London Chatto & Windus MCMXVIII
Printed at the Complete Press West Norwood London
PAGE FOREWORD 1
MONTAIGNE IN FACSIMILE 17
MISS COLERIDGE 41
BOSWELL'S LETTERS 74
CARLYLE'S LOVES AND LOVE-LETTERS 82
THE LYSISTRATA 99
TRELAWNY'S LETTERS 115
SOPHOCLES IN LONDON 126
THE FLIGHT OF THE DRAGON 135
WILLIAM MORRIS 146
PERSIAN MINIATURES 156
COUNTERCHECK QUARRELSOME 165
PICTURE SHOWS: I. THE LONDON SALON 174 II. ENGLISH POST-IMPRESSIONISTS 179 III. AN EXPENSIVE "MASTERPIECE" 188 IV. MARCHAND 194 V. THE MANSARD GALLERY 199
CONTEMPORARY ART IN ENGLAND 209
ART AND WAR 231
BEFORE THE WAR 247
DEAR GEOFFREY WHITWORTH,—Considering for how many ages how many clever people have been complaining of their publishers, you might have supposed that no device for getting one of them into a scrape could have been left untried. Yet, so far as I can remember, no author has had the bright idea of denouncing his publisher, particularly, and by name, as accessory before the fact. I am willing to suspect my memory rather than my profession of being at fault in this matter; but that the practice is uncommon is most certain and that, surely, is very strange. No author thinks twice of saddling his friend, his wife, his mother, or even his mistress with the responsibility of having been the onlie begetter of some feckless cub or monstrous abortion; but on his publisher, the very man he should wish to injure, who ever thought of fastening the offence? Yet you cannot deny, my dear Whitworth, that this book is your fault. I was all for abandoning the project after I had read Mr. Arnold Bennett's volume and recognized how much more readable his journalism was than mine: your reader, I suspect, was of like mind: it was you, and you alone, who, by enlisting my vanity, conquered my pride.
Of course in the end my vanity might have triumphed without you: it is not often or easily beaten.
"Obliged by hunger and request of friends,"
I can imagine myself printing under that classic excuse, which has the merit of being in the grand literary tradition and as disingenuous as another; for in these days an author is not more hungry than every one else, and my friends would have been the first to pardon my silence. You may take it for certain, by the way, that when a man says he is publishing at the instance of two or three friends he means that he is offering the public what he knows that the public could have done perfectly well without. He means that he is printing neither to persuade nor to inform nor yet to express the truth that is in him, but simply to gratify an itch for such notoriety as the careless attention of a few thousand readers may be supposed to give. If I now contrive to escape the consequences of my own axiom it is thanks to you, My Publisher—or Publisher's representative must I say? (You are so very modest, my dear Whitworth, and so exact.) Naturally, by so obliging me you have made me your friend for life. But that was ex post facto.
I said just now that when I read Mr. Bennett's "Books and Persons," I was for abandoning a project about which, you will do me the justice of remembering, I was lukewarm from the first. I enjoyed immensely his lively papers and I felt pretty sure that no one would so enjoy mine. Your reader was good enough to point out some reasons, besides the obvious one, why this must be so; and in self-defence I am going to remind you of them. When Mr. Bennett wrote for the New Age he was a famous and full-grown author, very much at his ease, very much at his liberty, well aware that if he said what he pleased as he pleased his editor would be only too happy to print it. When I wrote most of the reviews reprinted in this volume I was commencing journalism, and I wrote them for the Athenaeum.
The Athenaeum, the editor of which I take this opportunity of thanking for permission to reprint my articles, is a paper, was, at any rate, a paper with ancient and peculiar customs; and of these customs perhaps the most peculiar was that, while allowing its contributors extraordinary liberty in some matters, it sustained what may perhaps be described as a literary policy. Like other venerable institutions, the Athenaeum had a taste for unwritten law; its policy was adumbrated rather than defined, but few contributors, I believe, were unconscious of its existence. Not one of us, I am sure, would have expressed anything but what he thought and felt, but we all hoped that our thoughts and feelings would not be too dissimilar from those of our presiding genius, Athene the wise, our eponymous goddess; because, if they were, her high-priest, albeit one of the most charming and accomplished people in Fleet Street or thereabouts, stood ready with the inexorable blue pencil to smite once and smite no more. In the matter of expression, too, Her Omniscience was, to my mind, something over-exacting. Concision is an excellent quality in a writer. We all know what Ben Jonson said about Shakespeare and we all agree with him. Still, when, by the shape of one's paragraphs, the balance of one's sentences, and the internal rhythm of one's clauses, one fancies that an article has been raised almost to the perfection of a work of art, it is disappointing to find a line cut out here, two more there, half a dozen missing from the second galley, and from the third a whole paragraph gone for no better reason than that they are not essential to the argument—especially when one is persuaded that they are.
I have said that the editor of the Athenaeum, in my time, was a charming and accomplished writer; he is also my very good friend and too generous critic, and I should be a wretch if I did not love him. But on the evening when a weekly paper goes to press, when the pages are pouring in, and some one, as likely as not, is waiting at the Cafe Royal, even the most cultivated and considerate of editors will be an editor. Wherefore I must now plague you and my readers with a word or two in explanation of my method of correction and revision. Re-reading these articles—some of which were written nine or ten years ago—I come on such phrases as "this is a notable achievement," "his equipment is not really strong," and I wonder, of course, what the devil I did say. No doubt it was something definite and particular, for in those days I was a most conscientious writer; but what subtle limitation, what delicately suggested reference, what finely qualifying phrase, what treasure of my critical nonage lies buried beneath this "getting out" formula I cannot now remember. I read the article again and again but I want the courage and energy to read again the book about which it was written. And, if I did, should I recapture precisely what I thought or felt and tried, by means of that lost clause or sentence, not to leave quite unexpressed? The idea is gone, and with it, no doubt, the complete significance of the article. I have botched and cobbled, but at best I have but patched a rent. I hope, however, that I have not spared many of those trusty veterans who, occasionally even in our best weekly and regularly in our morning and evening papers, are expected to do duty for sense.
Wherever the blue pencil or standardized phrase has left too deep a wound or gross a blemish I have had to rewrite. And, as I have rarely succeeded in recovering the original idea, I have had to borrow from my later thought. Of such patching I have been as thrifty as possible: also, I have not attempted to square the opinions and sentiments of early days with my later pronouncements, so, I make no doubt, some very clever readers will have the pleasure of catching me in inconsistency. If they are really clever they will catch me in worse things than that, in puerility for instance, and affectation, to say nothing of blasphemy and sedition. As for consistency, I seem consistently to have cared much for four things—Art, Truth, Liberty and Peace. I was never much in sympathy with my age.
With my youthful style I should not venture to tamper even were I conscious of any important change in my theory of composition or power of expression. And I am not. I write more fluently nowadays and therefore, probably, worse. It cannot be helped. It charms me to notice as I read these essays with what care and conscience they are done. Magna cum cura atque diligentia scripsit—they are not far from Latin Grammar days. Precisely on account of these qualities they have suffered much from editorial amendment, and on their account I have been conservative in a matter where another policy would, I dare say, have been more to the taste of some connoisseurs. The matter in question is that of the grand editorial "We." That, as you may suppose, was the person in which Pallas habitually addressed her attentive suppliants; that was the person in which these articles were written; and experiment has shown that to substitute "I," "my," and "mine" for "we," "our," and "ours," destroys invariably the texture of the prose. Whether this early prose of mine was good is not for me to decide; but that it was closely knit is indisputable, and a sensitive critic who cared to tease himself with trifles could discover, I fancy, from stylistic evidence, just which passages have been interpolated.
The articles borrowed from the Burlington Magazine, the Nation, the New Statesman, the International Journal of Ethics, and the Cambridge Magazine—to the editors of which I herewith tender customary thanks for customary favours—all having appeared over my signature were, of course, all written in the first person singular. Any one who did me the honour of reading my book, "Art," so attentively as now to notice that to its making went certain quarryings from these articles, will have enjoyed it enough, I hope, not to resent being occasionally reminded of it.
And here I might end a tedious letter: but first, if you will bear with me, I should like to say a word on a subject in which both you and I are interested. I have shown so much humility in contrasting these reviews with those of Mr. Bennett that I will permit myself one comment, by no means in disparagement of "Books and Persons," but in the hope that he, or indeed any one who concerns himself with literary criticism, may profit by it. In one respect I do fancy myself a better critic than Mr. Bennett; for though, doubtless, I lack most of those qualities that make his book a positive pleasure to read, I lack also his indiscrimination. Partly, this comes of my not being what he calls himself—"a creative artist," just as it results in my not using that term when I mean "an intelligent person"; but chiefly it is that I am, I believe, almost free from that "provincialism in time"—if I may coin a phrase—which is what is most amiss with Mr. Bennett's critical apparatus. It is a great pity Mr. Bennett should be provincial in any sense, for in the common he is not; on the contrary, he is one who has lived in France, even as Frenchmen live there, without being more than a little shocked. He has read a good many books, both old and new; he is one who cares for literature manifestly: then why does he call Mr. H. G. Wells a great imaginative artist? I will not swear to the epithets—I have not his book by me—but I am sure he is too candid to deny that if he has not used them he has used their equivalents. This much I know he has said—for I made a note when I read the essay—"astounding width of observation, a marvellously true perspective, an extraordinary grasp of the real significance of innumerable phenomena utterly diverse, profound emotional power, dazzling verbal skill." Now, my dear Whitworth, if I were to say that sort of thing about Marivaux you would raise your eyebrows—you know you would. Yet I suppose no competent judge of literature will pretend that the novels of Marivaux—to say nothing of the comedies—are inferior to those of Mr. Wells. Pray read again "Le Paysan Parvenu"—all except the eighth and last part, about which I can't help thinking there is some mystery—and then try "Mr. Britling." But if by Mr. Bennett's standards we are to give Marivaux his due, what is there left to say about Shakespeare?
Provincialism in time is as fatal to judgment as the more notorious sort, and a defective sense of proportion is at the root of both. Consider English novelists of the last hundred years. Who but a fool dare predict confidently for any living Englishman, save Hardy, so much immortality as belongs to Galt's "Annals of the Parish," or Mrs. Oliphant's "Beleagured City"? Now what figure, think you, would a critic cut who besprinkled these writers with such compliments as Mr. Bennett peppers his contemporaries withal? You need not answer. Mr. Bennett is a friend of the firm.
Had Mr. Bennett lost his head about contemporaries who were attempting to solve new artistic problems I could understand it. Young writers wax over-enthusiastic about Laforgue and Charles-Louis Philippe—both of whom, by the way, died some years ago—and are not much to blame on that account; neither should I have the least difficulty in forgiving myself were it to turn out—as it will not—that I had said too much in praise of Matisse or Picasso. The artist who even appears to have discovered or rediscovered an instrument of expression or to have extended by one semitone the gamut of aesthetic experience is bound to turn the best heads of his age. Were it possible to overrate Cezanne, not to do so would be a mark of insensibility. I was never much impressed by those superior persons of an earlier age who from the first saw through Wagner; there was a time when to dislike Wagner was, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a sign not of superiority but of stupidity. The artists, however, whom Mr. Bennett belauds so uncritically, are not of this sort. In my judgment, Mr. Wells, Mr. George Moore, and the late Sir John Galsworthy are not artists at all: be that as it may, past question they are artistically conventional and thoroughly in the tradition of British fiction. Of course they write of motor-cars and telephones where an older generation wrote of railway-trains and telegrams, and of the deuxiemes, troisiemes or quatre-vingt-dixiemes where their grandmothers wrote of les premiers amours; also, they can refer to the Almighty in the third person without bursting into capitals. But in this there is no more artistic novelty than there would be in a picture of an aeroplane painted in the manner of Ingres. Neither is there any discredit; very much the same might be said of our three best living novelists—Hardy, Conrad, and Virginia Woolf, all of whom are more or less traditional, as is Anatole France, perhaps the best novelist alive. A first-rate unconventional work of art is not a straw better than a conventional one, and to become slightly light-headed about either is not only permissible but seemly. Nevertheless, to go silly over a mediocre innovation is far more excusable than to be taken in by its equivalent in a familiar style. While to rave about Messrs. Wells, Moore and Galsworthy seems to me shocking. Surely there can be no difficulty about treating these writers as ordinary citizens of the Republic of Letters—a state, let us try to remember, that not only extends in space beyond the horizons of Tooting but in time beyond the Edwardian and even the Victorian era.
A critic, I submit, should judge a work of art, not in relation to the age and circumstances in which it was produced, but by an absolute standard based on the whole corpus of that art to which the particular work belongs. We do not want to hear how good "Tono-Bungay" seems by comparison with Mrs. Ward's last production. Marvellous, no doubt: so, no doubt, are Mrs. Ward's intellectual gifts by comparison with those of a walrus. But we want to have Mrs. Ward judged as a specimen of Humanity and "Tono-Bungay" as a specimen of Literature. It must be tried by the standards we try "Tristram Shandy" and "La Princesse de Cleves" by. How, then, does it stand? With "Liaisons Dangereuses"? Hardly. Well, is it of the class of "Evelina" or of "Adolphe," or of "Consuelo" even? Mr. Bennett can be as sharp as a special constable with Thackeray: is it as good as "Pendennis"? And, unless it be infinitely better, what sense is there in despising Thackeray and extolling Mr. Wells? Pray, Mr. Bennett, how good is this book? Let us see; I think I have a note on the subject: "his scientific romances" are "on the plane of epic poetry" and "in 'Tono-Bungay' he has achieved the same feat, magnified by ten—or a hundred"; "there are passages toward the close of the book which may fitly be compared with the lyrical freedoms of no matter what epic, and which display an unsurpassable dexterity of hand." And now what are we to say of "Manon Lescaut"? That it is a million times better than Milton and knocks spots off Homer? But all this though distressing is not conclusive; it proves provinciality but it proves nothing worse. Mr. Bennett may really have been thinking all the time of "Robert Elsmere" and "The Epic of Hades." About another of his favourites, however, he is more precise: "I re-read 'A Man of Property,'" he says, "immediately after re-reading Dostoievsky's 'Crime and Punishment,' and immediately before re-reading Bjornson's 'Arne.' It ranks well with these European masterpieces." I repeat that in one respect I am a better critic than Mr. Bennett.
This question of criticism fascinates me. It interests Mr. Bennett, too, and he has written several competent and surprisingly confident articles on the subject. I could almost wish to discuss one of them with him. I would help him to understand Coleridge and tell him about Dryden's essays and Johnson's "Lives of the Poets," and I would assure him, too, it was not I who wrote that unfortunate review of Conrad that gets such an exemplary drubbing at his hands for its self-complacent imbecility. He ought to know that, or he will think that I speak out of malice. He says that England has need of a literary critic. I agree. And I agree that this critic must not be of that professorial breed with which he deals so faithfully, not one who will date you every line in Shakespeare on internal evidence and then obligingly pronounce Sir Arthur Conan Doyle our greatest living writer. He will need the intelligence, the first-hand views, the open mind, the genuine taste for books, the respect for art and irreverence for persons of Mr. Bennett himself; and, as I have hinted, he will need one or two qualities for which Mr. Bennett is not so well off. He must be a resolute critic of literature and not an authority on current reputations; he must have enough natural taste to recognize a work of art in odd company, new clothes, or fancy dress; he must be the sort of person who would have seen at a glance that Kipling or Paul Bourget was not the real thing; he must be a scholar and a man of the intellectual world: and he must be as incapable of calling Mr. George Moore "a great artist" or speaking of "a first-rate beautiful thing" by that gentleman as Mr. Bennett is of eating peas with his knife.
The critic of our dreams—Mr. Bennett's and mine—has yet to be found. You will not imagine, surely, that I am putting myself forward as a candidate? Here you will find very few of the virtues and some, I suspect, of the critical vices to which I have alluded in this letter. But you need not fear, my dear Whitworth, that I am now going to tax your good nature by an elaborate defence of these essentially insignificant papers. They are an odd lot, and I think there are but two—the two last—that I am not a little ashamed of reprinting. Clearly, were I now to write on the same themes I should have something very different to say and should say it differently. Honestly, I believe these things are worth reading; I can say no more for them and I shall hold him generous who says as much. But the pleasure I shall derive from seeing them printed and off my hands will be as great almost as that which I felt when, four years ago, you, or your firm rather, did me the honour of publishing a book to which I attached, and continue to attach, a good deal of importance. Here I am harvesting my wild oats; and that deed done, I expect to feel what a regular but rather humdrum sinner must feel as he returns from Confession. Quit of my past, I shall be ready to turn over a new leaf. I shall be able, if I please, to approach life from a new angle and try my luck in unexplored countries, so far, that is, as the European situation permits.
C. B. February 1918.
MONTAIGNE IN FACSIMILE
[Sidenote: Athenaeum Jan. 1913]
Let it be understood at once that the appearance of this magnificent work is a bibliophilic rather than a literary event. The literary event was the publication by M. Fortunat Strowski, in 1909, of "L'Edition Municipale," an exact transcription of that annotated copy of the 1588 quarto known to fame as "L'Exemplaire de Bordeaux." What the same eminent scholar gives us now is a reproduction in phototype of "L'Exemplaire." Any one, therefore, who goes to these volumes in search of literary discoveries is foredoomed to disappointment. Indeed, the same might have been said of "L'Edition Municipale"; for the "Motheau et Jouaust" edition, reprinted by MM. Flammarion in their "Bibliotheque classique," was complete enough to satisfy all but the most meticulous scholars, while for general literary purposes the edition published in 1595, three years after the author's death, by his niece, Mlle. de Gournay, is sufficient and adequate.
Though five editions of the "Essais" were printed during their author's life—1580 and 1582 at Bordeaux, 1584 (probably) and 1587 at Paris, 1588 at Bordeaux—to critics in search of dramatic spiritual changes a comparative study will afford but meagre sport. To be sure, the editions of '84 and '87 were nothing more than what we should now call reprints; but the edition of 1588, of which "L'Exemplaire de Bordeaux" is a copy, represents so thorough an overhauling and so generous an enlarging of the old book that some have been tempted to reckon it a new one. Yet, though it garners the fruit of eight fertile years of travel and public service, it reveals no startling change in the outlook, nor in what is more important, the insight, of its author. We need feel no surprise. Had Montaigne been the sort of man whose views and sentiments are profoundly affected by travel or office, he would not have been the object of that cult of which the three volumes before us are the latest, and perhaps the most significant, monument. That is a peculiar man whose crossings and dottings and deletions are judged worthy of photographic record by the authorities of a great industrial city.
Montaigne was thoroughly normal, not to say commonplace, in his ability to pass through foreign countries without suffering anything so alarming as a conversion. He left home on his travels in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, a learned and extremely intelligent man of affairs, who had taken, rather late in life perhaps, to playing the part of a French country gentleman; he returned with a store of acute observations and pleasant anecdotes, a little older, a little mellower, otherwise unchanged. Of those magically expanded views, those sudden yawnings of sympathetic depths, that nowadays every one may count on winning, if not by a week in Brittany, at any rate by a month in Manitoba, we find scarcely a trace. In the sixteenth century that sort of thing was unusual. Even in those days there were people of extraordinary sensibility for whom life was a succession of miracles, who with difficulty recognized themselves from year to year, to whom going abroad was an emotional adventure, a supreme revelation: but of these Montaigne was not one. Him, like some others, change seems merely to have confirmed in his native predispositions and prejudices. As he grew older he grew vainer, rather more garrulous, fonder of his favourite authors, and a little less open-minded; and his travels were nothing more than a long and agreeable stage on the longest journey. There are people for whom travel provides nothing but supplementary evidence in a cause that has already been judged. Those who can find nothing good at home will smack their lips over the sourest wines abroad; and "Old Meynell" need not have left his garden to arrive at that conclusion commended by Dr. Johnson: "For anything I see, foreigners are fools." Montaigne was not of these, either; too normal to be above patriotism, he was too proud and too intelligent to be blindly patriotic.
Montaigne was the ideal man-in-the-street. We do not mean that he was typical; but if there are men-in-the-street in heaven, they will resemble Montaigne. And though we rank a third-rate saint or artist a great deal higher than a first-rate good fellow, we recognize that there is something about any kind of perfection that dazzles even those who are most alive to its essential inferiority. Montaigne is the exemplar of good feeling and good sense; in him we see those qualities chatting on terms of familiarity with genius and inspiration. He held the views that all sensible people would hold if only all were as intelligent and benevolent as they honestly believe themselves to be; he expressed them in a form appropriate to, and therefore limited by, his subject, but, within those limits, perfect.
The form in which Montaigne expressed himself was new to French literature. In the sixteenth century there was a recognized literary style based on the Latin period. Sentences were long, sonorous, and circuitous. It was a language well suited to those who followed the profession of letters, but unserviceable to one who would communicate his thoughts and feelings to others. Montaigne was not a professional author; he was a country gentleman with something of his own to say. The literature of the professionals was an ingenious and abstract superstructure built up over an idea or an emotion. Montaigne wished to set down the original thought or feeling as it sprang, hot, from the mind; and, as original thoughts and feelings present themselves always with the force of sensations, he gave them the forms of sensations—that is to say, he wrote in images. He expressed his philosophy of good sense in short, hard, coloured sentences, keeping them as close as possible to the naked thoughts they conveyed. That in print they appear as long as those of his contemporaries is a mere accident of typography; for almost every semicolon in the "Essais" one may substitute a full stop: very rarely is the long sentence in Montaigne a period.
Like most sensible men, Montaigne had an unreasonable fondness for reason; unlike most, he possessed an intellect that showed him the final consequences of his fancy. Not only have we no sufficient reason for believing that we know anything, we have none for affirming that we know nothing. By sheer reasonableness we are reduced to a state of pure Pyrrhonism, where, like the poor donkey, we must die of starvation midway between two equally large and equally appetizing bundles of hay. An affectation of superior ignorance has been a favourite literary device from the days of the Preacher to those of Anatole France. Montaigne loves to tease and confound us with a "Que scay-ie," he has the common literary taste for humiliating unsympathetic readers; but he has also a taste for honesty not so common, even in literature. Doubt is a mark of good sense: honest doubt is a mark of genius almost. In his reflective moments the reasonable man inclines to believe that reason can prove nothing—except what he believes. How fearlessly did those nineteenth-century apostles of Reason make havoc in the parlours of meek curates and spinsters, thundering against the altogether insufficient grounds on which were accepted the surprising adventures of Noah and his Ark! But when they were told that Reason was as unfriendly to their moral code and the methods of science as to the Book of Genesis, they clapped her in jail without more ado. Reason affords no solid grounds for holding a good world better than a bad, and the sacred law of cause and effect itself admits of no logical demonstration. "Prison or the Mad House," cried the men of good sense; Montaigne was more thorough—"Tolerance," said he.
Like the man-in-the-street, Montaigne found refuge from reason in conviction. Until we have formulated a proposition reason has no excuse for interference; and emotional convictions precede intellectual propositions. Only, as we have no means of judging between convictions, we must remember that the firm and disinterested convictions of others are as respectable as our own: again we must tolerate. To credit Montaigne with that sublime liberality which is summed up in the most sublime of all Christian aphorisms—"Judge not, and thou shalt not be judged"—would be absurd. Montaigne was a Pagan, and his high conception of tolerance and humanity was derived entirely from the great pagan philosophers. Of them he was a profound and sincere disciple, so it is not surprising that his ideas were far in advance of those of his age, and of ours. For instance, he hated brutality. Both his own nature and that fine Athenian humanity which by study he had made his own were revolted by barbarous punishments. That there may be men too vile to live seemed to him, doubtless, a tenable opinion—he could forget all about the fallibility of human judgments—but "Quant a moy," he says, "en la iustice mesme, tout ce qui est au dela de la mort simple, me semble pure cruaute." To hurt others for our own good is not, he dimly perceived, to cut a very magnanimous figure. To call it hurting them for their own, he would have thought damnable; but that piece of hypocrisy is the invention of a more enlightened age. Torture he abhorred. Assuredly Montaigne would have been more at home in the streets of Periclean Athens than in those of sixteenth-century Bordeaux or twentieth-century London.
Nothing illustrates better Montaigne's essential paganism than his passionate admiration for magnanimity. That was the virtue he loved. High courage and fortitude, dignity, patience, and generosity—these are qualities, examples of which never fail to strike a spark of enthusiasm from his calm nature. He is never tired of extolling the constancy of Socrates and Cato, the courage of Caesar, the generosity of Alexander, the great and grandiose actions of the heroes of antiquity. Indeed, this admiration for courage and dignity so transports him that once, at any rate, he surpasses most pagan philosophers, and joins hands with the latest and most Christian of Christian moralists:
"A quoy faire nous allons nous gendarmant par ces efforts de la science? Regardons a terre, les pauvres gens que nous y voyons espandus, la teste panchante apres leur besongne: qui ne scavent ny Aristote ny Caton, ny exemple ny precepte. De ceux-la, tire Nature tous les iours, des effects de constance et de patience, plus purs et plus roides, que ne sont ceux que nous estudions si curieusement en l'escole. Combien en vois ie ordinairement, qui mescognoissent la pauvrete: combien qui desirent la mort, ou qui la passent sans alarme et sans affliction? Celui la qui fouit mon iardin, il a ce matin enterre son pere ou son fils. Les noms mesme, dequoy ils appellent les maladies, en addoucissent et amollissent l'asprete. La phthysie, c'est la toux pour eux: la dysenterie, devoyment d'estomach: un pleuresis, c'est un morfondement: et selon qu'ils les nomment doucement, ils les supportent aussi. Elles sont bien griefves, quand elles rompent leur travail ordinaire: ils ne s'allitent que pour mourir."
This passage is exceptional; it is not the less sincere. Of its sincerity no one who reads and feels can doubt. But generally the instances of eximious virtue are what Montaigne delights to honour. Nothing in him is more lovable than this passionate hero-worship; and what quality is more lovable or more common in the ordinary man?
"Le plus sage des Francais," Sainte-Beuve called him; the judgment is typical of the critic and his age. We need not stay to quarrel with it. We can hold that there is a higher wisdom than the quest of golden mediocrity without disparaging either Horace or his disciple. If the man-in-the-street be one who approaches the obvious in the spirit of a pioneer, we must admit that Montaigne rises superior to his class, for he not only explored that country, but possessed and cultivated it too, and forced it to yield an ampler harvest of good sense and humanity than any other husbandman before or since. France has ever been rich, and is as rich as ever, in men who have known how to sacrifice the shadow to the substance; in fanatics who have pursued without pause or divagation dreams of impossible Utopias and unattainable good; in idealists who have joyfully given all to love, to art, to religion, and to logic. It is not inappropriate, therefore, that France should have produced in an age of turmoil and terrible madness the man who exalted the cult of moderation to the heights of sublime philosophy.
 "Reproduction en Phototypie de l'Exemplaire, avec Notes manuscrites marginales, des Essais de Montaigne appartenant a la Ville de Bordeaux." Publiee, avec une Introduction, par Fortunat Strowski. 3 vols. (Paris, Hachette.)
[Sidenote: Athenaeum June 1912]
Was it chance made Mr. Ellis Roberts mention Cezanne on the fourth page of a book about Ibsen? One cannot think so. Similarities in the work and circumstances of the two men can hardly have escaped him. Born within a dozen years of each other (Ibsen was born in 1828), both matured in a period when the professions of writing and painting were laboriously cultivated at the expense of art. Each, unguided except by his own sense of dissatisfaction with his surroundings, found a way through the sloughs of romance and the deserts of realism, to the high country beyond them. Both sought and both found the same thing—the thing above literature and painting, the stuff out of which great literature and painting are made.
The Romantics and Realists were like people coming to cuffs about which is the more important thing in an orange, the history of Spain or the number of pips. The instinct of the romantic, invited to say what he felt about anything, was to recall its associations. A rose made him think of quaint gardens and gracious ladies and Edmund Waller and sundials, and a thousand pleasant things that, at one time or another, had befallen him or some one else. A rose touched life at a hundred pretty points. A rose was interesting because it had a past. On this the realist's comment was "Mush!" or words to that effect. In like predicament, he would give a detailed account of the properties of Rosa setigera, not forgetting to mention the urn-shaped calyx-tube, the five imbricated lobes, or the open corolla of five obovate petals. To an Ibsen or a Cezanne one account would appear as irrelevant as the other, since both omitted the thing that mattered, what philosophers used to call "the thing in itself," what now they would call "the essential reality":
SOLNESS. ... Do you read much?
HILDA. No, never! I have given it up. For it all seems so irrelevant.
SOLNESS. That is just my feeling.
It was just what the books left out that Ibsen wanted to express.
He soon worked through the romantic tradition. It hampered him long enough to prevent Peer Gynt from becoming a great poem; after that he found himself on the threshold of a world where everything mattered too much in itself for its associations to be of consequence. Attempting to analyse Ibsen's characters used to be a pastime for fools; to-day, we all know that they come from that world where everything has been reduced to an essence that defies analysis. There Ibsen was never so completely at home as Cezanne; he lacked the imagination by which alone one arrives and remains in the world of reality. His vision was more uncertain and so his faith was weaker. He was a less ferociously sincere artist. When vision began to fail he took refuge in a catalogue of facts or in unconvincing symbolism: Cezanne tossed his picture into a bush. Perhaps that is why a new generation, hungry for great contemporary art, turns more hopefully to painting than to literature.
Thirty years ago it would have been misleading to say, what is undoubtedly true, that it is as an artist that Ibsen is great. To call a man a good artist came to much the same thing as calling him a good ping-pong player: it implied that he was proficient in his own business; it did not imply that he was a great man who affected life greatly. Therefore many people who understood Ibsen and were moved by his plays preferred to call him a political thinker or a social reformer; while their enemies, the aesthetes, were very willing to call him a great artist, since by doing so they excused themselves from paying the least attention to anything that he said. Ibsen was a reformer in the sense that all great artists are reformers; it is impossible to speak of reality without criticizing civilization. In the same way he was a politician; it is impossible to care passionately about art without caring about the fate of mankind. But Mr. Roberts is certainly right in holding that to appreciate Ibsen we must consider him as an artist.
Ibsen approached humanity in the spirit of an artist. He sought that essential thing in men and women by which we should know them if the devil came one night and stole away their bodies; we may call it character if we choose. He imagined situations in which character would be revealed clearly. The subjects of his plays are often "problems," because he was interested in people who only when "problems" arise are seen to be essentially different from one another, or, indeed, from the furniture with which they live. There is no reason to suppose that Ibsen had any love for "problems" as such; and we are tempted to believe that some modern "problems" are nothing more than situations from Ibsen's plays. Ibsen's method is the true artist's method. The realist writing about people tends to give an inventory of personal peculiarities, and a faithful report of all that is said and done. The romantic hopes, somehow, to "create an atmosphere" by suggesting what he once felt for something not altogether unlike the matter in hand. Ibsen sets himself to discover the halfpennyworth of significance in all this intolerable deal of irrelevance. Which is the word, which the gesture, that, springing directly from the depths of one character, penetrates to the depths of another? What is the true cause of this hubbub of inconsequent words and contradictory actions? Nothing less remote than the true cause will serve, nothing else is firmly rooted in reality. Is that man expressing what he feels or is he paying out what he thinks he is expected to feel? Have I pushed simplification as far as it will go? Are there no trappings, no overtones, nothing but what is essential to express my vision of reality? And, above all, is my vision absolutely sharp and sure? These were the questions Ibsen had to answer. When he succeeded he was a great artist, not, as Mr. Roberts suggests, in the manner of Shakespeare, but in the manner of Aeschylus.
There is no more obvious proof of the greatness of Ibsen's art than the perfection of its form. To assert that fine form always enfolds fine thought and feeling would imply a knowledge of literature to which it would be effrontery in a critic to pretend. He may be allowed, however, to advise any one who is ready with an instance of great form enclosing a void to verify his impressions: it was thus that one critic at any rate came to appreciate Goldoni and Alfieri. Be that as it may, this is certain: a perfectly conceived idea never fails to express itself in perfect form. Ibsen did not shirk the labour of making his conceptions as hard, and definite, and self-supporting as possible. No matter how autobiographical some of his best plays may be, he is too good an artist to allow them to lean on his personal experience; they have to stand firmly on their own feet. Ibsen, therefore, worked his conceptions to such a degree of hardness and self-consistency that he could detach them from himself and study them impersonally. That is why his plays are models of form. And if there be an Academy of Letters that takes its duties seriously, Rosmersholm and Ghosts are, we presume, in the hands of every young person within its sphere of influence. The students are shown, we hope, that Ibsen's form is superb, not because Ibsen paid any particular attention to the precepts of Aristotle, but because, like Sophocles, who had the misfortune to predecease the Stagirite, he knew precisely what he wanted to say, and addressed himself exclusively to the task of saying it. To achieve great form is needed neither science nor tradition, but intense feeling, vigorous thinking, and imagination. Formlessness is not a sign of spirited revolt against superstition; it is a mere indication of muddleheadedness.
The subject-matter of Ibsen's plays is reality; unfortunately, his imagination was not always strong enough to keep a sure hold on it. When the vision faded he took refuge in symbolism or literality. There was a commonplace background to his mind, of which we see too much in such plays as An Enemy of the People and Pillars of Society. It is this commonplace and rather suburban quality that tempts us occasionally to explain Ibsen's popularity by the fact that he represented the revolt of the supremely unimportant, of whom there happen to be quite a number in the world. With the symbolism of The Master-Builder no fault can be found. It is a legitimate and effective means of expressing a sense of reality. The theme is never lost. The artist who sacrifices his human relations, but dare not give all, dare not give his vanity or his life to the ideal, moves steadily to his inevitable doom. Whether he move in the form of Halvard Solness, the cowardly architect of genius, fearless of ideas but fearful of action, or in the form of the symbolical master-builder, the artist who tries to have the best of both worlds, matters not a straw. The medium of expression changes, but the theme is constant: the conception is whole. That is more than can be said of The Lady from the Sea, where the symbolism comes perilously near padding; or of When We Dead Awaken, where it often expresses nothing relevant, merely standing picturesquely for commonplaces, and filling gaps.
To read one of Ibsen's great plays is always thrilling; to read one for the first time is an event. If a savage who took locomotives and motor-cars for granted, as inexplicable creatures of whim and fancy, suddenly were shown, not by vague adumbration, but by straightforward exposition, that they were expressions of intelligible laws controlled by comprehensible machinery, he could not be more amazed than was the nineteenth century by Ibsen. For Ibsen took nothing for granted. He saw little on the surface of life that corresponded with reality; but he did not cease to believe in reality. That was where he differed both from the Philistines and from the elect. He saw that the universe was something very different from what it was generally supposed to be: he saw the futility of popular morals and popular metaphysics; but he neither swallowed the conventions nor threw up his hands in despair, declaring the whole thing to be an idiotic farce. He knew that truth and goodness had nothing to do with law and custom; but he never doubted that there were such things; and he went beneath the surface to find them. It was Ibsen's revelation of a new world, in which moral values were real and convincing, that thrilled the nineteenth century, and thrills us yet. Can any one read sedately that scene in Ghosts in which Mrs. Alving shows with bewildering simplicity that, however respectable the Pastor's morality may be, it is pure wickedness?
PASTOR MANDERS. You call it "cowardice" to do your plain duty? Have you forgotten that a son ought to love and honour his father and mother?
MRS. ALVING. Do not let us talk in such general terms. Let us ask: Ought Oswald to love and honour Chamberlain Alving?
MANDERS. Is there no voice in your mother's heart that forbids you to destroy your son's ideals?
MRS. ALVING. But what about the truth?
MANDERS. But what about the ideals?
MRS. ALVING. Oh—ideals, ideals! If only I were not such a coward!
Ibsen's social and political ideas follow necessarily from the nature of his art. He knew too much about the depths of character to suppose that people could be improved from without. He agreed with our grandmothers that what men need are new hearts. It is good feeling that makes good men, and the sole check on bad feeling is conscience. Laws, customs, and social conventions he regarded as ineffectual means to good. There is no virtue in one who is restrained from evil by fear. He went further: he regarded external restraints as means to bad, since they come between a man and his conscience and blunt the moral sense. "So long as I keep to the rules," says the smug citizen, "I am of the righteous." Ibsen loathed the State, with its negative virtues, its mean standards, its mediocrity, and its spiritual squalor. He was a passionate individualist.
Perhaps no one has seen more clearly that the State, at its best, stands for nothing better than the lowest common factor of the human mind. What else can it stand for? State ideals must be ideals that are not beyond the intellect and imagination of "the average citizen"; also, since average minds are not pervious to reason, the reasoning of statesmen must be rhetoric. State morals—law and custom that is to say—are nothing more than excuses for not bothering about conscience. But Ibsen, being an artist, knew that he who would save his soul must do what he feels to be right, not what is said to be so. Feeling is the only guide, and the man who does what he feels to be wrong does wrong, whatever the State may say.
The plain, though by no means frank, determination of society to suppress the individual conscience lest it should clash with the interests of the community seems positively to have shocked him. To be fine, he believed, men must think and feel for themselves and live by their own sense of truth and beauty, not by collective wisdom or reach-me-down ideals.
"What sort of truths do the majority rally round? Truths so stricken in years that they are sinking into decrepitude. When a truth is so old as that, gentlemen, it's in a fair way to become a lie (Laughter and jeers)."
How could Ibsen help being something of a politician? He seems really to have wished his fellow-creatures to be fine, and to have been angry with them because they wished to be nothing of the sort. He did not understand that this passionate individualism, this sense of personal responsibility, this claim to private judgment, is what no modern State, be it democratic, bureaucratic or autocratic, can tolerate. Men long for the ease and assurance of conformity and so soon as they are sufficiently organized enforce it. Truth is the enemy—ecrasez l'infame! Poor, silly old Stockmann in An Enemy of the People blurts it out, blurts out that the water-supply is contaminated and his native health-resort no better than a death-trap, for no better reason than that he feels it is what he ought to do. He fails to consider the feelings and, what is even more important, the financial interests of his neighbours, and the neighbours make short work of him, as they generally do of people who think and feel and act for themselves—of saints and artists in fact. Thus it comes about that the prophets are stoned and the best plays censored, while people such as Ibsen loathe the State with its herd-instincts, now decently baptized however, and known as Morality and Idealism.
Whether Ibsen was in the right is not for a reviewer to decide. Mr. Roberts has strong views on the subject, which he is at no pains to conceal. For this we are far from blaming him. Indeed, we feel that the personal note imported by the author's intellectual bias gives some flavour to a book which, owing to the complete absence of charm or distinction, would be otherwise insipid. It is a competent, but woefully uninspiring, piece of work. Above all things, Mr. Roberts lacks humour—a quality indispensable in a writer on Ibsen. For Ibsen, like other men of genius, is slightly ridiculous. Undeniably, there is something comic about the picture of the Norwegian dramatist, spectacled and frock-coated, "looking," Mr. Archer tells us, "like a distinguished diplomat," at work amongst the orange-groves of Sorrento on Ghosts.
"Ibsen was keenly sensitive to place, and if we would get the utmost feeling out of his plays we must remember how large a part was played by fortunate or unfortunate position and circumstances in contributing to the wonderful 'atmosphere' of the dramas."
That is what Mr. Roberts thinks. A sense of humour would also have saved him from the one black note of sentimentality in the book:
"Ellida might be Solveig analysed—but analysed with how loving a touch, how unerring a kindness; it is as if a great surgeon were operating on a woman he loved."
Such things, we had imagined, could only be written by members of the Academie francaise.
 "Henrik Ibsen: a Critical Study." By R. Ellis Roberts. (Secker.)
[Sidenote: Athenaeum July 1910]
The greatest art is, in a sense, impersonal. We have no biographies of Homer and Sophocles, nor do we need them. Of Milton and Keats we know something; yet, knowing nothing, should we enjoy their work the less? It is not for what it reveals of Milton that we prize "Paradise Lost"; the "Grecian Urn" lives independent of its author and his circumstances, a work of art, complete in itself.
Precisely opposite is the case of Miss Mary Coleridge's poems: they, when in 1908 Mr. Elkin Mathews produced a more or less complete edition, excited us, not because, as verse, they were particularly good, but because they discovered, or seemed to discover, an attractive character. Indeed, Miss Coleridge's art was anything but exciting: her diction was not beautiful, her rhythms pleased the ear but moderately, one looked in vain for that magic of expression which transmutes thought and feeling into poetry. But if the expression wanted magic, that which was expressed seemed an enchantment almost. The gentle spirit, with its vein of tender pessimism, in puzzled revolt against the wrongness and cruelty of a shadowy world, the brooding thought too whimsical to be bitter, the fancy too refined to be boisterously merry—all these conspired to fascinate us as we came to perceive and appreciate them beneath the rather stiff little verses. To read Miss Coleridge's poems was to make acquaintance with a charming and delicate soul that wished to be understood and was willing to be intimate. Life astonished her, and her comments on life are her poems. They are often mystical, not to say obscure; and the obscurity, as a rule, is caused by vagueness rather than profundity, by the fact that she hardly knows herself what she feels, or thinks, or believes. But from so gracious a spirit one accepts without demur that which from another would not have passed unchallenged. Miss Coleridge bewitched us with her personality; we knew that her poems were slight, we felt that they revealed a part of her only, we had suspicions, but we held our peace. Had we turned to her novels, in spite of the brilliancy of one of them—"The King with Two Faces"—our suspicions would have been strengthened. But we did not turn; or if we did, they forced us into no questioning mood. It was left for this tell-tale volume of "Gathered Leaves" to press the question insistently, and to answer it. The spell is broken. We know now both why the poems are good and why they are not better.
No one will blame Miss Sichel for setting the truth before all things: clearly, by publishing these stories and essays she supplies an opportunity of correcting a too flattering estimate; but, foreseeing, no doubt, that we shall avail ourselves of it, she supplies also a memoir of fifty pages on which our final estimate is to be based. That this memoir is a competent piece of work need hardly be said. Miss Sichel's competence is notorious; as an efficient biographer her reputation is secure. Not every subject, however, is suited to her pen. Miss Coleridge did not develop along conventional lines; in fact, she differed so disconcertingly from the type with which we have grown agreeably familiar in the "English Men of Letters" series, that, without violence, she could never have been fitted into the traditional mould. Her biographer has done the work thoroughly, but she is a thought heavy in the hand; she is too literary, not to say professional; she is definite at all costs. She has "restored" Miss Coleridge as a German archaeologist might restore a Tanagra figure. Indeterminate lines have been ruthlessly rectified and asymmetry has grown symmetrical. Though we do not suggest that she misunderstood her friend, we are sure that the lady exhibited in the memoir is not the lady who reveals herself in the poems.
Of the author of the poems we catch a glimpse in the fragments of letters and diaries which form the penultimate section of the volume. But here, again, we find cause for discontent. If private reasons forbade fullness, was it wise to print scraps? Why tantalize us? In the letters we should, perhaps, have recaptured the lady we have lost in the essays and stories; but these fragments, though suggestive, are too slight to be consolatory: besides, Miss Coleridge was no coiner of aphorisms and epigrams who could give her meaning in a handful of sentences. Here is the first "detached thought" in the book:
"'Whom the gods love die young' and whom they hate die old, but whom they honour, these they take up to their eternal habitations in the ripe summer time of existence."
One wonders how it came there.
The suspicions which this volume helps to confirm, the melancholy guesses it answers, are that Miss Coleridge, with all her imagination, had not the constructive imagination of an artist, and that, in spite of her gaiety and spirits, fundamentally she was feeble. The imagination of an artist, if we may be allowed a seeming paradox, works logically. Not fortuitously, but by some mysterious necessity, does one vision follow another. There is a rational, if unconscious, order in the pageantry of images; there is an inevitableness in their succession closely allied to the logical necessity by which one idea follows another in a well-reasoned argument. In Miss Coleridge's mind images arranged themselves in no progressive order; one bears no particular relationship to another; they are disconnected, sporadic. Great imagination is architectural; it sets fancy upon fancy until it has composed a splendid and intelligible whole—a valid castle in the air. Miss Coleridge could not build; ideas broke in her mind in showers of whims, and lay where they fell at haphazard; she has bequeathed no castles, but a garden strewn with quaint figures, where every thought is tagged with gay conceits. Her short poems are often successful because she could pick at choice a thought or fancy and twist it into a stanza; but when she attempted a tale or an essay she gathered a handful of incongruous oddments and made of them a patchwork.
This first defect was, we conjecture, a consequence of that other and more fundamental flaw to which we have already drawn attention. If Miss Coleridge's artificers played truant, it was because she lacked strength to keep them at their task. For an indolent and lawless imagination force of character is the only whip, force of intellect the only guide. Miss Coleridge was deficient in both respects, and so her fancy sat playing with chips and pebbles, making mud-pies when it should have been making palaces.
Miss Coleridge never created a real work of art because she could not grasp emotions, or, if she grasped, failed to hold them. Perhaps she was too much of a Victorian lady to do more than express the culture of an imperfect age imperfectly. At any rate, it is clear that a shrinking fastidiousness excluded from her world much of the raw material from which great art is made. Stray reflections on Greek life and thought, though in themselves trivial, are interesting for what they betray of a state of mind familiar and always slightly distressing to people who take art seriously. She was a fair scholar Miss Sichel tells us; certainly she studied under an excellent master—the author of "Ionica"; yet she could say of the "Bacchae": "The Hallelujah Lasses get drunk on the wine of the spirit, not the wine of the grape"; and of the "Medea":
"Medea is thoroughly fin de siecle; says she would rather go into battle three times than have a baby once, pitches into men like anything. But there's too much Whitechapel about her. How are you to be seriously interested in a woman who has murdered her mother and boiled her father-in-law before the play begins?"
What is this but the shy jauntiness, the elaborate understatement, of something small in the presence of something great? That uneasy titter, caught from time to time as one turns Miss Coleridge's pages, we seem to have heard before in the Arena chapel or at the end of a Bach fugue. It is the comment of sophisticated refinement that can neither sit still nor launch out into rapturous, but ill-bred, ecstasies, of the weakling who takes refuge in slang or jocularity for fear of becoming natural and being thought ridiculous. Miss Coleridge stood for Kensington and Culture, so she smiled and shrugged her shoulders at Medea, and called the Bacchae "Hallelujah Lasses." She and Kensington admired Greek literature and art, of course, with enthusiasm tempered by taste; but the "glory that was Greece," the merciless honesty and riotous passions, the adventurous thought and feeling, were meat too strong for a society whose happiness depended on gazing at one half of life with closed eyes and swallowing the other in sugar-coated pills.
So we shall not turn again to "Gathered Leaves," though we shall sometimes read the poems. Henceforth, they will conjure up a less elusive figure. They will show us a pensive lady, rather well dressed in the fashion of five-and-twenty years ago, who sits in a Morris drawing-room, the white walls of which are spotted with Pre-Raphaelite pictures, and muses on what her surroundings represent. She is intelligent and graceful; witty in season, fantastic in measure. Her mind is ruffled by the perplexities appropriate to her age and state; she searches Canon Dixon's latest poem for light on Holman Hunt's last picture. Her life is an exquisite preoccupation with the surface of truth and the heart of unreality. Her poems suggest once more the atmosphere of an age already dead and half-forgotten; of Sunday afternoons in large rooms with long blinds, behind which men yawn and cultivated women are earnest and playful; of a world in which people must pretend courageously that life is very important for fear of discovering that it hardly signifies. It is a strange world, faded, friendly, urbane, and, we are happy to think, already infinitely remote.
 "Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge." With a Memoir by Edith Sichel. (Constable and Co.)
This review, when first published, gave pain, I know; it gave pain to friends of Miss Coleridge and to friends of Miss Sichel and to many of the charming people who were friends of both. The pain, of course, I regret; but I cannot say that I regret the article. The criticism still seems to me fair, and I know that it was honest: nevertheless, were Miss Sichel alive, I should not care to reprint it. But that able and friendly lady is now dead, and her eulogy has been pronounced by those who knew her best and could best appreciate her. I, of course, have criticized her only in her public character, as a writer, and in so doing have transgressed no law that I, at any rate, can respect. As Voltaire says, "On doit des egards aux vivants; on ne doit aux morts que la verite." To the living, perhaps, I have not always been as civil as could have been desired; but of the dead I have told no lies that I am aware of.
[Sidenote: Athenaeum Feb. 1911]
In the first place, were these plays worth publishing? With some hesitation we will admit that they were. Presumably the possessors of Messrs. Dent's pretty edition, or of any edition for that matter, will be glad to set this small volume beside the others and thus become owners of the complete prose works of an English classic. For Peacock is a classic; otherwise they might well have been allowed to acquire that portentous dignity which grows like moss on ancient and unprinted MSS. in the British Museum. Here and there, in the farces, one may discover examples of truly "Peacockian" wit and style, but these rare gems have mostly been worked into the novels; while the residue, which includes a drama in blank verse, has little if any intrinsic value. The earliest works of Peacock—a brilliant amateur to the last—are as amateurish as the earliest works of his friend Shelley and as thin and conventional as the worst of Goldoni. Nevertheless they are readable; so we need not stay to quarrel with the enthusiastic editor who claims that they are "replete with fun, written in a flexible style, and bearing the imprint of a scholarly discrimination."
English prose and humour are certainly the richer for one or two speeches in this little book, but the service it performs, or can be made to perform, is greater than that of rescuing a few fragments of humorous prose or even of filling a gap on our shelves. It sends us back to perhaps the least known of the great English, writers. The "Life" of Peacock has yet to be written: an ineffectual memoir by Sir Henry Cole, some personal recollections by the author's granddaughter Mrs. Clarke, a critical essay from the versatile but vapid pen of Lord Houghton, the gossip of Robert Buchanan, and editorial notices by Prof. Saintsbury and the late Richard Garnett, together afford nothing more than a perfunctory appreciation. Two writers, indeed, have attempted a more elaborate estimate: James Spedding, an able prig, reviewed Peacock's novels in the Edinburgh of January 1839, and more than half a century later Mr. Herbert Paul contributed to the Nineteenth Century a paper on the same subject. Unluckily, the judgment of both is vitiated by a common defect. Both are good journalists, but both are better party men; consequently, neither can appreciate the attitude of one to whom collective wisdom was folly, who judged every question in politics, philosophy, literature, and art on its merits, and whose scorn for those who judged otherwise was expressed without any of those obliging circumlocutions that are prized so highly in political life. With the possible exception of Prof. Saintsbury, not one of Peacock's interpreters has understood his position or shared his point of view; did not Dr. Arthur Button Young, the editor of these plays, himself affirm that
"his stories deal with tangible realities, and not with obscure or absurd situations, as is the case with those of many novelists.... For this reason alone they deserve to be widely known, as also their author, for having helped to raise the tone of novel-writing at a critical juncture in its development, by introducing into his tales instruction and information"?
It is only fair to add that this bit of criticism occurs in his "Inaugural Dissertation presented to the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Freiburg im Breisgau for the Asquisition of the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy."
In calling Peacock a great writer we have raised a claim that needs some support. His exquisite style with its Tacitean flavour, the perfection of his lyrics, his wit, and that intellectual brilliancy which sparkles from all the facets of his satire, parody, and epigram, suffice to endear him to the small, fastidious world whose approval is best worth having, and also, perhaps, to justify our opinion. But, unless we mistake, the appeal of his novels goes farther than the frontiers of good taste. Peacock's mind was original; he thought about many things and he did his own thinking. He is the other side to every question; his way of looking at life is a perpetual challenge; and a man without a vestige of humour or taste may read him with profit for his point of view.
Peacock belongs to no school or age. He has been called a man of the eighteenth century living in the nineteenth; nothing could be farther from the truth. He loved the sense and dignity of the Augustans, just as he loved the fire and romance of the Renaissance, and the mysterious gaiety of the Middle Ages; but he could have criticized any of them with as good a will as he criticized the age of machinery and "the march of mind," and, had he been born in any one of them, would doubtless have done so. He was a student of bardic poetry who yet admired Ariosto; his passion for classical literature was uncommonly wise and sincere; he read Sophocles for pleasure. So remote was he from the eighteenth-century Grecians that he could perceive and enjoy the romantic element in Greek life and art; yet it is a mistake to call him a Greek. An Athenian of the time of Pericles was, he thought, the noblest specimen of humanity that history had to show, and of that nobility he assimilated what he could. He acquired a distaste for cant, prudery, facile emotion, and philanthropy; he learnt to enjoy the good things of life without fear or shame; to love strength and beauty, and to respect the truth. For all that, he was a modern too; sharp eyes can see it in his verse. A touch of gloating and uninquisitive wonder, a suspicion of sentiment for sentiment's sake, the ghost of an appeal from the head to the heart, from the certainty of the present to the mystery of the past and the future, betray the descendant of Shakespeare and Sterne. The very culture that he inherited from a Graeco-Roman civilization, his bookishness, his archaeology, his conscious Paganism, would have looked queer in an Athenian of the fifth century B.C. The author of "Love and Age" was no Greek; but he was Greek enough to stand out above his fellows, from whom he is most honourably distinguished by his Athenian open-mindedness.
That Peacock cultivated prejudices is not disputed; for instance, he could not abide tobacco-smoke, Lord Brougham, or the Great Exhibition of 1851. But his prejudices were as peculiar to himself as were the principles of Sir Thomas Browne. They were not the prejudices of his age and state, neither were they of the kind that is fatal to free thinking and plain speaking. Unlike the popular dogmas of the muscular Christians and their rivals the muscular agnostics, his whims and fancies were superficial and involved no intellectual confusion. He compelled no one to build on unproved hypotheses, nor would he suffer himself to be compelled. Though sceptical about progress and mistrustful of democracy, to the end of his life he disliked the Conservative party; and perhaps his finest flights of sarcasm occur in "The Misfortunes of Elphin," where he ridicules Canning's florid rhetoric in defence of the Constitution.
"'Reports have been brought to me [says Elphin], that the embankment, which has been so long entrusted to your care, is in a state of dangerous decay.'
"'Decay,' said Seithenyn, 'is one thing, and danger is another. Everything that is old must decay. That the embankment is old, I am free to confess; that it is somewhat rotten in parts, I will not altogether deny; that it is any the worse for that, I do most sturdily gainsay. It does its business well: it works well: it keeps out the water from the land, and it lets in the wine upon the High Commission of Embankment. Cupbearer, fill. Our ancestors were wiser than we: they built it in their wisdom; and, if we should be so rash as to try to mend it, we should only mar it.'
"'The stonework,' said Teithrin, 'is sapped and mined: the piles are rotten, broken, and dislocated: the floodgates and sluices are leaky and creaky.'
"'That is the beauty of it,' said Seithenyn. 'Some parts of it are rotten, and some parts of it are sound.'
"'It is well,' said Elphin, 'that some parts are sound: it were better that all were so.'
"'So I have heard some people say before,' said Seithenyn; 'perverse people, blind to venerable antiquity: that very unamiable sort of people, who are in the habit of indulging their reason. But I say, the parts that are rotten give elasticity to those that are sound: they give them elasticity, elasticity, elasticity. If it were all sound, it would break by its own obstinate stiffness: the soundness is checked by the rottenness, and the stiffness is balanced by the elasticity. There is nothing so dangerous as innovation. See the waves in the equinoctial storms, dashing and clashing, roaring and pouring, spattering and battering, rattling and battling against it. I would not be so presumptious as to say, I could build anything that would stand against them half an hour; and here this immortal old work, which God forbid the finger of modern mason should bring into jeopardy, this immortal work has stood for centuries, and will stand for centuries more, if we let it alone. It is well: it works well: let well alone. Cupbearer, fill. It was half rotten when I was born, and that is a conclusive reason why it should be three parts rotten when I die.'"
Peacock's attitude towards women affords an example of the liberality of his views and of his isolation. It shocked Victorian sentimentalists, and would probably infuriate the more austere feminists of to-day. His heroines, like all his characters, are roughly and extravagantly sketched; what makes them peculiar is that they are sometimes almost alive. Stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence, craven submissiveness or insipid resignation, he did not commend in women: on the contrary, intellect, wit, gaiety, spirit, and even a first in the Classical Tripos seemed or would have seemed desirable and ladylike attributes to the creator of Anthelia Melincourt and Morgana Gryll. What was called "womanliness" in the forties displeased him; but he liked women to be feminine, and knew that distinguished women have ever been distinguished as women.
The truth is, Peacock had standards tested by which the current ideas of almost any age would be found wanting. Without being a profound thinker, he was one of those people who "bother about ends" to the extent of being unwilling to approve of means unless they are satisfied that the end in view is good—or at least that there is some end in view. With a self-complacent age, in which every one was shouting "Forward!" and no one was expected to inquire "Whither?" he was necessarily out of sympathy. To the shouters he seemed irrational and irrelevant. They called him "immoral" when they were solemn, and "whimsical" when they were merry; and "whimsical" is the epithet with which we are tempted to label him, if labelled he must be. Genius makes strange bedfellows; and Peacock's intellectual candour finds itself associated with the emotional capriciousness of Sterne. Truly, he is always unexpected, and as often as not superficially inconsequent. To state the three parts of a syllogism is not in his way; and by implication he challenged half the major premises in vogue. His scorn of rough-and-ready standards, commonplaces, and what used to be called "the opinion of all sensible men" made him disrespectful to common sense. It was common sense once to believe that the sun went round the earth, and it is still the mark of a sensible man to ignore, on occasions, the law of contradictions. To that common sense which is compounded of mental sluggishness and a taste for being in the majority Peacock's wit was a needle. He was intellectual enough to enjoy pricking bladders, and so finished a performer that we never tire of watching him at his play.
He was, in fact, an artist with intellectual curiosity; and just as he lacked the depth of a philosopher so he wanted the vision of a poet. That he possessed genius will not be denied; but his art is fanciful rather than imaginative and of creative power he had next to none. His life was neither a mission nor a miracle. But he was blessed with that keen delight in his own sensations which makes a world full of beautiful and amusing things, charming people, wine, and warm sunshine seem, on the whole, a very tolerable place, and all metaphysical speculation and political passion a little unnecessary. He made an art of living, and his novels are a part of his life. He wrote them because he had a subtle sense of the ludicrous, a turn for satire, and style. He wrote because he enjoyed writing; and, with a disregard for the public inconceivable in a man of sense, he wrote the sort of books that he himself would have liked to read. They are the sort, we think, that will always be worth reading.
[Sidenote: Athenaeum Oct. 1911]
"Between the publication of his [Peacock's] first and last poem sixty years had elapsed; but the records of his existence would, if placed in close juxtaposition, hardly fill out ten years."
Thus writes Mr. Freeman; and Mr. Van Doren's book is a failure just because he has insisted on expanding those records into a volume of three hundred pages. Of such a work a great part must consist in stating trivial facts and drawing from them inferences which there is no reason to accept, and which would be unimportant if accepted.
"About the time of the publication of 'Palmyra,' the young poet went back to Chertsey to live. His grandfather, Thomas Love, died December 10, 1805, and Mrs. Love, thus left alone, probably desired the companionship of her daughter and grandson. A letter to Hookham, dated two years later, testifies that Peacock soon extended one of his walking tours much farther than he had hitherto gone, in an excursion to Scotland."
Here follows an extract from a rather gushing and quite unimportant letter about the beauties of Scotch scenery, after which the paragraph concludes as follows:
"Nothing further is known of this Scottish tour, but from it probably dates Peacock's inveterate prejudice against the Scotch."
This is Mr. Van Doren at his worst and hack biography at normal. At his best he gives a straightforward account of the little that industry can unearth concerning a writer of first-rate importance who died but fifty-five years ago and whose life is yet more obscure than that of many a smaller man who has been dead twice or thrice as long. Industry in quest of facts is, indeed, Mr. Van Doren's chief merit, which only aggravates our surprise and regret at his having concluded his researches without discovering that Old Sarum is not in Cornwall. Still, he has written a readable book. His knowledge of English is superior to that of the majority of his compatriots; and when he is not trying to be caustic or facetious he is often quite sensible. We can say no more for him however.
Mr. Freeman aims higher, and though he comes short of his mark his is a valuable book. He can write well, and will write better; at present he is set upon being witty and clever, which is the more to be regretted in that he is both by nature. He has a view of life and letters which, if it be literary and rather superficial, is, at all events, personal. Perceiving the insufficiency of material for a biography, he has attempted an appreciation of Peacock's art. As we set ourselves a similar task so recently as February last, when reviewing Dr. Young's edition of the plays, we feel no call to restate our estimate or pit it against that of this new critic. It need only be said that he realizes, as does Mr. Van Doren, the singularity of Peacock's genius; that, though neither has succeeded in showing precisely why it is unique, the English critic has brought forward some highly illuminating suggestions; and that reduction by a half would be the greatest improvement that either book could undergo.
In the circumstances, our interest tends to centre on the biographical parts of both works. For both are biographical: only Mr. Freeman, who claims attention for judgment rather than for learning, has been at less pains to sift and record the minute evidence that contemporary literature and journalism afford. Fresh evidence, in the shape of letters and memoirs, may, of course, be brought forward; until then these two volumes will be final. So far as external evidence goes, the student is now in possession of all that is known about the author of "Headlong Hall."
It is surprising that Mr. Freeman's tact did not rescue him from the temptation into which Mr. Van Doren's industry led him inevitably—the temptation of finding in Peacock's mature work definable traces of childish memories and impressions. Still more surprising is it that, when both have quoted much that is worthless, neither should have printed the one significant document amongst the surviving fragments of his boyhood. This is a letter in verse to his mother, which not only gives promise of the songs that, above all else, have made their author famous, but is also worth quoting for its peculiar charm and fancy. Unless we mistake, it has only once been printed, and is hardly known to the literary public, so here it is:
I attempt to write you a letter In verse, tho' in prose I could do it much better; The Muse, this cold weather, sleeps up at Parnassus, And leaves us poor poets as stupid as asses. She'll tarry still longer, if she has a warm chamber, A store of old massie, ambrosia, and amber. Dear mother, don't laugh, you may think she is tipsy And I, if a poet, must drink like a gipsy. Suppose I should borrow the horse of Jack Stenton— A finer ridden beast no muse ever went on— Pegasus' fleet wings perhaps now are frozen, I'll send her old Stenton's, I know I've well chosen; Be it frost, be it thaw, the horse can well canter; The sight of the beast cannot help to enchant her. All the boys at our school are well, tho' yet many Are suffered, at home, to suck eggs with their granny. "To-morrow," says daddy, "you must go, my dear Billy, To Englefield House; do not cry, you are silly." Says the mother, all dressed in silk and in satin, "Don't cram the poor boy with your Greek and your Latin, I'll have him a little longer before mine own eyes, To nurse him and feed him with tarts and mince-pies; We'll send him to school when the weather is warmer; Come kiss me, my pretty, my sweet little charmer!" But now I must banish all fun and all folly, So doleful's the news I am going to tell ye: Poor Wade, my schoolfellow, lies low in the gravel, One month ere fifteen put an end to his travel; Harmless and mild, and remark'd for good nature; The cause of his death was his overgrown stature: His epitaph I wrote, as inserted below; What tribute more friendly could I on him bestow? The bard craves one shilling of his own dear mother, And, if you think proper, add to it another.
That epitaph is better known, but deserves to be better still:
Here lies interred, in silent shade, The frail remains of Hamlet Wade; A youth more promising ne'er took breath; But ere fifteen laid cold in death! Ye young, ye old, and ye of middle age, Act well your part, for quit the stage Of mortal life, one day you must, And, like him, crumble into dust.
Surely the boy of nine years old who wrote this was destined to be something better than a minor poet. And did not the delightful mother who encouraged him to express himself deserve something better for her son? Indeed, he must have been an enchanting child, with his long, flaxen curls, bright colouring, and fine, intelligent head. One fancies him a happy creature, making light work of his Greek and Latin grammar at Mr. Wicks's school on Englefield Green, at home spoilt and educated, in the best and most literal sense of the word, by his pretty mother and his gallant old grandfather. No wonder Queen Charlotte, driving in Windsor Park, stopped her carriage and got down to kiss the winsome little boy.
From Peacock's youth and early writings (he was born in 1785 and published "Palmyra" in 1806) we can gather some idea of his character. The obvious thing about him is his cleverness. The question is, What will he make of it? He tries business for a short time; the sea for an even shorter; and then he settles down in the country to a life of study and composition: he will be a man of letters. His poems are what we should expect a clever lad to write. Had they been written at the end of the nineteenth century doubtless they would have been as fashionably decadent as, written at the beginning, they are fashionably pompous. It was clear from the first that Peacock would not be a poet; he lacked the essential quality—the power of feeling deeply. Before he was twenty it must have been clear that he possessed a remarkable head and an ordinary heart. He had wits enough for anything and sufficient feeling and imagination to write a good song; but in these early days his intellect served chiefly to save him from sentimentality and the grosser kinds of rhetoric. It gained him a friend too, and that friend was Shelley.
To think of Peacock's youth is to think of his relations with Shelley. He seems to have given more than he received: his nature was not receptive. He made the poet read Greek, and persuaded him that he was not infected with elephantiasis by quoting Lucretius "to the effect that the disease was known to exist on the banks of the Nile, neque praeterea usquam." These words were "the greatest comfort to Shelley." The two young men did a vast amount of walking, arguing, and miscellaneous reading together, in which Peacock, partly from conviction and partly from affectation, seems to have been pretty consistent in performing the office of a wet blanket. Testing his intellect on other people's enthusiasms, falling sedately and whimsically in love with various ladies, amongst them his future wife, but keeping such feelings as he had for the most part to himself, Peacock slipped through all the critical stages of youth till in 1816 he published "Headlong Hall." Brains will not make a poet, but they made a superb satirist.
There is nothing to puzzle us in Peacock's accepting a post under the East India Company. An unusually strong inclination toward Miss Jane Gryffydh, his "milk-white Snowdonian Antelope" as Shelley calls her, whom he had not seen for more than eight years, and to whom he became engaged without further inspection, may possibly have counted for something in his decision. But the obvious explanation is that a man who lives by the head needs regular employment, and only he who lives by the emotions has anything to lose by it. Peacock's feelings were not so fine that routine could blunt them, nor so deep that an expression of them could give a satisfactory purpose to life. He entered the Company's service at the age of four-and-thirty; he found in it congenial friends, congenial employment, and a salary that enabled him to indulge his rather luxurious tastes. He kept chambers in London, a house on the Thames, a good cellar we may be sure, and a wife. Of this part of his life we know little beyond the fact that he was an able and industrious official. Probably, we shall not be far wrong in supposing him to have been much like other officials, only more intelligent, more witty, more sceptical, more learned, and more "cranky": also he kept stored somewhere at the back of his mind a spark of that mysterious thing called genius. At any rate, his recorded opinion, "There has never been anything perfect under the sun except the compositions of Mozart," smacks strongly of classical concerts and the Treasury.
Though during this period he wrote his most entertaining, and perhaps his most brilliant novel, "Crotchet Castle," the years were heavy with misfortune. His mother, the human being for whom he seems to have cared most, died in 1833; before that date his wife had become a hopeless invalid. Three of his four children were dead before he retired from affairs. Already he had outlived many of his companions. Sorrow does not seem to have embittered but neither did it sweeten greatly his temper. His reticence stiffened, so did his prejudices. Only emotion enables a man to make something noble and lovely of pain; but intellect teaches him to bear it like a gentleman.
It is easy to draw a pleasant picture of Peacock's old age; deeply considered, however, it is profoundly sad. He had stood for many great causes but for none had he stood greatly. Good nature and benevolence had done duty for love and pity. He had been more intimate with books than with men. And so, at the end, he found himself alone. His tragedy is not that he was lonely, but that he preferred to be so. He retired with a handsome pension to a sheltered life at Halliford. The jolly old pagan, the scholar, and the caustic satirist were still alive in him. He wrote "Gryll Grange." He packed poor Robert Buchanan out of the house for smoking in it. He terrified a meek curate, who came to persuade him to leave his burning home, by shouting at him, "By the immortal gods I will not move." He carried on a desultory correspondence with Lord Broughton, full of literary humour and literary sentiment. He practised small benevolences and small tyrannies, liked to see smiling faces about him, and declined to believe seriously in the unhappiness of others. He was a thoroughly good-natured, selfish old man.
In old age he had to pay the penalty that awaits those who live by the head and not by the heart. He had kind acquaintances, but he had no real friends. He had nothing to look back upon but a series of more or less amusing events and a tale of successful achievements—no high enterprises, no splendid failures, no passionate affections. Before him lay nothing but his books, his dinner, and a literary reputation. Capable biographers can make pretty pictures of the white-haired scholar surrounded by his favourite authors. They can turn his petulant limitations and querulous prejudices into exquisite foibles, his despotisms into quaint impetuosity, his insensibility to human want and misery into mellow wisdom. But we cannot forget that the last years of those who have never passionately pursued impossible ideals or loved imperfect human beings are probably more attractive to the biographers who record than to the men and women who have to endure them.