THROUGH THE MAGIC DOOR
BY ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer's ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.
It is our familiarity also which has lessened our perception of the miraculous good fortune which we enjoy. Let us suppose that we were suddenly to learn that Shakespeare had returned to earth, and that he would favour any of us with an hour of his wit and his fancy. How eagerly we would seek him out! And yet we have him—the very best of him—at our elbows from week to week, and hardly trouble ourselves to put out our hands to beckon him down. No matter what mood a man may be in, when once he has passed through the magic door he can summon the world's greatest to sympathize with him in it. If he be thoughtful, here are the kings of thought. If he be dreamy, here are the masters of fancy. Or is it amusement that he lacks? He can signal to any one of the world's great story-tellers, and out comes the dead man and holds him enthralled by the hour. The dead are such good company that one may come to think too little of the living. It is a real and a pressing danger with many of us, that we should never find our own thoughts and our own souls, but be ever obsessed by the dead. Yet second-hand romance and second-hand emotion are surely better than the dull, soul-killing monotony which life brings to most of the human race. But best of all when the dead man's wisdom and strength in the living of our own strenuous days.
Come through the magic door with me, and sit here on the green settee, where you can see the old oak case with its untidy lines of volumes. Smoking is not forbidden. Would you care to hear me talk of them? Well, I ask nothing better, for there is no volume there which is not a dear, personal friend, and what can a man talk of more pleasantly than that? The other books are over yonder, but these are my own favourites—the ones I care to re-read and to have near my elbow. There is not a tattered cover which does not bring its mellow memories to me.
Some of them represent those little sacrifices which make a possession dearer. You see the line of old, brown volumes at the bottom? Every one of those represents a lunch. They were bought in my student days, when times were not too affluent. Threepence was my modest allowance for my midday sandwich and glass of beer; but, as luck would have it, my way to the classes led past the most fascinating bookshop in the world. Outside the door of it stood a large tub filled with an ever-changing litter of tattered books, with a card above which announced that any volume therein could be purchased for the identical sum which I carried in my pocket. As I approached it a combat ever raged betwixt the hunger of a youthful body and that of an inquiring and omnivorous mind. Five times out of six the animal won. But when the mental prevailed, then there was an entrancing five minutes' digging among out-of-date almanacs, volumes of Scotch theology, and tables of logarithms, until one found something which made it all worth while. If you will look over these titles, you will see that I did not do so very badly. Four volumes of Gordon's "Tacitus" (life is too short to read originals, so long as there are good translations), Sir William Temple's Essays, Addison's works, Swift's "Tale of a Tub," Clarendon's "History," "Gil Blas," Buckingham's Poems, Churchill's Poems, "Life of Bacon"—not so bad for the old threepenny tub.
They were not always in such plebeian company. Look at the thickness of the rich leather, and the richness of the dim gold lettering. Once they adorned the shelves of some noble library, and even among the odd almanacs and the sermons they bore the traces of their former greatness, like the faded silk dress of the reduced gentlewoman, a present pathos but a glory of the past.
Reading is made too easy nowadays, with cheap paper editions and free libraries. A man does not appreciate at its full worth the thing that comes to him without effort. Who now ever gets the thrill which Carlyle felt when he hurried home with the six volumes of Gibbon's "History" under his arm, his mind just starving for want of food, to devour them at the rate of one a day? A book should be your very own before you can really get the taste of it, and unless you have worked for it, you will never have the true inward pride of possession.
If I had to choose the one book out of all that line from which I have had most pleasure and most profit, I should point to yonder stained copy of Macaulay's "Essays." It seems entwined into my whole life as I look backwards. It was my comrade in my student days, it has been with me on the sweltering Gold Coast, and it formed part of my humble kit when I went a-whaling in the Arctic. Honest Scotch harpooners have addled their brains over it, and you may still see the grease stains where the second engineer grappled with Frederick the Great. Tattered and dirty and worn, no gilt-edged morocco-bound volume could ever take its place for me.
What a noble gateway this book forms through which one may approach the study either of letters or of history! Milton, Machiavelli, Hallam, Southey, Bunyan, Byron, Johnson, Pitt, Hampden, Clive, Hastings, Chatham—what nuclei for thought! With a good grip of each how pleasant and easy to fill in all that lies between! The short, vivid sentences, the broad sweep of allusion, the exact detail, they all throw a glamour round the subject and should make the least studious of readers desire to go further. If Macaulay's hand cannot lead a man upon those pleasant paths, then, indeed, he may give up all hope of ever finding them.
When I was a senior schoolboy this book—not this very volume, for it had an even more tattered predecessor—opened up a new world to me. History had been a lesson and abhorrent. Suddenly the task and the drudgery became an incursion into an enchanted land, a land of colour and beauty, with a kind, wise guide to point the path. In that great style of his I loved even the faults—indeed, now that I come to think of it, it was the faults which I loved best. No sentence could be too stiff with rich embroidery, and no antithesis too flowery. It pleased me to read that "a universal shout of laughter from the Tagus to the Vistula informed the Pope that the days of the crusades were past," and I was delighted to learn that "Lady Jerningham kept a vase in which people placed foolish verses, and Mr. Dash wrote verses which were fit to be placed in Lady Jerningham's vase." Those were the kind of sentences which used to fill me with a vague but enduring pleasure, like chords which linger in the musician's ear. A man likes a plainer literary diet as he grows older, but still as I glance over the Essays I am filled with admiration and wonder at the alternate power of handling a great subject, and of adorning it by delightful detail—just a bold sweep of the brush, and then the most delicate stippling. As he leads you down the path, he for ever indicates the alluring side-tracks which branch away from it. An admirable, if somewhat old-fashioned, literary and historical education night be effected by working through every book which is alluded to in the Essays. I should be curious, however, to know the exact age of the youth when he came to the end of his studies.
I wish Macaulay had written a historical novel. I am convinced that it would have been a great one. I do not know if he had the power of drawing an imaginary character, but he certainly had the gift of reconstructing a dead celebrity to a remarkable degree. Look at the simple half-paragraph in which he gives us Johnson and his atmosphere. Was ever a more definite picture given in a shorter space—
"As we close it, the club-room is before us, and the table on which stand the omelet for Nugent, and the lemons for Johnson. There are assembled those heads which live for ever on the canvas of Reynolds. There are the spectacles of Burke, and the tall thin form of Langton, the courtly sneer of Beauclerk and the beaming smile of Garrick, Gibbon tapping his snuff-box, and Sir Joshua with his trumpet in his ear. In the foreground is that strange figure which is as familiar to us as the figures of those among whom we have been brought up—the gigantic body, the huge massy face, seamed with the scars of disease, the brown coat, the black worsted stockings, the grey wig with the scorched foretop, the dirty hands, the nails bitten and pared to the quick. We see the eyes and mouth moving with convulsive twitches; we see the heavy form rolling; we hear it puffing, and then comes the 'Why, sir!' and the 'What then, sir?' and the 'No, sir!' and the 'You don't see your way through the question, sir!'"
It is etched into your memory for ever.
I can remember that when I visited London at the age of sixteen the first thing I did after housing my luggage was to make a pilgrimage to Macaulay's grave, where he lies in Westminster Abbey, just under the shadow of Addison, and amid the dust of the poets whom he had loved so well. It was the one great object of interest which London held for me. And so it might well be, when I think of all I owe him. It is not merely the knowledge and the stimulation of fresh interests, but it is the charming gentlemanly tone, the broad, liberal outlook, the general absence of bigotry and of prejudice. My judgment now confirms all that I felt for him then.
My four-volume edition of the History stands, as you see, to the right of the Essays. Do you recollect the third chapter of that work—the one which reconstructs the England of the seventeenth century? It has always seemed to me the very high-water mark of Macaulay's powers, with its marvellous mixture of precise fact and romantic phrasing. The population of towns, the statistics of commerce, the prosaic facts of life are all transmuted into wonder and interest by the handling of the master. You feel that he could have cast a glamour over the multiplication table had he set himself to do so. Take a single concrete example of what I mean. The fact that a Londoner in the country, or a countryman in London, felt equally out of place in those days of difficult travel, would seem to hardly require stating, and to afford no opportunity of leaving a strong impression upon the reader's mind. See what Macaulay makes of it, though it is no more than a hundred other paragraphs which discuss a hundred various points—
"A cockney in a rural village was stared at as much as if he had intruded into a kraal of Hottentots. On the other hand, when the lord of a Lincolnshire or Shropshire manor appeared in Fleet Street, he was as easily distinguished from the resident population as a Turk or a Lascar. His dress, his gait, his accent, the manner in which he gazed at the shops, stumbled into gutters, ran against the porters, and stood under the waterspouts, marked him out as an excellent subject for the operations of swindlers and banterers. Bullies jostled him into the kennel, Hackney coachmen splashed him from head to foot, thieves explored with perfect security the huge pockets of his horseman's coat, while he stood entranced by the splendour of the Lord Mayor's Show. Money-droppers, sore from the cart's tail, introduced themselves to him, and appeared to him the most honest friendly gentlemen that he had ever seen. Painted women, the refuse of Lewkner Lane and Whetstone Park, passed themselves on him for countesses and maids of honour. If he asked his way to St. James', his informants sent him to Mile End. If he went into a shop, he was instantly discerned to be a fit purchaser of everything that nobody else would buy, of second-hand embroidery, copper rings, and watches that would not go. If he rambled into any fashionable coffee-house, he became a mark for the insolent derision of fops, and the grave waggery of Templars. Enraged and mortified, he soon returned to his mansion, and there, in the homage of his tenants and the conversation of his boon companions, found consolation for the vexations and humiliations which he had undergone. There he was once more a great man, and saw nothing above himself except when at the assizes he took his seat on the bench near the Judge, or when at the muster of the militia he saluted the Lord Lieutenant."
On the whole, I should put this detached chapter of description at the very head of his Essays, though it happens to occur in another volume. The History as a whole does not, as it seems to me, reach the same level as the shorter articles. One cannot but feel that it is a brilliant piece of special pleading from a fervid Whig, and that there must be more to be said for the other side than is there set forth. Some of the Essays are tinged also, no doubt, by his own political and religious limitations. The best are those which get right away into the broad fields of literature and philosophy. Johnson, Walpole, Madame D'Arblay, Addison, and the two great Indian ones, Clive and Warren Hastings, are my own favourites. Frederick the Great, too, must surely stand in the first rank. Only one would I wish to eliminate. It is the diabolically clever criticism upon Montgomery. One would have wished to think that Macaulay's heart was too kind, and his soul too gentle, to pen so bitter an attack. Bad work will sink of its own weight. It is not necessary to souse the author as well. One would think more highly of the man if he had not done that savage bit of work.
I don't know why talking of Macaulay always makes me think of Scott, whose books in a faded, olive-backed line, have a shelf, you see, of their own. Perhaps it is that they both had so great an influence, and woke such admiration in me. Or perhaps it is the real similarity in the minds and characters of the two men. You don't see it, you say? Well, just think of Scott's "Border Ballads," and then of Macaulay's "Lays." The machines must be alike, when the products are so similar. Each was the only man who could possibly have written the poems of the other. What swing and dash in both of them! What a love of all that is and noble and martial! So simple, and yet so strong. But there are minds on which strength and simplicity are thrown away. They think that unless a thing is obscure it must be superficial, whereas it is often the shallow stream which is turbid, and the deep which is clear. Do you remember the fatuous criticism of Matthew Arnold upon the glorious "Lays," where he calls out "is this poetry?" after quoting—
"And how can man die better Than facing fearful odds For the ashes of his fathers And the Temples of his Gods?"
In trying to show that Macaulay had not the poetic sense he was really showing that he himself had not the dramatic sense. The baldness of the idea and of the language had evidently offended him. But this is exactly where the true merit lies. Macaulay is giving the rough, blunt words with which a simple-minded soldier appeals to two comrades to help him in a deed of valour. Any high-flown sentiment would have been absolutely out of character. The lines are, I think, taken with their context, admirable ballad poetry, and have just the dramatic quality and sense which a ballad poet must have. That opinion of Arnold's shook my faith in his judgment, and yet I would forgive a good deal to the man who wrote—
"One more charge and then be dumb, When the forts of Folly fall, May the victors when they come Find my body near the wall."
Not a bad verse that for one's life aspiration.
This is one of the things which human society has not yet understood—the value of a noble, inspiriting text. When it does we shall meet them everywhere engraved on appropriate places, and our progress through the streets will be brightened and ennobled by one continual series of beautiful mental impulses and images, reflected into our souls from the printed thoughts which meet our eyes. To think that we should walk with empty, listless minds while all this splendid material is running to waste. I do not mean mere Scriptural texts, for they do not bear the same meaning to all, though what human creature can fail to be spurred onwards by "Work while it is day, for the night cometh when no man can work." But I mean those beautiful thoughts—who can say that they are uninspired thoughts?—which may be gathered from a hundred authors to match a hundred uses. A fine thought in fine language is a most precious jewel, and should not be hid away, but be exposed for use and ornament. To take the nearest example, there is a horse-trough across the road from my house, a plain stone trough, and no man could pass it with any feelings save vague discontent at its ugliness. But suppose that on its front slab you print the verse of Coleridge—
"He prayeth best who loveth best All things, both great and small For the dear Lord who fashioned him He knows and loveth all."
I fear I may misquote, for I have not "The Ancient Mariner" at my elbow, but even as it stands does it not elevate the horse-trough? We all do this, I suppose, in a small way for ourselves. There are few men who have not some chosen quotations printed on their study mantelpieces, or, better still, in their hearts. Carlyle's transcription of "Rest! Rest! Shall I not have all Eternity to rest in!" is a pretty good spur to a weary man. But what we need is a more general application of the same thing for public and not for private use, until people understand that a graven thought is as beautiful an ornament as any graven image, striking through the eye right deep down into the soul.
However, all this has nothing to do with Macaulay's glorious lays, save that when you want some flowers of manliness and patriotism you can pluck quite a bouquet out of those. I had the good fortune to learn the Lay of Horatius off by heart when I was a child, and it stamped itself on my plastic mind, so that even now I can reel off almost the whole of it. Goldsmith said that in conversation he was like the man who had a thousand pounds in the bank, but could not compete with the man who had an actual sixpence in his pocket. So the ballad that you bear in your mind outweighs the whole bookshelf which waits for reference. But I want you now to move your eye a little farther down the shelf to the line of olive-green volumes. That is my edition of Scott. But surely I must give you a little breathing space before I venture upon them.
It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own. You may not appreciate them at first. You may pine for your novel of crude and unadulterated adventure. You may, and will, give it the preference when you can. But the dull days come, and the rainy days come, and always you are driven to fill up the chinks of your reading with the worthy books which wait so patiently for your notice. And then suddenly, on a day which marks an epoch in your life, you understand the difference. You see, like a flash, how the one stands for nothing, and the other for literature. From that day onwards you may return to your crudities, but at least you do so with some standard of comparison in your mind. You can never be the same as you were before. Then gradually the good thing becomes more dear to you; it builds itself up with your growing mind; it becomes a part of your better self, and so, at last, you can look, as I do now, at the old covers and love them for all that they have meant in the past. Yes, it was the olive-green line of Scott's novels which started me on to rhapsody. They were the first books I ever owned—long, long before I could appreciate or even understand them. But at last I realized what a treasure they were. In my boyhood I read them by surreptitious candle-ends in the dead of the night, when the sense of crime added a new zest to the story. Perhaps you have observed that my "Ivanhoe" is of a different edition from the others. The first copy was left in the grass by the side of a stream, fell into the water, and was eventually picked up three days later, swollen and decomposed, upon a mud-bank. I think I may say, however, that I had worn it out before I lost it. Indeed, it was perhaps as well that it was some years before it was replaced, for my instinct was always to read it again instead of breaking fresh ground.
I remember the late James Payn telling the anecdote that he and two literary friends agreed to write down what scene in fiction they thought the most dramatic, and that on examining the papers it was found that all three had chosen the same. It was the moment when the unknown knight, at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, riding past the pavilions of the lesser men, strikes with the sharp end of his lance, in a challenge to mortal combat, the shield of the formidable Templar. It was, indeed, a splendid moment! What matter that no Templar was allowed by the rules of his Order to take part in so secular and frivolous an affair as a tournament? It is the privilege of great masters to make things so, and it is a churlish thing to gainsay it. Was it not Wendell Holmes who described the prosaic man, who enters a drawing-room with a couple of facts, like ill-conditioned bull-dogs at his heels, ready to let them loose on any play of fancy? The great writer can never go wrong. If Shakespeare gives a sea-coast to Bohemia, or if Victor Hugo calls an English prize-fighter Mr. Jim-John-Jack—well, it was so, and that's an end of it. "There is no second line of rails at that point," said an editor to a minor author. "I make a second line," said the author; and he was within his rights, if he can carry his readers' conviction with him.
But this is a digression from "Ivanhoe." What a book it is! The second greatest historical novel in our language, I think. Every successive reading has deepened my admiration for it. Scott's soldiers are always as good as his women (with exceptions) are weak; but here, while the soldiers are at their very best, the romantic figure of Rebecca redeems the female side of the story from the usual commonplace routine. Scott drew manly men because he was a manly man himself, and found the task a sympathetic one.
He drew young heroines because a convention demanded it, which he had never the hardihood to break. It is only when we get him for a dozen chapters on end with a minimum of petticoat—in the long stretch, for example, from the beginning of the Tournament to the end of the Friar Tuck incident—that we realize the height of continued romantic narrative to which he could attain. I don't think in the whole range of our literature we have a finer sustained flight than that.
There is, I admit, an intolerable amount of redundant verbiage in Scott's novels. Those endless and unnecessary introductions make the shell very thick before you come to the oyster. They are often admirable in themselves, learned, witty, picturesque, but with no relation or proportion to the story which they are supposed to introduce. Like so much of our English fiction, they are very good matter in a very bad place. Digression and want of method and order are traditional national sins. Fancy introducing an essay on how to live on nothing a year as Thackeray did in "Vanity Fair," or sandwiching in a ghost story as Dickens has dared to do. As well might a dramatic author rush up to the footlights and begin telling anecdotes while his play was suspending its action and his characters waiting wearily behind him. It is all wrong, though every great name can be quoted in support of it. Our sense of form is lamentably lacking, and Sir Walter sinned with the rest. But get past all that to a crisis in the real story, and who finds the terse phrase, the short fire-word, so surely as he? Do you remember when the reckless Sergeant of Dragoons stands at last before the grim Puritan, upon whose head a price has been set: "A thousand marks or a bed of heather!" says he, as he draws. The Puritan draws also: "The Sword of the Lord and of Gideon!" says he. No verbiage there! But the very spirit of either man and of either party, in the few stern words, which haunt your mind. "Bows and Bills!" cry the Saxon Varangians, as the Moslem horse charges home. You feel it is just what they must have cried. Even more terse and businesslike was the actual battle-cry of the fathers of the same men on that long-drawn day when they fought under the "Red Dragon of Wessex" on the low ridge at Hastings. "Out! Out!" they roared, as the Norman chivalry broke upon them. Terse, strong, prosaic—the very genius of the race was in the cry.
Is it that the higher emotions are not there? Or is it that they are damped down and covered over as too precious to be exhibited? Something of each, perhaps. I once met the widow of the man who, as a young signal midshipman, had taken Nelson's famous message from the Signal Yeoman and communicated it to the ship's company. The officers were impressed. The men were not. "Duty!" they muttered. "We've always done it. Why not?" Anything in the least highfalutin' would depress, not exalt, a British company. It is the under statement which delights them. German troops can march to battle singing Luther's hymns. Frenchmen will work themselves into a frenzy by a song of glory and of Fatherland. Our martial poets need not trouble to imitate—or at least need not imagine that if they do so they will ever supply a want to the British soldier. Our sailors working the heavy guns in South Africa sang: "Here's another lump of sugar for the Bird." I saw a regiment go into action to the refrain of "A little bit off the top." The martial poet aforesaid, unless he had the genius and the insight of a Kipling, would have wasted a good deal of ink before he had got down to such chants as these. The Russians are not unlike us in this respect. I remember reading of some column ascending a breach and singing lustily from start to finish, until a few survivors were left victorious upon the crest with the song still going. A spectator inquired what wondrous chant it was which had warmed them to such a deed of valour, and he found that the exact meaning of the words, endlessly repeated, was "Ivan is in the garden picking cabbages." The fact is, I suppose, that a mere monotonous sound may take the place of the tom-tom of savage warfare, and hypnotize the soldier into valour.
Our cousins across the Atlantic have the same blending of the comic with their most serious work. Take the songs which they sang during the most bloody war which the Anglo-Celtic race has ever waged—the only war in which it could have been said that they were stretched to their uttermost and showed their true form—"Tramp, tramp, tramp," "John Brown's Body," "Marching through Georgia"—all had a playful humour running through them. Only one exception do I know, and that is the most tremendous war-song I can recall. Even an outsider in time of peace can hardly read it without emotion. I mean, of course, Julia Ward Howe's "War-Song of the Republic," with the choral opening line: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." If that were ever sung upon a battle-field the effect must have been terrific.
A long digression, is it not? But that is the worst of the thoughts at the other side of the Magic Door. You can't pull one out without a dozen being entangled with it. But it was Scott's soldiers that I was talking of, and I was saying that there is nothing theatrical, no posing, no heroics (the thing of all others which the hero abominates), but just the short bluff word and the simple manly ways, with every expression and metaphor drawn from within his natural range of thought. What a pity it is that he, with his keen appreciation of the soldier, gave us so little of those soldiers who were his own contemporaries—the finest, perhaps, that the world has ever seen! It is true that he wrote a life of the great Soldier Emperor, but that was the one piece of hackwork of his career. How could a Tory patriot, whose whole training had been to look upon Napoleon as a malignant Demon, do justice to such a theme? But the Europe of those days was full of material which he of all men could have drawn with a sympathetic hand. What would we not give for a portrait of one of Murat's light-cavalrymen, or of a Grenadier of the Old Guard, drawn with the same bold strokes as the Rittmeister of Gustavus or the archers of the French King's Guard in "Quentin Durward"?
In his visit to Paris Scott must have seen many of those iron men who during the preceding twenty years had been the scourge and also the redemption of Europe. To us the soldiers who scowled at him from the sidewalks in 1814 would have been as interesting and as much romantic figures of the past as the mail-clad knights or ruffling cavaliers of his novels. A picture from the life of a Peninsular veteran, with his views upon the Duke, would be as striking as Dugald Dalgetty from the German wars. But then no man ever does realize the true interest of the age in which he happens to live. All sense of proportion is lost, and the little thing hard-by obscures the great thing at a distance. It is easy in the dark to confuse the fire-fly and the star. Fancy, for example, the Old Masters seeking their subjects in inn parlours, or St. Sebastians, while Columbus was discovering America before their very faces.
I have said that I think "Ivanhoe" the best of Scott's novels. I suppose most people would subscribe to that. But how about the second best? It speaks well for their general average that there is hardly one among them which might not find some admirers who would vote it to a place of honour. To the Scottish-born man those novels which deal with Scottish life and character have a quality of raciness which gives them a place apart. There is a rich humour of the soil in such books as "Old Mortality," "The Antiquary," and "Rob Roy," which puts them in a different class from the others. His old Scottish women are, next to his soldiers, the best series of types that he has drawn. At the same time it must be admitted that merit which is associated with dialect has such limitations that it can never take the same place as work which makes an equal appeal to all the world. On the whole, perhaps, "Quentin Durward," on account of its wider interests, its strong character-drawing, and the European importance of the events and people described, would have my vote for the second place. It is the father of all those sword-and-cape novels which have formed so numerous an addition to the light literature of the last century. The pictures of Charles the Bold and of the unspeakable Louis are extraordinarily vivid. I can see those two deadly enemies watching the hounds chasing the herald, and clinging to each other in the convulsion of their cruel mirth, more clearly than most things which my eyes have actually rested upon.
The portrait of Louis with his astuteness, his cruelty, his superstition and his cowardice is followed closely from Comines, and is the more effective when set up against his bluff and war-like rival. It is not often that historical characters work out in their actual physique exactly as one would picture them to be, but in the High Church of Innsbruck I have seen effigies of Louis and Charles which might have walked from the very pages of Scott-Louis, thin, ascetic, varminty; and Charles with the head of a prize-fighter. It is hard on us when a portrait upsets all our preconceived ideas, when, for example, we see in the National Portrait Gallery a man with a noble, olive-tinted, poetic face, and with a start read beneath it that it is the wicked Judge Jeffreys. Occasionally, however, as at Innsbruck, we are absolutely satisfied. I have before me on the mantelpiece yonder a portrait of a painting which represents Queen Mary's Bothwell. Take it down and look at it. Mark the big head, fit to conceive large schemes; the strong animal face, made to captivate a sensitive, feminine woman; the brutally forceful features—the mouth with a suggestion of wild boars' tusks behind it, the beard which could bristle with fury: the whole man and his life-history are revealed in that picture. I wonder if Scott had ever seen the original which hangs at the Hepburn family seat?
Personally, I have always had a very high opinion of a novel which the critics have used somewhat harshly, and which came almost the last from his tired pen. I mean "Count Robert of Paris." I am convinced that if it had been the first, instead of the last, of the series it would have attracted as much attention as "Waverley." I can understand the state of mind of the expert, who cried out in mingled admiration and despair: "I have studied the conditions of Byzantine Society all my life, and here comes a Scotch lawyer who makes the whole thing clear to me in a flash!" Many men could draw with more or less success Norman England, or mediaeval France, but to reconstruct a whole dead civilization in so plausible a way, with such dignity and such minuteness of detail, is, I should think, a most wonderful tour de force. His failing health showed itself before the end of the novel, but had the latter half equalled the first, and contained scenes of such humour as Anna Comnena reading aloud her father's exploits, or of such majesty as the account of the muster of the Crusaders upon the shores of the Bosphorus, then the book could not have been gainsaid its rightful place in the very front rank of the novels.
I would that he had carried on his narrative, and given us a glimpse of the actual progress of the First Crusade. What an incident! Was ever anything in the world's history like it? It had what historical incidents seldom have, a definite beginning, middle and end, from the half-crazed preaching of Peter down to the Fall of Jerusalem. Those leaders! It would take a second Homer to do them justice. Godfrey the perfect soldier and leader, Bohemund the unscrupulous and formidable, Tancred the ideal knight errant, Robert of Normandy the half-mad hero! Here is material so rich that one feels one is not worthy to handle it. What richest imagination could ever evolve anything more marvellous and thrilling than the actual historical facts?
But what a glorious brotherhood the novels are! Think of the pure romance of "The Talisman"; the exquisite picture of Hebridean life in "The Pirate"; the splendid reproduction of Elizabethan England in "Kenilworth"; the rich humour of the "Legend of Montrose"; above all, bear in mind that in all that splendid series, written in a coarse age, there is not one word to offend the most sensitive car, and it is borne in upon one how great and noble a man was Walter Scott, and how high the service which he did for literature and for humanity.
For that reason his life is good reading, and there it is on the same shelf as the novels. Lockhart was, of course, his son-in-law and his admiring friend. The ideal biographer should be a perfectly impartial man, with a sympathetic mind, but a stern determination to tell the absolute truth. One would like the frail, human side of a man as well as the other. I cannot believe that anyone in the world was ever quite so good as the subject of most of our biographies. Surely these worthy people swore a little sometimes, or had a keen eye for a pretty face, or opened the second bottle when they would have done better to stop at the first, or did something to make us feel that they were men and brothers. They need not go the length of the lady who began a biography of her deceased husband with the words—"D—- was a dirty man," but the books certainly would be more readable, and the subjects more lovable too, if we had greater light and shade in the picture.
But I am sure that the more one knew of Scott the more one would have admired him. He lived in a drinking age, and in a drinking country, and I have not a doubt that he took an allowance of toddy occasionally of an evening which would have laid his feeble successors under the table. His last years, at least, poor fellow, were abstemious enough, when he sipped his barley-water, while the others passed the decanter. But what a high-souled chivalrous gentleman he was, with how fine a sense of honour, translating itself not into empty phrases, but into years of labour and denial! You remember how he became sleeping partner in a printing house, and so involved himself in its failure. There was a legal, but very little moral, claim against him, and no one could have blamed him had he cleared the account by a bankruptcy, which would have enabled him to become a rich man again within a few years. Yet he took the whole burden upon himself and bore it for the rest of his life, spending his work, his time, and his health in the one long effort to save his honour from the shadow of a stain. It was nearly a hundred thousand pounds, I think, which he passed on to the creditors—a great record, a hundred thousand pounds, with his life thrown in.
And what a power of work he had! It was superhuman. Only the man who has tried to write fiction himself knows what it means when it is recorded that Scott produced two of his long novels in one single year. I remember reading in some book of reminiscences—on second thoughts it was in Lockhart himself—how the writer had lodged in some rooms in Castle Street, Edinburgh, and how he had seen all evening the silhouette of a man outlined on the blind of the opposite house. All evening the man wrote, and the observer could see the shadow hand conveying the sheets of paper from the desk to the pile at the side. He went to a party and returned, but still the hand was moving the sheets. Next morning he was told that the rooms opposite were occupied by Walter Scott.
A curious glimpse into the psychology of the writer of fiction is shown by the fact that he wrote two of his books—good ones, too—at a time when his health was such that he could not afterwards remember one word of them, and listened to them when they were read to him as if he were hearing the work of another man. Apparently the simplest processes of the brain, such as ordinary memory, were in complete abeyance, and yet the very highest and most complex faculty—imagination in its supreme form—was absolutely unimpaired. It is an extraordinary fact, and one to be pondered over. It gives some support to the feeling which every writer of imaginative work must have, that his supreme work comes to him in some strange way from without, and that he is only the medium for placing it upon the paper. The creative thought—the germ thought from which a larger growth is to come, flies through his brain like a bullet. He is surprised at his own idea, with no conscious sense of having originated it. And here we have a man, with all other brain functions paralyzed, producing this magnificent work. Is it possible that we are indeed but conduit pipes from the infinite reservoir of the unknown? Certainly it is always our best work which leaves the least sense of personal effort.
And to pursue this line of thought, is it possible that frail physical powers and an unstable nervous system, by keeping a man's materialism at its lowest, render him a more fitting agent for these spiritual uses? It is an old tag that
"Great Genius is to madness close allied, And thin partitions do those rooms divide."
But, apart from genius, even a moderate faculty for imaginative work seems to me to weaken seriously the ties between the soul and the body.
Look at the British poets of a century ago: Chatterton, Burns, Shelley, Keats, Byron. Burns was the oldest of that brilliant band, yet Burns was only thirty-eight when he passed away, "burned out," as his brother terribly expressed it. Shelley, it is true, died by accident, and Chatterton by poison, but suicide is in itself a sign of a morbid state. It is true that Rogers lived to be almost a centenarian, but he was banker first and poet afterwards. Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning have all raised the average age of the poets, but for some reason the novelists, especially of late years, have a deplorable record. They will end by being scheduled with the white-lead workers and other dangerous trades. Look at the really shocking case of the young Americans, for example. What a band of promising young writers have in a few years been swept away! There was the author of that admirable book, "David Harum"; there was Frank Norris, a man who had in him, I think, the seeds of greatness more than almost any living writer. His "Pit" seemed to me one of the finest American novels. He also died a premature death. Then there was Stephen Crane—a man who had also done most brilliant work, and there was Harold Frederic, another master-craftsman. Is there any profession in the world which in proportion to its numbers could show such losses as that? In the meantime, out of our own men Robert Louis Stevenson is gone, and Henry Seton Merriman, and many another.
Even those great men who are usually spoken of as if they had rounded off their career were really premature in their end. Thackeray, for example, in spite of his snowy head, was only 52; Dickens attained the age of 58; on the whole, Sir Walter, with his 61 years of life, although he never wrote a novel until he was over 40, had, fortunately for the world, a longer working career than most of his brethren.
He employed his creative faculty for about twenty years, which is as much, I suppose, as Shakespeare did. The bard of Avon is another example of the limited tenure which Genius has of life, though I believe that he outlived the greater part of his own family, who were not a healthy stock. He died, I should judge, of some nervous disease; that is shown by the progressive degeneration of his signature. Probably it was locomotor ataxy, which is the special scourge of the imaginative man. Heine, Daudet, and how many more, were its victims. As to the tradition, first mentioned long after his death, that he died of a fever contracted from a drinking bout, it is absurd on the face of it, since no such fever is known to science. But a very moderate drinking bout would be extremely likely to bring a chronic nervous complaint to a disastrous end.
One other remark upon Scott before I pass on from that line of green volumes which has made me so digressive and so garrulous. No account of his character is complete which does not deal with the strange, secretive vein which ran through his nature. Not only did he stretch the truth on many occasions in order to conceal the fact that he was the author of the famous novels, but even intimate friends who met him day by day were not aware that he was the man about whom the whole of Europe was talking. Even his wife was ignorant of his pecuniary liabilities until the crash of the Ballantyne firm told her for the first time that they were sharers in the ruin. A psychologist might trace this strange twist of his mind in the numerous elfish Fenella-like characters who flit about and keep their irritating secret through the long chapters of so many of his novels.
It's a sad book, Lockhart's "Life." It leaves gloom in the mind. The sight of this weary giant, staggering along, burdened with debt, overladen with work, his wife dead, his nerves broken, and nothing intact but his honour, is one of the most moving in the history of literature. But they pass, these clouds, and all that is left is the memory of the supremely noble man, who would not be bent, but faced Fate to the last, and died in his tracks without a whimper. He sampled every human emotion. Great was his joy and great his success, great was his downfall and bitter his grief. But of all the sons of men I don't think there are many greater than he who lies under the great slab at Dryburgh.
We can pass the long green ranks of the Waverley Novels and Lockhart's "Life" which flanks them. Here is heavier metal in the four big grey volumes beyond. They are an old-fashioned large-print edition of Boswell's "Life of Johnson." I emphasize the large print, for that is the weak point of most of the cheap editions of English Classics which come now into the market. With subjects which are in the least archaic or abstruse you need good clear type to help you on your way. The other is good neither for your eyes nor for your temper. Better pay a little more and have a book that is made for use.
That book interests me—fascinates me—and yet I wish I could join heartily in that chorus of praise which the kind-hearted old bully has enjoyed. It is difficult to follow his own advice and to "clear one's mind of cant" upon the subject, for when you have been accustomed to look at him through the sympathetic glasses of Macaulay or of Boswell, it is hard to take them off, to rub one's eyes, and to have a good honest stare on one's own account at the man's actual words, deeds, and limitations. If you try it you are left with the oddest mixture of impressions. How could one express it save that this is John Bull taken to literature—the exaggerated John Bull of the caricaturists—with every quality, good or evil, at its highest? Here are the rough crust over a kindly heart, the explosive temper, the arrogance, the insular narrowness, the want of sympathy and insight, the rudeness of perception, the positiveness, the overbearing bluster, the strong deep-seated religious principle, and every other characteristic of the cruder, rougher John Bull who was the great grandfather of the present good-natured Johnnie.
If Boswell had not lived I wonder how much we should hear now of his huge friend? With Scotch persistence he has succeeded in inoculating the whole world with his hero worship. It was most natural that he should himself admire him. The relations between the two men were delightful and reflect all credit upon each. But they are not a safe basis from which any third person could argue. When they met, Boswell was in his twenty-third and Johnson in his fifty-fourth year. The one was a keen young Scot with a mind which was reverent and impressionable. The other was a figure from a past generation with his fame already made. From the moment of meeting the one was bound to exercise an absolute ascendency over the other which made unbiassed criticism far more difficult than it would be between ordinary father and son. Up to the end this was the unbroken relation between them.
It is all very well to pooh-pooh Boswell as Macaulay has done, but it is not by chance that a man writes the best biography in the language. He had some great and rare literary qualities. One was a clear and vivid style, more flexible and Saxon than that of his great model. Another was a remarkable discretion which hardly once permitted a fault of taste in this whole enormous book where he must have had to pick his steps with pitfalls on every side of him. They say that he was a fool and a coxcomb in private life. He is never so with a pen in his hand. Of all his numerous arguments with Johnson, where he ventured some little squeak of remonstrance, before the roaring "No, sir!" came to silence him, there are few in which his views were not, as experience proved, the wiser. On the question of slavery he was in the wrong. But I could quote from memory at least a dozen cases, including such vital subjects as the American Revolution, the Hanoverian Dynasty, Religious Toleration, and so on, where Boswell's views were those which survived.
But where he excels as a biographer is in telling you just those little things that you want to know. How often you read the life of a man and are left without the remotest idea of his personality. It is not so here. The man lives again. There is a short description of Johnson's person—it is not in the Life, but in the Tour to the Hebrides, the very next book upon the shelf, which is typical of his vivid portraiture. May I take it down, and read you a paragraph of it?—
"His person was large, robust, I may say approaching to the gigantic, and grown unwieldy from corpulency. His countenance was naturally of the cast of an ancient statue, but somewhat disfigured by the scars of King's evil. He was now in his sixty-fourth year and was become a little dull of hearing. His sight had always been somewhat weak, yet so much does mind govern and even supply the deficiencies of organs that his perceptions were uncommonly quick and accurate. His head, and sometimes also his body, shook with a kind of motion like the effect of palsy. He appeared to be frequently disturbed by cramps or convulsive contractions of the nature of that distemper called St. Vitus' dance. He wore a full suit of plain brown clothes, with twisted hair buttons of the same colour, a large bushy greyish wig, a plain shirt, black worsted stockings and silver buckles. Upon this tour when journeying he wore boots and a very wide brown cloth great-coat with pockets which might almost have held the two volumes of his folio dictionary, and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick."
You must admit that if one cannot reconstruct the great Samuel after that it is not Mr. Boswell's fault—and it is but one of a dozen equally vivid glimpses which he gives us of his hero. It is just these pen-pictures of his of the big, uncouth man, with his grunts and his groans, his Gargantuan appetite, his twenty cups of tea, and his tricks with the orange-peel and the lamp-posts, which fascinate the reader, and have given Johnson a far broader literary vogue than his writings could have done.
For, after all, which of those writings can be said to have any life to-day? Not "Rasselas," surely—that stilted romance. "The Lives of the Poets" are but a succession of prefaces, and the "Ramblers" of ephemeral essays. There is the monstrous drudgery of the Dictionary, a huge piece of spadework, a monument to industry, but inconceivable to genius. "London" has a few vigorous lines, and the "Journey to the Hebrides" some spirited pages. This, with a number of political and other pamphlets, was the main output of his lifetime. Surely it must be admitted that it is not enough to justify his predominant place in English literature, and that we must turn to his humble, much-ridiculed biographer for the real explanation.
And then there was his talk. What was it which gave it such distinction? His clear-cut positiveness upon every subject. But this is a sign of a narrow finality—impossible to the man of sympathy and of imagination, who sees the other side of every question and understands what a little island the greatest human knowledge must be in the ocean of infinite possibilities which surround us. Look at the results. Did ever any single man, the very dullest of the race, stand convicted of so many incredible blunders? It recalls the remark of Bagehot, that if at any time the views of the most learned could be stamped upon the whole human race the result would be to propagate the most absurd errors. He was asked what became of swallows in the winter. Rolling and wheezing, the oracle answered: "Swallows," said he, "certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water and lie in the bed of a river." Boswell gravely dockets the information. However, if I remember right, even so sound a naturalist as White of Selborne had his doubts about the swallows. More wonderful are Johnson's misjudgments of his fellow-authors. There, if anywhere, one would have expected to find a sense of proportion. Yet his conclusions would seem monstrous to a modern taste. "Shakespeare," he said, "never wrote six consecutive good lines." He would only admit two good verses in Gray's exquisite "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard," where it would take a very acid critic to find two bad ones. "Tristram Shandy" would not live. "Hamlet" was gabble. Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" was poor stuff, and he never wrote anything good except "A Tale of a Tub." Voltaire was illiterate. Rousseau was a scoundrel. Deists, like Hume, Priestley, or Gibbon, could not be honest men.
And his political opinions! They sound now like a caricature. I suppose even in those days they were reactionary. "A poor man has no honour." "Charles the Second was a good King." "Governments should turn out of the Civil Service all who were on the other side." "Judges in India should be encouraged to trade." "No country is the richer on account of trade." (I wonder if Adam Smith was in the company when this proposition was laid down!) "A landed proprietor should turn out those tenants who did not vote as he wished." "It is not good for a labourer to have his wages raised." "When the balance of trade is against a country, the margin must be paid in current coin." Those were a few of his convictions.
And then his prejudices! Most of us have some unreasoning aversion. In our more generous moments we are not proud of it. But consider those of Johnson! When they were all eliminated there was not so very much left. He hated Whigs. He disliked Scotsmen. He detested Nonconformists (a young lady who joined them was "an odious wench"). He loathed Americans. So he walked his narrow line, belching fire and fury at everything to the right or the left of it. Macaulay's posthumous admiration is all very well, but had they met in life Macaulay would have contrived to unite under one hat nearly everything that Johnson abominated.
It cannot be said that these prejudices were founded on any strong principle, or that they could not be altered where his own personal interests demanded it. This is one of the weak points of his record. In his dictionary he abused pensions and pensioners as a means by which the State imposed slavery upon hirelings. When he wrote the unfortunate definition a pension must have seemed a most improbable contingency, but when George III., either through policy or charity, offered him one a little later, he made no hesitation in accepting it. One would have liked to feel that the violent expression of his convictions represented a real intensity of feeling, but the facts in this instance seem against it.
He was a great talker—but his talk was more properly a monologue. It was a discursive essay, with perhaps a few marginal notes from his subdued audience. How could one talk on equal terms with a man who could not brook contradiction or even argument upon the most vital questions in life? Would Goldsmith defend his literary views, or Burke his Whiggism, or Gibbon his Deism? There was no common ground of philosophic toleration on which one could stand. If he could not argue he would be rude, or, as Goldsmith put it: "If his pistol missed fire, he would knock you down with the butt end." In the face of that "rhinoceros laugh" there was an end of gentle argument. Napoleon said that all the other kings would say "Ouf!" when they heard he was dead, and so I cannot help thinking that the older men of Johnson's circle must have given a sigh of relief when at last they could speak freely on that which was near their hearts, without the danger of a scene where "Why, no, sir!" was very likely to ripen into "Let us have no more on't!" Certainly one would like to get behind Boswell's account, and to hear a chat between such men as Burke and Reynolds, as to the difference in the freedom and atmosphere of the Club on an evening when the formidable Doctor was not there, as compared to one when he was.
No smallest estimate of his character is fair which does not make due allowance for the terrible experiences of his youth and early middle age. His spirit was as scarred as his face. He was fifty-three when the pension was given him, and up to then his existence had been spent in one constant struggle for the first necessities of life, for the daily meal and the nightly bed. He had seen his comrades of letters die of actual privation. From childhood he had known no happiness. The half blind gawky youth, with dirty linen and twitching limbs, had always, whether in the streets of Lichfield, the quadrangle of Pembroke, or the coffee-houses of London, been an object of mingled pity and amusement. With a proud and sensitive soul, every day of his life must have brought some bitter humiliation. Such an experience must either break a man's spirit or embitter it, and here, no doubt, was the secret of that roughness, that carelessness for the sensibilities of others, which caused Boswell's father to christen him "Ursa Major." If his nature was in any way warped, it must be admitted that terrific forces had gone to the rending of it. His good was innate, his evil the result of a dreadful experience.
And he had some great qualities. Memory was the chief of them. He had read omnivorously, and all that he had read he remembered, not merely in the vague, general way in which we remember what we read, but with every particular of place and date. If it were poetry, he could quote it by the page, Latin or English. Such a memory has its enormous advantage, but it carries with it its corresponding defect. With the mind so crammed with other people's goods, how can you have room for any fresh manufactures of your own? A great memory is, I think, often fatal to originality, in spite of Scott and some other exceptions. The slate must be clear before you put your own writing upon it. When did Johnson ever discover an original thought, when did he ever reach forward into the future, or throw any fresh light upon those enigmas with which mankind is faced? Overloaded with the past, he had space for nothing else. Modern developments of every sort cast no first herald rays upon his mind. He journeyed in France a few years before the greatest cataclysm that the world has ever known, and his mind, arrested by much that was trivial, never once responded to the storm-signals which must surely have been visible around him. We read that an amiable Monsieur Sansterre showed him over his brewery and supplied him with statistics as to his output of beer. It was the same foul-mouthed Sansterre who struck up the drums to drown Louis' voice at the scaffold. The association shows how near the unconscious sage was to the edge of that precipice and how little his learning availed him in discerning it.
He would have been a great lawyer or divine. Nothing, one would think, could have kept him from Canterbury or from the Woolsack. In either case his memory, his learning, his dignity, and his inherent sense of piety and justice, would have sent him straight to the top. His brain, working within its own limitations, was remarkable. There is no more wonderful proof of this than his opinions on questions of Scotch law, as given to Boswell and as used by the latter before the Scotch judges. That an outsider with no special training should at short notice write such weighty opinions, crammed with argument and reason, is, I think, as remarkable a tour de force as literature can show.
Above all, he really was a very kind-hearted man, and that must count for much. His was a large charity, and it came from a small purse. The rooms of his house became a sort of harbour of refuge in which several strange battered hulks found their last moorings. There were the blind Mr. Levett, and the acidulous Mrs. Williams, and the colourless Mrs. De Moulins, all old and ailing—a trying group amid which to spend one's days. His guinea was always ready for the poor acquaintance, and no poet was so humble that he might not preface his book with a dedication whose ponderous and sonorous sentences bore the hall-mark of their maker. It is the rough, kindly man, the man who bore the poor street-walker home upon his shoulders, who makes one forget, or at least forgive, the dogmatic pedantic Doctor of the Club.
There is always to me something of interest in the view which a great man takes of old age and death. It is the practical test of how far the philosophy of his life has been a sound one. Hume saw death afar, and met it with unostentatious calm. Johnson's mind flinched from that dread opponent. His letters and his talk during his latter years are one long cry of fear. It was not cowardice, for physically he was one of the most stout-hearted men that ever lived. There were no limits to his courage. It was spiritual diffidence, coupled with an actual belief in the possibilities of the other world, which a more humane and liberal theology has done something to soften. How strange to see him cling so desperately to that crazy body, with its gout, its asthma, its St. Vitus' dance, and its six gallons of dropsy! What could be the attraction of an existence where eight hours of every day were spent groaning in a chair, and sixteen wheezing in a bed? "I would give one of these legs," said he, "for another year of life." None the less, when the hour did at last strike, no man could have borne himself with more simple dignity and courage. Say what you will of him, and resent him how you may, you can never open those four grey volumes without getting some mental stimulus, some desire for wider reading, some insight into human learning or character, which should leave you a better and a wiser man.
Next to my Johnsoniana are my Gibbons—two editions, if you please, for my old complete one being somewhat crabbed in the print I could not resist getting a set of Bury's new six-volume presentment of the History. In reading that book you don't want to be handicapped in any way. You want fair type, clear paper, and a light volume. You are not to read it lightly, but with some earnestness of purpose and keenness for knowledge, with a classical atlas at your elbow and a note-book hard by, taking easy stages and harking back every now and then to keep your grip of the past and to link it up with what follows. There are no thrills in it. You won't be kept out of your bed at night, nor will you forget your appointments during the day, but you will feel a certain sedate pleasure in the doing of it, and when it is done you will have gained something which you can never lose—something solid, something definite, something that will make you broader and deeper than before.
Were I condemned to spend a year upon a desert island and allowed only one book for my companion, it is certainly that which I should choose. For consider how enormous is its scope, and what food for thought is contained within those volumes. It covers a thousand years of the world's history, it is full and good and accurate, its standpoint is broadly philosophic, its style dignified. With our more elastic methods we may consider his manner pompous, but he lived in an age when Johnson's turgid periods had corrupted our literature. For my own part I do not dislike Gibbon's pomposity. A paragraph should be measured and sonorous if it ventures to describe the advance of a Roman legion, or the debate of a Greek Senate. You are wafted upwards, with this lucid and just spirit by your side upholding and instructing you. Beneath you are warring nations, the clash of races, the rise and fall of dynasties, the conflict of creeds. Serene you float above them all, and ever as the panorama flows past, the weighty measured unemotional voice whispers the true meaning of the scene into your ear.
It is a most mighty story that is told. You begin with a description of the state of the Roman Empire when the early Caesars were on the throne, and when it was undisputed mistress of the world. You pass down the line of the Emperors with their strange alternations of greatness and profligacy, descending occasionally to criminal lunacy. When the Empire went rotten it began at the top, and it took centuries to corrupt the man behind the spear. Neither did a religion of peace affect him much, for, in spite of the adoption of Christianity, Roman history was still written in blood. The new creed had only added a fresh cause of quarrel and violence to the many which already existed, and the wars of angry nations were mild compared to those of excited sectaries.
Then came the mighty rushing wind from without, blowing from the waste places of the world, destroying, confounding, whirling madly through the old order, leaving broken chaos behind it, but finally cleansing and purifying that which was stale and corrupt. A storm-centre somewhere in the north of China did suddenly what it may very well do again. The human volcano blew its top off, and Europe was covered by the destructive debris. The absurd point is that it was not the conquerors who overran the Roman Empire, but it was the terrified fugitives, who, like a drove of stampeded cattle, blundered over everything which barred their way. It was a wild, dramatic time—the time of the formation of the modern races of Europe. The nations came whirling in out of the north and east like dust-storms, and amid the seeming chaos each was blended with its neighbour so as to toughen the fibre of the whole. The fickle Gaul got his steadying from the Franks, the steady Saxon got his touch of refinement from the Norman, the Italian got a fresh lease of life from the Lombard and the Ostrogoth, the corrupt Greek made way for the manly and earnest Mahommedan. Everywhere one seems to see a great hand blending the seeds. And so one can now, save only that emigration has taken the place of war. It does not, for example, take much prophetic power to say that something very great is being built up on the other side of the Atlantic. When on an Anglo-Celtic basis you see the Italian, the Hun, and the Scandinavian being added, you feel that there is no human quality which may not be thereby evolved.
But to revert to Gibbon: the next stage is the flight of Empire from Rome to Byzantium, even as the Anglo-Celtic power might find its centre some day not in London but in Chicago or Toronto. There is the whole strange story of the tidal wave of Mahommedanism from the south, submerging all North Africa, spreading right and left to India on the one side and to Spain on the other, finally washing right over the walls of Byzantium until it, the bulwark of Christianity, became what it is now, the advanced European fortress of the Moslem. Such is the tremendous narrative covering half the world's known history, which can all be acquired and made part of yourself by the aid of that humble atlas, pencil, and note-book already recommended.
When all is so interesting it is hard to pick examples, but to me there has always seemed to be something peculiarly impressive in the first entrance of a new race on to the stage of history. It has something of the glamour which hangs round the early youth of a great man. You remember how the Russians made their debut—came down the great rivers and appeared at the Bosphorus in two hundred canoes, from which they endeavoured to board the Imperial galleys. Singular that a thousand years have passed and that the ambition of the Russians is still to carry out the task at which their skin-clad ancestors failed. Or the Turks again; you may recall the characteristic ferocity with which they opened their career. A handful of them were on some mission to the Emperor. The town was besieged from the landward side by the barbarians, and the Asiatics obtained leave to take part in a skirmish. The first Turk galloped out, shot a barbarian with his arrow, and then, lying down beside him, proceeded to suck his blood, which so horrified the man's comrades that they could not be brought to face such uncanny adversaries. So, from opposite sides, those two great races arrived at the city which was to be the stronghold of the one and the ambition of the other for so many centuries.
And then, even more interesting than the races which arrive are those that disappear. There is something there which appeals most powerfully to the imagination. Take, for example, the fate of those Vandals who conquered the north of Africa. They were a German tribe, blue-eyed and flaxen-haired, from somewhere in the Elbe country. Suddenly they, too, were seized with the strange wandering madness which was epidemic at the time. Away they went on the line of least resistance, which is always from north to south and from east to west. South-west was the course of the Vandals—a course which must have been continued through pure love of adventure, since in the thousands of miles which they traversed there were many fair resting-places, if that were only their quest.
They crossed the south of France, conquered Spain, and, finally, the more adventurous passed over into Africa, where they occupied the old Roman province. For two or three generations they held it, much as the English hold India, and their numbers were at the least some hundreds of thousands. Presently the Roman Empire gave one of those flickers which showed that there was still some fire among the ashes. Belisarius landed in Africa and reconquered the province. The Vandals were cut off from the sea and fled inland. Whither did they carry those blue eyes and that flaxen hair? Were they exterminated by the negroes, or did they amalgamate with them? Travellers have brought back stories from the Mountains of the Moon of a Negroid race with light eyes and hair. Is it possible that here we have some trace of the vanished Germans?
It recalls the parallel case of the lost settlements in Greenland. That also has always seemed to me to be one of the most romantic questions in history—the more so, perhaps, as I have strained my eyes to see across the ice-floes the Greenland coast at the point (or near it) where the old "Eyrbyggia" must have stood. That was the Scandinavian city, founded by colonists from Iceland, which grew to be a considerable place, so much so that they sent to Denmark for a bishop. That would be in the fourteenth century. The bishop, coming out to his see, found that he was unable to reach it on account of a climatic change which had brought down the ice and filled the strait between Iceland and Greenland. From that day to this no one has been able to say what has become of these old Scandinavians, who were at the time, be it remembered, the most civilized and advanced race in Europe. They may have been overwhelmed by the Esquimaux, the despised Skroeling—or they may have amalgamated with them—or conceivably they might have held their own. Very little is known yet of that portion of the coast. It would be strange if some Nansen or Peary were to stumble upon the remains of the old colony, and find possibly in that antiseptic atmosphere a complete mummy of some bygone civilization.
But once more to return to Gibbon. What a mind it must have been which first planned, and then, with the incessant labour of twenty years, carried out that enormous work! There was no classical author so little known, no Byzantine historian so diffuse, no monkish chronicle so crabbed, that they were not assimilated and worked into their appropriate place in the huge framework. Great application, great perseverance, great attention to detail was needed in all this, but the coral polyp has all those qualities, and somehow in the heart of his own creation the individuality of the man himself becomes as insignificant and as much overlooked as that of the little creature that builds the reef. A thousand know Gibbon's work for one who cares anything for Gibbon.
And on the whole this is justified by the facts. Some men are greater than their work. Their work only represents one facet of their character, and there may be a dozen others, all remarkable, and uniting to make one complex and unique creature. It was not so with Gibbon. He was a cold-blooded man, with a brain which seemed to have grown at the expense of his heart. I cannot recall in his life one generous impulse, one ardent enthusiasm, save for the Classics. His excellent judgment was never clouded by the haze of human emotion—or, at least, it was such an emotion as was well under the control of his will. Could anything be more laudable—or less lovable? He abandons his girl at the order of his father, and sums it up that he "sighs as a lover but obeys as a son." The father dies, and he records the fact with the remark that "the tears of a son are seldom lasting." The terrible spectacle of the French Revolution excited in his mind only a feeling of self-pity because his retreat in Switzerland was invaded by the unhappy refugees, just as a grumpy country gentleman in England might complain that he was annoyed by the trippers. There is a touch of dislike in all the allusions which Boswell makes to Gibbon—often without even mentioning his name—and one cannot read the great historian's life without understanding why.
I should think that few men have been born with the material for self-sufficient contentment more completely within himself than Edward Gibbon. He had every gift which a great scholar should have, an insatiable thirst for learning in every form, immense industry, a retentive memory, and that broadly philosophic temperament which enables a man to rise above the partisan and to become the impartial critic of human affairs. It is true that at the time he was looked upon as bitterly prejudiced in the matter of religious thought, but his views are familiar to modern philosophy, and would shock no susceptibilities in these more liberal (and more virtuous) days. Turn him up in that Encyclopedia, and see what the latest word is upon his contentions. "Upon the famous fifteenth and sixteenth chapters it is not necessary to dwell," says the biographer, "because at this time of day no Christian apologist dreams of denying the substantial truth of any of the more important allegations of Gibbon. Christians may complain of the suppression of some circumstances which might influence the general result, and they must remonstrate against the unfair construction of their case. But they no longer refuse to hear any reasonable evidence tending to show that persecution was less severe than had been once believed, and they have slowly learned that they can afford to concede the validity of all the secondary causes assigned by Gibbon and even of others still more discreditable. The fact is, as the historian has again and again admitted, that his account of the secondary causes which contributed to the progress and establishment of Christianity leaves the question as to the natural or supernatural origin of Christianity practically untouched." This is all very well, but in that case how about the century of abuse which has been showered upon the historian? Some posthumous apology would seem to be called for.
Physically, Gibbon was as small as Johnson was large, but there was a curious affinity in their bodily ailments. Johnson, as a youth, was ulcerated and tortured by the king's evil, in spite of the Royal touch. Gibbon gives us a concise but lurid account of his own boyhood.
"I was successively afflicted by lethargies and fevers, by opposite tendencies to a consumptive and dropsical habit, by a contraction of my nerves, a fistula in my eye, and the bite of a dog, most vehemently suspected of madness. Every practitioner was called to my aid, the fees of the doctors were swelled by the bills of the apothecaries and surgeons. There was a time when I swallowed more physic than food, and my body is still marked by the indelible scars of lancets, issues, and caustics."
Such is his melancholy report. The fact is that the England of that day seems to have been very full of that hereditary form of chronic ill-health which we call by the general name of struma. How far the hard-drinking habits in vogue for a century or so before had anything to do with it I cannot say, nor can I trace a connection between struma and learning; but one has only to compare this account of Gibbon with Johnson's nervous twitches, his scarred face and his St. Vitus' dance, to realize that these, the two most solid English writers of their generation, were each heir to the same gruesome inheritance.
I wonder if there is any picture extant of Gibbon in the character of subaltern in the South Hampshire Militia? With his small frame, his huge head, his round, chubby face, and the pretentious uniform, he must have looked a most extraordinary figure. Never was there so round a peg in a square hole! His father, a man of a very different type, held a commission, and this led to poor Gibbon becoming a soldier in spite of himself. War had broken out, the regiment was mustered, and the unfortunate student, to his own utter dismay, was kept under arms until the conclusion of hostilities. For three years he was divorced from his books, and loudly and bitterly did he resent it. The South Hampshire Militia never saw the enemy, which is perhaps as well for them. Even Gibbon himself pokes fun at them; but after three years under canvas it is probable that his men had more cause to smile at their book-worm captain than he at his men. His hand closed much more readily on a pen-handle than on a sword-hilt. In his lament, one of the items is that his colonel's example encouraged the daily practice of hard and even excessive drinking, which gave him the gout. "The loss of so many busy and idle hours were not compensated for by any elegant pleasure," says he; "and my temper was insensibly soured by the society of rustic officers, who were alike deficient in the knowledge of scholars and the manners of gentlemen." The picture of Gibbon flushed with wine at the mess-table, with these hard-drinking squires around him, must certainly have been a curious one. He admits, however, that he found consolations as well as hardships in his spell of soldiering. It made him an Englishman once more, it improved his health, it changed the current of his thoughts. It was even useful to him as an historian. In a celebrated and characteristic sentence, he says, "The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the Phalanx and the Legions, and the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire."
If we don't know all about Gibbon it is not his fault, for he wrote no fewer than six accounts of his own career, each differing from the other, and all equally bad. A man must have more heart and soul than Gibbon to write a good autobiography. It is the most difficult of all human compositions, calling for a mixture of tact, discretion, and frankness which make an almost impossible blend. Gibbon, in spite of his foreign education, was a very typical Englishman in many ways, with the reticence, self-respect, and self-consciousness of the race. No British autobiography has ever been frank, and consequently no British autobiography has ever been good. Trollope's, perhaps, is as good as any that I know, but of all forms of literature it is the one least adapted to the national genius. You could not imagine a British Rousseau, still less a British Benvenuto Cellini. In one way it is to the credit of the race that it should be so. If we do as much evil as our neighbours we at least have grace enough to be ashamed of it and to suppress its publication.
There on the left of Gibbon is my fine edition (Lord Braybrooke's) of Pepys' Diary. That is, in truth, the greatest autobiography in our language, and yet it was not deliberately written as such. When Mr. Pepys jotted down from day to day every quaint or mean thought which came into his head he would have been very much surprised had any one told him that he was doing a work quite unique in our literature. Yet his involuntary autobiography, compiled for some obscure reason or for private reference, but certainly never meant for publication, is as much the first in that line of literature as Boswell's book among biographies or Gibbon's among histories.
As a race we are too afraid of giving ourselves away ever to produce a good autobiography. We resent the charge of national hypocrisy, and yet of all nations we are the least frank as to our own emotions—especially on certain sides of them. Those affairs of the heart, for example, which are such an index to a man's character, and so profoundly modify his life—what space do they fill in any man's autobiography? Perhaps in Gibbon's case the omission matters little, for, save in the instance of his well-controlled passion for the future Madame Neckar, his heart was never an organ which gave him much trouble. The fact is that when the British author tells his own story he tries to make himself respectable, and the more respectable a man is the less interesting does he become. Rousseau may prove himself a maudlin degenerate. Cellini may stand self-convicted as an amorous ruffian. If they are not respectable they are thoroughly human and interesting all the same.
The wonderful thing about Mr. Pepys is that a man should succeed in making himself seem so insignificant when really he must have been a man of considerable character and attainments. Who would guess it who read all these trivial comments, these catalogues of what he had for dinner, these inane domestic confidences—all the more interesting for their inanity! The effect left upon the mind is of some grotesque character in a play, fussy, self-conscious, blustering with women, timid with men, dress-proud, purse-proud, trimming in politics and in religion, a garrulous gossip immersed always in trifles. And yet, though this was the day-by-day man, the year-by-year man was a very different person, a devoted civil servant, an eloquent orator, an excellent writer, a capable musician, and a ripe scholar who accumulated 3000 volumes—a large private library in those days—and had the public spirit to leave them all to his University. You can forgive old Pepys a good deal of his philandering when you remember that he was the only official of the Navy Office who stuck to his post during the worst days of the Plague. He may have been—indeed, he assuredly was—a coward, but the coward who has sense of duty enough to overcome his cowardice is the most truly brave of mankind.
But the one amazing thing which will never be explained about Pepys is what on earth induced him to go to the incredible labour of writing down in shorthand cipher not only all the trivialities of his life, but even his own very gross delinquencies which any other man would have been only too glad to forget. The Diary was kept for about ten years, and was abandoned because the strain upon his eyes of the crabbed shorthand was helping to destroy his sight. I suppose that he became so familiar with it that he wrote it and read it as easily as he did ordinary script. But even so, it was a huge labour to compile these books of strange manuscript. Was it an effort to leave some memorial of his own existence to single him out from all the countless sons of men? In such a case he would assuredly have left directions in somebody's care with a reference to it in the deed by which he bequeathed his library to Cambridge. In that way he could have ensured having his Diary read at any date he chose to name after his death. But no allusion to it was left, and if it had not been for the ingenuity and perseverance of a single scholar the dusty volumes would still lie unread in some top shelf of the Pepysian Library. Publicity, then, was not his object. What could it have been? The only alternative is reference and self-information. You will observe in his character a curious vein of method and order, by which he loved, to be for ever estimating his exact wealth, cataloguing his books, or scheduling his possessions. It is conceivable that this systematic recording of his deeds—even of his misdeeds—was in some sort analogous, sprung from a morbid tidiness of mind. It may be a weak explanation, but it is difficult to advance another one.
One minor point which must strike the reader of Pepys is how musical a nation the English of that day appear to have been. Every one seems to have had command of some instrument, many of several. Part-singing was common. There is not much of Charles the Second's days which we need envy, but there, at least, they seem to have had the advantage of us. It was real music, too—music of dignity and tenderness—with words which were worthy of such treatment. This cult may have been the last remains of those mediaeval pre-Reformation days when the English Church choirs were, as I have read somewhere, the most famous in Europe. A strange thing this for a land which in the whole of last century has produced no single master of the first rank!
What national change is it which has driven music from the land? Has life become so serious that song has passed out of it? In Southern climes one hears poor folk sing for pure lightness of heart. In England, alas, the sound of a poor man's voice raised in song means only too surely that he is drunk. And yet it is consoling to know that the germ of the old powers is always there ready to sprout forth if they be nourished and cultivated. If our cathedral choirs were the best in the old Catholic days, it is equally true, I believe, that our orchestral associations are now the best in Europe. So, at least, the German papers said on the occasion of the recent visit of a north of England choir. But one cannot read Pepys without knowing that the general musical habit is much less cultivated now than of old.
It is a long jump from Samuel Pepys to George Borrow—from one pole of the human character to the other—and yet they are in contact on the shelf of my favourite authors. There is something wonderful, I think, about the land of Cornwall. That long peninsula extending out into the ocean has caught all sorts of strange floating things, and has held them there in isolation until they have woven themselves into the texture of the Cornish race. What is this strange strain which lurks down yonder and every now and then throws up a great man with singular un-English ways and features for all the world to marvel at? It is not Celtic, nor is it the dark old Iberian. Further and deeper lie the springs. Is it not Semitic, Phoenician, the roving men of Tyre, with noble Southern faces and Oriental imaginations, who have in far-off days forgotten their blue Mediterranean and settled on the granite shores of the Northern Sea?
Whence came the wonderful face and great personality of Henry Irving? How strong, how beautiful, how un-Saxon it was! I only know that his mother was a Cornish woman. Whence came the intense glowing imagination of the Brontes—so unlike the Miss-Austen-like calm of their predecessors? Again, I only know that their mother was a Cornish woman. Whence came this huge elfin creature, George Borrow, with his eagle head perched on his rocklike shoulders, brown-faced, white-headed, a king among men? Where did he get that remarkable face, those strange mental gifts, which place him by himself in literature? Once more, his father was a Cornishman. Yes, there is something strange, and weird, and great, lurking down yonder in the great peninsula which juts into the western sea. Borrow may, if he so pleases, call himself an East Anglian—"an English Englishman," as he loved to term it—but is it a coincidence that the one East Anglian born of Cornish blood was the one who showed these strange qualities? The birth was accidental. The qualities throw back to the twilight of the world.
There are some authors from whom I shrink because they are so voluminous that I feel that, do what I may, I can never hope to be well read in their works. Therefore, and very weakly, I avoid them altogether. There is Balzac, for example, with his hundred odd volumes. I am told that some of them are masterpieces and the rest pot-boilers, but that no one is agreed which is which. Such an author makes an undue claim upon the little span of mortal years. Because he asks too much one is inclined to give him nothing at all. Dumas, too! I stand on the edge of him, and look at that huge crop, and content myself with a sample here and there. But no one could raise this objection to Borrow. A month's reading—even for a leisurely reader—will master all that he has written. There are "Lavengro," "The Bible in Spain," "Romany Rye," and, finally, if you wish to go further, "Wild Wales." Only four books—not much to found a great reputation upon—but, then, there are no other four books quite like them in the language.
He was a very strange man, bigoted, prejudiced, obstinate, inclined to be sulky, as wayward as a man could be. So far his catalogue of qualities does not seem to pick him as a winner. But he had one great and rare gift. He preserved through all his days a sense of the great wonder and mystery of life—the child sense which is so quickly dulled. Not only did he retain it himself, but he was word-master enough to make other people hark back to it also. As he writes you cannot help seeing through his eyes, and nothing which his eyes saw or his ear heard was ever dull or commonplace. It was all strange, mystic, with some deeper meaning struggling always to the light. If he chronicled his conversation with a washer-woman there was something arresting in the words he said, something singular in her reply. If he met a man in a public-house one felt, after reading his account, that one would wish to know more of that man. If he approached a town he saw and made you see—not a collection of commonplace houses or frowsy streets, but something very strange and wonderful, the winding river, the noble bridge, the old castle, the shadows of the dead. Every human being, every object, was not so much a thing in itself, as a symbol and reminder of the past. He looked through a man at that which the man represented. Was his name Welsh? Then in an instant the individual is forgotten and he is off, dragging you in his train, to ancient Britons, intrusive Saxons, unheard-of bards, Owen Glendower, mountain raiders and a thousand fascinating things. Or is it a Danish name? He leaves the individual in all his modern commonplace while he flies off to huge skulls at Hythe (in parenthesis I may remark that I have examined the said skulls with some care, and they seemed to me to be rather below the human average), to Vikings, Berserkers, Varangians, Harald Haardraada, and the innate wickedness of the Pope. To Borrow all roads lead to Rome.
But, my word, what English the fellow could write! What an organ-roll he could get into his sentences! How nervous and vital and vivid it all is!
There is music in every line of it if you have been blessed with an ear for the music of prose. Take the chapter in "Lavengro" of how the screaming horror came upon his spirit when he was encamped in the Dingle. The man who wrote that has caught the true mantle of Bunyan and Defoe. And, observe the art of it, under all the simplicity—notice, for example, the curious weird effect produced by the studied repetition of the word "dingle" coming ever round and round like the master-note in a chime. Or take the passage about Britain towards the end of "The Bible in Spain." I hate quoting from these masterpieces, if only for the very selfish reason that my poor setting cannot afford to show up brilliants. None the less, cost what it may, let me transcribe that one noble piece of impassioned prose—
"O England! long, long may it be ere the sun of thy glory sink beneath the wave of darkness! Though gloomy and portentous clouds are now gathering rapidly around thee, still, still may it please the Almighty to disperse them, and to grant thee a futurity longer in duration and still brighter in renown than thy past! Or, if thy doom be at hand, may that doom be a noble one, and worthy of her who has been styled the Old Queen of the waters! May thou sink, if thou dost sink, amidst blood and flame, with a mighty noise, causing more than one nation to participate in thy downfall! Of all fates, may it please the Lord to preserve thee from a disgraceful and a slow decay; becoming, ere extinct, a scorn and a mockery for those self-same foes who now, though they envy and abhor thee, still fear thee, nay even against their will, honour and respect thee.... Remove from thee the false prophets, who have seen vanity and divined lies; who have daubed thy wall with untempered mortar, that it may fall; who see visions of peace where there is no peace; who have strengthened the hands of the wicked, and made the heart of the righteous sad. Oh, do this, and fear not the result, for either shall thy end be a majestic and an enviable one; or God shall perpetuate thy reign upon the waters, thou Old Queen!"
Or take the fight with the Flaming Tinman. It's too long for quotation—but read it, read every word of it. Where in the language can you find a stronger, more condensed and more restrained narrative? I have seen with my own eyes many a noble fight, more than one international battle, where the best of two great countries have been pitted against each other—yet the second-hand impression of Borrow's description leaves a more vivid remembrance upon my mind than any of them. This is the real witchcraft of letters.
He was a great fighter himself. He has left a secure reputation in other than literary circles—circles which would have been amazed to learn that he was a writer of books. With his natural advantages, his six foot three of height and his staglike agility, he could hardly fail to be formidable. But he was a scientific sparrer as well, though he had, I have been told, a curious sprawling fashion of his own. And how his heart was in it—how he loved the fighting men! You remember his thumb-nail sketches of his heroes. If you don't I must quote one, and if you do you will be glad to read it again—
"There's Cribb, the Champion of England, and perhaps the best man in England; there he is, with his huge, massive figure, and face wonderfully like that of a lion. There is Belcher, the younger, not the mighty one, who is gone to his place, but the Teucer Belcher, the most scientific pugilist that ever entered a ring, only wanting strength to be I won't say what. He appears to walk before me now, as he did that evening, with his white hat, white great coat, thin genteel figure, springy step, and keen determined eye. Crosses him, what a contrast! Grim, savage Shelton, who has a civil word for nobody, and a hard blow for anybody. Hard! One blow given with the proper play of his athletic arm will unsense a giant. Yonder individual, who strolls about with his hands behind him, supporting his brown coat lappets, undersized, and who looks anything but what he is, is the king of the light-weights, so-called—Randall! The terrible Randall, who has Irish blood in his veins; not the better for that, nor the worse; and not far from him is his last antagonist, Ned Turner, who, though beaten by him, still thinks himself as good a man, in which he is, perhaps, right, for it was a near thing. But how shall I name them all? They were there by dozens, and all tremendous in their way. There was Bulldog Hudson, and fearless Scroggins, who beat the conqueror of Sam the Jew. There was Black Richmond—no, he was not there, but I knew him well; he was the most dangerous of blacks, even with a broken thigh. There was Purcell, who could never conquer until all seemed over with him. There was—what! shall I name thee last? Ay, why not? I believe that thou art the last of all that strong family still above the sod, where mayst thou long continue—true piece of English stuff—Tom of Bedford. Hail to thee, Tom of Bedford, or by whatever name it may please thee to be called, Spring or Winter! Hail to thee, six-foot Englishman of the brown eye, worthy to have carried a six-foot bow at Flodden, where England's yeomen triumphed over Scotland's King, his clans and chivalry. Hail to thee, last of English bruisers, after all the many victories which thou hast achieved—true English victories, unbought by yellow gold."