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STUDIES IN EARLY VICTORIAN LITERATURE
Edward Arnold London ——— New York 37 Bedford Street ——— 70 Fifth Avenue 1895 All rights reserved
The following essays appeared in the Forum of New York, and simultaneously in London, during the years 1894-95. They have been carefully revised and partly re-written, after due consideration of various suggestions and criticisms both in England and in America. The aim of the writer was to attempt a mature estimate of the permanent influence and artistic achievement of some of the principal prose writers in the earlier half of the reign of our Queen. The work of living authors has not been touched upon, nor any book of poetry, philosophy, or science.
I. CHARACTERISTICS OF VICTORIAN LITERATURE II. THOMAS CARLYLE III. LORD MACAULAY IV. BENJAMIN DISRAELI V. WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY VI. CHARLES DICKENS VII. CHARLOTTE BRONTE VIII. CHARLES KINGSLEY IX. ANTHONY TROLLOPE X. GEORGE ELIOT
CHARACTERISTICS OF VICTORIAN LITERATURE
That which in England is conveniently described as the Victorian Age of literature has a character of its own, at once brilliant, diverse, and complex. It is an age peculiarly difficult to label in a phrase; but its copious and versatile gifts will make it memorable in the history of modern civilisation. The Victorian Age, it is true, has no Shakespeare or Milton, no Bacon or Hume, no Fielding or Scott—no supreme master in poetry, philosophy, or romance, whose work is incorporated with the thought of the world, who is destined to form epochs and to endure for centuries. Its genius is more scientific than literary, more historical than dramatic, greater in discovery than in abstract thought.
In lyric poetry and in romance our age has names second only to the greatest; its researches into nature and history are at least equal to those of any previous epoch; and, if it has not many great philosophers, it has developed the latest, most arduous, most important of all the sciences. This is the age of Sociology: its central achievement has been the revelation of social laws. This social aspect of thought colours the poetry, the romance, the literature, the art, and the philosophy of the Victorian Age. Literature has been the gainer thereby in originality and in force. It has been the loser in symmetry, in dignity, in grace.
The Victorian Age is a convenient term in English literature to describe the period from 1837 to 1895: not that we assign any sacramental efficacy to a reign, or assume that the Queen has given any special impulse to the writers of her time. Neither reigns, nor years, nor centuries, nor any arbitrary measure of time in the gradual evolution of thought can be exactly applied, or have any formative influence. A period of so many years, having some well-known name by which it can be labelled, is a mere artifice of classification. And of course an Englishman will not venture to include in his survey the American writers, or to bring them within his national era. The date, 1837, is an arbitrary point, and a purely English point. Yet it is curious how different a colour may be seen in the main current of the English literature produced before and after that year. In the year of the Queen's accession to the throne, the great writers of the early part of this century were either dead or silent. Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Lamb, Sheridan, Hazlitt, Mackintosh, Crabbe, and Cobbett, were gone. There were still living in 1837, Wordsworth, Southey, Campbell, Moore, Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, De Quincey, Miss Edgeworth, Miss Mitford, Leigh Hunt, Brougham, Samuel Rogers:—living, it is true, but they had all produced their important work at some earlier date. Carlyle, Dickens, Thackeray, Macaulay, Tennyson, Browning, had begun to write, but were not generally known. The principal English authors who belong equally to the Georgian and to the Victorian Age are Landor, Bulwer, Disraeli, Hallam, and Milman, and they are not quite in the very first rank in either age. It is a significant fact that the reign of the Queen has produced, with trifling exceptions, the whole work of Tennyson, the Brownings, Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Kingsley, Trollope, Spencer, Mill, Darwin, Ruskin, Grote, Macaulay, Freeman, Froude, Lecky, Milman, Green, Maine, Matthew Arnold, Symonds, Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, John Morley, to say nothing of younger men who are still in their prime and promise.
Widely as these differ among themselves, they have characters which differentiate them from all men of the eighteenth century, and also from the men of the era of Goethe and Scott. Can we imagine Sartor Resartus being published in the age of Johnson, or In Memoriam in that of Byron? How different a land is the Italy which Ruskin sees from the Italy that Rogers knew! What a new world is that of the Brontes and George Eliot beside that which was painted by Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen! In what things would Southey and John Morley agree, except about books and pure English? Place Burke On the Sublime and Beautiful beside Ruskin's Modern Painters; compare the Stones of Venice with Eustace's Classical Tour; compare Carlyle's French Revolution with Gibbon's Decline and Fall; compare the Book of Snobs with Addison's Spectator; contrast The Ring and the Book with Gray's Elegy or Cowper's Task. What wholly different types, ideas, aims! The age of Pope and Addison, of Johnson and Gibbon, clung to symmetry, "the grand air," the "best models"; it cared much more for books than for social reforms, and in the world of letters a classical manner was valued far more than originality of ideas. And when we come to a later age, what an irrepressible and stormy imagination do we find! Byron, Shelley, Scott, Coleridge, Campbell, Southey, Landor, revelled in romance and colour, in battle and phantasmagoria, in tragedy, mystery, and legend. They boiled over with excitement, and their visions were full of fight. The roar and fire of the great revolutionary struggle filled men's brains with fierce and strange dreams.
Our Victorian Age is as different from the Virgilian and Ciceronian style of the age of Gray and Johnson, as it is from the resounding torrent which was poured forth by Byron and Scott. The social earnestness of our time colours our literature, and almost distorts our literature; while, on the other hand, our practical and scientific genius scorns the melodramatic imagery with which our grandfathers were delighted. Gibbon would have smiled a cruel epigram, if he had been expected to thrust a Latter-Day Pamphlet on the social question into one of his chapters on the Fall of Rome. But Carlyle's French Revolution is as much political rhapsody and invective as it is history. Dickens made a series of novels serve as onslaughts on various social abuses; and George Eliot's heart is ever with Darwin, Spencer, and Comte, as much as it is with Miss Austen. Ruskin would sacrifice all the pictures in the world, if society would transform itself into a Brotherhood of St. George. Tennyson has tried to put the dilemmas of theological controversy into lyric poetry, and Psychology is now to be studied, not in metaphysical ethics, but in popular novels. The aim of the modern historian is to compile a Times newspaper of events which happened three or four, eight or ten centuries ago. The aim of the modern philosopher is to tabulate mountains of research, and to prune away with agnostic non possumus the ancient oracles of hypothesis and imagination.
Our literature to-day has many characteristics: but its central note is the dominant influence of Sociology—enthusiasm for social truths as an instrument of social reform. It is scientific, subjective, introspective, historical, archaeological:—full of vitality, versatility, and diligence:—intensely personal, defiant of all law, of standards, of convention:—laborious, exact, but often indifferent to grace, symmetry, or colour:—it is learned, critical, cultured:—with all its ambition and its fine feeling, it is unsympathetic to the highest forms of the imagination, and quite alien to the drama of action.
It would be a difficult problem in social dynamics to fix anything like a true date for this change in the tone of literature, and to trace it back to its real social causes. The historian of English literature will perhaps take the death of Walter Scott, in 1832, as a typical date. By a curious coincidence, Goethe died in the same year. Two years later Coleridge and Lamb died. Within a few years more most of those who belonged to the era of Byron, Shelley, Scott, and Sheridan were departed or had sung their last effective note. The exceptions were Wordsworth and his immediate Lakist followers, Landor and Bulwer, of whom the latter two continued to produce. The death of Scott happened in the year of the Reform Act of 1832; and here we reach a political and social cause of the great change. The reformed democratic Parliament of 1832 was itself the reaction after the furious upheaval caused by the Revolution of 1789, and it heralded the social and legislative revolution of the last sixty years. It was the era when the steam-power and railway system was founded, and the vast industrial development which went with it. The last sixty years have witnessed a profound material revolution in English life; and the reaction on our literature has been deep and wide.
The most obvious and superficial change in literature is the extreme diversity of its form. There is no standard now, no conventional type, no good "model." It is an age of "Go-as-you-please," and of tous les genres sont bons, surtout le genre ennuyeux. In almost any age of English literature, or indeed of any other literature, an experienced critic can detect the tone of the epoch at once in prose or verse. There is in them an unmistakeable Zeit-Geist in phraseology and form. The Elizabethan drama, essay, or philosophy could not be mistaken for the drama, essay, or philosophy of the Restoration; the heroic couplet reigned from Dryden to Byron; Ciceronian diction reigned from Addison to Burke; and then the Quarterlies, with Southey, Lamb, Scott, De Quincey, Coleridge, Sydney Smith, and Leigh Hunt, introduced a simpler, easier tone of the well-bred causeur, as free from classical mannerism as it was free from subtle mechanism or epigrammatic brilliance. Down to about the death of Scott and Coleridge, almost any page of English prose or verse could be certainly attributed to its proper generation by the mark of its style alone.
The Victorian literature presents a dozen styles, every man speaking out what is in him, in the phrases he likes best. Our Zeit-Geist flashes all across the heavens at once. Let us place a page from Sartor Resartus beside a page from Macaulay's History of England, or either beside a page from Arnold's Literature and Dogma or one from the Stones of Venice. Here are four typical styles in prose, each of which has been much admired and imitated; yet they differ as widely as Shelley from Ovid, or Tennyson from Pope. Again, for verse, contrast Paracelsus with The Princess—poems written about the same time by friends and colleagues. Compare a poem of William Morris with one by Lewis Morris. Compare Swinburne's Songs and Sonnets with Matthew Arnold's Obermann; Rudyard Kipling's Ballads with The Light of Asia. Have they any common standard of form, any type of metre? The purists doubt as to the style of Carlyle as a "model," but no one denies that the French Revolution and Hero-Worship, at least in certain passages, display a mastery over language as splendid as anything in our prose literature. Exactly the same might be said also of Esmond, and again of Silas Marner, and again of the Seven Lamps of Architecture. Yet all of these differ as widely as one style can differ from another. Fifine at the Fair, and The Angel in the House, have each fervent admirers. No! there is no recognised "model" either in verse or in prose.
In truth, we have now both in prose and in verse strongly-contrasted types, each of which commands admiration and following. Both in prose and verse we have one type which has carried subtle finish and a purism studied almost to the point of "preciousness," alongside of another type which crowds its effects without regard to tone and harmony, and by its side a third type which trots along breathless in its shirt-sleeves. Tennyson's In Memoriam has that exquisite polish of workmanship which we find in such poets as Virgil, Racine, and Milton—that perfection of phrase which we cannot conceive the poet capable of improving by any labour. Put aside for the moment any question about the ideas, inspiration, or power of the poem as a whole, and consider that, in all those hundreds of stanzas, there is hardly one line that is either careless, prosaic, or harsh, not a single false note, nothing commonplace, nothing over-coloured, but uniform harmony of phrase. This perfection of phrasing is not always to be found even in the greatest poets, for Aeschylus and Dante at times strike a fierce discord, and Shakespeare, Calderon, and Goethe sometimes pass into rank extravaganza. But this scholarly and measured speech has impressed itself on the poetry of our time—insomuch, that the Tennysonian cycle of minor poets has a higher standard of grace, precision, and subtlety of phrase than the second rank of any modern literature:—a standard which puts to shame the rugosities of strong men like Dryden, Burns, and Byron. There is plenty of mannerism in this school of our minor poetry, but no one can call it either slovenly or harsh.
The friend, contemporary, almost the rival of Tennyson, one whom some think endowed by nature with even stronger genius, on the other hand, struck notes of discord harsher, louder, and more frequent than any poet since Elizabethan times. Whatever we hold about the insight and imagination of Browning, no one can doubt that he often chose to be uncouth, crabbed, grotesque, and even clownish, when the humour was on him. There are high precedents for genius choosing its own instrument and making its own music. But, whatever were Browning's latent powers of melody, his method when he chose to play upon the gong, or the ancient instrument of marrow-bone and cleavers, was the exact antithesis of Tennyson's; and he set on edge the teeth of those who love the exquisite cadences of In Memoriam and Maud. Browning has left deep influence, if not a school. The younger Lytton, George Meredith, Buchanan, here and there Swinburne and William Morris, seem to break loose from the graceful harmony which the Tennysonians affect, and to plunge headlong into the obscure, the uncouth, the ghastly, and the lurid. No one denies originality and power in many of these pieces: but they are flat blasphemy against the pellucid melody of the Tennysonian idyll. Our poetry seems to be under two contrary spells: it is enthralled at one time by the ravishing symmetry of Mozart; at another time it yearns for the crashing discords that thunder along the march of the Valkyrie through the air.
As in poetry, so in prose. We find in our best prose of to-day an extraordinary mastery over pure, nervous, imaginative language; and all this, alongside here of a riotous extravagance, and there, of a crude and garrulous commonplace. Thackeray's best chapters, say in Vanity Fair, Esmond, the Humourists, contain an almost perfect prose style—a style as nervous as that of Swift, as easy as that of Goldsmith, as graceful as that of Addison, as rich as that of Gibbon or Burke. No English romances have been clothed in a language so chaste and scholarly—not even Fielding's. Certainly not the Waverley series; for Scott, as we know, rehearsed his glowing chronicles of the past with the somewhat conventional verbosity of the improvisatore who recites but will not pause to write. George Eliot relates her story with an art even more cultivated than that of Thackeray—though, doubtless, with an over-elaborated self-consciousness, and perceptible suggestions of the laboratory of the student. Trollope tells his artless tales in perfectly pure, natural, and most articulate prose, the language of a man of the world telling a good story well. And a dozen living novelists are masters of a style of extreme ease and grace.
Side by side with this chastened English prose, we have men of genius who have fallen into evil habits. Bulwer, who knew better, would quite revel in a stagey bombast; Dickens, with his pathos and his humour, was capable of sinking into a theatrical mannerism and cockney vulgarities of wretched taste; Disraeli, with all his wit and savoir faire, has printed some rank fustian, and much slip-slop gossip; and George Meredith at times can be as jerky and mysterious as a prose Browning. Charlotte Bronte and Kingsley could both descend to blue fire and demoniac incoherences. Macaulay is brilliant and emphatic, but we weary at last of his everlasting staccato on the trumpet; and even the magnificent symphonies of Ruskin at his best will end sometimes in a sort of coda of fantasias which suggest limelights and coloured lenses. Carlyle, if not the greatest prose master of our age, must be held to be, by virtue of his original genius and mass of stroke, the literary dictator of Victorian prose. And, though we all know how wantonly he often misused his mighty gift, though no one now would venture to imitate him even at a distance, and though Matthew Arnold was ever taking up his parable—"Flee Carlylese as the very Devil!"—we are sliding into Carlylese unconsciously from time to time, and even Culture itself fell into the trap in the very act of warning others.
Side by side with such chastened literary art as that of Thackeray and George Eliot, Matthew Arnold and John Morley, Lecky and Froude, Maine and Symonds, side by side with a Carlylese tendency to extravagance, slang, and caricature, we find another vein in English prose—the flat, ungainly, nerveless style of mere scientific research. What lumps of raw fact are flung at our heads! What interminable gritty collops of learning have we to munch! Through what tangles of uninteresting phenomena are we not dragged in the name of Research, Truth, and the higher Philosophy! Mr. Mill and Mr. Spencer, Mr. Bain and Mr. Sidgwick, have taught our age very much; but no one of them was ever seen to smile; and it is not easy to recall in their voluminous works a single irradiating image or one monumental phrase.
There are eminent historians to-day who disdain the luminous style of Hume and Robertson, and yet deride the colour and fire of Gibbon. Grote poured forth the precious contents of his portentous notebooks with as little care for rhythm and as little sense of proportion as a German professor. Freeman and Gardiner have evidently trained themselves in the same school of elaborate learning, till they would appear to count the graceful English of Froude, Lecky, and Green as hardly becoming the dignity of history. It would seem as if the charge which some of our historians are most anxious to avoid is the charge of being "readable," and of keeping to themselves any fact that they know.
The men who are rather pleased than pained to hear themselves called by the barbarous term of "scientists" seem to think that it matters nothing how ill-digested be their book, or how commonplace be their language. They are accustomed to lecture to students in the laboratory in their shirt-sleeves with their hands in their pockets; and they believe that immortality may be achieved if they can pile up enough facts and manufacture an adequate number of monographs. And they do this, in the teeth of excellent examples to the contrary. Huxley and Tyndall have given their brethren in science fine examples of a pure, vigorous, and well-knit style. Yet, how many of them are still quite content to go rumbling along with an interminable rigmarole of dry "memoirs." Our ponderous biographies of third-rate people tend to become mere bags of letters and waste-paper baskets. And all this with such consummate models before us, and so very high a standard of general cultivation. We have had in this age men who write an English as pure and powerful as any in the whole range of our literature; we have tens of thousands of men and women who write a perfectly correct and intelligent prose. And yet out of a million books, we find so very few which even aim at being works of art in the sense that Tom Jones is a work of art, and the Decline and Fall is a work of art.
It is, no doubt, this preponderance of the practical, scientific, and social energies which has checked in our Victorian Age the highest imaginative and dramatic genius. With all its achievements in lyric and psychologic poetry, it has hardly attempted to scale the empyrean of song. In the seventy-six years that have passed since Shelley conceived his Prometheus, as he sat gazing over the sombre ruins of the Campagna, no one has ever ventured into that seventh heaven of invention. Since the School for Scandal (1777) no English drama has been produced which has anything like the same hold on the stage. For more than sixty years the English stage has not known one consummate actor. Though men of real genius have in these sixty years laboured at the higher drama, they have hardly achieved even such measures of success as fell to Byron and Shelley with Manfred and the Cenci. With all its lyric and psychologic power, with all its energy and its learning, the Victorian Age has not quite equalled the age of Goethe. It is as if its scientific spirit checked the supreme imagination: as if its social earnestness produced a distaste for merely dramatic passion.
One of the most striking facts about our modern literature is the preponderance of the "subjective" over the "objective." The interest in external events, as the subject of imaginative work, quite pales before the interest in analysis of mental and moral impulse. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Jane Austen, have completely dominated our age, and have displaced the epic and legendary themes of Scott, Byron, Campbell, and Southey. The Two Voices, In Memoriam, The Ring and the Book, Silas Marner, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, dissect brain and heart, but do not make their prime motive in any thrilling history. The crisis of modern romance goes on in the conscience, not in the outside world. Hence the enormous multiplication of the psychologic novel, a form of art which the eighteenth century would have viewed with wonder and perplexity. The curious part of this is the striking abatement of taste for the historical romance, in spite of the immense extension of historical study and archaeological revival. We know far more about the past, both within and without, than did our fathers; and we are always seeking to realise to ourselves the habits, ideas, aspect, the very clothes and furniture of ages of old, which we study with sympathetic zeal and in the minutest detail. Yet the historical romance appears only at intervals. Harold and Esmond are both more than forty years old, Romola more than thirty years old. They are none of them quite unqualified successes; and no later historical romance has approached these three in power and interest. Why is it, that, in an age pre-eminently historical, in an age so redundant of novels, the historical novel is out of fashion? Partly, no doubt, our romancers shun comparison with the mighty Wizard of the North; partly, the analytic genius of our time so greatly exceeds its synthetic genius; and mainly, the range of our historical learning inclines us to restore the past by exact scholarship and not by fiction without authority. George Eliot was so anxious to have her local colour accurate that she ended by becoming somewhat fatiguing. Some day, no doubt, the genius of romance will return to this inexhaustible field with enthusiasm equal to Scott's, with a knowledge far more accurate than his, and a spirit quite purged from political and social bias.
From the death of Scott in 1832 until 1894 are sixty-two years; and if we divide this period into equal parts at the year 1863 (it was the year of Thackeray's death), we shall be struck with the fact that the purely literary product of the first period of thirty-one years (1832-1863) is superior to the purely literary product of the second period of thirty-one years (1863-1894). The former period gives us all that was best of Tennyson, the Brownings, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Bulwer, the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell, Trollope, George Eliot, Kingsley, Disraeli, Dr. Arnold, Thirlwall, Grote, Hallam, Milman, Macaulay, Mill, Froude, Layard, Kinglake, Ruskin. The second period gave us in the main, Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, G. H. Lewes, Maine, Leslie Stephen, John Morley, Matthew Arnold, Lecky, Freeman, Stubbs, Bryce, Green, Gardiner, Symonds, Rossetti, Morris, Swinburne. Poetry, romance, the critical, imaginative, and pictorial power, dominate the former period: philosophy, science, politics, history are the real inspiration of the latter period.
The era since the death of Scott is essentially a scientific age, a sociologic age; and this is peculiarly visible in the second half of this era of sixty-two years. About the middle of the period we see how the scientific and sociologic interest begins to over-shadow, if not to oust, the literary, poetic, and romantic interest. Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859; and its effect on thought became marked within the next few years. In 1862, Herbert Spencer commenced to issue his great encyclopaedic work, Synthetic Philosophy, still, we trust, to be completed after more than thirty years of devoted toil. Darwin's later books appeared about the same period, as did a large body of scientific works in popular form by Huxley, Tyndall, Wallace, Lewes, Lubbock, Tylor, and Clifford. It is only needful here to refer to such scientific works as directly reacted on general literature. About the same time the later speculations of Comte began to attract public attention in England, and the Positive Polity was translated in 1875. Between the years 1860-1875, there grew up in England an absorbing interest in Social Philosophy, and a conviction that the idea of invariable law offered a solution of the progress of society. Evolution as an idea was in the air, and it was applied to Man as much as to Nature. It is no part of our present purpose to trace its growth from the scientific aspect. It is enough to note how it acted and reacted on general literature.
Poetry began to hover round the problem of Evolution. It wrapped it in mystery, denounced it with fine indignation, and took it for the text of some rather prosaic homilies. Criticism fell into the prevailing theory: so did history, and even romance. Philosophy and Science are not the best foster-mothers of Poetry and Romance. Philosophy and Science grew more solemn than ever; and Poetry and Romance lost something of their wilder fancy and their light heart. Literature grew less spontaneous, more correct, more learned, and, it may be, more absorbed in its practical purpose of modifying social life.
The old notion of literature being a business apart from affairs, of men of letters being an order, of an absorption in books being ample work for a life—all this is far from the rule. At least twenty members of the present and late Governments have been copious writers; Mr. Gladstone and at least three or four of his late colleagues are quite in the front rank of living authors—nay, several of them began their career as literary men. It would be difficult to name an important writer of the Victorian Age who has not at times flung himself with ardour into the great social, political, or religious battles of his time. Thackeray, Trollope, Green, Symonds, are possible exceptions—examples of bookmen who passed their lives with books, and who never wrote to promote "a cause." But all the rest have entered on the "burning questions" of their age, and most of them with the main part of their force. As a consequence "learning," as it was understood by Casaubon, Scaliger, Bentley, Johnson, and Gibbon, as it was understood by Littre, Doellinger, and Mommsen, may be said to have disappeared in England. Cardinal Newman, Mark Pattison, Dr. Pusey, were said to be very learned, but it was a kind of learning which kept very much to itself. For good or for evil, our literature is now absorbed in the urgent social problem, and is become but an instrument in the vast field of Sociology—the science of Society.
This predominance of Sociology, the restless rapidity of modern life, the omnipresence of material activity, fully account for the special character of modern literature. Literature is no longer "bookish"—but practical, social, propagandist. It is full of life—but it is a dispersive, analytic, erratic form of vitality. It has a most fastidious taste in form—but it often flings the critical spirit aside in its passion for doing, in its ardour to convince and to inspire. It is industrious, full of learning and research—but it regards its learning as an instrument of influence, not as an end of thought. It can work up a poem or an essay, as carefully as Mieris or Breughel polished a cabinet picture—and it can "tear a passion to tatters," or tumble its note-books into a volume all in a heap. It has no "standard," no "model," no "best writer"—and yet it has a curious faculty for reviving every known form and imitating any style. It is intensely historical, but so accurately historical that it is afraid to throw the least colour of imagination around its history. It has consummate poetic feeling, and copious poetic gifts—but it has now no single poet of the first rank. It has infinite romantic resources, and an army of skilful novelists—and yet it has no single living writer worthy to be named beside the great romancers of the nineteenth century.
This rich, many-sided, strenuous literature, which will place the name of Victoria higher than that of Elizabeth in the history of our language, would form a splendid subject hereafter for some one of our descendants who was equal to the task of treating our Victorian literature as a whole. In the meantime, it may be worth while for the men and women of to-day, who are full of all the excellent work around us, to be reminded of the good things produced now nearly sixty years ago. As one who can remember much that was given to the world in a former generation, I shall endeavour in these little sketches to mark some of the characteristics of the best writers in the early Victorian Age, confining myself for the present to prose literature of the imaginative kind.
It is now some time since the country of Shakespeare and of Milton has been without its poet laureate, and to the non-poetical world the absence of that court functionary is hardly perceptible. Nay, the question has begun to arise, If there is to be a laureate in poetry, why not a laureate also in prose romance? And if there were a laureate in prose romance, whom should we choose?
The same phenomenon meets us in the realm of prose fiction as in poetry: that we have vast quantities of thoughtful work produced, an army of cultivated workers, a great demand, an equally great supply, a very high average of merit—and yet so little of the very first rank. For the first time in the present century, English literature is without a single living novelist of world-wide reputation. The nineteenth century opened with Castle Rackrent and the admirably original tales of Maria Edgeworth. Jane Austen followed in the same field. And since Waverley appeared, in 1814, we have had a succession of fine romances in unbroken line. Fenimore Cooper's work is nearly contemporary with the best of Scott's. At Sir Walter's death Bulwer-Lytton was in full career. And Lytton, Disraeli, Hawthorne, the Brontes, Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope were all at their best nearly together. During the last twenty years or so of this splendid period they had been joined by George Eliot; and of the whole band Anthony Trollope was the survivor. With him our language lost the last of those companions of the fireside in mansion and cottage whose names are household words, whose books are in every hand, where the English tongue is heard.
We need not engage in any critical estimate of these writers: we are but too well aware of their failures and defects. Lytton indited not a little bombast, Dickens had his incurable mannerisms, and Thackeray his conventional cynicisms. There are passages in George Eliot's romances which read like sticky bits from a lecture on comparative palaeontology; and Disraeli, who for fifty years threw off most readable tales in the intervals of politics, seems always to be laughing at the public behind his mask. Yet the good sense of mankind remembers the best and forgets the worst, even if the worst be four-fifths of the whole.
The place of genius is decided by its inimitable hits, and its misses evermore drop out of memory as time goes on. The world loves its bright spirits for what they give it, and it does not score their blots like an examiner marking a student's paper. Thus the men and women of the first rank still hold the field in the million homes where English tales are a source of happiness; and it would be perverse to maintain that any living men have reached that level. We can see no trace that Pickwick or Emma, Natty Bumppo or Uncas, are losing their hold on the imagination of men and women, any more than Jeanie Deans and the Antiquary. Oliver Twist, the Last Days of Pompeii, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, have more readers than ever. And I find the Last Chronicle of Barset, Lothair, and Silas Marner as fresh as they were a quarter of a century ago.
We all admit that there are delightful writers still. I am not about to decry our living romancers, and certainly not to criticise them. If any man choose to maintain that there is more poetry in Tess than in the entire Barsetshire series, that Dickens could not have bettered the Two Drummer Boys of Rudyard Kipling, that Treasure Island has a realism as vivid as Robinson Crusoe, that Mrs. Wood's Village Tragedy may rank with Silas Marner, that Howells and Besant, Ouida and Rhoda Broughton, Henry James and Mrs. Burnett, are as good reading as we need, that Bret Harte has struck a line as original as that of Dickens, and that George Meredith has an eye for character which reminds us not seldom of Thackeray and Fielding—I do not dispute it. I am no one-book man or one-style man, but enjoy what is good in all. But I am thinking of the settled judgment and the visible practice of the vast English-speaking and English-reading world. And judging by that test, we cannot shut our eyes to this, that we have no living romancer who has yet achieved that world-wide place of being read and welcomed in every home where the language is heard or known. George Meredith has been a prolific writer for thirty years and Stevenson for twenty years; but their most ardent admirers, among whom I would be counted, can hardly claim for them a triumph so great.
We come, then, to this, that for the first time during this whole century now ending, English literature can count no living novelist whom the world, and not merely the esoteric circle of cultured Englishmen, consents to stamp with the mark of accepted fame. One is too eccentric, obscure, and subtle, another too local and equal, a third too sketchy, this one too unreal, that one far too real, too obvious, too prosaic, to win and to hold the great public by their spell. Critics praise them, friends utter rhapsodies, good judges enjoy them—but their fame is partial, local, sectional, compared to the fame of Scott, Dickens, or Thackeray.
What is the cause? I do not hesitate to say it is that we have over-trained our taste, we are overdone with criticism, we are too systematically drilled, there is far too much moderate literature and far too fastidious a standard in literature. Everyone is afraid to let himself go, to offend the conventions, or to raise a sneer. It is the inevitable result of uniformity in education and discipline in mental training. Millions can write good grammar, easy and accurate sentences, and imitate the best examples of the age. Education has been driven at high pressure into literary lines, and a monotonous correctness in literary taste has been erected into a moral code. Tens of thousands of us can put the finger on a bit of exaggeration, or a false light in the local colour, or a slip in perfect realism. The result is a photographic accuracy of detail, a barren monotony of commonplace, and the cramping of real inventive genius. It is the penalty of giving ourselves up to mechanical culture.
If another Dickens were to break out to-morrow with the riotous tomfoolery of Pickwick at the trial, or of Weller and Stiggins, a thousand lucid criticisms would denounce it as vulgar balderdash. Glaucus and Nydia at Pompeii would be called melodramatic rant. The House of the Seven Gables would be rejected by a sixpenny magazine, and Jane Eyre would not rise above a common "shocker." Hence the enormous growth of the Kodak school of romance—the snap-shots at everyday realism with a hand camera. We know how it is done. A woman of forty, stout, plain, and dull, sits in an ordinary parlour at a tea-table, near an angular girl with a bad squint. "Some tea?" said Mary, touching the pot. "I don't mind," replied Jane in a careless tone; "I am rather tired and it is a dull day." "It is," said Mary, as her lack-lustre eyes glanced at the murky sky without. "Another cup?" And so the modern romance dribbles on hour by hour, chapter by chapter, volume by volume, recording, as in a phonograph, the minute commonplace of the average man and woman in perfectly real but entirely common situations. To this dead level of correctness literary purism has brought romance. The reaction against the photographic style, on the other hand, leads to spasmodic efforts to arouse the jaded interest by forced sensationalism, physiological bestialities, and a crude form of the hobgoblin and bogey business.
In all the ages of great productive work there were intense individuality, great freedom, and plenty of failures. Tom Jones delighted the town which was satiated with gross absurdities, some of them, alas! from the pen of Fielding himself. Shakespeare wrote happily before criticism had invented the canons of the drama, and Sir Walter's stories had no reviews to expose his historical blunders. In the great romance age which began to decline some forty years ago, there was not a tithe of such good average work as we get now; criticism had not become a fine art; every one was free to like what he pleased, and preposterous stuff was written and enjoyed. Of course it cannot be good to like preposterous stuff, and an educated taste ought to improve literature. But it is almost a worse thing when general culture produces an artificial monotony, when people are taught what they ought to like, when to violate the canons of taste is far worse than to laugh at the Ten Commandments.
With a very high average of fairly good work, an immense mass of such work, and an elaborate code of criticism, the production of brilliant and inimitable successes is usually arrested in every field. Having thousands of graceful verse-writers, we have no great poet; in a torrent of skilful fiction, we have no great novelist; with many charming painters, who hardly seem to have a fault, we have no great artist; with mises-en-scene, make-up costumes, and accessories for our plays such as the world never saw before, we have no great actor; and with ten thousand thoughtful writers, we have not a single genius of the first rank. Elaborate culture casts chill looks on original ideas. Genius itself is made to feel the crudeness and extravagance of its first efforts and retires with shame to take a lower place. We are all so fastidious about form and have got such fixed regulation views about form, we are so correct, so much like one another, such good boys and girls, that the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of the inventive spirit are taught from childhood to control themselves and to conform to the decorum of good society. A highly organised code of culture may give us good manners, but it is the death of genius.
There are other things which check the flow of a really original literature, though perhaps a high average culture and a mechanical system of education may be the most potent. Violent political struggles check it: an absorption in material interests checks it: uniformity of habits, a general love of comfort, conscious self-criticism, make it dull and turbid. Now our age is marked by all of these. From the age of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, the French genius produced almost no imaginative work of really European importance until it somewhat revived again with Chateaubriand in the present century. Nor in England can we count anything of a like kind from the death of Goldsmith until we reach Scott, Byron, and Wordsworth after an interval of forty years. In the United States the great eras of imaginative production have been those which were free from political and military struggles.
The case of France is indeed conclusive proof how suddenly political turmoil kills imaginative work. French literature, which during the greater part of the eighteenth century had shown amazing activity, suddenly seems arrested with Rousseau; and in the latter years of the eighteenth century there is absolutely nothing of even moderate quality in the field of art. The same is true of England for the last thirty years of the same century. Shakespeare's dramas were not produced till his country had victoriously passed through the death-struggle of the religious wars in the sixteenth century. The civil war of the Puritans arrested poetry, so that for nearly thirty years the muse of Milton himself withdrew into her solitary cell. Dryden carried on the torch for a time. But prose literature did not revive in England until the Hanoverian settlement. Political ferment kills literature: prolonged war kills it: social agitation unnerves it; and still more the uneasy sense of being on the verge of great and unknown change.
Take our Queen's reign of now some fifty-eight years (1837-1895) and divide it in half at the year 1866. It is plain that by far the greater part of the "Victorian" literature was produced in the former half and quite the inferior part of it was produced in the latter half. By the year 1866 we had already got all, or all that was best, of Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Ruskin, Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Disraeli, Kingsley, and others who lived after that date. In 1865 Lord Palmerston died, and with him died the old Parliamentary era. In the same year died Abraham Lincoln in the great crisis of the reconstruction of the American Constitution. We attach no peculiar importance to that date. But it is certain that both English and American people have been in this last twenty-nine years absorbed in constitutional agitations which go deep down into our social system. We in England have passed from one constitutional struggle to another, and we are now in the most acute stage of all this period. Parliamentary reform, continental changes, colonial wars, military preparations, Home Rule, have absorbed the public mind and stunned it with cataracts of stormy debate. We are all politicians, all party-men now.
There is upon us also, both in England and in America, a social ferment that goes deeper than any mere constitutional struggle. It is the vague, profound, multiform, and mysterious upheaval that is loosely called Socialism—not Socialism in any definite formula, but the universal yearning of the millions for power, consideration, material improvement, and social equality. The very vagueness, universality, and unbounded scope of the claim they make constitute its power. All orders and classes are concerned in it: all minds of whatever type are affected by it: every political, social, or industrial axiom has to be reconsidered in the light of it: it appeals to all men and it enters into life at every corner and pore. We are like men under the glamour of some great change impending. The spell of a new order holds us undecided and expectant. There is something in the air, and that something is a vague and indescribable sense that a new time is coming. Men felt it in France, and indeed all over Europe, from 1780 till 1790. It was an uncertain and rather pleasing state of expectancy. It did not check activity, nor enjoyment, nor science. But it diverted the profounder minds from the higher forms of imaginative work.
There is no reason to assume that Socialism or the ideals of Socialism are at all hostile to literature or even imaginative poetry, provided they are not too close, not actually causing direct agitation. But when men are debating bills in heated meetings, they do not often see these questions in the halo of romance. Rousseau's Heloise and Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield were quite a generation before the Revolution, at a time when franchise and agrarian politics had hardly begun. The poetry and the romance of a great social reformation are never visible to men in the midst of it, who are ready to tear each other's eyes out in the name of Eight-Hours Bills and Land Nationalisation. When men have got to this stage they want lighter matter to amuse them at home; but they can hardly appreciate, even if they could find, the loftier flights of social romance. Sam Weller to-day has joined a union, and reads his Henry George. Rawdon Crawley of our own generation is a mere drunken ruffian, only fit to point the moral in a lecture on the drink traffic. And Becky Sharp is voted to be a stupid libel on the social destiny of the modern school "marm."
The great advance in the material comfort and uniformity of life and manners dries up the very sources of prose romance, even more than it ruins poetry. The poet is by nature an isolated spirit dwelling in an ideal world of his own. But the prose novelist draws life as he sees it in the concrete from intimate knowledge of real men and women. How intensely did Fielding, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Miss Austen, Miss Edgeworth know by experience the characters they drew! A romance cannot be constructed out of the novelist's inner consciousness as Paradise Lost, Shelley's Prometheus, and Wordsworth's Excursion were constructed. Even Scott becomes grave and melodramatic when he peoples his stage with those whose like he never saw. But how vastly more romantic was the Scotland of Scott than is the Scotland of Stevenson! The Vicar of Wakefield and Squire Western are not to be found in an age that is busy with railways and telegraphs and the Review of Reviews. Pickwick and Oliver Twist have been improved off the face of the earth by cheap newspapers and sanitary reform. The fun has gone out of Vanity Fair, and the House of the Seven Gables is an hotel with seven hundred beds.
Comfort, electric light, railway sleeping-cars, and equality are excellent things, but they are the death of romance. The essence of romance is variety, contrast, individuality, the eccentric, the unconventional. Level up society, put nineteen out of every twenty on fairly equal terms, popularise literature, and turn the Ten Commandments into a code of decorum, and you cut up by the roots all romantic types of life. The England of Fielding and the Scotland of Scott were breezy, boisterous, disorderly, picturesque, and jolly worlds, where gay and hot spirits got into mischief and played mad pranks as, in the words of the old song, "They powlered up and down a bit and had a rattling day." Laws, police, total abstinence, general education, and weak digestions have put an end to pranks, as we are all proud to say. The result is that Romance, finding little of romance in the real world, has taken two different lines in the desperate effort to amuse us somehow. The virtuous line is the phonographic reproduction of everyday life in ordinary situations. The disreputable line is Zolaesque bestiality, and forced, unreal, unlovely, and hysterical sensationalism.
It cannot be more than a paradox to pretend that fin de siecle has anything to do with it. But it is a curious coincidence how the last decade of modern centuries seems to die down in creative fertility. The hundred millions who speak our English tongue have now no accepted living master of the first rank, either in verse or in prose. In 1793 there was not one in all Europe. In 1693, though Dryden lingered in his decline, it was one of the most barren moments in English literature. And so in 1593, though the Faery Queen was just printed, and Shakespeare had begun to write, there were nothing but the first streaks which herald the dawn. But this is obviously a mere coincidence; nor can an artificial division of time affect the rise or fall of genius. It may be that, in these latter days, when our age is the victim of self-conscious introspection, the close of a century which has shown such energy may affect us in some unconscious way. Perhaps there is a vague impression that the world is about to turn over a new page in the mighty ledger of mankind, that it is now too late to do much with the nineteenth century, and that we will make a new start with the twentieth.
The world is growing less interesting, less mysterious, less manifold, at any rate to the outer eye. The mise-en-scene of external life is less rich in colour and in contrast. Magnificence, squalor, oddity, historic survivals, and picturesque personalities grow rarer year by year. Everybody writes a grammatical letter in conventional style, wears the clothes in fashion, and conforms to the courtesies of life. It is right, good, and wise: but a little dull. It is the lady-like age, the epoch of the dress-coat, of the prize lad and the girl of the period. Mr. Charles Pearson, in his remarkable forecast of National Life and Character, warned us how the universal levelling of modern democracy must end in a certain monotony and a lowered vitality. We live longer, but in quiet, comfortable, orderly ways. This is not at all injurious to morality, politics, industry, science, philosophy, or religion. It is not necessarily injurious to poetry, at least of the lower flight. But it is adverse to high art. And it is asphyxiating to romance.
The novelist must draw from the living model and he must address the people of his own age. He cannot write for posterity, nor can he live in a day-dream world of his own. The poet is often lost to his own contemporaries. It may need two or three, five or six, generations to reveal him, as Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, and Wordsworth may remind us. But the novelist must live in his generation, be of it most intensely, and if he is to delight at all, like the actor, he must delight his own age. What sons of their own time were Fielding, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope: how intensely did they drink with both hands from the cup of life. George Eliot, George Meredith, Louis Stevenson, Howells, James, look on life from a private box. We see their kid gloves and their opera-glass and we know that nothing could ever take them on to the stage and ruffle it with the world of the day, like men of the world who mean to taste life. There is no known instance of a great novelist who lived obscure in a solitary retreat or who became famous only after the lapse of many generations.
It is the lady-like age: and so it is the age of ladies' novels. Women have it all their own way now in romance. They carry off all the prizes, just as girl students do in the studios of Paris. Up to a certain point, within their own limits, they are supreme. Half the modern romance, and many people think the better half, is written by women. That is perfectly natural, an obvious result of modern society. The romance to which our age best lends itself is the romance of ordinary society, with delicate shades of character and feeling in place of furious passion or picturesque incident. Women are by nature and training more subtle observers of these social nuances and refined waverings of the heart than any others but men of rare genius. The field is a small and home-like area, the requirements are mainly those of graceful intuition, the tone must be pure, lady-like, subdued. In this sphere it is plain that women have a marked superiority; it is the sphere in which Jane Austen is the yet unapproached queen. But we may look for more Jane Austens, and on wider fields with a yet deeper insight into far grander characters. The social romance of the future is the true poetic function of women. It is their own realm, in which they will doubtless achieve yet unimagined triumphs. Men, revolting from this polite and monotonous world, are trying desperate expedients. But they are all wrong; the age is against it. Try to get out of modern democratic uniformity and decorum and you may as well try to get out of your skin. Mr. Stevenson was driven to playing at Robinson Crusoe in the Pacific, and Mr. Rudyard Kipling once seemed bent on dying in a tussle with Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the Soudan. But it is no good. A dirty savage is no longer a romantic being. And as to the romance of the wigwam, it reminds me of the Jews who keep the Feast of Tabernacles by putting up some boughs in a back yard.
Let us have no nonsense, no topsy-turvy straining after new effects, which is so wearisome to those who love the racy naturalism of Parson Adams and Edie Ochiltree. But let us have no pessimism also. The age is against the romance of colour, movement, passion, and jollity. But it is full of the romance of subtle and decorous psychology. It is not the highest art: it is indeed a very limited art. But it is true art: wholesome, sound, and cheerful. The world does not exist in order to supply brilliant literature; and the march of democratic equality and of decorous social uniformity is too certain a thing, in one sense too blessed a thing, to be denied or to be denounced. An age of colour, movement, variety, and romantic beauty will come again one day, we know not how. There will be then a romance of passion and incident, of strenuous ambition and mad merriment. But not to-day nor to-morrow. Let us accept what the dregs of the nineteenth century can give us, without murmuring and repining for what it cannot give and should not seek to give.
In this little series of studies, I shall make no attempt to estimate the later literature of the Victorian Age, nor will I at all refer to any living writer. Nor shall I deal with social and moral philosophy, poetry, art, or religion. I propose to look back, from our present point of view, on the literature, in the narrower sense of the term, produced in the earlier part of the Queen's reign.
It is now for about half a century that the world has had all that is most masterly in the work of Thomas Carlyle. And a time has arrived when we may very fairly seek to weigh the sum total of influence which he left on his own and on subsequent generations. We are now far enough off, neither to be dazzled by his eloquence nor irritated by his eccentricities. The men whom he derided and who shook their heads at him are gone: fresh problems, new hopes, other heroes and prophets whom he knew not, have arisen. Our world is in no sense his world. And it has become a very fair question to ask—What is the residuum of permanent effect from these great books of his, which have been permeating English thought for half a century and more?
It is a rare honour for any writer—at least for one who is neither poet nor novelist—to have his productions live beyond two generations, and to continue to be a great literary force, when fifty years have altered all the conditions in which he wrote and the purposes and ideas which he treated. It cannot be said that Carlyle's effective influence is less now than it was a generation ago. It has lived through the Utilitarian and Evolution movements and has not been extinguished by them. And Thomas Carlyle bids fair to enter into that sacred band whose names outlive their own century and give some special tone to their national literature.
The survival of certain books and names from generation to generation does not depend on merit alone. Boswell's Life of Johnson is immortal: though we do not rank "Bozzy" as a hero or a genius. Hume's History of England is a classic: though it can hardly be said to be an adequate account of our country. Few books have ever exercised so amazing an influence as Rousseau's Social Contract; yet the loosest mind of to-day can perceive its sophistry. Burke's diatribes on the French Revolution affected the history of Europe; though no one denies that they were inspired by passion and deformed by panic. Hobbes has very few readers to-day; but the Leviathan may last as long as More's Utopia, which has hardly more readers in our age. Books which exert a paramount influence over their contemporaries may die down and be known only in the history of literature. And books, again, of very moderate value, written by men of one-sided intellect or founded on somewhat shallow theories, may, by virtue of some special quality, or as embodying some potent idea, attain to a permanent place in the world of letters. Many a great book ceases very early to command readers: and many books continue to be read although they are far from great.
The first question that arises is this:—Do the chief works of Carlyle belong to that class of books which attain an enduring and increasing power, or to that class which effect great things for one or two generations and then become practically obsolete? It would not be safe to put his masterpieces in any exclusive sense into either of these categories; but we may infer that they will ultimately tend to the second class rather than the first. Books which attain to an enduring and increasing power are such books as the Ethics, the Politics, and the Republic, the Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius and of Vauvenargues, the Essays of Bacon and of Hume, Plutarch's Lives and Gibbon's Rome. In these we have a mass of pregnant and ever-fertile thought in a form that is perennially luminous and inspiring. It can hardly be said that even the masterpieces of Carlyle—no! not the Revolution, Cromwell, or the Heroes—reach this point of immortal wisdom clothed with consummate art. The "personal equation" of Teufelsdroeckhian humour, its whimsies, and conundrums, its wild outbursts of hate and scorn, not a few false judgments, and perverse likes and dislikes—all this is too common and too glaring in the Carlylean cycle, to permit its master to pass into the portals where dwell the wise, serene, just, and immortal spirits. Not of such is the Kingdom of the literary Immortals.
On the other hand, if these masterpieces of sixty years ago are not quite amongst the great books of the world, it would be preposterous to regard them as obsolete, or such as now interest only the historian of literature. They are read to-day practically as much as ever, and are certain to be read for a generation or two to come. But they are not read to-day with the passionate delight in the wonderful originality, nor have they the commanding authority they seemed to possess for the faithful disciples of the forties and the fifties. Nor can any one suppose that the next century will continue to read them, except with an open and unbiassed mind, and a willingness to admit that even here there is much dead wood, gross error, and pitiable exaggeration. When we begin to read in that spirit, however splendid be the imagination, and however keen the logic, we are no longer under the spell of a master: we are reading a memorable book, with a primary desire to learn how former generations looked upon things.
Thomas Carlyle, like all other voluminous writers, wrote very much that cannot be called equal to his best: and it cannot be denied that the inferior pieces hold a rather large proportion of the whole. Nothing is less fatal to true criticism than the popular habit of blindly overvaluing the inferior work of men of genius, unless it be the habit of undervaluing them by looking at their worst instead of at their best. Great men are to be judged by their highest; and it is not of very great consequence if this highest forms a moderate part of the total product. Now, what are the masterpieces of Thomas Carlyle? In the order of their production they are Sartor Resartus, 1831; French Revolution, 1837; Hero-Worship, 1840; Past and Present, 1843; Cromwell, 1845. We need not be alarmed if this list forms but a third of the thirty volumes (not including translations); and if it omits such potent outbursts as Chartism, 1839; and Latter-Day Pamphlets, 1850; or such a wonderful piece of history as Friedrich the Second, 1858-1865. Chartism and the Latter-Day Pamphlets are full of eloquence, insight, indignation, and pity, and they exerted a great and wholesome effect on the generation whom they smote as with the rebuke and warning of a prophet. But, as we look back on them after forty or fifty years of experience, we find in them too much of passionate exaggeration, at times a ferocious wrong-headedness, and everywhere so little practical guidance or fruitful suggestion, that we cannot reckon these magnificent Jeremiads as permanent masterpieces.
As to Friedrich, it is not a book at all, but an encyclopaedia of German biographies in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Who reads every word of these ten volumes? Who cares to know how big was the belly of some court chamberlain, or who were the lovers of some unendurable Frau? What a welter of dull garbage! In what dust-heaps dost thou not smother us, Teufelsdroeckh! O, Thomas, Thomas, what Titania has bewitched thee with the head of Dryasdust on thy noble shoulders? Compare Friedrich with Cromwell. In the Life of the Puritan hero we have a great purpose, a prolonged homily, a magnificent appeal against an unjust sentence passed two hundred years before by ignorance, bigotry, and passion. The literary interest never overpowers the social and political, the moral and the religious purpose. Twenty years later, when he takes up the German Friedrich, the literary interest overpowers the historical. Half of the ten volumes of Friedrich are taken up with tiresome anecdotes about the ordinary appendages of a German court. Even the true greatness of Frederick—his organisation of a model civil administration—is completely obscured in the deluge of court gossip and Potsdamiana. Friedrich is a wonderful work, highly valuable to the student, a memorable result of Teufelsdroeckhian industry and humour—but it is not a masterpiece: judged by the standard of Carlyle's own masterpieces, it is really a failure. Cromwell is the life of a hero and a statesman; Friedrich consists of miscellaneous memoirs of the court and camp of the greatest of modern rulers.
On the whole, we may count the Cromwell as the greatest of Carlyle's effective products. With his own right hand, alone and by a single stroke, he completely reversed the judgment of the English nation about their greatest man. The whole weight of Church, monarchy, aristocracy, fashion, literature, and wit had for two centuries combined to falsify history and distort the character of the noblest of English statesmen. And a simple man of letters, by one book, at once and for ever reversed this sentence, silenced the allied forces of calumny and rancour, and placed Oliver for all future time as the greatest hero of the Protestant movement. There are few examples in the history of literature of so great and so sudden a triumph of truth and justice. At the same time, it is well to remember that the Cromwell is not a literary masterpiece, in the sense of being an organic work of high art. It is not the "Life" of Cromwell: it was not so designed, and was never so worked out. It is his "Letters and Speeches," illustrated by notes. A work so planned cannot possibly be a work of art, or a perfect piece of biography. The constant passage from text to commentary, from small print to large, from Oliver's Puritan sermonising to Carlyle's Sartorian eccentricities, destroys the artistic harmony of the book as an organic work of art. The "Life" of Cromwell was in fact never written by Carlyle; and has yet to be written. Never yet was such splendid material for a "Life" prepared by a great historian.
Sartor Resartus (1831), the earliest of his greater works, is unquestionably the most original, the most characteristic, the deepest and most lyrical of his productions. Here is the Sage of Craigenputtock at his best, at his grimmest, and, we must add, in his most incoherent mood. To make men think, to rouse men out of the slough of the conventional, the sensual, the mechanical, to make men feel, by sheer force of poetry, pathos, and humour, the religious mystery of life and the "wretchlessness of unclean living"—(as our Church article hath it)—nothing could be more trumpet-tongued than Sartor. The Gospel according to Teufelsdroeckh is, however, a somewhat Apocalyptic dispensation, and few there be who can "rehearse the articles of his belief" with anything like precision. Another and a more serious difficulty is this. How many a "general reader" steadily reads through Sartor from cover to cover? And of such, how many entirely understand the inner Philosophy of Clothes, and follow all the allusions, quips, and nicknames of Sartorian subjectivity. It would be a fine subject for some Self-Improvement Circle of readers to write examination papers upon questions as to the exact meaning of all the inward musings of Teufelsdroeckh. The first class of successful candidates, one fears, would be small. A book—not of science or of pure philosophy, or any technical art whatever—but a book addressed to the general reader, and designed for the education of the public, and which can be intelligently digested and assimilated by so very few of the public, can hardly be counted as an unqualified success. And the adepts who have mastered the inwardness of Sartor are rare and few.
The French Revolution, however, is far more distinctly a work of art than Cromwell, and far more accessible to the great public than Sartor. Indeed the French Revolution is usually, and very properly, spoken of and thought of, as a prose poem, if prose poem there can be. It has the essential character of an epic, short of rhythm and versification. Its "argument" and its "books"; its contrasts and "episodes"; its grouping of characters and denoument—are as carefully elaborated as the Gerusalemme of Tasso, or the Aeneid of Virgil. And it produces on the mind the effect of a poem with an epic or dramatic plot. It is only a reader thoroughly at home in the history of the time, who can resist the poet's spell when, at the end of Part III., Book VII., he is told that the Revolution is "ended," and the curtain falls. As a matter of real history, this is an arbitrary invention. For the street fight on the day named in the Revolutionary Calendar—13 Vendemiaire, An 4 (5th October 1795), is merely a casual point in a long movement, at which the poet finds it artistic to stop. But the French Revolution does not stop there, nor did the "Whiff of Grapeshot" end it in any but an arbitrary sense. When the poet tells us that, upon Napoleon's defeating the sections around the Convention, "the hour had come and the Man," and that the thing called the French Revolution was thereby "blown into space," nothing more silly, mendacious, and "phantasmic" was ever stated by sober historian. The Convention was itself the living embodiment and product of the Revolution, and Bonaparte's smart feat in protecting it, increased its authority and confidence. If Carlyle's French Revolution be trusted as real history, it lands us in as futile a non sequitur as ever historian committed.
Viewed as an historical poem, the French Revolution is a splendid creation. Its passion, energy, colour, and vast prodigality of ineffaceable pictures place it undoubtedly at the head of all the pictorial histories of modern times. And the dramatic rapidity of its action, and the inexhaustible contrasts of its scenes and tableaux—things which so fatally pervert its truthfulness as authentic history—immensely heighten the effect of the poem on the reader's mind. Not that Carlyle was capable of deliberately manufacturing an historical romance in the mendacious way of Thiers and Lamartine. But, having resolved to cast the cataclysm of 1789 and the few years before and after it into a dramatic poem, he inevitably, and no doubt unconsciously, treated certain incidents and certain men with a poet's license or with a distorted vision. This too is more apparent toward the close of his work, when he begins to show signs of fatigue and exhaustion. Nay, it is to be feared that we are still suffering from the outrage committed on Victorian literature by Mr. Mill's incendiary housemaid. We may yet note marks of arson in the restored volume. At the same time, there are large parts of his work which are as true historically as they are poetically brilliant. Part I.—"The Bastille"—is almost perfect. The whole description of Versailles, its court, and government, of the effervescence of Paris—from the death of Louis XV. to the capture of Versailles—is both powerful and true. Part II.—"The Constitution"—is the weakest part of the whole from the point of view of accurate history. And Part III.—"The Terror"—is only trustworthy in separate pictures and episodes, however splendid its dramatic power.
It would need an essay, or rather a volume, on the French Revolution to enumerate all the wrong judgments and fallacies of Carlyle's book, if we bring it to the bar of sober and authentic history. First and foremost comes his fundamental misconception that the Revolution was an anarchical outburst against corruption and oppression, instead of being, as it was, the systematic foundation of a new order of society. Again, he takes it to be a purely French, local, and political movement, instead of seeing that it was an European, social, spiritual movement toward a more humane civilisation. And next, he regards the Revolution as taking place in the six years between the taking of the Bastille and the defeat of the Sections by Bonaparte; whereas the Revolution was preparing from the time of Louis XIV., and is not yet ended in the time of President Faure. Next to the capital mistake of misconceiving the entire character and result of the Revolution, comes the insolence which treats the public men of France during a whole generation as mere subjects for ribaldry and caricature. From this uniform mockery, Mirabeau and Bonaparte, two of the least worthy of them, are almost alone exempted. This is a blunder in art, as well as a moral and historical offence. Men like Gondorcet, Danton, Hoche, Carnot, not to name a score of other old Conventionels, soldiers, and leaders were pure, enlightened, and valorous patriots—with a breadth of soul and social sympathies and hopes that tower far above the insular prejudices and Hebrew traditions of a Scotch Cameronian litterateur—poet, genius, and moralist though he also was himself.
But though the French Revolution is not to be accepted as historical authority, it is profoundly stimulating and instructive, when we look on it as a lyrical apologue. It is an historical phantasmagoria—which, though hardly more literally true than Aristophanes' Knights or Clouds, may almost be placed beside these immortal satires for its imagination, wisdom, and insight. The personages and the events of the French Revolution in fact succeeded each other with such startling rapidity and such bewildering variety, that it is difficult for any but the most patient student to keep the men and the phases steadily before the eye without confusion and in distinct form. This Carlyle has done far better than any other historian of the period, perhaps even better than any historian whatever. That so many Englishmen are more familiar with the scenes and the men and women of the French Revolution than they are with the scenes and the men and women of their own history, is very largely the work of Carlyle. And as to the vices and weakness of the Old Regime, the electric contagion of the people of Paris, the indomitable elasticity of the French spirit, the magnetic power of the French genius, the famous furia francese, and the terrible rage into which it can be lashed—all this Carlyle has told with a truth and insight that has not been surpassed by any modern historian.
It being then clearly understood that Carlyle did not leave us the trustworthy history of the French Revolution, in the way in which Thucydides gave us the authentic annals of the Peloponnesian war, or Caesar the official despatches of the Conquest of Gaul, we must willingly admit that Carlyle's history is one of the most fruitful products of the nineteenth century. No one else certainly has written the authentic story of the French Revolution at large, or of more than certain aspects and incidents of it. In spite of misconceptions, and such mistaken estimates as those of Mirabeau and Bonaparte, such insolent mockery of good and able men, such ridiculous caricatures as that of the "Feast of Pikes" and the trial of the King, such ribald horse-play as "Grilled Herrings" and "Lion Sprawling," in spite of blots and blunders in every chapter—the French Revolution is destined to live long and to stand forth to posterity as the typical work of the master. It cannot be said to have done such work as the Cromwell; for it is far less true and sound as history, and it is only one out of scores of interpreters of the Revolution, whereas in the Cromwell Carlyle worked single-handed. But being far more organic, far more imaginative, indeed more powerful than the Cromwell in literary art, the French Revolution—produced, we may remember, exactly in the middle of the author's life—will remain the enduring monument of Carlyle's great spirit and splendid brain.
The book entitled Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1840), to give it its full and original title, comes next in order of time, and perhaps of abiding value. It is a book rather difficult for us now to estimate after more than half a century, for so very much has been done in the interval to build upon these foundations, to enlarge our knowledge of these very heroes, and the estimates of Carlyle in the first half of this century are for the most part so completely the commonplaces of the English-speaking world at the close of the century, that when we open the Heroes again it is apt to seem obvious, connu, the emphatic assertion of a truism that no one disputes. How infinitely better do we now, in 1895, know Dante and Shakespeare, Cromwell and Napoleon, than did our grandfathers in 1840! Who, nowadays, imagines Mahomet to have been an impostor, or Burns to have been a mere tipsy song-writer? What a copious literature has the last half-century given us on Dante, on Islam and its spirit, on Rousseau, on Burns, on the English and the French revolutions! But in 1840 the true nature of these men was very faintly understood. Few people but soldiers had the least chance of being called "heroes," and the "heroic in history" was certainly not thought to include either poets, preachers, or men of letters. Heroes and Hero-Worship, like the Cromwell, has, in fact, done its work so completely that we find it a little too familiar to need any constant reading or careful study.
To judge fairly all that Carlyle effected by his book on Heroes we must put ourselves at the point of view of the time when it was written, the days of Wellington and Melbourne, Brougham and Macaulay, Southey and Coleridge. None of these men understood the heroic in Norse mythology, or the grandeur of Oliver Cromwell, or the supreme importance of the Divina Commedia as the embodiment of Catholic Feudalism. All this Carlyle felt as no Englishman before him had felt, and told us in a voice which has since been accepted as conclusive. How far deeper is the view of Carlyle about some familiar personality like Johnson than is that of Macaulay, how much farther does Carlyle see into the Shakesperean firmament than even Coleridge! How far better does he understand Rousseau and Burns than did Southey, laureate and critic as he was hailed in his time. The book is a collection of Lectures, and we now know how entirely Carlyle loathed that kind of utterance, how much he felt the restraints and limits it involved. And for that reason, the book is the simplest and most easily legible of his works, with the least of his mannerism and the largest concessions to the written language of sublunary mortals. Nearly all the judgments he passes are not only sound, but now almost universally accepted. To deal with the heroic in history, he needed, as he said, six months rather than six days. It was intended, he told his hearers, "to break ground," to clear up misunderstandings. It has done this: and a rich crop has resulted from his ploughshare.
Nothing but a few sketches could be compressed into six hours. But it is curious how many things seem omitted in this survey of the heroic. At the age of forty-five Carlyle had not recognised Friedrich at all, for he does not figure in the "Hero as King." Napoleon takes his place, though Bonaparte was a "hero" only in the bad sense of hero which Carlyle was seeking to explode. It is well that, since he finished the French Revolution, Carlyle seems to have found out that Bonaparte "parted with Reality," and had become a charlatan, a sham. Still for all that, he remains "our last great man." Mazzini was present at the delivery of these lectures: and when he had listened to this last, he went up to Carlyle and told him that he had undone his Hero-Worship and had fallen from the truth; and from that hour Mazzini would hold no terms with the gospel of One-Man. To make Hero-Worship close with the installation of Napoleon as "our last great man," was to expose the inherent weakness of the Sartorian creed—that humanity exists for the sake of its great men. The other strange delusion is the entire omission from the "Hero as Priest" of any Catholic hero. Not only are St. Bernard, and St. Francis, Becket and Lanfranc—all the martyrs and missionaries of Catholicism—consigned to oblivion:—but not a word is said of Alfred, Godfrey, St. Louis, St. Ferdinand, and St. Stephen. In a single volume there must be selection of types. But the whole idea of Hero-Worship was perverted in a plan which had no room for a single Catholic chief or priest.
This perverse exaggeration of Puritan religion, and the still more unjust hatred of Catholic religion, unfortunately runs through all Carlyle's work, and perhaps nowhere breaks out in so repulsive a form as in the piece called "Jesuitism" (1850), in the Latter-Day Pamphlets (No. VIII.). Discarding the creed, the practice, and the language of Puritanism, Carlyle still retained its narrowness, its self-righteousness, its intolerance, and its savagery. The moralist, to whom John Knox was a hero, but St. Bernard was not, but only a follower of the "three-hatted Papa," and an apostle of "Pig's-wash," was hardly the man to exhaust the heroic in history. In the "Hero as Man-of-Letters," Carlyle was at home. If ever pure letters produced a hero, the sage of Chelsea was one. With Johnson, with Rousseau, he is perfectly rational, and the mass of literature which has accumulated round the names of these two, only tends to confirm the essential justice of Carlyle's estimate. Nor need we dispute his estimate of the vigour and manliness of Burns. It is only when Carlyle describes him as "the most gifted British soul" in the eighteenth century—the century of Hume, Adam Smith, Fielding, and Burke—that we begin to smile. Burns was a noble-hearted fellow, as well as a born poet. But perhaps the whole cycle of Sartorian extravaganza contains no saying so futile as the complaint, that the British nation in the great war with France entrusted their destinies to a phantasmic Pitt, instead of to "the Thunder-god, Robert Burns." Napoleon would no doubt have welcomed such a change of ministry. It is incoherences of this sort which undo so much of the splendid service that Carlyle gave to his age.
But we are not willing to let the defects of Carlyle's philosophy drive out of mind the permanent and beautiful things in his literary work. Past and Present (1843) is certainly a success—a happy and true thought, full of originality, worked out with art and power. The idea of embedding a living and pathetic picture of monastic life in the twelfth century, and a minute study of the labours of enlightened churchmen in the early struggles of civilisation—the idea of embedding this tale, as if it were the remains of some disinterred saint, in the midst of a series of essays on the vices and weaknesses of modern society—was a highly original and instructive device, only to be worked to success by a master. And the master brought it to a delightful success. In all his writings of thirty volumes there are few pages more attractive than the story of Jocelin of Brakelond, Abbot Hugo, Abbot Samson, and the festival of St. Edmund, which all pass away as in a vision leaving "a mutilated black ruin amidst green expanses"—as we so often see in our England to-day after the trampling of seven centuries over the graves of the early monks.
And then, when the preacher passes suddenly from the twelfth century to the nineteenth, from toiling and ascetic monks to cotton spinners and platform orators—the effect is electric—as though some old Benedictine rose from the dead and began to preach in the crowded streets of a city of factories. Have we yet, after fifty years of this time of tepid hankering after Socialism and Theophilanthropic experiments, got much farther than Thomas Carlyle in his preaching in Book IV. on "Aristocracies," "Captains of Industry," "The Landed," "The Gifted"? What truth, what force in the aphorism:—"To predict the Future, to manage the Present, would not be so impossible, had not the Past been so sacrilegiously mishandled; effaced, and what is worse, defaced!"—"Of all Bibles, the frightfulest to disbelieve in is this 'Bible of Universal History'"—"The Leaders of Industry, if Industry is ever to be led, are virtually the Captains of the World." What new meaning that phrase has acquired in these fifty years! "Men of letters may become a 'chivalry,' an actual instead of a virtual Priesthood." Well! not men of letters exactly: but perhaps philosophers, with an adequate moral and scientific training. Here, as so often, Carlyle just missed a grand truth to which his insight and nobility of soul had led him, through his perverse inability to accept any systematic philosophy, and through his habit to listen to the whispering of his own heart as if it were equivalent to scientific certainty. But the whole book, Past and Present, is a splendid piece and has done much to mould the thought of our time. It would impress us much more than it does, were it not already become the very basis of all sincere thought about social problems and the future conditions of industry.
Of the Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845) we have already spoken, as the greatest of our author's effective products, inasmuch as it produced the most definite practical result in moulding opinion, and a result of the highest importance. But it is not, as we have seen, a work of art, or even an organic work at all, and it cannot compare in literary charm with some other of the author's works. We do not turn to the Cromwell again and again, as we do to the French Revolution, or to Sartor, which we can take up from time to time as we do a poem or a romance. Many of the great books of the world are not read and re-read by the public, just as none but special students continually resort to the Novum Organum, or the Wealth of Nations. For similar reasons, the Cromwell will never be a favourite book with the next century, as it cannot be said to have been with ours. It has done its work with masterly power; and its work will endure. And some day perhaps, from out these materials, and those collected by Mr. Gardiner, and by [Transcriber's note: next two words transliterated from Greek] oi peri Gardiner, a Life of Cromwell may be finally composed.
It is true that Carlyle's determination to force Oliver upon us as perfect saint and infallible hero is irritating and sometimes laughable; it is true that his zeal to be-dwarf every one but Cromwell himself is unjust and untrue; and the depreciation of every man who declines to play into Oliver's hands is too often manifest. But, on the whole, the judgments are so sound, the supporting authorities are so overwhelming, the work of verification is so thorough, so scrupulous, so perfectly borne out by all subsequent research—that the future will no doubt look on the Cromwell, not only as the most extraordinary, but the most satisfactory and effective of all Carlyle's work; although for the reasons stated, it can never have the largest measure of his literary charm or possess the full afflatus of his poetic and mystical genius.
By the time that Cromwell was published, Thomas Carlyle was turned of fifty, and had produced nearly two-thirds of his total work. It may be doubted if any later book will be permanently counted amongst his masterpieces. Friedrich, for reasons set forth, was an attempt in late life to repeat the feat of the Cromwell: it was a much less urgent task: and it was not so well performed. The Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) do not add much that is new to Past and Present (1843) or to Sartor (1831); and little of what they add is either needful or true. The world had been fully enlightened about Wind-bags, Shams, the approach to Tophet, Stump-orators, Palaver-Parliaments, Phantasm-Captains, and the rest of the Sartorian puppet-pantomime. There was a profound truth in all of these invectives, warnings, and prophecies. But the prophet's voice at last got so shrieky and monotonous, that instead of warning and inspiring a second generation, these terrific maledictions began to pall upon a practical world. An ardent admirer of the prophet has said that, when he first heard Carlyle speak face to face, he could hardly resist the impression that he was listening to an actor personating the Sage of Chelsea, and mimicking the stock phrases of the Latter-Day Pamphlets. Certainly no man of sense can find any serious guidance on any definite social problem from these "Pamphlets" of his morbid decline. Carlyle at last sat eating his heart out, like Napoleon on St. Helena. His true friends will hasten to throw such a decent covering as Japhet and Shem threw around Noah, over the latest melancholy outbursts about Negroes, Reformers, Jamaica massacres, and the anticipated conflagration of Paris by the Germans. It is pitiful indeed to find in "the collected and revised works," thirty-six volumes, the drivel of his Pro-Slavery advocacy, and of ill-conditioned snarling at honest men labouring to reform ancient abuses.
It is perilous for any man, however consummate be his genius, to place himself on a solitary rock apart from all living men and defiant of all before him, as the sole source of truth out of his own inner consciousness. It is fatal to any man, however noble his own spirit, to look upon this earth as "one fuliginous dust-heap," and the whole human race as a mere herd of swine rushing violently down a steep place into the sea. Nor can the guidance of mankind be with safety entrusted to one who for eighty-six years insisted on remaining by his own hearth-stone a mere omnivorous reader and omnigenous writer of books. Carlyle was a true and pure "man of letters," looking at things and speaking to men, alone in his study, through the medium of printed paper. All that a "man of letters," of great genius and lofty spirit, could do by consuming and producing mere printed paper, he did. And as the "supreme man of letters" of his time he will ever be honoured and long continue to be read. He deliberately cultivated a form of speech which made him unreadable to all except English-speaking readers, and intelligible only to a select and cultivated body even amongst them. He wrote in what, for practical purposes, is a local, or rather personal, dialect. And thus he deprived himself of that world-wide and European influence which belongs to such men as Hume, Gibbon, Scott, Byron—even to Macaulay, Tennyson, Dickens, Ruskin, and Spencer. But his name will stand beside theirs in the history of British thought in the nineteenth century; and a devoted band of chosen readers, wherever the Anglo-Saxon tongue is heard, will for generations to come continue to drink inspiration from the two or three masterpieces of the Annandale peasant-poet.