Shakespeare_. In this book he saves us a deal of unprofitable reading by gathering together the best of the Elizabethan dramas, to which he adds some admirable notes of criticism or interpretation.
[Illustration: MARY LAMB
After the portrait by F. S. Cary]
[Sidenote: ESSAYS OF ELIA]
Most memorable of Lamb’s works are the essays which he contributed for many years to the London magazines, and which he collected under the titles _Essays of Elia_ (1823) and _Last Essays of Elia_ (1830). [Footnote: The name “Elia” (pronounced ee’-li-a) was a pseudonym, taken from an old Italian clerk (Ellia) in the South Sea House. When “Elia” appears in the _Essays_ he is Charles Lamb himself; “Cousin Bridget” is sister Mary, and “John Elia” is a brother. The last-named was a selfish kind of person, who seems to have lived for himself, letting Charles take all the care of the family.] To the question, Which of these essays should be read? the answer given must depend largely upon personal taste. They are all good; they all contain both a reflection and a criticism of life, as Lamb viewed it by light of his personal experience. A good way to read the essays, therefore, is to consider them as somewhat autobiographical, and to use them for making acquaintance with the author at various periods of his life.
For example, “My Relations” and “Mackery End” acquaint us with Lamb’s family and descent; “Old Benchers of the Inner Temple” with his early surroundings; “Witches and Other Night-fears” with his sensitive childhood; “Recollections of Christ’s Hospital” and “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-thirty Years Ago” with his school days and comradeship with Coleridge; “The South Sea House” with his daily work; “Old China” with his home life; “The Superannuated Man” with his feelings when he was retired on a pension; and finally, “Character of the Late Elia,” in which Lamb whimsically writes his own obituary.
If these call for too much reading at first, then one may select three or four typical essays: “Dream Children,” notable for its exquisite pathos; “Dissertation on Roast Pig,” famous for its peculiar humor; and “Praise of Chimney Sweepers,” of which it is enough to say that it is just like Charles Lamb. To these one other should be added, “Imperfect Sympathies,” or “A Chapter on Ears,” or “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist,” in order to appreciate how pleasantly Lamb could write on small matters of no consequence. Still another good way of reading (which need not be emphasized, since everybody favors it) is to open the _Essays_ here or there till we find something that interests us,–a method which allows every reader the explorer’s joy of discovery.
To read such essays is to understand the spell they have cast on successive generations of readers. They are, first of all, very personal; they begin, as a rule, with some pleasant trifle that interests the author; then, almost before we are aware, they broaden into an essay of life itself, an essay illuminated by the steady light of Lamb’s sympathy or by the flashes of his whimsical humor. Next, we note in the _Essays_ their air of literary culture, which is due to Lamb’s wide reading, and to the excellent taste with which he selected his old authors,–Sidney, Brown, Burton, Fuller, Walton and Jeremy Taylor. Often it was the quaintness of these authors, their conceits or oddities, that charmed him. These oddities reappear in his own style to such an extent that even when he speaks a large truth, as he often does, he is apt to give the impression of being a little harebrained. Yet if you examine his queer idea or his merry jest, you may find that it contains more cardinal virtue than many a sober moral treatise.
[Illustration: THE LAMB BUILDING, INNER TEMPLE, LONDON]
On the whole _Elia_ is the quintessence of modern essay-writing from Addison to Stevenson. There are probably no better works of the same kind in our literature. Some critics aver that there are none others so good.
THOMAS DE QUINCEY (1785-1859). It used to be said in a college classroom that what De Quincey wrote was seldom important and always doubtful, but that we ought to read him for his style; which means, as you might say, that caviar is a stomach-upsetting food, but we ought to eat a little of it because it comes in a pretty box.
To this criticism, which reflects a prevalent opinion, we may take some exceptions. For example, what De Quincey has to say of Style, though it were written in style-defying German, is of value to everyone who would teach that impossible subject. What he says or implies in “Levana” (the goddess who performed “the earliest office of ennobling kindness” for a newborn child, lifting him from the ground, where he was first laid, and presenting his forehead to the stars of heaven) has potency to awaken two of the great faculties of humanity, the power to think and the power to imagine. Again, many people are fascinated by dreams, those mysterious fantasies which carry us away on swift wings to meet strange experiences; and what De Quincey has to say of dreams, though doubtful as a dream itself, has never been rivaled. To a few mature minds, therefore, De Quincey is interesting entirely apart from his dazzling style and inimitable rhetoric.
[Illustration: THOMAS DE QUINCEY From an engraving by C. H. Jeens]
To do justice to De Quincey’s erratic, storm-tossed life; to record his precocious youth, his marvelous achievements in school or college, his wanderings amid lonely mountains or more lonely city streets, his drug habits with their gorgeous dreams and terrible depressions, his timidity, his courtesy, his soul-solitude, his uncanny genius,–all that is impossible in a brief summary. Let it suffice, then, to record: that he resembled his friend Coleridge, both in his character and in his vast learning; that he studied in profound seclusion for twenty years; then for forty years more, during which time his brain was more or less beclouded by opium, he poured out a flood of magazine articles, which he collected later in fourteen chaotic volumes. These deal with an astonishing variety of subjects, and cover almost every phase of mental activity from portraying a nightmare to building a philosophical system. If he had any dominating interest in his strange life, it was the study of literature.
[Sidenote: TYPICAL WORKS]
The historian can but name a few characteristic works of De Quincey, without recommending any of them to readers. To those interested in De Quincey’s personality his _Confessions of an English Opium-Eater_ will be illuminating. This book astonished Londoners in 1821, and may well astonish a Bushman in the year 2000. It records his wandering life, and the alternate transport or suffering which resulted from his drug habits. This may be followed by his _Suspiria de Profundis_ (Sighs from the Depths), which describes, as well as such a thing could be done, the phantoms born of opium dreams. There are too many of the latter, and the reader may well be satisfied with the wonderful “Dream Fugue” in _The English Mail Coach_.
[Illustration: DOVE COTTAGE, GRASMERE Here both Wordsworth and De Quincey resided]
As an illustration of De Quincey’s review of history, one should try _Joan of Arc_ or _The Revolt of the Tartars_, which are not historical studies but romantic dreams inspired by reading history. In the critical field, “The Knocking at the Gate in _Macbeth_,” “Wordsworth’s Poetry” and the “Essay on Style” are immensely suggestive. As an example of ingenious humor “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” is often recommended; but it has this serious fault, that it is not humorous. For a concrete example of De Quincey’s matter and manner there is nothing better than “Levana or Our Ladies of Sorrow” (from the _Suspiria_), with its _mater lachrymarum_ Our Lady of Tears, _mater suspiriorum_ Our Lady of Sighs, and that strange phantom, forbidding and terrible, _mater tenebrarum_ Our Lady of Darkness.
[Sidenote: DE QUINCEY’S STYLE]
The style of all these works is indescribable. One may exhaust the whole list of adjectives–chanting, rhythmic, cadenced, harmonious, impassioned–that have been applied to it, and yet leave much to say. Therefore we note only these prosaic elements: that the style reflects De Quincey’s powers of logical analysis and of brilliant imagination; that it is pervaded by a tremendous mental excitement, though one does not know what the stir is all about; and that the impression produced by this nervous, impassioned style is usually spoiled by digressions, by hairsplitting, and by something elusive, intangible, to which we can give no name, but which blurs the author’s vision as a drifting fog obscures a familiar landscape.
Notwithstanding such strictures, De Quincey’s style is still, as when it first appeared, a thing to marvel at, revealing as it does the grace, the harmony, the wide range and the minute precision of our English speech.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The early nineteenth century is notable for the rapid progress of democracy in English government, and for the triumph of romanticism in English literature. The most influential factor of the age was the French Revolution, with its watchwords of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. English writers felt the stir of the times, and were inspired by the dream of a new human society ruled by justice and love. In their writing they revolted from the formal standards of the age of Pope, followed their own genius rather than set rules, and wrote with feeling and imagination of the two great subjects of nature and humanity. Such was the contrast in politics and literature with the preceding century that the whole period is sometimes called the age of revolution.
Our study of the literature of the period includes: (1) The poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, who did not so much originate as give direction to the romantic revival. (2) Byron and Shelley, often called revolutionary poets. (3) The poet Keats, whose works are famous for their sense of beauty and for their almost perfect workmanship. (4) A review of the minor poets of romanticism, Campbell, Moore, Hood, Beddoes, Hunt, and Felicia Hemans. (5) The life and works of Walter Scott, romantic poet and novelist. (6) A glance at the fiction writers of the period, and a study of the works of Jane Austen. (7) The critics and essayists, of whom we selected these two as the most typical: Charles Lamb, famous for his _Essays of Elia_; and De Quincey, notable for his brilliant style, his analysis of dreams, and his endeavor to make a science of literary criticism.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. For general reference such anthologies as Manly’s English Poetry and English Prose are useful. The works of major authors are available in various school editions, prepared especially for class use. A few of these handy editions are named below; others are listed in the General Bibliography.
Best poems of Wordsworth and of Coleridge in Athenaum Press Series. Briefer selections from Wordsworth in Golden Treasury, Cassell’s National Library, Maynard’s English Classics. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner in Standard English Classics, Pocket Classics. Selections from Coleridge and Campbell in one volume of Riverside Literature.
Scott’s Lady of the Lake and Ivanhoe in Standard English Classics; Marmion and The Talisman in Pocket Classics; Lay of the Last Minstrel and Quentin Durward in Lake English Classics; the same and other works of Scott in various other school editions.
Selected poems of Byron in Standard English Classics, English Readings. Best poems of Shelley in Athenaum Press; briefer selections in Belles Lettres, Golden Treasury, English Classics.
Selections from Keats in Athenaum Press, Muses Library, Riverside Literature.
Lamb’s Essays of Elia in Lake English Classics; selected essays in Standard English Classics, Temple Classics, Camelot Series. Tales from Shakespeare in Ginn and Company’s Classics for Children.
Selections from De Quincey, a representative collection, in Athenaum Press; English Mail Coach and Joan of Arc in Standard English Classics, English Readings; Confessions of an Opium Eater in Temple Classics, Everyman’s Library; Revolt of the Tartars in Lake Classics, Silver Classics.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in Pocket Classics; the same and other novels in Everyman’s Library.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Extended works in English history and literature are listed in the General Bibliography. The following works are valuable in a study of the early nineteenth century and the romantic movement.
_HISTORY_. Morris, Age of Queen Anne and the Early Hanoverians; McCarthy, The Epoch of Reform (Epochs of Modern History Series); Cheyne, Industrial and Social History of England; Hassall, Making of the British Empire; Trevelyan, Early Life of Charles James Fox.
_LITERATURE_. Saintsbury, History of Nineteenth Century Literature, Beers, English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century; Symons, The Romantic Movement in English Poetry; Dowden, French Revolution and English Literature; Hancock, French Revolution and The English Poets; Masson, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Other Essays; De Quincey, Literary Reminiscences.
_Wordsworth_. Life, by Myers (English Men of Letters Series), by Raleigh. Herford, The Age of Wordsworth; Rannie, Wordsworth and his Circle; Sneath, Wordsworth, Poet of Nature and Poet of Man. Essays, by Lowell, in Among My Books; by M. Arnold, in Essays in Criticism; by Pater, in Appreciations; by L. Stephen, in Hours in a Library; by Hutton, in Literary Essays; by Bagehot, in Literary Studies.
_Coleridge_. Life, by Traill (E. M. of L.), by Hall Caine (Great Writers Series). Brandl, Coleridge and the English Romantic Movement. Essays, by Woodberry, in Makers of Literature; by Shairp, in Studies in Poetry and Philosophy; by Forster, in Great Teachers; by Dowden, in New Studies.
_Scott_. Life, by Hutton (E. M. of L.), by Lockhart (5 vols.), by Yonge (Great Writers), by Saintsbury, by Hudson, by Andrew Lang. Jack, Essay on the Novel as Illustrated by Scott and Miss Austen. Essays, by Stevenson, in Memories and Portraits; by Swinburne, in Studies in Prose and Poetry; by Hazlitt, in The Spirit of the Age; by Saintsbury, in Essays in English Literature.
_Byron_. Life, by Noel (Great Writers), by Nicol (E. M. of L.). Hunt, Lord Byron and his Contemporaries. Essays by Macaulay, M. Arnold, Hazlitt, Swinburne.
_Shelley_. Life, by Symonds (E. M. of L.), by Shairp, by Dowden, by W. M. Rossetti. Salt, A Shelley Primer. Essays by Dowden, Woodberry, M. Arnold, Bagehot, Forster, Hutton, L. Stephen.
_Keats_. Life, by Colvin (E. M. of L.), by Rossetti, by Hancock. H. C. Shelley, Keats and his Circle; Masson, Wordsworth and Other Essays. Essays by De Quincey, Lowell, M. Arnold, Swinburne.
_Charles Lamb_. Life, by Ainger (E. M. of L.), by Lucas. Fitzgerald, Charles Lamb; Talfourd, Memoirs of Charles Lamb. Essays by Woodberry, Pater, De Quincey.
_De Quincey_. Life, by Masson (E. M. of L.), by Page. Hogg, De Quincey and his Friends; Findlay, Personal Recollections of De Quincey. Essays by Saintsbury, Masson, L. Stephen.
_Jane Austen_. Life, by Malden, by Goldwin Smith, by Adams. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen; Mitton, Jane Austen and her Times; Hill, Jane Austen, her Home and her Friends; Jack, Essay on the Novel as Illustrated by Scott and Miss Austen. Essay by Howells, in Heroines of Fiction.
THE VICTORIAN AGE (1837-1901)
The current sweeps the Old World,
The current sweeps the New;
The wind will blow, the dawn will glow, Ere thou hast sailed them through.
Kingsley, “A Myth”
HISTORICAL OUTLINE. Amid the many changes which make the reign of Victoria the most progressive in English history, one may discover three tendencies which have profoundly affected our present life and literature. The first is political and democratic: it may be said to have begun with the Reform Bill of 1832; it is still in progress, and its evident end is to deliver the government of England into the hands of the common people. In earlier ages we witnessed a government which laid stress on royalty and class privilege, the spirit of which was clarioned by Shakespeare in the lines:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea Can wash the balm from an anointed king.
In the Victorian or modern age the divine right of kings is as obsolete as a suit of armor; the privileges of royalty and nobility are either curbed or abolished, and ordinary men by their representatives in the House of Commons are the real rulers of England.
With a change in government comes a corresponding change in literature. In former ages literature was almost as exclusive as politics; it was largely in the hands of the few; it was supported by princely patrons; it reflected the taste of the upper classes. Now the masses of men begin to be educated, begin to think for themselves, and a host of periodicals appear in answer to their demand for reading matter. Poets, novelists, essayists, historians,–all serious writers feel the inspiration of a great audience, and their works have a thousand readers where formerly they had but one. In a word, English government, society and literature have all become more democratic. This is the most significant feature of modern history.
[Sidenote: THE SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT]
The second tendency may be summed up in the word “scientific.” At the basis of this tendency is man’s desire to know the truth, if possible the whole truth of life; and it sets no limits to the exploring spirit, whether in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth. From star-dust in infinite space (which we hope to measure) to fossils on the bed of an ocean which is no longer unfathomed, nothing is too great or too small to attract man, to fascinate him, to influence his thought, his life, his literature. Darwin’s _Origin of Species_ (1859), which laid the foundation for a general theory of evolution, is one of the most famous books of the age, and of the world. Associated with Darwin were Wallace, Lyell, Huxley, Tyndall and many others, whose essays are, in their own way, quite as significant as the poems of Tennyson or the novels of Dickens.
It would be quite as erroneous to allege that modern science began with these men as to assume that it began with the Chinese or with Roger Bacon; the most that can be said truthfully is, that the scientific spirit which they reflected began to dominate our thought, to influence even our poetry and fiction, even as the voyages of Drake and Magellan furnished a mighty and mysterious background for the play of human life on the Elizabethan stage. The Elizabethans looked upon an enlarging visible world, and the wonder of it is reflected in their prose and poetry; the Victorians overran that world almost from pole to pole, then turned their attention to an unexplored world of invisible forces, and their best literature thrills again with the grandeur of the universe in which men live.
A third tendency of the Victorian age in England is expressed by the word “imperialism.” In earlier ages the work of planting English colonies had been well done; in the Victorian age the scattered colonies increased mightily in wealth and power, and were closely federated into a world-wide Empire of people speaking the same noble speech, following the same high ideals of justice and liberty.
The literature of the period reflects the wide horizons of the Empire. Among historical writers, Parkman the American was one of the first and best to reflect the imperial spirit. In such works as _A Half-Century of Conflict_ and _Montcalm and Wolfe_ he portrayed the conflict not of one nation against another but rather of two antagonistic types of civilization: the military and feudal system of France against the democratic institutions of the Anglo-Saxons. Among the explorers, Mungo Park had anticipated the Victorians in his _Travels in the Interior of Africa_ (1799), a wonderful book which set England to dreaming great dreams; but not until the heroic Livingstone’s _Missionary Travels and Research in South Africa, The Zambesi and its Tributaries_ and _Last Journals_ [Footnote: In connection with Livingstone’s works, Stanley’s _How I Found Livingstone_ (1872) should also be read. Livingstone died in Africa in 1873, and his _Journals_ were edited by another hand. For a summary of his work and its continuation see _Livingstone and the Exploration of Central Africa_ (London, 1897).] appeared was the veil lifted from the Dark Continent. Beside such works should be placed numerous stirring journals of exploration in Canada, in India, in Australia, in tropical or frozen seas,–wherever in the round world the colonizing genius of England saw opportunity to extend the boundaries and institutions of the Empire. Macaulay’s _Warren Hastings_, Edwin Arnold’s _Indian Idylls_, Kipling’s _Soldiers Three_,–a few such works must be read if we are to appreciate the imperial spirit of modern English history and literature.
* * * * *
I. POETS OF THE VICTORIAN AGE
ALFRED TENNYSON (1809-1892)
Though the Victorian age is notable for the quality and variety of its prose works, its dominant figure for years was the poet Tennyson. He alone, of all that brilliant group of Victorian writers, seemed to speak not for himself but for his age and nation; and the nation, grown weary of Byronic rebellion, and finding its joy or sorrow expressed with almost faultless taste by one whose life was noble, gave to Tennyson a whole-souled allegiance such as few poets have ever won. In 1850 he was made Laureate to succeed Wordsworth, receiving, as he said,
This laurel, greener from the brow
Of him that uttered nothing base;
and from that time on he steadily adhered to his purpose, which was to know his people and to be their spokesman. Of all the poets who have been called to the Laureateship, he is probably the only one of whom it can truthfully be said that he understood his high office and was worthy of it.
LIFE. When we attempt a biography of a person we assume unconsciously that he was a public man; but that is precisely what Tennyson refused to be. He lived a retired life of thoughtfulness, of communion with nature, of friendships too sacred for the world’s gaze, a life blameless in conduct, unswerving in its loyalty to noble ideals. From boyhood to old age he wrote poetry, and in that poetry alone, not in biography or letters or essays of criticism, do we ever touch the real man.
[Illustration: TENNYSON’S BIRTHPLACE, SOMERSBY RECTORY, LINCOLNSHIRE]
Tennyson was the son of a cultured clergyman, and was born in the rectory of Somersby, Lincolnshire, in 1809, the same year that saw the birth of Lincoln and Darwin. Like Milton he devoted himself to poetry at an early age; in his resolve he was strengthened by his mother; and from it he never departed. The influences of his early life, the quiet beauty of the English landscape, the surge and mystery of the surrounding sea, the emphasis on domestic virtues, the pride and love of an Englishman for his country and his country’s history,–these are everywhere reflected in the poet’s work.
His education was largely a matter of reading under his father’s direction. He had a short experience of the grammar school at Louth, which he hated forever after. He entered Cambridge, and formed a circle of rare friends (“apostles” they called themselves) who afterwards became famous; but he left college without taking a degree, probably because he was too poor to continue his course. Not till 1850 did he earn enough by his work to establish a home of his own. Then he leased a house at Farringford, Isle of Wight, which we have ever since associated with Tennyson’s name. But his real place is the Heart of England.
[Sidenote: A POET AND HIS CRITICS]
His first book (a boyish piece of work, undertaken with his brother Charles) appeared under the title _Poems by Two Brothers_ (1827). In 1830, and again in 1832, he published a small volume containing such poems as “The Palace of Art,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Miller’s Daughter”; but the critics of the age, overlooking the poet’s youth and its promise, treated the volumes unmercifully. Tennyson, always sensitive to criticism, was sensible enough to see that the critics had ground for their opinions, if not for their harshness; and for ten long years, while he labored to perfect his art, his name did not again appear in print.
There was another reason for his silence. In 1833 his dearest friend, Arthur Hallam, died suddenly in Vienna, and it was years before Tennyson began to recover from the blow. His first expression of grief is seen in the lyric beginning, “Break, break, break,” which contains the memorable stanza:
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still!
Then he began that series of elegies for his friend which appeared, seventeen years later, as _In Memoriam_.
[Sidenote: HE WINS AND HOLDS HIS PLACE]
Influenced by his friends, Tennyson broke his long silence with a volume containing “Morte d’Arthur,” “Locksley Hall,” “Sir Galahad,” “Lady Clare” and a few more poems which have never lost their power over readers; but it must have commanded attention had it contained only “Ulysses,” that magnificent appeal to manhood, reflecting the indomitable spirit of all those restless explorers who dared unknown lands or seas to make wide the foundations of imperial England. It was a wonderful volume, and almost its first effect was to raise the hidden Tennyson to the foremost place in English letters.
Whatever he wrote thereafter was sure of a wide reading. Critics, workingmen, scientists, reformers, theologians,–all recognized the power of the poet to give melodious expression to their thought or feeling. Yet he remained averse to everything that savored of popularity, devoting himself as in earlier days to poetry alone. As a critic writes, “Tennyson never forgot that the poet’s work was to convince the world of love and beauty; that he was born to do that work, and do it worthily.”
There are two poems which are especially significant in view of this steadfast purpose. The first is “Merlin and the Gleam,” which reflects Tennyson’s lifelong devotion to his art; the other is “Crossing the Bar,” which was his farewell and hail to life when the end came in 1892.
WORKS OF TENNYSON. There is a wide variety in Tennyson’s work: legend, romance, battle song, nature, classic and medieval heroes, problems of society, questions of science, the answer of faith,–almost everything that could interest an alert Victorian mind found some expression in his poetry. It ranges in subject from a thrush song to a religious philosophy, in form from the simplest love lyric to the labored historical drama.
[Sidenote: TYPICAL SHORT POEMS]
Of the shorter poems of Tennyson there are a few which should be known to every student: first, because they are typical of the man who stands for modern English poetry; and second, because one is constantly meeting references to these poems in books or magazines or even newspapers. Among such representative poems are: “The Lotos-Eaters,” a dream picture characterized by a beauty and verbal melody that recall Spenser’s work; “Locksley Hall” and “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,” the one a romance throbbing with youth and hope, the other representing the same hero grown old, despondent and a little carping, but still holding fast to his ideals; “Sir Galahad,” a medieval romance of purity; “Ulysses,” an epitome of exploration in all ages; “The Revenge,” a stirring war song; “Rizpah,” a dramatic portrayal of a mother’s grief for a wayward son; “Romney’s Remorse,” a character study of Tennyson’s later years; and a few shorter poems, such as “The Higher Pantheism,” “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” “Wages” and “The Making of Man,” which reflect the poet’s mood before the problems of science and of faith.
[Illustration: ALFRED TENNYSON]
To these should be added a few typical patriotic pieces, which show Tennyson speaking as Poet Laureate for his country: “Ode on the Death of Wellington,” “Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Defense of Lucknow,” “Hands all Round,” and the imperial appeal of “Britons, Hold Your Own” or, as it is tamely called, “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exposition.” The beginner may also be reminded of certain famous little melodies, such as the “Bugle Song,” “Sweet and Low,” “Tears,” “The Brook,” “Far, Far, Away” and “Crossing the Bar,” which are among the most perfect that England has produced. And, as showing Tennyson’s extraordinary power of youthful feeling, at least one lyric of his old age should be read, such as “The Throstle” (a song that will appeal especially to all bird lovers), beginning:
“Summer is coming, summer is coming, I know it, I know it, I know it;
Light again, leaf again, life again, love again”– Yes, my wild little poet!
Here Tennyson is so merged in his subject as to produce the impression that the lyric must have been written not by an aged poet but by the bird himself. Reading the poem one seems to hear the brown thrasher on a twig of the wild-apple tree, pouring his heart out over the thicket which his mate has just chosen for a nesting place.
[Sidenote: IDYLLS OF THE KING]
Of the longer works of Tennyson the most notable is the _Idylls of the King_, a series of twelve poems retelling part of the story of Arthur and his knights. Tennyson seems to have worked at this poem in haphazard fashion, writing the end first, then a fragment here or there, at intervals during half a century. Finally he welded his material into its present form, making it a kind of allegory of human life, in which man’s animal nature fights with his spiritual aspirations. As Tennyson wrote, in his “Finale” to Queen Victoria:
Accept this old, imperfect tale,
New-old, and shadowing Sense at war with Soul.
The beginner will do well to forget the allegory and read the poem for its sustained beauty of expression and for its reflection of the modern ideal of honor. For, though Malory and Tennyson tell the same story, there is this significant difference between the _Morte d’ Arthur_ and the _Idylls of the King_: one is thoroughly medieval, and the other almost as thoroughly modern. Malory in simple prose makes his story the expression of chivalry in the Middle Ages; his heroes are true to their own time and place. Tennyson in melodious blank verse changes his material freely so as to make it a reflection of a nineteenth-century gentleman disguised in a suit of armor and some old knightly raiment.
One may add that some readers cleave to Tennyson, while others greatly prefer Malory. There is little or no comparison between the two, and selections from both should be read, if only to understand how this old romance of Arthur has appealed to writers of different times. In making a selection from the _Idylls_ (the length of the poem is rather forbidding) it is well to begin with the twelfth book, “The Passing of Arthur,” which was first to be written, and which reflects the noble spirit of the entire work.
In _The Princess: a Medley_ the poet attempts the difficult task of combining an old romantic story with a modern social problem; and he does not succeed very well in harmonizing his incongruous materials.
[Sidenote: THE PRINCESS]
The story is, briefly, of a princess who in youth is betrothed to a prince. When she reaches what is called the age of discretion (doubtless because that age is so frequently marked by indiscretions) she rebels against the idea of marriage, and founds a college, herself the principal, devoted to the higher education of women. The prince, a gallant blade, and a few of his followers disguise themselves as girls and enter the school. When an unruly masculine tongue betrays him he is cast out with maledictions on his head. His father comes with an army, and makes war against the father of the princess. The prince joins blithely in the fight, is sore wounded, and is carried to the woman’s college as to a hospital. The princess nurses him, listens to his love tale, and the story ends in the good old-fashioned way.
There are many beautiful passages in _The Princess_, and had Tennyson been content to tell the romantic story his work would have had some pleasant suggestion of Shakespeare’s _As You Like It_; but the social problem spoils the work, as a moralizing intruder spoils a bit of innocent fun. Tennyson is either too serious or not serious enough; he does not know the answer to his own problem, and is not quite sincere in dealing with it or in coming to his lame and impotent conclusion. Few readers now attempt the three thousand lines of _The Princess_, but content themselves with a few lyrics, such as “Ask Me No More,” “O Swallow Flying South,” “Tears,” “Bugle Song” and “Sweet and Low,” which are familiar songs in many households that remember not whence they came. [Footnote: The above criticism of _The Princess_ applies, in some measure, to Tennyson’s _Maud: a Monodrama_, a story of passionate love and loss and sorrow. Tennyson wrote also several dramatic works, such as _Harold_, _Becket_ and _Queen Mary_, in which he attempted to fill some of the gaps in Shakespeare’s list of chronicle plays.]
[Sidenote: ENGLISH IDYLS]
More consistent than _The Princess_ is a group of poems reflecting the life and ideals of simple people, to which Tennyson gave the general name of _English Idyls_. The longest and in some respects the best of these is “Enoch Arden,” a romance which was once very popular, but which is now in danger of being shelved because the modern reader prefers his romance in prose form. Certain of the famous poems which we have already named are classed among these English idyls; but more typical of Tennyson’s purpose in writing them are “Dora,” “The Gardener’s Daughter” and “Aylmer’s Field,” in which he turns from ancient heroes to sing the romance of present-day life.
[Illustration: SUMMERHOUSE AT FARRINGFORD Here Tennyson wrote “Enoch Arden”]
Among mature readers, who have met the sorrows of life or pondered its problems, the most admired of Tennyson’s work is _In Memoriam_ (1850), an elegy inspired by the death of Arthur Hallam. As a memorial poem it invites comparison with others, with Milton’s “Lycidas,” or Shelley’s “Adonais,” or Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” Without going deeply into the comparison we may note this difference: that Tennyson’s work is more personal and sympathetic than any of the others. Milton had only a slight acquaintance with his human subject (Edward King) and wrote his poem as a memorial for the college rather than for the man; Shelley had never met Keats, whose early death he commemorates; Gray voiced an impersonal melancholy in the presence of the unknown dead; but Tennyson had lost his dearest friend, and wrote to solace his own grief and to keep alive a beautiful memory. Then, as he wrote, came the thought of other men and women mourning their dead; his view broadened with his sympathy, and he wrote other lyrics in the same strain to reflect the doubt or fear of humanity and its deathless faith even in the shadow of death.
It is this combination of personal and universal elements which makes _In Memoriam_ remarkable. The only other elegy to which we may liken it is Emerson’s “Threnody,” written after the death of his little boy. But where Tennyson offers an elaborate wreath and a polished monument, Emerson is content with a rugged block of granite and a spray of nature’s evergreen.
[Sidenote: PLAN OF THE POEM]
_In Memoriam_ occupied Tennyson at intervals for many years, and though he attempted to give it unity before its publication in 1850, it is still rather fragmentary. Moreover, it is too long; for the poet never lived who could write a hundred and thirty-one lyrics upon the same subject, in the same manner, without growing monotonous.
There are three more or less distinct parts of the work, [Footnote: Tennyson divided _In Memoriam_ into nine sections. Various attempts have recently been made to organize the poem and to make a philosophy of it, but these are ingenious rather than convincing.] corresponding to three successive Christmas seasons. The first part (extending to poem 30) is concerned with grief and doubt; the second (to poem 78) exhibits a calm, serious questioning of the problem of faith; the third introduces a great hope amid tender memories or regrets, and ends (poem 106) with that splendid outlook on a new year and a new life, “Ring Out Wild Bells.” This was followed by a few more lyrics of mounting faith, inspired by the thought that divine love rules the world and that our human love is immortal and cannot die. The work ends, rather incongruously, with a marriage hymn for Tennyson’s sister.
The spirit of _In Memoriam_ is well reflected in the “Proem” or introductory hymn, “Strong Son of God, Immortal Love”; its message is epitomized in the last three lines:
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event
To which the whole creation moves.
THE QUALITY OF TENNYSON. The charm of Tennyson is twofold. As the voice of the Victorian Age, reflecting its thought or feeling or culture, its intellectual quest, its moral endeavor, its passion for social justice, he represents to us the spirit of modern poetry; that is, poetry which comes close to our own life, to the aims, hopes, endeavors of the men and women of to-day. With this modern quality Tennyson has the secret of all old poetry, which is to be eternally young. He looked out upon a world from which the first wonder of creation had not vanished, where the sunrise was still “a glorious birth,” and where love, truth, beauty, all inspiring realities, were still waiting with divine patience to reveal themselves to human eyes.
There are other charms in Tennyson: his romantic spirit, his love of nature, his sense of verbal melody, his almost perfect workmanship; but these the reader must find and appreciate for himself. The sum of our criticism is that Tennyson is a poet to have handy on the table for the pleasure of an idle hour. He is also (and this is a better test) an excellent poet to put in your pocket when you go on a journey. So shall you be sure of traveling in good company.
* * * * *
ROBERT BROWNING (1812-1889)
In their lifelong devotion to a single purpose the two chief poets of the Victorian Age are much alike; in most other respects they are men of contrasts. Tennyson looked like a poet, Browning like a business man. Tennyson was a solitary singer, never in better company than when alone; Browning was a city man, who must have the excitement of society. Tennyson’s field was the nation, its traditions, heroes, problems, ideals; but Browning seldom went beyond the individual man, and his purpose was to play Columbus to some obscure human soul. Tennyson was at times rather narrowly British; Browning was a cosmopolitan who dealt broadly with humanity. Tennyson was the poet of youth, and will always be read by the young in heart; Browning was the philosopher, the psychologist, the poet of mature years and of a few cultivated readers.
LIFE. Browning portrays so many different human types as to make us marvel, but we may partly understand his wide range of character-studies by remembering he was an Englishman with some Celtic and German ancestors, and with a trace of Creole (Spanish-Negro) blood. He was born and grew up at Camberwell, a suburb of London, and the early home of Ruskin. His father was a Bank-of-England clerk, a prosperous man and fond of books, who encouraged his boy to read and to let education follow the lead of fancy. Before Browning was twenty years old, father and son had a serious talk which ended in a kind of bargain: the boy was to live a life of culture, and the father was to take care of all financial matters,–an arrangement which suited them both very well.
[Illustration: ROBERT BROWNING]
Since boyhood Browning had been writing romantic verses, influenced first by Byron, then by Shelley, then by Keats. His first published works, _Pauline_ and _Paracelsus_, were what he called soul-studies, the one of a visionary, “a star-treader” (its hero was Shelley), the other of a medieval astrologer somewhat like Faust. These two works, if one had the patience of a puzzle-worker to read them, would be found typical of all the longer poems that Browning produced in his sixty years of writing.
These early works were not read, were not even criticized; and it was not till 1846 that Browning became famous, not because of his books but because he eloped with Elizabeth Barrett, who was then the most popular poet in England. [Footnote: The fame of Miss Barrett in mid century was above that of Tennyson or Browning. She had been for a long time an invalid. Her father, a tyrannical kind of person, insisted on her keeping her room, and expected her to die properly there. He had no personal objection to Browning, but flouted the idea of his famous daughter marrying with anybody.] The two went to Florence, discovered that they were “made for each other,” and in mutual helpfulness did their best work. They lived at “Casa Guidi,” a house made famous by the fact that Browning’s _Men and Women_ and Mrs. Browning’s _Sonnets from the Portuguese_ were written there.
[Illustration: MRS. BROWNING’S TOMB IN THE PROTESTANT CEMETERY AT FLORENCE]
[Sidenote: THE BROWNING CULT]
This happy period of work was broken by Mrs. Browning’s death in 1861. Browning returned to England with his son, and to forget his loss he labored with unusual care on _The Ring and the Book_ (1868), his bulkiest work. The rest of his life was spent largely in London and in Venice. Fame came to him tardily, and with some unfortunate results. He became known as a poet to be likened unto Shakespeare, but more analytical, calling for a superior intelligence on the part of his readers, and presently a multitude of Browning clubs sprang up in England and America. Delighted with his popularity among the elect, Browning seems to have cultivated his talent for obscurity, or it may be that his natural eccentricity of style increased with age, as did Wordsworth’s prosiness. Whatever the cause, his work grew steadily worse until a succession of grammar defying volumes threatened to separate all but a few devotees from their love of Browning. He died in Venice in 1889. On the day of his death appeared in London his last book, _Asolando_. The “Epilogue” to that volume is a splendid finale to a robust life.
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward, Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph, Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep to wake
Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” is a beautiful swan song; but Browning’s last poem is a bugle call, and it sounds not “taps” but the “reveille.”
BROWNING’S DRAMATIC QUALITY. Nearly all the works of Browning are dramatic in spirit, and are commonly dramatic also in form. Sometimes he writes a drama for the stage, such as _A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon_, _Colombe’s Birthday_ and _In a Balcony_,–dramas without much action, but packed with thought in a way that would have delighted the Schoolmen. More often his work takes the form of a dramatic monologue, such as “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders his Tomb,” in which one person speaks and, like Peter, his speech bewrayeth him; for he reveals very plainly the kind of man he is. Occasionally Browning tries to sing like another poet, but even here his dramatic instinct is strong. He takes some crisis, some unexpected meeting or parting of the ways of life, and proceeds to show the hero’s character by the way he faces the situation, or talks about it. So when he attempts even a love song, such as “The Last Ride Together,” or a ballad, such as “The Pied Piper,” he regards his subject from an unusual viewpoint and produces what he calls a dramatic lyric.
[Sidenote: ACTION VS. THOUGHT]
There are at least two ways in which Browning’s work differs from that of other dramatists. When a trained playwright produces a drama his rule is, “Action, more action, and still more action.” Moreover, he stands aside in order to permit his characters to reveal their quality by their own speech or action. For example, Shakespeare’s plays are filled with movement, and he never tells you what he thinks of Portia or Rosalind or Macbeth, or what ought to become of them. He does not need to tell. But Browning often halts his story to inform you how this or that situation should be met, or what must come out of it. His theory is that it is not action but thought which determines human character; for a man may be doing what appears to be a brave or generous deed, yet be craven or selfish at heart; or he may be engaged in some apparently sinful proceeding in obedience to a motive that we would acclaim as noble if the whole truth were known “It is the soul and its thoughts that make the man,” says Browning, “little else is worthy of study.” So he calls most of his works soul studies. If we label them now dramas, or dramatic monologues, or dramatic lyrics (the three classifications of his works), we are to remember that Browning is the one dramatist who deals with thoughts or motives rather than with action.
[Illustration: THE PALAZZO REZZONICO BROWNING’S HOME IN VENICE]
WHAT TO READ. One should begin with the simplest of Browning’s works, and preferably with those in which he shows some regard for verbal melody. As romantic love is his favorite theme, it is perhaps well to begin with a few of the love lyrics “My Star,” “By the Fireside,” “Evelyn Hope,” and especially “The Last Ride Together”. To these may be added some of the songs that brighten the obscurity of his longer pieces, such as “I Send my Heart,” “Oh Love–No Love” and “There’s a Woman Like a Dewdrop”. Next in order are the ballads, “The Pied Piper,” “Herve Riel” and “How they Brought the Good News”; and then a few miscellaneous short poems, such as “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” “Prospice,” “The Boy and the Angel” and “Up at a Villa–Down in the City.”
[Sidenote: DRAMATIC MONOLOGUES]
The above poems are named not because they are particularly fine examples of their kind, but by way of introduction to a poet who is rather hard to read. When these are known, and are found not so obscure as we feared, then will be the time to attempt some of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Of these there is a large variety, portraying many different types of character, but we shall name only a few. “Andrea del Sarto” is a study of the great Italian painter, “the perfect painter,” whose love for a pretty but shallow woman was as a millstone about his neck. “My Last Duchess” is a powerfully drawn outline of a vain and selfish nobleman. “Abt Vogler” is a study of the soul of a musician. “Rabbi ben Ezra,” one of the most typical of Browning’s works, is the word of an old man who faces death, as he had faced life, with magnificent courage. “An Epistle” relates the strange experience of Karshish, an Arab physician, as recorded in a letter to his master Abib. Karshish meets Lazarus (him who was raised from the dead) and, regarding him as a patient, describes his symptoms,–such symptoms as a man might have who must live on earth after having looked on heaven. The physician’s half-scoffing words show how his habitual skepticism is shaken by a glimpse of the unseen world. He concludes, but his doubt is stronger than his conclusion, that Lazarus must be a madman:
“And thou must love me who have died for thee.” The madman saith He said so: it is strange!
Another poem belonging to the same group (published under the general title of _Men and Women_) is “Saul,” which finely illustrates the method that makes Browning different from other poets. He would select some familiar event, the brief record of which is preserved in history, and say, “Here we see merely the deed, the outward act or circumstance of life: now let us get acquainted with these men or women by showing that they thought and felt precisely as we do under similar conditions.” In “Saul” he reproduces the scene recorded in the sixteenth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, where the king is “troubled by an evil spirit” and the young David comes to play the harp before him. Saul is represented as the disillusioned, the despairing man who has lost all interest in life, and David as the embodiment of youthful enthusiasm. The poem is a remarkable portrayal of the ancient scene and characters; but it is something greater than that; it is a splendid song of the fullness and joy of a brave, forward-looking life inspired by noble ideals. It is also one of the best answers ever given to the question, Is life worth living? The length of the poem, however, and its many difficult or digressive passages are apt to repel the beginner unless he have the advantage of an abridged version.
[Sidenote: PIPPA PASSES]
Of the longer works of Browning, only _Pippa Passes_ can be recommended with any confidence that it will give pleasure to the reader. Other works, such as _The Ring and the Book_, [Footnote: _The Ring and the Book_ is remarkable for other things than its inordinate length. In it Browning tells how he found an old book containing the record of a murder trial in Rome,–a horrible story of a certain Count Guido, who in a jealous rage killed his beautiful young wife. That is the only story element of the poem, and it is told, with many irritating digressions, at the beginning. The rest of the work is devoted to “soul studies,” the subjects being nine different characters who rehearse the same story, each for his own justification. Thus, Guido gives his view of the matter, and Pompilia the wife gives hers. “Half Rome,” siding with Guido, is personified to tell one tale, and then “The Other Half” has its say. Final judgment rests with the Pope, an impressive figure, who upholds the decision of the civil judges. Altogether it is a remarkable piece of work; but it would have been more remarkable, better in every way, if fifteen thousand of its twenty thousand lines had been left in the inkpot.] are doubtless more famous; but reading them is like solving a puzzle: a few enjoy the matter, and therefore count it pleasure, but to the majority it is a task to be undertaken as mental discipline.
_Pippa_ is the story of a working girl, a silk weaver of Asolo, who has a precious holiday and goes forth to enjoy it, wishing she could share her happiness with others, especially with the great people of her town. But the great live in another world, she thinks, a world far removed from that of the poor little working girl; so she puts the wish out of her head, and goes on her way singing:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in his heaven–
All’s right with the world!
It happens that her songs come, in succession, to the ears of the four greatest people in Asolo at moments when they are facing a terrible crisis, when a straw may turn them one way or the other, to do evil or to do good. In each case the song and the pure heart of the singer turn the scale in the right direction; but Pippa knows nothing of her influence. She enjoys her holiday and goes to bed still happy, still singing, quite ignorant of the wonder she has accomplished.
[Illustration: PIAZZA OF SAN LORENZO, FLORENCE Where Browning bought the book in which he found the story of “The Ring and the Book”]
A mere story-teller would have brought Pippa and the rescued ones together, making an affecting scene with rewards, in the romantic manner; but Browning is content to depict a bit of ordinary human life, which is daily filled with deeds worthy to be written in a book of gold, but of which only the Recording Angel takes any notice.
A CRITICISM OF BROWNING. Comparatively few people appreciate the force, the daring, the vitality of Browning, and those who know him best are least inclined to formulate a favorable criticism. They know too well the faults of their hero, his whims, crotchets, digressions, garrulity; his disjointed ideas, like rich plums in a poor pudding; his ejaculatory style, as of a man of second thoughts; his wing-bound fancy, which hops around his subject like a grasshopper instead of soaring steadily over it like an eagle. Many of his lines are rather gritty:
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
and half his blank verse is neither prose nor poetry:
What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.) Be ruled by me and have a care o’ the crowd: This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze: I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins. Fie, what a roaring day we’ve had! Whose fault? Lorenzo in Lucina,–here’s a church!
Instead of criticism, therefore, his admirers offer this word of advice: Try to like Browning; in other words, try to understand him. He is not “easy”; he is not to be read for relaxation after dinner, but in the morning and in a straight-backed chair, with eyes clear and intellect at attention. If you so read him, you must soon discover that he has something of courage and cheer which no other poet can give you in such full measure. If you read nothing else, try at least “Rabbi ben Ezra,” and after the reading reflect that the optimism of this poem colors everything that the author wrote. For Browning differs from all other poets in this: that they have their moods of doubt or despondency, but he has no weary days or melancholy hours. They sing at times in the twilight, but Browning is the herald of the sunrise. Always and everywhere he represents “the will to live,” to live bravely, confidently here; then forward still with cheerful hearts to immortality:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made: Our times are in his hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half: trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
* * * * *
OTHER VICTORIAN POETS
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (1806-1861). Among the lesser poets of the age the most famous was Elizabeth Barrett, who eloped in romantic fashion with Browning in 1846. Her early volumes, written while she was an invalid, seem now a little feverish, but a few of her poems of childhood, such as “Hector” and “Little Ellie,” have still their admirers. Later she became interested in social problems, and reflected the passion of the age for reform in such poems as “The Cry of the Children,” a protest against child labor which once vied in interest with Hood’s famous “Song of the Shirt.” Also she wrote _Aurora Leigh_, a popular novel in verse, having for its subject a hero who was a social reformer. Then Miss Barrett married Robert Browning after a rather emotional and sentimental courtship, as reflected in certain extravagant pages of the Browning _Letters_.
[Illustration: ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING]
In her new-found happiness she produced her most enduring work, the _Sonnets from the Portuguese_ (1850). This is a collection of love songs, so personal and intimate that the author thought perhaps to disguise them by calling them “From the Portuguese.” In reality their source was no further distant than her own heart, and their hero was seen across the breakfast table every morning. They reflect Mrs. Browning’s love for her husband, and those who read them should read also Browning’s answer in “One Word More.” Some of the sonnets (“I Thought How Once” and “How Do I Love Thee,” for example) are very fine, and deserve their high place among love poems; but others, being too intimate, raise a question of taste in showing one’s heart throbs to the public. Some readers may question whether many of the _Sonnets_ and most of the _Letters_ had not better been left exclusively to those for whom they were intended.
MATTHEW ARNOLD (1822-1888). The work of this poet (a son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby, made famous by _Tom Brown’s Schooldays_) is in strong contrast to that of the Brownings, to the robust optimism of the one and to the emotionalism of the other. He was a man of two distinct moods: in his poetry he reflected the doubt or despair of those whose faith had been shaken by the alleged discoveries of science; in prose he became almost light-hearted as he bantered middle-class Englishmen for their old-fogy prejudices, or tried to awaken them to the joys of culture. In both moods he was coldly intellectual, appealing to the head rather than to the heart of his readers; and it is still a question whether his poetry or his criticism will be longest remembered.
[Sidenote: THE POET OF OXFORD]
Arnold is called the poet of Oxford, as Holmes is of Harvard, and those who know the beautiful old college town will best appreciate certain verses in which he reflects the quiet loveliness of a scene that has impressed so many students, century after century. To general readers one may safely recommend Arnold’s elegies written in memory of the poet Clough, such as “Thyrsis” and “The Scholar Gypsy”; certain poems reflecting the religious doubts of the age, such as “Dover Beach,” “Morality” and “The Future”; the love lyrics entitled “Switzerland”; and a few miscellaneous poems, such as “Resignation,” “The Forsaken Merman,” “The Last Word,” and “Geist’s Grave.”
To these some critics would add the long narrative poem “Sohrab and Rustum,” which is one of the models set before students of “college English.” The reasons for the choice are not quite obvious; for the story, which is taken from the Persian _Shah Namah_, or Book of Kings, is rather coldly told, and the blank verse is far from melodious.
In reading these poems of Arnold his own motives should be borne in mind. He tried to write on classic lines, repressing the emotions, holding to a severe, unimpassioned style; and he proceeded on the assumption that poetry is “a criticism of life.” It is not quite clear what he meant by his definition, but he was certainly on the wrong trail. Poetry is the natural language of man in moments of strong or deep feeling; it is the expression of life, of life at high tide or low tide; when it turns to criticism it loses its chief charm, as a flower loses its beauty and fragrance in the hands of a botanist. Some poets, however (Lucretius among the ancients, Pope among the moderns, for example), have taken a different view of the matter.
[Illustration: MATTHEW ARNOLD]
[Sidenote: THE LITERARY CRITIC]
Arnold’s chief prose works were written, curiously enough, after he was appointed professor of poetry at Oxford. There he proceeded, in a sincere but somewhat toplofty way to enlighten the British public on the subject of culture. For years he was a kind of dictator of literary taste, and he is still known as a master of criticism; but to examine his prose is to discover that it is notable for its even style and occasional good expressions, such as “sweetness and light,” rather than for its illuminating ideas.
For example, in _Literature and Dogma_ and other books in which Arnold attempted to solve the problems of the age, he was apt to make large theories from a small knowledge of his subject. So in his _Study of Celtic Literature_ (an interesting book, by the way) he wrote with surprising confidence for one who had no first-hand acquaintance with his material, and led his readers pleasantly astray in the flowery fields of Celtic poetry. Moreover, he had one favorite method of criticism, which was to take the bad lines of one poet and compare them with the good lines of another,–a method which would make Shakespeare a sorry figure if he happened to be on the wrong side of the comparison.
[Sidenote: WHAT TO READ]
In brief, Arnold is always a stimulating and at times a provoking critic; he stirs our thought, disturbs our pet prejudices, challenges our opposition; but he is not a very reliable guide in any field. What one should read of his prose depends largely on one’s personal taste. The essay _On Translating Homer_ is perhaps his most famous work, but few readers are really interested in the question of hexameters. _Culture and Anarchy_ is his best plea for a combination of the moral and intellectual or, as he calls them, the Hebrew and Greek elements in our human education. Among the best of the shorter works are “Emerson” in _Discourses in America_, and “Wordsworth,” “Byron” and “The Study of Poetry” in _Essays in Criticism_.
THE PRE-RAPHAELITES. In the middle of the nineteenth century, or in 1848 to be specific, a number of English poets and painters banded themselves together as a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. [Footnote: The name was used earlier by some German artists, who worked together in Rome with the purpose of restoring art to the medieval simplicity and purity which, as was alleged, it possessed before the time of the Italian painter Raphael. The most famous artists of the English brotherhood were John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.] They aimed to make all art more simple, sincere, religious, and to restore “the sense of wonder, reverence and awe” which, they believed, had been lost since medieval times. Their sincerity was unquestioned; their influence, though small, was almost wholly good; but unfortunately they were, as Morris said, like men born out of due season. They lived too much apart from their own age and from the great stream of common life out of which superior art proceeds. For there was never a great book or a great picture that was not in the best sense representative, that did not draw its greatness from the common ideals of the age in which it was produced.
[Illustration: THE MANOR HOUSE OF WILLIAM MORRIS]
The first poet among the Pre-Raphaelites was Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), the son of an exiled Italian writer. Like others of the group he was both painter and poet, and seemed to be always trying to put into his verse the rich coloring which belonged on canvas. Perhaps the most romantic episode of his life was, that upon the death of his wife (the beautiful model, Lizzie Siddal, who appears in Millais’ picture “Ophelia”) he buried his poetry with her. After some years his friends persuaded him that his poems belonged to the living, and he exhumed and published them (_Poems_, 1870). His most notable volume, _Ballads and Sonnets_, appeared eleven years later. The ballads are nearly all weird, uncanny, but with something in them of the witchery of Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.” The sonnets under the general title of “The House of Life” are devoted to the poet’s lost love, and rank with Mrs. Browning’s _From the Portuguese_.
[Illustration: WILLIAM MORRIS
From a photograph by Walker and Cockerell]
William Morris (1834-1896) has been called by his admirers the most Homeric of English poets. The phrase was probably applied to him because of his _Sigurd the Volsung_, in which he uses the material of an old Icelandic saga. There is a captivating vigor and swing in this poem, but it lacks the poetic imagination of an earlier work, _The Defence of Guenevere,_ in which Morris retells in a new way some of the fading medieval romances. His best-known work in poetry [Footnote: Some readers will be more interested in Morris’s prose romances, _The House of the Wolfings_, _The Roots of the Mountains_ and _The Story of the Glittering Plain_] is _The Earthly Paradise_, a collection of twenty-four stories strung together on a plan somewhat resembling that of the _Canterbury Tales_. A band of mariners are cast away on an island inhabited by a superior race of men, and to while away the time the seamen and their hosts exchange stories. Some of these are from classic sources, others from Norse legends or hero tales. The stories are gracefully told, in very good verse; but in reading them one has the impression that something essential is lacking, some touch, it may be, of present life and reality. For the island is but another Cloudland, and the characters are shadowy creatures having souls but no bodies; or else, as some may find, having the appearance of bodies and no souls whatever. Indeed, in reading the greater part of Pre-Raphaelite literature, one is reminded of Morris’s estimate of himself, in the Prelude to _The Earthly Paradise_:
Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time, Why should I strive to set the crooked straight? Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme Beats with light wing against the ivory gate, Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay, Lulled by the singer of an empty day.
ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE (1837-1909). This voluminous writer, born in the year of Victoria’s accession, is yet so close to our own day that it is difficult to think of him as part of an age that is gone. As a poet he was a master of verbal melody, and had such a command of verse forms that he won his title of “inventor of harmonies.” As a critic he showed a wide knowledge of English and French literature, a discriminating taste, and an enthusiasm which bubbled over in eulogy of those whom he liked, and which emptied vials of wrath upon Byron, Carlyle and others who fell under his displeasure. His criticisms are written in an extravagant, almost a torrential, style; at times his prose falls into a chanting rhythm so attractive in itself as to make us overlook the fact that the praise and censure which he dispenses with prodigal liberality are too personal to be quite trustworthy.
[Sidenote: HIS POETRY]
We are still too near Swinburne to judge him accurately, and his place in the long history of English poetry is yet to be determined. We note here only two characteristics which may or may not be evident to other readers. In the first place, with his marvelous command of meter and melody, Swinburne has a fatal fluency of speech which tends to bury his thought in a mass of jingling verbiage. As we read we seem to hear the question, “What readest thou, Hamlet?” and again the Dane makes answer, “Words, words, words.” Again, like the Pre-Raphaelites with whom he was at one time associated, Swinburne lived too much apart from the tide of common life. He wrote for the chosen few, and in the mass of his verse one must search long for a passage of which one may say, This goes home to the hearts of men, and abides there in the treasure-house of all good poetry.
Among the longer works of Swinburne his masterpiece is the lyrical drama _Atalanta in Calydon_. If one would merely sample the flavor of the poet, such minor works as “Itylus” and the fine sea pieces, “Off Shore,” “By the North Sea” and “A Forsaken Garden” may be recommended. Nor should we overlook what, to many, is Swinburne’s best quality; namely, his love of children, as reflected in such poems as “The Salt of the Earth” and “A Child’s Laughter.” Among the best of his prose works are his _William Blake_, _Essays and Studies_, _Miscellanies_ and _Studies in Prose and Verse_.
SONGS IN MANY KEYS. In calling attention to the above-named poets, we have merely indicated a few who seem to be chief; but the judgment is a personal one, and subject to challenge. The American critic Stedman, in his _Victorian Anthology_, recognizes two hundred and fifty singers; of these eighty are represented by five or more poems; and of the eighty a few are given higher places than those we have selected as typical. There are many readers who prefer the _Goblin Market_ of Christina Rossetti to anything produced by her gifted brother, who place Jean Ingelow above Elizabeth Barrett, who find more pleasure in Edwin Arnold’s _Light of Asia_ than in all the poems of Matthew Arnold, and who cannot be interested in even the best of Pre-Raphaelite verse because of its unreality. Many men, many minds! Time has not yet recorded its verdict on the Victorians, and until there is some settled criticism which shall express the judgment of several generations of men, the best plan for the beginner is to make acquaintance with all the minor poets in an anthology or book of selections. It may even be a mistake to call any of these poets minor; for he who has written one song that lives in the hearts of men has produced a work more enduring than the pyramids.
* * * * *
II. THE VICTORIAN NOVELISTS
CHARLES DICKENS (1812-1870)
[Illustration: CHARLES DICKENS]
Among the Victorian novelists were two men who were frequent rivals in the race for fame and fortune. Thackeray, well born and well bred, with artistic tastes and literary culture, looked doubtfully at the bustling life around him, found his inspiration in a past age, and tried to uphold the best traditions of English literature. Dickens, with little education and less interest in literary culture, looked with joy upon the struggle for democracy, and with an observation that was almost microscopic saw all its picturesque details of speech and character and incident. He was the eye of the mighty Victorian age, as Tennyson was its ear, and Browning its psychologist, and Carlyle its chronic grumbler.
LIFE. In the childhood of Dickens one may see a forecast of his entire career. His father, a good-natured but shiftless man (caricatured as Mr. Micawber in _David Copperfield_), was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, at Portsmouth. There Dickens was born in 1812. The father’s salary was L80 per year, enough at that time to warrant living in middle-class comfort rather than in the poverty of the lower classes, with whom Dickens is commonly associated. The mother was a sentimental woman, whom Dickens, with questionable taste, has caricatured as Mrs. Micawber and again as Mrs. Nickleby. Both parents were somewhat neglectful of their children, and uncommonly fond of creature comforts, especially of good dinners and a bowl of punch. Though there is nothing in such a family to explain Dickens’s character, there is much to throw light on the characters that appear in his novels.
[Sidenote: THE STAGE]
The boy himself was far from robust. Having no taste for sports, he amused himself by reading romances or by listening to his nurse’s tales,–beautiful tales, he thought, which “almost scared him into fits.” His elfish fancy in childhood is probably reflected in Pip, of _Great Expectations_. He had a strong dramatic instinct to act a story, or sing a song, or imitate a neighbor’s speech, and the father used to amuse his friends by putting little Charles on a chair and encouraging him to mimicry,–a dangerous proceeding, though it happened to turn out well in the case of Dickens.
This stagey tendency increased as the boy grew older. He had a passion for private theatricals, and when he wrote a good story was not satisfied till he had read it in public. When _Pickwick_ appeared (1837) the young man, till then an unknown reporter, was brought before an immense audience which included a large part of England and America. Thereafter he was never satisfied unless he was in the public eye; his career was a succession of theatrical incidents, of big successes, big lecture tours, big audiences,–always the footlights, till he lay at last between the pale wax tapers. But we are far ahead of our story.
[Sidenote: THE LONDON STREETS]
When Dickens was nine years old his family moved to London. There the father fell into debt, and by the brutal laws of the period was thrown into prison. The boy went to work in the cellar of a blacking factory, and there began that intimate acquaintance with lowly characters which he used later to such advantage. He has described his bitter experience so often (in _David Copperfield_ for instance) that the biographer may well pass over it. We note only this significant fact: that wherever Dickens went he had an instinct for exploration like that of a farm dog, which will not rest in a place till he has first examined all the neighborhood, putting his nose into every likely or unlikely spot that may shelter friend or enemy. So Dickens used his spare hours in roaming the byways of London by night, so he gained his marvelous knowledge of that foreign land called The Street, with its flitting life of gamins and nondescripts, through which we pass daily as through an unknown country.
[Sidenote: THE SCRAMBLE FOR PLACE]
A small inheritance brought the father from prison, the family was again united, and for two years the boy attended the academy which he has held up to the laughter and scorn of two continents. There the genius of Dickens seemed suddenly to awaken. He studied little, being given to pranks and theatricals, but he discovered within him an immense ambition, an imperious will to win a place and a name in the great world, and a hopeful temper that must carry him over or under all obstacles.
[Illustration: GADSHILL PLACE, NEAR ROCHESTER The last residence of Dickens]
No sooner was his discovery made than he left school and entered a law office, where he picked up enough knowledge to make court practices forever ridiculous, in _Bleak House_ and other stories. He studied shorthand and quickly mastered it; then undertook to report parliamentary speeches (a good training in oratory) and presently began a prosperous career as a reporter. This had two advantages; it developed his natural taste for odd people and picturesque incidents, and it brought him close to the great reading public. To please that public, to humor its whims and prejudices, its love for fun and tears and sentimentality, was thereafter the ruling motive in Dickens’s life.
[Sidenote: LITERARY VENTURES]
His first literary success came with some short stories contributed to the magazines, which appeared in book form as _Sketches by Boz_ (1835). A publisher marked these sketches, engaged Dickens to write the text or letterpress for some comic pictures, and the result was _Pickwick_, which took England and America by storm. Then followed _Oliver Twist_, _Nicholas Nickleby_, _Old Curiosity Shop_,–a flood of works that made readers rub their eyes, wondering if such a fountain of laughter and tears were inexhaustible.
There is little else to record except this: that from the time of his first triumph Dickens held his place as the most popular writer in English. With his novels he was not satisfied, but wrote a history of England, and edited various popular magazines, such as _Household Words_. Also he gave public readings, reveling in the applause, the lionizing, which greeted him wherever he went. He earned much money; he bought the place “Gadshill,” near Rochester, which he had coveted since childhood; but he was a free spender, and his great income was less than his fancied need. To increase his revenue he “toured” the States in a series of readings from his own works, and capitalized his experience in _American Notes_ and parts of _Martin Chuzzlewit_.
A question of taste must arise even now in connection with these works. Dickens had gone to a foreign country for just two things, money and applause; he received both in full measure; then he bit the friendly hand which had given him what he wanted. [Footnote: The chief source of Dickens’s irritation was the money loss resulting from the “pirating” of his stories. There was no international copyright in those days; the works of any popular writer were freely appropriated by foreign publishers. This custom was wrong, undoubtedly, but it had been in use for centuries. Scott’s novels had been pirated the same way; and until Cooper got to windward of the pirates (by arranging for foreign copyrights) his work was stolen freely in England and on the Continent. But Dickens saw only his own grievance, and even at public dinners was apt to make his hosts uncomfortable by proclaiming his rights or denouncing their moral standards. Moreover, he had a vast conceit of himself, and, like most visitors of a week, thought he knew America like a book. It was as if he looked once at the welter cast ashore by mighty Lake Superior in a storm, and said, “What a dirty sea!”] Thackeray, who followed him to America, had a finer sense of the laws of hospitality and good breeding.
[Sidenote: THE PRICE OF POPULARITY]
In 1844 Dickens resolved to make both ends meet, and carried out his resolve with promptness and precision. To decrease expenses he went to the Continent, and lived there, hungry for the footlights, till a series of stories ending with _Dombey and Son_ put his finances on a secure basis. Then he returned to London, wrote more novels, and saved a fortune for his descendants, who promptly spent it. Evidently it was a family trait. More and more he lived on his nerves, grew imperious, exacting, till he separated from his wife and made wreck of domestic happiness. The self-esteem of which he made comedy in his novels was for him a tragedy. Also he resumed the public readings, with their false glory and nervous wear and tear, which finally brought him to the grave.
[Illustration: DICKEN’S BIRTHPLACE, LANDPORT, PORTSEA]
He died, worn out by his own exertions, in 1870. He had steadily refused titles and decorations, but a grateful nation laid his body to rest in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. It is doubtful whether he would have accepted this honor, which was forced upon him, for he had declared proudly that by his works alone he would live in the memory of his countrymen.
WORKS OF DICKENS. In the early stories of Dickens is a promise of all the rest. His first work was called _Sketches by Boz_, and “Boz” was invented by some little girl (was it in _The Vicar of Wakefield?_) who could not say “Moses”; also it was a pet name for a small brother of Dickens. There was, therefore, something childlike in this first title, and childhood was to enter very largely into the novelist’s work. He could hardly finish a story without bringing a child into it; not an ordinary child, to make us smile, but a wistful or pathetic child whose sorrows, since we cannot help them, are apt to make our hearts ache.
[Sidenote: THE PATHETIC ELEMENT]
Dickens is charged with exaggerating the woes of his children, and the charge is true; but he had a very human reason for his method. In the first place, the pathetic quality of his children is due to this simple fact, that they bear the burden and the care of age. And burdens which men or women accept for themselves without complaint seem all wrong, and are wrong, when laid upon a child’s innocent shoulders. Again, Dickens sought to show us our error in thinking, as most grown-ups do, that childish troubles are of small account. So they are, to us; but to the child they are desperately real. Later in life we learn that troubles are not permanent, and so give them their proper place; but in childhood a trouble is the whole world; and a very hopeless world it is while it lasts. Dickens knew and loved children, as he knew the public whom he made to cry with his Little Nell and Tiny Tim; and he had discovered that tears are the key to many a heart at which reason knocks in vain.
[Sidenote: PICKWICKIAN HUMOR]
The second work, _Pickwick,_ written in a harum-scarum way, is even more typical of Dickens in its spirit of fun and laughter. He had been engaged, as we have noted, to furnish a text for some comic drawings, thus reversing the usual order of illustration. The pictures were intended to poke fun at a club of sportsmen; and Dickens, who knew nothing of sport, bravely set out with Mr. Winkle on his rook-shooting. Then, while the story was appearing in monthly numbers, the illustrator committed suicide; Dickens was left with Mr. Pickwick on his hands, and that innocent old gentleman promptly ran away with the author. Not being in the least adventurous, Mr. Pickwick was precisely the person for whom adventures were lying in wait; but with his chivalrous heart within him, and Sam Weller on guard outside, he was not to be trifled with by cabman or constable. So these two took to the open road, and to the inns where punch, good cheer and the unexpected were awaiting them. Never was such another book! It is not a novel; it is a medley of fun and drollery resulting from high animal spirits.
[Sidenote: THE MOTIVE OF HORROR]
In his next novel, _Oliver Twist_, the author makes a new departure by using the motive of horror. One of his heroes is an unfortunate child, but when our sympathies for the little fellow are stretched to the point of tears, Dickens turns over a page and relieves us by Pickwickian laughter. Also he has his usual medley of picturesque characters and incidents, but the shadow of Fagin is over them all. One cannot go into any house in the book, and lock the door and draw the shades, without feeling that somewhere in the outer darkness this horrible creature is prowling. The horror which Fagin inspires is never morbid; for Dickens with his healthy spirit could not err in this direction. It is a boyish, melodramatic horror, such as immature minds seek in “movies,” dime novels, secret societies, detective stories and “thrillers” at the circus.
In the fourth work, _Nicholas Nickleby_, Dickens shows that he is nearing the limit of his invention so far as plot is concerned. In this novel he seems to rest a bit by writing an old-fashioned romance, with its hero and villain and moral ending. But if you study this or any subsequent work of Dickens, you are apt to find the four elements already noted; namely, an unfortunate child, humorous interludes, a grotesque or horrible creature who serves as a foil to virtue or innocence, and a medley of characters good or bad that might be transferred without change to any other story. The most interesting thing about Dickens’s men and women is that they are human enough to make themselves at home anywhere.
WHAT TO READ. Whether one wants to study the method of Dickens or to enjoy his works, there is hardly a better plan for the beginner than to read in succession _Pickwick_, _Oliver Twist_ and _Nicholas Nickleby_, which are as the seed plot out of which grow all his stories. For the rest, the reader must follow his own fancy. If one must choose a single work, perhaps _Copperfield_ is the most typical. “Of all my books,” said Dickens, “I like this the best; like many parents I have my favorite child, and his name is David Copperfield.” Some of the heroines of this book are rather stagey, but the Peggotys, Betsy Trotwood, Mrs. Gummidge, the Micawbers,–all these are unrivaled. “There is no writing against such power,” said Thackeray, who was himself writing _Pendennis_ while Dickens was at work on his masterpiece.
[Illustration: YARD OF REINDEER INN, DANBURY The scene of the races, in _Old Curiosity Shop_]
[Sidenote: TALE OF TWO CITIES]
Opinion is divided on the matter of _A Tale of Two Cities_. Some critics regard it as the finest of Dickens’s work, revealing as it does his powers of description and of character-drawing without his usual exaggeration. Other critics, who regard the exaggeration of Dickens as his most characteristic quality, see in _Two Cities_ only an evidence of his weakening power. It has perhaps this advantage over other works of the author, that of them we remember only the extraordinary scenes or characters, while the entire story of _Two Cities_ remains with us as a finished and impressive thing. But there is also this disadvantage, that the story ends and is done with, while _Pickwick_ goes on forever. We may lose sight of the heroes, but we have the conviction, as Chesterton says, that they are still on the road of adventure, that Mr. Pickwick is somewhere drinking punch or making a speech, and that Sam Weller may step out from behind the next stable and ask with a droll wink what we are up to now.
It is hardly necessary to add that our reading of Dickens must not end until we are familiar with some of his Yuletide stories, in which he gladly followed the lead of Washington Irving. The best of all his short stories is _A Christmas Carol_, which one must read but not criticize. At best it is a farce, but a glorious, care-lifting, heart-warming farce. Would there were more of the same kind!
A CRITICISM OF DICKENS. The first quality of Dickens is his extravagant humor. This was due to the fact that he was alive, so thoroughly, consciously alive that his vitality overflowed like a spring. Here, in a word, is the secret of that bubbling spirit of prodigality which occasions the criticism that Dickens produced not characters but caricatures.
[Sidenote: HIS EXAGGERATION]
The criticism is true; but it proclaims the strength of the novelist rather than his weakness. Indeed, it is in the very exaggeration of Dickens that his astonishing creative power is most clearly manifest. There is something primal, stupendous, in his grotesque characters which reminds us of the uncouth monsters that nature created in her sportive moods. Some readers, meeting with Bunsby, are reminded of a walrus; and who ever saw a walrus without thinking of the creature as nature’s Bunsby? So with Quilp, Toots, Squeers, Pumblechook; so with giraffes, baboons, dodoes, dromedaries,–all are freaks from the asthetic viewpoint, but think of the overflowing energy implied in creating them!
The same sense of prodigality characterized Dickens even in his sober moods, when he portrayed hundreds of human characters, and not a dead or dull person among them. To be sure they are all exaggerated; they weep too copiously, eat or drink too intemperately, laugh too uproariously for normal men; but to criticize their superabundant vitality is to criticize Beowulf or Ulysses or Hiawatha; nay, it is to criticize life itself, which at high tide is wont to overflow in heroics or absurdity. The exuberance of Pickwick, Micawber, Pecksniff, Sairey Gamp, Sam Weller and a host of others is perhaps the most normal thing about them; it is as the rattling of a safety valve, which speaks not of stagnant water but of a full head of steam. For Dickens deals with life, and you can exaggerate life as much as you please, since there is no end to either its wisdom or foolishness. Nothing but a question can be added to the silent simplicity of death.
[Illustration: THE GATEHOUSE AT ROCHESTER, NEAR DICKENS’S HOME]
[Sidenote: HIS MOTIVE AND METHOD]
Aside from his purpose of portraying life as he saw it, in all its strange complexity, Dickens had a twofold object in writing. He was a radical democrat, and he aimed to show the immense hopefulness and compassion of Democracy on its upward way to liberty. He was also a reformer, with a profound respect for the poor, but no respect whatever for ancient laws or institutions that stood in the way of justice. The influence of his novels in establishing better schools, prisons, workhouses, is beyond measure; but we are not so much interested in his reforms as in his method, which was unique. He aimed to make men understand the oppressed, and to make a laughing stock of the oppressors; and he succeeded as no other had ever done in making literature a power in the land. Thus, the man or the law that stands defiantly against public opinion is beaten the moment you make that man or that law look like a joke; and Dickens made a huge joke of the parish beadle (as Mr. Bumble) and of many another meddlesome British institution. Moreover, he was master of this paradox: that to cure misery you must meet it with a merry heart,–this is on the principle that what the poor need is not charity but comradeship. By showing that humble folk might be as poor as the Cratchits and yet have the medicine of mirth, the divine gift of laughter, he made men rejoice with the poor even while they relieved the poverty.
[Sidenote: HIS FAULTS]
As for the shortcomings of Dickens, they are so apparent that he who runs may read. We may say of him, as of Shakespeare, that his taste is questionable, that he is too fond of a mere show, that his style is often melodramatic, that there is hardly a fault in the whole critical category of which he is not habitually guilty. But we may say of him also that he is never petty or mean or morbid or unclean; and he could not be dull if he tried. His faults, if you analyze them, spring from precisely the same source as his virtues; that is, from his abundant vitality, from his excess of life and animal spirits. So we pardon, nay, we rejoice over him as over a boy who must throw a handspring or raise a _whillilew_ when he breaks loose from school. For Dickens, when he started his triumphal progress with _Pickwick_, had a glorious sense of taking his cue from life and of breaking loose from literary traditions. In comparison with Ruskin or Thackeray he is not a good writer, but something more–a splendidly great writer. If you would limit or define his greatness, try first to marshal his array of characters, characters so vital and human that we can hardly think of them as fictitious or imaginary creatures; then remember the millions of men and women to whom he has given pure and lasting pleasure.
* * * * *
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY (1811-1863)
[Illustration: WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY From a drawing by Samuel Laurence]
In fiction Thackeray stands to Dickens as Hamilton to Jefferson in the field of politics. The radical difference between the novelists is exemplified in their attitude toward the public. Thackeray, who lived among the privileged classes, spoke of “this great stupid public,” and thought that the only way to get a hearing from the common people was to “take them by the ears.” He was a true Hamiltonian. Dickens had an immense sympathy for the common people, a profound respect for their elemental virtues; and in writing for them he was, as it were, the Jefferson, the triumphant democrat of English letters. Thackeray was intellectual; he looked at men with critical eyes, and was a realist and a pessimist. Dickens was emotional; he looked at men with kindled imagination, judged them by the dreams they cherished in their hearts, and was a romanticist and an optimist. Both men were humorists; but where Thackeray was delicately satirical, causing us a momentary smile, Dickens was broadly comic or farcical, winning us by hearty laughter.
LIFE. To one who has been trained, like Dickens, in the school of hardship it seems the most natural thing in the world to pass over into a state of affluence. It is another matter to fare sumptuously every day till luxurious habits are formed, and then be cast suddenly on one’s own resources, face to face with the unexpected monster of bread and butter. This was Thackeray’s experience, and it colored all his work.
A second important matter is that Thackeray had a great tenderness for children, a longing for home and homely comforts; but as a child he was sent far from his home in India, and was thrown among young barbarians in various schools, one of which, the “Charterhouse,” was called the “Slaughterhouse” in the boy’s letters to his mother. “There are three hundred and seventy boys in this school,” wrote; “I wish there were only three hundred and sixty-nine!” He married for love, and with great joy began housekeeping; then a terrible accident happened, his wife was taken to an insane asylum, and for the rest of his life Thackeray was a wanderer amid the empty splendors of clubs and hotels.
These two experiences did not break Thackeray, but they bowed him. They help to explain the languor, the melancholy, the gentle pessimism, as if life had no more sunrises, of which we are vaguely conscious in reading _The Virginians_ or _The Newcomes_.
[Sidenote: EARLY YEARS]
Thackeray was born (1811) in Calcutta, of a family of English “nabobs” who had accumulated wealth and influence as factors or civil officers. At the death of his father, who was a judge in Bengal, the child was sent to England to be educated. Here is a significant incident of the journey:
“Our ship touched at an island, where my black servant took me a walk over rocks and hills till we passed a garden, where we saw a man walking. ‘That is Bonaparte,’ said the black; ‘he eats three sheep every day, and all the children he can lay hands on.'”
Napoleon was then safely imprisoned at St. Helena; but his shadow, as of a terrible ogre, was still dark over Europe.
Thackeray’s education, at the Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, was neither a happy nor a profitable experience, as we judge from his unflattering picture of English school life in _Pendennis_. He had a strongly artistic bent, and after leaving college studied art in Germany and France. Presently he lost his fortune by gambling and bad investments, and was confronted by the necessity of earning his living. He tried the law, but gave it up because, as he said, it had no soul. He tried illustrating, having a small talent for comic drawings, and sought various civil appointments in vain. As a last resource he turned to the magazines, wrote satires, sketches of travel, burlesques of popular novelists, and, fighting all the time against his habit of idleness, slowly but surely won his way.
[Sidenote: LITERARY LABOR]
His first notable work, _Vanity Fair_ (1847), won a few readers’ and the critics’ judgment that it was “a book written by a gentleman for gentlemen” was the foundation of Thackeray’s reputation as a writer for the upper classes. Other notable novels followed, _Henry Esmond_, _Pendennis_, _The Newcomes_, _The Virginians_, and two series of literary and historical essays called _English Humorists_ and _The Four Georges_. The latter were delivered as lectures in a successful tour of England and America. Needless to say, Thackeray hated lecturing and publicity; he was driven to his “dollar-hunting” by necessity.
In 1860 his fame was firmly established, and he won his first financial success by taking charge of the _Cornhill Magazine_, which prospered greatly in his hands. He did not long enjoy his new-found comfort, for he died in 1863. His early sketches had been satirical in spirit, his first novels largely so; but his last novels and his Cornhill essays were written in a different spirit,–not kinder, for Thackeray’s heart was always right, but broader, wiser, more patient of human nature, and more hopeful.
In view of these later works some critics declare that Thackeray’s best novel was never written. His stories were produced not joyously but laboriously, to earn his living; and when leisure came at last, then came death also, and the work was over.
WORKS OF THACKERAY. It would be flying in the face of all the critics to suggest that the beginner might do well to postpone the famous novels of Thackeray, and to meet the author at his best, or cheerfulest, in such forgotten works as the _Book of Ballads_ and _The Rose and the Ring_. The latter is a kind of fairy story, with a poor little good princess, a rich little bad princess, a witch of a godmother, and such villainous characters as Hedzoff and Gruffanuff. It was written for some children whom Thackeray loved, and is almost the only book of his which leaves the impression that the author found any real pleasure in writing it.
[Sidenote: HENRY ESMOND]
If one must begin with a novel, then _Henry Esmond_ (1852) is the book. This is an historical novel; the scene is laid in the eighteenth century, during the reign of Queen Anne; and it differs from most other historical novels in this important respect: the author knows his ground thoroughly, is familiar not only with political events but with the thoughts, ideals, books, even the literary style of the age which he describes. The hero of the novel, Colonel Esmond, is represented as telling his own story; he speaks as a gentleman spoke in those days, telling us about the politicians, soldiers, ladies and literary men of his time, with frank exposure of their manners or morals. As a realistic portrayal of an age gone by, not only of its thoughts but of the very language in which those thoughts were expressed, _Esmond_ is the most remarkable novel of its kind in our language. It is a prodigy of realism, and it is written in a charming prose style.
One must add frankly that _Esmond_ is not an inspiring work, that the atmosphere is gloomy, and the plot a disappointment. The hero, after ten years of devotion to a woman, ends his romance by happily marrying with her mother. Any reader could have told him that this is what he ought to have done, or tried to do, in the beginning; but Thackeray’s heroes will never take the reader’s good advice. In this respect they are quite human.
[Sidenote: VANITY FAIR]
The two social satires of Thackeray are _Vanity Fair_ (1847) and _The History of Arthur Pendennis_ (1849). The former takes its title from that fair described in _Pilgrim’s Progress_, where all sorts of cheats are exposed for sale; and Thackeray makes his novel a moralizing exposition of the shams of society. The slight action of the story revolves about two unlovely heroines, the unprincipled Becky Sharp and the spineless Amelia. We call them both unlovely, though Thackeray tries hard to make us admire his tearful Amelia and to detest his more interesting Becky. Meeting these two contrasting characters is a variety of fools and snobs, mostly well-drawn, all carefully analyzed to show the weakness or villainy that is in them.
One interesting but unnoticed thing about these minor characters is that they all have their life-size prototypes in the novels of Dickens. Thackeray’s characters, as he explains in his preface, are “mere puppets,” who must move when he pulls the strings. Dickens does not have to explain that his characters are men and women who do very much as they please. That is, perhaps, the chief difference between the two novelists.
_Pendennis_ is a more readable novel than _Vanity Fair_ in this respect, that its interest centers in one character rather than in a variety of knaves or fools. Thackeray takes a youthful hero, follows him through school and later life, and shows the steady degeneration of a man who is governed not by vicious but by selfish impulses. From beginning to end _Pendennis_ is a penetrating ethical study (like George Eliot’s _Romola_), and the story is often interrupted while we listen to the author’s moralizing. To some readers this is an offense; to others it is a pleasure, since it makes them better acquainted with the mind and heart of Thackeray, the gentlest of Victorian moralists.
The last notable works of Thackeray are like afterthoughts. _The Virginians_ continues the story of Colonel Esmond, and _The Newcomes_ recounts the later fortunes of Arthur Pendennis. _The Virginians_ has two or three splendid scenes, and some critics regard _The Newcomes_ as the finest expression of the author’s genius; but both works, which appeared in the leisurely form of monthly instalments, are too languid in action for sustained interest. We grow acquainted with certain characters, and are heartily glad when they make their exit; perhaps someone else will come, some adventurer from the road or the inn, to relieve the dullness. The door opens, and in comes the bore again to take another leave. That is realism, undoubtedly; and Laura Pendennis is as realistic as the mumps, which one may catch a second time. The atmosphere of both novels–indeed, of all Thackeray’s greater works, with the exception of _English Humorists_ and _The Four Georges_–is rather depressing. One gets the impression that life among “the quality” is a dreary experience, hardly worth the effort of living.
[Illustration: CHARTERHOUSE SCHOOL
After a rare engraving by J. Rogers from the drawing made by Thomas H. Shepherd at the time Thackeray was a student there]
THACKERAY: A CRITICISM. It is significant that Thackeray’s first work appeared in a college leaflet called “The Snob,” and that it showed a talent for satire. In his earlier stories he plainly followed his natural bent, for his _Vanity Fair_, _Barry Lyndon_ (a story of a scoundrelly adventurer) and several minor works are all satires on the general snobbery of society. This tendency of the author reached a climax in 1848, when he wrote _The Book of Snobs._ It is still an entertaining book, witty, and with a kind of merciless fairness about its cruel passages; yet some readers will remember what the author himself said later, that he was something of a snob himself to write such a book. The chief trouble with the half of his work is that he was so obsessed with the idea of snobbery that he did injustice to humanity, or rather to his countrymen; for Thackeray was very English, and interest in his characters depends largely on familiarity with the life he describes. His pictures of English servants, for instance, are wonderfully deft, though one might wish that he had drawn them with a more sympathetic pencil.
[Sidenote: THE PERSONAL ELEMENT]
In the later part of his life the essential kindness of the man came to the surface, but still was he hampered by his experience and his philosophy. His experience was that life is too big to be grasped, too mysterious to be understood; therefore he faced life doubtfully, with a mixture of timidity and respect, as in _Henry Esmond_. His philosophy was that every person is at heart an egoist, is selfish in spite of himself; therefore is every man or woman unhappy, because selfishness is the eternal enemy of happiness. This is the lesson written large in _Pendennis_. He lived in the small world of his own class, while the great world of Dickens–the world of the common people, with their sympathy, their eternal hopefulness, their enjoyment of whatever good they find in life–passed unnoticed outside his club windows. He conceived it to be the business of a novelist to view the world with his own eyes, to describe it as he saw it; and it was not his fault that his world was a small one. Fate was answerable for that. So far as he went, Thackeray did his work admirably, portraying the few virtues and the many shams of his set with candor and sincerity. Though he used satire freely (and satire is a two-edged weapon), his object was never malicious or vindictive but corrective; he aimed to win or drive men to virtue by exposing the native ugliness of vice.
The result of his effort may be summed up as follows: Thackeray is a novelist for the few who can enjoy his accurate but petty views of society, and his cultivated prose style. He is not very cheerful; he does not seek the blue flower that grows in every field, or the gold that is at every rainbow’s end, or the romance that hides in every human heart whether of rich or poor. Therefore are the young not conspicuous among his followers.
* * * * *
MARY ANN EVANS, “GEORGE ELIOT” (1819-1880)
More than other Victorian story-tellers George Eliot regarded her work with great seriousness as a means of public instruction. Her purpose was to show that human life is effective only as it follows its sense of duty, and that society is as much in need of the moral law as of daily bread. Other novelists moralized more or less, Thackeray especially; but George Eliot made the teaching of morality her chief business.
LIFE. In the work as in the face of George Eliot there is a certain masculine quality which is apt to mislead one who reads _Adam Bede_ or studies a portrait of the author. Even those who knew her well, and who tried to express the charm of her personality, seem to have overlooked the fact that they were describing a woman. For example, a friend wrote:
“Everything in her aspect and presence was in keeping with the bent of her soul. The deeply lined face, the too marked and massive features, were united with an air of delicate refinement, which in one way was the more impressive, because it seemed to proceed so entirely from within. Nay, the inward beauty would sometimes quite transform the outward harshness; there would be moments when the thin hands that entwined themselves in their eagerness, the earnest figure that bowed forward to speak and hear, the deep gaze moving from one face to another with a grave appeal,–all these seemed the transparent symbols that showed the presence of a wise, benignant soul.”
[Sidenote: A CLINGING VINE]
That is very good, but somehow it is not feminine. So the impression has gone forth that George Eliot was a “strong-minded” woman; but that is far from the truth. One might emphasize her affectionate nature, her timidity, her lack of confidence in her own judgment; but the essence of the matter is this, that so dependent was she on masculine support that she was always idealizing some man, and looking up to him as a superior being. In short, she was one of “the clinging kind.” Though some may regard this as traditional nonsense, it was nevertheless the most characteristic quality of the woman with whom we are dealing.
[Sidenote: HER GIRLHOOD]
Mary Ann Evans, or Marian as she was called, was born (1819) and spent her childhood in Shakespeare’s county of Warwickshire. Her father (whose portrait she has faintly drawn in the characters of Adam Bede and Caleb Garth) was a strong, quiet man, a farmer and land agent, who made a companion of his daughter rather than of his son, the two being described more or less faithfully in the characters of Maggie and Tom Tulliver in _The Mill on the Floss_. At twelve years of age she was sent to a boarding school; at fifteen her mother died, and she was brought home to manage her father’s house. The rest of her education–which included music and a reading knowledge of German, Italian and Greek–was obtained by solitary study at intervals of rest from domestic work. That the intervals were neither long nor frequent may be inferred from the fact that her work included not only her father’s accounts and the thousand duties of housekeeping but also the managing of a poultry yard, the making of butter, and other farm or dairy matters which at that time were left wholly to women.
[Illustration: GEORGE ELIOT
From a portrait painted in Rome by M. d’Albert Durade, and now in Geneva]
The first marked change in her life came at the age of twenty-two, when the household removed to Coventry, and Miss Evans was there brought in contact with the family of a wealthy ribbon-maker named Bray. He was a man of some culture, and the atmosphere of his house, with its numerous guests, was decidedly skeptical. To Miss Evans, brought up in a home ruled by early Methodist ideals of piety, the change was a little startling. Soon she was listening to glib evolutionary theories that settled everything from an earthworm to a cosmos; next she was eagerly reading such unbaked works as Bray’s _Philosophy of Necessity_ and the essays of certain young scientists who, without knowledge of either philosophy or religion, were cocksure of their ability to provide “modern” substitutes for both at an hour’s notice.
Miss Evans went over rather impulsively to the crude skepticism of her friends; then, finding no soul or comfort in their theories, she invented for herself a creed of duty and morality, without however tracing either to its origin. She was naturally a religious woman, and there is no evidence that she found her new creed very satisfactory. Indeed, her melancholy and the gloom of her novels are both traceable to the loss of her early religious ideals.
[Sidenote: HER UNION WITH LEWES]
A trip abroad (1849) was followed by some editorial work on _The Westminster Review_, then the organ of the freethinkers. This in turn led to her association with Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill and other liberals, and to her union with George Henry Lewes in 1854. Of that union little need be said except this: though it lacked the law and the sacrament, it seems to have been in other respects a fair covenant which was honestly kept by both parties. [Footnote: Lewes was separated from his first wife, from whom he was unable to obtain a legal divorce. This was the only obstacle to a regular marriage, and after facing the obstacle for a time the couple decided to ignore it. The moral element in George Eliot’s works is due largely, no doubt, to her own moral sense; but it was greatly influenced by the fact that, in her union with Lewes, she had placed herself in a false position and was morally on the defensive against society.]
Encouraged by Lewes she began to write fiction. Her first attempt, “Amos Barton,” was an excellent short story, and in 1859 she produced her first novel, _Adam Bede_, being then about forty years old. The great success of this work had the unusual effect of discouraging the author. She despaired of her ability, and began to agonize, as she said, over her work; but her material was not yet exhausted, and in _The Mill on the Floss_ and _Silas Marner_ she repeated her triumph.
[Sidenote: ON A PEDESTAL]
The rest of her life seems a matter of growth or of atrophy, according to your point of view. She grew more scientific, as she fancied, but she lost the freshness and inspiration of her earlier novels. The reason seems to be that her head was turned by her fame