fraud is unknown to the law, but to nobody else. 'Let me know
the facts!' may well be the agonized cry of the student who finds
himself floating down what Arnold has called 'the vast Mississippi of
falsehood, History.' Secondly comes a catholic temper and way of
looking at things. The historian should be a gentleman and possess a
moral breadth of temperament. There should be no bitter protesting
spirit about him. He should remember the world he has taken upon
himself to write about is a large place, and that nobody set him up
over us. Thirdly, he must be a born story-teller. If he is not this,
he has mistaken his vocation. He may be a great philosopher, a useful
editor, a profound scholar, and anything else his friends like to call
him, except a great historian. How does Carlyle meet these
requirements? His veracity, that is, his laborious accuracy, is
admitted by the only persons competent to form an opinion, namely,
independent investigators who have followed in his track; but what may
be called the internal evidence of the case also supplies a strong
proof of it. Carlyle was, as everyone knows, a hero-worshipper. It is
part of his mysticism. With him man, as well as God, is a spirit,
either of good or evil, and as such should be either worshipped or
reviled. He is never himself till he has discovered or invented a
hero; and, when he has got him, he tosses and dandles him as a mother
her babe. This is a terrible temptation to put in the way of an
historian, and few there be who are found able to resist it. How easy
to keep back an ugly fact, sure to be a stumbling-block in the way of
weak brethren! Carlyle is above suspicion in this respect. He knows no
reticence. Nothing restrains him; not even the so-called proprieties
of history. He may, after his boisterous fashion, pour scorn upon you
for looking grave, as you read in his vivid pages of the reckless
manner in which too many of his heroes drove coaches-and-six through
the Ten Commandments. As likely as not he will call you a blockhead,
and tell you to close your wide mouth and cease shrieking. But, dear
me! hard words break no bones, and it is an amazing comfort to know
the facts. Is he writing of Cromwell?--down goes everything--letters,
speeches, as they were written, as they were delivered. Few great men
are edited after this fashion. Were they to be so--Luther, for
example--many eyes would be opened very wide. Nor does Carlyle fail in
comment. If the Protector makes a somewhat distant allusion to the
Barbadoes, Carlyle is at your elbow to tell you it means his selling
people to work as slaves in the West Indies. As for Mirabeau, 'our
wild Gabriel Honore,' well! we are told all about him; nor is
Frederick let off a single absurdity or atrocity. But when we have
admitted the veracity, what are we to say of the catholic temper, the
breadth of temperament, the wide Shakespearian tolerance? Carlyle
ought to have them all. By nature he was tolerant enough; so true a
humourist could never be a bigot. When his war-paint is not on, a
child might lead him. His judgments are gracious, chivalrous, tinged
with a kindly melancholy and divine pity. But this mood is never for
long. Some gadfly stings him: he seizes his tomahawk and is off on the
trail. It must sorrowfully be admitted that a long life of opposition
and indigestion, of fierce warfare with cooks and Philistines, spoilt
his temper, never of the best, and made him too often contemptuous,
savage, unjust. His language then becomes unreasonable, unbearable,
bad. Literature takes care of herself. You disobey her rules: well and
good, she shuts her door in your face; you plead your genius: she
replies, 'Your temper,' and bolts it. Carlyle has deliberately
destroyed, by his own wilfulness, the value of a great deal he has
written. It can never become classical. Alas! that this should be true
of too many eminent Englishmen of our time. Language such as was, at
one time, almost habitual with Mr. Ruskin, is a national humiliation,
giving point to the Frenchman's sneer as to our distinguishing
literary characteristic being '_la brutalite_.' In Carlyle's case
much must be allowed for his rhetoric and humour. In slang phrase, he
always 'piles it on.' Does a bookseller misdirect a parcel, he
exclaims, 'My malison on all Blockheadisms and Torpid Infidelities of
which this world is full.' Still, all allowances made, it is a
thousand pities; and one's thoughts turn away from this stormy old man
and take refuge in the quiet haven of the Oratory at Birmingham, with
his great Protagonist, who, throughout an equally long life spent in
painful controversy, and wielding weapons as terrible as Carlyle's
own, has rarely forgotten to be urbane, and whose every sentence is a
'thing of beauty.' It must, then, be owned that too many of Carlyle's
literary achievements 'lack a gracious somewhat.' By force of his
genius he 'smites the rock and spreads the water;' but then, like
Moses, 'he desecrates, belike, the deed in doing.'
Our third requirement was, it may be remembered, the gift of the
storyteller. Here one is on firm ground. Where is the equal of the man
who has told us the story of 'The Diamond Necklace'?
It is the vogue, nowadays, to sneer at picturesque writing. Professor
Seeley, for reasons of his own, appears to think that whilst politics,
and, I presume religion, may be made as interesting as you please,
history should be as dull as possible. This, surely, is a jaundiced
view. If there is one thing it is legitimate to make more interesting
than another, it is the varied record of man's life upon earth. So
long as we have human hearts and await human destinies, so long as we
are alive to the pathos, the dignity, the comedy of human life, so
long shall we continue to rank above the philosopher, higher than the
politician, the great artist, be he called dramatist or historian, who
makes us conscious of the divine movement of events, and of our
fathers who were before us. Of course we assume accuracy and labor in
our animated historian; though, for that matter, other things being
equal, I prefer a lively liar to a dull one.
Carlyle is sometimes as irresistible as 'The Campbells are Coming,' or
'Auld Lang Syne.' He has described some men and some events once and
for all, and so takes his place with Thucydides, Tacitus and Gibbon.
Pedants may try hard to forget this, and may in their laboured
nothings seek to ignore the author of 'Cromwell' and 'The French
Revolution'; but as well might the pedestrian in Cumberland or
Inverness seek to ignore Helvellyn or Ben Nevis. Carlyle is
_there_, and will remain there, when the pedant of today has been
superseded by the pedant of to-morrow.
Remembering all this, we are apt to forget his faults, his
eccentricities, and vagaries, his buffooneries, his too-outrageous
cynicisms and his too-intrusive egotisms, and to ask ourselves--if it
be not this man, who is it then to be? Macaulay, answer some; and
Macaulay's claims are not of the sort to go unrecognised in a world
which loves clearness of expression and of view only too well.
Macaulay's position never admitted of doubt. We know what to expect,
and we always get it. It is like the old days of W. G. Grace's
cricket. We went to see the leviathan slog for six, and we saw it. We
expected him to do it, and he did it. So with Macaulay--the good Whig,
as he takes up the History, settles himself down in his chair, and
knows it is going to be a bad time for the Tories. Macaulay's style--
his much-praised style--is ineffectual for the purpose of telling the
truth about anything. It is splendid, but _splendide mendax_, and
in Macaulay's case the style was the man. He had enormous knowledge,
and a noble spirit; his knowledge enriched his style and his spirit
consecrated it to the service of Liberty. We do well to be proud of
Macaulay; but we must add that, great as was his knowledge, great also
was his ignorance, which was none the less ignorance because it was
wilful; noble as was his spirit, the range of subject over which it
energized was painfully restricted. He looked out upon the world, but,
behold, only the Whigs were good. Luther and Loyola, Cromwell and
Claverhouse, Carlyle and Newman--they moved him not; their enthusiasms
were delusions, and their politics demonstrable errors. Whereas, of
Lord Somers and Charles first Earl Grey it is impossible to speak
without emotion. But the world does not belong to the Whigs; and a
great historian must be capable of sympathizing both with delusions
and demonstrable errors. Mr. Gladstone has commented with force upon
what he calls Macaulay's invincible ignorance, and further says that
to certain aspects of a case (particularly those aspects most pleasing
to Mr. Gladstone) Macaulay's mind was hermetically sealed. It is
difficult to resist these conclusions; and it would appear no rash
inference from them, that a man in a state of invincible ignorance and
with a mind hermetically sealed, whatever else he may be--orator,
advocate, statesman, journalist, man of letters--can never be a great
historian. But, indeed, when one remembers Macaulay's limited range of
ideas: the commonplaceness of his morality, and of his descriptions;
his absence of humour, and of pathos--for though Miss Martineau says
she found one pathetic passage in the History, I have often searched
for it in vain; and then turns to Carlyle--to his almost bewildering
affluence of thought, fancy, feeling, humour, pathos--his biting pen,
his scorching criticism, his world-wide sympathy (save in certain
moods) with everything but the smug commonplace--to prefer Macaulay to
him, is like giving the preference to Birket Foster over Salvator
Rosa. But if it is not Macaulay, who is it to be? Mr. Hepworth Dixon
or Mr. Froude? Of Bishop Stubbs and Professor Freeman it behoves every
ignoramus to speak with respect. Horny-handed sons of toil, they are
worthy of their wage. Carlyle has somewhere struck a distinction
between the historical artist and the historical artizan. The bishop
and the professor are historical artizans; artists they are not--and
the great historian is a great artist.
England boasts two such artists. Edward Gibbon and Thomas Carlyle. The
elder historian may be compared to one of the great Alpine roadways--
sublime in its conception, heroic in its execution, superb in its
magnificent uniformity of good workmanship. The younger resembles one
of his native streams, pent in at times between huge rocks, and
tormented into foam, and then effecting its escape down some
precipice, and spreading into cool expanses below; but however varied
may be its fortunes--however startling its changes--always in motion,
always in harmony with the scene around. Is it gloomy? It is with the
gloom of the thunder-cloud. Is it bright? It is with the radiance of
It is with some consternation that I approach the subject of Carlyle's
politics. One handles them as does an inspector of police a parcel
reported to contain dynamite. The Latter-Day Pamphlets might not
unfitly be labelled 'Dangerous Explosives.'
In this matter of politics there were two Carlyles; and, as generally
happens in such cases, his last state was worse than his first. Up to
1843, he not unfairly might be called a Liberal--of uncertain vote it
may be--a man difficult to work with, and impatient of discipline, but
still aglow with generous heat; full of large-hearted sympathy with
the poor and oppressed, and of intense hatred of the cruel and shallow
sophistries that then passed for maxims, almost for axioms, of
government. In the year 1819, when the yeomanry round Glasgow was
called out to keep down some dreadful monsters called 'Radicals,'
Carlyle describes how he met an advocate of his acquaintance hurrying
along, musket in hand, to his drill on the Links. 'You should have the
like of this,' said he, cheerily patting his gun. 'Yes, was the reply,
'but I haven't yet quite settled on which side.' And when he did make
his choice, on the whole he chose rightly. The author of that noble
pamphlet 'Chartism,' published in 1840, was at least once a Liberal.
Let me quote a passage that has stirred to effort many a generous
heart now cold in death: 'Who would suppose that Education were a
thing which had to be advocated on the ground of local expediency, or
indeed on any ground? As if it stood not on the basis of an
everlasting duty, as a prime necessity of man! It is a thing that
should need no advocating; much as it does actually need. To impart
the gift of thinking to those who cannot think, and yet who could in
that case think: this, one would imagine, was the first function a
government had to set about discharging. Were it not a cruel thing to
see, in any province of an empire, the inhabitants living all
mutilated in their limbs, each strong man with his right arm lamed?
How much crueller to find the strong soul with its eyes still sealed--
its eyes extinct, so that it sees not! Light has come into the world;
but to this poor peasant it has come in vain. For six thousand years
the sons of Adam, in sleepless effort, have been devising, doing,
discovering; in mysterious, infinite, indissoluble communion, warring,
a little band of brothers, against the black empire of necessity and
night; they have accomplished such a conquest and conquests; and to
this man it is all as if it had not been. The four-and-twenty letters
of the alphabet are still runic enigmas to him. He passes by on the
other side; and that great spiritual kingdom, the toil-won conquest of
his own brothers, all that his brothers have conquered, is a thing not
extant for him. An invisible empire; he knows it not--suspects it not.
And is not this his withal; the conquest of his own brothers, the
lawfully acquired possession of all men? Baleful enchantment lies over
him, from generation to generation; he knows not that such an empire
is his--that such an empire is his at all.... Heavier wrong is not
done under the sun. It lasts from year to year, from century to
century; the blinded sire slaves himself out, and leaves a blinded
son; and men, made in the image of God, continue as two-legged beasts
of labour: and in the largest empire of the world it is a debate
whether a small fraction of the revenue of one day shall, after
thirteen centuries, be laid out on it, or not laid out on it. Have we
governors? Have we teachers? Have we had a Church these thirteen
hundred years? What is an overseer of souls, an archoverseer,
archiepiscopus? Is he something? If so, let him lay his hand on his
heart and say what thing!'
Nor was the man who in 1843 wrote as follows altogether at sea in
'Of Time Bill, Factory Bill, and other such Bills, the present editor
has no authority to speak. He knows not, it is for others than he to
know, in what specific ways it may be feasible to interfere with
legislation between the workers and the master-workers--knows only and
sees that legislative interference, and interferences not a few, are
indispensable. Nay, interference has begun; there are already factory
inspectors. Perhaps there might be mine inspectors too. Might there
not be furrow-field inspectors withal, to ascertain how, on _7s.
6d._ a week, a human family does live? Again, are not sanitary
regulations possible for a legislature? Baths, free air, a wholesome
temperature, ceilings twenty feet high, might be ordained by Act of
Parliament in all establishments licensed as mills. There are such
mills already extant--honour to the builders of them. The legislature
can say to others, "Go you and do likewise--better if you can."'
By no means a bad programme for 1843; and a good part of it has been
carried out, but with next to no aid from Carlyle.
The Radical party has struggled on as best it might, without the
author of 'Chartism' and 'The French Revolution'--
'They have marched prospering, not through his presence;
Songs have inspired them, not from his lyre;'
and it is no party spirit that leads one to regret the change of mind
which prevented the later public life of this great man, and now the
memory of it, from being enriched with something better than a five-pound
note for Governor Eyre.
But it could not be helped. What brought about the rupture was his
losing faith in the ultimate destiny of man upon earth. No more
terrible loss can be sustained. It is of both heart and hope. He fell
back upon heated visions of heaven-sent heroes, devoting their early
days for the most part to hoodwinking the people, and their latter
ones, more heroically, to shooting them.
But it is foolish to quarrel with results, and we may learn something
even from the later Carlyle. We lay down John Bright's Reform
Speeches, and take up Carlyle and light upon a passage like this:
'Inexpressibly delirious seems to me the puddle of Parliament and
public upon what it calls the Reform Measure, that is to say, the
calling in of new supplies of blockheadism, gullibility, bribability,
amenability to beer and balderdash, by way of amending the woes we
have had from previous supplies of that bad article.' This view must
be accounted for as well as Mr. Bright's. We shall do well to
remember, with Carlyle, that the best of all Reform Bills is that
which each citizen passes in his own breast, where it is pretty sure
to meet with strenuous opposition. The reform of ourselves is no doubt
an heroic measure never to be overlooked, and, in the face of
accusations of gullibility, bribability, amenability to beer and
balderdash, our poor humanity can only stand abashed, and feebly demur
to the bad English in which the charges are conveyed. But we can't all
lose hope. We remember Sir David Ramsay's reply to Lord Rea, once
quoted by Carlyle himself. Then said his lordship: 'Well, God mend
all.' 'Nay, by God, Donald, we must help Him to mend it!' It is idle
to stand gaping at the heavens, waiting to feel the thong of some hero
of questionable morals and robust conscience; and therefore, unless
Reform Bills can be shown to have checked purity of election, to have
increased the stupidity of electors, and generally to have promoted
corruption--which notoriously they have not--we may allow Carlyle to
make his exit 'swearing,' and regard their presence in the Statute
Book, if not with rapture, at least, with equanimity.
But it must not be forgotten that the battle is still raging--the
issue is still uncertain. Mr. Froude is still free to assert that the
'_post-mortem_' will prove Carlyle was right. His political
sagacity no reader of 'Frederick' can deny; his insight into hidden
causes and far-away effects was keen beyond precedent--nothing he ever
said deserves contempt, though it may merit anger. If we would escape
his conclusion, we must not altogether disregard his premises.
Bankruptcy and death are the final heirs of imposture and make-believes.
The old faiths and forms are worn too threadbare by a thousand
disputations to bear the burden of the new democracy, which, if it is
not merely to win the battle but to hold the country, must be ready with
new faiths and forms of her own. They are within her reach if she but
knew it; they lie to her hand: surely they will not escape her grasp!
If they do not, then, in the glad day when worship is once more restored
to man, he will with becoming generosity forget much that Carlyle has
written, and remembering more, rank him amongst the prophets of humanity.
Carlyle's poetry can only be exhibited in long extracts, which would
be here out of place, and might excite controversy as to the meaning
of words, and draw down upon me the measureless malice of the
metricists. There are, however, passages in 'Sartor Resartus' and the
'French Revolution' which have long appeared to me to be the sublimest
poetry of the century; and it was therefore with great pleasure that I
found Mr. Justice Stephen, in his book on 'Liberty, Equality, and
Fraternity,' introducing a quotation from the 8th chapter of the 3rd
book of 'Sartor Resartus,' with the remark that 'it is perhaps the
most memorable utterance of the greatest poet of the age.'
As for Carlyle's religion, it may be said he had none, inasmuch as he
expounded no creed and put his name to no confession. This is the
pedantry of the schools. He taught us religion, as cold water and
fresh air teach us health, by rendering the conditions of disease well
nigh impossible. For more than half a century, with superhuman energy,
he struggled to establish the basis of all religions, 'reverence and
godly fear.' 'Love not pleasure, love God; this is the everlasting
One's remarks might here naturally come to an end, with a word or two
of hearty praise of the brave course of life led by the man who awhile
back stood the acknowledged head of English letters. But the present
time is not the happiest for a panegyric on Carlyle. It would be in
vain to deny that the brightness of his reputation underwent an
eclipse, visible everywhere, by the publication of his 'Reminiscences.'
They surprised most of us, pained not a few, and hugely delighted that
ghastly crew, the wreckers of humanity, who are never so happy as when
employed in pulling down great reputations to their own miserable
levels. When these 'baleful creatures,' as Carlyle would have called
them, have lit upon any passage indicative of conceit or jealousy or
spite, they have fastened upon it and screamed over it, with a
pleasure but ill-concealed and with a horror but ill-feigned.
'Behold,' they exclaim, 'your hero robbed of the nimbus his inflated
style cast around him--this preacher and fault-finder reduced to his
principal parts: and lo! the main ingredient is most unmistakably
The critic, however, has nought to do either with the sighs of the
sorrowful, 'mourning when a hero falls,' or with the scorn of the
malicious, rejoicing, as did Bunyan's Juryman, Mr. Live-loose, when
Faithful was condemned to die: 'I could never endure him, for he would
always be condemning my way.'
The critic's task is to consider the book itself, _i. e._, the
nature of its contents, and how it came to be written at all.
When this has been done, there will not be found much demanding moral
censure; whilst the reader will note with delight, applied to the
trifling concerns of life, those extraordinary gifts of observation
and apprehension which have so often charmed him in the pages of
history and biography.
These peccant volumes contain but four sketches: one of his father,
written in 1832; the other three, of Edward Irving, Lord Jeffrey, and
Mrs. Carlyle, all written after the death of the last-named, in 1866.
The only fault that has been found with the first sketch is, that in
it Carlyle hazards the assertion that Scotland does not now contain
his father's like. It ought surely to be possible to dispute this
opinion without exhibiting emotion. To think well of their forbears is
one of the few weaknesses of Scotchmen. This sketch, as a whole, must
be carried to Carlyle's credit, and is a permanent addition to
literature. It is pious, after the high Roman fashion. It satisfies
our finest sense of the fit and proper. Just exactly so should a
literate son write of an illiterate peasant father. How immeasurable
seems the distance between the man from whom proceeded the thirty-four
volumes we have been writing about and the Calvinistic mason who
didn't even know his Burns!--and yet here we find the whole distance
spanned by filial love.
The sketch of Lord Jeffrey is inimitable. One was getting tired of
Jeffrey, and prepared to give him the go-by, when Carlyle creates him
afresh, and, for the first time, we see the bright little man
bewitching us by what he is, disappointing us by what he is not. The
spiteful remarks the sketch contains may be considered, along with
those of the same nature to be found only too plentifully in the
remaining two papers.
After careful consideration of the worst of these remarks, Mrs.
Oliphant's explanation seems the true one; they are most of them
sparkling bits of Mrs. Carlyle's conversation. She, happily for
herself, had a lively wit, and, perhaps not so happily, a biting
tongue, and was, as Carlyle tells us, accustomed to make him laugh, as
they drove home together from London crushes, by far from genial
observations on her fellow-creatures, little recking--how should she?
--that what was so lightly uttered was being engraven on the tablets of
the most marvellous of memories, and was destined long afterwards to
be written down in grim earnest by a half-frenzied old man, and
printed, in cold blood, by an English gentleman.
The horrible description of Mrs. Irving's personal appearance, and the
other stories of the same connection, are recognised by Mrs. Oliphant
as in substance Mrs. Carlyle's; whilst the malicious account of Mrs.
Basil Montague's head-dress is attributed by Carlyle himself to his
wife. Still, after dividing the total, there is a good helping for
each, and blame would justly be Carlyle's due if we did not remember,
as we are bound to do, that, interesting as these three sketches are,
their interest is pathological, and ought never to have been given us.
Mr. Froude should have read them in tears, and burnt them in fire.
There is nothing surprising in the state of mind which produced them.
They are easily accounted for by our sorrow-laden experience. It is a
familiar feeling which prompts a man, suddenly bereft of one whom he
alone really knew and loved, to turn in his fierce indignation upon
the world, and deride its idols whom all are praising, and which yet
to him seem ugly by the side of one of whom no one speaks. To be angry
with such a sentence as 'scribbling Sands and Eliots, not fit to
compare with my incomparable Jeannie,' is at once inhuman and
ridiculous. This is the language of the heart, not of the head. It is
no more criticism than is the trumpeting of a wounded elephant
Happy is the man who at such a time holds both peace and pen; but
unhappiest of all is he who, having dipped his sorrow into ink,
entrusts the manuscript to a romantic historian.
The two volumes of the 'Life,' and the three volumes of Mrs. Carlyle's
'Correspondence,' unfortunately did not pour oil upon the troubled
waters. The partizanship they evoked was positively indecent. Mrs.
Carlyle had her troubles and her sorrows, as have most women who live
under the same roof with a man of creative genius; but of one thing we
may be quite sure, that she would have been the first, to use her own
expressive language, to require God 'particularly to damn' her
impertinent sympathizers. As for Mr. Froude, he may yet discover his
Nemesis in the spirit of an angry woman whose privacy he has invaded,
and whose diary he has most wantonly published.
These dark clouds are ephemeral. They will roll away, and we shall
once more gladly recognise the lineaments of an essentially lofty
character, of one who, though a man of genius and of letters, neither
outraged society nor stooped to it; was neither a rebel nor a slave;
who in poverty scorned wealth; who never mistook popularity for fame;
but from the first assumed, and throughout maintained, the proud
attitude of one whose duty it was to teach and not to tickle mankind.
Brother-dunces, lend me your ears! not to crop, but that I may whisper
into their furry depths: 'Do not quarrel with genius. We have none
ourselves, and yet are so constituted that we cannot live without it.'
ON THE ALLEGED OBSCURITY OF MR. BROWNING'S POETRY.
'The sanity of true genius' was a happy phrase of Charles Lamb's. Our
greatest poets were our sanest men. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare,
Milton, and Wordsworth might have defied even a mad doctor to prove
To extol sanity ought to be unnecessary in an age which boasts its
realism; but yet it may be doubted whether, if the author of the
phrase just quoted were to be allowed once more to visit the world he
loved so well and left so reluctantly, and could be induced to
forswear his Elizabethans and devote himself to the literature of the
day, he would find many books which his fine critical faculty would
allow him to pronounce 'healthy,' as he once pronounced 'John Buncle'
to be in the presence of a Scotchman, who could not for the life of
him understand how a book could properly be said to enjoy either good
or bad health.
But, however this may be, this much is certain, that lucidity is one
of the chief characteristics of sanity. A sane man ought not to be
unintelligible. Lucidity is good everywhere, for all time and in all
things, in a letter, in a speech, in a book, in a poem. Lucidity is
not simplicity. A lucid poem is not necessarily an easy one. A great
poet may tax our brains, but he ought not to puzzle our wits. We may
often have to ask in Humility, What _does_ he mean? but not in
despair, What _can_ he mean?
Dreamy and inconclusive the poet sometimes, nay, often, cannot help
being, for dreaminess and inconclusiveness are conditions of thought
when dwelling on the very subjects that most demand poetical
Misty, therefore, the poet has our kind permission sometimes to be;
but muddy, never! A great poet, like a great peak, must sometimes be
allowed to have his head in the clouds, and to disappoint us of the
wide prospect we had hoped to gain; but the clouds which envelop him
must be attracted to, and not made by him.
In a sentence, though the poet may give expression to what Wordsworth
has called 'the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible
world,' we, the much-enduring public who have to read his poems, are
entitled to demand that the unintelligibility of which we are made to
feel the weight, should be all of it the world's, and none of it
merely the poet's.
We should not have ventured to introduce our subject with such very
general and undeniable observations, had not experience taught us that
the best way of introducing any subject is by a string of platitudes,
delivered after an oracular fashion. They arouse attention, without
exhausting it, and afford the pleasant sensation of thinking, without
any of the trouble of thought. But, the subject once introduced, it
becomes necessary to proceed with it.
In considering whether a poet is intelligible and lucid, we ought not
to grope and grub about his work in search of obscurities and
oddities, but should, in the first instance at all events, attempt to
regard his whole scope and range; to form some estimate, if we can, of
his general purport and effect, asking ourselves, for this purpose,
such questions as these: How are we the better for him? Has he
quickened any passion, lightened any burden, purified any taste? Does
he play any real part in our lives? When we are in love, do we whisper
him in our lady's ear? When we sorrow, does he ease our pain? Can he
calm the strife of mental conflict? Has he had anything to say, which
wasn't twaddle, on those subjects which, elude analysis as they may,
and defy demonstration as they do, are yet alone of perennial
'On man, on nature, and on human life,'
on the pathos of our situation, looking back on to the irrevocable and
forward to the unknown? If a poet has said, or done, or been any of
these things to an appreciable extent, to charge him with obscurity is
both folly and ingratitude.
But the subject may be pursued further, and one may be called upon to
investigate this charge with reference to particular books or poems.
In Browning's case this fairly may be done; and then another crop of
questions arises, such as: What is the book about, _i. e._, with
what subject does it deal, and what method of dealing does it employ?
Is it didactical, analytical, or purely narrative? Is it content to
describe, or does it aspire to explain? In common fairness these
questions must be asked and answered, before we heave our critical
half-bricks at strange poets. One task is of necessity more difficult
than another. Students of geometry, who have pushed their researches
into that fascinating science so far as the fifth proposition of the
first book, commonly called the _Pons Asinorum_ (though now that
so many ladies read Euclid, it ought, in common justice to them, to be
at least sometimes called the _Pons Asinarum_), will agree that
though it may be more difficult to prove that the angles at the base
of an isosceles triangle are equal, and that if the equal sides be
produced, the angles on the other side of the base shall be equal,
than it was to describe an equilateral triangle on a given finite
straight line; yet no one but an ass would say that the fifth
proposition was one whit less intelligible than the first. When we
consider Mr. Browning in his later writings, it will be useful to bear
this distinction in mind.
Our first duty, then, is to consider Mr. Browning in his whole scope
and range, or, in a word, generally. This is a task of such dimensions
and difficulty as, in the language of joint-stock prospectuses, 'to
transcend individual enterprise,' and consequently, as we all know, a
company has been recently floated, or a society established, having
Mr. Browning for its principal object. It has a president, two
secretaries, male and female, and a treasurer. You pay a guinea, and
you become a member. A suitable reduction is, I believe, made in the
unlikely event of all the members of one family flocking to be
enrolled. The existence of this society is a great relief, for it
enables us to deal with our unwieldy theme in a light-hearted manner,
and to refer those who have a passion for solid information and
profound philosophy to the printed transactions of this learned
society, which, lest we should forget all about it, we at once do.
When you are viewing a poet generally, as is our present plight, the
first question is: When was he born? The second, When did he (to use a
favourite phrase of the last century, now in disuse)--When did he
commence author? The third, How long did he keep at it? The fourth,
How much has he written? And the fifth may perhaps be best expressed
in the words of Southey's little Peterkin:
'"What good came of it all at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.'
Mr. Browning was born in 1812; he commenced author with the fragment
called 'Pauline,' published in 1833. He is still writing, and his
works, as they stand upon my shelves--for editions vary--number
twenty-three volumes. Little Peterkin's question is not so easily
answered; but, postponing it for a moment, the answers to the other
four show that we have to deal with a poet, more than seventy years
old, who has been writing for half a century, and who has filled
twenty-three volumes. The Browning Society at all events has assets.
The way I propose to deal with this literary mass is to divide it in
two, taking the year 1864 as the line of cleavage. In that year the
volume called 'Dramatis Personae' was published, and then nothing
happened till the year 1868, when our poet presented the astonished
English language with the four volumes and the 21,116 lines called
'The Ring and the Book,' a poem which it may be stated, for the
benefit of that large, increasing, and highly interesting class of
persons who prefer statistics to poetry, is longer than Pope's
'Homer's Iliad' by exactly 2,171 lines. We thus begin with 'Pauline'
in 1833, and end with 'Dramatis Personae' in 1864. We then begin again
with 'The Ring and the Book,' in 1868; but when or where we shall end
cannot be stated. 'Sordello,' published in 1840, is better treated
apart, and is therefore excepted from the first period, to which
chronologically it belongs.
Looking then at the first period, we find in its front eight plays:
1. 'Strafford,' written in 1836, when its author was twenty-four years
old, and put upon the boards of Covent Garden Theatre on the 1st of
May, 1837, Macready playing Strafford, and Miss Helen Faucit Lady
Carlisle. It was received with much enthusiasm; but the company was
rebellious and the manager bankrupt; and after running five nights,
the man who played Pym threw up his part, and the theatre was closed.
2. 'Pippa Passes.'
3. 'King Victor and King Charles.'
4. 'The Return of the Druses.'
5. 'A Blot in the 'Scutcheon.'
This beautiful and pathetic play was put on the stage of Drury Lane on
the 11th of February, 1843, with Phelps as Lord Tresham, Miss Helen
Faucit as Mildred Tresham, and Mrs. Stirling, still known to us all,
as Guendolen. It was a brilliant success. Mr. Browning was in the
stage-box; and if it is any satisfaction for a poet to hear a crowded
house cry 'Author, author!' that satisfaction has belonged to Mr.
Browning. The play ran several nights; and was only stopped because
one of Mr. Macready's bankruptcies happened just then to intervene. It
was afterwards revived by Mr. Phelps, during his 'memorable
management' of Sadlers' Wells.
6. 'Colombe's Birthday.' Miss Helen Faucit put this upon the stage in
1852, when it was reckoned a success.
8. 'A Soul's Tragedy.'
To call any of these plays unintelligible is ridiculous; and nobody
who has ever read them ever did, and why people who have not read them
should abuse them is hard to see. Were society put upon its oath, we
should be surprised to find how many people in high places have not
read 'All's Well that Ends Well,' or 'Timon of Athens;' but they don't
go about saying these plays are unintelligible. Like wise folk, they
pretend to have read them, and say nothing. In Browning's case they
are spared the hypocrisy. No one need pretend to have read 'A Soul's
Tragedy;' and it seems, therefore, inexcusable for anyone to assert
that one of the plainest, most pointed, and piquant bits of writing in
the language is unintelligible. But surely something more may be
truthfully said of these plays than that they are comprehensible.
First of all, they are _plays_, and not _works_--like the dropsical
dramas of Sir Henry Taylor and Mr. Swinburne. Some of them have stood
the ordeal of actual representation; and though it would be absurd to
pretend that they met with that overwhelming measure of success our
critical age has reserved for such dramatists as the late Lord Lytton,
the author of 'Money,' the late Tom Taylor, the author of 'The
Overland Route,' the late Mr. Robertson, the author of 'Caste,' Mr. H.
Byron, the author of 'Our Boys,' Mr. Wills, the author of 'Charles
I.,' Mr. Burnand, the author of 'The Colonel,' and Mr. Gilbert, the
author of so much that is great and glorious in our national drama; at
all events they proved themselves able to arrest and retain the
attention of very ordinary audiences. But who can deny dignity and
even grandeur to 'Luria,' or withhold the meed of a melodious tear
from 'Mildred Tresham'? What action of what play is more happily
conceived or better rendered than that of 'Pippa Passes'?--where
innocence and its reverse, tender love and violent passion, are
presented with emphasis, and yet blended into a dramatic unity and a
poetic perfection, entitling the author to the very first place
amongst those dramatists of the century who have laboured under the
enormous disadvantage of being poets to start with.
Passing from the plays, we are next attracted by a number of splendid
poems, on whose base the structure of Mr. Browning's fame perhaps
rests most surely--his dramatic pieces--poems which give utterance to
the thoughts and feelings of persons other than himself, or, as he
puts it, when dedicating a number of them to his wife:
'Love, you saw me gather men and women,
Live or dead, or fashioned by my fancy,
Enter each and all, and use their service,
Speak from every mouth the speech--a poem;'
or, again, in 'Sordello':
'By making speak, myself kept out of view,
The very man, as he was wont to do.'
At a rough calculation, there must be at least sixty of these pieces.
Let me run over the names of a very few of them. 'Saul,' a poem
beloved by all true women; 'Caliban,' which the men, not unnaturally
perhaps, often prefer. The 'Two Bishops'; the sixteenth century one
ordering his tomb of jasper and basalt in St. Praxed's Church, and his
nineteenth century successor rolling out his post-prandial
_Apologia_. 'My Last Duchess,' the 'Soliloquy in a Spanish
Cloister,' 'Andrea del Sarto,' 'Fra Lippo Lippi,' 'Rabbi Ben Ezra,'
'Cleon,' 'A Death in the Desert,' 'The Italian in England,' and 'The
Englishman in Italy.'
It is plain truth to say that no other English poet, living or dead,
Shakespeare excepted, has so heaped up human interest for his readers
as has Robert Browning.
Fancy stepping into a room and finding it full of Shakespeare's
principal characters! What a babel of tongues! What a jostling of
wits! How eagerly one's eye would go in search of Hamlet and Sir John
Falstaff, but droop shudderingly at the thought of encountering the
distraught gaze of Lady Macbeth! We should have no difficulty in
recognising Beatrice in the central figure of that lively group of
laughing courtiers; whilst did we seek Juliet, it would, of course, be
by appointment on the balcony. To fancy yourself in such company is
pleasant matter for a midsummer's night's dream. No poet has such a
gallery as Shakespeare, but of our modern poets Browning comes nearest
Against these dramatic pieces the charge of unintelligibility fails as
completely as it does against the plays. They are all perfectly
intelligible; but--and here is the rub--they are not easy reading,
like the estimable writings of the late Mrs. Hemans. They require the
same honest attention as it is the fashion to give to a lecture of
Professor Huxley's or a sermon of Canon Liddon's: and this is just
what too many persons will not give to poetry. They
'Love to hear
A soft pulsation in their easy ear;
To turn the page, and let their senses drink
A lay that shall not trouble them to think.'
It is no great wonder it should be so. After dinner, when disposed to
sleep, but afraid of spoiling our night's rest, behold the witching
hour reserved by the nineteenth century for the study of poetry! This
treatment of the muse deserves to be held up to everlasting scorn and
infamy in a passage of Miltonic strength and splendour. We, alas!
must be content with the observation, that such an opinion of the true
place of poetry in the life of a man excites, in the breasts of the
rightminded, feelings akin to those which Charles Lamb ascribes to the
immortal Sarah Battle, when a young gentleman of a literary turn, on
taking a hand in her favourite game of whist, declared that he saw no
harm in unbending the mind, now and then, after serious studies, in
recreations of that kind. She could not bear, so Elia proceeds, 'to
have her noble occupation, to which she wound up her faculties,
considered in that light. It was her business, her duty--the thing she
came into the world to do--and she did it: she unbent her mind,
afterwards, over a book!' And so the lover of poetry and Browning,
after winding-up his faculties over 'Comus' or 'Paracelsus,' over
'Julius Caesar' or 'Strafford,' may afterwards, if he is so minded,
unbend himself over the 'Origin of Species,' or that still more
fascinating record which tells us how little curly worms, only give
them time enough, will cover with earth even the larger kind of
Next to these dramatic pieces come what we may be content to call
simply poems: some lyrical, some narrative. The latter are
straightforward enough, and, as a rule, full of spirit and humour; but
this is more than can always be said of the lyrical pieces. Now, for
the first time, in dealing with this first period, excluding
'Sordello,' we strike difficulty. The Chinese puzzle comes in. We
wonder whether it all turns on the punctuation. And the awkward thing
for Mr. Browning's reputation is this, that these bewildering poems
are, for the most part, very short. We say awkward, for it is not more
certain that Sarah Gamp liked her beer drawn mild, than it is that
your Englishman likes his poetry cut short; and so, accordingly, it
often happens that some estimable paterfamilias takes up an odd volume
of Browning his volatile son or moonstruck daughter has left lying
about, pishes and pshaws! and then, with an air of much condescension
and amazing candour, remarks that he will give the fellow another
chance, and not condemn him unread. So saying, he opens the book, and
carefully selects the very shortest poem he can find; and in a moment,
without sign or signal, note or warning, the unhappy man is
floundering up to his neck in lines like these, which are the third
and final stanza of a poem called 'Another Way of Love':
'And after, for pastime,
If June be refulgent
With flowers in completeness,
All petals, no prickles,
Delicious as trickles
Of wine poured at mass-time,
And choose One indulgent
To redness and sweetness;
Or if with experience of man and of spider,
She use my June lightning, the strong insect-ridder
To stop the fresh spinning,--why June will consider.'
He comes up gasping, and more than ever persuaded that Browning's
poetry is a mass of inconglomerate nonsense, which nobody understands
--least of all members of the Browning Society.
We need be at no pains to find a meaning for everything Mr. Browning
has written. But when all is said and done--when these few freaks of a
crowded brain are thrown overboard to the sharks of verbal criticism
who feed on such things--Mr. Browning and his great poetical
achievement remain behind to be dealt with and accounted for. We do
not get rid of the Laureate by quoting:
'O darling room, my heart's delight,
Dear room, the apple of my sight,
With thy two couches soft and white
There is no room so exquisite--
No little room so warm and bright
Wherein to read, wherein to write;'
or of Wordsworth by quoting:
'At this, my boy hung down his head:
He blushed with shame, nor made reply,
And five times to the child I said,
"Why, Edward? tell me why?"'--
or of Keats by remembering that he once addressed a young lady as
'O come, Georgiana! the rose is full blown,
The riches of Flora are lavishly strown:
The air is all softness and crystal the streams,
The west is resplendently clothed in beams.'
The strength of a rope may be but the strength of its weakest part;
but poets are to be judged in their happiest hours, and in their
Taking, then, this first period of Mr. Browning's poetry as a whole,
and asking ourselves if we are the richer for it, how can there be any
doubt as to the reply? What points of human interest has he left
untouched? With what phase of life, character, or study does he fail
to sympathize? So far from being the rough-hewn block 'dull fools'
have supposed him, he is the most dilettante of great poets. Do you
dabble in art and perambulate picture-galleries? Browning must be your
favourite poet: he is art's historian. Are you devoted to music? So is
he: and alone of our poets has sought to fathom in verse the deep
mysteries of sound. Do you find it impossible to keep off theology?
Browning has more theology than most bishops--could puzzle Gamaliel
and delight Aquinas. Are you in love? Read 'A Last Ride Together,'
'Youth and Art,' 'A Portrait,' 'Christine,' 'In a Gondola,' 'By the
Fireside,' 'Love amongst the Ruins,' 'Time's Revenges,' 'The Worst of
It,' and a host of others, being careful always to end with 'A
Madhouse Cell'; and we are much mistaken if you do not put Browning at
the very head and front of the interpreters of passion. The many moods
of sorrow are reflected in his verse, whilst mirth, movement, and a
rollicking humour abound everywhere.
I will venture upon but three quotations, for it is late in the day to
be quoting Browning. The first shall be a well-known bit of blank
verse about art from 'Fra Lippo Lippi':
'For, don't you mark, we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see:
And so they are better painted--better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that--
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed now
Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And, trust me, but you should though. How much more
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
That were to take the prior's pulpit-place--
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh!
It makes me mad to see what men shall do,
And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank: it means intensely, and means good.
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.'
The second is some rhymed rhetoric from 'Holy Cross Day'--the
testimony of the dying Jew in Rome:
'This world has been harsh and strange,
Something is wrong: there needeth a change.
But what or where? at the last or first?
In one point only we sinned at worst.
'The Lord will have mercy on Jacob yet,
And again in his border see Israel set.
When Judah beholds Jerusalem,
The stranger seed shall be joined to them:
To Jacob's house shall the Gentiles cleave:
So the prophet saith, and his sons believe.
'Ay, the children of the chosen race
Shall carry and bring them to their place;
In the land of the Lord shall lead the same,
Bondsmen and handmaids. Who shall blame
When the slaves enslave, the oppressed ones o'er
The oppressor triumph for evermore?
'God spoke, and gave us the word to keep:
Bade never fold the hands, nor sleep
'Mid a faithless world, at watch and ward,
Till the Christ at the end relieve our guard.
By His servant Moses the watch was set:
Though near upon cockcrow, we keep it yet.
'Thou! if Thou wast He, who at mid-watch came,
By the starlight naming a dubious Name;
And if we were too heavy with sleep, too rash
With fear--O Thou, if that martyr-gash
Fell on Thee, coming to take Thine own,
And we gave the Cross, when we owed the throne;
'Thou art the Judge. We are bruised thus.
But, the Judgment over, join sides with us!
Thine, too, is the cause! and not more Thine
Than ours is the work of these dogs and swine,
Whose life laughs through and spits at their creed,
Who maintain Thee in word, and defy Thee in deed.
'We withstood Christ then? Be mindful how
At least we withstand Barabbas now!
Was our outrage sore? But the worst we spared,
To have called these--Christians--had we dared!
Let defiance to them pay mistrust of Thee,
And Rome make amends for Calvary!
'By the torture, prolonged from age to age;
By the infamy, Israel's heritage;
By the Ghetto's plague, by the garb's disgrace,
By the badge of shame, by the felon's place,
By the branding-tool, the bloody whip,
And the summons to Christian fellowship,
'We boast our proof, that at least the Jew
Would wrest Christ's name from the devil's crew.'
The last quotation shall be from the veritable Browning--of one of
those poetical audacities none ever dared but the Danton of modern
poetry. Audacious in its familiar realism, in its total disregard of
poetical environment, in its rugged abruptness: but supremely
successful, and alive with emotion:
'What is he buzzing in my ears?
Now that I come to die,
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?
Ah, reverend sir, not I.
'What I viewed there once, what I view again,
Where the physic bottles stand
On the table's edge, is a suburb lane,
With a wall to my bedside hand.
'That lane sloped, much as the bottles do,
From a house you could descry
O'er the garden-wall. Is the curtain blue
Or green to a healthy eye?
'To mine, it serves for the old June weather,
Blue above lane and wall;
And that farthest bottle, labelled "Ether,"
Is the house o'ertopping all.
'At a terrace somewhat near its stopper,
There watched for me, one June,
A girl--I know, sir, it's improper:
My poor mind's out of tune.
'Only there was a way--you crept
Close by the side, to dodge
Eyes in the house--two eyes except.
They styled their house "The Lodge."
'What right had a lounger up their lane?
But by creeping very close,
With the good wall's help their eyes might strain
And stretch themselves to oes,
'Yet never catch her and me together,
As she left the attic--there,
By the rim of the bottle labelled "Ether"--
And stole from stair to stair,
'And stood by the rose-wreathed gate. Alas!
We loved, sir; used to meet.
How sad and bad and mad it was!
But then, how it was sweet!'
The second period of Mr. Browning's poetry demands a different line of
argument; for it is, in my judgment, folly to deny that he has of late
years written a great deal which makes very difficult reading indeed.
No doubt you may meet people who tell you that they read 'The Ring and
the Book' for the first time without much mental effort; but you will
do well not to believe them. These poems are difficult--they cannot
help being so. What is 'The Ring and the Book'? A huge novel in 20,000
lines--told after the method not of Scott but of Balzac; it tears the
hearts out of a dozen characters; it tells the same story from ten
different points of view. It is loaded with detail of every kind and
description: you are let off nothing. As with a schoolboy's life at a
large school, if he is to enjoy it at all, he must fling himself into
it, and care intensely about everything--so the reader of 'The Ring
and the Book' must be interested in everybody and everything, down to
the fact that the eldest daughter of the counsel for the prosecution
of Guido is eight years old on the very day he is writing his speech,
and that he is going to have fried liver and parsley for his supper.
If you are prepared for this, you will have your reward; for the
_style_, though rugged and involved, is throughout, with the
exception of the speeches of counsel, eloquent, and at times superb;
and as for the _matter_, if your interest in human nature is
keen, curious, almost professional--if nothing man, woman, or child
has been, done, or suffered, or conceivably can be, do, or suffer, is
without interest for you; if you are fond of analysis, and do not
shrink from dissection--you will prize 'The Ring and the Book' as the
surgeon prizes the last great contribution to comparative anatomy or
But this sort of work tells upon style. Browning has, I think, fared
better than some writers. To me, at all events, the step from 'A Blot
in the 'Scutcheon' to 'The Ring and the Book' is not so marked as is
the _mauvais pas_ that lies between 'Amos Barton' and 'Daniel
Deronda.' But difficulty is not obscurity. One task is more difficult
than another. The angles at the base of the isosceles triangles are
apt to get mixed, and to confuse us all--man and woman alike. 'Prince
Hohenstiel' something or another is a very difficult poem, not only to
pronounce but to read; but if a poet chooses as his subject Napoleon
III.--in whom the cad, the coward, the idealist, and the sensualist
were inextricably mixed--and purports to make him unbosom himself over
a bottle of Gladstone claret in a tavern in Leicester Square, you
cannot expect that the product should belong to the same class of
poetry as Mr. Coventry Patmore's admirable 'Angel in the House.'
It is the method that is difficult. Take the husband in 'The Ring and
the Book.' Mr. Browning remorselessly hunts him down, tracks him to
the last recesses of his mind, and there bids him stand and deliver.
He describes love, not only broken but breaking; hate in its germ;
doubt at its birth. These are difficult things to do either in poetry
or prose, and people with easy, flowing Addisonian or Tennysonian
styles cannot do them.
I seem to overhear a still, small voice asking, But are they worth
doing? or at all events is it the province of art to do them? The
question ought not to be asked. It is heretical, being contrary to the
whole direction of the latter half of this century. The chains binding
us to the rocks of realism are faster riveted every day; and the
Perseus who is destined to cut them is, I expect, some mischievous
little boy at a Board-school. But as the question has been asked, I
will own that sometimes, even when deepest in works of this, the now
orthodox school, I have been harassed by distressing doubts whether,
after all, this enormous labour is not in vain; and, wearied by the
effort, overloaded by the detail, bewildered by the argument, and
sickened by the pitiless dissection of character and motive, have been
tempted to cry aloud, quoting--or rather, in the agony of the moment,
Thou better name than all the family of Fame.'
But this ebullition of feeling is childish and even sinful. We must
take our poets as we do our meals--as they are served up to us.
Indeed, you may, if full of courage, give a cook notice, but not the
time-spirit who makes our poets. We may be sure--to appropriate an
idea of the late Sir James Stephen--that if Robert Browning had lived
in the sixteenth century, he would not have written a poem like 'The
Ring and the Book'; and if Edmund Spenser had lived in the nineteenth
century he would not have written a poem like the 'Faerie Queen.'
It is therefore idle to arraign Mr. Browning's later method and style
for possessing difficulties and intricacies which are inherent to it.
The method, at all events, has an interest of its own, a strength of
its own, a grandeur of its own. If you do not like it, you must leave
it alone. You are fond, you say, of romantic poetry; well, then, take
down your Spenser and qualify yourself to join 'the small transfigured
band' of those who are able to take their Bible-oaths they have read
their 'Faerie Queen' all through. The company, though small, is
delightful, and you will have plenty to talk about without abusing
Browning, who probably knows his Spenser better than you do. Realism
will not for ever dominate the world of letters and art--the fashion
of all things passeth away--but it has already earned a great place:
it has written books, composed poems, painted pictures, all stamped
with that 'greatness' which, despite fluctuations, nay, even reversals
of taste and opinion, means immortality.
But against Mr. Browning's later poems it is sometimes alleged that
their meaning is obscure because their grammar is bad. A cynic was
once heard to observe with reference to that noble poem 'The
Grammarian's Funeral,' that it was a pity the talented author had ever
since allowed himself to remain under the delusion that he had not
only buried the grammarian, but his grammar also. It is doubtless true
that Mr. Browning has some provoking ways, and is something too much
of a verbal acrobat. Also, as his witty parodist, the pet poet of six
generations of Cambridge undergraduates, reminds us:
'He loves to dock the smaller parts of speech,
As we curtail the already curtailed cur.'
It is perhaps permissible to weary a little of his _i_'s and
_o_'s, but we believe we cannot be corrected when we say that
Browning is a poet whose grammar will bear scholastic investigation
better than that of most of Apollo's children.
A word about 'Sordello.' One half of 'Sordello,' and that, with Mr.
Browning's usual ill-luck, the first half, is undoubtedly obscure. It
is as difficult to read as 'Endymion' or the 'Revolt of Islam,' and
for the same reason--the author's lack of experience in the art of
composition. We have all heard of the young architect who forgot to
put a staircase in his house, which contained fine rooms, but no way
of getting into them. 'Sordello' is a poem without a staircase. The
author, still in his twenties, essayed a high thing. For his subject--
'He singled out
Sordello compassed murkily about
With ravage of six long sad hundred years.'
He partially failed; and the British public, with its accustomed
generosity, and in order, I suppose, to encourage the others, has
never ceased girding at him, because forty-two years ago he published,
at his own charges, a little book of two hundred and fifty pages,
which even such of them as were then able to read could not
Poetry should be vital--either stirring our blood by its divine
movement, or snatching our breath by its divine perfection. To do both
is supreme glory; to do either is enduring fame.
There is a great deal of beautiful poetical writing to be had nowadays
from the booksellers. It is interesting reading, but as one reads one
trembles. It smells of mortality. It would seem as if, at the very
birth of most of our modern poems,
'The conscious Parcae threw
Upon their roseate lips a Stygian hue.'
That their lives may be prolonged is my pious prayer. In these bad
days, when it is thought more educationally useful to know the
principle of the common pump than Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' one
cannot afford to let any good poetry die.
But when we take down Browning, we cannot think of him and the 'wormy
bed' together. He is so unmistakably and deliciously alive. Die,
indeed! when one recalls the ideal characters he has invested with
reality; how he has described love and joy, pain and sorrow, art and
music; as poems like 'Childe Roland,' 'Abt Vogler,' 'Evelyn Hope,'
'The Worst of It,' 'Pictor Ignotus,' 'The Lost Leader,' 'Home Thoughts
from Abroad,' 'Old Pictures in Florence,' 'Herve Riel,' 'A
Householder,' 'Fears and Scruples,' come tumbling into one's memory,
one over another--we are tempted to employ the language of hyperbole,
and to answer the question 'Will Browning die?' by exclaiming, 'Yes;
when Niagara stops.' In him indeed we can
Infinite passion and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.'
But love of Mr. Browning's poetry is no exclusive cult.
Of Lord Tennyson it is needless to speak. Certainly amongst his Peers
there is no such Poet.
Mr. Arnold may have a limited poetical range and a restricted style,
but within that range and in that style, surely we must exclaim:
'Whence that completed form of all completeness?
Whence came that high perfection of all sweetness?'
Rossetti's luscious lines seldom fail to cast a spell by which
'In sundry moods 'tis pastime to be bound.'
William Morris has a sunny slope of Parnassus all to himself, and Mr.
Swinburne has written some verses over which the world will long love
Dull must he be of soul who can take up Cardinal Newman's 'Verses on
Various Occasions,' or Miss Christina Rossetti's poems, and lay them
down without recognising their diverse charms.
Let us be Catholics in this great matter, and burn our candles at many
shrines. In the pleasant realms of poesy, no liveries are worn, no
paths prescribed; you may wander where you will, stop where you like,
and worship whom you love. Nothing is demanded of you, save this, that
in all your wanderings and worships, you keep two objects steadily in
view--two, and two only, truth and beauty.
It is common knowledge that the distinguishing characteristic of the
day is the zeal displayed by us all in hunting after Truth. A really
not inconsiderable portion of whatever time we are able to spare from
making or losing money or reputation, is devoted to this sport, whilst
both reading and conversation are largely impressed into the same
Nor are there wanting those who avow themselves anxious to see this,
their favourite pursuit, raised to the dignity of a national
institution. They would have Truth-hunting established and endowed.
Mr. Carlyle has somewhere described with great humour the 'dreadfully
painful' manner in which Kepler made his celebrated calculations and
discoveries; but our young men of talent fail to see the joke, and
take no pleasure in such anecdotes. Truth, they feel, is not to be had
from them on any such terms. And why should it be? Is it not notorious
that all who are lucky enough to supply wants grow rapidly and
enormously rich; and is not Truth a now recognised want in ten
thousand homes--wherever, indeed, persons are to be found wealthy
enough to pay Mr. Mudie a guinea and so far literate as to be able to
read? What, save the modesty, is there surprising in the demand now
made on behalf of some young people, whose means are incommensurate
with their talents, that they should be allowed, as a reward for
doling out monthly or quarterly portions of truth, to live in houses
rent-free, have their meals for nothing, and a trifle of money
besides? Would Bass consent to supply us with beer in return for board
and lodging, we of course defraying the actual cost of his brewery,
and allowing him some L300 a year for himself? Who, as he read about
'Sun-spots,' or 'Fresh Facts for Darwin,' or the 'True History of
Modesty or Veracity,' showing how it came about that these high-sounding
virtues are held in their present somewhat general esteem, would find
it in his heart to grudge the admirable authors their freedom from
But, whether Truth-hunting be ever established or not, no one can
doubt that it is a most fashionable pastime, and one which is being
pursued with great vigour.
All hunting is so far alike as to lead one to believe that there must
sometimes occur in Truth-hunting, just as much as in fox-hunting, long
pauses, whilst the covers are being drawn in search of the game, and
when thoughts are free to range at will in pursuit of far other
objects than those giving their name to the sport. If it should chance
to any Truth-hunter, during some 'lull in his hot chase,' whilst, for
example, he is waiting for the second volume of an 'Analysis of
Religion,' or for the last thing out on the Fourth Gospel, to take up
this book, and open it at this page, we should like to press him for
an answer to the following question: 'Are you sure that it is a good
thing for you to spend so much time in speculating about matters
outside your daily life and walk?'
Curiosity is no doubt an excellent quality. In a critic it is
especially excellent. To want to know all about a thing, and not
merely one man's account or version of it; to see all round it, or, at
any rate, as far round as is possible; not to be lazy or indifferent,
or easily put off, or scared away--all this is really very excellent.
Sir Fitz James Stephen professes great regret that we have not got
Pilate's account of the events immediately preceding the Crucifixion.
He thinks it would throw great light upon the subject; and no doubt,
if it had occurred to the Evangelists to adopt in their narratives the
method which long afterwards recommended itself to the author of 'The
Ring and the Book,' we should now be in possession of a mass of very
curious information. But, excellent as all this is in the realm of
criticism, the question remains, How does a restless habit of mind
tell upon conduct?
John Mill was not one from whose lips the advice '_Stare super
antiquas vias_' was often heard to proceed, and he was by
profession a speculator, yet in that significant book, the
'Autobiography,' he describes this age of Truth-hunters as one 'of
weak convictions, paralyzed intellects, and growing laxity of
Is Truth-hunting one of those active mental habits which, as Bishop
Butler tells us, intensify their effects by constant use; and are weak
convictions, paralyzed intellects, and laxity of opinions amongst the
effects of Truth-hunting on the majority of minds? These are not
Let us consider briefly the probable effects of speculative habits on
The discussion of a question of conduct has the great charm of
justifying, if indeed not requiring, personal illustration; and this
particular question is well illustrated by instituting a comparison
between the life and character of Charles Lamb and those of some of
his distinguished friends.
Personal illustration, especially when it proceeds by way of
comparison, is always dangerous, and the dangers are doubled when the
subjects illustrated and compared are favourite authors. It behoves us
to proceed warily in this matter. A dispute as to the respective
merits of Gray and Collins has been known to result in a visit to an
attorney and the revocation of a will. An avowed inability to see
anything in Miss Austen's novels is reported to have proved
destructive of an otherwise good chance of an Indian judgeship. I
believe, however, I run no great risk in asserting that, of all
English authors, Charles Lamb is the one loved most warmly and
emotionally by his admirers, amongst whom I reckon only those who are
as familiar with the four volumes of his 'Life and Letters' as with
But how does he illustrate the particular question now engaging our
Speaking of his sister Mary, who, as everyone knows, throughout 'Elia'
is called his Cousin Bridget, he says:
'It has been the lot of my cousin, oftener, perhaps, than I could have
wished, to have had for her associates and mine freethinkers, leaders
and disciples of novel philosophies and systems, but she neither
wrangles with nor accepts their opinions.'
Nor did her brother. He lived his life cracking his little jokes and
reading his great folios, neither wrangling with nor accepting the
opinions of the friends he loved to see around him. To a contemporary
stranger it might well have appeared as if his life were a frivolous
and useless one as compared with those of these philosophers and
thinkers. _They_ discussed their great schemes and affected to
probe deep mysteries, and were constantly asking, 'What is Truth?'
_He_ sipped his glass, shuffled his cards, and was content with
the humbler inquiry, 'What are Trumps?' But to us, looking back upon
that little group, and knowing what we now do about each member of it,
no such mistake is possible. To us it is plain beyond all question
that, judged by whatever standard of excellence it is possible for any
reasonable human being to take, Lamb stands head and shoulders a
better man than any of them. No need to stop to compare him with
Godwin, or Hazlitt, or Lloyd; let us boldly put him in the scales with
one whose fame is in all the churches--with Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
'logician, metaphysician, bard.'
There are some men whom to abuse is pleasant. Coleridge is not one of
them. How gladly we would love the author of 'Christabel' if we could!
But the thing is flatly impossible. His was an unlovely character. The
sentence passed upon him by Mr. Matthew Arnold (parenthetically, in
one of the 'Essays in Criticism')--'Coleridge had no morals'--is no
less just than pitiless. As we gather information about him from
numerous quarters, we find it impossible to resist the conclusion that
he was a man neglectful of restraint, irresponsive to the claims of
those who had every claim upon him, willing to receive, slow to give.
In early manhood Coleridge planned a Pantisocracy where all the
virtues were to thrive. Lamb did something far more difficult: he
played cribbage every night with his imbecile father, whose constant
stream of querulous talk and fault-finding might well have goaded a
far stronger man into practising and justifying neglect.
That Lamb, with all his admiration for Coleridge, was well aware of
dangerous tendencies in his character, is made apparent by many
letters, notably by one written in 1796, in which he says:
'O my friend, cultivate the filial feelings! and let no man think
himself released from the kind charities of relationship: these shall
give him peace at the last; these are the best foundation for every
species of benevolence. I rejoice to hear that you are reconciled with
all your relations.'
This surely is as valuable an 'aid to reflection' as any supplied by
the Highgate seer.
Lamb gave but little thought to the wonderful difference between the
'reason' and the 'understanding.' He preferred old plays--an odd diet.
some may think, on which to feed the virtues; but, however that may
be, the noble fact remains, that he, poor, frail boy! (for he was no
more, when trouble first assailed him) stooped down and, without sigh
or sign, took upon his own shoulders the whole burden of a life-long
Coleridge married. Lamb, at the bidding of duty, remained single,
wedding himself to the sad fortunes of his father and sister. Shall we
pity him? No; he had his reward--the surpassing reward that is only
within the power of literature to bestow. It was Lamb, and not
Coleridge, who wrote 'Dream-Children: a Reverie':
'Then I told how for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in
despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W----n; and as
much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness
and difficulty and denial meant in maidens--when, suddenly turning to
Alice, the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a
reality of representment that I became in doubt which of them stood
before me, or whose that bright hair was; and while I stood gazing,
both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding and
still receding, till nothing at last but two mournful features were
seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely
impressed upon me the effects of speech. "We are not of Alice nor of
thee, nor are we children at all. The children of Alice call Bartrum
father. We are nothing, less than nothing, and dreams. We are only
_what might have been_."'
Godwin! Hazlitt! Coleridge! Where now are their 'novel philosophies
and systems'? Bottled moonshine, which does _not_ improve by
'Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.'
Were we disposed to admit that Lamb would in all probability have been
as good a man as everyone agrees he was--as kind to his father, as
full of self-sacrifice for the sake of his sister, as loving and ready
a friend--even though he had paid more heed to current speculations,
it is yet not without use in a time like this, when so much stress is
laid upon anxious inquiry into the mysteries of soul and body, to
point out how this man attained to a moral excellence denied to his
speculative contemporaries; performed duties from which they, good men
as they were, would one and all have shrunk; how, in short, he
contrived to achieve what no one of his friends, not even the
immaculate Wordsworth or the precise Southey, achieved--the living of
a life, the records of which are inspiriting to read, and are indeed
'the presence of a good diffused;' and managed to do it all without
either 'wrangling with or accepting' the opinions that 'hurtled in the
air' about him.
But _was_ there no relation between his unspeculative habit of
mind and his honest, unwavering service of duty, whose voice he ever
obeyed as the ship the rudder? It would be difficult to name anyone
more unlike Lamb, in many aspects of character, than Dr. Johnson, for
whom he had (mistakenly) no warm regard; but they closely resemble one
another in their indifference to mere speculation about things--if
things they can be called--outside our human walk; in their hearty
love of honest earthly life, in their devotion to their friends, their
kindness to dependents, and in their obedience to duty. What caused
each of them the most pain was the recollection of a past unkindness.
The poignancy of Dr. Johnson's grief on one such recollection is
historical; and amongst Lamb's letters are to be found several in
which, with vast depths of feeling, he bitterly upbraids himself for
neglect of old friends.
Nothing so much tends to blur moral distinctions, and to obliterate
plain duties, as the free indulgence of speculative habits. We must
all know many a sorry scrub who has fairly talked himself into the
belief that nothing but his intellectual difficulties prevents him
from being another St. Francis. We think we could suggest a few score
of other obstacles.
Would it not be better for most people, if, instead of stuffing their
heads with controversy, they were to devote their scanty leisure to
reading books, such as, to name one only, Kaye's 'History of the Sepoy
War,' which are crammed full of activities and heroisms, and which
force upon the reader's mind the healthy conviction that, after all,
whatever mysteries may appertain to mind and matter, and
notwithstanding grave doubts as to the authenticity of the Fourth
Gospel, it is bravery, truth and honour, loyalty and hard work, each
man at his post, which make this planet inhabitable?
In these days of champagne and shoddy, of display of teacups and
rotten foundations--especially, too, now that the 'nexus' of 'cash
payment,' which was to bind man to man in the bonds of a common
pecuniary interest, is hopelessly broken--it becomes plain that the
real wants of the age are not analyses of religious belief, nor
discussions as to whether 'Person' or 'Stream of Tendency' are the
apter words to describe God by; but a steady supply of honest,
plain-sailing men who can be safely trusted with small sums, and to do
what in them lies to maintain the honour of the various professions,
and to restore the credit of English workmanship. We want Lambs, not
Coleridges. The verdict to be striven for is not 'Well guessed,' but
All our remarks are confined to the realm of opinion. Faith may be
well left alone, for she is, to give her her due, our largest
manufacturer of good works, and whenever her furnaces are blown out,
But speculation has nothing to do with faith. The region of
speculation is the region of opinion, and a hazy, lazy, delightful
region it is; good to talk in, good to smoke in, peopled with pleasant
fancies and charming ideas, strange analogies and killing jests. How
quickly the time passes there! how well it seems spent! The
Philistines are all outside; everyone is reasonable and tolerant, and
good-tempered; you think and scheme and talk, and look at everything
in a hundred ways and from all possible points of view; and it is not
till the company breaks up and the lights are blown out, and you are
left alone with silence, that the doubt occurs to you, What is the
good of it all?
Where is the actuary who can appraise the value of a man's opinions?
'When we speak of a man's opinions,' says Dr. Newman, 'what do we mean
but the collection of notions he happens to have?' Happens to have!
How did he come by them? It is the knowledge we all possess of the
sorts of ways in which men get their opinions that makes us so little
affected in our own minds by those of men for whose characters and
intellects we may have great admiration. A sturdy Nonconformist
minister, who thinks Mr. Gladstone the ablest and most honest man, as
well as the ripest scholar within the three kingdoms, is no whit
shaken in his Nonconformity by knowing that his idol has written in
defence of the Apostolical Succession, and believes in special
sacramental graces. Mr. Gladstone may have been a great student of
Church history, whilst Nonconformist reading under that head usually
begins with Luther's Theses--but what of that? Is it not all explained
by the fact that Mr. Gladstone was at Oxford in 1831? So at least the
Nonconformist minister will think.
The admission frankly made, that these remarks are confined to the
realms of opinion, prevents me from urging on everyone my
prescription, but, with the two exceptions to be immediately named, I
believe it would be found generally useful. It may be made up thus:
'As much reticence as is consistent with good-breeding upon, and a
wisely tempered indifference to, the various speculative questions now
agitated in our midst.'
This prescription would be found to liberate the mind from all kinds
of cloudy vapours which obscure the mental vision and conceal from men
their real position, and would also set free a great deal of time
which might be profitably spent in quite other directions.
The first of the two exceptions I have alluded to is of those who
possess--whether honestly come by or not we cannot stop to inquire--
strong convictions upon these very questions. These convictions they
must be allowed to iterate and reiterate, and to proclaim that in them
is to be found the secret of all this (otherwise) unintelligible
The second exception is of those who pursue Truth as by a divine
compulsion, and who can be likened only to the nympholepts of old;
those unfortunates who, whilst carelessly strolling amidst sylvan
shades, caught a hasty glimpse of the flowing robes or even of the
gracious countenance of some spiritual inmate of the woods, in whose
pursuit their whole lives were ever afterwards fruitlessly spent.
The nympholepts of Truth are profoundly interesting figures in the
world's history, but their lives are melancholy reading, and seldom
fail to raise a crop of gloomy thoughts. Their finely touched spirits
are not indeed liable to succumb to the ordinary temptations of life,
and they thus escape the evils which usually follow in the wake of
speculation; but what is their labour's reward?
Readers of Dr. Newman will remember, and will thank me for recalling
it to mind, an exquisite passage, too long to be quoted, in which,
speaking as a Catholic to his late Anglican associates, he reminds
them how he once participated in their pleasures and shared their
hopes, and thus concludes:
'When, too, shall I not feel the soothing recollection of those dear
years which I spent in retirement, in preparation for my deliverance
from Egypt, asking for light, and by degrees getting it, with less of
temptation in my heart and sin on my conscience than ever before?'
But the passage is sad as well as exquisite, showing to us, as it
does, one who from his earliest days has rejoiced in a faith in God,
intense, unwavering, constant; harassed by distressing doubts, he
carries them all, in the devotion of his faith, the warmth of his
heart, and the purity of his life, to the throne where Truth sits in
state; living, he tells us, in retirement, and spending great portions
of every day on his knees; and yet--we ask the question with all
reverence--what did Dr. Newman get in exchange for his prayers?
'I think it impossible to withstand the evidence which is brought for
the liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius at Naples, or for the
motion of the eyes of the pictures of the Madonna in the Roman States.
I see no reason to doubt the material of the Lombard Cross at Monza,
and I do not see why the Holy Coat at Treves may not have been what it
professes to be. I firmly believe that portions of the True Cross are
at Rome and elsewhere, that the Crib of Bethlehem is at Rome, and the
bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul; also I firmly believe that the
relics of the Saints are doing innumerable miracles and graces daily.
I firmly believe that before now Saints have raised the dead to life,
crossed the seas without vessels, multiplied grain and bread, cured
incurable diseases, and stopped the operations of the laws of the
universe in a multitude of ways.'
So writes Dr. Newman, with that candour, that love of putting the case
most strongly against himself, which is only one of the lovely
characteristics of the man whose long life has been a miracle of
beauty and grace, and who has contrived to instil into his very
controversies more of the spirit of Christ than most men can find room
for in their prayers. But the dilemma is an awkward one. Does the
Madonna wink, or is Heaven deaf?
Oh, Spirit of Truth, where wert thou, when the remorseless deep of
superstition closed over the head of John Henry Newman, who surely
deserved to be thy best-loved son?
But this is a digression. With the nympholepts of Truth we have nought
to do. They must be allowed to pursue their lonely and devious paths,
and though the records of their wanderings, their conflicting
conclusions, and their widely-parted resting-places may fill us with
despair, still they are witnesses whose testimony we could ill afford
But there are not many nympholepts. The symptoms of the great majority
of our modern Truth-hunters are very different, as they will, with
their frank candour, be the first to admit. They are free 'to drop
their swords and daggers' whenever so commanded, and it is high time
With these two exceptions I think my prescription will be found of
general utility, and likely to promote a healthy flow of good works.
I had intended to say something as to the effect of speculative habits
upon the intellect, but cannot now do so. The following shrewd remark
of Mr. Latham's in his interesting book on the 'Action of
Examinations' may, however, be quoted; its bearing will be at once
seen, and its truth recognised by many:
'A man who has been thus provided with views and acute observations
may have destroyed in himself the germs of that power which he
simulates. He might have had a thought or two now and then if he had
been let alone, but if he is made first to aim at a standard of
thought above his years, and then finds he can get the sort of
thoughts he wants without thinking, he is in a fair way to be
Most people, I suppose, at one time or another in their lives, have
felt the charm of an actor's life, as they were free to fancy it,
What is it to be a great actor? I say a great actor, because (I am
sure) no amateur ever fancied himself a small one. Is it not always to
have the best parts in the best plays; to be the central figure of
every group; to feel that attention is arrested the moment you come on
the stage; and (more exquisite satisfaction still) to be aware that it
is relaxed when you go off; to have silence secured for your smallest
utterances; to know that the highest dramatic talent has been
exercised to invent situations for the very purpose of giving effect
to _your_ words and dignity to _your_ actions; to quell all
opposition by the majesty of your bearing or the brilliancy of your
wit; and finally, either to triumph over disaster, or if you be cast
in tragedy, happier still, to die upon the stage, supremely pitied and
honestly mourned for at least a minute? And then, from first to last,
applause loud and long--not postponed, not even delayed, but following
immediately after. For a piece of diseased egotism--that is, for a
man--what a lot is this!
How pointed, how poignant the contrast between a hero on the boards
and a hero in the streets! In the world's theatre the man who is
really playing the leading part--did we but know it--is too often, in
the general estimate, accounted but one of the supernumeraries, a
figure in dingy attire, who might well be spared, and who may consider
himself well paid with a pound a week. _His_ utterances procure
no silence. He has to pronounce them as best he may, whilst the
gallery sucks its orange, the pit pares its nails, the boxes babble,
and the stalls yawn. Amidst, these pleasant distractions he is lucky
if he is heard at all; and perhaps the best thing that can befall him
is for somebody to think him worth the trouble of a hiss. As for
applause, it may chance with such men, if they live long enough, as it
has to the great ones who have preceded them, in their old age,
'When they are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of themselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.'
The great actor may sink to sleep, soothed by the memory of the tears
or laughter he has evoked, and wake to find the day far advanced,
whose close is to witness the repetition of his triumph; but the great
man will lie tossing and turning as he reflects on the seemingly
unequal war he is waging with stupidity and prejudice, and be tempted
to exclaim, as Milton tells us he was, with the sad prophet Jeremy:
'Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me, a man of strife and
The upshot of all this is, that it is a pleasanter thing to represent
greatness than to be great.
But the actor's calling is not only pleasant in itself--it gives
pleasure to others. In this respect, how favourably it contrasts with
the three learned professions!
Few pleasures are greater than to witness some favourite character,
which hitherto has been but vaguely bodied forth by our sluggish
imaginations, invested with all the graces of living man or woman. A
distinguished man of letters, who years ago was wisely selfish enough
to rob the stage of a jewel and set it in his own crown, has addressed
to his wife some radiant lines which are often on my lips:
'Beloved, whose life is with mine own entwined,
In whom, whilst yet thou wert my dream, I viewed,
Warm with the life of breathing womanhood,
What Shakespeare's visionary eye divined--
Pure Imogen; high-hearted Rosalind,
Kindling with sunshine the dusk greenwood;
Or changing with the poet's changing mood,
Juliet, or Constance of the queenly mind.'
But a truce to these compliments.
'I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.'
It is idle to shirk disagreeable questions, and the one I have to ask
is this, 'Has the world been wrong in regarding with disfavour and
lack of esteem the great profession of the stage?'
That the world, ancient and modern, has despised the actor's