Essays on History and Literature
By James Anthony Froude
London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1906 _
Arnold's Poems (Westminster Review, 1854)
Words about Oxford (Fraser's Magazine, 1850)
England's Forgotten Worthies (Westminster Review, 1852)
The Book of Job (Westminster Review, 1853)
The Lives of the Saints (Eclectic Review, 1852)
The Dissolution of the Monasteries (Fraser's Magazine, 1857)
The Philosophy of Christianity (The Leader, 1851)
A Plea for the Free Discussion of Theological Difficulties (Fraser's Magazine, 1863)
Spinoza (Westminster Review, 1855)
Reynard the Fox (Fraser's Magazine, 1852)
The Commonplace Book of Richard Hilles (Fraser's Magazine, 1858) _
Froude had this merit—a merit he shared with Huxley alone of His contemporaries—that he imposed his convictions. He fought against resistance. He excited (and still excites) a violent animosity. He exasperated the surface of his time and was yet too strong for that surface to reject him. This combative and aggressive quality in him, which was successful in that it was permanent and never suffered a final defeat should arrest any one who may make a general survey of the last generation in letters.
It was a period with a vice of its own which yet remains to be detected and chastised. In one epoch lubricity, in another fanaticism, in a third dulness and a dead-alive copying of the past, are the faults which criticism finds to attack. None of these affected the Victorian era. It was pure—though tainted with a profound hypocrisy; it was singularly free from violence in its judgments; it was certainly alive and new: but it had this grievous defect (a defect under which we still labour heavily) that thought was restrained upon every side. Never in the history of European letters was it so difficult for a man to say what he would and to be heard. A sort of cohesive public spirit (which was but one aspect of the admirable homogeneity of the nation) glued and immobilised all individual expression. One could float imprisoned as in a stream of thick substance: one could not swim against it.
It is to be carefully discerned how many apparent exceptions to this truth are, if they be closely examined, no exceptions at all. A whole series of national defects were exposed and ridiculed in the literature as in the oratory of that day; but they were defects which the mass of men secretly delighted to hear denounced and of which each believed himself to be free.
They loved to be told that they were of a gross taste in art, for they connected such a taste vaguely with high morals and with successful commerce. There was no surer way to a large sale than to start a revolution in appreciation every five years, and from Ruskin to Oscar Wilde a whole series of Prophets attained eminence and fortune by telling men how something new and as yet unknown was Beauty and something just past was to be rejected, and how they alone saw truth while the herd around them were blind. But no one showed us how to model, nor did any one remark that we alone of all Europe had preserved a school of water-colour.
So in politics our blunders were a constant theme; but no one marked with citation, document, and proof the glaring progress of corruption, or that, for all our enthusiasm, we never once in that generation defended the oppressed against the oppressor. There was a vast if unrecognised conspiracy, by which whatever might have prevented those extreme evils from which we now suffer was destroyed as it appeared. Efforts at a thorough purge were dull, were libellous, were not of the "form" which the Universities and the public schools taught to be sacred. They were rejected as unreadable, or if printed, were unread. The results are with us to-day.
In such a time Froude maintained an opposing force, which was not reforming nor constructive in any way, but which will obtain the attention of the future historian, simply because it was an opposition.
It was an opposition of manner rather than of matter. The matter of it was common enough even in Froude's chief decade of power. The cause to which he gave allegiance was already winning when he proceeded to champion it, and many a better man, one or two greater men, were saying the same things as he; but they said such things in a fashion that suggested no violent effort nor any demand for resistance: it was the peculiar virtue of Froude that he touched nothing without the virile note of a challenge sounding throughout his prose. On this account, though he will convince our posterity even less than he does ourselves, the words of persuasion, the writings themselves will remain: for he chose the hardest wood in which to chisel, knowing the strength of his hand.
What was it in him which gave him that strength, and which permitted him, in an age that would tolerate no formative grasp upon itself, to achieve a permanent fame? I will not reply to this question by pointing to the popularity of his History of England; the essays that follow will afford sufficient material to answer it. He produced the effect he did and remained in the eminence to which he had climbed, first because his manner of thought was rigid and of a hard edge; secondly, because he could use that steel tool of a brain in a fashion that was general; he could use it upon subjects and with a handling that was comprehensible to great masses of his fellow-countrymen.
It is not certain that such a man with such interests would have made his voice heard in any other society. It is doubtful whether he will be translated with profit. His field was very small, the points of his attack might all be found contained in one suburban villa. But in our society his grip and his intensity did fall, and fall of choice, upon such matters as his contemporaries either debated or were ready to debate. He therefore did the considerable thing we know him to have done.
I say that his mind was rigid and of a close fibre: it was a mind (to repeat the metaphor) out of which a strong graying-tool could be forged. Its blade would not be blunted: it could deal with its material. Of this character, which I take to be the first essential in his achievement, the few essays before us preserve an ample evidence.
Thus you will find throughout their pages the presence of that dogmatic assertion which invariably proceeds from such a mind, and coupled with such assertion is a continual consciousness that his dogmas are dogmas: that he is asserting unprovable things and laying down his axioms before he begins his process of reasoning.
The contrary might be objected by some foreign observer, or by some one who had a larger acquaintance with European history than had he. I can imagine a French or an Irish critic pointing to a mass of assertion with no corresponding admission that it is assertion only: such a critic might quote even from these few pages phrase after phrase in which Froude poses as certain what are still largely matters of debate. Thus upon page 144 he takes it for granted that no miracles have been worked by contact with the bodies of saints. He takes it for granted on page 161 that the checking of monastic disorders, and the use of strong language in connection with them, was peculiar to the generation which saw at its close the dissolution of the monasteries. He takes it for granted on page 125 that what we call "manifestations" or what not,—spirit rappings, table-turnings, and the rest—are deceptions of the senses to which superstition alone would give credence.
He ridicules (upon p. 128) the tradition of St. Patrick which all modern research has come to accept. He says downright (upon pp. 186-187) that the Ancient world did not inquire into the problem of evil. On p. 214 he will have it that the ordinary man rejects, "without hesitation," the interference of will with material causes. In other words, he asserts that the ordinary man is a fatalist—for Froude knew very well that between the fatalist and the believer in a possibility of miracle there is no conceivable position. He will have it (on p. 216) that a modern doctor always regards a "vision" as an hallucination. On p. 217 he denies by implication the stigmata of St. Francis—and so forth—one might multiply the instances indefinitely. All Froude's works are full of them, they are part and parcel of his method—but their number is to no purport. One example may stand for all, and their special value to our purpose is not that they are mere assertions, but that they are assertions which Froude must have known to be personal, disputable, and dogmatic.
He knew very well that the vast majority of mankind accepted the virtue of relics, that intellects the equals of his own rejected that determinism to which he was bound, and that the Pagan world might be presented in a fashion very different from his own. And in that perpetual—often gratuitous —affirmation you have no sign of limitation in him but rather of eagerness for battle.
It is an admirable fault or perhaps no fault at all, or if a fault an appendage to the most considerable virtue a writer of his day could have had: the virtue of courage.
See how he thrusts when he comes to lay down the law, not upon what the narrow experience of readers understands and agrees with him about, but upon some matter which he knows them to have decided in a manner opposed to his own. See how definite, how downright, and how clean are the sentences in which he asserts that Christianity is Catholic or nothing:—
". . . This was the body of death which philosophy detected but could not explain, and from which Catholicism now came forward with its magnificent promise of deliverance.
"The carnal doctrine of the sacraments, which they are compelled to acknowledge to have been taught as fully in the early Church as it is now taught by the Roman Catholics, has long been the stumbling-block to Protestants. It was the very essence of Christianity itself. Unless the body could be purified, the soul could not be saved; or, rather, as from the beginning, soul and flesh were one man and inseparable, without his flesh, man was lost, or would cease to be. But the natural organization of the flesh was infected, and unless organization could begin again from a new original, no pure material substance could exist at all. He, therefore, by whom God had first made the world, entered into the womb of the Virgin in the form (so to speak) of a new organic cell, and around it, through the virtue of His creative energy, a material body grew again of the substance of His mother, pure of taint and clean as the first body of the first man when it passed out under His hand in the beginning of all things."
Throughout his essay on the Philosophy of Christianity, where he was maintaining a thesis odious to the majority of his readers, he rings as hard as ever. The philosophy of Christianity is frankly declared to be Catholicism and Catholicism alone; the truth of Christianity is denied. It is called a thing "worn and old" even in Luther's time (upon page 194), and he definitely prophesies a period when "our posterity" shall learn "to despise the miserable fabric which Luther stitched together out of its tatters."
His judgments are short, violent, compressed. They are not the judgments of balance. They are final not as a goal reached is final, but as a death-wound delivered. He throws out sentences which all the world can see to be insufficient and thin, but whose sharpness is the sharpness of conviction and of a striving determination to achieve conviction in others —-or if he fails in that, at least to leave an enemy smarting. Everywhere you have up and down his prose those short parentheses, those side sentences, which are strokes of offence. Thus on page 199, "We hear—-or we used to hear when the High Church party were more formidable than they are," &c.; or again, on page 210, "The Bishop of Natal" (Colenso) has done such and such things, "coupled with certain arithmetical calculations far which he has a special aptitude." There are dozens of these in every book he wrote. They wounded, and were intended to wound.
His intellect may therefore be compared, as I have compared it, to an instrument or a weapon of steel, to a chisel or a sword. It was hard, polished, keen, stronger than what it bit into, and of its nature enduring. This was the first of the characters that gave him his secure place in English letters.
The second is his universality—the word is not over-exact, but I can find no other. I mean that Froude was the exact opposite of the sciolist and was even other than the student. He was kneaded right into his own time and his own people. The arena in which he fought was small, the ideas he combated were few. He was not universal as those are universal who appeal to any man in any country. But he was eager upon these problems which his contemporaries wrangled over. He was in tune with, even when he directly opposed, the class from which he sprang, the mass of well-to-do Protestant Englishmen of Queen Victoria's reign. Their furniture had nothing shocking for him nor their steel engravings. He took for granted their probity, their common sense, and their reading. He knew what they were thinking about and therefore all he did to praise or blame their convictions, to soothe or to exasperate them, told. He could see the target.
Perpetually this looking at the world from the standpoint of the men around him makes him say things that irritate more particular and more acute minds than his own, but I will maintain that in his case the fault was a necessary fault and went with a power which permitted him to achieve the sympathy which he did achieve. He talks of the "Celt" and the "Saxon," and ascribes what he calls "our failures in Ireland" to the "incongruity of character" between these two imaginaries. He takes it for granted that "we are something which divides us from mediaeval Christianity by an impassable gulf." When he speaks of asceticism he must quote "the hair shirt of Thomas a Becket." If he is speaking of Oxford undergraduates one has "pleasant faces, cheerful voices, and animal spirits," and at the end of the fine but partial essay on Spinoza we have six lines which might come bodily from a leader in the Daily Telegraph, or from any copy of the Spectator picked up at random.
These are grave faults, but, I repeat, they are the faults of those great qualities which gave him his position.
And side by side with such faults go an exceptional lucidity, a good order within the paragraph and in the succession of the paragraphs. A choice of subject suited to his audience, an excision of that which would have bored or bewildered it, a vividness of description wherewith to amuse and a directness of conclusion wherewith to arrest his readers —all these he had, beyond perhaps any of his contemporaries.
Occasionally that brotherhood in him leads him to faults more serious. You get gross commonplace and utterly false commonplace, of which when he came back to them (if indeed he was a man who read his own works) he must have been ashamed:—
"Persecutions come, and martyrdoms, and religious wars; and, at last, the old faith, like the phoenix, expires upon its altar, and the new rises out of the ashes.
"Such, in briefest outline, has been the history of religions, natural and moral."
Or again, of poor old Oxford:—
"The increase of knowledge, and consequently of morality, is the great aim of such a noble establishment as this; and the rewards and honours dispensed there are bestowed in proportion to the industry and good conduct of those who receive them."
But the interesting point about these very lapses is that they remain purely exceptional. They do not affect either the tone of his writing or the value and intricacy of his argument. They may be compared to those undignified and valueless chips of conversational English that pop up in the best rhetoric if it be the rhetoric of an enthusiastic and wide man.
While, however, one is in the mood of criticism it is not unjust to show what other lapses in him are connected with this common sympathy of his and this very comprehension of his class to which he owed his opportunity and his effect.
Thus he is either so careless or so hurried as to use— much too commonly—words which have lost all vitality, and which are for the most part meaningless, but which go the rounds still like shining flat sixpences worn smooth. The word "practical" drops from his pen; he quotes "in a glass darkly," and speaks of "a picture of human life"; the walls of Oxford are "time-hallowed"; he enters a church and finds in it "a dim religious light"; a man of Froude's capacity has no right to find such a thing there. If he writes the word "sin" the word "shame" comes tripping after. It may be that he was a man readily caught by fatigue, or it may bet it is more probable, that he thought it small millinery to "travailler le verbe" At any rate the result as a whole hangs to his identity of spirit with the thousands for whom he wrote.
To this character of universality attach also faults not only in his occasional choice of words but in his general style.
The word "style" has been so grossly abused during the last thirty years that one mentions it with diffidence. Matthew Arnold well said that when people came to him and asked to be told how to write a good style he was unable to reply; for indeed it is not a thing to be taught. It is a by-product, though a necessary by-product, of good thinking. But when Matthew Arnold went on to say that there was no such thing as style except knowing clearly what you wanted to say, and saying it as clearly as you could, he was talking nonsense. There is such a thing as style. It is that combination of rhythm, lucidity, and emphasis, which certainly must not be consciously produced, but which if it arise naturally from a man's pen and from his method of thought makes all the difference between what is readable and what is not readable. If any one doubt this let him compare the French Bible with the English—both literal and lucid translations of the same original; or again let him contrast the prose phrases of Milton when he is dealing with the claims of the Church in the Middle Ages with those of Mr. Bryce in the same connection.
Now I say that just as the excellences of Froude's prose proceeded from this universality of his so did the errors into which that prose fell, and it is remarkable that these errors are slips of detail. They proceed undoubtedly from rapid writing and from coupling his scholarship with a very general and ephemeral reading.
A few examples drawn from these essays will prove what I mean. On the very first page, in the first line of the second paragraph we have the word "often" coming after the word "experience," instead of before it. He had written "experience," he desired to qualify it, and he did not go back to do what should always be done in plain English, and what indeed distinguishes plain English from almost every other language—to put the qualification before the thing qualified; a peculiarly English mark in this, that it presupposes one's having thought the whole thing out before writing it down.
On page 3 we have exactly the same thing; "A legend not known unfortunately to general English readers." He means of course, "unfortunately not known," but as the sentence stands it reads as though he had meant to say, somewhat clumsily, that the method in which English readers knew the legend was not unfortunate.
He is again careless in the matter of repetitions, both of the same word, and (what is a better test of ear) of rhymes within the sentence: we have in one place "which seemed to give a soul to those splendid donations to learning," and further on in the same page "a priority in mortality."
On pages 34 and 35 you have "an intensely real conviction." You are then told that "the most lawless men did then really believe." Then that the American tribes were in the eyes of the colonists "real worshippers" of the Devil, and a few lines later we hear of "the real awfulness of the world."
The position of the relative is often as slipshod as the position of the qualicative; thus you will find upon page 37 that the pioneers "grayed out the channels, and at last paved them with their bones, through which the commerce and enterprise of England has flowed out of all the world." This sentence is quite deplorable; it has a singular verb after two nominatives, and is so framed that one might imagine the commerce and enterprise of our beloved country to have flown through those hollow interior channels, with which, I believe, our larger bones are provided, and in which is to be discovered that very excellent substance, marrow.
It is singular that, while these obvious errors have excited so little comment, Froude should have been blamed so often and by such different authorities for weaknesses of the pen from which he did not suffer, or which, if he did suffer from them, at least he had in common with every other writer of our time and perhaps less than most.
Thus, as an historian he has been accused of two faults which have been supposed by those who are ill acquainted with the history of letters to be correlative: a straining for effect and an inaccuracy of detail. There is not one of his contemporaries who less forced himself in description than Froude. Often in Green, very often in Freeman and always in Carlyle you feel that your author is deliberately exciting his mind and your own. Violent colours are chosen and peculiar emphasis—from this Froude was free. He was an historian.
To the end Froude remained an historian, and an historian he was born. If we regret that his history was not general, and that he turned his powers upon such a restricted set of phenomena, still we must rejoice that there was once in modern England a man who could sum up the nature of a great movement. He lacked the power of integration.
He was not an artist. But he possessed to an extraordinary degree the power of synthesis. He was a craftsman, as the modern jargon goes. There is not in the whole range of English literature as excellent a summary of the way in which the Divinity of our Lord fought its way into the leading brains of Europe, as appears upon page 192 of this book. It is as good as Boissier; there runs all through it knowledge, proportion, and something which, had he been granted a little more light, or been nurtured in an intellectual climate a little more sunny, would have been vision itself:—
"The being who accomplished a work so vast, a work compared to which the first creation appears but a trifling difficulty, what could He be but God? Who but God could have wrested His prize from a power which half the thinking world believed to be His coequal and co-eternal adversary? He was God. He was man also, for He was the second Adam—the second starting-point of human growth. He was virgin born, that no original impurity might infect the substance which He assumed; and being Himself sinless, He showed in the nature of His person after His resurrection, what the material body would have been in all of us except for sin, and what it will be when, after feeding on it in its purity, the bodies of each of us are transfigured after its likeness."
There's a piece of historical prose which summarises, teaches, and stamps itself finally upon the mind! Froude saw that the Faith was the summit and the completion of Rome. Had he written us a summary of the fourth and fifth centuries—and had he written it just after reading some dull fellow on the other side—what books we should have had to show to the rival schools of the Continent!
Consider the sharp and almost unique judgment passed upon Tacitus at the bottom of page 133 and the top of page 134, or again, the excellent sub-ironic passages in which he expresses the vast advantage of metaphysical debate: which has all these qualities, that it is true, sober, exact, and yet a piece of laughter and a contradiction of itself. It is prose in three dimensions.
That pedantic charge of inaccuracy, with which I have already dealt in another place, in connection with another and perhaps a greater man, is not applicable to Froude. He was hasty, and in his historical work the result certainly was that he put down things upon insufficient evidence, or upon evidence but half read; but even in his historical work (which deals remember, with the most highly controversial part of English history) he is as accurate as anybody else, except perhaps Lingard. That the man was by nature accurate, well read and of a good memory, appears continually throughout this book, and the more widely one has read one's self, the more one appreciates this truth.
For instance, there is often set down to Disraeli the remark that his religion was "the religion of all sensible men." and upon being asked what this religion might be, that Oriental is said to have replied, "All sensible men keep that to themselves." Now Disraeli could no more have made such a witticism than he could have flown through the air; his mind was far too extravagant for such pointed phrases. Froude quotes the story (page 205 of this book) but rightly ascribes it to Rogers, a very different man from Disraeli— an Englishman with a mastery of the English language.
Look again at this remark upon page 20, "The happy allusion of Quevedo to the Tiber was not out of place here:—the fugitive is alone permanent.'" How many Englishmen know that Du Bellay's immortal sonnet was but a translation of Quevedo? You could drag all Oxford and Cambridge to-day and not find a single man who knew it.
Note the care he has shown in quoting one of those hackneyed phrases which almost all the world misquotes, "Que mon nom soit fletri, pourvu que la France soit libre." Of a hundred times that you may see those words of Danton's written down, you will perhaps not see them once written down exactly as they were said.
So it is throughout his work. Men still living in the Universities accuse him vaguely of inexactitude as they will accuse Jowett of ignorance, and these men, when one examines them closely, are found to be ignorant of the French language, to have read no philosophy between Aristotle and Hobbes, and to issue above their signatures such errors of plain dates and names as make one blush for English scholarship and be glad that no foreigner takes our historical school seriously.
There is always left to any man who deals with the writings of Froude, a task impossible to complete but necessarily to be attempted. He put himself forward, in a set attitude, to combat and to destroy what he conceived to be—in the moment of his attack—the creed of his countrymen. He was so literary a man that he did this as much by accepting as by denying, as much by dating from Elizabeth all we are as by affirming unalterable material sequence and the falsity of every transcendental acceptation. His time smelt him out even when he flattered it most. Even when he wrote of the Revenge the England of his day—luckily for him—thought him an enemy.
Upon the main discussion of his life it is impossible to pass a judgment, for the elements of that discussion are now destroyed; the universities no longer pretend to believe. And "free discussion" has become so free that the main doctrines he assailed are no longer presented or read without weariness in the class to which he appealed and from which he sprang.
The sects, then, against which he set himself are dead: but upon a much larger question which is permanent, and which in a sort of groping way he sometimes handled, something should be said here, which I think has never been said before. He was perpetually upon the borderland of the Catholic Church.
Between him and the Faith there stood no distance of space, but rather a high thin wall; the high thin wall of his own desperate conviction. If you will turn to page 209 of this book you will see it said of the denial of the Sacrament by the Reformers and of Ridley's dogma that it was bread only "the commonsense of the country was of the same opinion, and illusion was at an end." Froude knew that the illusion was not at an end. He probably knew (for we must continue to repeat that he was a most excellent historian) that the "commonsense of the country" was, by the time Ridley and the New English Church began denying the real presence, and turning that denial into a dogma, profoundly indifferent to all dogmas whatsoever. What "the common-sense of the country" wanted was to keep out swarthy men, chivalrous indeed but imperialists full of gold who owned nearly all the earth, but who, they were determined, should not own England.
Froude was fond of such assertions, his book is full of them, and they are more than mere violence framed for combat; they are in their curious way definite expressions of the man's soul; for Froude was fond of that high thin wall, and liked to build it higher. He was a dogmatic rationalist—one hesitates to use a word which has been so portentously misused. Renan before dying came out with one of his last dogmas; it was to this effect, that there was not in the Universe an intelligent power higher than the human mind. Froude, had he lived in an atmosphere of perfectly free discussion as Renan did, would have heartily subscribed to that dogma.
Why then do I say that he was perpetually on the borderland of the Catholic Church? Because when he leaves for a moment the phraseology and the material of his youth and of his neighbourhood, he is perpetually striking that note of interest, of wonder, and of intellectual freedom which is the note of Catholicism.
Let any man who knows what Catholicism may be read carefully the Essay on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the Essay on the Philosophy of Christianity which succeeds it in this book, but which was written six years before. Let him remember that nothing Froude ever wrote was written without the desire to combat some enemy, and, having made allowance for that desire, let him decide whether one shock, one experience, one revelation would not have whirled him into the Church. He was, I think, like a man who has felt the hands of a woman and heard her voice, who knows them so thoroughly well that he can love, criticise, or despise according to his mood; but who has never seen her face.
And he was especially near to the Church in this: that having discussed a truth he was compelled to fight for it and to wound actively in fighting, He was an agent, He did, He saw that the mass of stuff clinging round the mind of wealthy England was decaying, He turned with regret towards the healthy visions of Europe and called them illusions because they were not provable, and because all provable things showed a flee other than that of the creed and were true in another manner. He despised the cowardice —for it is cowardice—that pretends to intellectual conviction and to temporal evidence of the things of the soul. He saw and said, and he was right in saying, that the City of God is built upon things incredible.
"Incredibilia nec crederim, nisi me compelleret ecclesiae auctoritas"
The following is a list of the published works of J. A. Froude. "Life of St. Neot" ("Lives of the English Saints," edited by J. H. Newman), 1844. "Shadows of the Clouds" (Tales), by Zeta (pseud.), 1847. "A Sermon (on 2 Cor. vii. 10) preached at St. Mary's Church on the Death of the Rev. George May Coleridge," 1847. Article on "Spinoza" (Oxford and Cambridge Review), 1847. "The Nemesis of Faith" (Tale), 1849. "England's Forgotten Worthies" (Westminster Review), 1852. "Book of Job" (Westminster Review), 1853. "Poems of Matthew Arnold" (Westminster Review), 1854. "Suggestions on the Best Means of Teaching English History" ("Oxford Essays," &c.), 1855. "History of England," 12 vols., 1856-1870 "The Influence of the Reformation on the Scottish Character," 1865. "Inaugural Address delivered to the University of St. Andrews, March 19, 1869," 1869. "Short Studies on Great Subjects," 1867, 2 vols., series 2-4, 1872-83 (articles from Fraser's Magazine, Westminster Review, &c.). "The Cat's Pilgrimage," 1870 "Calvinism: Address at St. Andrews," 1871. "The English in Ireland," 3 vols., 1872-74. "Bunyan" ("English Men of Letters"), 1878. "Caesar: a Sketch," 1879. "Two Lectures on South Africa," 1880. "Thomas Carlyle" (a history of the first forty years of his life, &c.), 2 vols., 1882. "Luther: a Short Biography," 1883. "Thomas Carlyle" (a history of his life in London, 1834-80, 2 vols., 1884. "Oceana," 1886. "The English in the West Indies," 1888. "Liberty and Property: an Address" [1888.] "The Two Chiefs of Dunboy," 1889. "Lord Beaconsfield" (a Biography), 1890. "The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon," 1891. "The Spanish Story of the Armada," 1892. "Life and Letters of Erasmus," 1894. "English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century," 1895. "Lectures on the Council of Trent," 1896. "My Relations with Carlyle," 1903.
Edited—"Carlyle's Reminiscences," 1882. "Mrs. Carlyle's Letters," 1883.
Five years ago there appeared a small volume entitled "The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems, by A." (The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems. By A. London: 1849) It was received we believe with general indifference. The public are seldom sanguine with new poets; the exceptions to the rule having been for the most part signal mistakes; while in the case of "A." the inequality of merit in his poems was so striking that even persons who were satisfied that qualities were displayed in them of the very highest kind, were yet unable to feel confidence in the future of an author so unusually incapable, as it appeared, of knowing when he was doing well and when he was failing.
Young men of talent experience often certain musical sensations, which are related to poetry as the fancy of a boy for a pretty face is related to love; and the counterfeit while it lasts is so like the reality as to deceive not only themselves but even experienced lookers-on who are not on their guard against the phenomenon. Time in either case is requisite to test the quality both of the substance and of the feeling, and we desired some further evidence of A.'s powers before we could grant him his rank as a poet; or even feel assured that he could ultimately obtain it. There was passion, as in a little poem called "Stagyrus," deep and searching; there was unaffected natural feeling, expressed sweetly and musically; in "The Sick King of Bokhara," in several of the Sonnets and other fragmentary pieces, there was genuine insight into life and whatever is best and noblest in it;—but along with this, there was often an elaborate obscurity, one of the worst faults which poetry can have; and indications that the intellectual struggles which, like all young men in our times, he was passing through, were likely to issue in an indifferentism neither pleasing nor promising.
The inequality in substance was not more remarkable than the inequality in the mechanical expression of it. "The Forsaken Merman" is perhaps as beautifully finished as anything of the kind in the English language. The story is exquisitely told, and word and metre so carefully chosen that the harmony of sound and meaning is perfect. The legend itself we believe is Norwegan. It is of a King of the Sea who had married an earthly maiden; and was at last deserted by her from some scruples of conscience. The original features of it are strictly preserved, and it is told indirectly by the old Sea King to his children in a wild, irregular melody, of which the following extract will convey but an imperfect idea. It is Easter time, and the mother has left her sea palace for the church on the hill side, with a promise to return—
"She smiled, she went up through the surf in the bay. 'Children, dear, was it yesterday? Children, dear, were we long alone?' 'The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan. Long prayers,' I said, 'in the world they say. Come' I said, 'and we rose through the surf in the bay. We went up the beach, by the sandy down, Where the sea-stocks bloom to the white-walled town, Through the narrow paved streets where all was still, To the little gray church on the windy hill. From the church came a murmur of folk at their prayers; But we stood without in the cold blowing airs.
We climbed on the graves, on the stones worn with rains, And we gazed up the aisle, through the small leaded panes. She sate by the pillar, we saw her clear. 'Margaret! hist! come, quick, we are here!' 'Dear heart,' I said, 'we are long alone.' 'The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan.' 'But, ah, she gave me never a look, For her eyes were sealed to the holy book. Loud prays the priest, shut stands the door. Come away, children, call no more. Come away, come down, call no more.' Down, down, down, Down to the depths of the sea. She sits at her wheel in the humming town, Singing most joyfully. Hark what she sings: 'Oh, joy! oh, joy! For the humming street, and the child with its toy; For the priest, and the bell, and the holy well; For the wheel where I spun, And the blessed light of the sun.' And so she sings her fill, Singing most joyfully, Till the shuttle falls from her hand, And the whizzing wheel stands still. She steals to the window, and looks at the sand, And over the sand at the sea, And her eyes are set in a stare, And anon there breaks a sigh, And anon there drops a tear, From a sorrow-clouded eye, And a heart sorrow-laden, A long, long sigh, For the cold strange eyes of a little Mermaiden, And the gleam of her golden hair."
Not less excellent, in a style wholly different, was A.'s treatment (and there was this high element of promise in A. that, with a given story to work upon, he was always successful) of the AEgyptian legend of Mycerinus, a legend not known unfortunately to general English readers, who are therefore unable to appreciate the skill displayed in dealing with it. We must make room for one extract, however, in explanation of which it is only necessary to say that Mycerinus, having learnt from the oracle that being too just a king for the purposes of the gods, who desired to afflict the AEgyptians, he was to die after six more years, made the six years into twelve by lighting his gardens all night with torches, and revelled out what remained to him of life. We can give no idea of the general conception of the poem, but as a mere piece of description this is very beautiful.
"There by the river bank he wandered on, From palm grove on to palm grove, happy trees, Their smooth tops shining sunwards, and beneath Burying their unsunned stems in grass and flowers; Where in one dream the feverish time of youth Might fade in slumber, and the feet of joy Might wander all day long, and never tire: Here came the king, holding high feast at morn, Rose-crowned: and even when the sun went down, A hundred lamps beamed in the tranquil gloom, From tree to tree, all through the twinkling grove, Revealing all the tumult of the feast, Flushed guests, and golden goblets foamed with wine, While the deep burnished foliage overhead Splintered the silver arrows of the moon."
Containing as it did poems of merit so high as these, it may seem strange that this volume should not have received a more ready recognition; for there is no excellence which the writer of the passages which we have quoted could hereafter attain, the promise of which would not be at once perceived in them. But the public are apt to judge of books of poetry by the rule of mechanism, and try them not by their strongest parts but by their weakest; and in the present instance (to mention nothing else) the stress of weight in the title which was given to the collection was laid upon what was by no means adequate to bearing it. Whatever be the merits of the "Strayed Reveller" as poetry, it is certainly not a poem in the sense which English people generally attach to the word, looking as they do not only for imaginative composition but for verse;—and as certainly if the following passage had been printed merely as prose, in a book which professed to be nothing else, no one would have suspected that it was composed of an agglutination of lines.
"The gods are happy; they turn on all sides their shining eyes, and see below them earth and men. They see Tiresias sitting staff in hand on the warm grassy Asopus bank, his robe drawn over his old, sightless head, revolving inly the doom of Thebes. They see the Centaurs in the upper glens of Pelion, on the streams where the red-berried ashes fringe the clear brown shallow pools; with streaming flanks and heads reared proudly, snuffing the mountain wind. They see the Scythian on the wide steppe, unharnessing his wheeled house at noon; he tethers his beast down and makes his meal, mare's milk and bread baked on the embers; all around the boundless waving grass plains stretch, thick starred with saffron and the yellow hollyhock and flag-leaved isis flowers."
No one will deny that this is fine imaginative painting, and as such poetical,—but it is the poetry of well written, elegant prose. Instead of the recurring sounds, whether of rhyme or similarly weighted syllables, which constitute the outward form of what we call verse, we have the careless grace of uneven, undulating sentences, flowing on with a rhythmic cadence indeed, but free from all constraint of metre or exactitude of form. It may be difficult, perhaps it is impossible, to fix the measure of license which a poet may allow himself in such matters, but it is at least certain that the greatest poets are those who have allowed themselves the fewest of such liberties: in art as in morals, and as in everything which man undertakes, true greatness is the most ready to recognize and most willing to obey those simple outward laws which have been sanctioned by the experience of mankind, and we suspect the originality which cannot move except on novel paths.
This is but one of several reasons which explain the apathy of the public on A.'s first appearance. There was large promise, but the public require performance; and in poetry a single failure overweighs a hundred successes. It was possible that his mistakes were the mistakes of a man whose face was in the right direction —who was feeling his way, and who would ultimately find it; but only time could decide if this were so; and in the interval, the coldness of his reception would serve to test the nature of his faculty.
So far we have spoken with reserve, for we have simply stated the feelings with which we regarded this little volume on first reading it; but the reserve is no longer necessary, and the misgivings which we experienced have not been justified. At the close of last year another volume was published, again of miscellaneous poems, which went beyond the most sanguine hopes of A.'s warmest admirers. As before with "The Strayed Revellers," so again with "Empedocles on AEtna," (Empedocles on AEtna, and other Poems. By A. London: 1852) the piece de resistance was not the happiest selection. But of the remaining pieces, and of all those which he has more recently added, it is difficult to speak in too warm praise. In the unknown A., we are now to recognize a son of the late Master of Rugby, Dr. Arnold. Like a good knight, we suppose he thought it better to win his spurs before appearing in public with so honoured a name; but the associations which belong to it will suffer no alloy from him who now wears it. Not only is the advance in art remarkable, in greater clearness of effect, and in the mechanical handling of words, but far more in simplicity and healthfulness of moral feeling. There is no more obscurity, and no mysticism; and we see everywhere the working of a mind bent earnestly on cultivating whatever is highest and worthiest in itself; of a person who is endeavouring, without affectation, to follow the best things, to see clearly what is good, and right, and true, and to fasten his heart upon these. There is usually a period in the growth of poets in which, like coarser people, they mistake the voluptuous for the beautiful; but in Mr. Arnold there is no trace of any such tendency; pure, without effort, he feels no enjoyment and sees no beauty in the atmosphere of the common passions; and in nobleness of purpose, in a certain loftiness of mind singularly tempered with modesty, he continually reminds us of his father. There is an absence, perhaps, of colour; it is natural that it should be so in the earlier poems of a writer who proposes aims such as these to himself; his poetry is addressed to the intellectual, and not to the animal emotions; and to persons. of animal taste, the flavour will no doubt be oversimple; but it is true poetry—a true representation of true human feeling. It may not be immediately popular, but it will win its way in the long run, and has elements of endurance in it which enable it to wait without anxiety for recognition.
Among the best of the new poems is "Tristram and Iseult." It is unlucky that so many of the subjects should be so unfamiliar to English readers, but it is their own fault if they do not know the "Mort d'Arthur." We must not calculate, however, on too much knowledge in such unpractical matters; and as the story is too long to tell in this place, we take an extract which will not require any. It is a picture of sleeping children as beautiful as Sir Francis Chantrey's.
But they sleep in sheltered rest, Like helpless birds in the warm nest On the castle's southern side, Where feebly comes the mournful roar Of buffeting wind and surging tide, Through many a room and corridor. Full on the window the moon's ray Makes their chamber as bright as day. It shines upon the blank white walis, And on the snowy pillow falls. And on two angel heads doth play, Turn'd to each other: the eyes closed, The lashes on the cheek reposed. Round each sweet brow the cap close set Hardly lets peep the golden hair; Through the soft opened lips the air Scarcely moves the coverlet. One little wandering arm is thrown At random on the counterpane, And often the fingers close in haste, As if their baby owner chased The butterflies again. This stir they have and this alone, But else they are so still— Ah, you tired madcaps, you lie still; But were you at the window now, To look forth on the fairy sight Of your illumined haunts by night, To see the park glades where you play Far lovelier than they are by day, To see the sparkle on the eaves, And upon every giant bough Of those old oaks whose wan red leaves Are jewelled with bright drops of rain— How would your voices run again! And far beyond the sparkling trees, Of the castle park, one sees The bare heath spreading clear as day, Moor behind moor, far far away, Into the heart of Brittany. And here and there locked by the land Long inlets of smooth glittering sea, And many a stretch of watery sand, All shining in the white moonbeams; But you see fairer in your dreams."
This is very beautiful; a beautiful description of one of the most beautiful objects in nature; but it is a description which could never have been composed except by a person whose mind was in tune with all innocent loveliness, and who found in the contemplation of such things not merely a passing emotion of pleasure but the deepest and most exquisite enjoyment.
Besides "Tristram and Iseult," we select for especial mention out of this second volume, "A Farewell," "Self-Dependence," "Morality "; two very highly-finished pieces called "The Youth of Nature," and "The Youth of Man," expressing two opposite states of feeling, which we all of us recognize, and yet which, as far as we know, have never before found their way into language; and "A Summer Night," a small meditative poem, containing one passage, which, although not perfect—for, if the metre had been more exact, the effect would, in our opinion, have been very much enhanced—is, nevertheless, the finest that Mr. Arnold has yet written.
And I. I know not if to pray Still to be what I am, or yield and be Like all the other men I see. For most men in a brazen prison live, Where in the sun's hot eye, With heads bent o'er their toil, they languidly Their minds to some unmeaning taskwork give, Dreaming of nought beyond their prison wall; And as, year after year, Fresh products of their barren labour fall From their tired hands, and rest Never yet comes more near, Gloom settles slowly down over their breast, And while they try to stem The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest, Death in their prison reaches them Unfreed, having seen nothing still unblest.
And the rest, a few, Escape their prison, and depart On the wide ocean of life anew. There the freed prisoner, where'er his heart Listeth, will sail; Nor does he know how there prevail, Despotic on life's sea, Trade winds that cross it from eternity. Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred By thwarting signs, and braves The freshening wind and blackening waves. And then the tempest strikes him, and between The lightning bursts is seen Only a driving wreck, And the pale master on his spar-strewn deck With anguished face and flying hair, Grasping the rudder hard, Still bent to make some port he knows not where, Still standing for some false impossible shore. And sterner comes the roar Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom, Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom."
In these lines, in powerful and highly-sustained metaphor, lies the full tragedy of modern life.
"Is there no life but these alone, Madman or slave, must man be one?"
We disguise the alternative under more fairly-sounding names, but we cannot escape the reality; and we know not, after all, whether there is deeper sadness in a broken Mirabeau or Byron, or in the contented prosperity of a people who once knew something of noble aspirations, but have submitted to learn from a practical age that the business of life is to make money, and the enjoyments of it what money can buy. A few are ignobly successful; the many fail, and are miserable; and the subtle anarchy of selfishness finds its issue in madness and revolution. But we need not open this painful subject. Mr. Arnold is concerned with the effect of the system on individual persons; with the appearance which it wears to young highly sensitive men on their entry upon the world, with the choice of a life before them; and it is happy for the world that such men are comparatively rare, or the mad sort would be more abundant than they are.
We cannot but think it unfortunate that this poem, with several others of the highest merit, have been omitted in the last edition, while others find a place there, for which comparatively we care little. Uniformity of excellence has been sacrificed to uniformity of character, a subsidiary matter which in itself is of slight importance, and which the public would never quarrel for if they were treated with an ever pleasing variety. As it is, we have still to search three volumes for the best specimens of Mr. Arnold's powers, and opportunities are still left for illmatured critics to make extracts of an apparently inferior kind. There is a remedy for this, however, in the future, and the necessary sifting will no doubt get itself duly accomplished at last. In the meantime, before noticing the late edition, we have a few words to say about Empedocles, the ground of objection to which we cannot think Mr. Arnold adequately understands, although he has omitted it in his present edition, and has given us his reasons for doing so. Empedocles, as we all know, was a Sicilian philosopher, who, out of discontent with life, or from other cause, flung himself into the crater of Mount AEtna. A discontent of this kind, Mr. Arnold tells us, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance, is not a fit subject for poetry. The object of poetry is to please, and the spectacle of a man too weak to bear his trials, and breaking under them, cannot be anything but painful. The correctness of the portrait he defends; and the fault, as he thinks, is not in the treatment, but in the subject itself. Now it is true that as a rule poetry is better employed in exhibiting the conquest over temptations than the fall under them, and some escape of this kind for the feelings must be provided in tragedies, by the introduction of some powerful cause, either of temptation acting on the will or of an external force controlling the action, in order to explain and reconcile us to the catastrophe. A mere picture of imbecility is revolting simply; we cannot conceive ourselves acting in the same way under the same circumstances, and we can therefore feel neither sympathy with the actor nor interest in his fate. But we must be careful how we narrow our theories in such matters. In Werther we have an instance of the same trial, with the same issue as Mr. Arnold has described in Empedocles, and to say that Werther was a mistake, is to circumscribe the sphere of art by a definition which the public taste will refuse to recognize. Nor is it true, in spite of Schiller's authority, that "all art is dedicated to enjoyment." Tragedy has other objects, the katharsis or purifying of the emotions for instance, which, if we are to continue to use words in their ordinary sense, is something distinct from enjoyment, and not always reconcilable with it. Whatever will excite interest in a healthy, vigorous mind, that is a fair object of poetry, and there is a painful as well as a pleasant interest; it is an abuse of language to describe the sensations which we experience on reading "Philoctetes" or "Hamlet" as pleasant. They are not unmixedly painful, but surely not pleasant.
It is not therefore the actual fate of Empedocles which fails to interest us, but we are unable to feel that Mr. Arnold's account of him is the true account. In the absence of authentic material, the artist who hopes to interest us in his fate must at least make the story probable as he tells it; consistent in itself, with causes clearly drawn out proportioned to the effects resulting from them. And this it cannot be said that Mr. Arnold has done. Powerful as is much of the language which he places in the mouth of Empedocles, he has failed to represent him as in a condition in which suicide is the natural result. His trials, his disgusts, as far as he exhibits them, are not more than man may naturally be supposed able to bear, while of the impulses of a more definite character there is no trace at all. But a more grave deficiency still is, that among all the motives introduced, there is not one to make the climb of AEtna necessary or intelligible. Empedocles on AEtna might have been Empedocles in his room at Catana, and a dagger or a cup of hemlock would have answered all purposes equally well with a plunge in the burning crater. If the tradition of Empedocles is a real story of a thing which really happened, we may feel sure that some peculiar feeling connected with the mountain itself, some mystical theory or local tradition, led such a man as he was to such a means of self-immolation.
We turn from Empedocles, which perhaps it is scarcely fair to have criticised, to the first poem in the latest edition, "Sohrab and Rustum," (Poems. By Matthew Arnold. A New Edition, London: 1853.) a poem which alone would have settled the position which Mr. Arnold has a right to claim as a poet, and which is remarkable for its success in every point in which Empedocles appears deficient. The story comes down out of remote Persian antiquity; it is as old, perhaps it is older, than the tale of Troy; and, like all old stories which have survived the changes of so long a time, is in itself of singular interest. Rustum, the Hercules of the East, fell in with and loved a beautiful Tartar woman. He left her, and she saw him no more; but in time a child was born, who grew up with the princes of his mother's tribe, and became in early youth distinguished in all manly graces and noblenesses. Learning that he was the son of the great Rustum, his object is to find his father, and induce him, by some gallant action, to acknowledge and receive him. War breaks out between the Tartars and the Persians. The two armies come down upon the Oxus, and Sohrab having heard that Rustum had remained behind in the mountains, and was not present, challenges the Persian chief. Rustum, unknown to Sohrab, had in the meantime joined the army, and against a warrior of Sohrab's reputation, no one could be trusted to maintain the Persian cause except the old hero. So by a sad perversity of fate, and led to it by their very greatness, the father and the son meet in battle, and only recognize each other when Sohrab is lying mortally wounded. It is one of those terrible situations which only the very highest power of poetry can dwell upon successfully. If the right chord be not touched to the exactest nicety, if the shock of the incident in itself be not melted into pathos, and the nobleness of soul in the two sufferers be not made to rise above the cruel accident which crushes them, we cannot listen to the poet. The story overwhelms and absorbs us; we desire to be left alone with it and with our own feelings, and his words about it become officious and intrusive. Homer has furnished Mr. Arnold with his model, and has taught him the great lesson that the language on such occasions cannot be too simple and the style too little ornamented. Perhaps it may be thought that he has followed Homer's manner even too closely. No one who has read "Mycerinus" and the "Forsaken Metman" can doubt that Mr. Arnold can write richly if he pleases. It is a little startling, therefore, to find the opening of this poem simpler than one would make it, even if telling it in prose to a child. As in the "Iliad," the same words are repeated over and over again for the same idea, without variation or attempt at it; and although it may easily be that our taste is spoiled by the high seasoning of the modern style, the result is that it strikes the attention to an extent which would have been better avoided. A perfect style does not strike at all, and it is a matter in which the reader ought to be considered even more than the abstract right. We have soon, however, ceased to think of that; the peculiarity which we have mentioned is confined to the beginning, and the success of the treatment is best proved by our forgetfulness, as we read on, of art and artist language and manner, in the overpowering interest of the story as it is drawn out before us. Extracts will convey a poor idea of a poem in which the parts are so wholly subordinate to the effect of the whole, and yet, in spite of this disadvantage, we can justify at least partially to our readers the opinions which we have generally expressed.
We will take the scene of the recognition, when Sohrab, lying wounded, and as yet ignorant of the name of his adversary, has declared himself Rustum's son. The father, at first incredulous and scornful, is led step by step, through the mention of old names and times, towards the anaguorisis, and after the most delicately traced alternations of feeling, all doubt is ended by the mark of the seal on Sohrab's arm which Rustum had given to his mother.
"How say'st thou? [Sohrab says.] Is that sign the proper sign Of Rustum's son, or of some other man's? He spoke: but Rustum gazed, and gazed, and stood Speechless; and then he uttered one sharp cry, Oh, boy, thy father!"
This is the first hint to Sohrab who has been his foe.
"And his voice choked there, And then a dark cloud pass'd before his eyes, And his head swam, and he sank down to earth. But Sohrab crawled to where he lay, and cast His arms about his neck, and kiss'd his lips, And with fond faltering fingers stroked his cheeks, Trying to call him back to life: and life Came back to Rustum; and he op'd his eyes; And they stood wide with horrour: and he seized In both his hands the dust which lay around, And threw it on his face, and smirched his hair, His hair, and face, and beard, and glittering arms: And strong convulsive groanings shook his breast, And his sobs choked him, and he clutched his sword To draw it, and for ever let life out. But Sohrab saw his thought, and held his hand, And with a soothing voice he spoke, and said 'Father, forbear, for I but meet to-day The doom that at my birth was written down In Heaven, and thou art Heaven's unconscious hand. Surely my heart cried out that it was thou, When first I saw thee; and thy heart spoke too, I know it; but Fate trod those promptings down Under its iron heel; Fate, Fate engaged The strife, and hurled me on my father's spear. But let us speak no more of this: I find My father: let me feel that I have found. Come, sit beside me on this sand, and take My head betwixt thy hands, and kiss my cheeks, And wash them with thy tears, and say "My son!" Quick: quick! for numbered are my sands of life, And swift; for like the lightning to this field I came, and like the wind I go away. Sudden and swift, and like a passing wind: But it was writ in Heaven that this should be.' So said he: and his voice released the heart Of Rustum; and his tears broke forth: he cast His arms round his son's neck, and wept aloud, And kiss'd him; and awe fell on both the hosts When they saw Rustum's grief; and Ruksh, the horse, With his head bowing to the ground and mane Sweeping the dust, came near, and in mute woe First to the one, then to the other mov'd His head, as if enquiring what their grief Might mean; and from his dark compassionate eyes The big warm tears roll'd down and caked the sand."
As a picture of human life in Homer's manner, we cannot see why this passage, and indeed the whole poem, should not be thought as good as any one of the episodes in the "AEneid." We are not comparing Mr. Arnold with Virgil: for it is one thing to have written an epic and another to have written a small fragment; but as a working up of a single incident it may rank by the side of Nisus and Euryalus, and deeper chords of feeling are touched in it than Virgil has ever touched.
And this leads us to Mr Arnold's preface, and to the account which he gives us of the object which he proposes to himself in poetry: and our notice of this must be brief, as our space is running to its conclusion. He tells us, in a manner most feelingly instructive, something of the difficulties which lie round a young poet of the present day who desires to follow his art to some genuine purpose; and what he says will remind readers of Wordsworth of Professor Wilson's beautiful letter to him on a very similar subject. Unhappily the question is not one of poetry merely, but of far wider significance. Not the poet only, but every one of us who cannot be satisfied to tread with the crowd along the broad road which leads—we used to know whither, but desires "to cultivate," as Mr. Arnold says, "what is best and noblest" in ourselves, are as sorely at a loss as he is with his art. To find the best models,—that indeed is the one thing for him and for us. But what are they and where? and the answer to the aesthetic difficulty lies as we believe in the solution of the moral one. To say this, however, is of infinitely little service for the practical direction of a living poet; and we are here advised (and for present purposes no doubt wisely) to fall back on the artists of classic antiquity. From them better than from the best of the moderns, the young poet will learn what art really is. He will learn that before beginning to sing it is necessary to have something to sing of, and that a poem is something else than a collection of sweet musical sentences strung together like beads or even jewels in a necklace. He will learn that the subject is greater than the manner; that the first is the one essential without a worthy choice of which nothing can prosper. Above all, he will learn that the restless craving after novelty, so characteristic of all modern writing, the craving after new plots, new stories, new ideas, is mere disease, and that the true original genius displays itself not in the fabrication of what has no existence, but in the strength and power with which facts of history, or stories existing so fixedly in the popular belief as to have acquired so to say the character of facts, shall be exhibited and delineated.
But while we allow with Mr. Arnold that the theory will best be learnt from the ancients, we cannot allow, as he seems to desire us to allow, that the practice of it was confined to them, or recommend as he does the disproportionate study, still less the disproportionate imitation of them. All great artists at all times have followed the same method, for greatness is impossible without it. The Italian painters are never weary of the Holy Family. The matter of Dante's poem lay before him in the creed of the whole of Europe. Shakespeare has not invented the substance of any one of his plays. And the "weighty experience" and "composure of judgment" with which the study of the ancients no doubt does furnish "those who habitually practise it," may be obtained we believe by the study of the thoughts of all great men of all ages; by the study of life in any age, so that our scope be broad enough.
It is indeed idle nonsense to speak, as some critics speak, of the "present" as alone having claims upon the poet. Whatever is great, or good, or pathetic, or terrible, in any age past or present, belongs to him, and is within his proper province; but most especially, if he is wise, he will select his subjects out of those which time has sealed as permanently significant. It is not easy in our own age to distinguish what has the elements in it of enduring importance; and time is wiser than we. But why dwell with such apparent exclusiveness on classic antiquity, as if there was no antiquity except the classic, and as if time were divided into the eras of Greece and Rome and the nineteenth century? The Hellenic poet sang of the Hellenes, why should not the Teutonic poet sing of the Teutons?
"Vixere fortes post Agamemnona."
And grand as are Achilles and Clytemnestra, they are not grander than their parallels in the German epic Criemhilda and Von Tronje Hagen. We do not dream of prescribing to Mr. Arnold what subject he should choose. Let him choose what interests himself if he will interest his readers; and if he choose what is really human, let it come from what age it will, human hearts will answer to it. And yet it seems as if Teutonic tradition, Teutonic feeling, and Teutonic thought had the first claim on English and German poets. And those among them will deserve best of the modern world, and will receive the warmest welcome from it, who will follow Shakespeare in modelling into forms of beauty the inheritance which has come down to them of the actions of their own race. So most faithfully, if least directly, they will be treading in the steps of those great poets of Greece whom they desire to imitate. Homer and Sophocles did not look beyond their own traditions and their own beliefs; they found in these and these only their exclusive and abundant material. Have the Gothic annals suddenly become poor, and our own quarries become exhausted and worthless?
WORDS ABOUT OXFORD
Many long years had passed since I visited Oxford,— some twenty-eight or more. I had friends among the resident members of that venerable domicile of learning. Pleasant had been the time that I had spent there, of which intervening years had not diminished the remembrance —perhaps heightened the tone of its colouring. On many accounts I regarded that beautiful city with affectionate veneration. There were more than local attractions to render it interesting. There were the recollections of those who ceased in the interval to be denizens of this world. These could not but breathe sadness over the noble edifices that recalled men, conversations, and convivialities which, however long departed, shadowed upon the mind its own inevitable destiny. Again were those venerable buildings before me in their architectural richness. There were tower, and roof, and gateway, in all their variety of outline, defined with the sharp light and shade peculiar to ecclesiastical architecture. There were tufted groves overshadowing the haunts of learning; and there, too, was old Magdalen, which used to greet our sight so pleasantly upon our approach to the city. I began to fancy I had leaped no gulf of time since, for the Cherwell ran on as of old. I felt that the happy allusion of Quevedo to the Tiber was not out of place here, "The fugitive is alone permanent." The same river ran on as it had run on before, but the cheerful faces that had been once reflected in its stream had passed away. I saw things once familiar as I saw them before; but "the fathers, where were they ?" I was in this respect like one awaked from the slumber of an age, who found himself a stranger in his own land.
I walked through High Street. I entered All Souls' and came out quickly, for the quadrangle, or rather one glance round it, was sufficient to put "the past to pain." I went over the different sites, and even paced Christ Church meadows. But I could not deceive myself for a moment. There was an indescribable vacuum somewhere that indicated there was no mode of making the past the present. What had become of the pleasant faces, the cheerful voices, the animal spirits, which seemed in my eyes to give a soul to those splendid donations of our forefathers to learning in years gone by? That instinct—soul, spirit, whatever it be—which animates and vivifies everything, and without which the palace is not comparable to the hovel possessing it,— that instinct or spirit was absent for me, at least. At length I adjourned to the Star, somewhat moody, more than half wishing I had not entered the city. I ordered my solitary meal, and began ruminating, as we all do, over the thousandth-time told tale of human destiny by generation after generation. I am not sure I did not greet with sullen pleasure a heavy, dark, dense mass of cloud that at that moment canopied the city. The mind finds all kinds of congenialities grateful at such moments. Some drops of rain fell; then a shower, tolerably heavy. I could not go out again as I intended doing. I sat and sipped my wine, thinking of the fate of cities,—of Nineveh the renowned, of the marbles lately recovered from thence with the mysterious arrowheaded characters. I thought that some future Layard might exhume the cornices of the Oxford temples. The deaths of cities were as inevitable as those of men. I felt that my missing friends had only a priority in mortality, and that the law of the Supreme existed to be obeyed without man's questionings.
But a sun-burst took place, the shower ceased, all became fresh and clear. I saw several gownsmen pass down the street, and I sallied forth again. Several who were in front of me, so full was I of old imaginings, I thought might be old friends whom I should recognize. How idle! I strolled to the Isis. It was all glitter and gaiety. The sun shone out warmly and covered the surface of the river with gold. Numerous skiffs of the university-men were alive on the water, realizing the lines,—
"Some lightly o'er the current swim, Some show their gaily gilded trim Quick glancing to the sun."
Here was the repetition of an old performance, but the actors were new. I too had once floated over that glittering water, or lain up by the bank in conversation, or reciting verses, or, perhaps, in that silent, dreamy vacancy, in which the mind ruminates or rests folded up within itself in the consciousness of its own immortality.
Here I must place a word or two in regard to the censures cast upon this magnificent foundation of learning relative to the extravagances of young collegians. Let it be granted, as it is asserted by some, that there is too much exclusiveness, and that there are improvements to be recommended in some of the details of an organization so ancient. It may be true to a certain extent, for what under heaven is perfect? But a vast mass of good is to be brought to bear on the other hand. I cannot, therefore, agree in those censures which journalism has cast upon the officers of the university, as if they encouraged, or, at all events, did not control, the vicious extravagance of young men. I am expressing only an individual opinion, it is true; and this may be a reason why it may be undervalued, when the justice of a question is not the criterion by which it is judged. All that such a foundation can be expected to do is to render the advantages of learning as accessible as possible, upon reasonable terms, that genius, not wealth alone, may be able to avail itself of its advantages. If the present sum be too high, let its reduction be considered with a view to any practicable change. The pecuniary resources of the collegian it becomes no part of the duty of the university to control, beyond the demands necessary for the main object of instruction. As the circumstances of parents vary, so will the pecuniary allowance made to their offspring. It would be a task neither practicable nor justifiable for the university to regulate the outlay of the collegian, or, in fact, become the paymaster of his menus plaisirs. Only let such a task be imagined in its enormity of control, from the son of the nobleman with an allowance of a thousand a year to one of a hundred and fifty pounds. It is not in the college, but prior to the arrival there of the youth, that he should be instructed in the views his relations have in sending him, and be taught that he must not ape the outlay and show of those who have larger means. If a youth orders a dozen coats within a time for which one only would be found adequate, I do not see what his college has to do with it. Youths entering the navy and army are left in a much more extended field of temptation. No time-hallowed walls shelter them. No salutary college rules remind them of their moral duties, daily and almost hourly. They go up and down the world under their own guardianship, exposed to every sinister influence, and with inclinations only restrained by their own monitorship. The college discipline, even if it extend not beyond college duties, is a perpetual remembrancer of the high moral end for which the student is placed within its precincts. His only allurement to extravagance is the desire of vying with those who make a greater display than himself, or else it arises from, if possible, a less defensible motive, namely, that of becoming himself an object of emulation to others. It is not the duty of the college authorities to compensate by their watchfulness the effects of a weak understanding, or that lax principle, or the want of self-command, of which the neglect of the parent or guardian has been the cause. If the freshman is destitute of self-dependence and self-restraint he must suffer from the consequences. Not only in the navy and army is youth exposed to temptations very far beyond the collegian, but in the inns of court young men are left to take care of themselves, in the midst of a great capital, without any surveillance whatever. From these youths arise excellent men of business. Most assuredly under the surveillance of a college in smaller cities, and where many heads of expense are from the nature of their position wholly out of the question, it does seem singular that such complaints should arise. It is true, display is the vice of modern society among the old as well as the young, and in both cases most dishonest means are had recourse to sustain those appearances, which are all the world looks to. It is possible, therefore, that little efforts have been made to initiate youth, prior to entering the universities, in that path of self-denial and high-mindedness which are the safeguard from vicious prodigality. They bring with them the vices of their caste, whatever that caste may be. Youth is imitative, and seldom a clumsy copyist, of the faults of its elders, provided those faults are fashionable faults, however unprincipled. However this may be, I must protest against the universities being made answerable for these doings. Attempts have been made, and failed, in respect to manners and to credit; and have failed clearly because they were impracticable, and, more than that, better left alone. The university ought not to be answerable in such cases, any more than the benchers for the Temple students. It cannot be expected that the noble quadrangles of our colleges are to become something like poor-law prisons, and the regulations of the night be extended over the day. The very existence of the collegian, as such, implies something like freedom, both mental and bodily. Learning that is converted into a tyranny will never bring forth good fruit. It is the duty of parents and schoolmasters to impress upon the mind of youth that a seat of learning is the home of an easy frugality rather than of prodigal rivalry; that the university will only give degrees and honours where there is industry and good moral conduct. It is to be feared that youth, quitting the discipline of the school, looks upon the university as the place where he may indulge in his own wayward will, and be as idle and indolent as he please. If this be the case the university is not to blame for such lapses, but a bad prior apprehension of duty, and a defective, ill-directed education.
It is impossible to read the biographies of some of our most celebrated men, and not to see that with means scanty enough they were enabled to keep their terms with honour, and in the end confer additional celebrity upon the noble foundations where they had studied. If such be the case, we have only the result of personal good or ill conduct to explain the whole of the affair. But enough on this subject.
But it is not the venerable appearance of University College, hallowed by the associations of so many centuries in age, nor Queen's opposite, nor All Souls', nor any other of the colleges as mere buildings, that so connect them with our feelings. We must turn the mind from stone and wood to the humanity in connection with them. It is that which casts over them the "religious light," speaking so sadly and sweetly to the heart. In University College we see the glorious name of Alfred, and nearly a thousand years, with their perished annals, point to it as the witness of their departed successions. Who on seeing New College does not recall William of Wykeham? and then, what a roll of proud names own this renowned university for their Alma Mater. The very stones "prate of the whereabout" of things connected with the development of great minds, and while we look without fatigue at the gorgeous mass of buildings in this university, we feel we are contemplating what carries an intimate connexion, in object at least, with that all of man which marches in the track of eternity. It is not mere antiquity, therefore, on which our reverence for a great seminary of learning is founded. Priority of existence has no solid claims to our regard, except for that verde antique which covers it, as it covers all things past. good or indifferent; it is the connexion of the foundation with the history of man—with the names that, like the flowers called "immortals," bloom amid the wrecks and desolateness with which the flood of ages strew the rearway of humankind.
Of late there has been small response to feelings such as these in the great world, for we have not been looking much toward what is above us, nor discriminating from meaner things those which approach to heroic natures. We must abandon Mammon, politics, and polemics, when we would approach the threshold of elevated meditation—when we dwell on the illustrious names of the past, and tread over the stones which they trod. I never wandered along the banks of the sedgy Cam, at that lone, twilight hour, when the dimness of external objects tends most to concentrate the faculties upon the immediate object of contemplation, but I have fancied the shades of Bacon, Milton, or Locke, to be near me, as the Indian fancies the shades of his fathers haunt the old hunting-grounds of his race. I know that these are heterodox feelings in the present day. I know that he who speaks of Homer or Milton, for example, is continually answered by the question, "Who reads them now?" The truth being, perhaps, that we are getting too far below them to relish their superior standard in sterling merit. But there are still in our universities, if not elsewhere, some who are content to be the last of the Goths in the estimation of the multitude, who cannot see the Isis, or Cherwell, or the reedy Cam, without feelings of which the crowd knows nothing; who can dream away an hour in the avenue of Christ Church, and almost conjure spirits from the depths of the grave to realize the pictures of imagination, which are there always invested with purity and holiness, so much do external things impress their character on our imaginings. This is the true poetry of life, neither found in the haunts of fashion, nor among the denizens of Cornhill or St. Giles'. The good and deep things of the mind, the search into the secrets of nature, the sublimest truth, the purest philosophy of which man has to boast, has proceeded from those who were inhabitants of such seats of learning. It is impossible to state the precise amount of assistance which genius and learning may derive from the ease and peace enjoyed in such a university. They are inestimable to the student from association, tranquillity, and convenience. The very "dim religious light" of college rooms are solicitations to reflection. Then there are the conveniences of first-rate professors, and access to the writings of the learned in all ages. Thus some who professed a distaste for a university life, have returned to it again, and made it the arena where they have conquered a lasting reputation—such, for example, was the case with Gray the poet.
The increase of knowledge, and consequently of morality, is the great aim of such a noble establishment as this; and the rewards and honours dispensed there are bestowed in proportion to the industry and good conduct of those who receive them. If the offences of freshmen outside the walls be unvisited by the university from wariness in the offenders, or the impossibility of controlling them, they are certain to meet with a just estimation of their demerit here; and, as before noticed, this is perhaps the best mode of repressing them. The assistance derived by the industrious student from the university itself is invaluable. The very locality is an aid to progress. Where can there be places more favourable for thought than those noble buildings, ancient halls, and delightful walks? Everything invites to contemplation. Magdalen always seemed to me as if soliciting the student's presence in a peculiar manner. A favourite resort of mine, at certain times, was the road passing the Observatory, leading to Woodstock. But of all the college walks, those of Magdalen were the more impressive and attractive. It appeared to embody the whole of the noble city in its own personification, as a single word will sometimes express the pith of an entire sentence. The "Mighty Tom" in the olden time, even of Walter de Mapes, if its metal was then out of the ore, never sounded (then perhaps not nine) but the midnight hour, to that worthy archdeacon, with more of the character of its locality, than the visual aspect of Magdalen represents the beautiful city to one in its entirety. It seems a sort of metonymy; Maudlin put for Oxford. The walk is, after all, but a sober path, worthy by association with one of the walks of Eden. Yet it shows no gay foliage, nor "shade above shade a woody theatre," such as is seen on a mountain declivity. It is a simple shadowy walk—shadowy to richness, cool, tranquil, redolent of freshness. There the soul feels "private, inactive, calm, contemplative," linked to things that were and are not. The mellow hue of time, not yet stricken by decay, clothes the buildings of this college, which, compared with other edifices more steeped in maturity of years, occupies, as it were, a middle term in existence.