Old and New Masters by Robert Lynd

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  • 1919
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Mr. George Moore once summed up _Crime and Punishment_ as “Gaboriau with psychological sauce.” He afterwards apologized for the epigram, but he insisted that all the same there is a certain amount of truth in it. And so there is.

Dostoevsky’s visible world was a world of sensationalism. He may in the last analysis be a great mystic or a great psychologist; but he almost always reveals his genius on a stage crowded with people who behave like the men and women one reads about in the police news. There are more murders and attempted murders in his books than in those of any other great novelist. His people more nearly resemble madmen and wild beasts than normal human beings.

He releases them from most of the ordinary inhibitions. He is fascinated by the loss of self-control–by the disturbance and excitement which this produces, often in the most respectable circles. He is beyond all his rivals the novelist of “scenes.” His characters get drunk, or go mad with jealousy, or fall in epileptic fits, or rave hysterically. If Dostoevsky had had less vision he would have been Strindberg. If his vision had been aesthetic and sensual, he might have been D’Annunzio.

Like them, he is a novelist of torture. Turgenev found in his work something Sadistic, because of the intensity with which he dwells on cruelty and pain. Certainly the lust of cruelty–the lust of destruction for destruction’s sake–is the most conspicuous of the deadly sins in Dostoevsky’s men and women. He may not be a “cruel author.” Mr. J. Middleton Murry, in his very able “critical study,” _Dostoevsky_, denies the charge indignantly. But it is the sensational drama of a cruel world that most persistently haunts his imagination.

Love itself is with him, as with Strindberg and D’Annunzio, for the most part only a sort of rearrangement of hatred. Or, rather, both hatred and love are volcanic outbursts of the same passion. He does also portray an almost Christ-like love, a love that is outside the body and has the nature of a melting and exquisite charity. He sometimes even portrays the two kinds of love in the same person. But they are never in balance; they are always in demoniacal conflict. Their ups and downs are like the ups and downs in a fight between cat and dog. Even the lust is never, or hardly ever, the lust of a more or less sane man. It is always lust with a knife.

Dostoevsky could not have described the sin of Nekhludov in _Resurrection_. His passions are such as come before the criminal rather than the civil courts. His people are possessed with devils as the people in all but religious fiction have long ceased to be. “This is a madhouse,” cries some one in _The Idiot_. The cry is, I fancy, repeated in others of Dostoevsky’s novels. His world is an inferno.

One result of this is a multiplicity of action. There was never so much talk in any other novels, and there was never so much action. Even the talk is of actions more than of ideas. Dostoevsky’s characters describe the execution of a criminal, the whipping of an ass, the torture of a child. He sows violent deeds, not with the hand, but with the sack. Even Prince Myshkin, the Christ-like sufferer in _The Idiot_, narrates atrocities, though he perpetrates none. Here, for example, is a characteristic Dostoevsky story put in the Prince’s mouth:

In the evening I stopped for the night at a provincial hotel, and a murder had been committed there the night before…. Two peasants, middle-aged men, friends who had known each other for a long time and were not drunk, had had tea and were meaning to go to bed in the same room. But one had noticed during those last two days that the other was wearing a silver watch on a yellow bead chain, which he seems not to have seen on him before. The man was not a thief; he was an honest man, in fact, and by a peasant’s standard by no means poor. But he was so taken with that watch and so fascinated by it that at last he could not restrain himself. He took a knife, and when his friend had turned away, he approached him cautiously from behind, took aim, turned his eyes heavenwards, crossed himself, and praying fervently “God forgive me, for Christ’s sake!” he cut his friend’s throat at one stroke like a sheep and took his watch.

One would not accept that incident from any Western author. One would not even accept it from Tolstoi or Turgenev. It is too abnormal, too obviously tainted with madness. Yet to Dostoevsky such aberrations of conduct make a continuous and overwhelming appeal. The crimes in his books seem to spring, not from more or less rational causes, but from some seed of lunacy.

He never paints Everyman; he always projects Dostoevsky, or a nightmare of Dostoevsky. That is why _Crime and Punishment_ belongs to a lower range of fiction than _Anna Karenina_ or _Fathers and Sons_. Raskolnikov’s crime is the cold-blooded crime of a diseased mind. It interests us like a story from Suetonius or like _Bluebeard_. But there is no communicable passion in it such as we find in _Agamemnon_ or _Othello_. We sympathize, indeed, with the fears, the bravado, the despair that succeed the crime. But when all is said, the central figure of the book is born out of fantasy. He is a grotesque made alive by sheer imaginative intensity and passion. He is as distantly related to the humanity we know in life and the humanity we know in literature as the sober peasant who cut his friend’s throat, saying, “God forgive me, for Christ’s sake!”

One does not grudge an artist an abnormal character or two. Dostoevsky, however, has created a whole flock of these abnormal characters and watches over them as a hen over her chickens. He invents vicious grotesques as Dickens invents comic grotesques. In _The Brothers Karamazov_ he reveals the malignance of Smerdyakov by telling us that he was one who, in his childhood,

was very fond of hanging cats, and burying them with great ceremony. He used to dress up in a sheet as though it were a surplice, and sang, and waved some object over the dead cat as though it were a censer.

As for the Karamazovs themselves, he portrays the old father and the eldest of his sons hating each other and fighting like brutal maniacs:

Dmitri threw up both hands and suddenly clutched the old man by the two tufts of hair that remained on his temples, tugged at them, and flung him with a crash on the floor. He kicked him two or three times with his heel in the face. The old man moaned shrilly. Ivan, though not so strong as Dmitri, threw his arms round him, and with all his might pulled him away. Alyosha helped him with his slender strength, holding Dmitri in front.

“Madman! You’ve killed him!” cried Ivan.

“Serve him right!” shouted Dmitri, breathlessly. “If I haven’t killed him, I’ll come again and kill him.”

It is easy to see why Dostoevsky has become a popular author. Incident follows breathlessly upon incident. No melodramatist ever poured out incident upon the stage from such a horn of plenty. His people are energetic and untamed, like cowboys or runaway horses. They might be described as runaway human beings.

And Dostoevsky knows how to crowd his stage as only the inveterate melodramatists know. Scenes that in an ordinary novel would take place with two or three figures on the stage are represented in Dostoevsky as taking place before a howling, seething mob. “A dozen men have broken in,” a maid announces in one place in _The Idiot_, “and they are all drunk.” “Show them all in at once,” she is bidden. Dostoevsky is always ready to show them all in at once.

It is one of the triumphs of his genius that, however many persons he introduces, he never allows them to be confused into a hopeless chaos. His story finds its way unimpeded through the mob. On two opposite pages of _The Idiot_ one finds the following characters brought in by name: General Epanchin, Prince S., Adelaida Ivanovna, Lizaveta Prokofyevna, Yevgeny Pavlovitch Radomsky, Princess Byelokonsky, Aglaia, Prince Myshkin, Kolya Ivolgin, Ippolit, Varya, Ferdyshchenko, Nastasya Filippovna, Nina Alexandrovna, Ganya, Ptitsyn, and General Ivolgin. And yet practically all of them remain separate and created beings. That is characteristic at once of Dostoevsky’s mastery and his monstrous profusion.

But the secret of Dostoevsky’s appeal is something more than the multitude and thrill of his incidents and characters. So incongruous, indeed, is the sensational framework of his stories with the immense and sombre genius that broods over them that Mr. Murry is inclined to regard the incidents as a sort of wild spiritual algebra rather than as events occurring on the plane of reality. “Dostoevsky,” he declares, “is not a novelist. What he is is more difficult to define.”

Mr. Murry boldly faces the difficulty and attempts the definition. To him Dostoevsky’s work is “the record of a great mind seeking for a way of life; it is more than a record of struggle, it is the struggle itself.” Dostoevsky himself is a man of genius “lifted out of the living world,” and unable to descend to it again. Mr. Murry confesses that at times, as he reads him, he is “seized by a supersensual terror.”

For an awful moment I seem to see things with the eye of eternity, and have a vision of suns grown cold, and hear the echo of voices calling without sound across the waste and frozen universe. And those voices take shape in certain unforgettable fragments of dialogue that have been spoken by one spirit to another in some ugly, mean tavern, set in surrounding darkness.

Dostoevsky’s people, it is suggested, “are not so much men and women as disembodied spirits who have for the moment put on mortality.”

They have no physical being. Ultimately they are the creations, not of a man who desired to be, but of a spirit which sought to know. They are the imaginations of a God-tormented mind. … Because they are possessed they are no longer men and women.

This is all in a measure true. Dostoevsky was no realist. Nor, on the other hand, was he a novelist of horrors for horrors’ sake. He could never have written _Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar_ like Poe for the sake of the aesthetic thrill.

None the less he remains a novelist who dramatized his spiritual experiences through the medium of actions performed by human beings. Clearly he believed that human beings–though not ordinary human beings–were capable of performing the actions he narrates with such energy. Mr. Murry will have it that the actions in the novels take place in a “timeless” world, largely because Dostoevsky has the habit of crowding an impossible rout of incidents into a single day. But surely the Greeks took the same license with events. This habit of packing into a few hours actions enough to fill a lifetime seems to me in Dostoevsky to be a novelist’s device rather than the result of a spiritual escape into timelessness.

To say this is not to deny the spiritual content of Dostoevsky’s work–the anguish of the imprisoned soul as it battles with doubt and denial and despair. There is in Dostoevsky a suggestion of Caliban trying to discover some better god than Setebos. At the same time one would be going a great deal too far in accepting the description of himself as “a child of unbelief.” The ultimate attitude of Dostoevsky is as Christian as the Apostle Peter’s, “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief!” When Dostoevsky writes, “If any one could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I shall prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth,” Mr. Murry interprets this as a denial of Christ. It is surely a kind of faith, though a despairing kind. And beyond the dark night of suffering, and dissipating the night, Dostoevsky still sees the light of Christian compassion. His work is all earthquake and eclipse and dead stars apart from this.

He does not, Mr. Murry urges, believe, as has often been said, that men are purified by suffering. It seems to me that Dostoevsky believes that men are purified, if not by their own sufferings, at least by the sufferings of others. Or even by the compassion of others, like Prince Myshkin in _The Idiot_. But the truth is, it is by no means easy to systematize the creed of a creature at war with life, as Dostoevsky was–a man tortured by the eternal conflict of the devilish and the divine in his own breast.

His work, like his face, bears the mark of this terrible conflict. The novels are the perfect image of the man. As to the man himself, the Vicomte de Voguee described him as he saw him in the last years of his life:–

Short, lean, neurotic, worn and bowed down with sixty years of misfortune, faded rather than aged, with a look of an invalid of uncertain age, with a long beard and hair still fair, and for all that still breathing forth the “cat-life.” … The face was that of a Russian peasant; a real Moscow mujik, with a flat nose, small, sharp eyes deeply set, sometimes dark and gloomy, sometimes gentle and mild. The forehead was large and lumpy, the temples were hollow as if hammered in. His drawn, twitching features seemed to press down on his sad-looking mouth…. Eyelids, lips, and every muscle of his face twitched nervously the whole time. When he became excited on a certain point, one could have sworn that one had seen him before seated on a bench in a police-court awaiting trial, or among vagabonds who passed their time begging before the prison doors. At all other times he carried that look of sad and gentle meekness seen on the images of old Slavonic saints.

That is the portrait of the man one sees behind Dostoevsky’s novels–a portrait one might almost have inferred from the novels. It is a figure that at once fascinates and repels. It is a figure that leads one to the edge of the abyss. One cannot live at all times with such an author. But his books will endure as the confession of the most terrible spiritual and imaginative experiences that modern literature has given us.



Jane Austen has often been praised as a natural historian. She is a naturalist among tame animals. She does not study man (as Dostoevsky does) in his wild state before he has been domesticated. Her men and women are essentially men and women of the fireside.

Nor is Jane Austen entirely a realist in her treatment even of these. She idealizes them to the point of making most of them good-looking, and she hates poverty to such a degree that she seldom can endure to write about anybody who is poor. She is not happy in the company of a character who has not at least a thousand pounds. “People get so horridly poor and economical in this part of the world,” she writes on one occasion, “that I have no patience with them. Kent is the only place for happiness; everybody is rich there.” Her novels do not introduce us to the most exalted levels of the aristocracy. They provide us, however, with a natural history of county people and of people who are just below the level of county people and live in the eager hope of being taken notice of by them. There is more caste snobbishness, I think, in Jane Austen’s novels than in any other fiction of equal genius. She, far more than Thackeray, is the novelist of snobs.

How far Jane Austen herself shared the social prejudices of her characters it is not easy to say. Unquestionably, she satirized them. At the same time, she imputes the sense of superior rank not only to her butts, but to her heroes and heroines, as no other novelist has ever done. Emma Woodhouse lamented the deficiency of this sense in Frank Churchill. “His indifference to a confusion of rank,” she thought, “bordered too much on inelegance of mind.” Mr. Darcy, again, even when he melts so far as to become an avowed lover, neither forgets his social position, nor omits to talk about it. “His sense of her inferiority, of its being a degradation … was dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.” On discovering, to his amazement, that Elizabeth is offended rather than overwhelmed by his condescension, he defends himself warmly. “Disguise of every sort,” he declares, “is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

It is perfectly true that Darcy and Emma Woodhouse are the butts of Miss Austen as well as being among her heroes and heroines. She mocks them–Darcy especially–no less than she admires. She loves to let her wit play about the egoism of social caste. She is quite merciless in deriding, it when it becomes overbearing, as in Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or when it produces flunkeyish reactions, as in Mr. Collins. But I fancy she liked a modest measure of it. Most people do. Jane Austen, in writing so much about the sense of family and position, chose as her theme one of the most widespread passions of civilized human nature.

She was herself a clergyman’s daughter. She was the seventh of a family of eight, born in the parsonage at Steventon, in Hampshire. Her life seems to have been far from exciting. Her father, like the clergy in her novels, was a man of leisure–of so much leisure, as Mr. Cornish reminds us, that he was able to read out Cowper to his family in the mornings. Jane was brought up to be a young lady of leisure. She learned French and Italian and sewing: she was “especially great in satin-stitch.” She excelled at the game of spillikins.

She must have begun to write at an early age. In later life, she urges an ambitious niece, aged twelve, to give up writing till she is sixteen, adding that “she had herself often wished she had read more and written less in the corresponding years of her life.” She was only twenty when she began to write _First Impressions_, the perfect book which was not published till seventeen years later with the title altered to _Pride and Prejudice_. She wrote secretly for many years. Her family knew of it, but the world did not–not even the servants or the visitors to the house. She used to hide the little sheets of paper on which she was writing when any one approached. She had not, apparently, a room to herself, and must have written under constant threat of interruption. She objected to having a creaking door mended on one occasion, because she knew by it when any one was coming.

She got little encouragement to write. _Pride and Prejudice_ was offered to a publisher in 1797: he would not even read it. _Northanger Abbey_ was written in the next two years. It was not accepted by a publisher, however, till 1803; and he, having paid ten pounds for it, refused to publish it. One of Miss Austen’s brothers bought back the manuscript at the price at which it had been sold twelve or thirteen years later; but even then it was not published till 1818, when the author was dead.

The first of her books to appear was _Sense and Sensibility_. She had begun to write it immediately after finishing _Pride and Prejudice_. It was published in 1811, a good many years later, when Miss Austen was thirty-six years old. The title-page merely said that it was written “By a Lady.” The author never put her name to any of her books. For an anonymous first novel, it must be admitted, _Sense and Sensibility_ was not unsuccessful. It brought Miss Austen L150–“a prodigious recompense,” she thought, “for that which had cost her nothing.” The fact, however, that she had not earned more than L700 from her novels by the time of her death shows that she never became a really popular author in her lifetime.

She was rewarded as poorly in credit as in cash, though the Prince Regent became an enthusiastic admirer of her books, and kept a set of them in each of his residences. It was the Prince Regent’s librarian, the Rev. J.S. Clarke, who, on becoming chaplain to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, made the suggestion to her that “an historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Coburg, would just now be very interesting.” Mr. Collins, had he been able to wean himself from Fordyce’s _Sermons_ so far as to allow himself to take an interest in fiction, could hardly have made a proposal more exquisitely grotesque. One is glad the proposal was made, however, not only for its own sake, but because it drew an admirable reply from Miss Austen on the nature of her genius. “I could not sit seriously down,” she declared, “to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and, if it were indispensable for me to keep it up, and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.”

Jane Austen knew herself for what she was, an inveterate laugher. She belonged essentially to the eighteenth century–the century of the wits. She enjoyed the spectacle of men and women making fools of themselves, and she did not hide her enjoyment under a pretence of unobservant good-nature. She observed with malice. It is tolerably certain that Miss Mitford was wrong in accepting the description of her in private life as “perpendicular, precise, taciturn, a poker of whom every one is afraid.” Miss Austen, one is sure, was a lady of good-humour, as well as a novelist of good-humour; but the good-humour had a flavour. It was the good-humour of the satirist, not of the sentimentalizer. One can imagine Jane Austen herself speaking as Elizabeth Bennet once spoke to her monotonously soft-worded sister. “That is the most unforgiving speech,” she said, “that I ever heard you utter. Good girl!”

Miss Austen has even been accused of irreverence, and we occasionally find her in her letters as irreverent in the presence of death as Mr. Shaw. “Only think,” she writes in one letter–a remark she works into a chapter of _Emma_, by the way–“of Mrs. Holder being dead! Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her.” And on another occasion she writes: “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.” It is possible that Miss Austen’s sense of the comic ran away with her at times as Emma Woodhouse’s did. I do not know of any similar instance of cruelty in conversation on the part of a likeable person so unpardonable as Emma Woodhouse’s witticism at the expense of Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic. Miss Austen makes Emma ashamed of her witticism, however, after Mr. Knightley has lectured her for it. She sets a limit to the rights of wit, again, in _Pride and Prejudice_, when Elizabeth defends her sharp tongue against Darcy. “The wisest and best of men,” … he protests, “may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.” “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good,” says Elizabeth in the course of her answer. “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, _do_ divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” The six novels that Jane Austen has left us might be described as the record of the diversions of a clergyman’s daughter.

The diversions of Jane Austen were, beyond those of most novelists, the diversions of a spectator. (That is what Scott and Macaulay meant by comparing her to Shakespeare.) Or, rather, they were the diversions of a listener. She observed with her ears rather than with her eyes. With her, conversation was three-fourths of life. Her stories are stories of people who reveal themselves almost exclusively in talk. She wastes no time in telling us what people and places looked like. She will dismiss a man or a house or a view or a dinner with an adjective such as “handsome.” There is more description of persons and places in Mr. Shaw’s stage-directions than in all Miss Austen’s novels. She cuts the ‘osses and comes to the cackle as no other English novelist of the same eminence has ever done. If we know anything of the setting or character or even the appearance of her men and women, it is due far more to what they say than to anything that is said about them. And yet how perfect is her gallery of portraits! One can guess the very angle of Mr. Collins’s toes.

One seems, too, to be able to follow her characters through the trivial round of the day’s idleness as closely as if one were pursuing them under the guidance of a modern realist. They are the most unoccupied people, I think, who ever lived in literature. They are people in whose lives a slight fall of snow is an event. Louisa Musgrave’s jump on the Cobb at Lyme Regis produces more commotion in the Jane Austen world than murder and arson do in an ordinary novel. Her people do not even seem, for the most part, to be interested in anything but their opinions of each other. They have few passions beyond match-making. They are unconcerned about any of the great events of their time. Almost the only reference in the novels to the Napoleonic Wars is a mention of the prize-money of naval officers. “Many a noble fortune,” says Mr. Shepherd in _Persuasion_, “has been made during the war.” Miss Austen’s principal use of the Navy outside _Mansfield Park_ is as a means of portraying the exquisite vanity of Sir Walter Elliott–his inimitable manner of emphasizing the importance of both rank and good looks in the make-up of a gentleman. “The profession has its utility,” he says of the Navy, “but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it.” He goes on to explain his reasons:

It is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and, secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most terribly; a sailor grows older sooner than any other man.

Sir Walter complains that he had once had to give place at dinner to Lord St. Ives, the son of a curate, and “a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine: his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree, all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top”:

“In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?” said I to a friend of mine who was standing near (Sir Basil Morley). “Old fellow!” cried Sir Basil, “it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be?” “Sixty,” said I, “or perhaps sixty-two.” “Forty,” replied Sir Basil, “forty, and no more.” Picture to yourselves my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know, it is the same with them all; they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin’s age.

That, I think, is an excellent example of Miss Austen’s genius for making her characters talk. Luckily, conversation was still formal in her day, and it was as possible for her as for Congreve to make middling men and women talk first-rate prose. She did more than this, however. She was the first English novelist before Meredith to portray charming women with free personalities. Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse have an independence (rare in English fiction) of the accident of being fallen in love with. Elizabeth is a delightful prose counterpart of Beatrice.

Miss Austen has another point of resemblance to Meredith besides that which I have mentioned. She loves to portray men puffed up with self-approval. She, too, is a satirist of the male egoist. Her books are the most finished social satires in English fiction. They are so perfect in the delicacy of their raillery as to be charming. One is conscious in them, indeed, of the presence of a sparkling spirit. Miss Austen comes as near being a star as it is possible to come in eighteenth-century conversational prose. She used to say that, if ever she should marry, she would fancy being Mrs. Crabbe. She had much of Crabbe’s realism, indeed; but what a dance she led realism with the mocking light of her wit!




It was Mr. Shaw who, in the course of a memorable controversy, invented a fantastic pantomime animal, which he called the “Chester-Belloc.” Some such invention was necessary as a symbol of the literary comradeship of Mr. Hilaire Belloc and Mr. Gilbert Chesterton. For Mr. Belloc and Mr. Chesterton, whatever may be the dissimilarities in the form and spirit of their work, cannot be thought of apart from each other. They are as inseparable as the red and green lights of a ship: the one illumines this side and the other that, but they are both equally concerned with announcing the path of the good ship “Mediaevalism” through the dangerous currents of our times. Fifty years ago, when philology was one of the imaginative arts, it would have been easy enough to gain credit for the theory that they are veritable reincarnations of the Heavenly Twins going about the earth with corrupted names. Chesterton is merely English for Castor, and Belloc is Pollux transmuted into French. Certainly, if the philologist had also been an evangelical Protestant, he would have felt a double confidence in identifying the two authors with Castor and Pollux as the

Great Twin Brethren,
Who fought so well for Rome.

A critic was struck some years ago by the propriety of the fact that Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Belloc brought out books of the same kind and the same size, through the same publisher, almost in the same week. Mr. Belloc, to be sure, called his volume of essays _This, That, and the Other_, and Mr. Chesterton called his _A Miscellany of Men._ But if Mr. Chesterton had called his book _This, That, and the Other_ and Mr. Belloc had called his _A Miscellany of Men_, it would not have made a pennyworth of difference. Each book is simply a ragbag of essays–the riotous and fantastically joyous essays of Mr. Chesterton, the sardonic and arrogantly gay essays of Mr. Belloc. Each, however, has a unity of outlook, not only an internal unity, but a unity with the other. Each has the outlook of the mediaevalist spirit–the spirit which finds crusades and miracles more natural than peace meetings and the discoveries of science, which gives Heaven and Hell a place on the map of the world, which casts a sinister eye on Turks and Jews, which brings its gaiety to the altar as the tumbler in the story brought his cap and bells, which praises dogma and wine and the rule of the male, which abominates the scientific spirit, and curses the day on which Bacon was born. Probably, neither of the authors would object to being labelled a mediaevalist, except in so far as we all object to having labels affixed to us by other people. Mr. Chesterton’s attitude on the matter, indeed, is clear from that sentence in _What’s Wrong with the World_, in which he affirms: “Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout.” And if, on learning some of the inferences he makes from this, you protest that he is reactionary, and is trying to put back the hands of the clock, he is quite unashamed, and replies that the moderns “are always saying ‘you can’t put the clock back.’ The simple and obvious answer is, ‘You can.’ A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour.” The effrontery of an answer like that is so magnificent that it takes one’s breath away. The chief difficulty of Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Belloc, however, seems to be that they want their clock to point to two different hours at the same time, neither of which happens to be the hour which the sun has just marked at Greenwich. They want it to point at once to 878 and 1789–to Ethandune and the French Revolution.

Similar though they are in the revolutio-mediaevalist background of their philosophy, however, Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Belloc are as unlike as possible in the spirit in which they proclaim it. If Mr. Chesterton gets up on his box to prophesy against the times, he seems to do so out of a passionate and unreasoning affection for his fellows. If Mr. Belloc denounces the age, he seems also to be denouncing the human race. Mr. Chesterton is jovial and democratic; Mr. Belloc is (to some extent) saturnine and autocratic. Mr. Chesterton belongs to the exuberantly lovable tradition of Dickens; indeed, he is, in the opinion of many people, the most exuberantly lovable personality which has expressed itself in English literature since Dickens. Mr. Belloc, on the other hand, has something of the gleaming and solitary fierceness of Swift and Hazlitt. Mr. Chesterton’s vision, coloured though it is with the colours of the past, projects itself generously into the future. He is foretelling the eve of the Utopia of the poor and the oppressed when he speaks of

the riot that all good men, even the most conservative, really dream of, when the sneer shall be struck from the face of the well-fed; when the wine of honour shall be poured down the throat of despair; when we shall, so far as to the sons of flesh is possible, take tyranny, and usury, and public treason, and bind them into bundles, and burn them.

There is anger, as well as affection, in this eloquence–anger as of a new sort of knight thirsting to spill the blood of a new sort of barbarian in the name of Christ. Mr. Belloc’s attack on the barbarians lacks the charity of these fiery sentences. He concludes his essay on the scientific spirit, as embodied in Lombroso, for instance, with the words, “The Ass!” And he seems to sneer the insult where Mr. Chesterton would have roared it. Mr. Chesterton and he may be at one in the way in which they regard the scientific criminologists, eugenists, collectivists, pragmatists, post-impressionists, and most of the other “ists” of recent times, as an army of barbarians invading the territories of mediaeval Christendom. But while Mr. Chesterton is in the gap of danger, waving against his enemies the sword of the spirit, Mr. Belloc stands on a little height apart, aiming at them the more cruel shafts of the intellect. It is not that he is less courageous than Mr. Chesterton, but that he is more contemptuous. Here, for example, is how he meets the barbarian attack, especially as it is delivered by M. Bergson and his school:–

In its most grotesque form, it challenges the accuracy of mathematics; in its most vicious, the processes of the human reason. The Barbarian is as proud as a savage in a top hat when he talks of the elliptical or the hyperbolic universe, and tries to picture parallel straight lines converging or diverging–but never doing anything so vulgarly old-fashioned as to remain parallel.

The Barbarian, when he has graduated to be a “pragmatist,” struts like a nigger in evening clothes, and believes himself superior to the gift of reason, etc., etc.

It would be unfair to offer this passage as an example of Mr. Belize’s dominating genius, but it is an excellent example of his domineering temper. His genius and his temper, one may add, seem, in these essays, to, be always trying to climb on one another’s shoulders, and it is when his genius gets uppermost that he becomes one of the most biting and exhilarating writers of his time. On such occasions his malice ceases to be a talent, and rises into an enthusiasm, as in _The Servants of the Rich_, where, like a mediaeval bard, he shows no hesitation in housing his enemies in the circles of Hell. His gloating proclamation of the eternal doom of the rich men’s servants is an infectious piece of humour, at once grim and irresponsible:–

Their doom is an eternal sleeplessness and a nakedness in the gloom…. These are those men who were wont to come into the room of the Poor Guest at early morning, with a steadfast and assured step, and a look of insult. These are those who would take the tattered garments and hold them at arm’s length, as much as to say: “What rags these scribblers wear!” and then, casting them over the arm, with a gesture that meant: “Well, they must be brushed, but Heaven knows if they will stand it without coming to pieces!” would next discover in the pockets a great quantity of middle-class things, and notably loose tobacco….

… Then one would see him turn one’s socks inside out, which is a ritual with the horrid tribe. Then a great bath would be trundled in, and he would set beside it a great can, and silently pronounce the judgment that, whatever else was forgiven the middle-class, one thing would not be forgiven them–the neglect of the bath, of the splashing about of the water, and of the adequate wetting of the towel.

All these things we have suffered, you and I, at their hands. But be comforted. They writhe in Hell with their fellows.

Mr. Belloc is not one of those authors who can be seen at their best in quotations, but even the mutilated fragment just given suggests to some extent the mixture of gaiety and malice that distinguishes his work from the work of any of his contemporaries. His gifts run to satire, as Mr. Chesterton’s run to imaginative argument. It is this, perhaps, which accounts for the fact that, of these two authors, who write with their heads in the Middle Ages, it is Mr. Chesterton who is the more comprehensive critic of his own times. He never fights private, but always public, battles in his essays. His mediaevalism seldom degenerates into a prejudice, as it often does with Mr. Belloc. It represents a genuine theory of the human soul, and of human freedom. He laments as he sees men exchanging the authority of a spiritual institution, like the Church, for the authority a carnal institution, like a bureaucracy. He rages as he sees them abandoning charters that gave men rights, and accepting charters that only give them prohibitions. It has been the custom for a long time to speak of Mr. Chesterton as an optimist; and there was, indeed, a time when he was so rejoiced by the discovery that the children of men were also the children of God, that he was as aggressively cheerful as Whitman and Browning rolled into one. But he has left all that behind him. The insistent vision of a world in full retreat from the world of Alfred and Charlemagne and the saints and the fight for Jerusalem–from this and the allied world of Danton and Robespierre, and the rush to the Bastille–has driven him back upon a partly well-founded and partly ill-founded Christian pessimism. To him it now seems as if Jerusalem had captured the Christians rather than the Christians Jerusalem. He sees men rushing into Bastilles, not in order to tear them down, but in order to inhabit the accursed cells.

When I say that this pessimism is partly ill-founded, I mean that it is arrived at by comparing the liberties of the Middle Ages with the tyrannies of to-day, instead of by comparing the liberties of the Middle Ages with the liberties of to-day, or the tyrannies of the Middle Ages with the tyrannies of to-day. It is the result, sometimes, of playing with history and, sometimes, of playing with words. Is it not playing with words, for instance, to glorify the charters by which medieval kings guaranteed the rights and privileges of their subjects, and to deny the name of charter to such a law as that by which a modern State guarantees some of the rights and privileges of children–to deny it simply on the ground that the latter expresses itself largely in prohibitions? It may be necessary to forbid a child to go into a gin-palace in order to secure it the privilege of not being driven into a gin-palace. Prohibitions are as necessary to human liberty as permits and licences.

At the same time, quarrel as we may with Mr. Chesterton’s mediaevalism, and his application of it to modern problems, we can seldom quarrel with the motive with which he urges it upon us. His high purpose throughout is to keep alive the human view of society, as opposed to the mechanical view to which lazy politicians are naturally inclined. If he has not been able to give us any very, coherent vision of a Utopia of his own, he has, at least, done the world a service in dealing some smashing blows at the Utopia of machinery. None the less, he and Mr. Belloc would be the most dangerous of writers to follow in a literal obedience. In regard to political and social improvements, they are too often merely Devil’s Advocates of genius. But that is a necessary function, and they are something more than that. As I have suggested, above all the arguments and the rhetoric and the humours of the little political battles, they do bear aloft a banner with a strange device, reminding us that organized society was made for man, and not man for organized society. That, in the last analysis, is the useful thing for which Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Belloc stand in modern politics. It almost seems at times, however, as though they were ready to see us bound again with the fetters of ancient servitudes, in order to compel us to take part once more in the ancient struggle for freedom.


Mr. Belloc has during the last four or five years become a public man. Before that he had been acknowledged a man of genius. But even the fact that he had sat in the House of Commons never led any great section of Englishmen to regard him as a figure or an institution. He was generally looked on as one who made his bed aggressively among heretics, as a kind of Rabelaisian dissenter, as a settled interrupter, half-rude and half-jesting. And yet there was always in him something of the pedagogue who has been revealed so famously in these last months. Not only had he a passion for facts and for stringing facts upon theories. He had also a high-headed and dogmatic and assured way of imparting his facts and theories to the human race as it sat–or in so far as it could be persuaded to sit–on its little forms.

It is his schoolmasterishness which chiefly distinguishes the genius of Mr. Belloc from the genius of his great and uproarious comrade, Mr. Chesterton. Mr. Belloc is not a humorist to anything like the same degree as Mr. Chesterton. If Mr. Chesterton were a schoolmaster he would give all the triangles noses and eyes, and he would turn the Latin verbs into nonsense rhymes. Humour is his breath and being. He cannot speak of the Kingdom of Heaven or of Robert Browning without it any more than of asparagus. He is a laughing theologian, a laughing politician, a laughing critic, a laughing philosopher. He retains a fantastic cheerfulness even amid the blind furies–and how blindly furious he can sometimes be!–of controversy. With Mr. Belloc, on the other hand, laughter is a separate and relinquishable gift. He can at will lay aside the mirth of one who has broken bounds for the solemnity of the man in authority. He can be scapegrace prince and sober king by turns, and in such a way that the two personalities seem scarcely to be related to each other. Compared with Mr. Chesterton he is like a man in a mask, or a series of masks. He reveals more of his intellect to the world than of his heart. He is not one of those authors whom one reads with a sense of personal intimacy. He is too arrogant even in his merriment for that.

Perhaps the figure we see reflected most obtrusively in his works is that of a man delighting in immense physical and intellectual energies. It is this that makes him one of the happiest of travellers. On his travels, one feels, every inch and nook of his being is intent upon the passing earth. The world is to him at once a map and a history and a poem and a church and an ale-house. The birds in the greenwood, the beer, the site of an old battle, the meaning of an old road, sacred emblems by the roadside, the comic events of way-faring–he has an equal appetite for them all. Has he not made a perfect book of these things, with a thousand fancies added, in _The Four Men_? In _The Four Men_ he has written a travel-book which more than any other of his works has something of the passion of a personal confession. Here the pilgrim becomes nearly genial as he indulges in his humours against the rich and against policemen and in behalf of Sussex against Kent and the rest of the inhabited world.

Mr. Chesterton has spoken of Mr. Belloc as one who “did and does humanly and heartily love England, not as a duty but as a pleasure, and almost an indulgence.” And _The Four Men_ expresses this love humorously, inconsequently, and with a grave stepping eloquence. There are few speeches in modern books better than the conversations in _The Four Men._ Mr. Belloc is not one of those disciples of realism who believe that the art of conversation is dead, and that modern people are only capable of addressing each other in one-line sentences. He has the traditional love of the fine speech such as we find it in the ancient poets and historians and dramatists and satirists. He loves a monologue that passes from mockery to regret, that gathers up by the way anecdote and history and essay and foolery, that is half a narrative of things seen and half an irresponsible imagination. He can describe a runaway horse with the farcical realism of the authors of _Some Experiences of an Irish R.M._, can parody a judge, can paint a portrait, and can steep a landscape in vision. Two recent critics have described him as “the best English prose writer since Dryden,” but that only means that Mr. Belloc’s rush of genius has quite naturally swept them off their feet.

If Mr. Belloc’s love of country is an indulgence, his moods of suspicion and contempt are something of the same kind. He is nothing of a philanthropist in any sense of the word. He has no illusions about the virtue of the human race. He takes pleasure in scorn, and there is a flavour of bitterness in his jests. His fiction largely belongs to the comedy of corruption. He enjoys–and so do we–the thought of the poet in Sussex who had no money except three shillings, “and a French penny, which last some one had given him out of charity, taking him for a beggar a little way-out of Brightling that very day.” When he describes the popular rejoicings at the result of Mr. Clutterbuck’s election, he comments: “The populace were wild with joy at their victory, and that portion of them who as bitterly mourned defeat would have been roughly handled had they not numbered quite half this vast assembly of human beings.” He is satirist and ironist even more than historian. His ironical essays are the best of their kind that have been written in recent years.

Mr. Mandell and Mr. Shanks in their little study, _Hilaire Belloc: the Man and his Work_, are more successful in their exposition of Mr. Belloc’s theory of history and the theory of politics which has risen out of it–or out of which it has risen–than they are in their definition of him as a man of letters. They have written a lively book on him, but they do not sufficiently communicate an impression of the kind of his exuberance, of his thrusting intellectual ardour, of his pomp as a narrator, of his blind and doctrinaire injustices, of his jesting like a Roman Emperor’s, of the strength of his happiness upon a journey, of his buckishness, of the queer lack of surprising phrases in his work, of his measured omniscience, of the immense weight of tradition in the manner of his writing. There are many contemporary writers whose work seems to be a development of journalism. Mr. Belloc’s is the child of four literatures, or, maybe, half a dozen. He often writes carelessly, sometimes dully but there is the echo of greatness in his work. He is one of the few contemporary men of genius whose books are under-estimated rather than over-estimated. He is an author who has brought back to the world something of the copiousness, fancy, appetite, power, and unreason of the talk that, one imagines, was once to be heard in the Mermaid Tavern.


I cannot help wishing at times that Mr. Chesterton could be divided in two. One half of him I should like to challenge to mortal combat as an enemy of the human race. The other half I would carry shoulder-high through the streets. For Mr. Chesterton is at once detestable and splendid. He is detestable as a doctrinaire: he is splendid as a sage and a poet who juggles with stars and can keep seven of them in the air at a time. For, if he is a gamester, it is among the lamps of Heaven. We can see to read by his sport. He writes in flashes, and hidden and fantastic truths suddenly show their faces in the play of his sentences.

Unfortunately, his two personalities have become so confused that his later books sometimes strike one as being not so much a game played with light as a game of hide-and-seek between light and darkness. In the darkness he mutters incantations to the monstrous tyrannies of old time: in the light he is on his knees to liberty. He vacillates between superstition and faith. His is a genius at once enslaved and triumphantly rebel. This fatal duality is seen again and again in his references to the tyrannies of the Middle Ages. Thus he writes: “It need not be repeated that the case despotism is democratic. As a rule its cruelty to the strong is kindness to the weak.” I confess I do not know the “rule” to which Mr. Chesterton refers. The picture of the despot as a good creature who shields the poor from the rich is not to be found among the facts of history. The ordinary despot, in his attitude to the common people suffering from the oppressions of their lords, is best portrayed in the fable–if it be a fable–of Marie Antoinette and her flippancy about eating cake.

I fancy, however, Mr. Chesterton’s defence of despots is not the result of any real taste for them or acquaintance with their history: it is due simply to his passion for extremes. He likes a man, as the vulgar say, to be either one thing or the other. You must be either a Pope or a revolutionist to please him. He loves the visible rhetoric of things, and the sober suits of comfortable citizens seem dull and neutral in comparison with the red of cardinals on the one hand, and of caps of liberty on the other. This, I think, explains Mr. Chesterton’s indifference to, if not dislike of, Parliaments. Parliaments are monuments of compromise, and are guilty of the sin of unpicturesqueness. One would imagine that a historian of England who did not care for Parliaments would be as hopelessly out of his element as a historian of Greece who did not care for the arts. And it is because Mr. Chesterton is indifferent to so much in the English genius and character that he has given us in his recent short _History of England_, instead of a History of England, a wild and wonderful pageant of argument. “Already,” he cries, as he relates how Parliament “certainly encouraged, and almost certainly obliged” King Richard to break his pledge to the people after the Wat Tyler insurrection:–

Already Parliament is not merely a governing body, but a governing class.

The history of England is to Mr. Chesterton largely the history of the rise of the governing class. He blames John Richard Green for leaving the people out of his history; but Mr. Chesterton himself has left out the people as effectually as any of the historians who went before him. The obsession of “the governing class” has thrust the people into the background. History resolves itself with him into a disgraceful epic of a governing class which despoiled Pope and King with the right hand, and the people with the left. It is a disgraceful epic patched with splendid episodes, but it culminates in an appalling cry of doubt whether, after all, it might not be better for England to perish utterly in the great war while fighting for liberty than to survive to behold the triumph of the “governing class” in a servile State of old-age pensions and Insurance Acts.

This theory of history, as being largely the story of the evolution of the “governing class,” is an extremely interesting and even “fruitful” theory. But it is purely fantastic unless we bear in mind that the governing class has been continually compelled to enlarge itself, and that its tendency is reluctantly to go on doing so until in the end it will be coterminous with the “governed class.” History is a tale of exploitation, but it is also a tale of liberation, and the over-emphasis that Mr. Chesterton lays on exploitation by Parliaments as compared with exploitation by Popes and Kings, can only be due to infidelity in regard to some of the central principles of freedom. Surely it is possible to condemn the Insurance Act, if it must be condemned, without apologizing either for the Roman Empire or for the Roman ecclesiastical system. Mr. Chesterton, however, believes in giving way to one’s prejudices. He says that history should be written backwards; and what does this mean but that it should be dyed in prejudice? thus, he cannot refer to the Hanoverian succession without indulging in a sudden outburst of heated rhetoric such as one might expect rather in a leading article in war-time. He writes:–

With George there entered England something that had scarcely been seen there before; something hardly mentioned in mediaeval or Renascence writing, except as one mentions a Hottentot–the barbarian from beyond the Rhine.

Similarly, his characterization of the Revolution of 1688 is largely a result of his dislike of the governing classes at the present hour:–

The Revolution reduced us to a country wholly governed by gentlemen; the popular universities and schools of the Middle Ages, like their guilds and abbeys, had been seized and turned into what they are–factories of gentlemen when they are not merely factories of snobs.

Both of these statements contain a grain of truth, but neither of them contains enough truth to be true. One might describe them as sweetmeats of history of small nutritious value. One might say the same of his comment on the alliance between Chatham and Frederick the Great:–

The cannibal theory of a commonwealth, that it can of its nature eat other commonwealths, had entered Christendom.

How finely said! But, alas! the cannibal theory of a commonwealth existed long before Chatham and Frederick the Great. The instinct to exploit is one of the most venerable instincts of the human race, whether in individual men or in nations of men; and ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek and ancient Roman had exhausted the passion of centuries in obedience to it before the language spoken either by Chatham or by Frederick was born. Christian Spain, Christian France, and Christian England had not in this matter disowned the example of their Jewish and Pagan forerunners.

What we are infinitely grateful to Mr. Chesterton for, however, is that he has sufficient imagination to loathe cannibalism wherever he sees it. True, he seems to forgive certain forms of cannibalism on the ground that it is an exaggeration to describe the flesh of a rich man as the flesh of a human being. But he does rage with genius at the continual eating of men that went on in England, especially after the spoliation of the monasteries in the reign of Henry the Eighth gave full scope to the greed of the strong. He sees that the England which Whig and Tory combined to defend as the perfection of the civilized world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an England governed by men whose chief claim to govern was founded on the fact that they had seized their country and were holding it against their countrymen. Mr. Chesterton rudely shatters the mirror of perfection in which the possessing class have long seen themselves. He writes in a brilliant passage:–

It could truly be said of the English gentleman, as of another gallant and gracious individual, that his honour stood rooted in dishonour. He was, indeed, somewhat in the position of such an aristocrat of romance, whose splendour has the dark spot of a secret and a sort of blackmail…. His glory did not come from the Crusades, but from the Great Pillage…. The oligarchs were descended from usurers and thieves. That, for good or evil, was the paradox of England; the typical aristocrat was the typical upstart.

But the secret was worse; not only was such a family founded on stealing, but the family was stealing still. It is a grim truth that, all through the eighteenth century, all through the great Whig speeches about liberty, all through the great Tory speeches about patriotism, through the period of Wandiwash and Plassey, through the period of Trafalgar and Waterloo, one process was steadily going on in the central senate of the nation. Parliament was passing Bill after Bill for the enclosure by the great landlords of such of the common lands as had survived out of the great communal system of the Middle Ages. It is much more than a pun, it is the prime political irony of our history that the Commons were destroying the commons.

It would be folly to suggest, however, that, conscious though Mr. Chesterton is of the crimes of history, he has turned history into a mere series of floggings of criminals. He is for ever laying down the whip and inviting the criminals to take their seats while he paints gorgeous portraits of them in all the colours of the rainbow. His praise of the mighty rhetoricians of the eighteenth century could in some passages scarcely be more unstinted if he were a Whig of the Whigs. He cannot but admire the rotund speech and swelling adventures of those days. If we go farther back, we find him portraying even the Puritans with a strange splendour of colour:–

They were, above all things, anti-historic, like the Futurists in Italy; and there was this unconscious greatness about them, that their very sacrilege was public and solemn, like a sacrament; and they were ritualists even as iconoclasts. It was, properly considered, but a very secondary example of their strange and violent simplicity that one of them, before a mighty mob at Whitehall, cut off the anointed head of the sacramental man of the Middle Ages. For another, far away in the western shires, cut down the thorn of Glastonbury, from which had grown the whole story of Britain.

This last passage is valuable, not only because it reveals Mr. Chesterton as a marvellous rhetorician doing the honours of prose to his enemies, but because it helps to explain the essentially tragic view he takes of English history. I exaggerated a moment ago when I said that to Mr. Chesterton English history is the story of the rise of a governing class. What it really is to him is the story of a thorn-bush cut down by a Puritan. He has hung all the candles of his faith on the sacred thorn, like the lights on a Christmas-tree, and lo! it has been cut down and cast out of England with as little respect as though it were a verse from the Sermon on the Mount. It may be that Mr. Chesterton’s sight is erratic, and that what he took to be the sacred thorn was really a Upas-tree. But in a sense that does not matter. He is entitled to his own fable, if he tells it honestly and beautifully; and it is as a tragic fable or romance of the downfall of liberty in England that one reads his _History_. He himself contends in the last chapter of the book that the crisis in English history came “with the fall of Richard II, following on his failures to use mediaeval despotism in the interests of mediaeval democracy.” Mr. Chesterton’s history would hardly be worth reading, if he had made nothing more of it than is suggested in that sentence. His book (apart from occasional sloughs of sophistry and fallacious argument) remains in the mind as a song of praise and dolour chanted by the imagination about an England that obeyed not God and despised the Tree of Life, but that may yet, he believes, hear once more the ancestral voices, and with her sons arrayed in trade unions and guilds, march riotously back into the Garden of Eden.




Dorothy Wordsworth–whom Professor Harper has praised not beyond reason as “the most delightful, the most fascinating woman who has enriched literary history”–once confessed in a letter about her brother William that “his person is not in his favour,” and that he was “certainly rather plain.” He is the most difficult of all the great poets whom one reverences to portray as an attractive person. “‘Horse-face,’ I have heard satirists say,” Carlyle wrote of him, recalling a comparison of Hazlitt’s; and the horse-face seems to be symbolic of something that we find not only in his personal appearance, but in his personality and his work.

His faults do not soften us, as the faults of so many favourite writers do. They were the faults, not of passion, but of a superior person, who was something of a Sir Willoughby Patterne in his pompous self-satisfaction. “He says,” records Lamb in one of his letters, “he does not see much difficulty in writing like Shakespeare, if he had a mind to try it.” Lamb adds: “It is clear that nothing is wanting but the mind.”

Leigh Hunt, after receiving a visit from Wordsworth in 1815, remarked that “he was as sceptical on the merit of all kinds of poetry but one as Richardson was on those of the novels of Fielding.” Keats, who had earlier spoken of the reverence in which he held Wordsworth, wrote to his brother in 1818: “I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, vanity, and bigotry.” There was something frigidly unsympathetic in his judgment of others, which was as unattractive as his complacency in regard to his own work. When Trelawny, seeing him at Lausanne and, learning who he was, went up to him as he was about to step into his carriage and asked him what he thought of Shelley as a poet, he replied: “Nothing.” Again, Wordsworth spoke with solemn reprobation of certain of Lamb’s friendships, after Lamb was dead, as “the indulgences of social humours and fancies which were often injurious to himself and causes of severe regrets to his friends, without really benefiting the object of his misapplied kindness.”

Nor was this attitude of Johnny Head-in-Air the mark only of his later years. It appeared in the days when he and Coleridge collaborated in bringing out _Lyrical Ballads._ There is something sublimely egotistical in the way in which he shook his head over _The Ancient Mariner_ as a drag upon that miraculous volume. In the course of a letter to his publisher, he wrote:–

From what I can gather it seems that _The Ancyent Marinere_ has, on the whole, been an injury to the volume; I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second edition, I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.

It is when one reads sentences like these that one begins to take a mischievous delight in the later onslaught of a Scottish reviewer who, indignant that Wordsworth should dare to pretend to be able to appreciate Burns, denounced him as “a retired, pensive, egotistical, _collector of stamps_,” and as–

a melancholy, sighing, half-parson sort of gentleman, who lives in a small circle of old maids and sonneteers, and drinks tea now and then with the solemn Laureate.

One feels at times that no ridicule or abuse of this stiff-necked old fraud could be excessive; for, if he were not Wordsworth, as what but a fraud could we picture him in his later years, as he protests against Catholic Emancipation, the extension of the franchise, the freedom of the Press, and popular education? “Can it, in a _general_ view,” he asks, “be good that an infant should learn much which its _parents do not know?_ Will not a child arrogate a superiority unfavourable to love and obedience?” He shuddered again at the likelihood that Mechanics’ Institutes would “make discontented spirits and insubordinate and presumptuous workmen.” He opposed the admission of Dissenters to Cambridge University, and he “desired that a medical education should be kept beyond the reach of a poor student,” on the ground that “the better able the parents are to incur expense, the stronger pledge have we of their children being above meanness and unfeeling and sordid habits.” One might go on quoting instance after instance of this piety of success, as it might be called. Time and again the words seem to come from the mouth, not of one of the inspired men of the modern world, but of some puffed-up elderly gentleman in a novel by Jane Austen. His letter to a young relation who wished to marry his daughter Dora is a letter that Jane Austen might have invented:–

If you have thoughts of marrying, do look out for some lady with a sufficient fortune for both of you. What I say to you now I would recommend to every naval officer and clergyman who is without prospect of professional advancement. Ladies of some fortune are as easily won as those without, and for the most part as deserving. Check the first liking to those who have nothing.

One is tempted to say that Wordsworth, like so many other poets, died young, and that a pensioner who inherited his name survived him.

When one has told the worst about Wordsworth, however, one is as far as ever from having painted a portrait of him in which anybody could believe while reading the _Ode on Intimations of Immortality–Ode_ as it was simply called when it was first published–or _I wandered lonely as a cloud_, or the sonnet composed on Westminster Bridge. Nor does the portrait of a stern, unbending egotist satisfy us when we remember the life-long devotion that existed between him and Dorothy, and the fact that Coleridge loved him, and that Lamb and Scott were his friends. He may have been a niggard of warm-heartedness to the outside world, but it is clear from his biography that he possessed the genius of a good heart as well as of a great mind.

And he was as conspicuous for the public as for the private virtues. His latest biographer has done well to withdraw our eyes from the portrait of the old man with the stiffened joints and to paint in more glowing colours than any of his predecessors the early Wordsworth who rejoiced in the French Revolution, and, apparently as a consequence, initiated a revolution in English poetry. The later period of the life is not glossed over; it is given, indeed, in cruel detail, and Professor Harper’s account of it is the most lively and fascinating part of his admirable book. But it is to the heart of the young revolutionary, who dreamed of becoming a Girondist leader and of seeing England a republic, that he traces all the genius and understanding that we find in the poems.

“Wordsworth’s connection,” he writes, “with the English ‘Jacobins,’ with the most extreme element opposed to the war or actively agitating in favour of making England a republic, was much closer than has been generally admitted.” He points out that Wordsworth’s first books of verse, _An Evening Walk_, and _Descriptive Sketches_, were published by Joseph Johnson, who also published Dr. Priestley, Horne Tooke, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and whose shop was frequented by Godwin and Paine. Professor Harper attempts to strengthen his case by giving brief sketches of famous “Jacobins,” whom Wordsworth may or may not have met, but his case is strong enough without their help. Wordsworth’s reply–not published at the time, or, indeed, till after his death–to the Bishop of Llandaff’s anti-French-Revolution sermon on _The Wisdom and Goodness of God in having made both Rich and Poor_, was signed without qualification, “By a Republican.” He refused to join in “the idle Cry of modish lamentation” over the execution of the French King, and defended the other executions in France as necessary. He condemned the hereditary principle, whether in the Monarchy or the House of Lords. The existence of a nobility, he held, “has a necessary, tendency to dishonour labour.” Had he published this pamphlet when it was written, in 1793, he might easily have found himself in prison, like many other sympathizers with the French.

Wordsworth gives us an idea in _The Prelude_–how one wishes one had the original and unamended version of the poem as it was finished in 1805!–of the extreme lengths to which his Republican idealism carried him. When war was declared against France, he tells us, he prayed for French victories, and–

Exulted in the triumph of my soul,
When Englishmen by thousands were o’erthrown, Left without glory on the field, or driven, Brave hearts! to shameful flight.

Two years later we, find him at Racedown planning satires against the King, the Prince of Wales, and various public men, one of the couplets on the King and the Duke of Norfolk running:–

Heavens! who sees majesty in George’s face? Or looks at Norfolk, and can dream of grace?

But these lines, he declared, were given to him by Southey.

By 1797 a Government spy seems to have been looking after him and his friends: he was living at the time at Alfoxden, near Coleridge, who, in the previous year, had brought out _The Watchman_ to proclaim, as the prospectus said, “the state of the political atmosphere, and preserve Freedom and her Friends from the attacks of Robbers and Assassins.” Wordsworth at a later period did not like the story of the spy, but it is certain that about the time of the visit he got notice to quit Alfoxden, obviously for political reasons, from the lady who owned the estate.

Professor Harper’s originality as a biographer, however, does not lie in his narration of facts like these, but in the patience with which he traces the continuance of French sympathies in Wordsworth on into the opening years of the nineteenth century. He has altered the proportions in the Wordsworth legend, and made the youth of the poet as long in the telling as his age. This was all the more necessary because various biographers have followed too closely the example of the official _Life_, the materials for which Wordsworth entrusted to his nephew, the Bishop, who naturally regarded Wordsworth, the pillar of Church and State, as a more eminent and laudable figure than Wordsworth, the young Revolutionary. Whether the Bishop deliberately hushed up the fact that, during his early travels in France, Wordsworth fell in love with an aristocratic French lady who bore him an illegitimate child, I do not know. Professor Harper, taking a more ruthless view of the duties of a biographer, now relates the story, though in a rather vague and mysterious way. One wishes that, having told us so much, he had told us a little more. Even with all we know about the early life of Wordsworth, we are still left guessing at his portrait rather than with a clear idea of it. He was a figure in his youth, a character in his old age. The character we know down to the roots of his hair. But the figure remains something of a secret.

As a poet, Wordsworth may almost be called the first of the democrats. He brought into literature a fresh vision–a vision bathing the world and its inhabitants in a strange and revolutionary light. He was the first great poet of equality and fraternity in the sense that he portrayed the lives of common country, people in their daily surroundings as faithfully as though they had been kings. It would be absurd to suggest that there are no anticipations of this democratic spirit in English literature from Chaucer down to Burns, but Wordsworth, more than any other English writer, deserves the credit of having emancipated the poor man into being a fit subject for noble poetry. How revolutionary a change this was it is difficult to realize at the present day, but Jeffrey’s protest against it in the _Edinburgh Review_ in 1802 enables one to realize to what a degree the poor man was regarded as an outcast from literature when Wordsworth was young. In the course of an attack on _Lyrical Ballads_ Jeffrey wrote:–

The love, or grief, or indignation, of an enlightened and refined character is not only expressed in a different language, but is in itself a different emotion from the love, or grief, or anger, of a clown, a tradesman, or a market-wench. The things themselves are radically and obviously distinct…. The poor and vulgar may interest us, in poetry, by their _situation_; but never, we apprehend, by any sentiments that are peculiar to their condition, and still less by any language that is peculiar to it.

When one takes sides with Wordsworth against Jeffrey on this matter it is not because one regards Wordsworth as a portrait-painter without faults. His portraits are marred in several cases by the intrusion of his own personality with its “My good man” and “My little man” air. His human beings have a way of becoming either lifeless or absurd when they talk. _The Leech-Gatherer_ and _The Idiot Boy_ are not the only poems of Wordsworth that are injured by the insertion of banal dialogue. It is as though there were, despite his passion for liberty, equality, and fraternity, a certain gaucherie in his relations with other human beings, and he were at his happiest as a solitary. His nature, we may grant, was of mixed aspects, but, even as early as the 1807 _Poems in Two Volumes_ had he not expressed his impatience of human society in a sonnet?–

I am not one who much or oft delight To season my fireside with personal talk– Of friends, who live within an easy walk, Or neighbours, daily, weekly, in _my_ sight: And, for my chance-acquaintance, ladies bright, Sons, mothers, maidens withering on the stalk, These all wear out of me, like forms, with chalk Painted on rich men’s floors, for one feast-night.

Better than such discourse doth silence long, Long, barren silence, square with my desire; To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,
In the loved presence of my cottage fire, And listen to the flapping of the flame, Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.

With Wordsworth, indeed, the light of revelation did not fall upon human beings so unbrokenly as upon the face of the earth. He knew the birds of the countryside better than the old men, and the flowers far better than the children. He noticed how light plays like a spirit upon all living things. He heard every field and valley echoing with new songs. He saw the daffodils dancing by the lake, the green linnet dancing among the hazel leaves, and the young lambs bounding, as he says in an unexpected line, “as to the tabor’s sound,” and his heart danced to the same music, like the heart of a mystic caught up in holy rapture. Here rather than in men did he discover the divine speech. His vision of men was always troubled by his consciousness of duties. Nature came to him as a liberator into spiritual existence. Not that he ceased to be a philosopher in his reveries. He was never the half-sensual kind of mystic. He was never a sensualist in anything, indeed. It is significant that he had little sense of smell–the most sensual of the senses. It is, perhaps, because of this that he is comparatively so roseless a poet.

But what an ear he had, what a harvesting eye! One cannot read _The Prelude_ or _The Ode_ or _Tintern Abbey_ without feeling that seldom can there have been a poet with a more exquisite capacity for the enjoyment of joyous things. In his profounder moments he reaches the very sources of joy as few poets have done. He attracts many readers like a prospect of cleansing and healing streams.

And he succeeds in being a great poet in two manners. He is a great poet in the grand tradition of English literature, and he is a great poet in his revolutionary simplicity. _The Idiot Boy_, for all its banalities, is as immortal as _The Ode_, and _The Solitary Reaper_ will live side by side with the great sonnets while the love of literature endures. While we read these poems we tell ourselves that it is almost irrelevant to mourn the fact that the man who wrote them gave up his faith in humanity for faith in Church and State. His genius survives in literature: it was only his courage as a politician that perished. At the same time, he wished to impress himself upon the world as a politician even more perhaps than as a poet. And, indeed, if he had died at the age at which Byron died, his record in politics would have been as noble as his record in poetry. Happily or unhappily, however, he lived on, a worse politician and a worse poet. His record as both has never before been set forth with the same comprehensiveness as in Professor Harper’s important and, after one has ploughed through some heavy pages, fascinating volumes.


“Just for a handful of silver he left us.” Browning was asked if he really meant the figure in _The Lost Leader_ for Wordsworth, and he admitted that, though it was not a portrait, he had Wordsworth vaguely in his mind. We do not nowadays believe that Wordsworth changed his political opinions in order to be made distributor of stamps for the county of Westmoreland, or even (as he afterwards became in addition) for the county of Cumberland. Nor did Browning believe this. He did believe, however, that Wordsworth was a turncoat, a renegade–a poet who began as the champion of liberty and ended as its enemy. This is the general view, and it seems to me to be unassailable.

Mr. A.V. Dicey, in a recent book, _The Statesmanship of Wordsworth_, attempts to portray Wordsworth as a sort of early Mazzini–one who “by many years anticipated, thought out, and announced the doctrine of Nationalism, which during at least fifty years of the nineteenth century (1820-70) governed or told upon the foreign policy of every European country.” I think he exaggerates, but it cannot be denied that Wordsworth said many wise things about nationality, and that he showed a true liberal instinct in the French wars, siding with the French in the early days while they were fighting for liberty, and afterwards siding against them when they were fighting for Napoleonic Imperialism. Wordsworth had not yet abandoned his ardour for liberty when, in 1809, he published his _Tract on the Convention of Cintra._ Those who accuse him of apostasy have in mind not his “Tract” and his sonnets of war-time, but the later lapse of faith which resulted in his opposing Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Bill, and in his sitting down seriously to write sonnets in favour in capital punishment.

He began with an imagination which emphasized the natural goodness of man: he ended with an imagination which emphasized the natural evil of man. He began with faith in liberty; he ended with faith in restraint. Mr. Dicey admits much of the case against the later Wordsworth, but his very defence of the poet is in itself an accusation. He contends, for instance, that “it was natural that a man, who had in his youth seen face to face the violence of the revolutionary struggle in France, should have felt the danger of the Reform Act becoming the commencement of anarchy and revolution in England.” Natural it may have been, but none the less it was a right-about-turn of the spirit. Wordsworth had ceased to believe in liberty.

There is very little evidence, indeed, that in his later years Wordsworth remained interested in liberty at all. The most important evidence of the kind is that of Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, author of _The Purgatory of Suicides_, who visited him in 1846 after serving a term in prison on a charge of sedition. Wordsworth received him and said to him: “You Chartists are right: you have a right to votes, only you take the wrong way to obtain them. You must avoid physical violence.” Referring to the conversation, Mr. Dicey comments:–

At the age of seventy-six the spirit of the old revolutionist and of the friend of the Girondins was still alive. He might not think much of the Whigs, but within four years of his death Wordsworth was certainly no Tory.

There is no reason, however, why we should trouble our heads over the question whether at the age of seventy-six Wordsworth was a Tory or not. It is only by the grace of God that any man escapes being a Tory long before that. What is of interest to us is his attitude in the days of his vitality, not of his senility. In regard to this, I agree that it would be grossly unfair to accuse him of apostasy, simply because he at first hailed the French Revolution as the return of the Golden Age–

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

–and ten or fifteen years later was to be found gloomily prophesying against a premature peace with Napoleon. One cannot be sure that, if one had been living in those days oneself, one’s faith in the Revolution would have survived the September massacres and Napoleon undiminished. Those who had at first believed that the reign of righteousness had suddenly come down from Heaven must have been shocked to find that human nature was still red in tooth and claw in the new era. Not that the massacres immediately alienated Wordsworth. In the year following them he wrote in defence of the French Revolution, and incidentally apologized for the execution of King Louis. “If you had attended,” he wrote in his unpublished _Apology for the French Revolution_ in 1793, “to the history of the French Revolution as minutely as its importance demands, so far from stopping to bewail his death, you would rather have regretted that the blind fondness of his people had placed a human being in that monstrous situation which rendered him unaccountable before a human tribunal.” In _The Prelude_, too (which, it will be remembered, though it was written early, Wordsworth left to be published after his death), we are given a perfect answer to those who would condemn the French Revolution, or any similar uprising, on account of its incidental horrors:–

When a taunt
Was taken up by scoffers in their pride, Saying, “Behold the harvest that we reap From popular government and equality,” I clearly saw that neither these nor aught Of wild belief engrafted on their views By false philosophy had caused the woe, But a terrific reservoir of guilt
And ignorance filled up from age to age. That would no longer hold its loathsome charge, But burst and spread in deluge through the land.

Mr. Dicey insists that Wordsworth’s attitude in regard to the horrors of September proves “the statesmanlike calmness and firmness of his judgment.” Wordsworth was hardly calm, but he remained on the side of France with sufficiently firm enthusiasm to pray for the defeat of his own countrymen in the war of 1793. He describes, in _The Prelude_, how he felt at the time in an English country church:–

When, in the congregation bending all To their great Father, prayers were offered up, Or praises for our country’s victories; And, ‘mid the simple worshippers, perchance I only, like an uninvited guest
Whom no one owned, sate silent, shall I add, Fed on the day of vengeance yet to come.

The faith that survived the massacres, however, could not survive Napoleon. Henceforth Wordsworth began to write against France in the name of Nationalism and Liberty.

He now becomes a political thinker–a great political thinker, in the judgment of Mr. Dicey. He sets forth a political philosophy–the philosophy of Nationalism. He grasped the first principle of Nationalism firmly, which is, that nations should be self-governed, even if they are governed badly. He saw that the nation which is oppressed from within is in a far more hopeful condition than the nation which is oppressed from without. In his _Tract_ he wrote:–

The difference between inbred oppression and that which is from without [i.e. imposed by foreigners] is _essential_; inasmuch as the former does not exclude, from the minds of the people, the feeling of being self-governed; does not imply (as the latter does, when patiently submitted to) an abandonment of the first duty imposed by the faculty of reason.

And he went on:–

If a country have put on chains of its own forging; in the name of virtue, let it be conscious that to itself it is accountable: let it not have cause to look beyond its own limits for reproof: and–in the name of humanity–if it be self-depressed, let it have its pride and some hope within itself. The poorest peasant, in an unsubdued land, feels this pride. I do not appeal to the example of Britain or of Switzerland, for the one is free, and the other lately was free (and, I trust, will ere long be so again): but talk with the Swede; and you will see the joy he finds in these sensations. With him animal courage (the substitute for many and the friend of all the manly virtues) has space to move in: and is at once elevated by his imagination, and softened by his affections: it is invigorated also; for the whole courage of his country is in his breast.

That is an admirable statement of the Liberal faith. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was putting the same truth in a sentence when he said that good government was no substitute for self-government. Wordsworth, however, was not an out-and-out Nationalist. He did not regard the principles of Nationalism as applicable to all nations alike, small and great. He believed in the “balance of power,” in which “the smaller states must disappear, and merge in the large nations of widespread language.” He desired national unity for Germany and for Italy (which was in accordance with the principles of Nationalism), but he also blessed the union of Ireland with Great Britain (which was a violation of the principles of Nationalism). He introduced “certain limitations,” indeed, into the Nationalist creed, which enable even an Imperialist like Mr. Dicey to look like a kind of Nationalist.

At the same time, though he acquiesced in the dishonour of the Irish Union, his patriotism never became perverted into Jingoism. He regarded the war between England and France, not as a war between angel and devil, but as a war between one sinner doing his best and another sinner doing his worst. He was gloomy as a Hebrew prophet in his summoning of England to a change of heart in a sonnet written in 1803:–

England! the time is come when thou shouldst wean Thy heart from its emasculating food;
The truth should now be better understood; Old things have been unsettled; we have seen Fair seed-time, better harvest might have been But for thy trespasses; and, at this day, If for Greece, Egypt, India, Africa,
Aught good were destined, thou wouldst step between. England! all nations in this charge agree: But worse, more ignorant in love and hate, Far, far more abject is thine Enemy:
Therefore the wise pray for thee, though the freight Of thy offences be a heavy weight:
Oh grief, that Earth’s best hopes rest all with Thee!

All this means merely that the older Wordsworth grew, the more he became concerned with the duties rather than the rights of man. The revolutionary creed seems at times to involve the belief that, if you give men their rights, they will perform their duties as a necessary consequence. The Conservative creed, on the other hand, appears to be based on the theory that men, as a whole, are scarcely fit for rights but must be kept to their duties with a strong hand. Neither belief is entirely true. As Mazzini saw, the French Revolution failed because it emphasized the rights so disproportionately in comparison with the duties of man. Conservatism fails, on the other hand, because its conception of duty inevitably ceases before long to be an ethical conception: duty in the mouth of reactionaries usually means simply obedience to one’s “betters.” The melancholy sort of moralist frequently hardens into a reactionary of this sort. Burke and Carlyle and Ruskin–all of them blasphemed the spirit of liberty in the name of duty. Mr. Dicey contends that Burke’s and Wordsworth’s political principles remained essentially consistent throughout. They assuredly did nothing of the sort. Burke’s principles during the American War and his principles at the time of the French Revolution were divided from each other like crabbed age and youth. Burke lost his beliefs as he did his youth. And so did Wordsworth. It seems to me rather a waste of time to insist at all costs on the consistency of great men. The great question is, not whether they were consistent, but when they were right. Wordsworth was in the main right in his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and he was in the main right in his hatred of Napoleonism. But, when once the Napoleonic Wars were over, he had no creed left for mankind. He lived on till 1850, but he ceased to be able to say anything that had the ancient inspiration. He was at his greatest an inspired child of the Revolution. He learned from France that love of liberty which afterwards led him to oppose France. Speaking of those who, like himself, had changed in their feelings towards France, he wrote:–

Though there was a shifting in temper of hostility in their minds as far as regarded persons, they only combated the same enemy opposed to them under a different shape; and that enemy was the spirit of selfish tyranny and lawless ambition.

That is a just defence. But the undeniable fact is that, after that time, Wordsworth ceased to combat the spirit of selfish tyranny and lawless ambition as he once had done. There is no need to blame him: also there is no need to defend him. He was human; he was tired; he was growing old. The chief danger of a book like Mr. Dicey’s is that, in accepting its defence of Wordsworth’s maturity, we may come to disparage his splendid youth. Mr. Dicey’s book, however, is exceedingly interesting in calling attention to the great part politics may play in the life of a poet. Wordsworth said, in 1833, that “although he was known to the world only as a poet, he had given twelve hours’ thought to the condition and prospects of society, for one to poetry.” He did not retire into a “wise passiveness” as regards the world’s affairs until he had written some of the greatest political literature–and, in saying this, I am thinking of his sonnets rather than of his political prose–that has appeared in England since the death of Milton.




Sir Sidney Colvin deserves praise for the noble architecture of the temple he has built in honour of Keats. His great book, _John Keats: His Life and Poetry; His Friends, Critics, and After-fame_, is not only a temple, indeed, but a museum. Sir Sidney has brought together here the whole of Keats’s world, or at least all the relics of his world that the last of a band of great collectors has been able to recover; and in the result we can accompany Keats through the glad and sad and mad and bad hours of his short and marvellous life as we have never been able to do before under the guidance of a single biographer. We are still left in the dark, it is true, as to Keats’s race and descent. Whether Keats’s father came to London from Cornwall or not, Sir Sidney has not been able to decide on the rather shaky evidence that has been put forward. If it should hereafter turn out that Keats was a Cornishman at one remove, Matthew Arnold’s conjecture as to the “Celtic element” in him, as in other English poets, may revive in the general esteem.

In the present state of our knowledge, however, we must be content to accept Keats as a Londoner without ancestors beyond the father who was head-ostler at the sign of the “Swan and Hoop,” Finsbury Pavement, and married his master’s daughter. It was at the stable at the “Swan and Hoop”–not a public-house, by the way, but a livery-stable–that Keats was prematurely born at the end of October 1795. He was scarcely nine years old when his father was killed by a fall from a horse. He was only fourteen when his mother (who had re-married unhappily and then been separated from her husband) died, a victim of chronic rheumatism and consumption. It is from his mother that Keats seems to have inherited his impetuous and passionate nature. There is the evidence of a certain wholesale tea-dealer–the respectability of whose trade may have inclined him to censoriousness–to the effect that, both as girl and woman, she “was a person of unbridled temperament, and that in her later years she fell into loose ways, and was no credit to the family.” That she had other qualities besides those mentioned by the tea-dealer is shown by the passionate affection that existed between her and her son John. “Once as a young child, when she was ordered to be kept quiet during an illness, he is said to have insisted on keeping watch at her door with an old sword, and allowing no one to go in.” As she lay dying, “he sat up whole nights with her in a great chair, would suffer nobody to give her medicine, or even cook her food, but himself, and read novels to her in her intervals of ease.” The Keats children were fortunately not left penniless. Their grandfather, the proprietor of the livery-stable, had bequeathed a fortune of L13,000, a little of which was spent on sending Keats to a good school till the age of sixteen, and afterwards enabled him to attend Guy’s Hospital as a medical student.

It is almost impossible to credit the accepted story that he passed all his boyhood without making any attempt at writing poetry. “He did not begin to write,” says Sir Sidney Colvin, “till he was near eighteen.” If this is so, one feels all the more grateful to his old schoolfellow, Cowden Clarke, who lent him _The Faery Queene_, with a long list of other books, and in doing so presented him with the key that unlocked the unsuspected treasure of his genius. There is only one person, indeed, in all the Keats circle to whom one is more passionately grateful than to Cowden Clarke: that is Fanny Brawne. Keats no doubt had laboured to some purpose–occasionally, to fine purpose–with his genius before the autumn of 1818, when he met Fanny Brawne for the first time. None the less, had he died before that date, he would have been remembered in literature not as a marvellous original artist, but rather as one of those “inheritors of unfulfilled renown” among whom Shelley surprisingly placed him. Fanny Brawne may (or may not) have been the bad fairy of Keats as a man. She was unquestionably his good fairy as a poet.

This is the only matter upon which one is seriously disposed to quarrel with Sir Sidney Colvin as a biographer. He does not emphasize as he ought the debt we are under to Fanny Brawne as the intensifier of Keats’s genius–the “minx,” as Keats irritably called her, who transformed him in a few months from a poet of still doubtful fame into a master and an immortal. The attachment, Sir Sidney thinks, was a misfortune for him, though he qualifies this by adding that “so probably under the circumstances must any passion for a woman have been.” Well, let us test this “misfortune” by its consequences. The meeting with Fanny took place, as I have said, in the autumn of 1818. During the winter Keats continued to write _Hyperion_, which he seems already to have begun. In January 1819 he wrote _The Eve of St. Agnes_. During the spring of that year, he wrote the _Ode to Psyche_, the _Ode on a Grecian Urn_, the _Ode to a Nightingale_, and _La Belle Dame sans Merci_. In the autumn he finished _Lamia_, and wrote the _Ode to Autumn_. To the same year belongs the second greatest of his sonnets, _Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art_. In other words, practically all the fine gold of Keats’s work was produced in the months in which his passion for Fanny Brawne was consuming him as with fire. His greatest poems we clearly owe to that heightened sense of beauty which resulted from his translation into a lover. It seems to me a treachery to Keats’s memory to belittle a woman who was at least the occasion of such a passionate expenditure of genius. Sir Sidney Colvin does his best to be fair to Fanny, but his presentation of the story of Keats’s love for her will, I am afraid, be regarded by the long line of her disparagers as an endorsement of their blame.

I can understand the dislike of Fanny Brawne on the part of those who dislike Keats and all his works. But if we accept Keats and _The Eve of St. Agnes_, we had better be honest and also accept Fanny, who inspired them. Keats, it must be remembered, was a sensualist. His poems belong to the literature of the higher sensualism. They reveal him as a man not altogether free from the vulgarities of sensualism, as well as one who was able to transmute it into perfect literature. He seems to have admired women vulgarly as creatures whose hands were waiting to be squeezed, rather than as equal human beings; the eminent exception to this being his sister-in-law, Georgiana. His famous declaration of independence of them–that he would rather give them a sugar-plum than his time–was essentially a cynicism in the exhausted-Don-Juan mood. Hence, Keats was almost doomed to fall in love with provocation rather than with what the Victorians called “soul.” His destiny was not to be a happy lover, but the slave of a “minx.” It was not a slavery without dignity, however. It had the dignity of tragedy. Sir Sidney Colvin regrets that the love-letters of Keats to Fanny were ever published. It would be as reasonable, in my opinion, to regret the publication of _La Belle Dame sans Merci_. _La Belle Dame sans Merci_ says in literature merely what the love-letters say in autobiography. The love-letters, indeed, like the poem, affect us as great literature does. They unquestionably take us down into the depths of suffering–those depths in which tortured souls cry out almost inarticulately in their anguish. The torture of the dying lover, as he sails for Italy and leaves Fanny, never to see her again, has almost no counterpart in biographical literature. “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne,” he writes to Brown from Yarmouth, “is beyond everything horrible–the sense of darkness coming over me–I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing.” And when he reaches Naples he writes to the same friend:–

I can bear to die–I cannot bear to leave her. O God! God! God! Everything that I have in my trunks that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear. The silk lining she put in my travelling cap scalds my head. My imagination is horribly vivid about her–I see her–I hear her…. O that I could be buried near where she lives! I am afraid to write to her–to receive a letter from her. To see her handwriting would break my heart–even to hear of her anyhow, to see her name written, would be more than I can bear.

Sir Sidney Colvin does not attempt to hide Keats’s love-story away in a corner. Where he goes wrong, it seems to me, is in his failure to realize that this love-story was the making of Keats as a man of genius. Had Sir Sidney fully grasped the part played by Fanny Brawne as, for good or evil, the presiding genius of Keats as a poet, he would, I fancy, have found a different explanation of the changes introduced into the later version of _La Belle Dame sans Merci_. Sir Sidney is all in favour–and there is something to be said for his preference–of the earlier version, which begins:–

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering!

But he does not perceive the reasons that led Keats to alter this in the version he published in Leigh Hunt’s _Indicator_ to:–

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,

and so on. Sir Sidney thinks that this and other changes, “which are all in the direction of the slipshod and the commonplace, were made on Hunt’s suggestion, and that Keats acquiesced from fatigue or indifference.” To accuse Hunt of wishing to alter “knight-at-arms” to “wretched wight” seems to me unwarrantable guessing. Surely a much more likely explanation is that Keats, who in this poem wrote his own biography as an unfortunate lover, came in a realistic mood to dislike “knight-at-arms” as a too romantic image of himself. He decided, I conjecture, that “wretched wight” was a description nearer the bitter truth. Hence his emendation. The other alterations also seem to me to belong to Keats rather than to Hunt. This does not mean that the “knight-at-arms” version is not also beautiful. But, in spite of this, I trust the Delegates of the Oxford University Press will not listen to Sir Sidney Colvin’s appeal to banish the later version from their editions of Keats. Every edition of Keats ought to contain both versions just as it ought to contain both versions of _Hyperion_.

Nothing that I have written will be regarded, I trust, as depreciating the essential excellence, power, and (in its scholarly way) even the greatness of Sir Sidney Colvin’s book. But a certain false emphasis here and there, an intelligible prejudice in favour of believing what is good of his subject, has left his book almost too ready to the hand of those who cannot love a man of genius without desiring to “respectabilize” him. Sir Sidney sees clearly enough the double nature of Keats–his fiery courage, shown in his love of fighting as a schoolboy, his generosity, his virtue of the heart, on the one hand, and his luxurious love of beauty, his tremulous and swooning sensitiveness in the presence of nature and women, his morbidness, his mawkishness, his fascination as by serpents, on the other. But in the resultant portrait, it is a too respectable and virile Keats that emerges. Keats was more virile as a man than is generally understood. He does not owe his immortality to his virility, however. He owes it to his servitude to golden images, to his citizenship of the world of the senses, to his bondage to physical love. Had he lived longer he might have invaded other worlds. His recasting of _Hyperion_ opens with a cry of distrust in the artist who is content to live in the little world of his art. His very revulsion against the English of Milton was a revulsion against the dead language of formal beauty. But it is in formal beauty–the formal beauty especially of the _Ode on a Grecian Urn_, which has never been surpassed in literature–that his own achievement lies. He is great among the pagans, not among the prophets. Unless we keep this clearly in mind our praise of him will not be appreciation. It will be but a sounding funeral speech instead of communion with a lovely and broken spirit, the greatest boast of whose life was: “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things.”


Matthew Arnold has often been attacked for his essay on Shelley. His essay on Keats, as a matter of fact, is much less sympathetic and penetrating. Here, more than anywhere else in his work, he seems to be a professor with whiskers drinking afternoon tea and discoursing on literature to a circle of schoolgirls. It is not that Matthew Arnold under-estimated Keats. “He is with Shakespeare,” he declared; and in another sentence: “In what we call natural magic, he ranks with Shakespeare.” One may disagree with this–for in natural magic Keats does not rank even with Shelley–and, at the same time, feel that Matthew Arnold gives Keats too little rather than too much appreciation. He divorced Keats’s poetry too gingerly from Keats’s life. He did not sufficiently realize the need for understanding all that passion and courage and railing and ecstasy of which the poems are the expression. He was a little shocked; he would have liked to draw a veil; he did not approve of a young man who could make love in language so unlike the measured ardour of one of Miss Austen’s heroes. The impression left by the letters to Fanny Brawne, he declared, was “unpleasing.” After quoting one of the letters, he goes on to comment:–

One is tempted to say that Keats’s love-letter is the love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice. It has in its relaxed self-abandonment something underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up, without the training which teaches us that we must put some constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them. It is the sort of love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice, which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case, or in the Divorce Court.

Applied to the letter which Arnold had just quoted there could not be a more foolish criticism. Keats was dogged by a curious vulgarity (which produced occasional comic effects in his work), but his self-abandonment was not vulgar. It may have been in a sense immoral: he was an artist who practised the philosophy of exquisite moments long before Pater wrote about it. He abandoned himself to the sensations of love and the sensations of an artist like a voluptuary. The best of his work is day-dreams of love and art. The degree to which his genius fed itself upon art and day-dreams of art is suggested by the fact that the most perfect of his early poems, written at the age of twenty, was the sonnet on Chapman’s Homer, and that the most perfect of his later poems was the _Ode on a Grecian Urn_. His magic was largely artistic magic, not natural magic. He writes about Pan and the nymphs, but we do not feel that they were shapes of earth and air to him, as they were to Shelley; rather they seem like figures copied out of his friends’ pictures. Consider, for example, the picture of a nymph who appeared to Endymion:–

It was a nymph uprising to the breast In the fountain’s pebbly margin, and she stood ‘Mong lilies, like the youngest of her brood. To him her dripping hand she softly kist, And anxiously began to plait and twist

The gestures of the nymph are as ludicrous as could be found in an Academy or Salon picture. Keats’s human or quasi-human beings are seldom more than decorations, but this is a commonplace decoration. The figures in _The Eve of St. Agnes_ and the later narratives are a part of the general beauty of the poems; but even there they are made, as it were, to match the furniture. It is the same in all his best poems. Keats’s imagination lived in castles, and he loved the properties, and the men and women were among the properties. We may forget the names of Porphyro and Madeline, but we do not forget the background of casement and arras and golden dishes and beautiful sensual things against which we see them, charming figures of love-sickness. Similarly, in _Lamia_, we may remember the name of the serpent-woman’s lover with difficulty; but who can forget the colours of her serpent-skin or the furnishing of her couch and of her palace in Corinth:–

That purple-lined palace of sweet sin?

In Keats every palace has a purple lining.

So much may be said in definition of Keats’s genius. It was essentially an aesthetic genius. It anticipated both William Morris and Oscar Wilde. There is in Keats a passion for the luxury of the world such as we do not find in Wordsworth or Shelley. He had not that bird-like quality of song which they had–that happiness to be alive and singing between the sky and the green earth. He looked on beautiful things with the intense devotion of the temple-worshipper rather than with the winged pleasure of the great poets. He was love-sick for beauty as Porphyro for Madeline. His attitude to beauty–the secret and immortal beauty–is one of “love shackled with vain-loving.” It is desire of an almost bodily kind. Keats’s work, indeed, is in large measure simply the beautiful expression of bodily desire, or of something of the same nature as bodily desire. His conception of love was almost entirely physical. He was greedy for it to the point of green-sickness. His intuition told him that passion so entirely physical had in it something fatal. Love in his poems is poisonous and secret in its beauty. It is passion for a Lamia, for La Belle Dame sans Merci. Keats’s ecstasies were swooning ecstasies. They lacked joy. It is not only in the _Ode to a Nightingale_ that he seems to praise death more than life. This was temperamental with him. He felt the “cursed spite” of things as melancholily as Hamlet did. He was able to dream a world nearer his happiness than this world of dependence and church bells and “literary jabberers”; and he could come to no terms except with his fancy. I do not mean to suggest that he despised the beauty of the earth. Rather he filled his eyes with it:–

Hill-flowers running wild
In pink and purple chequer–


The cloudy rack slow journeying in the West, Like herded elephants.

But the simple pleasure in colours and shapes grows less in his later poems. It becomes overcast. His great poems have the intensity and sorrow of a farewell.

It would be absurd, however, to paint Keats as a man without vitality, without pugnacity, without merriment. His brother declared that “John was the very soul of manliness and courage, and as much like the Holy Ghost as Johnny Keats”–the Johnny Keats who had allowed himself to be “snuffed out by an article.” As a schoolboy he had been fond of fighting, and as a man he had his share of militancy. He had a quite healthy sense of humour, too–not a subtle sense, but at least sufficient to enable him to regard his work playfully at times, as when he commented on an early version of _La Belle Dame sans Merci_ containing the lines:–

And there I shut her wild, wild eyes With kisses four.

“Why four kisses?” he writes to his brother:–

Why four kisses–you will say–why four? Because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse–she would have fain said “score” without hurting the rhyme–but we must temper the imagination, as the critics say, with judgment. I was obliged to choose an even number, that both eyes might have fair play, and to speak truly I think two apiece quite sufficient. Suppose I had said seven, there would have been three and-a-half apiece–a very awkward affair, and well got out of on my side.

That was written nearly a year after the famous _Quarterly_ article on _Endymion_, in which the reviewer had so severely taken to task “Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody).” It suggests that Keats retained at least a certain share of good spirits, in spite of the _Quarterly_ and Fanny Brawne and the approach of death. His observation, too, was often that of a spirited common-sense realist rather than an aesthete, as in his first description of Fanny Brawne:–

She is about my height–with a fine style and countenance of the lengthened sort–she wants sentiment in every feature–she manages to make her hair look well–her nostrils are fine–though a little