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Studies in Literature by John Morley

Part 3 out of 4

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[Footnote 1: "If I would put anything in my Common-place Book, I
find out a head to which I may refer it. Each head ought to be some
important and essential word to the matter in hand" (Locke's _Works_,
iii. 308, ed. 1801).]

[Footnote 2: This is for indexing purposes, but it is worth while to
go further and make a title for the passage extracted, indicating its
pith and purport.]

Various correspondents have asked me to say something about those
lists of a hundred books that have been circulating through the world
within the last few months. I have examined some of these lists with
considerable care, and whatever else may be said of them--and I speak
of them with deference and reserve, because men for whom one must
have a great regard have compiled them--they do not seem to me to be
calculated either to create or satisfy a wise taste for literature
in any very worthy sense. To fill a man with a hundred parcels of
heterogeneous scraps from the _Mahabharata_, and the _Sheking_, down
to _Pickwick_ and _White's Selborne_, may pass the time, but I cannot
perceive how it would strengthen or instruct or delight. For instance,
it is a mistake to think that every book that has a great name in the
history of books or of thought is worth reading. Some of the most
famous books are least worth reading. Their fame was due to their
doing something that needed in their day to be done. The work done,
the virtue of the book expires. Again, I agree with those who say
that the steady working down one of these lists would end in the
manufacture of that obnoxious product--the prig. A prig has been
defined as an animal that is overfed for its size. I think that these
bewildering miscellanies would lead to an immense quantity of that
kind of overfeeding. The object of reading is not to dip into
everything that even wise men have ever written. In the words of one
of the most winning writers of English that ever existed--Cardinal
Newman--the object of literature in education is to open the mind, to
correct it, to refine it, to enable it to comprehend and digest its
knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application,
flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, address, and
expression. These are the objects of that intellectual perfection
which a literary education is destined to give. I will not venture on
a list of a hundred books, but will recommend you instead to one book
well worthy of your attention. Those who are curious as to what they
should read in the region of pure literature will do well to peruse
Mr. Frederic Harrison's admirable, volume, called _The Choice of
Books_. You will find there as much wise thought, eloquently and
brilliantly put, as in any volume of its size and on its subject,
whether it be in the list of a hundred or not.

Let me pass to another topic. We are often asked whether it is best to
study subjects, or authors, or books. Well, I think that is like most
of the stock questions with which the perverse ingenuity of mankind
torments itself. There is no universal and exclusive answer. My own
answer is a very plain one. It is sometimes best to study books,
sometimes authors, and sometimes subjects; but at all times it is best
to study authors, subjects, and books in connection with one another.
Whether you make your first approach from interest in an author or in
a book, the fruit will be only half gathered if you leave off without
new ideas and clearer lights both on the man and the matter. One of
the noblest masterpieces in the literature of civil and political
wisdom is to be found in Burke's three performances on the American
war--his speech on Taxation in 1774, on Conciliation in 1775, and his
letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol in 1777. I can only repeat to you
what I have been saying in print and out of it for a good many years,
and what I believe more firmly as observation is enlarged by time and
occasion, that these three pieces are the most perfect manual in all
literature for the study of great affairs, whether for the purpose of
knowledge or action. "They are an example," as I have said before
now, "an example without fault of all the qualities which the critic,
whether a theorist or an actor, of great political situations should
strive by night and by day to possess. If their subject were as remote
as the quarrel between the Corinthians and Corcyra, or the war between
Rome and the Allies, instead of a conflict to which the world owes the
opportunity of one of the most important of political experiments, we
should still have everything to learn from the author's treatment; the
vigorous grasp of masses of compressed detail, the wide illumination
from great principles of human experience, the strong and masculine
feeling for the two great political ends of Justice and Freedom, the
large and generous interpretation of expediency, the morality, the
vision, the noble temper." No student worthy of the name will lay
aside these pieces, so admirable in their literary expression, so
important for history, so rich in the lessons of civil wisdom, until
he has found out something from other sources as to the circumstances
from which such writings arose, and as to the man whose resplendent
genius inspired them. There are great personalities like Burke who
march through history with voices like a clarion trumpet and something
like the glitter of swords in their hands. They are as interesting as
their work. Contact with them warms and kindles the mind. You will not
be content, after reading one of these pieces, without knowing the
character and personality of the man who conceived it, and until you
have spent an hour or two--and an hour or two will go a long way with
Burke still fresh in your mind--over other compositions in political
literature, over Bacon's civil pieces, or Machiavelli's _Prince_, and
others in the same order of thought.

This points to the right answer to another question that is constantly
asked. We are constantly asked whether desultory reading is among
things lawful and permitted. May we browse at large in a library, as
Johnson said, or is it forbidden to open a book without a definite aim
and fixed expectations? I am for a compromise. If a man has once got
his general point of view, if he has striven with success to place
himself at the centre, what follows is of less consequence. If he has
got in his head a good map of the country, he may ramble at large with
impunity. If he has once well and truly laid the foundations of a
methodical, systematic habit of mind, what he reads will find its way
to its proper place. If his intellect is in good order, he will find
in every quarter something to assimilate and something that will

Next I am going to deal with another question, with which perhaps I
ought to have started. What is literature? It has often been defined.
Emerson says it is a record of the best thoughts. "By literature,"
says another author, "we mean the written thoughts and feelings of
intelligent men and women arranged in a way that shall give pleasure
to the reader." A third account is that "the aim of a student of
literature is to know the best that has been thought in the world."
Definitions always appear to me in these things to be in the nature
of vanity. I feel that the attempt to be compact in the definition of
literature ends in something that is rather meagre, partial, starved,
and unsatisfactory. I turn to the answer given by a great French
writer to a question not quite the same, viz. "What is a classic?"
Literature consists of a whole body of classics in the true sense of
the word, and a classic, as Sainte-Beuve defines him, is an "author
who has enriched the human mind, who has really added to its treasure,
who has got it to take a step further; who has discovered some
unequivocal moral truth, or penetrated to some eternal passion,
in that heart of man where it seemed as though all were known and
explored, who has produced his thought, or his observation, or his
invention under some form, no matter what, so it be great, large,
acute, and reasonable, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to
all in a style of his own, yet a style which finds itself the style
of everybody,--in a style that Is at once new and antique, and is the
contemporary of all the ages." Another Frenchman, Doudan, who died in
1872, has an excellent passage on the same subject:--

"The man of letters properly so called is a rather singular being:
he does not look at things exactly with his own eyes, he has not
impressions of his own, we could not discover the imagination with
which he started. 'Tis a tree on which have been grafted Homer,
Virgil, Milton, Dante, Petrarch; hence have grown peculiar flowers
which are not natural, and yet which are not artificial. Study has
given to the man of letters something of the reverie of Rene; with
Homer he has looked upon the plain of Troy, and there has remained
in his brain some of the light of the Grecian sky; he has taken a
little of the pensive lustre of Virgil, as he wanders by his side
on the slopes of the Aventine; he sees the world as Milton saw it,
through the grey mists of England, as Dante saw it, through the
clear and glowing light of Italy. Of all these colours he composes
for himself a colour that is unique and his own; from all these
glasses by which his life passes on its journey to the real
world, there is formed a special tint, and that is what makes the
imagination of men of letters."

At a single hearing you may not take all that in; but if you should
have any opportunity of recurring to it, you will find this a
satisfactory, full, and instructive account of what is a classic, and
will find in it a full and satisfactory account of what those who have
thought most on literature hope to get from it, and most would
desire to confer upon others by it. Literature consists of till the
books--and they are not so many--where moral truth and human passion
are touched with a certain largeness, sanity, and attraction of form.
My notion of the literary student is one who through books explores
the strange voyages of man's moral reason, the impulses of the human
heart, the chances and changes that have overtaken human ideals
of virtue and happiness, of conduct and manners, and the shifting
fortunes of great conceptions of truth and virtue. Poets, dramatists,
humorists, satirists, masters of fiction, the great preachers,
the character-writers, the maxim-writers, the great political
orators--they are all literature in so far as they teach us to know
man and to know human nature. This is what makes literature, rightly
sifted and selected and rightly studied, not the mere elegant trifling
that it is so often and so erroneously supposed to be, but a
proper instrument for a systematic training of the imagination and
sympathies, and of a genial and varied moral sensibility.

From this point of view let me remind you that books are not the
products of accident and caprice. As Goethe said, if you would
understand an author, you must understand his age. The same thing is
just as true of a book. If you would fully comprehend it, you must
know the age. There is an order; there are causes and relations
between great compositions and the societies in which they have
emerged. Just as the naturalist strives to understand and to explain
the distribution of plants and animals over the surface of the globe,
to connect their presence or their absence with the great geological,
climatic, and oceanic changes, so the student of literature, if he be
wise, undertakes an ordered and connected survey of ideas, of tastes,
of sentiments, of imagination, of humour, of invention, as they affect
and as they are affected by the ever changing experiences of human
nature, and the manifold variations that time and circumstances are
incessantly working in human society.

Those who are possessed, and desire to see others possessed, by that
conception of literary study must watch with the greatest sympathy and
admiration the efforts of those who are striving so hard, and, I hope,
so successfully, to bring the systematic and methodical study of our
own literature, in connection with other literatures, among subjects
for teaching and examination in the Universities of Oxford and
Cambridge. I regard those efforts with the liveliest interest and
sympathy. Everybody agrees that an educated man ought to have a
general notion of the course of the great outward events of European
history. So, too, an educated man ought to have a general notion of
the course of all those inward thoughts and moods which find their
expression in literature. I think that in cultivating the study of
literature, as I have perhaps too laboriously endeavoured to define
it, you will be cultivating the most important side of history.
Knowledge of it gives stability and substance to character. It
furnishes a view of the ground we stand on. It builds up a solid
backing of precedent and experience. It teaches us where we are. It
protects us against imposture and surprise.

Before closing I should like to say one word upon the practice of
composition. I have suffered, by the chance of life, many things from
the practice of composition. It has been my lot, I suppose, to read
more unpublished work than any one else in this room.

There is an idea, and, I venture to think, a very mistaken idea, that
you cannot have a taste for literature unless you are yourself an
author. I make bold entirely to demur to that proposition. It is
practically most mischievous, and leads scores and even hundreds of
people to waste their time in the most unprofitable manner that the
wit of man can devise, on work in which they can no more achieve even
the most moderate excellence than they can compose a Ninth Symphony
or paint a Transfiguration. It Is a terrible error to suppose that
because one is happily able to relish "Wordsworth's solemn-thoughted
idyll, or Tennyson's enchanted reverie," therefore a solemn mission
calls you to run off to write bad verse at the Lakes or the Isle
of Wight. I beseech you not all to turn to authorship. I will even
venture, with all respect to those who are teachers of literature,
to doubt the excellence and utility of the practice of over-much
essay-writing and composition. I have very little faith in rules of
style, though I have an unbounded faith in the virtue of cultivating
direct and precise expression. But you must carry on the operation
inside the mind, and not merely by practising literary deportment on
paper. It is not everybody who can command the mighty rhythm of the
greatest masters of human speech. But every one can make reasonably
sure that he knows what he means, and whether he has found the right
word. These are internal operations, and are not forwarded by writing
for writing's sake. Everybody must be urgent for attention to
expression, if that attention be exercised in the right way. It has
been said a million times that the foundation of right expression in
speech or writing is sincerity. That is as true now as it has ever
been. Right expression is a part of character. As somebody has
said, by learning to speak with precision, you learn to think with
correctness; and the way to firm and vigorous speech lies through the
cultivation of high and noble sentiments. So far as my observation has
gone, men will do better if they seek precision by studying carefully
and with an open mind and a vigilant eye the great models of writing,
than by excessive practice of writing on their own account.

Much might here be said on what is one of the most important of all
the sides of literary study. I mean its effect as helping to preserve
the dignity and the purity of the English language. That noble
instrument has never been exposed to such dangers as those which
beset it to-day. Domestic slang, scientific slang, pseudo-aesthetic
affectations, hideous importations from American newspapers, all bear
down with horrible force upon the glorious fabric which the genius of
our race has reared. I will say nothing of my own on this pressing
theme, but will read to you a passage of weight and authority from the
greatest master of mighty and beautiful speech.

"Whoever in a state," said Milton, "knows how wisely to form the
manners of men and to rule them at home and in war with excellent
institutes, him in the first place, above others, I should esteem
worthy of all honour. But next to him the man who strives to establish
in maxims and rules the method and habit of speaking and writing
received from a good age of the nation, and, as it were, to fortify
the same round with a kind of wall, the daring to overleap which let a
law only short of that of Romulus be used to prevent.... The one, as I
believe, supplies noble courage and intrepid counsels against an
enemy invading the territory. The other takes to himself the task of
extirpating and defeating, by means of a learned detective police of
ears, and a light band of good authors, that barbarism which makes
large inroads upon the minds of men, and is a destructive intestine
enemy of genius. Nor is it to be considered of small consequence what
language, pure or corrupt, a people has, or what is their customary
degree of propriety in speaking it.... For, let the words of a country
be in part unhandsome and offensive in themselves, in part debased by
wear and wrongly uttered, and what do they declare, but, by no light
indication, that the inhabitants of that country are an indolent,
idly-yawning race, with minds already long prepared for any amount of
servility? On the other hand, we have never heard that any empire, any
state, did not at least flourish in a middling degree as long as its
own liking and care for its language lasted."[1]

[Footnote 1: Letter to Bonmattei, from Florence, 1638.]

The probabilities are that we are now coming to an epoch of a quieter
style. There have been in our generation three strong masters in the
aft of prose writing. There was, first of all, Carlyle, there was
Macaulay, and there is Mr. Raskin. These are all giants, and they have
the rights of giants. But I do not believe that a greater misfortune
can befall the students who attend classes here, than that they should
strive to write like any one of these three illustrious men. I think
it is the worst thing that can happen to them. They can never attain
to the high mark which they have set before themselves. It Is not
everybody who can bend the bow of Ulysses, and most men only do
themselves a mischief by trying to bend it. If we are now on our way
to a quieter style, I am not sorry for it. Truth is quiet. Milton's
phrase ever lingers in our minds as one of imperishable beauty--where
he regrets that he is drawn by I know not what, from beholding the
bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful
studies. Moderation and judgment are, for most purposes, more than the
flash and the glitter even of the genius. I hope that your professors
of rhetoric will teach you to cultivate that golden art--the steadfast
use of a language in which truth can be told; a speech that is
strong by natural force, and not merely effective by declamation; an
utterance without trick, without affectation, without mannerisms,
without any of that excessive ambition which overleaps itself as
disastrously in prose writing as in so many other things.

I will detain you no longer. I hope that I have made it clear that we
conceive the end of education on its literary side to be to make a man
and not a cyclopaedia, to make a citizen and not an album of elegant
extracts. Literature does not end with knowledge of forms, with
inventories of books and authors, with finding the key of rhythm, with
the varying measure of the stanza, or the changes from the involved
and sonorous periods of the seventeenth century down to the _staccato_
of the nineteenth, or all the rest of the technicalities of
scholarship. Do not think I contemn these. They are all good things to
know, but they are not ends in themselves. The intelligent man, says
Plato, will prize those studies which result in his soul getting
soberness, righteousness, and wisdom, and he will less value the
others. Literature is one of the instruments, and one of the most
powerful instruments, for forming character for giving us men
and women armed with reason, braced by knowledge, clothed with
steadfastness and courage, and inspired by that public spirit and
public virtue of which it has been well said that they are the
brightest ornaments of the mind of man. Bacon is right, as he
generally is, when he bids us read not to contradict and refute, nor
to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but
to weigh and to consider. Yes, let us read to weigh and to consider.
In the times before us that promise or threaten deep political,
economical, and social controversy, what we need to do is to induce
our people to weigh and consider. We want them to cultivate energy
without impatience, activity without restlessness, inflexibility
without ill-humour. I am not going to preach to you any artificial
stoicism. I am not going to preach to you any indifference to money,
or to the pleasures of social intercourse, or to the esteem and
good-will of our neighbours, or to any other of the consolations and
necessities of life. But, after all, the thing that matters most, both
for happiness and for duty, is that we should strive habitually to
live with wise thoughts and right feelings. Literature helps us more
than other studies to this most blessed companionship of wise thoughts
and right feelings, and so I have taken this opportunity of earnestly
commending it to your interest and care.


"History has its truth, Legend has its truth. Legendary truth is of
a different nature from historic truth. Legendary truth is invention
with reality for result. For the rest, history and legend have the
same aim--to paint under the man of a day eternal humanity." These
words from his new and latest work (ii. 4) are a repetition of what
Victor Hugo had already said in the introduction to his memorable
_Legend of the Ages_[1]. But the occasion of their application is far
more delicate. Poetry lends itself naturally to the spacious, distant,
vague, highly generalised way of present and real events. A prose
romance, on the other hand, is of necessity abundant in details, in
special circumstances, in particularities of time and place. This
leaves all the more room for historic error, and historic error in
a work of imagination dealing with actual and known occurrences is
obviously fatal, not only to legendary truth, but to legendary beauty
and poetic impressiveness. And then the pitfalls which lie about the
feet of the Frenchman who has to speak of 1793,--the terrible year
of the modern epoch! The delirium of the Terror haunts most of the
revolutionary historians, and the choicest examples in all literature
of bombast, folly, emptiness, political immorality, inhumanity, formal
repudiation of common sense and judgment, are to be found in the
rhapsodies which men of letters, some of them men of eminence, call
histories of the Revolution, or lives of this or that actor in it.

[Footnote 1: The references are to the "Edition Definitive" in two

It was hardly a breach, therefore, of one's allegiance to Hugo's
superb imaginative genius, if one had misgivings as to the result of
an attempt, even in his strong hands, to combine legend with truth on
a disastrous field, in which grave writers with academic solemnity had
confounded truth with the falsest kind of legend. The theme was so
likely to emphasise the defects incident to his mighty qualities; so
likely to provoke an exaggeration of those mannerisms of thought no
less than of phrase, which though never ignoble nor paltry, yet now
and then take something from the loftiness and sincerity of the
writer's work. Wisdom, however, is justified of her children, and M.
Hugo's genius has justified his choice of a difficult and perilous
subject. _Quatrevingt-treize_ is a monument of its author's finest
gifts; and while those who are happily endowed with the capacity of
taking delight in nobility and beauty of imaginative work will find
themselves in possession of a new treasure, the lover of historic
truth who hates to see abstractions passed off for actualities and
legend erected in the place of fact escapes with his sensibilities
almost unwounded.

The historic interlude at the beginning of the second volume is
undoubtedly open to criticism from the political student's point of
view. As a sketch of the Convention, the scene of its sittings, the
stormful dramas that were enacted there one after another for month
after month, the singular men who one after another rode triumphant
upon the whirlwind for a little space, and were then mercilessly in an
instant swept into outer darkness, the commoner men who cowered before
the fury of the storm, and were like "smoke driven hither and thither
by the wind," and laboured hard upon a thousand schemes for human
improvement, some admirable, others mere frenzy, while mobs filed in
and danced mad carmagnoles before them--all this is a magnificent
masterpiece of accurate, full, and vivid description. To the
philosophy of it we venture to demur. The mystic, supernatural view of
the French Revolution, which is so popular among French writers who
object to the supernatural and the mystical everywhere else, is to us
a thing most incredible, most puerile, most mischievous. People talk
of '93, as a Greek tragedian treats the Tale of Troy divine, or the
terrible fortunes of the house of Atreus, as the result of dark
invincible fate, as the unalterable decree of the immortal gods. Even
Victor Hugo's strong spirit does not quite overcome the demoralising
doctrine of a certain revolutionary school, though he has the poet's
excuse. Thus, of the Convention:--

"Minds all a prey to the wind. But this wind was a wind of miracle
and portent. To be a member of the Convention was to be a wave
of the ocean. And this was true of its greatest. The force of
impulsion came from on high. There was in the Convention a will,
which was the will of all, and yet was the will of no one. It was
an idea, an idea resistless and without measure, which breathed in
the shadow from the high heavens. We call that the Revolution. As
this idea passed, it threw down one and raised up another; it bore
away this man in the foam, and broke that man to pieces upon the
rocks. The idea knew whither it went, and drove the gulf of waters
before it. To impute the Revolution to men is as one who should
impute the tide to the waves. The revolution is an action of the
Unknown.... It is a form of the abiding phenomenon that shuts us
in on every side and that we call Necessity.... In presence
of these climacteric catastrophes which waste and vivify
civilisation, one is slow to judge detail. To blame or praise men
on account of the result, is as if one should blame or praise the
figures on account of the total. That which must pass passes, the
storm that must rage rages. The eternal serenity does not suffer
from these boisterous winds. Above revolutions truth and justice
abide, as the starry heaven abides above the tempests" (i.

As a lyric passage, full of the breath of inspiration; as history,
superficial and untrue; as morality, enervating and antinomian. The
author is assuredly far nearer the mark in another place when
he speaks of "_that immense improvisation_ which is the French
Revolution" (ii. 35)--an improvisation of which every step can be
rationally explained.

After all, this is no more than an interlude. Victor Hugo only surveys
the events of '93 as a field for the growth of types of character. His
instinct as an artist takes him away from the Paris of '93, where the
confusion, uproar, human frenzy, leave him no background of nature,
with nature's fixity, sternness, indifference, sublimity. This he
found in La Vendee, whose vast forests grow under the pencil of this
master of all the more terrible and majestic effects, into a picture
hardly less sombre and mighty in its impressiveness than the memorable
ocean pieces of the _Toilers of the Sea_. If the waves are appalling
in their agitation, their thunders, their sterility, the forest is
appalling in its silence, its dimness, its rest, and the invisibleness
of the thousand kinds of life to which it gives a shelter. If the
violence and calm and mercilessness of the sea penetrated the romance
of eight years ago with transcendent fury, so does the stranger, more
mysterious, and in a sense even the more inhuman life of the forest
penetrate the romance of to-day. From the opening chapter down to the
very close, even while the interlude takes us for a little while to
the Paris cafe where Danton, Robespierre, and Marat sit in angry
counsel, even while we are on the sea with the royalist Marquis and
Halmalo, the reader is subtly haunted by the great Vendean woods,
their profundity, their mystery, their tragic and sinister beauties.

"The forest is barbarous.

"The configuration of the land counsels man in many an act. More
than we suppose, it is his accomplice. In the presence of certain
savage landscapes, you are tempted to exonerate man and blame
creation; you feel a silent challenge and incitement from nature;
the desert is constantly unwholesome for conscience, especially
for a conscience without light. Conscience may be a giant; that
makes a Socrates or a Jesus: it may be a dwarf; that makes an
Atreus or a Judas. The puny conscience soon turns reptile; the
twilight thickets, the brambles, the thorns, the marsh waters
under branches, make for it a fatal haunting place; amid all this
it undergoes the mysterious infiltration of ill suggestions. The
optical illusions, the unexplained images, the scaring hour,
the scaring spot, all throw man into that kind of affright,
half-religious, half-brutal, which in ordinary times engenders
superstition, and in epochs of violence, savagery. Hallucinations
hold the torch that lights the path to murder. There is something
like vertigo in the brigand. Nature with her prodigies has a
double effect; she dazzles great minds, and blinds the duller
soul. When man is ignorant, when the desert offers visions,
the obscurity of the solitude is added to the obscurity of the
intelligence; thence in man comes the opening of abysses. Certain
rocks, certain ravines, certain thickets, certain wild openings
of the evening sky through the trees, drive man towards mad or
monstrous exploits. We might almost call some places criminal"
(ii. 21).

With La Vendee for background, and some savage incidents of the bloody
Vendean war for external machinery, Victor Hugo has realised his
conception of '93 in three types of character: Lantenac, the royalist
marquis; Cimourdain, the puritan turned Jacobin; and Gauvain, for whom
one can as yet find no short name, he belonging to the millenarian
times. Lantenac, though naturally a less original creation than the
other two, is still an extremely bold and striking figure, drawn with
marked firmness of hand, and presenting a thoroughly distinct and
coherent conception. It is a triumph of the poetic or artistic part
of the author's nature over the merely political part, that he should
have made even his type of the old feudal order which he execrates
so bitterly, a heroic, if ever so little also a diabolic, personage.
There is everything that is cruel, merciless, unflinching, in
Lantenac; there is nothing that is mean or insignificant. A gunner
at sea, by inattention to the lashing of his gun, causes an accident
which breaks the ship to pieces, and then he saves the lives of the
crew by hazarding his own life to secure the wandering monster.
Lantenac decorates him with the cross of Saint Lewis for his
gallantry, and instantly afterwards has him shot for his carelessness.
He burns homesteads and villages, fusillades men and women, and makes
the war a war without quarter or grace. Yet he is no swashbuckler of
the melodramatic stage. There is a fine reserve, a brief gravity,
in the delineation of him, his clear will, his quickness, his
intrepidity, his relentlessness, which make of him the incarnation
of aristocratic coldness, hatred, and pride. You might guillotine
Lantenac with exquisite satisfaction, and yet he does not make us
ashamed of mankind. Into his mouth, as he walks about his dungeon,
impatiently waiting to be led out to execution, Victor Hugo has put
the aristocratic view of the Revolution. Some portions of it (ii.
224-226) would fit amazingly well into M. Renan's notions about the
moral and intellectual reform of France.

If the Breton aristocrat of '93 was fearless, intrepid, and without
mercy in defence of God and the King--and his qualities were all
shared, the democrat may love to remember, by the Breton peasant,
whether peasant follower or peasant leader--the Jacobin was just as
vigorous, as intrepid, as merciless in defence of his Republic. "Pays,
Patrie," says Victor Hugo, in words which perhaps will serve to
describe many a future passage in French history, "ces deux mots
resument toute la guerre de Vendee; querelle de l'idee locale centre
l'idee universelle; paysans contre patriotes" (ii. 22).[1] Certainly
the Jacobins were the patriots of that era, the deliverers of France
from something like that process of partition which further east was
consummated in this very '93. We do not mean the handful of odious
miscreants who played fool and demon in turns in the insurrectionary
Commune and elsewhere: such men as Collot d'Herbois, or Carrier,
or Panis. The normal Jacobin was a remarkable type. He has been
excellently described by Louis Blanc as something powerful, original,
sombre; half agitator and half statesman; half puritan and half monk
half inquisitor and half tribune. These words of the historian are the
exact prose version of the figure of Cimourdain, the typical Jacobin
of the poet. "Cimourdain was a pure conscience, but sombre. He had in
him the absolute. He had been a priest and that is a serious thing.
Man, like the sky, may have a dark serenity; it is enough that
something should have brought night into his soul. Priesthood had
brought night into Cimourdain. He who has been a priest is one still.
What brings night upon us may leave the stars with us. Cimourdain
was full of virtues, full of truths, but they shone in the midst
of darkness" (i. 123). If the aristocrat had rigidity, so had the
Jacobin. "Cimourdain had the blind certitude of the arrow, which only
sees the mark and makes for it. In revolution, nothing so formidable
as the straight line. Cimourdain strode forward with fatality in his
step. He believed that in social genesis the very extreme point must
always be solid ground, an error peculiar to minds that for reason
substitute logic" (i. 127). And so forth, until the character of the
Jacobin lives for us with a precision, a fulness, a naturalness, such
as neither Carlyle nor Michelet nor Quinet has been able to clothe it
with, though these too have the sacred illumination of genius. Victor
Hugo's Jacobin is a poetic creation, yet the creation only lies in the
vivid completeness with which the imagination of a great master has
realised to itself the traits and life of an actual personality. It is
not that he has any special love for his Jacobin, but that he has the
poet's eye for types, politics apart. He sees how much the aristocrat,
slaying hip and thigh for the King, and the Jacobin, slaying hip and
thigh for the Republic, resembled one another. "Let us confess,"
he says, "these two men, the Marquis and the priest [Lantenac and
Cimourdain], were up to a certain point the self-same man. The bronze
mask of civil war has two profiles, one turned towards the past, the
other towards the future, but as tragic the one as the other. Lantenac
was the first of these profiles, Cimourdain was the second; only the
bitter rictus of Lantenac was covered with shadow and night, and on
the fatal brow of Cimourdain was a gleaming of the dawn" (ii. 91).

[Footnote 1: In corroboration of this view of the Vendean rising as
democratic, see Mortimer-Ternaux, _Hist. de la Terreur_, vol. vi. bk.

And let us mark Victor Hugo's signal distinction in his analysis
of character. It is not mere vigour of drawing, nor acuteness of
perception, nor fire of imagination, though he has all these gifts in
a singular degree, and truest of their kind. But then Scott had
them too, and yet we feel in Victor Hugo's work a seriousness, a
significance, a depth of tone, which never touches us in the work of
his famous predecessor in romance, delightful as the best of that work
is. Balfour of Burley is one of Scott's most commanding figures, and
the stern Covenanter is nearly in the same plane of character as the
stern heroic Jacobin. Yet Cimourdain impresses us more profoundly. He
is as natural, as human, as readily conceivable, and yet he produces
something of the subtle depth of effect which belongs to the actor in
a play of Aeschylus. Why is this? Because Hugo makes us conscious of
that tragedy of temperament, that sterner Necessity of character,
that resistless compulsion of circumstance, which is the modern and
positive expression for the old Destiny of the Greeks, and which in
some expression or other is now an essential element in the highest
presentation of human life. Here is not the Unknown. On the contrary,
we are in the very heart of science; tragedy to the modern is
not [Greek: tuchae], but a thing of cause and effect, invariable
antecedent and invariable consequent. It is the presence of this
tragic force underlying action that gives to all Hugo's work its lofty
quality, its breadth, and generality, and fills both it, and us who
read, with pity and gravity and an understanding awe.

The action is this. Cimourdain had the young Gauvain to train from his
earliest childhood, and the pupil grew up with the same rigid sense
of duty as the master, though temperament modified its form. When the
Revolution came, Gauvain, though a noble, took sides with the people,
but he was not of the same spirit as his teacher. "The Revolution,"
says Victor Hugo, "by the side of youthful figures of giants, such as
Danton, Saint-Just, and Robespierre, has young ideal figures, like
Hoche and Marceau. Gauvain was one of these figures" (ii. 34).
Cimourdain has himself named delegate from the Committee of Public
Safety to the expeditionary column of which Gauvain is in command. The
warmth of affection between them was undiminished, but difference in
temperament bred difference in their principles. They represented, as
the author says, with the candour of the poet, the two poles of
the truth; the two sides of the inarticulate, subterranean, fatal
contention of the year of the Terror. Their arguments with one another
make the situation more intelligible to the historic student, as they
make the characters of the speakers more transparent for the purposes
of the romance.

This is Cimourdain:--

"Beware, there are terrible duties in life. Do not accuse what is
not responsible. Since when has the disorder been the fault of the
physician? Yes, what marks this tremendous year is being without
pity. Why? Because it is the great revolutionary year. This year
incarnates the revolution. The revolution has an enemy, the old
world, and to that it is pitiless, just as the surgeon has
an enemy, gangrene, and is pitiless to that. The revolution
extirpates kingship in the king, aristocracy in the noble,
despotism in the soldier, superstition in the priest, barbarity in
the judge, in a word whatever is tyranny in whatever is tyrant.
The operation is frightful, the revolution performs it with a sure
hand. As to the quantity of sound flesh that it requires, ask
Boerhave what he thinks of it. What tumour that has to be cut out
does not involve loss of blood?... The revolution devotes itself
to its fated task. It mutilates but it saves.... It has the past
in its grasp, it will not spare. It makes in civilisation a deep
incision whence shall come the safety of the human race. You
suffer? No doubt. How long will it last? The time needed for the
operation. Then you will live," etc. (ii. 65-66).

"One day," he adds, "the Revolution will justify the Terror." To which
Gauvain retorts thus:--

"Fear lest the Terror be the calumny of the Revolution. Liberty,
Equality, Fraternity, are dogmas of peace and harmony. Why give
them an aspect of alarm? What do we seek? To win nations to the
universal public. Then why inspire fright? Of what avail is
intimidation? It is wrong to do ill in order to do good. You do
not pull down the throne to leave the scaffold standing. Let us
hurl away crowns, let us spare heads. The revolution is concord,
not affright. Mild ideas are ill-served by men who do not know
pity. Amnesty is for me the noblest word in human speech. I will
shed no blood save at hazard of my own.... In the fight let us be
the enemies of our foes, and after the victory their brothers"
(ii. 67).

These two together, Cimourdain and Gauvain, make an ideal pair of the
revolutionists of '93. Strip each of them of the beauty of character
with which the poet's imagination has endowed them, add instead
passion, violence, envy, egoism, malice; then you understand how in
the very face of the foreign enemy Girondins sharpened the knife
for the men of the Mountain, Hebertists screamed for the lives
of Robespierrists, Robespierre struck off the head of Danton,
Thermidorians crushed Robespierre.

Victor Hugo has given to this typic historical struggle of '93 the
qualities of nobleness and beauty which art requires in dealing with
real themes. Lantenac falls into the hands of the Blues, headed by
Cimourdain and Gauvain, but he does so in consequence of yielding to a
heroic and self-devoting impulse of humanity. Cimourdain, true to his
temperament, insists on his instant execution. Gauvain, true also to
his temperament, is seized with a thousand misgivings, and there is
no more ample, original, and masterly presentation of a case of
conscience, that in civil war is always common enough, than the
struggle through which Gauvain passes before he can resolve to deliver
Lantenac. This pathetic debate--"the stone of Sisyphus, which is only
the quarrel of man with himself"--turns on the loftiest, broadest,
most generous motives, touching the very bases of character, and
reaching far beyond the issue of '93. The political question is seen
to be no more than a superficial aspect of the deeper moral question.
Lantenac, the representative of the old order, had performed an
exploit of signal devotion. Was it not well that one who had faith in
the new order should show himself equally willing to cast away his
life to save one whom self-sacrifice had transformed from the infernal
Satan into the heavenly Lucifer?

"Gauvain saw in the shade the sinister smile of the sphinx. The
situation was a sort of dread crossway where the conflicting
truths issued and confronted one another, and where the three
supreme ideas of man stood face to face--humanity, the family, the
fatherland. Each of the voices spoke in turn, and each in turn
declared the truth. How choose? Each in turn seemed to hit the
mark of reason and justice, and said, Do that. Was that the thing
to be done? Yes. No. Reasoning counselled one thing; sentiment
another; the two counsels were contradictory. Reasoning is only
reason; sentiment is often conscience; the one comes from man,
the other from a loftier source. That is why sentiment has less
distinctness, and more might. Yet what strength in the severity
of reason! Gauvain hesitated. His perplexity was so fierce. Two
abysses opened before him: to destroy the marquis, or to save him.
Which of these two gulfs was duty?"

The whole scene (ii. 206-219) is a masterpiece of dramatic strength,
sustention, and flexibility--only equalled by the dramatic vivacity of
the scene in which Cimourdain, sitting as judge, orders the prisoner
to be brought forward, to his horror sees Gauvain instead of Lantenac,
and then proceeds to condemn the man whom he loves best on earth to be
taken to the guillotine.

* * * * *

The tragedy of the story, its sombre tone, the overhanging presence of
death in it, are prevented from being oppressive to us by the variety
of minor situation and subordinate character with which the writer has
surrounded the central figures. No writer living is so consummate a
master of landscape, and besides the forest we here have an elaborate
sea-piece, full of the weird, ineffable, menacing suggestion of the
sea in some of her unnumbered moods; and there is a scene of late
twilight on a high solitary down over the bay of Mont Saint-Michel, to
which a reader blessed with sensibility to the subtler impressions of
landscape will turn again and again, as one visits again and again
some actual prospect where the eye procures for the inner sense
a dream of beauty and the incommensurable. Perhaps the palm for
exquisite workmanship will be popularly given, and justly given, to
the episode humorously headed _The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew_,
at the opening of the third volume. It is the story of three little
children, barely out of infancy, awaking, playing, eating, wondering,
slumbering, in solitude through a summer day in an old tower. As a
rule the attempt to make infancy interesting in literature ends in
maudlin failure. But at length the painters have found an equal, or
more than an equal, in an artist whose medium lends itself less easily
than colour and form to the reproduction of the beauty and life of
childhood. In his poetry Victor Hugo had already shown his passing
sensibility to the pathos of the beginnings of our life; witness such
pieces as _Chose vue un Jour de Printemps, Les Pauvres Gens_, the
well-known pieces in _L'Annee Terrible_, and a hundred other lively
touches and fragments of finished loveliness and penetrating sympathy.
In prose it is a more difficult feat to collect the trivial details
which make up the life of the tiny human animal into a whole that
shall be impressive, finished, and beautiful. And prose can only
describe by details enumerated one by one. This most arduous feat
is accomplished in the children's summer day in the tower, and with
enchanting success. Intensely realistic, yet the picture overflows
with emotion--not the emotion of the mother, but of the poet. There
is infinite tenderness, pathos, love, but all heightened at once and
strengthened by the self-control of masculine force. A man writing
about little ones seems able to place himself outside, and thus to
gain more calmness and freedom of vision than the more passionate
interest or yearning of women permits to them in this field of art.
Not a detail is spared, yet the whole is full of delight and pity and
humour. Only one lyric passage is allowed to poetise and accentuate
the realism of the description. Georgette, some twenty months old,
scrambles from her cradle and prattles to the sunbeam.

"What a bird says in its song, a child says in its prattle. 'Tis
the same hymn; a hymn indistinct, lisping, profound. The child has
what the bird has not, the sombre human destiny in front of it.
Hence the sadness of men as they listen, mingling with the joy of
the little one as it sings. The sublimest canticle to be heard on
earth is the stammering of the human soul on the lips of infancy.
That confused chirruping of a thought, that is as yet no more than
an instinct, has in it one knows not what sort of artless appeal
to the eternal justice; or is it a protest uttered on the
threshold before entering in, a protest meek and poignant? This
ignorance smiling at the Infinite compromises all creation in the
lot that shall fall to the weak defenceless being. Ill, if it
shall come, will be an abuse of confidence.

"The child's murmuring is more and is less than words; there are
no notes, and yet it is a song; there are no syllables, and yet it
is a language.... This poor stammering is a compound of what the
child said when it was an angel, and of what it will say when
it becomes a man. The cradle has a Yesterday as the grave has a
Morrow; the Morrow and the Yesterday mingle in that strange cooing
their twofold mystery...."

"Her lips smiled, her eyes smiled, the dimples in her cheeks
smiled. There came forth in this smile a mysterious welcome of the
morning. The soul has faith in the ray. The heavens were blue,
warm was the air. The fragile creature, without knowing anything,
or recognising anything, or understanding anything, softly
floating in musings which are not thought, felt itself in safety
in the midst of nature, among those good trees and that guileless
greenery, in the pure and peaceful landscape, amid the rustle of
nests, of flowing springs, of insects, of leaves, while over all
there glowed the great innocency of the sun" (ii. 104).

As an eminent man has recently written about Wordsworth's most famous
Ode, there may be some bad philosophy here, but there is assuredly
some noble and touching poetry.

If the carelessness of infancy is caught with this perfection of
finish, there is a tragic companion piece in the horror and gnawing
anguish of the wretched woman from whom her young have been taken--her
rescue from death, her fierce yearnings for them like the yearnings of
a beast, her brute-like heedlessness of her life and her body in the
cruel search.

And so the poet conducts us along the strange excursive windings of
the life and passion of humanity. The same hand which draws such noble
figures as Gauvain--and the real Lanjuinais of history was fully as
heroic and as noble as the imaginary Gauvain of fiction--is equally
skilful in drawing the wild Breton beggar who dwells underground among
the branching tree-roots; and the monstrous Imanus, the barbarous
retainer of the Lord of the Seven Forests; and Radoub, the serjeant
from Paris, a man of hearty oaths, hideous, heroic, humoursome, of
a bloody ingenuity in combat. And the same hand which described the
silent sundown on the sandy shore of the bay, and the mysterious
darkness of the forests, and the blameless play of the little ones,
gives us the prodigious animation of the night surprise at Dol, the
furious conflict at La Tourgue, and, perhaps most powerful of all, the
breaking loose of the gun on the deck of the _Claymore_. You may say
that this is only melodrama; but if we turn to the actual events of
'93, the melodrama of the romancer will seem tame compared with the
melodrama of the faithful chronicler. And so long as the narrative
of melodramatic action is filled with poetry and beauty, there is no
reproach in uncommon situation, in intense passion, in magnanimous or
subtle motives that are not of every day. Of Hugo's art we may say
what Dr. Newman has said of something else: _Such work is always open
to criticism and it is always above it_.

There is poetry and beauty, no doubt, in the common lives about us, if
we look at them with imaginative and sympathetic eye, and we owe much
to the art that reveals to us the tragedy of the parlour and the
frockcoat, and analyses the bitterness and sorrow and high passion
that may underlie a life of outer smoothness and decorum. Still,
criticism cannot accept this as the final and exclusive limitation of
imaginative work. Art is nothing if not catholic and many-sided, and
it is certainly not exhausted by mere domestic possibilities. Goethe's
fine and luminous feeling for practical life, which has given such
depth of richness and wisdom to his best prose writing, fills us with
a delightful sense of satisfaction and adequateness; and yet why
should it not leave us with a mind eagerly open for the larger and
more inventive romance, in which nature is clothed with some of that
awe and might and silent contemplation of the puny destinies of man,
that used to surround the conception of the supernatural? Victor Hugo
seeks strong and extraordinary effects; he is a master of terrible
image, profound emotion, audacious fancy; but then these are as real,
as natural, as true to fact, as the fairest reproduction of the moral
poverties and meannesses of the world. And let it be added that while
he is without a rival in the dark mysterious heights of imaginative
effect, he is equally a master in strokes of tenderness and the most
delicate human sympathy. His last book seems to contain pieces that
surpass every other book of Hugo's in the latter range of qualities,
and not to fall at all short in the former. And so, in the words of
the man of genius who last wrote on Victor Hugo in these pages,[1]
"As we pity ourselves for the loss of poems and pictures which have
perished, and left of Sappho but a fragment and of Zeuxis but a name,
so are we inclined to pity the dead who died too soon to enjoy the
great works we have enjoyed. At each new glory that 'swims into our
ken,' we surely feel that it is something to have lived to see that
too rise."

[Footnote 1: Mr. Swinburne.]


When the first volume of Mr. Browning's new poem came before the
critical tribunals, public and private, recognised or irresponsible,
there was much lamentation even in quarters where a manlier humour
might have been expected, over the poet's choice of a subject. With
facile largeness of censure, it was pronounced a murky subject,
sordid, unlovely, morally sterile, an ugly leaf out of some ancient
Italian Newgate Calendar. One hinted in vain that wisdom is justified
of her children, that the poet must be trusted to judge of the
capacity of his own theme, and that it is his conception and treatment
of it that ultimately justify or discredit his choice. Now that the
entire work is before the world, this is plain, and it is admitted.
When the second volume, containing _Giuseppe Caponsacchi_, appeared,
men no longer found it sordid or ugly; the third, with _Pompilia_,
convinced them that the subject was not, after all, so incurably
unlovely; and the fourth, with _The Pope_, and the passage from the
Friar's sermon, may well persuade those who needed persuasion, that
moral fruitfulness depends on the master, his eye and hand, his vision
and grasp, more than on this and that in the transaction which has
taken possession of his imagination.

The truth is, we have for long been so debilitated by pastorals, by
graceful presentation of the Arthurian legend for drawing-rooms, by
idylls, not robust and Theocritean, by verse directly didactic, that a
rude blast of air from the outside welter of human realities is apt
to give a shock, that might well show in what simpleton's paradise
we have been living. The ethics of the rectory parlour set to sweet
music, the respectable aspirations of the sentimental curate married
to exquisite verse, the everlasting glorification of domestic
sentiment in blameless princes and others, as if that were the poet's
single province and the divinely-appointed end of all art, as if
domestic sentiment included and summed up the whole throng of
passions, emotions, strife, and desire; all this might seem to be
making valetudinarians of us all. Our public is beginning to measure
the right and possible in art by the superficial probabilities of life
and manners within a ten-mile radius of Charing Cross. Is it likely,
asks the critic, that Duke Silva would have done this, that Fedalma
would have done that? Who shall suppose it possible that Caponsacchi
acted thus, that Count Guido was possessed by devils so? The poser
is triumphant, because the critic is tacitly appealing to the normal
standard of probabilities in our own day. In the tragedy of Pompilia
we are taken far from the serene and homely region in which some of
our teachers would fain have it that the whole moral universe can be
snugly pent up. We see the black passions of man at their blackest;
hate, so fierce, undiluted, implacable, passionate, as to be hard of
conception by our simpler northern natures; cruelty, so vindictive,
subtle, persistent, deadly, as to fill us with a pain almost too great
for true art to produce; greediness, lust, craft, penetrating a whole
stock and breed, even down to the ancient mother of "that fell house
of hate,"--

"The gaunt grey nightmare in the furthest smoke,
The hag that gave these three abortions birth,
Unmotherly mother and unwomanly
Woman, that near turns motherhood to shame,
Womanliness to loathing: no one word,
No gesture to curb cruelty a whit
More than the she-pard thwarts her playsome whelps
Trying their milk-teeth on the soft o' the throat
O' the first fawn, flung, with those beseeching eyes,
Flat in the covert! How should she but couch,
Lick the dry lips, unsheathe the blunted claw,
Catch 'twixt her placid eyewinks at what chance
Old bloody half-forgotten dream may flit,
Born when herself was novice to the taste,
The while she lets youth take its pleasure" (iv. 40).

But, then, if the poet has lighted up for us these grim and appalling
depths, he has not failed to raise us too into the presence of
proportionate loftiness and purity.

"Tantum vertice in auras
Aetherias quantum radice in Tartara tendit."

Like the gloomy and umbrageous grove of which the Sibyl spake to the
pious Aeneas, the poem conceals a golden branch and golden leaves.
In the second volume, Guido, servile and false, is followed by
Caponsacchi, as noble alike in conception and execution as anything
that Mr. Browning has ever achieved. In the third volume, the austere
pathos of Pompilia's tale relieves the too oppressive jollity of Don
Giacinto, and the flowery rhetoric of Bottini; while in the fourth,
the deep wisdom, justice, and righteous mind of the Pope, reconcile
us to endure the sulphurous whiff from the pit in the confession of
Guido, now desperate, naked, and satanic. From what at first was sheer
murk, there comes out a long procession of human figures, infinitely
various in form and thought, in character and act; a group of men and
women, eager, passionate, indifferent; tender and ravenous, mean and
noble, humorous and profound, jovial with prosperity or half-dumb with
misery, skirting the central tragedy, or plunged deep into the thick
of it, passers-by who put themselves off with a glance at the surface
of a thing, and another or two who dive to the heart of it. And
they all come out with a certain Shakespearian fulness, vividness,
directness. Above all, they are every one of them men and women,
with free play of human life in limb and feature, as in an antique
sculpture. So much of modern art, in poetry as in painting, runs to
mere drapery. "I grant," said Lessing, "that there is also a beauty in
drapery, but can it be compared with that of the human form? And shall
he who can attain to the greater, rest content with the less? I much
fear that the most perfect master in drapery shows by that very talent
wherein his weakness lies." This was spoken of plastic art, but it has
a yet deeper meaning in poetic criticism. There too, the master is he
who presents the natural shape, the curves, the thews of men, and does
not labour and seek praise for faithful reproduction of the mere moral
drapery of the hour, this or another; who gives you Hercules at strife
with Antaeus, Laocoon writhing in the coils of the divine serpents,
the wrestle with circumstance or passion, with outward destiny or
inner character, in the free outlines of nature and reality. The
capacity which it possesses for this presentation, at once so varied
and so direct, is one reason why the dramatic form ranks as the
highest expression and measure of the creative power of the poet; and
the extraordinary grasp with which Mr. Browning has availed himself of
this double capacity is one reason why we should reckon _The Ring and
the Book_ as one of his masterpieces.

We may say this, and still not be blind to the faults of the poem.
Many persons agree that they find it too long, and if they find it so,
then for them it is too long. Others, who cannot resist the critic's
temptation of believing that a remark must be true if it only look
acute and specific, vow that the disclosure in the first volume of the
whole plan and plot vitiates subsequent artistic merit. If one
cannot enjoy what comes, for knowing beforehand what is coming, this
objection may be allowed to have a root in human nature; but then two
things might perhaps be urged on the other side,--first, that the
interest of the poem lies in the development and presentation of
character, on the one hand, and in the many sides which a single
transaction offered to as many minds, on the other; and therefore that
this true interest could not be marred by the bare statement what the
transaction was or, baldly looked at, seemed to be; and, second, that
the poem was meant to find its reader in a mood of mental repose,
ready to receive the poet's impressions, undisturbed by any agitating
curiosity as to plot or final outcome. A more valid accusation touches
the many verbal perversities, in which a poet has less right than
another to indulge. The compound Latin and English of Don Giacinto,
notwithstanding the fan of the piece, still grows a burden to the
flesh. Then there are harsh and formless lines, bursts of metrical
chaos, from which a writer's dignity and self-respect ought surely
to be enough to preserve him. Again, there are passages marked by a
coarse violence of expression that is nothing short of barbarous (for
instance, ii. 190, or 245). The only thing to be said is, that the
countrymen of Shakespeare have had to learn to forgive uncouth
outrages on form and beauty to fine creative genius. If only one could
be sure that readers, unschooled as too many are to love the simple
and elevated beauty of such form as Sophocles or as Corneille gives,
would not think the worst fault the chief virtue, and confound the
poet's bluntnesses with his admirable originality. It is certain that
in Shakespeare's case his defects are constantly fastened upon, by
critics who have never seriously studied the forms of dramatic art
except in the literature of England, and extolled as instances of
his characteristic mightiness. It may well be, therefore, that the
grotesque caprices which Mr. Browning unfortunately permits to himself
may find misguided admirers, or, what is worse, even imitators. It
would be most unjust, however, while making due mention of these
things, to pass over the dignity and splendour of the verse in
many places, where the intensity of the writer's mood finds worthy
embodiment in a sustained gravity and vigour and finish of diction not
to be surpassed. The concluding lines of the _Caponsacchi_ (comprising
the last page of the second volume), the appeal of the Greek poet in
_The Pope_, one or two passages in the first _Guido_ (e.g. vol. ii.,
p. 156, from line 1957), and the close of the _Pompilia_, ought to be
referred to when one wishes to know what power over the instrument
of his art Mr. Browning might have achieved, if he had chosen to
discipline himself in instrumentation.

When all is said that can be said about the violences which from
time to time invade the poem, it remains true that the complete work
affects the reader most powerfully with that wide unity of impression
which it is the highest aim of dramatic art, and perhaps of all art,
to produce. After we have listened to all the whimsical dogmatising
about beauty, to all the odious cant about morbid anatomy, to all the
well-deserved reproach for unpardonable perversities of phrase and
outrages on rhythm, there is left to us the consciousness that a
striking human transaction has been seized by a vigorous and profound
imagination, that its many diverse threads have been wrought into a
single, rich, and many-coloured web of art, in which we may see traced
for us the labyrinths of passion and indifference, stupidity and
craft, prejudice and chance, along which truth and justice have to
find a devious and doubtful way. The transaction itself, lurid
and fuliginous, is secondary to the manner of its handling and
presentment. We do not derive our sense of unity from the singleness
and completeness of the horrid tragedy, so much as from the power
with which its own circumstances as they happened, the rumours which
clustered about it from the minds of men without, the many moods,
fancies, dispositions, which it for the moment brought out into light,
playing round the fact, the half-sportive flights with which lawyers,
judges, quidnuncs of the street, darted at conviction and snatched
hap-hazard at truth, are all wrought together into one self-sufficient
and compacted shape.

But this shape is not beautiful, and the end of art is beauty? Verbal
fanaticism is always perplexing, and, rubbing my eyes, I ask whether
that beauty means anything more than such an arrangement and
disposition of the parts of the work as, first kindling a great
variety of dispersed emotions and thoughts in the mind of the
spectator, finally concentrates them in a single mood of joyous, sad,
meditative, or interested delight. The sculptor, the painter, and the
musician, have each their special means of producing this final
and superlative impression; each is bound by the strictly limited
capability in one direction and another of the medium in which he
works. In poetry it is because they do not perceive how much more
manifold and varied are the means of reaching the end than in the
other expressions of art, that people insist each upon some particular
quiddity which, entering into composition, alone constitutes it
genuinely poetic, beautiful, or artistic. Pressing for definition, you
never get much further than that each given quiddity means a certain
Whatness. This is why poetical criticism is usually so little
catholic. A man remembers that a poem in one style has filled him with
consciousness of beauty and delight. Why conclude that this style
constitutes the one access to the same impression? Why not rather
perceive that, to take contemporaries, the beauty of _Thyrsis_ Is
mainly produced by a fine suffusion of delicately-toned emotion; that
of _Atalanta_ by splendid and barely rivalled music of verse; of _In
Memoriam_ by its ordered and harmonious presentation of a sacred mood;
of the _Spanish Gypsy_, in the parts where it reaches beauty, by
a sublime ethical passion; of the _Earthly Paradise_, by sweet and
simple reproduction of the spirit of the younger-hearted times? There
are poems by Mr. Browning in which it is difficult, or, let us frankly
say, impossible, for most of us at all events and as yet, to discover
the beauty or the shape. But if beauty may not be denied to a work
which, abounding in many-coloured scenes and diverse characters, in
vivid image and portraiture, wide reflection and multiform emotion,
does further, by a broad thread of thought running under all, bind
these impressions into one supreme and elevated conviction, then
assuredly, whatever we may think of this passage or that, that episode
or the other, the first volume or the third, we cannot deny that _The
Ring and the Book_, in its perfection and integrity, fully satisfies
the conditions of artistic triumph. Are we to ignore the grandeur of
a colossal statue, and the nobility of the human conceptions which it
embodies, because here and there we notice a flaw in the marble, a
blemish in its colour, a jagged slip of the chisel? "It is not force
of intellect," as George Eliot has said, "which causes ready repulsion
from the aberration and eccentricities of greatness, any more than it
is force of vision that causes the eye to explore the warts in a
face bright with human expression; it is simply the negation of high

Then, it is asked by persons of another and still more rigorous
temper, whether, as the world goes, the subject, or its treatment
either, justifies us in reading some twenty-one thousand and
seventy-five lines, which do not seem to have any direct tendency to
make us better or to improve mankind. This objection is an old enemy
with a new face, and need not detain us, though perhaps the crude
and incessant application of a narrow moral standard, thoroughly
misunderstood, is one of the intellectual dangers of our time. You may
now and again hear a man of really masculine character confess that
though he loves Shakespeare and takes habitual delight in his works,
he cannot see that he was a particularly moral writer. That is to say,
Shakespeare is never directly didactic; you can no more get a system
of morals out of his writings than you can get such a system out
of the writings of the ever-searching Plato. But, if we must be
quantitative, one great creative poet probably exerts a nobler,
deeper, more permanent ethical influence than a dozen generations of
professed moral teachers. It is a commonplace to the wise, and an
everlasting puzzle to the foolish, that direct inculcation of morals
should invariably prove so powerless an instrument, so futile a
method. The truth is that nothing can be more powerfully efficacious
from the moral point of view than the exercise of an exalted creative
art, stirring within the intelligence of the spectator active thought
and curiosity about many types of character and many changeful issues
of conduct and fortune, at once enlarging and elevating the range of
his reflections on mankind, ever kindling his sympathies into the warm
and continuous glow which purifies and strengthens nature, and fills
men with that love of humanity which is the best inspirer of virtue.
Is not this why music, too, is to be counted supreme among moral
agents, soothing disorderly passion by diving down into the hidden
deeps of character where there is no disorder, and touching the
diviner mind? Given a certain rectitude as well as vigour of
intelligence, then whatever stimulates the fancy, expands the
imagination, enlivens meditation upon the great human drama, is
essentially moral. Shakespeare does all this, as if sent Iris-like
from the immortal gods, and _The Ring and the Book_ has a measure of
the same incomparable quality.

A profound and moving irony subsists in the very structure of the
poem. Any other human transaction that ever was, tragic or comic or
plain prosaic, may be looked at in a like spirit, As the world's talk
bubbled around the dumb anguish of Pompilia, or the cruelty and hate
of Guido, so it does around the hourly tragedies of all times and

"The instinctive theorizing whence a fact
Looks to the eye as the eye likes the look."--
"Vibrations in the general mind
At depth of deed already out of reach."--
"Live fact deadened down,
Talked over, bruited abroad, whispered away:"--

if we reflect that these are the conditions which have marked the
formation of all the judgments that we hold by, and which are vivid in
operation and effect at this hour, the deep irony and the impressive
meaning of the poem are both obvious:--

"So learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach,
This lesson that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind" (iv. 234).

It is characteristic of Mr. Browning that he thus casts the moral of
his piece in an essentially intellectual rather than an emotional
form, appealing to hard judgment rather than to imaginative
sensibility. Another living poet of original genius, of whom we have
much right to complain that he gives us so little, ends a poem in two
or three lines which are worth quoting here for the illustration they
afford of what has just been said about Mr. Browning:--

"Ah, what dusty answer gets the soul,
When hot for certainties in this our life!--
In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean's force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore?"[1]

[Footnote 1: Mr. George Meredith's _Modern Love_.]

This is imaginative and sympathetic in thought as well as expression,
and the truth and the image enter the writer's mind together, the one
by the other. The lines convey poetic sentiment rather than reasoned
truth; while Mr. Browning's close would be no unfit epilogue to a
scientific essay on history, or a treatise on the errors of the human
understanding and the inaccuracy of human opinion and judgment. This
is the common note of his highest work; hard thought and reason
illustrating themselves in dramatic circumstance, and the thought
and reason are not wholly fused, they exist apart and irradiate with
far-shooting beams the moral confusion of the tragedy. This is, at any
rate, emphatically true of _The Ring and the Book_. The fulness
and variety of creation, the amplitude of the play and shifting of
characters and motive and mood, are absolutely unforced, absolutely
uninterfered with by the artificial exigencies of ethical or
philosophic purpose. There is the purpose, full-grown, clear in
outline, unmistakeable in significance. But the just proprieties of
place and season are rigorously observed, because Mr. Browning, like
every other poet of his quality, has exuberant and adequate delight in
mere creation, simple presentment, and returns to bethink him of the
meaning of it all only by-and-by. The pictures of Guido, of Pompilia,
of Caponsacchi, of Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, of Pope
Innocent, are each of them full and adequate, as conceptions of
character in active manifestation apart from the truth which the whole
composition is meant to illustrate, and which clothes itself in this
most excellent drama.

The scientific attitude of the intelligence is almost as markedly
visible in Mr. Browning as the strength of his creative power. The
lesson of _The Ring and the Book_ is perhaps as nearly positive as
anything poetic can be. It is true that ultimately the drama ends in
a vindication of what are called the ways of God to man, if indeed
people are willing to put themselves off with a form of omnipotent
justice which is simply a partial retribution inflicted on the
monster, while torture and butchery fall upon victims more or
less absolutely blameless. As if the fact of punishment at length
overtaking the guilty Franceschini were any vindication of the justice
of that assumed Providence, which had for so long a time awarded
punishment far more harsh to the innocent Pompilia. So far as you
can be content with the vindication of a justice of this less than
equivocal quality, the sight of the monster brought to the

"Close fetid cell,
Where the hot vapour of an agony,
Struck into drops on the cold wall, runs down
Horrible worms made out of sweat and tears,"--

may in a sense prove satisfactory enough. But a man must be very dull
who in reading the poem does not perceive that the very spirit of it
points to the thousand hazards which even this fragment of justice had
to run in saving itself, and bringing about such partially righteous
consummation as destiny permits. True opinion fares yet more
perilously. _Half-Rome_, the _Other Half-Rome_, the _Tertium Quid_,
which is perhaps most masterly and finished of the three, show us
how ill truth sifts itself, to how many it never comes at all, how
blurred, confused, next door to false, it is figured even to those who
seize it by the hem of the garment. We may, perhaps, yawn over the
intermingled Latin and law of Arcangeli, in spite of the humour of
parts of it, as well as over the vapid floweriness of his rival; but
for all that, we are touched keenly by the irony of the methods by
which the two professional truth-sifters darken counsel with words,
and make skilful sport of life and fact. The whole poem is a parable
of the feeble and half-hopeless struggle which truth has to make
against the ways of the world. That in this particular case truth and
justice did win some pale sort of victory does not weaken the force
of the lesson. The victory was such and so won as to stir in us awful
thoughts of fatal risks and certain defeats, of falsehood a thousand
times clasped for truth, of fact a thousand times banished for

"Because Pompilia's purity prevails,
Conclude you, all truth triumphs in the end?
So might those old inhabitants of the ark,
Witnessing haply their dove's safe return,
Pronounce there was no danger all the while
O' the deluge, to the creature's counterparts,
Aught that beat wing i' the world, was white or soft,
And that the lark, the thrush, the culver too,
Might equally have traversed air, found earth,
And brought back olive-branch In unharmed bill.
Methinks I hear the Patriarch's warning voice--
'Though this one breast, by miracle, return,
No wave rolls by, in all the waste, but bears
Within it some dead dove-like thing as dear,
Beauty made blank and harmlessness destroyed!'"

(iv. 218).

Or, to take another simile from the same magnificent passage, in which
the fine dignity of the verse fitly matches the deep truth of the
preacher's monitions:--

"Romans! An elder race possessed your land
Long ago, and a false faith lingered still,
As shades do, though the morning-star be out.
Doubtless, some pagan of the twilight day
Has often pointed to a cavern-mouth,
Obnoxious to beholders, hard by Rome,
And said,--nor he a bad man, no, nor fool,--
Only a man, so, blind like all his mates,--
'Here skulk in safety, lurk, defying law,
The devotees to execrable creed,
Adoring--with what culture ... Jove, avert
Thy vengeance from us worshippers of thee!...
What rites obscene--their idol-god, an Ass!'
So went the word forth, so acceptance found,
So century re-echoed century,
Cursed the accursed,--and so, from sire to son,
You Romans cried, 'The offscourings of our race
Corrupt within the depths there: fitly, fiends
Perform a temple-service o'er the dead:
Child, gather garment round thee, pass nor pry!'
So groaned your generations: till the time
Grew ripe, and lightning hath revealed, belike,--
Thro' crevice peeped into by curious fear,--
Some object even fear could recognise
I' the place of spectres; on the illumined wall,
To-wit, some nook, tradition talks about,
Narrow and short, a corpse's length, no more:
And by it, in the due receptacle,
The little rude brown lamp of earthenware,
The cruse, was meant for flowers, but held the blood,
The rough-scratched palm-branch, and the legend left
_Pro Christo_. Then the mystery lay clear:
The abhorred one was a martyr all the time,
A saint whereof earth was not worthy. What?
Do you continue in the old belief?
Where blackness bides unbroke, must devils be?
Is it so certain, not another cell
O' the myriad that make up the catacomb,
Contains some saint a second flash would show?
Will you ascend into the light of day
And, having recognised a martyr's shrine,
Go join the votaries that gape around
Each vulgar god that awes the market-place?"
(iv. 219).

With less impetuosity and a more weightily reasoned argument the Pope
confronts the long perplexity and entanglement of circumstances with
the fatuous optimism which insists that somehow justice and virtue do
rule in the world. Consider all the doings at Arezzo, before and after
the consummation of the tragedy. What of the Aretine archbishop, to
whom Pompilia cried "Protect me from the fiend!"--

"No, for thy Guido is one heady, strong,
Dangerous to disquiet; let him bide!
He needs some bone to mumble, help amuse
The darkness of his den with; so, the fawn
Which limps up bleeding to my foot and lies,
--Come to me, daughter,--thus I throw him back!"

Then the monk to whom she went, imploring him to write to Rome:--

"He meets the first cold sprinkle of the world
And shudders to the marrow, 'Save this child?
Oh, my superiors, oh, the Archbishop here!
Who was it dared lay hand upon the ark
His betters saw fall nor put finger forth?'"

Worst of all, the Convent of the Convertites, women to whom she was
consigned for help,

"They do help; they are prompt to testify
To her pure life and saintly dying days.
She dies, and lo, who seemed so poor, proves rich!
What does the body that lives through helpfulness
To women for Christ's sake? The kiss turns bite,
The dove's note changes to the crow's cry: judge!
'Seeing that this our Convent claims of right
What goods belong to those we succour, be
The same proved women of dishonest life,--
And seeing that this Trial made appear
Pompilia was in such predicament,--
The Convent hereupon pretends to said
Succession of Pompilia, issues writ,
And takes possession by the Fisc's advice.'
Such is their attestation to the cause
Of Christ, who had one saint at least, they hoped:
But, is a title-deed to filch, a corpse
To slander, and an infant-heir to cheat?
Christ must give up his gains then! They unsay
All the fine speeches,--who was saint is whore."

It is not wonderful if his review of all the mean and dolorous
circumstance of this cycle of wrong brings the Pope face to face with
the unconquerable problem for the Christian believer, the keystone
of the grim arch of religious doubt and despair, through which the
courageous soul must needs pass to creeds of reason and life. Where is
"the gloriously decisive change, the immeasurable metamorphosis" in
human worth that should in some sort justify the consummate price that
had been paid for man these seventeen hundred years before?

"Had a mere adept of the Rosy Cross
Spent his life to consummate the Great Work,
Would not we start to see the stuff it touched
Yield not a grain more than the vulgar got
By the old smelting-process years ago?
If this were sad to see in just the sage
Who should profess so much, perform no more,
What is it when suspected in that Power
Who undertook to make and made the world,
Devised and did effect man, body and soul,
Ordained salvation for them both, and yet ...
Well, is the thing we see, salvation?"

It is certain that by whatever other deficiencies it may be marked
_The Ring and the Book_ is blameless for the most characteristic of
all the shortcomings of contemporary verse, a grievous sterility of
thought. And why? Because sterility of thought is the blight struck
into the minds of men by timorous and halt-footed scepticism, by a
half-hearted dread of what chill thing the truth might prove itself,
by unmanly reluctance or moral incapacity to carry the faculty of
poetic vision over the whole field; and because Mr. Browning's
intelligence, on the other hand, is masculine and courageous, moving
cheerfully on the solid earth of an articulate and defined conviction,
and careful not to omit realities from the conception of the great
drama, merely for being unsightly to the too fastidious eye,
or jarring in the ear, or too bitterly perplexing to faith or
understanding. It is this resolute feeling after and grip of fact
which is at the root of his distinguishing fruitfulness of thought,
and it is exuberance of thought, spontaneous, well-marked, and sapid,
that keeps him out of poetical preaching, on the one hand, and mere
making of music, on the other. Regret as we may the fantastic rudeness
and unscrupulous barbarisms into which Mr. Browning's art too often
falls, and find what fault we may with his method, let us ever
remember how much he has to say, and how effectively he communicates
the shock of new thought which was first imparted to him by the
vivid conception of a large and far-reaching story. The value of the
thought, indeed, is not to be measured by poetic tests; but still the
thought has poetic value, too, for it is this which has stirred in the
writer that keen yet impersonal interest in the actors of his story
and in its situations which is one of the most certain notes of
true dramatic feeling, and which therefore gives the most unfailing
stimulus to the interest of the appreciative reader.

At first sight _The Ring and the Book_ appears to be absolutely wanting
in that grandeur which, in a composition of such enormous length,
criticism must pronounce to be a fundamental and indispensable element.
In an ordinary way this effect of grandeur is produced either by some
heroic action surrounded by circumstances of worthy stateliness, as in
the finest of the Greek plays; or as in _Paradise Lost_ by the presence
of personages of majestic sublimity of bearing and association; or as in
_Faust_ or _Hamlet_ by the stupendous moral abysses which the poet
discloses fitfully on this side and that. None of these things are to be
found in _The Ring and the Book_ The action of Caponsacchi, though noble
and disinterested, is hardly heroic in the highest dramatic sense, for
it is not much more than the lofty defiance of a conventionality, the
contemplated penalty being only small; not, for example, as if life or
ascertained happiness had been the fixed or even probable price of his
magnanimous enterprise. There was no marching to the stake, no
deliberate encountering of the mightier risks, no voluntary submission
to a lifelong endurance. True, this came in the end, but it was an end
unforeseen, and one, therefore, not to be associated with the first
conception of the original act. Besides, Guido is so saturated with
hateful and ignoble motive as to fill the surrounding air with
influences that preclude heroic association. It has been said of the
great men to whom the Byzantine Empire once or twice gave birth, that
even their fame has a curiously tarnished air, as if that too had been
touched by the evil breath of the times. And in like manner we may say
of Guido Franceschini that even to have touched him in the way of
resistance detracts from pure heroism. Perhaps the same consideration
explains the comparative disappointment which most people seem to have
felt with _Pompilia_ in the third volume. Again, there is nothing which
can be rightly called majesty of character visible in one personage or
another. There is high devotion in Caponsacchi, a large-minded and free
sagacity in Pope Innocent, and around Pompilia the tragic pathos of an
incurable woe, which by its intensity might raise her to grandeur if it
sprang from some more solemn source than the mere malignity and baseness
of an unworthy oppressor. Lastly, there is nothing in _The Ring and the
Book_ of that "certain incommensurableness" which Goethe found in his
own _Faust_. The poem is kept closely concrete and strictly
commensurable by the very framework of its story:--

"pure crude fact,
Secreted from man's life when hearts beat hard,
And brains, high-blooded, ticked two centuries since."

It moves from none of the supernatural agencies which give the impulse
to our interest in _Faust_, nor from the sublimer passions and
yearning after things unspeakable alike in _Faust_ and in _Hamlet._

Yet, notwithstanding its lack of the accustomed elements of grandeur,
there is a profound impressiveness about _The Ring and the Book_
which must arise from the presence of some other fine compensating
or equivalent quality. Perhaps one may say that this equivalent for
grandeur is a certain simple touching of our sense of human kinship,
of the large identity of the conditions of the human lot, of the
piteous fatalities which bring the lives of the great multitude of men
to be little more than "grains of sand to be blown by the wind." This
old woe, the poet says, now in the fulness of the days again lives,

"_If precious be the soul of man to man_."

This is the deeply implanted sentiment to which his poem makes
successful appeal. Nor is it mocked by mere outpouring of scorn on the
blind and fortuitous groping of men and societies of men after truth
and justice and traces of the watchfulness of "the unlidded eye of
God." Rather it is this inability to see beyond the facts of our
condition to some diviner, ever-present law, which helps to knit us to
our kind, our brethren "whom we have seen."

"Clouds obscure--
But for which obscuration all were bright?
Too hastily concluded! Sun-suffused,
A cloud may soothe the eye made blind by blaze,--
Better the very clarity of heaven:
The soft streaks are the beautiful and dear.
What but the weakness in a faith supplies
The incentive to humanity, no strength
Absolute, irresistible, comports?
How can man love but what he yearns to help
And that which men think weakness within strength
But angels know for strength and stronger get--
What were it else but the first things made new,
But repetition of the miracle,
The divine instance of self-sacrifice
That never ends and aye begins for man?"


What are the qualities of a good contributor? What makes a good
Review? Is the best literature produced by the writer who does nothing
else but write, or by the man who tempers literature by affairs? What
are the different recommendations of the rival systems of anonymity
and signature? What kind of change, if any, has passed over periodical
literature since those two great periodicals, the _Edinburgh_ and the
_Quarterly_, held sway? These and a number of other questions in the
same matter--some of them obviously not to be opened with propriety in
these pages--must naturally be often present to the mind of any one
who is concerned in the control of a Review, and a volume has just
been printed which sets such musings once more astir. Mr. Macvey
Napier was the editor of the _Edinburgh Review_ from 1829--when
Jeffrey, after a reign of seven-and-twenty years, resigned it into
his hands--until his death in 1847. A portion of the correspondence
addressed to Mr. Napier during this period is full of personal
interest both to the man of letters and to that more singular being,
the Editor, the impresario of men of letters, the _entrepreneur_ of
the spiritual power.

To manage an opera-house is usually supposed to tax human powers more
urgently than any position save that of a general in the very heat
and stress of battle. The orchestra, the chorus, the subscribers,
the first tenor, a pair of rival prima donnas, the newspapers, the
box-agents in Bond Street, the army of hangers-on in the flies--all
combine to demand such gifts of tact, resolution, patience, foresight,
tenacity, flexibility, as are only expected from the great ruler
or the great soldier. The editor of a periodical of public
consideration--and the _Edinburgh Review_ in the hands of Mr. Napier
was the avowed organ of the ruling Whig powers--is sorely tested
in the same way. The rival house may bribe his stars. His popular
epigrammatist is sometimes as full of humours as a spoiled soprano.
The favourite pyrotechnist is systematically late and procrastinatory,
or is piqued because his punctuation or his paragraphs have been
meddled with. The contributor whose article would be in excellent
time if it did not appear before the close of the century, or never
appeared at all, pesters you with warnings that a month's delay is a
deadly blow to progress, and stays the great procession of the ages.
The contributor who could profitably fill a sheet, insists on sending
a treatise. Sir George Cornewall Lewis, who had charge of the
_Edinburgh_ for a short space, truly described prolixity as the _bete
noire_ of an editor. "Every contributor," he said, "has some special
reason for wishing to write at length on his own subject."

_Ah, que de choses dans un menuet!_ cried Marcel, the great
dancing-master, and ah, what things in the type and [Greek: idea] of
an article, cries an editor with the enthusiasm of his calling; such
proportion, measure, comprehension, variety of topics, pithiness of
treatment, all within a space appointed with Procrustean rigour. This
is what the soul of the volunteer contributor is dull to. Of the minor
vexations who can tell? There is one single tribulation dire enough
to poison life--even if there were no other--and this is disorderly
manuscript. Empson, Mr. Napier's well-known contributor, was one of
the worst offenders; he would never even take the trouble to mark his
paragraphs. It is my misfortune to have a manuscript before me at this
moment that would fill thirty of these pages, and yet from beginning
to end there is no indication that it is not to be read at a single
breath. The paragraph ought to be, and in all good writers it is, as
real and as sensible a division as the sentence. It is an organic
member in prose composition, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,
just as a stanza is an organic and definite member in the composition
of an ode, "I fear my manuscript is rather disorderly," says another,
"but I will correct carefully in print." Just so. Because he is too
heedless to do his work in a workmanlike way, he first inflicts
fatigue and vexation on the editor whom he expects to read his paper;
second, he inflicts considerable and quite needless expense on the
publisher; and thirdly, he inflicts a great deal of tedious and
thankless labour on the printers, who are for the most part far more
meritorious persons than fifth-rate authors. It is true that Burke
returned such disordered proofs that the printer usually found it
least troublesome to set the whole afresh, and Miss Martineau tells
a story of a Scotch compositor who fled from Edinburgh to avoid
Carlyle's manuscript, and to his horror was presently confronted with
a piece of the too familiar copy which made him cry, "Lord, have
mercy! Have _you_ got that man to print for!" But most editors will
cheerfully forgive such transgressions to all contributors who will
guarantee that they write as well as Burke or Carlyle. Alas! it is
usually the case that those who have least excuse are the worst
offenders. The slovenliest manuscripts come from persons to whom
the difference between an hour and a minute is of the very smallest
importance. This, however, is a digression, only to be excused partly
by the natural desire to say a word against one's persecutors, and
partly by a hope that some persons of sensitive conscience may be led
to ponder whether there may not be after all some moral obligations
even towards editors and printers.

Mr. Napier had one famous contributor, who stands out alone in the
history of editors. Lord Brougham's traditional connection with the
Review,--he had begun to write either in its first or third number,
and had written in it ever since--his encyclopaedic ignorance, his
power, his great fame in the country, and the prestige which his
connection reflected on the Review, all made him a personage with whom
it would have been most imprudent to quarrel. Yet the position in
which Mr. Napier was placed after Brougham's breach with the Whigs,
was one of the most difficult in which the conductor of a great organ
could possibly be placed. The Review was the representative, the
champion, and the mouthpiece of the Whig party, and of the Whigs who
were in office. Before William IV. dismissed the Whigs in 1834 as
arbitrarily as his father had dismissed the Whigs in 1784, Brougham
had covered himself with disrepute among his party by a thousand
pranks, and after the dismissal he disgusted them by asking the
new Chancellor to make him Chief Baron of the Exchequer. When Lord
Melbourne returned to power in the following year, this and other
escapades were remembered against him. "If left out," said Lord
Melbourne, "he would indeed be dangerous; but if taken in, he would
simply be destructive." So Brougham was left out, Pepys was made
Chancellor, and the Premier compared himself to a man who has broken
with a termagant mistress and married the best of cooks. Mr. Napier
was not so happy. The termagant was left on his hands. He had to
keep terms with a contributor who hated with deadly hatred the very
government that the Review existed to support. No editor ever had such
a contributor as Brougham in the long history of editorial torment
since the world began. He scolds, he storms, he hectors, he lectures;
he is for ever threatening desertion and prophesying ruin; he exhausts
the vocabulary of opprobrium against his correspondent's best friends;
they are silly slaves, base traitors, a vile clique "whose treatment
of me has been the very _ne plus ultra_ of ingratitude, baseness, and
treachery." He got the Review and its editor into a scrape which shook
the world at the time (1834), by betraying Cabinet secrets to spite
Lord Durham. His cries against his adversaries are as violent as
the threats of Ajax in his tent, and as loud as the bellowings of
Philoctetes at the mouth of his cave. Here is one instance out of a

"That is a trifle, and I only mention it to beg of you to pluck up
a little courage, and not be alarmed every time any of the little
knot of threateners annoy you. _They want to break off all kind of
connection between me and the Edinburgh Review_. I have long seen
it. Their fury against the article in the last number knows no
bounds, and they will never cease till they worry you out of your
connection with me, and get the whole control of the Review into
their own hands, by forcing you to resign it yourself. A _party
and a personal_ engine is all they want to make it. What possible
right can any of these silly slaves have to object to my opinion
being--what it truly is--against the Holland House theory of Lord
Chatham's madness? I _know_ that Lord Grenville treated it with
contempt. I know others now living who did so too, and I know that
so stout a Whig as Sir P. Francis was clearly of that opinion, and
he knew Lord Chatham personally. I had every ground to believe
that Horace Walpole, a vile, malignant, and unnatural wretch,
though a very clever writer of Letters, was nine-tenths of the
Holland House authority for the tale. I knew that a baser man in
character, or a meaner in capacity than the first Lord Holland
existed not, even in those days of job and mediocrity. Why, then,
was I bound to take a false view because Lord Holland's family
have inherited his hatred of a great rival?"

Another instance is as follows:--

"I solicit your best attention to the fate which seems hastening
upon the _Edinburgh Review_. The having always been free from the
least control of booksellers is one of its principal distinctions,
and long was peculiarly so--perhaps it still has it _nearly_ to
itself. But if it shall become a _Treasury_ journal, I hardly see
any great advantage in one kind of independence without the
rest. Nay, I doubt if its _literary_ freedom, any more than its
political, will long survive. Books will be treated according as
the Treasury, or their under-strappers, regard the authors....
But, is it after all possible that the Review should be suffered
to sink into such a state of subserviency that it dares not insert
any discussion upon a general question of politics because it
might give umbrage to the Government of the day? I pass over the
undeniable fact that it is _underlings_ only whom you are scared
by, and that the Ministers themselves have no such inordinate
pretension as to dream of interfering. I say nothing of those
underlings generally, except this, that I well know the race, and
a more despicable, above all, in point of judgment, exists not.
Never mind their threats, they _can_ do no harm. Even if any of
them are contributors, be assured they never will withdraw because
you choose to keep your course free and independent."

Mr. Napier, who seems to have been one of the most considerate and
high-minded of men, was moved to energetic remonstrance on this
occasion. Lord Brougham explained his strong language away, but he
was incapable of really controlling himself, and the strain was never
lessened until 1843, when the correspondence ceases, and we learn
that there had been a quarrel between him and his too long-suffering
correspondent. Yet John Allen,--that able scholar and conspicuous
figure in the annals of Holland House--wrote of Brougham to Mr.
Napier:--"He is not a malignant or bad-hearted man, but he is an
unscrupulous one, and where his passions are concerned or his vanity
irritated, there is no excess of which he is not capable." Of
Brougham's strong and manly sense, when passion or vanity did not
cloud it, and even of a sort of careful justice, these letters give
more than one instance. The _Quarterly Review_, for instance, had an
article on Romilly's Memoirs, which to Romilly's friends seemed to do
him less than justice. Brougham took a more sensible view.

"Surely we had no right whatever to expect that they whom Romilly
had all his life so stoutly opposed, and who were treated by him
with great harshness, should treat him as his friends would do,
and at the very moment when a most injudicious act of his family
was bringing out all his secret thoughts against them. Only place
yourself in the same position, and suppose that Canning's private
journals had been published,--the journals he may have kept while
the bitterest enemy of the Whigs, and in every page of which there
must have been some passage offensive to the feelings of the
living and of the friends of the dead. Would any mercy have been
shown to Canning's character and memory by any of the Whig party,
either in society or in Reviews? Would the line have been drawn of
only attacking Canning's executors, who published the papers, and
leaving Canning himself untouched? Clearly and certainly not,
and yet I am putting a very much weaker case, for we had joined
Canning, and all political enmity was at an end: whereas the
Tories and Romilly never had for an hour laid aside their mutual

And if he was capable of equity, Brougham was also capable of hearty
admiration, even of an old friend who had on later occasions gone into
a line which he intensely disliked. It is a relief in the pages of
blusterous anger and raging censure to come upon what he says of

"I can truly say that there never in all my life crossed my mind
one single unkind feeling respecting him, or indeed any feeling
but that of the warmest affection and the most unmingled
admiration of his character, believing and knowing him to be as
excellent and amiable as he is great in the ordinary, and, as I
think, the far less important sense of the word."

Of the value of Brougham's contributions we cannot now judge. They
will not, in spite of their energy and force, bear re-reading to-day,
and perhaps the same may be said of three-fourths of Jeffrey's once
famous essays. Brougham's self-confidence is heroic. He believed that
he could make a speech for Bolingbroke, but by-and-by he had sense
enough to see that, in order to attempt this, he ought to read
Bolingbroke for a year, and then practise for another year. In 1838 he
thought nothing of undertaking, amid all the demands of active life,
such a bagatelle as a History of the French Revolution. "I have some
little knack of narrative," he says, "the most difficult by far of all
styles, and never yet attained in perfection but by Hume and Livy;
and I bring as much oratory and science to the task as most of my
predecessors." But what sort of science? And what has oratory to do
with it? And how could he deceive himself into thinking that he could
retire to write a history? Nobody that ever lived would have more
speedily found out the truth of Voltaire's saying, "_Le repos est
une bonne chose, mais l'ennui est son frere_." The truth is that one
learns, after a certain observation of the world, to divide one's
amazement pretty equally between the literary voluptuary or
over-fastidious collegian, on the one hand, who is so impressed by the
size of his subject that he never does more than collect material and
make notes, and the presumptuous politician, on the other hand, who
thinks that he can write a history or settle the issues of philosophy
and theology in odd half-hours. The one is so enfeebled in will and
literary energy after his _viginti annorum lucubrationes_; the other
is so accustomed to be content with the hurry, the unfinishedness,
the rough-and-ready methods of practical affairs, and they both in
different ways measure the worth and seriousness of literature so
wrongly in relation to the rest of human interests.

The relations between Lord Brougham and Mr. Napier naturally suggest
a good many reflections on the vexed question of the comparative
advantages of the old and the new theory of a periodical. The new
theory is that a periodical should not be an organ but an open pulpit,
and that each writer should sign his name. Without disrespect to ably
conducted and eminent contemporaries of long standing, it may be said
that the tide of opinion and favour is setting in this direction. Yet,
on the whole, experience perhaps leads to a doubt whether the gains of
the system of signature are so very considerable as some of us once
expected. An editor on the new system is no doubt relieved of a
certain measure of responsibility. Lord Cockburn's panegyric on the
first great editor may show what was expected from a man in such a
position as Jeffrey's. "He had to discover, and to train, authors; to
discern what truth and the public mind required; to suggest subjects;
to reject, and, more offensive still, to improve, contributions; to
keep down absurdities; to infuse spirit; to excite the timid; to
repress violence; to soothe jealousies; to quell mutinies; to watch
times; and all this in the morning of the reviewing day, before
experience had taught editors conciliatory firmness, and contributors
reasonable submission. He directed and controlled the elements he
presided over with a master's judgment. There was not one of his
associates who could have even held these elements together for a
single year.... Inferior to these excellences, but still important,
was his dexterity in revising the writings of others. Without altering
the general tone or character of the composition, he had great skill
in leaving out defective ideas or words, and in so aiding the original
by lively or graceful touches, that reasonable authors were surprised
and charmed on seeing how much better they looked than they thought
they would" (Cockburn's _Life of Jeffrey_, i. 301).

From such toils and dangers as these the editor of a Review with
signed articles is in the main happily free. He has usually
suggestions to make, for his experience has probably given him points
of view as to the effectiveness of this or that feature of an article
for its own purpose, which would not occur to a writer. The writer is
absorbed in his subject, and has been less accustomed to think of the
public. But this exercise of a claim to a general acquiescence in the
judgment and experience of a man who has the best reasons for trying
to judge rightly, is a very different thing from the duty of drilling
contributors and dressing contributions as they were dressed and
drilled by Jeffrey. As Southey said, when groaning under the
mutilations inflicted by Gifford on Iris contributions to the
_Quarterly_, "there must be a power expurgatory in the hands of
the editor; and the misfortune is that editors frequently think it
incumbent on them to use that power merely because they have it"
(Southey's Life, iv. 18). This is probably true on the anonymous
system, where the editor is answerable for every word, and for the
literary form no less than for the substantial soundness or interest
of an article. In a man of weakish literary vanity--Jeffrey was
evidently full of it--there may well be a constant itch to set his
betters right in trifles, as Gifford thought that he could mend
Southey's adjectives. To a vain editor, or a too masterful editor, the
temptation under the anonymous system is no doubt strong. M. Buloz,
it is true, the renowned conductor of the _Revue des deux Mondes_, is
said to have insisted on, and to have freely practised, the fullest
editorial prerogative over articles that were openly signed by the
most eminent names in France. But M. Buloz had no competitor, and
those who did not choose to submit to his Sultanic despotism were
shut out from the only pulpit whence they were sure of addressing the
congregation that they wanted. In England contributors are better
off; and no editor of a signed periodical would feel either bound or
permitted to take such trouble about mere wording of sentences as
Gifford and Jeffrey were in the habit of taking.

There is, however, another side to this, from an editor's point of
view. With responsibility--not merely for commas and niceties and
literary kickshaws, but in its old sense--disappears also a portion of
the interest of editorial labour. One would suppose it must be more
interesting to command a man-of-war than a trading vessel; it would be
more interesting to lead a regiment than to keep a tilting-yard. But
the times are not ripe for such enterprises. Of literary ability of
a good and serviceable kind there is a hundred or five hundred times
more in the country than there was when Jeffrey, Smith, Brougham, and
Horner devised their Review in a ninth storey in Edinburgh seventy-six
years ago. It is the cohesion of a political creed that is gone, and
the strength and fervour of a political school. The principles that
inspired that group of strong men have been worked out. After their
reforms had been achieved, the next great school was economic, and
though it produced one fine orator, its work was at no time literary.
The Manchester school with all their shortcomings had at least the
signal distinction of attaching their views on special political
questions to a general and presiding conception of the modern phase of
civilisation, as industrial and pacific. The next party of advance,
when it is formed, will certainly borrow from Cobden and Bright their
hatred of war and their hatred of imperialism. After the sagacity and
enlightenment of this school came the school of persiflage. A knot of
vigorous and brilliant men towards 1856 rallied round the late editor
of the _Saturday Review_,--and a strange chief he was for such
a group,--but their flag was that of the Red Rover. They gave
Philistinism many a shrewd blow, but perhaps at the same time helped
to some degree--with other far deeper and stronger forces--to produce
that sceptical and centrifugal state of mind, which now tends to
nullify organised liberalism and paralyse the spirit of improvement.
The Benthamites, led first by James Mill, and afterwards in a
secondary degree by John Mill, had pushed a number of political
improvements in the radical and democratic direction during the
time when the _Edinburgh_ so powerfully represented more orthodox
liberalism. They were the last important group of men who started
together from a set of common principles, accepted a common programme
of practical applications, and set to work in earnest and with due
order and distribution of parts to advocate the common cause.

At present [1878] there is no similar agreement either among the
younger men in parliament, or among a sufficiently numerous group of
writers outside of parliament. The Edinburgh Reviewers were most
of them students of the university of that city. The Westminster
Reviewers had all sat at the feet of Bentham. Each group had thus a
common doctrine and a positive doctrine. In practical politics it does
not much matter by what different roads men have travelled to a given
position. But in an organ intended to lead public opinion towards
certain changes, or to hold it steadfast against wayward gusts of
passion, its strength would be increased a hundredfold if all the
writers in it were inspired by that thorough unity of conviction which
comes from sincerely accepting a common set of principles to start
from, and reaching practical conclusions by the same route. We are
probably not very far from a time when such a group might form itself,
and its work would for some years lie in the formation of a general
body of opinion, rather than in practical realisation of this or that
measure. The success of the French Republic, the peaceful order of the
United States, perhaps some trouble within our own borders, will lead
men with open minds to such a conception of a high and stable type of
national life as will unite a sufficient number of them in a common
project for pressing with systematic iteration for a complete set of
organic changes. A country with such a land-system, such an electoral
system, such a monarchy, as ours, has a trying time before it. Those
will be doing good service who shall unite to prepare opinion for the
inevitable changes. At the present moment the only motto that can be
inscribed on the flag of a liberal Review is the general device of
Progress, each writer interpreting it in his own sense, and within
such limits as he may set for himself. For such a state of things
signature is the natural condition, and an editor, even of a signed
Review, would hardly decline to accept the account of his function
which we find Jeffrey giving to Mr. Napier:--"There are three
legitimate considerations by which you should be guided in your
conduct as editor generally, and particularly as to the admission or
rejection of important articles of a political sort. 1. The effect of
your decision on the other contributors upon whom you mainly rely; 2.
its effect on the sale and circulation, and on the just authority
of the work with the great body of its readers; and, 3. your own
deliberate opinion as to the safety or danger of the doctrines
maintained in the article under consideration, and its tendency
either to promote or retard the practical adoption of those liberal
principles to which, and _their practical advancement_, you must
always consider the journal as devoted."

As for discovering and training authors, the editor under the new
system has inducements that lie entirely the other way; namely,
to find as many authors as possible whom the public has already
discovered and accepted for itself. Young unknown writers certainly
have not gained anything by the new system. Neither perhaps can they
be said to have lost, for though of two articles of equal merit
an editor would naturally choose the one which should carry the
additional recommendation of a name of recognised authority, yet any
marked superiority in literary brilliance or effective argument or
originality of view would be only too eagerly welcomed in any Review
in England. So much public interest is now taken in periodical
literature, and the honourable competition in securing variety,
weight, and attractiveness is so active, that there is no risk of
a literary candle remaining long under a bushel. Miss Martineau
says:--"I have always been anxious to extend to young or struggling
authors the sort of aid which would have been so precious to me in
that winter of 1829-30, and I know that, in above twenty years, I have
never succeeded but once." One of the most distinguished editors
in London, who had charge of a periodical for many years, told the
present writer what comes to the same thing, namely, that in no single
case during all these years did a volunteer contributor of real
quality, or with any promise of eminence, present himself or herself.
So many hundreds think themselves called, so few are chosen. It used
to be argued that the writer under the anonymous system was hidden
behind a screen and robbed of his well-earned distinction. In truth,
however, it is impossible for a writer of real distinction to remain
anonymous. If a writer in a periodical interests the public, they are
sure to find out who he is.

Again, there is folly unfathomable in a periodical affecting an
eternal consistency, and giving itself the airs of continuous
individuality, and being careful not to talk sense on a given question
to-day because its founders talked nonsense upon it fifty years ago.
This is quite true. There is a monstrous charlatanry about the old
editorial We, but perhaps there are some tolerably obvious openings
for charlatanry of a different kind under our own system. The man who
writes in his own name may sometimes be tempted to say what he knows
he is expected from his position or character to say, rather than what
he would have said if his personality were not concerned. As far as
honesty goes, signature perhaps offers as many inducements to one kind
of insincerity, as anonymity offers to another kind. And on the public
it might perhaps be contended that there is an effect of a rather
similar sort. They are in some cases tempted away from serious
discussion of the matter, into frivolous curiosity and gossip about
the man. All this criticism of the principle of which the _Fortnightly
Review_ was the earliest English adherent, will not be taken as the
result in the present writer of Chamfort's _maladie des desabuses_;
that would be both extremely ungrateful and without excuse or reason.
It is merely a fragment of disinterested contribution to the study of
a remarkable change that is passing over a not unimportant department
of literature. One gain alone counterbalances all the drawbacks, and
that is a gain that could hardly have been foreseen or expected; I
mean the freedom with which the great controversies of religion and
theology have been discussed in the new Reviews. The removal of the
mask has led to an outburst of plain speaking on these subjects, which
to Mr. Napier's generation would have seemed simply incredible. The
frank avowal of unpopular beliefs or non-beliefs has raised the whole
level of the discussion, and perhaps has been even more advantageous
to the orthodox in teaching them more humility, than to the heterodox
in teaching them more courage and honesty.

Let us return to Mr. Napier's volume. We have said that it is
impossible for a great writer to be anonymous. No reader will need to
be told who among Mr. Napier's correspondents is the writer of the

"I have been thinking sometimes, likewise, of a paper on Napoleon,
a man whom, though handled to the extreme of triteness, it will be
long years before we understand. Hitherto in the English tongue,
there is next to nothing that betokens insight into him, or even
sincere belief of such, on the part of the writer. I should like
to study the man with what heartiness I could, and form to myself
some intelligible picture of him, both as a biographical and as
a historical figure, in both of which senses he is our chief
contemporary wonder, and in some sort the epitome of his age.
This, however, were a task of far more difficulty than Byron, and
perhaps not so promising at present."

And if there is any difficulty in recognising the same hand in the
next proposal, it arises only from the circumstance that it is this
writer above all others who has made Benthamism a term of reproach on
the lips of men less wise than himself:--

"A far finer essay were a faithful, loving, and yet critical, and
in part condemnatory, delineation of Jeremy Bentham, and his place
and working in this section of the world's history. Bentham will
not be put down by logic, and should not be put down, for we need
him greatly as a backwoodsman: neither can reconciliation be
effected till the one party understands and is just to the other.
Bentham is a denyer; he denies with a loud and universally
convincing voice; his fault is that he can _affirm_ nothing,
except that money is pleasant in the purse, and food in the
stomach, and that by this simplest of all beliefs he can
reorganise society. He can shatter it in pieces--no thanks to him,
for its old fastenings are quite rotten--but he cannot reorganise
it; this is work for quite others than he. Such an essay on
Bentham, however, were a great task for any one; for me a very
great one, and perhaps rather out of my road."

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