Transcribed from the 1892 David Nutt edition by David Price, email email@example.com
VIEWS AND REVIEWS
ESSAYS IN APPRECIATION
By W. E. HENLEY
LONDON Published by DAVID NUTT in the Strand 1892
* * * * *
Printing begun 28th October 1889, ended 13th May 1890
ORDINARY ISSUE— 1000 copies
Finest Japanese— 20 copies
Printing begun May 25th, ended June 18, 1892
Edinburgh: T. & A. CONSTABLE, Printers to Her Majesty
TO THE MEN OF 'THE SCOTS OBSERVER'
Suggested by one friend and selected and compiled by another, this volume is less a book than a mosaic of scraps and shreds recovered from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism. Thus, the notes on Longfellow, Balzac, Sidney, Tourneur, 'Arabian Nights Entertainments,' Borrow, George Eliot, and Mr. Frederick Locker are extracted from originals in 'London'—a print still remembered with affection by those concerned in it; those on Labiche, Champfleury, Richardson, Fielding, Byron, Gay, Congreve, Boswell, 'Essays and Essayists,' Jefferies, Hood, Matthew Arnold, Lever, Thackeray, Dickens, M. Theodore de Banville, Mr. Austin Dobson, and Mr. George Meredith from articles contributed to 'The Athenaeum'; those on Dumas, Count Tolstoi's novels, and the verse of Dr. Hake from 'The Saturday Review'; those on Walton, Landor, and Heine from 'The Scots Observer,' 'The Academy,' and 'Vanity Fair' respectively; while the 'Disraeli' has been pieced together from 'London,' 'Vanity Fair,' and 'The Athenaeum'; the 'Berlioz' from 'The Scots Observer' and 'The Saturday Review'; the 'Tennyson' from 'The Scots Observer' and 'The Magazine of Art'; the 'Homer and Theocritus' from 'Vanity Fair' and the defunct 'Teacher'; the 'Hugo' from 'The Athenaeum,' 'The Magazine of Art,' and an unpublished fragment written for 'The Scottish Church.' In all cases permission to reprint is hereby gratefully acknowledged; but the reprinted matter has been subjected to such a process of revision and reconstitution that much of it is practically new, while little or none remains as it was. I venture, then, to hope that the result, for all its scrappiness, will be found to have that unity which comes of method and an honest regard for letters.
W. E. H.
Edinr. 8th May 1890
A 'Frightful Minus'
Mr. Andrew Lang is delightfully severe on those who 'cannot read Dickens,' but in truth it is only by accident that he is not himself of that unhappy persuasion. For Dickens the humourist he has a most uncompromising enthusiasm; for Dickens the artist in drama and romance he has as little sympathy as the most practical. Of the prose of David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend, the Tale of Two Cities and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he disdains to speak. He is almost fierce (for him) in his denunciation of Little Nell and Paul Dombey; he protests that Monks and Ralph Nickleby are 'too steep,' as indeed they are. But of Bradley Headstone and Sydney Carton he says not a word; while of Martin Chuzzlewit—but here he shall speak for himself, the italics being a present to him. 'I have read in that book a score of times,' says he; 'I never see it but I revel in it—in Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp and the Americans. But what the plot is all about, what Jonas did, what Montague Tigg had to make in the matter, what all the pictures with plenty of shading illustrate, I have never been able to comprehend.' This is almost as bad as the reflection (in a magazine) that Jonas Chuzzlewit is 'the most shadowy murderer in fiction.' Yet it is impossible to be angry. In his own way and within his own limits Mr. Lang is such a thoroughgoing admirer of Dickens that you are moved to compassion when you think of the much he loses by 'being constitutionally incapable' of perfect apprehension. 'How poor,' he cries, with generous enthusiasm, 'the world of fancy would be, "how dispeopled of her dreams," if, in some ruin of the social system, the books of Dickens were lost; and if The Dodger, and Charley Bates, and Mr. Crinkle and Miss Squeers and Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and Dick Swiveller were to perish, or to vanish with Menander's men and women! We cannot think of our world without them; and, children of dreams as they are, they seem more essential than great statesmen, artists, soldiers, who have actually worn flesh and blood, ribbons and orders, gowns and uniforms.' Nor is this all. He is almost prepared to welcome 'free education,' since 'every Englishman who can read, unless he be an Ass, is a reader the more' for Dickens. Does it not give one pause to reflect that the writer of this charming eulogy can only read the half of Dickens, and is half the ideal of his own denunciation.
Dickens's imagination was diligent from the outset; with him conception was not less deliberate and careful than development; and so much he confesses when he describes himself as 'in the first stage of a new book, which consists in going round and round the idea, as you see a bird in his cage go about and about his sugar before he touches it.' 'I have no means,' he writes to a person wanting advice, 'of knowing whether you are patient in the pursuit of this art; but I am inclined to think that you are not, and that you do not discipline yourself enough. When one is impelled to write this or that, one has still to consider: "How much of this will tell for what I mean? How much of it is my own wild emotion and superfluous energy—how much remains that is truly belonging to this ideal character and these ideal circumstances?" It is in the laborious struggle to make this distinction, and in the determination to try for it, that the road to the correction of faults lies. [Perhaps I may remark, in support of the sincerity with which I write this, that I am an impatient and impulsive person myself, but that it has been for many years the constant effort of my life to practise at my desk what I preach to you.]' Such golden words could only have come from one enamoured of his art, and holding the utmost endeavour in its behalf of which his heart and mind were capable for a matter of simple duty. They are a proof that Dickens—in intention at least, and if in intention then surely, the fact of his genius being admitted, to some extent in fact as well—was an artist in the best sense of the term.
In the beginning he often wrote exceeding ill, especially when he was doing his best to write seriously. He developed into an artist in words as he developed into an artist in the construction and the evolution of a story. But his development was his own work, and it is a fact that should redound eternally to his honour that he began in newspaper English, and by the production of an imitation of the novela picaresca—a string of adventures as broken and disconnected as the adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes or Peregrine Pickle, and went on to become an exemplar. A man self-made and self-taught, if he knew anything at all about the 'art for art' theory—which is doubtful—he may well have held it cheap enough. But he practised Millet's dogma—Dans l'art il faut sa peau—as resolutely as Millet himself, and that, too, under conditions that might have proved utterly demoralising had he been less robust and less sincere. He began as a serious novelist with Ralph Nickleby and Lord Frederick Verisopht; he went on to produce such masterpieces as Jonas Chuzzlewit and Doubledick, and Eugene Wrayburn and the immortal Mrs. Gamp, and Fagin and Sikes and Sydney Carton, and many another. The advance is one from positive weakness to positive strength, from ignorance to knowledge, from incapacity to mastery, from the manufacture of lay figures to the creation of human beings.
His faults were many and grave. He wrote some nonsense; he sinned repeatedly against taste; he could be both noisy and vulgar; he was apt to be a caricaturist where he should have been a painter; he was often mawkish and often extravagant; and he was sometimes more inept than a great writer has ever been. But his work, whether bad or good, has in full measure the quality of sincerity. He meant what he did: and he meant it with his whole heart. He looked upon himself as representative and national—as indeed he was; he regarded his work as a universal possession; and he determined to do nothing that for lack of pains should prove unworthy of his function. If he sinned it was unadvisedly and unconsciously; if he failed it was because he knew no better. You feel that as you read. The freshness and fun of Pickwick—a comic middle- class epic, so to speak—seem mainly due to high spirits; and perhaps that immortal book should be described as a first improvisation by a young man of genius not yet sure of either expression or ambition and with only vague and momentary ideas about the duties and necessities of art. But from Pickwick onwards to Edwin Drood the effort after improvement is manifest. What are Dombey and Dorrit themselves but the failures of a great and serious artist? In truth the man's genius did but ripen with years and labour; he spent his life in developing from a popular writer into an artist. He extemporised Pickwick, it may be, but into Copperfield and Chuzzlewit and the Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend he put his whole might, working at them with a passion of determination not exceeded by Balzac himself. He had enchanted the public without an effort; he was the best-beloved of modern writers almost from the outset of his career. But he had in him at least as much of the French artist as of the middle-class Englishman; and if all his life he never ceased from self-education but went unswervingly in pursuit of culture, it was out of love for his art and because his conscience as an artist would not let him do otherwise. We have been told so often to train ourselves by studying the practice of workmen like Gautier and Hugo and imitating the virtues of work like Hernani and Quatre-Vingt-Treize and l'Education Sentimentale—we have heard so much of the aesthetic impeccability of Young France and the section of Young England that affects its qualities and reproduces its fashions—that it is hard to refrain from asking if, when all is said, we should not do well to look for models nearer home? if in place of such moulds of form as Mademoiselle de Maupin we might not take to considering stuff like Rizpah and Our Mutual Friend?
Ave atque Vale.
Yes, he had many and grave faults. But so had Sir Walter and the good Dumas; so, to be candid, had Shakespeare himself—Shakespeare the king of poets. To myself he is always the man of his unrivalled and enchanting letters—is always an incarnation of generous and abounding gaiety, a type of beneficent earnestness, a great expression of intellectual vigour and emotional vivacity. I love to remember that I came into the world contemporaneously with some of his bravest work, and to reflect that even as he was the inspiration of my boyhood so is he a delight of my middle age. I love to think that while English literature endures he will be remembered as one that loved his fellow-men, and did more to make them happy and amiable than any other writer of his time.
It is odd to note how opinions differ as to the greatness of Thackeray and the value of his books. Some regard him as the greatest novelist of his age and country and as one of the greatest of any country and any age. These hold him to be not less sound a moralist than excellent as a writer, not less magnificently creative than usefully and delightfully cynical, not less powerful and complete a painter of manners than infallible as a social philosopher and incomparable as a lecturer on the human heart. They accept Amelia Sedley for a very woman; they believe in Colonel Newcome—'by Don Quixote out of Little Nell'—as in something venerable and heroic; they regard William Dobbin and 'Stunning' Warrington as finished and subtle portraitures; they think Becky Sharp an improvement upon Mme. Marneffe and Wenham better work than Rigby; they are in love with Laura Bell, and refuse to see either cruelty or caricature in their poet's presentment of Alcide de Mirobolant. Thackeray's fun, Thackeray's wisdom, Thackeray's knowledge of men and women, Thackeray's morality, Thackeray's view of life, 'his wit and humour, his pathos, and his umbrella,' are all articles of belief with them. Of Dickens they will not hear; Balzac they incline to despise; if they make any comparison between Thackeray and Fielding, or Thackeray and Richardson, or Thackeray and Sir Walter, or Thackeray and Disraeli, it is to the disadvantage of Disraeli and Scott and Richardson and Fielding. All these were well enough in their way and day; but they are not to be classed with Thackeray. It is said, no doubt, that Thackeray could neither make stories nor tell them; but he liked stories for all that, and by the hour could babble charmingly of Ivanhoe and the Mousquetaires. It is possible that he was afraid of passion, and had no manner of interest in crime. But then, how hard he bore upon snobs, and how vigorously he lashed the smaller vices and the meaner faults! It may be beyond dispute that he was seldom good at romance, and saw most things—art and nature included—rather prosaically and ill-naturedly, as he might see them who has been for many years a failure, and is naturally a little resentful of other men's successes; but then, how brilliant are his studies of club humanity and club manners! how thoroughly he understands the feelings of them that go down into the West in broughams! If he writes by preference for people with a thousand a year, is it not the duty of everybody with a particle of self-respect to have that income? Is it possible that any one who has it not can have either wit or sentiment, humour or understanding? Thackeray writes of gentlemen for gentlemen; therefore he is alone among artists; therefore he is 'the greatest novelist of his age.' That is the faith of the true believer: that the state of mind of him that reveres less wisely than thoroughly, and would rather be damned with Thackeray than saved with any one else.
The position of them that wear their rue with a difference, and do not agree that all literature is contained in The Book of Snobs and Vanity Fair, is more easily defended. They like and admire their Thackeray in many ways, but they think him rather a writer of genius who was innately and irredeemably a Philistine than a supreme artist or a great man. To them there is something artificial in the man and something insincere in the artist: something which makes it seem natural that his best work should smack of the literary tour de force, and that he should never have appeared to such advantage as when, in Esmond and in Barry Lyndon, he was writing up to a standard and upon a model not wholly of his own contrivance. They admit his claim to eminence as an adventurer in 'the discovery of the Ugly'; but they contend that even there he did his work more shrewishly and more pettily than he might; and in this connection they go so far as to reflect that a snob is not only 'one who meanly admires mean things,' as his own definition declares, but one who meanly detests mean things as well. They agree with Walter Bagehot that to be perpetually haunted by the plush behind your chair is hardly a sign of lofty literary and moral genius; and they consider him narrow and vulgar in his view of humanity, limited in his outlook upon life, inclined to be envious, inclined to be tedious and pedantic, prone to repetitions, and apt in bidding for applause to appeal to the baser qualities of his readers and to catch their sympathy by making them feel themselves spitefully superior to their fellow-men. They look at his favourite heroines—at Laura and Ethel and Amelia; and they can but think him stupid who could ever have believed them interesting or admirable or attractive or true. They listen while he regrets it is impossible for him to attempt the picture of a man; and, with Barry Lyndon in their mind's eye and the knowledge that Casanova and Andrew Bowes suggested no more than that, they wonder if the impossibility was not a piece of luck for him. They hear him heaping contumely upon the murders and adulteries, the excesses in emotion, that pleased the men of 1830 as they had pleased the Elizabethans before them; and they see him turning with terror and loathing from these—which after all are effects of vigorous passion—to busy himself with the elaborate and careful narrative of how Barnes Newcome beat his wife, and Mrs. Mackenzie scolded Colonel Newcome to death, and old Twysden bragged and cringed himself into good society and an interest in the life and well-being of a little cad like Captain Woolcomb; and it is not amazing if they think his morality more dubious in some ways than the morality he is so firmly fixed to ridicule and to condemn. They reflect that he sees in Beatrix no more than the makings of a Bernstein; and they are puzzled, when they come to mark the contrast between the two portraitures and the difference between the part assigned to Mrs. Esmond and the part assigned to the Baroness, to decide if he were short-sighted or ungenerous, if he were inapprehensive or only cruel. They weary easily of his dogged and unremitting pursuit of the merely conventional man and the merely conventional woman; they cannot always bring themselves to be interested in the cupboard drama, the tea- cup tragedies and cheque-book and bandbox comedies, which he regards as the stuff of human action and the web of human life; and from their theory of existence they positively refuse to eliminate the heroic qualities of romance and mystery and passion, which are—as they have only to open their newspapers to see—essentials of human achievement and integral elements of human character. They hold that his books contain some of the finest stuff in fiction: as, for instance, Rawdon Crawley's discovery of his wife and Lord Steyne, and Henry Esmond's return from the wars, and those immortal chapters in which the Colonel and Frank Castlewood pursue and run down their kinswoman and the Prince. But they hold, too, that their influence is dubious, and that few have risen from them one bit the better or one jot the happier.
Which is Right?
Genius apart, Thackeray's morality is that of a highly respectable British cynic; his intelligence is largely one of trifles; he is wise over trivial and trumpery things. He delights in reminding us—with an air!—that everybody is a humbug; that we are all rank snobs; that to misuse your aspirates is to be ridiculous and incapable of real merit; that Miss Blank has just slipped out to post a letter to Captain Jones; that Miss Dash wears false teeth and a wig; that General Tufto is almost as tightly laced as the beautiful Miss Hopper; that there's a bum-bailiff in the kitchen at Number Thirteen; that the dinner we ate t'other day at Timmins's is still to pay; that all is vanity; that there's a skeleton in every house; that passion, enthusiasm, excess of any sort, is unwise, abominable, a little absurd; and so forth. And side by side with these assurances are admirable sketches of character and still more admirable sketches of habit and of manners—are the Pontos and Costigan, Gandish and Talbot Twysden and the unsurpassable Major, Sir Pitt and Brand Firmin, the heroic De la Pluche and the engaging Farintosh and the versatile Honeyman, a crowd of vivid and diverting portraitures besides; but they are not different—in kind at least—from the reflections suggested by the story of their several careers and the development of their several individualities. Esmond apart, there is scarce a man or a woman in Thackeray whom it is possible to love unreservedly or thoroughly respect. That gives the measure of the man, and determines the quality of his influence. He was the average clubman plus genius and a style. And, if there is any truth in the theory that it is the function of art not to degrade but to ennoble—not to dishearten but to encourage—not to deal with things ugly and paltry and mean but with great things and beautiful and lofty—then, it is argued, his example is one to depreciate and to condemn.
Thus the two sects: the sect of them that are with Thackeray and the sect of them that are against him. Where both agree is in the fact of Thackeray's pre-eminence as a writer of English and the master of one of the finest prose styles in literature. His manner is the perfection of conversational writing. Graceful yet vigorous; adorably artificial yet incomparably sound; touched with modishness yet informed with distinction; easily and happily rhythmical yet full of colour and quick with malice and with meaning; instinct with urbanity and instinct with charm—it is a type of high-bred English, a climax of literary art. He may not have been a great man but assuredly he was a great writer; he may have been a faulty novelist but assuredly he was a rare artist in words. Setting aside Cardinal Newman's, the style he wrote is certainly less open to criticism than that of any other modern Englishman. He was neither super-eloquent like Mr. Ruskin nor a Germanised Jeremy like Carlyle; he was not marmoreally emphatic as Landor was, nor was he slovenly and inexpressive as was the great Sir Walter; he neither dallied with antithesis like Macaulay nor rioted in verbal vulgarisms with Dickens; he abstained from technology and what may be called Lord-Burleighism as carefully as George Eliot indulged in them, and he avoided conceits as sedulously as Mr. George Meredith goes out of his way to hunt for them. He is a better writer than any one of these, in that he is always a master of speech and of himself, and that he is always careful yet natural and choice yet seemingly spontaneous. He wrote as a very prince among talkers, and he interfused and interpenetrated English with the elegant and cultured fashion of the men of Queen Anne and with something of the warmth, the glow, the personal and romantic ambition, peculiar to the century of Byron and Keats, of Landor and Dickens, of Ruskin and Tennyson and Carlyle. Unlike his only rival, he had learnt his art before he began to practise it. Of the early work of the greater artist a good half is that of a man in the throes of education: the ideas, the thoughts, the passion, the poetry, the humour, are of the best, but the expression is self-conscious, strained, ignorant. Thackeray had no such blemish. He wrote dispassionately, and he was a born writer. In him there is no hesitation, no fumbling, no uncertainty. The style of Barry Lyndon is better and stronger and more virile than the style of Philip; and unlike the other man's, whose latest writing is his best, their author's evolution was towards decay.
He is so superior a person that to catch him tripping is a peculiar pleasure. It is a satisfaction apart, for instance, to reflect that he has (it must be owned) a certain gentility of mind. Like the M.P. in Martin Chuzzlewit, he represents the Gentlemanly Interest. That is his mission in literature, and he fulfils it thoroughly. He appears sometimes as Mr. Yellowplush, sometimes as Mr. Fitzboodle, sometimes as Michael Angelo Titmarsh, but always in the Gentlemanly Interest. In his youth (as ever) he is found applauding the well-bred Charles de Bernard, and remarking of Balzac and Dumas that the one is 'not fit for the salon,' and the other 'about as genteel as a courier.' Balzac and Dumas are only men of genius and great artists: the real thing is to be 'genteel' and write—as Gerfeuil (sic) is written—'in a gentleman- like style.' A few pages further on in the same pronouncement (a review of Jerome Paturot), I find him quoting with entire approval Reybaud's sketch of 'a great character, in whom the habitue of Paris will perhaps recognise a certain likeness to a certain celebrity of the present day, by name Monsieur Hector Berlioz, the musician and critic.' The description is too long to quote. It sparkles with all the fadaises of anti-Berliozian criticism, and the point is that the hero, after conducting at a private party (which Berlioz never did) his own 'hymn of the creation that has been lost since the days of the deluge,' 'called for his cloak and his clogs, and walked home, where he wrote a critique for the newspapers of the music which he had composed and directed.' In the Gentlemanly Interest Mr. Titmarsh translates this sorry little libel with the utmost innocence of approval. It is The Paris Sketch-Book over again. That Monsieur Hector Berlioz may possibly have known something of his trade and been withal as honest a man and artist as himself seems never to have occurred to him. He knows nothing of Monsieur Hector except that he is a 'hairy romantic,' and that whatever he wrote it was not Batti, batti; but that nothing is enough. 'Whether this little picture is a likeness or not,' he is ingenuous enough to add, 'who shall say?' But,—and here speaks the bold but superior Briton—'it is a good caricature of a race in France, where geniuses poussent as they do nowhere else; where poets are prophets, where romances have revelations.' As he goes on to qualify Jerome Paturot as a 'masterpiece,' and as 'three volumes of satire in which there is not a particle of bad blood,' it seems fair to conclude that in the Gentlemanly Interest all is considered fair, and that to accuse a man of writing criticisms on his own works is to be 'witty and entertaining,' and likewise 'careless, familiar, and sparkling' to the genteelest purpose possible in this genteelest of all possible worlds.
To the general his novels must always be a kind of caviare; for they have no analogue in letters, but are the output of a mind and temper of singular originality. To the honest Tory, sworn to admire and unable to comprehend, they must seem inexplicable as abnormal. To the professional Radical they are so many proofs of innate inferiority: for they are full of pretentiousness and affectation; they teem with examples of all manner of vices, from false English to an immoral delight in dukes; they prove their maker a trickster and a charlatan in every page. To them, however, whose first care is for rare work, the series of novels that began with Vivian Grey and ended with Endymion is one of the pleasant facts in modern letters. These books abound in wit and daring, in originality and shrewdness, in knowledge of the world and in knowledge of men; they contain many vivid and striking studies of character, both portrait and caricature; they sparkle with speaking phrases and happy epithets; they are aglow with the passion of youth, the love of love, the worship of physical beauty, the admiration of whatever is costly and select and splendid—from a countess to a castle, from a duke to a diamond; they are radiant with delight in whatever is powerful or personal or attractive—from a cook to a cardinal, from an agitator to an emperor. They often remind you of Voltaire, often of Balzac, often of The Arabian Nights. You pass from an heroic drinking bout to a brilliant criticism of style; from rhapsodies on bands and ortolans that remind you of Heine to a gambling scene that for directness and intensity may vie with the bluntest and strongest work of Prosper Merimee; from the extravagant impudence of Popanilla to the sentimental rodomontade of Henrietta Temple; from ranting romanticism in Alroy to vivid realism in Sybil. Their author gives you no time to weary of him, for he is worldly and passionate, fantastic and trenchant, cynical and ambitious, flippant and sentimental, ornately rhetorical and triumphantly simple in a breath. He is imperiously egoistic, but while constantly parading his own personality he is careful never to tell you anything about it. And withal he is imperturbably good-tempered: he brands and gibbets with a smile, and with a smile he adores and applauds. Intellectually he is in sympathy with character of every sort; he writes as becomes an artist who has recognised that 'the conduct of men depends upon the temperament, not upon a bunch of musty maxims,' and that 'there is a great deal of vice that is really sheer inadvertence.' It is said that the Monmouth of Coningsby and the Steyne of Vanity Fair are painted from one and the same original; and you have but to compare the savage realism of Thackeray's study to the scornful amenity of the other's—as you have but to contrast the elaborate and extravagant cruelty of Thackeray's Alcide de Mirobolant with the polite and half-respectful irony of Disraeli's treatment of the cooks in Tancred—to perceive that in certain ways the advantage is not with 'the greatest novelist of his time,' and that the Monmouth produces an impression which is more moral because more kindly and humane than the impression left by the Steyne, while in its way it is every whit as vivid and as convincing. Yet another excellence, and a great one, is his mastery of apt and forcible dialogue. The talk of Mr. Henry James's personages is charmingly equable and appropriate, but it is also trivial and tame; the talk in Anthony Trollope is surprisingly natural and abundant, but it is also commonplace and immemorable; the talk of Mr. George Meredith is always eloquent and fanciful, but the eloquence is too often dark and the fancy too commonly inhuman. What Disraeli's people have to say is not always original nor profound, but it is crisply and happily phrased and uttered, it reads well, its impression seldom fails of permanency. His Wit and Wisdom is a kind of Talker's Guide or Handbook of Conversation. How should it be otherwise, seeing that it contains the characteristic utterances of a great artist in life renowned for memorable speech?
Now, if you ask a worshipper of him that was so long his rival, to repeat a saying, a maxim, a sentence, of which his idol is the author, it is odds but he will look like a fool, and visit you with an evasive answer. What else should he do? His deity is a man of many words and no sayings. He is the prince of agitators, but it would be impossible for him to mint a definition of 'agitation'; he is the world's most eloquent arithmetician, but it is beyond him to epigrammatise the fact that two and two make four. And it seems certain, unless the study of Homer and religious fiction inspire him to some purpose, that his contributions to axiomatic literature will be still restricted to the remark that 'There are three courses open' to something or other: to the House, to the angry cabman, to what and whomsoever you will. In sober truth, he is one who writes for to-day, and takes no thought of either yesterdays or morrows. For him the Future is next session; the Past does not extend beyond his last change of mind. He is a prince of journalists, and his excursions into monthly literature remain to show how great and copious a master of the 'leader'—ornate, imposing, absolutely insignificant—his absorption in politics has cost the English-speaking world.
Disraeli's imagination, at once practical and extravagant, is not of the kind that delights in plot and counterplot. His novels abound in action, but the episodes wear a more or less random look: the impression produced is pretty much that of a story of adventure. But if they fail as stories they are unexceptionable as canvases. Our author unrolls them with superb audacity; and rapidly and vigorously he fills them in with places and people, with faces that are as life and words expressive even as they. Nothing is too lofty or too low for him. He hawks at every sort of game, and rarely does he make a false cast. It is but a step from the wilds of Lancashire to the Arabian Desert, from the cook's first floor to the Home of the Bellamonts; for he has the Seven-League-Boots of the legend, and more than the genius of adventure of him that wore them. His castles may be of cardboard, his cataracts of tinfoil, the sun of his adjurations the veriest figment; but he never lets his readers see that he knows it. His irony, sudden and reckless and insidious though it be, yet never extends to his properties. There may be a sneer beneath that mask which, with an egotism baffling as imperturbable, he delights in intruding among his creations; but you cannot see it. You suspect its presence, because he is a born mocker. But you remember that one of his most obvious idiosyncrasies is an inordinate love of all that is sumptuous, glittering, radiant, magnificent; and you incline to suspect that he keeps his sneering for the world of men, and admires his scenes and decorations too cordially to visit them with anything so merciless.
His Men and Women.
But dashing and brilliant as are his sketches of places and things, they are after all the merest accessories. It was as a student of Men and Women that he loved to excel, and it is as their painter that I praise him now. Himself a worshipper of intellect, it was intellectually that he mastered and developed them. Like Sidonia he moves among them not to feel with them but to understand and learn from them. Such sympathy as he had was either purely sensuous, as for youth and beauty and all kinds of comeliness; or purely intellectual, as for intelligence, artificiality, servility, meanness. And as his essence was satirical, as he was naturally irreverent and contemptuous, it follows that he is best and strongest in the act of punishment not of reward. His passion for youth was beautiful, but it did not make him strong. His scorn for things contemptible, his hate for things hateful, are at times too bitter even for those who think with him; but in these lay his force—they filled his brain with light, and they touched his lips with fire. The wretched Rigby is far more vigorous and life-like than the amiable Coningsby; Tom Cogit—a sketch, but a sketch of genius—is infinitely more interesting than May Dacre or even the Young Duke; Tancred is a good fellow, and very real and true in his goodness, but contrast him with Fakredeen! And after his knaves, his fools, his tricksters, the most striking figures in his gallery are those whom he has considered from a purely intellectual point of view: either kindly, as Sidonia, or coolly, as Lord Monmouth, but always calmly and with no point of passion in his regard: the Eskdales, Villebecques, Ormsbys, Bessos, Marneys, Meltons, and Mirabels, the Bohuns and St. Aldegondes and Grandisons, the Tadpoles and the Tapers, the dominant and subaltern humanity of the world. All these are drawn with peculiar boldness of line, precision of touch, and clearness of intention. And as with his men so is it with his women: the finest are not those he likes best but those who interested him most. Male and female, his eccentrics surpass his commonplaces. He had a great regard for girls, and his attitude towards them, or such of them as he elected heroines, was mostly one of adoration—magnificent yet a little awkward and strained. With women, married women, he had vastly more in common: he could admire, study, divine, without having to feign a warmer feeling; and while his girls are poor albeit splendid young persons, his matrons are usually delightful. Edith Millbank is not a very striking figure in Coningsby; but her appearance in Tancred—well, you have only to compare it to the resurrection of Laura Bell, as Mrs. Pendennis to see how good it is.
Now and then the writing is bad, and the thought is stale. Disraeli had many mannerisms, innate and acquired. His English was frequently loose and inexpressive; he was apt to trip in his grammar, to stumble over 'and which,' and to be careless about the connection between his nominatives and his verbs. Again, he could scarce ever refrain from the use of gorgeous commonplaces of sentiment and diction. His taste was sometimes ornately and barbarically conventional; he wrote as an orator, and his phrases often read as if he had used them for the sake of their associations rather than themselves. His works are a casket of such stage jewels of expression as 'Palladian structure,' 'Tusculan repose,' 'Gothic pile,' 'pellucid brow,' 'mossy cell,' and 'dew-bespangled meads.' He delighted in 'hyacinthine curls' and 'lustrous locks,' in 'smiling parterres' and 'stately terraces.' He seldom sat down in print to anything less than a 'banquet', he was capable of invoking 'the iris pencil of Hope'; he could not think nor speak of the beauties of woman except as 'charms.' Which seems to show that to be 'born in a library,' and have Voltaire—that impeccable master of the phrase—for your chief of early heroes and exemplars is not everything.
It is admitted, I believe, that he had many of the qualities of a great public speaker: that he had an admirable voice and an excellent method; that his sequences were logical and natural, his arguments vigorous and persuasive; that he was an artist in style, and in the course of a single speech could be eloquent and vivacious, ornate and familiar, passionate and cynical, deliberately rhetorical and magnificently fantastic in turn; that he was a master of all oratorical modes—of irony and argument, of stately declamation and brilliant and unexpected antithesis, of caricature and statement and rejoinder alike; that he could explain, denounce, retort, retract, advance, defy, dispute, with equal readiness and equal skill; that he was unrivalled in attack and unsurpassed in defence; and that in heated debate and on occasions when he felt himself justified in putting forth all his powers and in striking in with the full weight of his imperious and unique personality he was the most dangerous antagonist of his time. And yet, in spite of his mysterious and commanding influence over his followers—in spite, too, of the fact that he died assuredly the most romantic and perhaps the most popular figure of his time—it is admitted withal that he was lacking in a certain quality of temperament, that attribute great orators possess in common with great actors: the power, that is, of imposing oneself upon an audience not by argument nor by eloquence, not by the perfect utterance of beautiful and commanding speech nor by the enunciation of eternal principles or sympathetic and stirring appeals, but by an effect of personal magnetism, by the expression through voice and gesture and presence of an individuality, a temperament, call it what you will, that may be and is often utterly commonplace but is always inevitably irresistible. He could slaughter an opponent, or butcher a measure, or crumple up a theory with unrivalled adroitness and despatch; but he could not dominate a crowd to the extent of persuading it to feel with his heart, think with his brain, and accept his utterances as the expression not only of their common reason but of their collective sentiment as well. He was as incapable of such a feat as Mr. Gladstone's Midlothian campaign as Mr. Gladstone is of producing the gaming scene in The Young Duke or the 'exhausted volcanoes' paragraph in the Manchester speech.
His Speeches as Literature.
As a rule—a rule to which there are some magnificent exceptions—orators have only to cease from speaking to become uninteresting. What has been heard with enthusiasm is read with indifference or even with astonishment. You miss the noble voice, the persuasive gesture, the irresistible personality; and with the emotional faculty at rest and the reason at work you are surprised—and it may be a little indignant—that you should have been impressed so deeply as you were by such cold, bald verbosity as seen in black and white the masterpiece of yesterday appears to be. To some extent this is the case with these speeches of Disraeli's. At the height of debate, amid the clash of personal and party animosities, with the cheers of the orator's supporters to give them wings, they sounded greater than they were. But for all that they are vigorous and profitable yet. Their author's unfailing capacity for saying things worth heeding and remembering is proved in every one of them. It is not easy to open either of Mr. Kebbel's volumes without lighting upon something—a string of epigrams, a polished gibe, a burst of rhetoric, an effective collocation of words—that proclaims the artist. In this connection the perorations are especially instructive, even if you consider them simply as arrangements of sonorous and suggestive words: as oratorical impressions carefully prepared, as effects of what may be called vocalised orchestration touched off as skilfully and with as fine a sense of sound and of the sentiment to correspond as so many passages of instrumentation signed 'Berlioz' might be.
The Great Earl.
Fruits fail, and love dies, and time ranges; and only the whippersnapper (that fool of Time) endureth for ever. Moliere knew him well, and he said that Moliere was a liar and a thief. And Disraeli knew him too, and he said that in these respects Disraeli and Moliere were brothers. That he said so matters as little now as ever it did; for though the whippersnapper is immortal in kind, he is nothing if not futile and ephemeral in effect, and it was seen long since that in life and death Disraeli, as became his genius and his race, was the Uncommonplace incarnate, the antithesis of Grocerdom, the Satan of that revolt against the yielding habit of Jehovah-Bottles the spirit whereof is fast coming to be our one defence against socialism and the dominion of the Common Fool. He was no sentimentalist: as what great artist in government has ever been? He loved power for power's sake, and recognising to the full the law of the survival of the fittest he preferred his England to the world. He knew that it is the function of the man of genius to show that theory is only theory, and that in the House of Morality there are many mansions. To that end he lived and died; and it is not until one has comprehended the complete significance of his life and death that one is qualified to speak with understanding of such a life and death as his who passed at Khartoum.
The life of Dumas is not only a monument of endeavour and success, it is a sort of labyrinth as well. It abounds in pseudonyms and disguises, in sudden and unexpected appearances and retreats as unexpected and sudden, in scandals and in rumours, in mysteries and traps and ambuscades of every kind. It pleased the great man to consider himself of more importance than any and all of the crowd of collaborators whose ideas he developed, whose raw material he wrought up into the achievement we know; and he was given to take credit to himself not only for the success and value of a particular work but for the whole thing—the work in its quiddity, so to speak, and resolved into its original elements. On the other hand, it pleased such painful creatures as MM. Querard and 'Eugene de Mirecourt,' as it has since pleased Messrs. Hitchman and Fitzgerald to consider the second- and third-rate literary persons whom Dumas assimilated in such numbers as of greater interest and higher merit than Dumas. To them the jackals were far nobler than the lion, and they worked their hardest in the interest of the pack. It was their mission to decompose and disintegrate the magnificent entity which M. Blaze de Bury very happily nicknames 'Dumas-Legion,' and in the process not to render his own unto Caesar but to take from him all that was Caesar's, and divide it among the mannikins he had absorbed. And their work was in its way well done; for have we not seen M. Brunetiere exulting in agreement and talking of Dumas as one less than Eugene Sue and not much bigger than Gaillardet? Of course the ultimate issue of the debate is not doubtful. Dumas remains to the end a prodigy of force and industry, a miracle of cleverness and accomplishment and ease, a type of generous and abundant humanity, a great artist in many varieties of form, a prince of talkers and story-tellers, one of the kings of the stage, a benefactor of his epoch and his kind; while of those who assisted him in the production of his immense achievement the most exist but as fractions of the larger sum, and the others have utterly disappeared. 'Combien,' says his son in that excellent page which serves to preface le Fils Naturel—'combien parmi ceux qui devaient rester obscurs se sont eclaires et chauffes a ta forge, et si l'heure des restitutions sonnait, quel gain pour toi, rien qu'a reprendre ce que tu as donne et ce qu'on t'a pris!' That is the true verdict of posterity, and he does well who abides by it.
He is one of the heroes of modern art. Envy and scandal have done their worst now. The libeller has said his say; the detectives who make a specialty of literary forgeries have proved their cases one and all; the judges of matter have spoken, and so have the critics of style; the distinguished author of Nana has taken us into his confidence on the subject; we have heard from the lamented Granier and others as much as was to be heard on the question of plagiarism in general and the plagiarisms of Dumas in particular; and Mr. Percy Fitzgerald has done what he is pleased to designate the 'nightman's work' of analysing Antony and Kean, and of collecting everything that spite has said about their author's life, their author's habits, their author's manners and customs and character: of whose vanity, mendacity, immorality, a score of improper qualities besides, enough has been written to furnish a good-sized library. And the result of it all is that Dumas is recognised for a force in modern art and for one of the greatest inventors and amusers the century has produced. Whole crowds of men were named as the real authors of his books and plays; but they were only readable when he signed for them. His ideas were traced to a hundred originals; but they had all seemed worthless till he took them in hand and developed them according to their innate capacity. The French he wrote was popular, and the style at his command was none of the loftiest, as his critics have often been at pains to show; but he was for all that an artist at once original and exemplary, with an incomparable instinct of selection, a constructive faculty not equalled among the men of this century, an understanding of what is right and what is wrong in art and a mastery of his materials which in their way are not to be paralleled in the work of Sir Walter himself. Like Napoleon, he was 'a natural force let loose'; and if he had done no more than achieve universal renown as the prince of raconteurs and a commanding position as a novelist wherever novels are read he would still have done much. But he did a vast deal more. A natural force, he wrought in the right direction, as natural forces must and do. He amused the world for forty years and more; but he also contributed something to the general sum of the world's artistic experience and capacity, and his contribution is of permanent worth and charm. He has left us stories which are models of the enchanting art of narrative; and, with a definition good and comprehensive enough to include all the best work which has been produced for the theatre from AEschylus down to Augier, from the Choephorae on to le Gendre de M. Poirier, he has given us types of the romantic and the domestic drama, which, new when he produced them, are even now not old, and which as regards essentials have yet to be improved upon. The form and aim of the modern drama, as we know it, have been often enough ascribed to the ingenious author of une Chaine and the Verre d'Eau; but they might with much greater truth be ascribed to the author of Antony and la Tour de Nesle. Scribe invents and eludes where Dumas invents and dares. The theory of Scribe is one of mere dexterity: his drama is a perpetual chasse-croise at the edge of a precipice, a dance of puppets among swords that might but will not cut and eggs that might but will not break; to him a situation is a kind of tight-rope to be crossed with ever so much agility and an endless affectation of peril by all his characters in turn: in fact, as M. Dumas fils has said of him, he is 'le Shakespeare des ombres chinoises.' The theory of Dumas is the very antipodes of this. 'All I want,' he said in a memorable comparison between himself and Victor Hugo, 'is four trestles, four boards, two actors, and a passion'; and his good plays are a proof that in this he spoke no more than the truth. Drama to him was so much emotion in action. If he invented a situation he accepted its issues in their entirety, and did his utmost to express from it all the passion it contained. That he fails to reach the highest peaks of emotional effect is no fault of his: to do that something more is needed than a perfect method, something other than a great ambition and an absolute certainty of touch; and Dumas was neither a Shakespeare nor an AEschylus—he was not even an Augier. All the same, he has produced in la Tour de Nesle a romantic play which M. Zola himself pronounces the ideal of the genre and in Antony an achievement in drawing-room tragedy which is out of all questioning the first, and in the opinion of a critic so competent and so keen as the master's son is probably the strongest, thing of its kind in modern literature. On this latter play it were difficult, I think, to bestow too much attention. It is touched, even tainted, with the manner and the affectation of its epoch. But it is admirably imagined and contrived; it is very daring, and it is very new; it deals with the men and women of 1830, and—with due allowance for differences of manners, ideal, and personal genius—it is in its essentials a play in the same sense as Othello and the Trachiniae are plays in theirs. It is the beginning, as I believe, not only of les Lionnes Pauvres but of Therese Raquin and la Glu as well: just as la Tour de Nesle is the beginning of Patrie and la Haine.
And if these greater and loftier pretensions be still contested; if the theory of the gifted creature who wrote that the works of the master wizard are 'like summer fruits brought forth abundantly in the full blaze of sunshine, which do not keep'—if this preposterous fantasy be generally accepted, there will yet be much in Dumas to venerate and love. If Antony were of no more account than an ephemeral burlesque; if la Reine Margot and the immortal trilogy of the Musketeers—that 'epic of friendship'—were dead as morality and as literature alike; if it were nothing to have re-cast the novel of adventure, formulated the modern drama, and perfected the drama of incident; if to have sent all France to the theatre to see in three dimensions those stories of Chicot, Edmond Dantes, d'Artagnan, which it knew by heart from books were an achievement within the reach of every scribbler who dabbles in letters; if all this were true, and Dumas were merely a piece of human journalism, produced to- day and gone to-morrow, there would still be enough of him to make his a memorable name. He was a prodigy—of amiability, cleverness, energy, daring, charm, industry—if he was nothing else. Gronow tells that he has sat at table with Dumas and Brougham, and that Brougham, out-faced and out-talked, was forced to quit the field. 'J'ai conserve,' says M. Maxime du Camp, in his admirable Souvenirs litteraires, 'd'Alexandre Dumas un souvenir ineffacable; malgre un certain laisser-aller qui tenait a l'exuberance de sa nature, c'etait un homme dont tous les sentiments etaient eleves. On a ete injuste pour lui; comme il avait enormement d'esprit, on l'a accuse d'etre leger; comme il produisait avec une facilite incroyable, on l'a accuse de gacher la besogne, et, comme il etait prodigue, on l'a accuse de manquer de tenue. Ces reproches m'ont toujours paru miserables.' This is much; but it is not nearly all. He had, this independent witness goes on to note, 'une generosite naturelle qui ne comptait jamais; il ressemblait a une corne d'abondance qui se vide sans cesse dans les mains tendues; la moitie, sinon plus, de l'argent gagne par lui a ete donnee.' That is true; and it is also true that he gave at least as largely of himself—his prodigious temperament, his generous gaiety, his big, manly heart, his turn for chivalry, his gallant and delightful genius—as of his money. He was reputed a violent and luxurious debauchee; and he mostly lived in an attic—(the worst room in the house and therefore the only one he could call his own)—with a camp-bed and the deal table at which he wrote. He passed for a loud-mouthed idler; and during many years his daily average of work was fourteen hours for months on end. 'Ivre de puissance,' says George Sand of him, but 'foncierement bon.' They used to hear him laughing as he wrote, and when he killed Porthos he did no more that day. It would have been worth while to figure as one of the crowd of friends and parasites who lived at rack and manger in his house, for the mere pleasure of seeing him descend upon them from his toil of moving mountains and sharing in that pleasing half-hour of talk which was his common refreshment. After that he would return to the attic and the deal table, and move more mountains. With intervals of travel, sport, adventure, and what in France is called 'l'amour'—(it is strange, by the way, that he was never a hero of Carlyle's)—he lived in this way more or less for forty years or so; and when he left Paris for the last time he had but two napoleons in his pocket. 'I had only one when I came here first,' quoth he, 'and yet they call me a spendthrift.' That was his way; and while the result is not for Dr. Smiles to chronicle, I for one persist in regarding the spirit in which it was accepted as not less exemplary than delightful.
On M. du Camp's authority there is a charming touch to add to his son's description of him. 'Il me semble,' said the royal old prodigal in his last illness, 'que je suis au sommet d'un monument qui tremble comme si les fondations etaient assises sur le sable.' 'Sois en paix,' replied the author of the Demi-Monde: 'le monument est bien bati, et la base est solide.' He was right, as we know. It is good and fitting that Dumas should have a monument in the Paris he amazed and delighted and amused so long. But he could have done without one. In what language is he not read? and where that he is read is he not loved? 'Exegi monumentum,' he might have said: 'and wherever romance is a necessary of life, there shall you look for it, and not in vain.'
To read Mr. Meredith's novels with insight is to find them full of the rarest qualities in fiction. If their author has a great capacity for unsatisfactory writing he has capacities not less great for writing that is satisfactory in the highest degree. He has the tragic instinct and endowment, and he has the comic as well; he is an ardent student of character and life; he has wit of the swiftest, the most comprehensive, the most luminous, and humour that can be fantastic or ironical or human at his pleasure; he has passion and he has imagination; he has considered sex—the great subject, the leaven of imaginative art—with notable audacity and insight. He is as capable of handling a vice or an emotion as he is of managing an affectation. He can be trivial, or grotesque, or satirical, or splendid; and whether his milieu be romantic or actual, whether his personages be heroic or sordid, he goes about his task with the same assurance and intelligence. In his best work he takes rank with the world's novelists. He is a companion for Balzac and Richardson, an intimate for Fielding and Cervantes. His figures fall into their place beside the greatest of their kind; and when you think of Lucy Feverel and Mrs. Berry, of Evan Harrington's Countess Saldanha and the Lady Charlotte of Emilia in England, of the two old men in Harry Richmond and the Sir Everard Romfrey of Beauchamp's Career, of Renee and Cecilia, of Emilia and Rhoda Fleming, of Rose Jocelyn and Lady Blandish and Ripton Thompson, they have in the mind's eye a value scarce inferior to that of Clarissa and Lovelace, of Bath and Western and Booth, of Andrew Fairservice and Elspeth Mucklebacket, of Philippe Bridau and Vautrin and Balthasar Claes. In the world of man's creation his people are citizens to match the noblest; they are of the aristocracy of the imagination, the peers in their own right of the society of romance. And for all that, their state is mostly desolate and lonely and forlorn.
For Mr. Meredith is one of the worst and least attractive of great writers as well as one of the best and most fascinating. He is a sun that has broken out into innumerable spots. The better half of his genius is always suffering eclipse from the worse half. He writes with the pen of a great artist in his left hand and the razor of a spiritual suicide in his right. He is the master and the victim of a monstrous cleverness which is neither to hold nor to bind, and will not permit him to do things as an honest, simple person of genius would. As Shakespeare, in Johnson's phrase, lost the world for a quibble and was content to lose it, so does Mr. Meredith discrown himself of the sovereignty of contemporary romance to put on the cap and bells of the professional wit. He is not content to be plain Jupiter: his lightnings are less to him than his fireworks; and his pages so teem with fine sayings and magniloquent epigrams and gorgeous images and fantastic locutions that the mind would welcome dulness as a bright relief. He is tediously amusing; he is brilliant to the point of being obscure; his helpfulness is so extravagant as to worry and confound. That is the secret of his unpopularity. His stories are not often good stories and are seldom well told; his ingenuity and intelligence are always misleading him into treating mere episodes as solemnly and elaborately as main incidents; he is ever ready to discuss, to ramble, to theorise, to dogmatise, to indulge in a little irony or a little reflection or a little artistic misdemeanour of some sort. But other novelists have done these things before him, and have been none the less popular, and are actually none the less readable. None, however, has pushed the foppery of style and intellect to such a point as Mr. Meredith. Not infrequently he writes page after page of English as ripe and sound and unaffected as heart could wish; and you can but impute to wantonness and recklessness the splendid impertinences that intrude elsewhere. To read him at the rate of two or three chapters a day is to have a sincere and hearty admiration for him and a devout anxiety to forget his defects and make much of his merits. But they are few who can take a novel on such terms as these, and to read your Meredith straight off is to have an indigestion of epigram, and to be incapable of distinguishing good from bad: the author of the parting between Richard and Lucy Feverel—a high- water mark of novelistic passion and emotion—from the creator of Mr. Raikes and Dr. Shrapnel, which are two of the most flagrant unrealities ever perpetrated in the name of fiction by an artist of genius.
On the whole, I think, he does not often say anything not worth hearing. He is too wise for that; and, besides, he is strenuously in earnest about his work. He has a noble sense of the dignity of art and the responsibilities of the artist; he will set down nothing that is to his mind unworthy to be recorded; his treatment of his material is distinguished by the presence of an intellectual passion (as it were) that makes whatever he does considerable and deserving of attention and respect. But unhappily the will is not seldom unequal to the deed: the achievement is often leagues in rear of the inspiration; the attempt at completeness is too laboured and too manifest—the feat is done but by a painful and ungraceful process. There is genius, but there is not felicity: that, one is inclined to say, is the distinguishing note of Mr. Meredith's work, in prose and verse alike. There are magnificent exceptions, of course, but they prove the rule and, broken though it be, there is no gainsaying its existence. To be concentrated in form, to be suggestive in material, to say nothing that is not of permanent value, and only to say it in such terms as are charged to the fullest with significance—this would seem to be the aim and end of Mr. Meredith's ambition. Of simplicity in his own person he appears incapable. The texture of his expression must be stiff with allusion, or he deems it ill spun; there must be something of antic in his speech, or he cannot believe he is addressing himself to the Immortals; he has praised with perfect understanding the lucidity, the elegance, the ease, of Moliere, and yet his aim in art (it would appear) is to be Moliere's antipodes, and to vanquish by congestion, clottedness, an anxious and determined dandyism of form and style. There is something bourgeois in his intolerance of the commonplace, something fanatical in the intemperance of his regard for artifice. 'Le dandy,' says Baudelaire, 'doit aspirer a etre sublime sans interruption. Il doit vivre et dormir devant un miroir.' That, you are tempted to believe, is Mr. Meredith's theory of expression. 'Ce qu'il y a dans le mauvais gout,' is elsewhere the opinion of the same unamiable artist in paradox, 'c'est le plaisir aristocratique de deplaire.' Is that, you ask yourself, the reason why Mr. Meredith is so contemptuous of the general public?—why he will stoop to no sort of concession nor permit himself a mite of patience with the herd whose intellect is content with such poor fodder as Scott and Dickens and Dumas? Be it as it may, the effect is the same. Our author is bent upon being 'uninterruptedly sublime'; and we must take him as he wills and as we find him. He loses of course; and we suffer. But none the less do we cherish his society, and none the less are we interested in his processes, and enchanted (when we are clever enough) by his results. He lacks felicity, I have said; but he has charm as well as power, and, once his rule is accepted, there is no way to shake him off. The position is that of the antique tyrant in a commonwealth once republican and free. You resent the domination, but you enjoy it too, and with or against your will you admire the author of your slavery.
Rhoda Fleming is one of the least known of the novels, and in a sense it is one of the most disagreeable. To the general it has always been caviare, and caviare it is likely to remain; for the general is before all things respectable, and no such savage and scathing attack upon the superstitions of respectability as Rhoda Fleming has been written. And besides, the emotions developed are too tragic, the personages too elementary in kind and too powerful in degree, the effects too poignant and too sorrowful. In these days people read to be amused. They care for no passion that is not decent in itself and whose expression is not restrained. It irks them to grapple with problems capable of none save a tragic solution. And when Mr. Meredith goes digging in a very bad temper with things in general into the deeper strata, the primitive deposits, of human nature, the public is the reverse of profoundly interested in the outcome of his exploration and the results of his labour. But for them whose eye is for real literature and such literary essentials as character largely seen and largely presented and as passion deeply felt and poignantly expressed there is such a feast in Rhoda Fleming as no other English novelist alive has spread. The book, it is true, is full of failures. There is, for instance, the old bank porter Anthony, who is such a failure as only a great novelist may perpetrate and survive; who suggests (with some other of Mr. Meredith's creations) a close, deliberate, and completely unsuccessful imitation of Dickens: a writer with whom Mr. Meredith is not averse from entering into competition, and who, so manifest on these occasions is his superiority, may almost be described as the other's evil genius. Again, there is Algernon the fool, of whom his author is so bitterly contemptuous that he is never once permitted to live and move and have any sort of being whatever and who, though he bears a principal part in the intrigue, like the Blifil of Tom Jones is so constantly illuminated by the lightnings of the ironical mode of presentation as always to seem unreal in himself and seriously to imperil the reality of the story. And, lastly, there are the chivalrous Percy Waring and the inscrutable Mrs. Lovell, two gentle ghosts whose proper place is the shadow-land of the American novel. But when all these are removed (and for the judicious reader their removal is far from difficult) a treasure of reality remains. What an intensity of life it is that hurries and throbs and burns through the veins of the two sisters—Dahlia the victim, Rhoda the executioner! Where else in English fiction is such a 'human oak log' as their father, the Kentish yeoman William Fleming? And where in English fiction is such a problem presented as that in the evolution of which these three—with a following so well selected and achieved as Robert Armstrong and Jonathan Eccles and the evil ruffian Sedgett, a type of the bumpkin gone wrong, and Master Gammon, that type of the bumpkin old and obstinate, a sort of human saurian—are dashed together, and ground against each other till the weakest and best of the three is broken to pieces? Mr. Meredith may and does fail conspicuously to interest you in Anthony Hackbut and Algernon Blancove and Percy Waring; but he knows every fibre of the rest, and he makes your knowledge as intimate and comprehensive as his own. With these he is never at fault and never out of touch. They have the unity of effect, the vigorous simplicity, of life that belong to great creative art; and at their highest stress of emotion, the culmination of their passion, they appeal to and affect you with a force and a directness that suggest the highest achievement of Webster. Of course this sounds excessive. The expression of human feeling in the coil of a tragic situation is not a characteristic of modern fiction. It is thought to be not consistent with the theory and practice of realism; and the average novelist is afraid of it, the average reader is only affected by it when he goes to look for it in poetry. But the book is there to show that such praise is deserved; and they who doubt it have only to read the chapters called respectively 'When the Night is Darkest' and 'Dahlia's Frenzy' to be convinced and doubt no longer. It has been objected to the climax of Rhoda Fleming that it is unnecessarily inhumane, and that Dahlia dead were better art than Dahlia living and incapable of love and joy. But the book, as I have said, is a merciless impeachment of respectability; and as the spectacle of a ruined and broken life is infinitely more discomforting than that of a noble death, I take it that Mr. Meredith was right to prefer his present ending to the alternative, inasmuch as the painfulness of that impression he wished to produce and the potency of that moral he chose to draw are immensely heightened and strengthened thereby.
The Tragic Comedians.
Opinions differ, and there are those, I believe, to whom Alvan and Clotilde von Rudiger—'acrobats of the affections' they have been called—are pleasant companions, and the story of those feats in the gymnastics of sentimentalism in which they lived to shine is the prettiest reading imaginable. But others not so fortunate or, to be plain, more honestly obtuse persist in finding that story tedious, and the bewildering appearances it deals with not human beings—not of the stock of Rose Jocelyn and Sir Everard Romfrey, of Dahlia Fleming and Lucy Feverel and Richmond Roy—but creatures of gossamer and rainbow, phantasms of spiritual romance, abstractions of remote, dispiriting points in sexual philosophy.
Just as Moliere in the figures of Alceste and Tartuffe has summarised and embodied all that we need to know of indignant honesty and the false fervour of sanctimonious animalism, so in the person of Sir Willoughby Patterne has Mr. Meredith succeeded in expressing the qualities of egoism as the egoist appears in his relations with women and in his conception and exercise of the passion of love. Between the means of the two men there is not, nor can be, any sort of comparison. Moliere is brief, exquisite, lucid: classic in his union of ease and strength, of purity and sufficiency, of austerity and charm. In The Egoist Mr. Meredith is even more artificial and affected than his wont: he bristles with allusions, he teems with hints and side-hits and false alarms, he glitters with phrases, he riots in intellectual points and philosophical fancies; and though his style does nowhere else become him so well, his cleverness is yet so reckless and indomitable as to be almost as fatiguing here as everywhere. But in their matter the great Frenchman and he have not much to envy each other. Sir Willoughby Patterne is a 'document on humanity' of the highest value; and to him that would know of egoism and the egoist the study of Sir Willoughby is indispensable. There is something in him of us all. He is a compendium of the Personal in man; and if in him the abstract Egoist have not taken on his final shape and become classic and typical it is not that Mr. Meredith has forgotten anything in his composition but rather that there are certain defects of form, certain structural faults and weaknesses, which prevent you from accepting as conclusive the aspect of the mass of him. But the Moliere of the future (if the future be that fortunate) has but to pick and choose with discretion here to find the stuff of a companion figure to Arnolphe and Alceste and Celimene.
His verse has all the faults and only some of the merits of his prose. Thus he will rhyme you off a ballad, and to break the secret of that ballad you have to take to yourself a dark lantern and a case of jemmies. I like him best in The Nuptials of Attila. If he always wrote as here, and were always as here sustained in inspiration, rapid of march, nervous of phrase, apt of metaphor, and moving in effect, he would be delightful to the general, and that without sacrificing on the vile and filthy altar of popularity. Here he is successfully himself, and what more is there to say? You clap for Harlequin, and you kneel to Apollo. Mr. Meredith doubles the parts, and is irresistible in both. Such fire, such vision, such energy on the one hand and on the other such agility and athletic grace are not often found in combination.
The Fashion of Art.
This is the merit and distinction of art: to be more real than reality, to be not nature but nature's essence. It is the artist's function not to copy but to synthesise: to eliminate from that gross confusion of actuality which is his raw material whatever is accidental, idle, irrelevant, and select for perpetuation that only which is appropriate and immortal. Always artistic, Mr. Meredith's work is often great art.
Byron and the World.
Two obvious reasons why Byron has long been a prophet more honoured abroad than at home are his life and his work. He is the most romantic figure in the literature of the century, and his romance is of that splendid and daring cast which the people of Britain—'an aristocracy materialised and null, a middle class purblind and hideous, a lower class crude and brutal'—prefers to regard with suspicion and disfavour. He is the type of them that prove in defiance of precept that the safest path is not always midway, and that the golden rule is sometimes unspeakably worthless: who set what seems a horrible example, create an apparently shameful precedent, and yet contrive to approve themselves an honour to their country and the race. To be a good Briton a man must trade profitably, marry respectably, live cleanly, avoid excess, revere the established order, and wear his heart in his breeches pocket or anywhere but on his sleeve. Byron did none of these things, though he was a public character, and ought for the example's sake to have done them all, and done them ostentatiously. He lived hard, and drank hard, and played hard. He was flippant in speech and eccentric in attire. He thought little of the sanctity of the conjugal tie, and said so; and he married but to divide from his wife—who was an incarnation of the national virtue of respectability—under circumstances too mysterious not to be discreditable. He was hooted into exile, and so far from reforming he did even worse than he had done before. After bewildering Venice with his wickedness and consorting with atheists like Shelley and conspirators like young Gamba, he went away on a sort of wild-goose chase to Greece, and died there with every circumstance of publicity. Also his work was every whit as abominable in the eyes of his countrymen as his life. It is said that the theory and practice of British art are subject to the influence of the British school-girl, and that he is unworthy the name of artist whose achievement is of a kind to call a blush to the cheek of youth. Byron was contemptuous of youth, and did not hesitate to write—in Beppo and in Cain, in Manfred and Don Juan and the Vision—exactly as he pleased. In three words, he made himself offensively conspicuous, and from being infinitely popular became utterly contemptible. Too long had people listened to the scream of this eagle in wonder and in perturbation, and the moment he disappeared they grew ashamed of their emotion and angry with its cause, and began to hearken to other and more melodious voices—to Shelley and Keats, to Wordsworth and Coleridge and the 'faultless and fervent melodies of Tennyson.' In course of time Byron was forgotten, or only remembered with disdain; and when Thackeray, the representative Briton, the artist Philistine, the foe of all that is excessive or abnormal or rebellious, took it upon himself to flout the author of Don Juan openly and to lift up his heavy hand against the fops and fanatics who had affected the master's humours, he did so amid general applause. Meanwhile, however, the genius and the personality of Byron had come to be vital influences all the world over, and his voice had been recognised as the most human and the least insular raised on English ground since Shakespeare's. In Russia he had created Pushkin and Lermontoff; in Germany he had awakened Heine, inspired Schumann, and been saluted as an equal by the poet of Faust himself; in Spain he had had a share in moulding the noisy and unequal talent of Espronceda; in Italy he had helped to develop and to shape the melancholy and daring genius of Leopardi; and in France he had been one of the presiding forces of a great aesthetic revolution. To the men of 1830 he was a special and peculiar hero. Hugo turned in his wake to Spain and Italy and the East for inspiration. Musset, as Mr. Swinburne has said—too bitterly and strongly said—became in a fashion a Kaled to his Lara, 'his female page or attendant dwarf.' He was in some sort the grandsire of the Buridan and the Antony of Dumas. Berlioz went to him for the material for his Harold en Italie, his Corsaire overture, and his Episode. Delacroix painted the Barque de Don Juan from him, with the Massacre de Scio, the Marino Faliero, the Combat du Giaour et du Pacha, and many a notable picture more. Is it at all surprising that M. Taine should have found heart to say that alone among modern poets Byron 'atteint a la cime'? or that Mazzini should have reproached us with our unaccountable neglect of him and with our scandalous forgetfulness of the immense work done by him in giving a 'European role . . . to English literature' and in awakening all over the Continent so much 'appreciation and sympathy for England'?
Byron and Wordsworth.
He had his share in the work of making Matthew Arnold possible, but he is the antipodes of those men of culture and contemplation—those artists pensive and curious and sedately self-contained—whom Arnold best loved and of whom the nearest to hand is Wordsworth. Byron and Wordsworth are like the Lucifer and the Michael of the Vision of Judgment. Byron's was the genius of revolt, as Wordsworth's was the genius of dignified and useful submission; Byron preached the dogma of private revolution, Wordsworth the dogma of private apotheosis; Byron's theory of life was one of liberty and self-sacrifice, Wordsworth's one of self-restraint and self-improvement; Byron's practice was dictated by a vigorous and voluptuous egoism, Wordsworth's by a benign and lofty selfishness; Byron was the 'passionate and dauntless soldier of a forlorn hope,' Wordsworth a kind of inspired clergyman. Both were influences for good, and both are likely to be influences for good for some time to come. Which is the better and stronger is a question that can hardly be determined now. It is certain that Byron's star has waned, and that Wordsworth's has waxed; but it is also certain that there are moments in life when the Ode to Venice is almost as refreshing and as precious as the ode on the Intimations, and when the epic mockery of Don Juan is to the full as beneficial as the chaste philosophy of The Excursion and the Ode to Duty. Arnold was of course with Michael heart and soul, and was only interested in our Lucifer. He approached his subject in a spirit of undue deprecation. He thought it necessary to cite Scherer's opinion that Byron is but a coxcomb and a rhetorician: partly, it would appear, for the pleasure of seeming to agree with it in a kind of way and partly to have the satisfaction of distinguishing and of showing it to be a mistake. Then, he could not quote Goethe without apologising for the warmth of that consummate artist's expressions and explaining some of them away. Again, he was pitiful or disdainful, or both, of Scott's estimate; and he did not care to discuss the sentiment which made that great and good man think Cain and the Giaour fit stuff for family reading on a Sunday after prayers, though as Mr. Ruskin has pointed out, in one of the wisest and subtlest bits of criticism I know, the sentiment is both natural and beautiful, and should assist us not a little in the task of judging Byron and of knowing him for what he was. That Arnold should institute a comparison between Leopardi and Byron was probably inevitable: Leopardi had culture and the philosophic mind, which Byron had not; he is incapable of influencing the general heart, as Byron can; he is a critics' poet, which Byron can never be; he was always an artist, which Byron was not; and—it were Arnoldian to take the comparison seriously. Byron was not interested in words and phrases but in the greater truths of destiny and emotion. His empire is over the imagination and the passions. His personality was many-sided enough to make his egoism representative. And as mankind is wont to feel first and to think afterwards, a single one of his heart-cries may prove to the world of greater value as a moral agency than all the intellectual reflections that Leopardi contrived to utter. After examining this and that opinion and doubting over and deprecating them all, Arnold touched firm ground at last in a dictum of Mr. Swinburne's, the most pertinent and profound since those of Goethe, to the effect that in Byron there is a 'splendid and imperishable excellence which covers all his offences and outweighs all his defects: the excellence of sincerity and strength.' With this 'noble praise' our critic agreed so vigorously that it became the key-note of the latter part of his summing up, and in the end you found him declaring Byron the equal of Wordsworth, and asserting of this 'glorious pair' that 'when the year 1900 is turned, and the nation comes to recount her poetic glories in the century which has just then ended, the first names with her will be these.' The prophecy is as little like to commend itself to the pious votary of Keats as to the ardent Shelleyite: there are familiars of the Tennysonian Muse, the Sibyl of Rizpah and Vastness and Lucretius and The Voyage, to whom it must seem impertinent beyond the prophet's wont; there are—(but they scarce count)—who grub (as for truffles) for meanings in Browning. But it was not uttered to please, and in truth it has enough of plausibility to infuriate whatever poet-sects there be. Especially the Wordsworthians.
To many Hugo was of the race of AEschylus and Shakespeare, a world-poet in the sense that Dante was, an artist supreme alike in genius and in accomplishment. To others he was but a great master of words and cadences, with a gift of lyric utterance and inspiration rarely surpassed but with a personality so vigorous and excessive as to reduce its literary expression—in epic, drama, fiction, satire and ode and song—to the level of work essentially subjective, in sentiment as in form, in intention as in effect. The debate is one in which the only possible arbiter is Time; and to Time the final judgment may be committed. What is certain is that there is one point on which both dissidents and devout—the heretics who deny with Matthew Arnold and the orthodox who worship with Mr. Swinburne and M. de Banville—are absolutely agreed. Plainly Hugo was the greatest man of letters of his day. It has been given to few or none to live a life so full of effort and achievement, so rich in honour and success and fame. Born almost with the century, he was a writer at fifteen, and at his death he was writing still; so that the record of his career embraces a period of more than sixty years. There is hardly a department of art to a foremost place in which he did not prove his right. From first to last; from the time of Chateaubriand to the time of Zola, he was a leader of men; and with his departure from the scene the undivided sovereignty of literature became a thing of the past like Alexander's empire.
Some Causes and Effects.
In 1826, in a second set of Odes et Ballades, he announced his vocation in unmistakeable terms. He was a lyric poet and the captain of a new emprise. His genius was too large and energetic to move at ease in the narrow garment prescribed as the poet's wear by the dullards and the pedants who had followed Boileau. He began to repeat the rhythms of Ronsard and the Pleiad; to deal in the richest rhymes and in words and verses tricked with new-spangled ore; to be curious in cadences, careless of stereotyped rules, prodigal of invention and experiment, defiant of much long recognised as good sense, contemptuous of much till then applauded as good taste. In a word, he was the Hugo of the hundred volumes we know: an artist, that is, endowed with a technical imagination of the highest quality, the very genius of style, and a sense of the plastic quality of words unequalled, perhaps, since Milton. The time was ripe for him: within France and without it was big with revolution. In verse there were the examples of Andre Chenier and Lamartine; in prose the work of Rousseau and Diderot, of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Chateaubriand; in war and politics the tremendous tradition of Napoleon. Goethe and Schiller had recreated romance and established the foundations of a new palace of art; their theory and practice had been popularised in the novels of Walter Scott; and in the life and work of Byron the race had such an example of revolt, such an incitement to liberty and change, such a passionate and persuasive argument against authority and convention, as had never before been felt in art. Hugo like all great artists was essentially a child of his age: 'Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.' In 1827 he published his Cromwell, and came forth as a rebel confessed and unashamed. It is an unapproachable production, tedious in the closet, impossible upon the stage; and to compare it to such work as that which at some and twenty Keats had given to the world—Hyperion, for instance, or the Eve of St. Agnes—is to glory in the name of Briton. But it had its value then, and as an historical document it has its value now. The preface was at once a profession of faith and a proclamation of war. It is crude, it is limited, it is mistaken, in places it is even absurd. But from the moment of its appearance the old order was practically closed. It prepared the way for Albertus and for Antony, for Rolla and the Tour de Nesle; and it was also the 'fiat lux' in deference to which the world has accepted with more or less of resignation the partial eclipse of art and morals effected in Salammbo and l'Education sentimentale and the Egyptian darkness achieved in work like la Terre and une Vie and les Blasphemes. In its ringing periods, its plangent antitheses and aesthetic epigrams, it preluded and vindicated the excesses of whatsoever manifestations of romanticism mankind and the arts have since been called upon to consider and endure: from the humours of Petrus Borel to the experiments of Claude Monet and the 'discoveries' of Richard Wagner.