[This is taken from William J. Long's Outlines of English and American Literature.]
The current sweeps the Old World,
The current sweeps the New;
The wind will blow, the dawn will glow,
Ere thou hast sailed them through.
Kingsley, “A Myth”
HISTORICAL OUTLINE. Amid the many changes which make the reign of Victoria the most progressive in English history, one may discover three tendencies which have profoundly affected our present life and literature. The first is political and democratic: it may be said to have begun with the Reform Bill of 1832; it is still in progress, and its evident end is to deliver the government of England into the hands of the common people. In earlier ages we witnessed a government which laid stress on royalty and class privilege, the spirit of which was clarioned by Shakespeare in the lines:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king.
In the Victorian or modern age the divine right of kings is as obsolete as a suit of armor; the privileges of royalty and nobility are either curbed or abolished, and ordinary men by their representatives in the House of Commons are the real rulers of England.
With a change in government comes a corresponding change in literature. In former ages literature was almost as exclusive as politics; it was largely in the hands of the few; it was supported by princely patrons; it reflected the taste of the upper classes. Now the masses of men begin to be educated, begin to think for themselves, and a host of periodicals appear in answer to their demand for reading matter. Poets, novelists, essayists, historians,--all serious writers feel the inspiration of a great audience, and their works have a thousand readers where formerly they had but one. In a word, English government, society and literature have all become more democratic. This is the most significant feature of modern history.
The second tendency may be summed up in the word “scientific.” At the basis of this tendency is man’s desire to know the truth, if possible the whole truth of life; and it sets no limits to the exploring spirit, whether in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth. From star-dust in infinite space (which we hope to measure) to fossils on the bed of an ocean which is no longer unfathomed, nothing is too great or too small to attract man, to fascinate him, to influence his thought, his life, his literature. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which laid the foundation for a general theory of evolution, is one of the most famous books of the age, and of the world. Associated with Darwin were Wallace, Lyell, Huxley, Tyndall and many others, whose essays are, in their own way, quite as significant as the poems of Tennyson or the novels of Dickens.
It would be quite as erroneous to allege that modern science began with these men as to assume that it began with the Chinese or with Roger Bacon; the most that can be said truthfully is, that the scientific spirit which they reflected began to dominate our thought, to influence even our poetry and fiction, even as the voyages of Drake and Magellan furnished a mighty and mysterious background for the play of human life on the Elizabethan stage. The Elizabethans looked upon an enlarging visible world, and the wonder of it is reflected in their prose and poetry; the Victorians overran that world almost from pole to pole, then turned their attention to an unexplored world of invisible forces, and their best literature thrills again with the grandeur of the universe in which men live.
A third tendency of the Victorian age in England is expressed by the word “imperialism.” In earlier ages the work of planting English colonies had been well done; in the Victorian age the scattered colonies increased mightily in wealth and power, and were closely federated into a world-wide Empire of people speaking the same noble speech, following the same high ideals of justice and liberty.
The literature of the period reflects the wide horizons of the Empire. Among historical writers, Parkman the American was one of the first and best to reflect the imperial spirit. In such works as A Half-Century of Conflict and Montcalm and Wolfe he portrayed the conflict not of one nation against another but rather of two antagonistic types of civilization: the military and feudal system of France against the democratic institutions of the Anglo-Saxons. Among the explorers, Mungo Park had anticipated the Victorians in his Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), a wonderful book which set England to dreaming great dreams; but not until the heroic Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Research in South Africa, The Zambesi and its Tributaries and Last Journals [Footnote: In connection with Livingstone’s works, Stanley’s How I Found Livingstone (1872) should also be read. Livingstone died in Africa in 1873, and his Journals were edited by another hand. For a summary of his work and its continuation see Livingstone and the Exploration of Central Africa (London, 1897).] appeared was the veil lifted from the Dark Continent. Beside such works should be placed numerous stirring journals of exploration in Canada, in India, in Australia, in tropical or frozen seas,--wherever in the round world the colonizing genius of England saw opportunity to extend the boundaries and institutions of the Empire. Macaulay’s Warren Hastings, Edwin Arnold’s Indian Idylls, Kipling’s Soldiers Three,--a few such works must be read if we are to appreciate the imperial spirit of modern English history and literature.
* * * * *
Though the Victorian age is notable for the quality and variety of its prose works, its dominant figure for years was the poet Tennyson. He alone, of all that brilliant group of Victorian writers, seemed to speak not for himself but for his age and nation; and the nation, grown weary of Byronic rebellion, and finding its joy or sorrow expressed with almost faultless taste by one whose life was noble, gave to Tennyson a whole- souled allegiance such as few poets have ever won. In 1850 he was made Laureate to succeed Wordsworth, receiving, as he said,
This laurel, greener from the brow
Of him that uttered nothing base;
and from that time on he steadily adhered to his purpose, which was to know his people and to be their spokesman. Of all the poets who have been called to the Laureateship, he is probably the only one of whom it can truthfully be said that he understood his high office and was worthy of it.
LIFE. When we attempt a biography of a person we assume unconsciously that he was a public man; but that is precisely what Tennyson refused to be. He lived a retired life of thoughtfulness, of communion with nature, of friendships too sacred for the world’s gaze, a life blameless in conduct, unswerving in its loyalty to noble ideals. From boyhood to old age he wrote poetry, and in that poetry alone, not in biography or letters or essays of criticism, do we ever touch the real man.
Tennyson was the son of a cultured clergyman, and was born in the rectory of Somersby, Lincolnshire, in 1809, the same year that saw the birth of Lincoln and Darwin. Like Milton he devoted himself to poetry at an early age; in his resolve he was strengthened by his mother; and from it he never departed. The influences of his early life, the quiet beauty of the English landscape, the surge and mystery of the surrounding sea, the emphasis on domestic virtues, the pride and love of an Englishman for his country and his country’s history,--these are everywhere reflected in the poet’s work.
His education was largely a matter of reading under his father’s direction. He had a short experience of the grammar school at Louth, which he hated forever after. He entered Cambridge, and formed a circle of rare friends (“apostles” they called themselves) who afterwards became famous; but he left college without taking a degree, probably because he was too poor to continue his course. Not till 1850 did he earn enough by his work to establish a home of his own. Then he leased a house at Farringford, Isle of Wight, which we have ever since associated with Tennyson’s name. But his real place is the Heart of England.
His first book (a boyish piece of work, undertaken with his brother Charles) appeared under the title Poems by Two Brothers (1827). In 1830, and again in 1832, he published a small volume containing such poems as “The Palace of Art,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Miller’s Daughter”; but the critics of the age, overlooking the poet’s youth and its promise, treated the volumes unmercifully. Tennyson, always sensitive to criticism, was sensible enough to see that the critics had ground for their opinions, if not for their harshness; and for ten long years, while he labored to perfect his art, his name did not again appear in print.
There was another reason for his silence. In 1833 his dearest friend, Arthur Hallam, died suddenly in Vienna, and it was years before Tennyson began to recover from the blow. His first expression of grief is seen in the lyric beginning, “Break, break, break,” which contains the memorable stanza:
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Then he began that series of elegies for his friend which appeared, seventeen years later, as In Memoriam.
Influenced by his friends, Tennyson broke his long silence with a volume containing “Morte d’Arthur,” “Locksley Hall,” “Sir Galahad,” “Lady Clare” and a few more poems which have never lost their power over readers; but it must have commanded attention had it contained only “Ulysses,” that magnificent appeal to manhood, reflecting the indomitable spirit of all those restless explorers who dared unknown lands or seas to make wide the foundations of imperial England. It was a wonderful volume, and almost its first effect was to raise the hidden Tennyson to the foremost place in English letters.
Whatever he wrote thereafter was sure of a wide reading. Critics, workingmen, scientists, reformers, theologians,--all recognized the power of the poet to give melodious expression to their thought or feeling. Yet he remained averse to everything that savored of popularity, devoting himself as in earlier days to poetry alone. As a critic writes, “Tennyson never forgot that the poet’s work was to convince the world of love and beauty; that he was born to do that work, and do it worthily.”
There are two poems which are especially significant in view of this steadfast purpose. The first is “Merlin and the Gleam,” which reflects Tennyson’s lifelong devotion to his art; the other is “Crossing the Bar,” which was his farewell and hail to life when the end came in 1892.
WORKS OF TENNYSON. There is a wide variety in Tennyson’s work: legend, romance, battle song, nature, classic and medieval heroes, problems of society, questions of science, the answer of faith,--almost everything that could interest an alert Victorian mind found some expression in his poetry. It ranges in subject from a thrush song to a religious philosophy, in form from the simplest love lyric to the labored historical drama.
Of the shorter poems of Tennyson there are a few which should be known to every student: first, because they are typical of the man who stands for modern English poetry; and second, because one is constantly meeting references to these poems in books or magazines or even newspapers. Among such representative poems are: “The Lotos-Eaters,” a dream picture characterized by a beauty and verbal melody that recall Spenser’s work;
“Locksley Hall” and “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,” the one a romance throbbing with youth and hope, the other representing the same hero grown old, despondent and a little carping, but still holding fast to his ideals;
“Sir Galahad,” a medieval romance of purity; “Ulysses,” an epitome of exploration in all ages; “The Revenge,” a stirring war song; “Rizpah,” a dramatic portrayal of a mother’s grief for a wayward son; “Romney’s Remorse,” a character study of Tennyson’s later years; and a few shorter poems, such as “The Higher Pantheism,” “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” “Wages” and “The Making of Man,” which reflect the poet’s mood before the problems of science and of faith.
To these should be added a few typical patriotic pieces, which show Tennyson speaking as Poet Laureate for his country: “Ode on the Death of Wellington,” “Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Defense of Lucknow,” “Hands all Round,” and the imperial appeal of “Britons, Hold Your Own” or, as it is tamely called, “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exposition.” The beginner may also be reminded of certain famous little melodies, such as the “Bugle Song,” “Sweet and Low,” “Tears,” “The Brook,” “Far, Far, Away” and “Crossing the Bar,” which are among the most perfect that England has produced. And, as showing Tennyson’s extraordinary power of youthful feeling, at least one lyric of his old age should be read, such as “The Throstle” (a song that will appeal especially to all bird lovers), beginning:
“Summer is coming, summer is coming,
I know it, I know it, I know it;
Light again, leaf again, life again, love again”—
Yes, my wild little poet!
Here Tennyson is so merged in his subject as to produce the impression that the lyric must have been written not by an aged poet but by the bird himself. Reading the poem one seems to hear the brown thrasher on a twig of the wild-apple tree, pouring his heart out over the thicket which his mate has just chosen for a nesting place.
Of the longer works of Tennyson the most notable is the Idylls of the King, a series of twelve poems retelling part of the story of Arthur and his knights. Tennyson seems to have worked at this poem in haphazard fashion, writing the end first, then a fragment here or there, at intervals during half a century. Finally he welded his material into its present form, making it a kind of allegory of human life, in which man’s animal nature fights with his spiritual aspirations. As Tennyson wrote, in his “Finale” to Queen Victoria:
Accept this old, imperfect tale,
New-old, and shadowing
Sense at war with Soul.
The beginner will do well to forget the allegory and read the poem for its sustained beauty of expression and for its reflection of the modern ideal of honor. For, though Malory and Tennyson tell the same story, there is this significant difference between the Morte d’ Arthur and the Idylls of the King: one is thoroughly medieval, and the other almost as thoroughly modern. Malory in simple prose makes his story the expression of chivalry in the Middle Ages; his heroes are true to their own time and place. Tennyson in melodious blank verse changes his material freely so as to make it a reflection of a nineteenth-century gentleman disguised in a suit of armor and some old knightly raiment.
One may add that some readers cleave to Tennyson, while others greatly prefer Malory. There is little or no comparison between the two, and selections from both should be read, if only to understand how this old romance of Arthur has appealed to writers of different times. In making a selection from the Idylls (the length of the poem is rather forbidding) it is well to begin with the twelfth book, “The Passing of Arthur,” which was first to be written, and which reflects the noble spirit of the entire work.
In The Princess: a Medley the poet attempts the difficult task of combining an old romantic story with a modern social problem; and he does not succeed very well in harmonizing his incongruous materials.
The story is, briefly, of a princess who in youth is betrothed to a prince. When she reaches what is called the age of discretion (doubtless because that age is so frequently marked by indiscretions) she rebels against the idea of marriage, and founds a college, herself the principal, devoted to the higher education of women. The prince, a gallant blade, and a few of his followers disguise themselves as girls and enter the school. When an unruly masculine tongue betrays him he is cast out with maledictions on his head. His father comes with an army, and makes war against the father of the princess. The prince joins blithely in the fight, is sore wounded, and is carried to the woman’s college as to a hospital. The princess nurses him, listens to his love tale, and the story ends in the good old-fashioned way.
There are many beautiful passages in The Princess, and had Tennyson been content to tell the romantic story his work would have had some pleasant suggestion of Shakespeare’s As You Like It; but the social problem spoils the work, as a moralizing intruder spoils a bit of innocent fun. Tennyson is either too serious or not serious enough; he does not know the answer to his own problem, and is not quite sincere in dealing with it or in coming to his lame and impotent conclusion. Few readers now attempt the three thousand lines of The Princess, but content themselves with a few lyrics, such as “Ask Me No More,” “O Swallow Flying South,” “Tears,” “Bugle Song” and “Sweet and Low,” which are familiar songs in many households that remember not whence they came.
More consistent than The Princess is a group of poems reflecting the life and ideals of simple people, to which Tennyson gave the general name of English Idyls. The longest and in some respects the best of these is “Enoch Arden,” a romance which was once very popular, but which is now in danger of being shelved because the modern reader prefers his romance in prose form. Certain of the famous poems which we have already named are classed among these English idyls; but more typical of Tennyson’s purpose in writing them are “Dora,” “The Gardener’s Daughter” and “Aylmer’s Field,” in which he turns from ancient heroes to sing the romance of present-day life.
Among mature readers, who have met the sorrows of life or pondered its problems, the most admired of Tennyson’s work is In Memoriam (1850), an elegy inspired by the death of Arthur Hallam. As a memorial poem it invites comparison with others, with Milton’s “Lycidas,” or Shelley’s “Adonais,” or Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” Without going deeply into the comparison we may note this difference: that Tennyson’s work is more personal and sympathetic than any of the others. Milton had only a slight acquaintance with his human subject (Edward King) and wrote his poem as a memorial for the college rather than for the man; Shelley had never met Keats, whose early death he commemorates; Gray voiced an impersonal melancholy in the presence of the unknown dead; but Tennyson had lost his dearest friend, and wrote to solace his own grief and to keep alive a beautiful memory. Then, as he wrote, came the thought of other men and women mourning their dead; his view broadened with his sympathy, and he wrote other lyrics in the same strain to reflect the doubt or fear of humanity and its deathless faith even in the shadow of death.
It is this combination of personal and universal elements which makes In Memoriam remarkable. The only other elegy to which we may liken it is Emerson’s “Threnody,” written after the death of his little boy. But where Tennyson offers an elaborate wreath and a polished monument, Emerson is content with a rugged block of granite and a spray of nature’s evergreen.
In Memoriam occupied Tennyson at intervals for many years, and though he attempted to give it unity before its publication in 1850, it is still rather fragmentary. Moreover, it is too long; for the poet never lived who could write a hundred and thirty-one lyrics upon the same subject, in the same manner, without growing monotonous.
There are three more or less distinct parts of the work, corresponding to three successive Christmas seasons. The first part (extending to poem 30) is concerned with grief and doubt; the second (to poem 78) exhibits a calm, serious questioning of the problem of faith; the third introduces a great hope amid tender memories or regrets, and ends (poem 106) with that splendid outlook on a new year and a new life, “Ring Out Wild Bells.” This was followed by a few more lyrics of mounting faith, inspired by the thought that divine love rules the world and that our human love is immortal and cannot die. The work ends, rather incongruously, with a marriage hymn for Tennyson’s sister.
The spirit of In Memoriam is well reflected in the “Proem” or introductory hymn, “Strong Son of God, Immortal Love”; its message is epitomized in the last three lines:
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event
To which the whole creation moves.
THE QUALITY OF TENNYSON. The charm of Tennyson is twofold. As the voice of the Victorian Age, reflecting its thought or feeling or culture, its intellectual quest, its moral endeavor, its passion for social justice, he represents to us the spirit of modern poetry; that is, poetry which comes close to our own life, to the aims, hopes, endeavors of the men and women of to-day. With this modern quality Tennyson has the secret of all old poetry, which is to be eternally young. He looked out upon a world from which the first wonder of creation had not vanished, where the sunrise was still “a glorious birth,” and where love, truth, beauty, all inspiring realities, were still waiting with divine patience to reveal themselves to human eyes.
There are other charms in Tennyson: his romantic spirit, his love of nature, his sense of verbal melody, his almost perfect workmanship; but these the reader must find and appreciate for himself. The sum of our criticism is that Tennyson is a poet to have handy on the table for the pleasure of an idle hour. He is also (and this is a better test) an excellent poet to put in your pocket when you go on a journey. So shall you be sure of traveling in good company.
* * * * *
In their lifelong devotion to a single purpose the two chief poets of the Victorian Age are much alike; in most other respects they are men of contrasts. Tennyson looked like a poet, Browning like a business man. Tennyson was a solitary singer, never in better company than when alone;
Browning was a city man, who must have the excitement of society. Tennyson’s field was the nation, its traditions, heroes, problems, ideals; but Browning seldom went beyond the individual man, and his purpose was to play Columbus to some obscure human soul. Tennyson was at times rather narrowly British; Browning was a cosmopolitan who dealt broadly with humanity. Tennyson was the poet of youth, and will always be read by the young in heart; Browning was the philosopher, the psychologist, the poet of mature years and of a few cultivated readers.
LIFE. Browning portrays so many different human types as to make us marvel, but we may partly understand his wide range of character-studies by remembering he was an Englishman with some Celtic and German ancestors, and with a trace of Creole (Spanish-Negro) blood. He was born and grew up at Camberwell, a suburb of London, and the early home of Ruskin. His father was a Bank-of-England clerk, a prosperous man and fond of books, who encouraged his boy to read and to let education follow the lead of fancy. Before Browning was twenty years old, father and son had a serious talk which ended in a kind of bargain: the boy was to live a life of culture, and the father was to take care of all financial matters,--an arrangement which suited them both very well.
Since boyhood Browning had been writing romantic verses, influenced first by Byron, then by Shelley, then by Keats. His first published works, Pauline and Paracelsus, were what he called soul-studies, the one of a visionary, “a star-treader” (its hero was Shelley), the other of a medieval astrologer somewhat like Faust. These two works, if one had the patience of a puzzle-worker to read them, would be found typical of all the longer poems that Browning produced in his sixty years of writing.
These early works were not read, were not even criticized; and it was not till 1846 that Browning became famous, not because of his books but because he eloped with Elizabeth Barrett, who was then the most popular poet in England. [Footnote: The fame of Miss Barrett in mid century was above that of Tennyson or Browning. She had been for a long time an invalid. Her father, a tyrannical kind of person, insisted on her keeping her room, and expected her to die properly there. He had no personal objection to Browning, but flouted the idea of his famous daughter marrying with anybody.] The two went to Florence, discovered that they were “made for each other,” and in mutual helpfulness did their best work. They lived at “Casa Guidi,” a house made famous by the fact that Browning’s Men and Women and Mrs. Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese were written there.
This happy period of work was broken by Mrs. Browning’s death in 1861. Browning returned to England with his son, and to forget his loss he labored with unusual care on The Ring and the Book (1868), his bulkiest work. The rest of his life was spent largely in London and in Venice. Fame came to him tardily, and with some unfortunate results. He became known as a poet to be likened unto Shakespeare, but more analytical, calling for a superior intelligence on the part of his readers, and presently a multitude of Browning clubs sprang up in England and America. Delighted with his popularity among the elect, Browning seems to have cultivated his talent for obscurity, or it may be that his natural eccentricity of style increased with age, as did Wordsworth’s prosiness. Whatever the cause, his work grew steadily worse until a succession of grammar defying volumes threatened to separate all but a few devotees from their love of Browning. He died in Venice in 1889. On the day of his death appeared in London his last book, Asolando. The “Epilogue” to that volume is a splendid finale to a robust life.
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.
Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” is a beautiful swan song; but Browning’s last poem is a bugle call, and it sounds not “taps” but the “reveille.”
BROWNING’S DRAMATIC QUALITY. Nearly all the works of Browning are dramatic in spirit, and are commonly dramatic also in form. Sometimes he writes a drama for the stage, such as A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon, Colombe’s Birthday and In a Balcony,--dramas without much action, but packed with thought in a way that would have delighted the Schoolmen. More often his work takes the form of a dramatic monologue, such as “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders his Tomb,” in which one person speaks and, like Peter, his speech bewrayeth him; for he reveals very plainly the kind of man he is. Occasionally Browning tries to sing like another poet, but even here his dramatic instinct is strong. He takes some crisis, some unexpected meeting or parting of the ways of life, and proceeds to show the hero’s character by the way he faces the situation, or talks about it. So when he attempts even a love song, such as “The Last Ride Together,” or a ballad, such as “The Pied Piper,” he regards his subject from an unusual viewpoint and produces what he calls a dramatic lyric.
There are at least two ways in which Browning’s work differs from that of other dramatists. When a trained playwright produces a drama his rule is, “Action, more action, and still more action.” Moreover, he stands aside in order to permit his characters to reveal their quality by their own speech or action. For example, Shakespeare’s plays are filled with movement, and he never tells you what he thinks of Portia or Rosalind or Macbeth, or what ought to become of them. He does not need to tell. But Browning often halts his story to inform you how this or that situation should be met, or what must come out of it. His theory is that it is not action but thought which determines human character; for a man may be doing what appears to be a brave or generous deed, yet be craven or selfish at heart; or he may be engaged in some apparently sinful proceeding in obedience to a motive that we would acclaim as noble if the whole truth were known “It is the soul and its thoughts that make the man,” says Browning, “little else is worthy of study.” So he calls most of his works soul studies. If we label them now dramas, or dramatic monologues, or dramatic lyrics (the three classifications of his works), we are to remember that Browning is the one dramatist who deals with thoughts or motives rather than with action.
WHAT TO READ. One should begin with the simplest of Browning’s works, and preferably with those in which he shows some regard for verbal melody. As romantic love is his favorite theme, it is perhaps well to begin with a few of the love lyrics “My Star,” “By the Fireside,” “Evelyn Hope,” and especially “The Last Ride Together”. To these may be added some of the songs that brighten the obscurity of his longer pieces, such as “I Send my Heart,” “Oh Love—No Love” and “There’s a Woman Like a Dewdrop”. Next in order are the ballads, “The Pied Piper,” “Hervé Riel” and “How they Brought the Good News”; and then a few miscellaneous short poems, such as “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” “Prospice,” “The Boy and the Angel” and “Up at a Villa—Down in the City.”
The above poems are named not because they are particularly fine examples of their kind, but by way of introduction to a poet who is rather hard to read. When these are known, and are found not so obscure as we feared, then will be the time to attempt some of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Of these there is a large variety, portraying many different types of character, but we shall name only a few. “Andrea del Sarto” is a study of the great Italian painter, “the perfect painter,” whose love for a pretty but shallow woman was as a millstone about his neck. “My Last Duchess” is a powerfully drawn outline of a vain and selfish nobleman. “Abt Vogler” is a study of the soul of a musician. “Rabbi ben Ezra,” one of the most typical of Browning’s works, is the word of an old man who faces death, as he had faced life, with magnificent courage. “An Epistle” relates the strange experience of Karshish, an Arab physician, as recorded in a letter to his master Abib. Karshish meets Lazarus (him who was raised from the dead) and, regarding him as a patient, describes his symptoms,--such symptoms as a man might have who must live on earth after having looked on heaven. The physician’s half-scoffing words show how his habitual skepticism is shaken by a glimpse of the unseen world. He concludes, but his doubt is stronger than his conclusion, that Lazarus must be a madman:
“And thou must love me who have died for thee.”
The madman saith He said so: it is strange!
Another poem belonging to the same group (published under the general title of Men and Women) is “Saul,” which finely illustrates the method that makes Browning different from other poets. He would select some familiar event, the brief record of which is preserved in history, and say, “Here we see merely the deed, the outward act or circumstance of life: now let us get acquainted with these men or women by showing that they thought and felt precisely as we do under similar conditions.” In “Saul” he reproduces the scene recorded in the sixteenth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, where the king is “troubled by an evil spirit” and the young David comes to play the harp before him. Saul is represented as the disillusioned, the despairing man who has lost all interest in life, and David as the embodiment of youthful enthusiasm. The poem is a remarkable portrayal of the ancient scene and characters; but it is something greater than that; it is a splendid song of the fullness and joy of a brave, forward-looking life inspired by noble ideals. It is also one of the best answers ever given to the question, Is life worth living? The length of the poem, however, and its many difficult or digressive passages are apt to repel the beginner unless he have the advantage of an abridged version.
Of the longer works of Browning, only Pippa Passes can be recommended with any confidence that it will give pleasure to the reader. Other works, such as The Ring and the Book, [Footnote: The Ring and the Book is remarkable for other things than its inordinate length. In it Browning tells how he found an old book containing the record of a murder trial in Rome,--a horrible story of a certain Count Guido, who in a jealous rage killed his beautiful young wife. That is the only story element of the poem, and it is told, with many irritating digressions, at the beginning. The rest of the work is devoted to “soul studies,” the subjects being nine different characters who rehearse the same story, each for his own justification. Thus, Guido gives his view of the matter, and Pompilia the wife gives hers. “Half Rome,” siding with Guido, is personified to tell one tale, and then “The Other Half” has its say. Final judgment rests with the Pope, an impressive figure, who upholds the decision of the civil judges. Altogether it is a remarkable piece of work; but it would have been more remarkable, better in every way, if fifteen thousand of its twenty thousand lines had been left in the inkpot.] are doubtless more famous; but reading them is like solving a puzzle: a few enjoy the matter, and therefore count it pleasure, but to the majority it is a task to be undertaken as mental discipline.
Pippa is the story of a working girl, a silk weaver of Asolo, who has a precious holiday and goes forth to enjoy it, wishing she could share her happiness with others, especially with the great people of her town. But the great live in another world, she thinks, a world far removed from that of the poor little working girl; so she puts the wish out of her head, and goes on her way singing:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in his heaven—
All’s right with the world!
It happens that her songs come, in succession, to the ears of the four greatest people in Asolo at moments when they are facing a terrible crisis, when a straw may turn them one way or the other, to do evil or to do good. In each case the song and the pure heart of the singer turn the scale in the right direction; but Pippa knows nothing of her influence. She enjoys her holiday and goes to bed still happy, still singing, quite ignorant of the wonder she has accomplished.
A mere story-teller would have brought Pippa and the rescued ones together, making an affecting scene with rewards, in the romantic manner; but Browning is content to depict a bit of ordinary human life, which is daily filled with deeds worthy to be written in a book of gold, but of which only the Recording Angel takes any notice.
A CRITICISM OF BROWNING. Comparatively few people appreciate the force, the daring, the vitality of Browning, and those who know him best are least inclined to formulate a favorable criticism. They know too well the faults of their hero, his whims, crotchets, digressions, garrulity; his disjointed ideas, like rich plums in a poor pudding; his ejaculatory style, as of a man of second thoughts; his wing-bound fancy, which hops around his subject like a grasshopper instead of soaring steadily over it like an eagle. Many of his lines are rather gritty:
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
and half his blank verse is neither prose nor poetry:
What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.)
Be ruled by me and have a care o’ the crowd:
This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins.
Fie, what a roaring day we’ve had! Whose fault?
Lorenzo in Lucina,--here’s a church!
Instead of criticism, therefore, his admirers offer this word of advice: Try to like Browning; in other words, try to understand him. He is not “easy”; he is not to be read for relaxation after dinner, but in the morning and in a straight-backed chair, with eyes clear and intellect at attention. If you so read him, you must soon discover that he has something of courage and cheer which no other poet can give you in such full measure. If you read nothing else, try at least “Rabbi ben Ezra,” and after the reading reflect that the optimism of this poem colors everything that the author wrote. For Browning differs from all other poets in this: that they have their moods of doubt or despondency, but he has no weary days or melancholy hours. They sing at times in the twilight, but Browning is the herald of the sunrise. Always and everywhere he represents “the will to live,” to live bravely, confidently here; then forward still with cheerful hearts to immortality:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half: trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
* * * * *
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (1806-1861). Among the lesser poets of the age the most famous was Elizabeth Barrett, who eloped in romantic fashion with Browning in 1846. Her early volumes, written while she was an invalid, seem now a little feverish, but a few of her poems of childhood, such as “Hector” and “Little Ellie,” have still their admirers. Later she became interested in social problems, and reflected the passion of the age for reform in such poems as “The Cry of the Children,” a protest against child labor which once vied in interest with Hood’s famous “Song of the Shirt.” Also she wrote Aurora Leigh, a popular novel in verse, having for its subject a hero who was a social reformer. Then Miss Barrett married Robert Browning after a rather emotional and sentimental courtship, as reflected in certain extravagant pages of the Browning Letters.
In her new-found happiness she produced her most enduring work, the Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). This is a collection of love songs, so personal and intimate that the author thought perhaps to disguise them by calling them “From the Portuguese.” In reality their source was no further distant than her own heart, and their hero was seen across the breakfast table every morning. They reflect Mrs. Browning’s love for her husband, and those who read them should read also Browning’s answer in “One Word More.” Some of the sonnets (“I Thought How Once” and “How Do I Love Thee,” for example) are very fine, and deserve their high place among love poems; but others, being too intimate, raise a question of taste in showing one’s heart throbs to the public. Some readers may question whether many of the Sonnets and most of the Letters had not better been left exclusively to those for whom they were intended.
MATTHEW ARNOLD (1822-1888). The work of this poet (a son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby, made famous by Tom Brown’s Schooldays) is in strong contrast to that of the Brownings, to the robust optimism of the one and to the emotionalism of the other. He was a man of two distinct moods: in his poetry he reflected the doubt or despair of those whose faith had been shaken by the alleged discoveries of science; in prose he became almost light-hearted as he bantered middle-class Englishmen for their old-fogy prejudices, or tried to awaken them to the joys of culture. In both moods he was coldly intellectual, appealing to the head rather than to the heart of his readers; and it is still a question whether his poetry or his criticism will be longest remembered.
Arnold is called the poet of Oxford, as Holmes is of Harvard, and those who know the beautiful old college town will best appreciate certain verses in which he reflects the quiet loveliness of a scene that has impressed so many students, century after century. To general readers one may safely recommend Arnold’s elegies written in memory of the poet Clough, such as “Thyrsis” and “The Scholar Gypsy”; certain poems reflecting the religious doubts of the age, such as “Dover Beach,” “Morality” and “The Future”; the love lyrics entitled “Switzerland”; and a few miscellaneous poems, such as “Resignation,” “The Forsaken Merman,” “The Last Word,” and “Geist’s Grave.”
To these some critics would add the long narrative poem “Sohrab and Rustum,” which is one of the models set before students of “college English.” The reasons for the choice are not quite obvious; for the story, which is taken from the Persian Shah Namah, or Book of Kings, is rather coldly told, and the blank verse is far from melodious.
In reading these poems of Arnold his own motives should be borne in mind. He tried to write on classic lines, repressing the emotions, holding to a severe, unimpassioned style; and he proceeded on the assumption that poetry is “a criticism of life.” It is not quite clear what he meant by his definition, but he was certainly on the wrong trail. Poetry is the natural language of man in moments of strong or deep feeling; it is the expression of life, of life at high tide or low tide; when it turns to criticism it loses its chief charm, as a flower loses its beauty and fragrance in the hands of a botanist. Some poets, however (Lucretius among the ancients, Pope among the moderns, for example), have taken a different view of the matter.
Arnold’s chief prose works were written, curiously enough, after he was appointed professor of poetry at Oxford. There he proceeded, in a sincere but somewhat toplofty way to enlighten the British public on the subject of culture. For years he was a kind of dictator of literary taste, and he is still known as a master of criticism; but to examine his prose is to discover that it is notable for its even style and occasional good expressions, such as “sweetness and light,” rather than for its illuminating ideas.
For example, in Literature and Dogma and other books in which Arnold attempted to solve the problems of the age, he was apt to make large theories from a small knowledge of his subject. So in his Study of Celtic Literature (an interesting book, by the way) he wrote with surprising confidence for one who had no first-hand acquaintance with his material, and led his readers pleasantly astray in the flowery fields of Celtic poetry. Moreover, he had one favorite method of criticism, which was to take the bad lines of one poet and compare them with the good lines of another,--a method which would make Shakespeare a sorry figure if he happened to be on the wrong side of the comparison.
In brief, Arnold is always a stimulating and at times a provoking critic; he stirs our thought, disturbs our pet prejudices, challenges our opposition; but he is not a very reliable guide in any field. What one should read of his prose depends largely on one’s personal taste. The essay On Translating Homer is perhaps his most famous work, but few readers are really interested in the question of hexameters. Culture and Anarchy is his best plea for a combination of the moral and intellectual or, as he calls them, the Hebrew and Greek elements in our human education. Among the best of the shorter works are “Emerson” in Discourses in America, and “Wordsworth,” “Byron” and “The Study of Poetry” in Essays in Criticism.
THE PRE-RAPHAELITES. In the middle of the nineteenth century, or in 1848 to be specific, a number of English poets and painters banded themselves together as a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. [Footnote: The name was used earlier by some German artists, who worked together in Rome with the purpose of restoring art to the medieval simplicity and purity which, as was alleged, it possessed before the time of the Italian painter Raphael. The most famous artists of the English brotherhood were John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.] They aimed to make all art more simple, sincere, religious, and to restore “the sense of wonder, reverence and awe” which, they believed, had been lost since medieval times. Their sincerity was unquestioned; their influence, though small, was almost wholly good; but unfortunately they were, as Morris said, like men born out of due season. They lived too much apart from their own age and from the great stream of common life out of which superior art proceeds. For there was never a great book or a great picture that was not in the best sense representative, that did not draw its greatness from the common ideals of the age in which it was produced.
The first poet among the Pre-Raphaelites was Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), the son of an exiled Italian writer. Like others of the group he was both painter and poet, and seemed to be always trying to put into his verse the rich coloring which belonged on canvas. Perhaps the most romantic episode of his life was, that upon the death of his wife (the beautiful model, Lizzie Siddal, who appears in Millais’ picture “Ophelia”) he buried his poetry with her. After some years his friends persuaded him that his poems belonged to the living, and he exhumed and published them (Poems, 1870). His most notable volume, Ballads and Sonnets, appeared eleven years later. The ballads are nearly all weird, uncanny, but with something in them of the witchery of Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.” The sonnets under the general title of “The House of Life” are devoted to the poet’s lost love, and rank with Mrs. Browning’s From the Portuguese.
William Morris (1834-1896) has been called by his admirers the most Homeric of English poets. The phrase was probably applied to him because of his Sigurd the Volsung, in which he uses the material of an old Icelandic saga. There is a captivating vigor and swing in this poem, but it lacks the poetic imagination of an earlier work, The Defence of Guenevere, in which Morris retells in a new way some of the fading medieval romances. His best-known work in poetry [Footnote: Some readers will be more interested in Morris’s prose romances, The House of the Wolfings, The Roots of the Mountains and The Story of the Glittering Plain] is The Earthly Paradise, a collection of twenty-four stories strung together on a plan somewhat resembling that of the Canterbury Tales. A band of mariners are cast away on an island inhabited by a superior race of men, and to while away the time the seamen and their hosts exchange stories. Some of these are from classic sources, others from Norse legends or hero tales. The stories are gracefully told, in very good verse; but in reading them one has the impression that something essential is lacking, some touch, it may be, of present life and reality. For the island is but another Cloudland, and the characters are shadowy creatures having souls but no bodies; or else, as some may find, having the appearance of bodies and no souls whatever. Indeed, in reading the greater part of Pre-Raphaelite literature, one is reminded of Morris’s estimate of himself, in the Prelude to The Earthly Paradise:
Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.
ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE (1837-1909). This voluminous writer, born in the year of Victoria’s accession, is yet so close to our own day that it is difficult to think of him as part of an age that is gone. As a poet he was a master of verbal melody, and had such a command of verse forms that he won his title of “inventor of harmonies.” As a critic he showed a wide knowledge of English and French literature, a discriminating taste, and an enthusiasm which bubbled over in eulogy of those whom he liked, and which emptied vials of wrath upon Byron, Carlyle and others who fell under his displeasure. His criticisms are written in an extravagant, almost a torrential, style; at times his prose falls into a chanting rhythm so attractive in itself as to make us overlook the fact that the praise and censure which he dispenses with prodigal liberality are too personal to be quite trustworthy.
We are still too near Swinburne to judge him accurately, and his place in the long history of English poetry is yet to be determined. We note here only two characteristics which may or may not be evident to other readers. In the first place, with his marvelous command of meter and melody, Swinburne has a fatal fluency of speech which tends to bury his thought in a mass of jingling verbiage. As we read we seem to hear the question, “What readest thou, Hamlet?” and again the Dane makes answer, “Words, words, words.” Again, like the Pre-Raphaelites with whom he was at one time associated, Swinburne lived too much apart from the tide of common life. He wrote for the chosen few, and in the mass of his verse one must search long for a passage of which one may say, This goes home to the hearts of men, and abides there in the treasure-house of all good poetry.
Among the longer works of Swinburne his masterpiece is the lyrical drama Atalanta in Calydon. If one would merely sample the flavor of the poet, such minor works as “Itylus” and the fine sea pieces, “Off Shore,” “By the North Sea” and “A Forsaken Garden” may be recommended. Nor should we overlook what, to many, is Swinburne’s best quality; namely, his love of children, as reflected in such poems as “The Salt of the Earth” and “A Child’s Laughter.” Among the best of his prose works are his William Blake, Essays and Studies, Miscellanies and Studies in Prose and Verse.
SONGS IN MANY KEYS. In calling attention to the above-named poets, we have merely indicated a few who seem to be chief; but the judgment is a personal one, and subject to challenge. The American critic Stedman, in his Victorian Anthology, recognizes two hundred and fifty singers; of these eighty are represented by five or more poems; and of the eighty a few are given higher places than those we have selected as typical. There are many readers who prefer the Goblin Market of Christina Rossetti to anything produced by her gifted brother, who place Jean Ingelow above Elizabeth Barrett, who find more pleasure in Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia than in all the poems of Matthew Arnold, and who cannot be interested in even the best of Pre-Raphaelite verse because of its unreality. Many men, many minds! Time has not yet recorded its verdict on the Victorians, and until there is some settled criticism which shall express the judgment of several generations of men, the best plan for the beginner is to make acquaintance with all the minor poets in an anthology or book of selections. It may even be a mistake to call any of these poets minor; for he who has written one song that lives in the hearts of men has produced a work more enduring than the pyramids.
* * * * *
Among the Victorian novelists were two men who were frequent rivals in the race for fame and fortune. Thackeray, well born and well bred, with artistic tastes and literary culture, looked doubtfully at the bustling life around him, found his inspiration in a past age, and tried to uphold the best traditions of English literature. Dickens, with little education and less interest in literary culture, looked with joy upon the struggle for democracy, and with an observation that was almost microscopic saw all its picturesque details of speech and character and incident. He was the eye of the mighty Victorian age, as Tennyson was its ear, and Browning its psychologist, and Carlyle its chronic grumbler.
LIFE. In the childhood of Dickens one may see a forecast of his entire career. His father, a good-natured but shiftless man (caricatured as Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield), was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, at Portsmouth. There Dickens was born in 1812. The father’s salary was £80 per year, enough at that time to warrant living in middle-class comfort rather than in the poverty of the lower classes, with whom Dickens is commonly associated. The mother was a sentimental woman, whom Dickens, with questionable taste, has caricatured as Mrs. Micawber and again as Mrs. Nickleby. Both parents were somewhat neglectful of their children, and uncommonly fond of creature comforts, especially of good dinners and a bowl of punch. Though there is nothing in such a family to explain Dickens’s character, there is much to throw light on the characters that appear in his novels.
The boy himself was far from robust. Having no taste for sports, he amused himself by reading romances or by listening to his nurse’s tales,--beautiful tales, he thought, which “almost scared him into fits.” His elfish fancy in childhood is probably reflected in Pip, of Great Expectations. He had a strong dramatic instinct to act a story, or sing a song, or imitate a neighbor’s speech, and the father used to amuse his friends by putting little Charles on a chair and encouraging him to mimicry,--a dangerous proceeding, though it happened to turn out well in the case of Dickens.
This stagey tendency increased as the boy grew older. He had a passion for private theatricals, and when he wrote a good story was not satisfied till he had read it in public. When Pickwick appeared (1837) the young man, till then an unknown reporter, was brought before an immense audience which included a large part of England and America. Thereafter he was never satisfied unless he was in the public eye; his career was a succession of theatrical incidents, of big successes, big lecture tours, big audiences,--always the footlights, till he lay at last between the pale wax tapers. But we are far ahead of our story.
When Dickens was nine years old his family moved to London. There the father fell into debt, and by the brutal laws of the period was thrown into prison. The boy went to work in the cellar of a blacking factory, and there began that intimate acquaintance with lowly characters which he used later to such advantage. He has described his bitter experience so often (in David Copperfield for instance) that the biographer may well pass over it. We note only this significant fact: that wherever Dickens went he had an instinct for exploration like that of a farm dog, which will not rest in a place till he has first examined all the neighborhood, putting his nose into every likely or unlikely spot that may shelter friend or enemy. So Dickens used his spare hours in roaming the byways of London by night, so he gained his marvelous knowledge of that foreign land called The Street, with its flitting life of gamins and nondescripts, through which we pass daily as through an unknown country.
A small inheritance brought the father from prison, the family was again united, and for two years the boy attended the academy which he has held up to the laughter and scorn of two continents. There the genius of Dickens seemed suddenly to awaken. He studied little, being given to pranks and theatricals, but he discovered within him an immense ambition, an imperious will to win a place and a name in the great world, and a hopeful temper that must carry him over or under all obstacles.
No sooner was his discovery made than he left school and entered a law office, where he picked up enough knowledge to make court practices forever ridiculous, in Bleak House and other stories. He studied shorthand and quickly mastered it; then undertook to report parliamentary speeches (a good training in oratory) and presently began a prosperous career as a reporter. This had two advantages; it developed his natural taste for odd people and picturesque incidents, and it brought him close to the great reading public. To please that public, to humor its whims and prejudices, its love for fun and tears and sentimentality, was thereafter the ruling motive in Dickens’s life.
His first literary success came with some short stories contributed to the magazines, which appeared in book form as Sketches by Boz (1835). A publisher marked these sketches, engaged Dickens to write the text or letterpress for some comic pictures, and the result was Pickwick, which took England and America by storm. Then followed Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop,--a flood of works that made readers rub their eyes, wondering if such a fountain of laughter and tears were inexhaustible.
There is little else to record except this: that from the time of his first triumph Dickens held his place as the most popular writer in English. With his novels he was not satisfied, but wrote a history of England, and edited various popular magazines, such as Household Words. Also he gave public readings, reveling in the applause, the lionizing, which greeted him wherever he went. He earned much money; he bought the place “Gadshill,” near Rochester, which he had coveted since childhood; but he was a free spender, and his great income was less than his fancied need. To increase his revenue he “toured” the States in a series of readings from his own works, and capitalized his experience in American Notes and parts of Martin Chuzzlewit.
A question of taste must arise even now in connection with these works. Dickens had gone to a foreign country for just two things, money and applause; he received both in full measure; then he bit the friendly hand which had given him what he wanted. Thackeray, who followed him to America, had a finer sense of the laws of hospitality and good breeding.
In 1844 Dickens resolved to make both ends meet, and carried out his resolve with promptness and precision. To decrease expenses he went to the Continent, and lived there, hungry for the footlights, till a series of stories ending with Dombey and Son put his finances on a secure basis. Then he returned to London, wrote more novels, and saved a fortune for his descendants, who promptly spent it. Evidently it was a family trait. More and more he lived on his nerves, grew imperious, exacting, till he separated from his wife and made wreck of domestic happiness. The self-esteem of which he made comedy in his novels was for him a tragedy. Also he resumed the public readings, with their false glory and nervous wear and tear, which finally brought him to the grave.
He died, worn out by his own exertions, in 1870. He had steadily refused titles and decorations, but a grateful nation laid his body to rest in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. It is doubtful whether he would have accepted this honor, which was forced upon him, for he had declared proudly that by his works alone he would live in the memory of his countrymen.
WORKS OF DICKENS. In the early stories of Dickens is a promise of all the rest. His first work was called Sketches by Boz, and “Boz” was invented by some little girl (was it in The Vicar of Wakefield?) who could not say “Moses”; also it was a pet name for a small brother of Dickens. There was, therefore, something childlike in this first title, and childhood was to enter very largely into the novelist’s work. He could hardly finish a story without bringing a child into it; not an ordinary child, to make us smile, but a wistful or pathetic child whose sorrows, since we cannot help them, are apt to make our hearts ache.
Dickens is charged with exaggerating the woes of his children, and the charge is true; but he had a very human reason for his method. In the first place, the pathetic quality of his children is due to this simple fact, that they bear the burden and the care of age. And burdens which men or women accept for themselves without complaint seem all wrong, and are wrong, when laid upon a child’s innocent shoulders. Again, Dickens sought to show us our error in thinking, as most grown-ups do, that childish troubles are of small account. So they are, to us; but to the child they are desperately real. Later in life we learn that troubles are not permanent, and so give them their proper place; but in childhood a trouble is the whole world; and a very hopeless world it is while it lasts. Dickens knew and loved children, as he knew the public whom he made to cry with his Little Nell and Tiny Tim; and he had discovered that tears are the key to many a heart at which reason knocks in vain.
The second work, Pickwick, written in a harum-scarum way, is even more typical of Dickens in its spirit of fun and laughter. He had been engaged, as we have noted, to furnish a text for some comic drawings, thus reversing the usual order of illustration. The pictures were intended to poke fun at a club of sportsmen; and Dickens, who knew nothing of sport, bravely set out with Mr. Winkle on his rook-shooting. Then, while the story was appearing in monthly numbers, the illustrator committed suicide;
Dickens was left with Mr. Pickwick on his hands, and that innocent old gentleman promptly ran away with the author. Not being in the least adventurous, Mr. Pickwick was precisely the person for whom adventures were lying in wait; but with his chivalrous heart within him, and Sam Weller on guard outside, he was not to be trifled with by cabman or constable. So these two took to the open road, and to the inns where punch, good cheer and the unexpected were awaiting them. Never was such another book! It is not a novel; it is a medley of fun and drollery resulting from high animal spirits.
In his next novel, Oliver Twist, the author makes a new departure by using the motive of horror. One of his heroes is an unfortunate child, but when our sympathies for the little fellow are stretched to the point of tears, Dickens turns over a page and relieves us by Pickwickian laughter. Also he has his usual medley of picturesque characters and incidents, but the shadow of Fagin is over them all. One cannot go into any house in the book, and lock the door and draw the shades, without feeling that somewhere in the outer darkness this horrible creature is prowling. The horror which Fagin inspires is never morbid; for Dickens with his healthy spirit could not err in this direction. It is a boyish, melodramatic horror, such as immature minds seek in “movies,” dime novels, secret societies, detective stories and “thrillers” at the circus.
In the fourth work, Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens shows that he is nearing the limit of his invention so far as plot is concerned. In this novel he seems to rest a bit by writing an old-fashioned romance, with its hero and villain and moral ending. But if you study this or any subsequent work of Dickens, you are apt to find the four elements already noted; namely, an unfortunate child, humorous interludes, a grotesque or horrible creature who serves as a foil to virtue or innocence, and a medley of characters good or bad that might be transferred without change to any other story. The most interesting thing about Dickens’s men and women is that they are human enough to make themselves at home anywhere.
WHAT TO READ. Whether one wants to study the method of Dickens or to enjoy his works, there is hardly a better plan for the beginner than to read in succession Pickwick, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, which are as the seed plot out of which grow all his stories. For the rest, the reader must follow his own fancy. If one must choose a single work, perhaps Copperfield is the most typical. “Of all my books,” said Dickens, “I like this the best; like many parents I have my favorite child, and his name is David Copperfield.” Some of the heroines of this book are rather stagey, but the Peggotys, Betsy Trotwood, Mrs. Gummidge, the Micawbers,--all these are unrivaled. “There is no writing against such power,” said Thackeray, who was himself writing Pendennis while Dickens was at work on his masterpiece.
Opinion is divided on the matter of A Tale of Two Cities. Some critics regard it as the finest of Dickens’s work, revealing as it does his powers of description and of character-drawing without his usual exaggeration. Other critics, who regard the exaggeration of Dickens as his most characteristic quality, see in Two Cities only an evidence of his weakening power. It has perhaps this advantage over other works of the author, that of them we remember only the extraordinary scenes or characters, while the entire story of Two Cities remains with us as a finished and impressive thing. But there is also this disadvantage, that the story ends and is done with, while Pickwick goes on forever. We may lose sight of the heroes, but we have the conviction, as Chesterton says, that they are still on the road of adventure, that Mr. Pickwick is somewhere drinking punch or making a speech, and that Sam Weller may step out from behind the next stable and ask with a droll wink what we are up to now.
It is hardly necessary to add that our reading of Dickens must not end until we are familiar with some of his Yuletide stories, in which he gladly followed the lead of Washington Irving. The best of all his short stories is A Christmas Carol, which one must read but not criticize. At best it is a farce, but a glorious, care-lifting, heart-warming farce. Would there were more of the same kind!
A CRITICISM OF DICKENS. The first quality of Dickens is his extravagant humor. This was due to the fact that he was alive, so thoroughly, consciously alive that his vitality overflowed like a spring. Here, in a word, is the secret of that bubbling spirit of prodigality which occasions the criticism that Dickens produced not characters but caricatures.
The criticism is true; but it proclaims the strength of the novelist rather than his weakness. Indeed, it is in the very exaggeration of Dickens that his astonishing creative power is most clearly manifest. There is something primal, stupendous, in his grotesque characters which reminds us of the uncouth monsters that nature created in her sportive moods. Some readers, meeting with Bunsby, are reminded of a walrus; and who ever saw a walrus without thinking of the creature as nature’s Bunsby? So with Quilp, Toots, Squeers, Pumblechook; so with giraffes, baboons, dodoes, dromedaries,--all are freaks from the æsthetic viewpoint, but think of the overflowing energy implied in creating them!
The same sense of prodigality characterized Dickens even in his sober moods, when he portrayed hundreds of human characters, and not a dead or dull person among them. To be sure they are all exaggerated; they weep too copiously, eat or drink too intemperately, laugh too uproariously for normal men; but to criticize their superabundant vitality is to criticize Beowulf or Ulysses or Hiawatha; nay, it is to criticize life itself, which at high tide is wont to overflow in heroics or absurdity. The exuberance of Pickwick, Micawber, Pecksniff, Sairey Gamp, Sam Weller and a host of others is perhaps the most normal thing about them; it is as the rattling of a safety valve, which speaks not of stagnant water but of a full head of steam. For Dickens deals with life, and you can exaggerate life as much as you please, since there is no end to either its wisdom or foolishness. Nothing but a question can be added to the silent simplicity of death.
Aside from his purpose of portraying life as he saw it, in all its strange complexity, Dickens had a twofold object in writing. He was a radical democrat, and he aimed to show the immense hopefulness and compassion of Democracy on its upward way to liberty. He was also a reformer, with a profound respect for the poor, but no respect whatever for ancient laws or institutions that stood in the way of justice. The influence of his novels in establishing better schools, prisons, workhouses, is beyond measure; but we are not so much interested in his reforms as in his method, which was unique. He aimed to make men understand the oppressed, and to make a laughing stock of the oppressors; and he succeeded as no other had ever done in making literature a power in the land. Thus, the man or the law that stands defiantly against public opinion is beaten the moment you make that man or that law look like a joke; and Dickens made a huge joke of the parish beadle (as Mr. Bumble) and of many another meddlesome British institution. Moreover, he was master of this paradox: that to cure misery you must meet it with a merry heart,--this is on the principle that what the poor need is not charity but comradeship. By showing that humble folk might be as poor as the Cratchits and yet have the medicine of mirth, the divine gift of laughter, he made men rejoice with the poor even while they relieved the poverty.
As for the shortcomings of Dickens, they are so apparent that he who runs may read. We may say of him, as of Shakespeare, that his taste is questionable, that he is too fond of a mere show, that his style is often melodramatic, that there is hardly a fault in the whole critical category of which he is not habitually guilty. But we may say of him also that he is never petty or mean or morbid or unclean; and he could not be dull if he tried. His faults, if you analyze them, spring from precisely the same source as his virtues; that is, from his abundant vitality, from his excess of life and animal spirits. So we pardon, nay, we rejoice over him as over a boy who must throw a handspring or raise a whillilew when he breaks loose from school. For Dickens, when he started his triumphal progress with Pickwick, had a glorious sense of taking his cue from life and of breaking loose from literary traditions. In comparison with Ruskin or Thackeray he is not a good writer, but something more—a splendidly great writer. If you would limit or define his greatness, try first to marshal his array of characters, characters so vital and human that we can hardly think of them as fictitious or imaginary creatures; then remember the millions of men and women to whom he has given pure and lasting pleasure.
* * * * *
In fiction Thackeray stands to Dickens as Hamilton to Jefferson in the field of politics. The radical difference between the novelists is exemplified in their attitude toward the public. Thackeray, who lived among the privileged classes, spoke of “this great stupid public,” and thought that the only way to get a hearing from the common people was to “take them by the ears.” He was a true Hamiltonian. Dickens had an immense sympathy for the common people, a profound respect for their elemental virtues; and in writing for them he was, as it were, the Jefferson, the triumphant democrat of English letters. Thackeray was intellectual; he looked at men with critical eyes, and was a realist and a pessimist. Dickens was emotional; he looked at men with kindled imagination, judged them by the dreams they cherished in their hearts, and was a romanticist and an optimist. Both men were humorists; but where Thackeray was delicately satirical, causing us a momentary smile, Dickens was broadly comic or farcical, winning us by hearty laughter.
LIFE. To one who has been trained, like Dickens, in the school of hardship it seems the most natural thing in the world to pass over into a state of affluence. It is another matter to fare sumptuously every day till luxurious habits are formed, and then be cast suddenly on one’s own resources, face to face with the unexpected monster of bread and butter. This was Thackeray’s experience, and it colored all his work.
A second important matter is that Thackeray had a great tenderness for children, a longing for home and homely comforts; but as a child he was sent far from his home in India, and was thrown among young barbarians in various schools, one of which, the “Charterhouse,” was called the “Slaughterhouse” in the boy’s letters to his mother. “There are three hundred and seventy boys in this school,” wrote; “I wish there were only three hundred and sixty-nine!” He married for love, and with great joy began housekeeping; then a terrible accident happened, his wife was taken to an insane asylum, and for the rest of his life Thackeray was a wanderer amid the empty splendors of clubs and hotels.
These two experiences did not break Thackeray, but they bowed him. They help to explain the languor, the melancholy, the gentle pessimism, as if life had no more sunrises, of which we are vaguely conscious in reading The Virginians or The Newcomes.
Thackeray was born (1811) in Calcutta, of a family of English “nabobs” who had accumulated wealth and influence as factors or civil officers. At the death of his father, who was a judge in Bengal, the child was sent to England to be educated. Here is a significant incident of the journey:
“Our ship touched at an island, where my black servant took me a walk over rocks and hills till we passed a garden, where we saw a man walking. ‘That is Bonaparte,’ said the black; ‘he eats three sheep every day, and all the children he can lay hands on.’”
Napoleon was then safely imprisoned at St. Helena; but his shadow, as of a terrible ogre, was still dark over Europe.
Thackeray’s education, at the Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, was neither a happy nor a profitable experience, as we judge from his unflattering picture of English school life in Pendennis. He had a strongly artistic bent, and after leaving college studied art in Germany and France. Presently he lost his fortune by gambling and bad investments, and was confronted by the necessity of earning his living. He tried the law, but gave it up because, as he said, it had no soul. He tried illustrating, having a small talent for comic drawings, and sought various civil appointments in vain. As a last resource he turned to the magazines, wrote satires, sketches of travel, burlesques of popular novelists, and, fighting all the time against his habit of idleness, slowly but surely won his way.
His first notable work, Vanity Fair (1847), won a few readers’ and the critics’ judgment that it was “a book written by a gentleman for gentlemen” was the foundation of Thackeray’s reputation as a writer for the upper classes. Other notable novels followed, Henry Esmond, Pendennis, The Newcomes, The Virginians, and two series of literary and historical essays called English Humorists and The Four Georges. The latter were delivered as lectures in a successful tour of England and America. Needless to say, Thackeray hated lecturing and publicity; he was driven to his “dollar-hunting” by necessity.
In 1860 his fame was firmly established, and he won his first financial success by taking charge of the Cornhill Magazine, which prospered greatly in his hands. He did not long enjoy his new-found comfort, for he died in 1863. His early sketches had been satirical in spirit, his first novels largely so; but his last novels and his Cornhill essays were written in a different spirit,--not kinder, for Thackeray’s heart was always right, but broader, wiser, more patient of human nature, and more hopeful.
In view of these later works some critics declare that Thackeray’s best novel was never written. His stories were produced not joyously but laboriously, to earn his living; and when leisure came at last, then came death also, and the work was over.
WORKS OF THACKERAY. It would be flying in the face of all the critics to suggest that the beginner might do well to postpone the famous novels of Thackeray, and to meet the author at his best, or cheerfulest, in such forgotten works as the Book of Ballads and The Rose and the Ring. The latter is a kind of fairy story, with a poor little good princess, a rich little bad princess, a witch of a godmother, and such villainous characters as Hedzoff and Gruffanuff. It was written for some children whom Thackeray loved, and is almost the only book of his which leaves the impression that the author found any real pleasure in writing it.
If one must begin with a novel, then Henry Esmond (1852) is the book. This is an historical novel; the scene is laid in the eighteenth century, during the reign of Queen Anne; and it differs from most other historical novels in this important respect: the author knows his ground thoroughly, is familiar not only with political events but with the thoughts, ideals, books, even the literary style of the age which he describes. The hero of the novel, Colonel Esmond, is represented as telling his own story; he speaks as a gentleman spoke in those days, telling us about the politicians, soldiers, ladies and literary men of his time, with frank exposure of their manners or morals. As a realistic portrayal of an age gone by, not only of its thoughts but of the very language in which those thoughts were expressed, Esmond is the most remarkable novel of its kind in our language. It is a prodigy of realism, and it is written in a charming prose style.
One must add frankly that Esmond is not an inspiring work, that the atmosphere is gloomy, and the plot a disappointment. The hero, after ten years of devotion to a woman, ends his romance by happily marrying with her mother. Any reader could have told him that this is what he ought to have done, or tried to do, in the beginning; but Thackeray’s heroes will never take the reader’s good advice. In this respect they are quite human.
The two social satires of Thackeray are Vanity Fair (1847) and The History of Arthur Pendennis (1849). The former takes its title from that fair described in Pilgrim’s Progress, where all sorts of cheats are exposed for sale; and Thackeray makes his novel a moralizing exposition of the shams of society. The slight action of the story revolves about two unlovely heroines, the unprincipled Becky Sharp and the spineless Amelia. We call them both unlovely, though Thackeray tries hard to make us admire his tearful Amelia and to detest his more interesting Becky. Meeting these two contrasting characters is a variety of fools and snobs, mostly well-drawn, all carefully analyzed to show the weakness or villainy that is in them.
One interesting but unnoticed thing about these minor characters is that they all have their life-size prototypes in the novels of Dickens. Thackeray’s characters, as he explains in his preface, are “mere puppets,” who must move when he pulls the strings. Dickens does not have to explain that his characters are men and women who do very much as they please. That is, perhaps, the chief difference between the two novelists.
Pendennis is a more readable novel than Vanity Fair in this respect, that its interest centers in one character rather than in a variety of knaves or fools. Thackeray takes a youthful hero, follows him through school and later life, and shows the steady degeneration of a man who is governed not by vicious but by selfish impulses. From beginning to end Pendennis is a penetrating ethical study (like George Eliot’s Romola), and the story is often interrupted while we listen to the author’s moralizing. To some readers this is an offense; to others it is a pleasure, since it makes them better acquainted with the mind and heart of Thackeray, the gentlest of Victorian moralists.
The last notable works of Thackeray are like afterthoughts. The Virginians continues the story of Colonel Esmond, and The Newcomes recounts the later fortunes of Arthur Pendennis. The Virginians has two or three splendid scenes, and some critics regard The Newcomes as the finest expression of the author’s genius; but both works, which appeared in the leisurely form of monthly instalments, are too languid in action for sustained interest. We grow acquainted with certain characters, and are heartily glad when they make their exit; perhaps someone else will come, some adventurer from the road or the inn, to relieve the dullness. The door opens, and in comes the bore again to take another leave. That is realism, undoubtedly; and Laura Pendennis is as realistic as the mumps, which one may catch a second time. The atmosphere of both novels—indeed, of all Thackeray’s greater works, with the exception of English Humorists and The Four Georges--is rather depressing. One gets the impression that life among “the quality” is a dreary experience, hardly worth the effort of living.
THACKERAY: A CRITICISM. It is significant that Thackeray’s first work appeared in a college leaflet called “The Snob,” and that it showed a talent for satire. In his earlier stories he plainly followed his natural bent, for his Vanity Fair, Barry Lyndon (a story of a scoundrelly adventurer) and several minor works are all satires on the general snobbery of society. This tendency of the author reached a climax in 1848, when he wrote The Book of Snobs. It is still an entertaining book, witty, and with a kind of merciless fairness about its cruel passages; yet some readers will remember what the author himself said later, that he was something of a snob himself to write such a book. The chief trouble with the half of his work is that he was so obsessed with the idea of snobbery that he did injustice to humanity, or rather to his countrymen; for Thackeray was very English, and interest in his characters depends largely on familiarity with the life he describes. His pictures of English servants, for instance, are wonderfully deft, though one might wish that he had drawn them with a more sympathetic pencil.
In the later part of his life the essential kindness of the man came to the surface, but still was he hampered by his experience and his philosophy. His experience was that life is too big to be grasped, too mysterious to be understood; therefore he faced life doubtfully, with a mixture of timidity and respect, as in Henry Esmond. His philosophy was that every person is at heart an egoist, is selfish in spite of himself; therefore is every man or woman unhappy, because selfishness is the eternal enemy of happiness. This is the lesson written large in Pendennis. He lived in the small world of his own class, while the great world of Dickens—the world of the common people, with their sympathy, their eternal hopefulness, their enjoyment of whatever good they find in life—passed unnoticed outside his club windows. He conceived it to be the business of a novelist to view the world with his own eyes, to describe it as he saw it; and it was not his fault that his world was a small one. Fate was answerable for that. So far as he went, Thackeray did his work admirably, portraying the few virtues and the many shams of his set with candor and sincerity. Though he used satire freely (and satire is a two-edged weapon), his object was never malicious or vindictive but corrective; he aimed to win or drive men to virtue by exposing the native ugliness of vice.
The result of his effort may be summed up as follows: Thackeray is a novelist for the few who can enjoy his accurate but petty views of society, and his cultivated prose style. He is not very cheerful; he does not seek the blue flower that grows in every field, or the gold that is at every rainbow’s end, or the romance that hides in every human heart whether of rich or poor. Therefore are the young not conspicuous among his followers.
* * * * *
More than other Victorian story-tellers George Eliot regarded her work with great seriousness as a means of public instruction. Her purpose was to show that human life is effective only as it follows its sense of duty, and that society is as much in need of the moral law as of daily bread. Other novelists moralized more or less, Thackeray especially; but George Eliot made the teaching of morality her chief business.
LIFE. In the work as in the face of George Eliot there is a certain masculine quality which is apt to mislead one who reads Adam Bede or studies a portrait of the author. Even those who knew her well, and who tried to express the charm of her personality, seem to have overlooked the fact that they were describing a woman.
For example, a friend wrote:
“Everything in her aspect and presence was in keeping with the bent of her soul. The deeply lined face, the too marked and massive features, were united with an air of delicate refinement, which in one way was the more impressive, because it seemed to proceed so entirely from within. Nay, the inward beauty would sometimes quite transform the outward harshness; there would be moments when the thin hands that entwined themselves in their eagerness, the earnest figure that bowed forward to speak and hear, the deep gaze moving from one face to another with a grave appeal,--all these seemed the transparent symbols that showed the presence of a wise, benignant soul.”
That is very good, but somehow it is not feminine. So the impression has gone forth that George Eliot was a “strong-minded” woman; but that is far from the truth. One might emphasize her affectionate nature, her timidity, her lack of confidence in her own judgment; but the essence of the matter is this, that so dependent was she on masculine support that she was always idealizing some man, and looking up to him as a superior being. In short, she was one of “the clinging kind.” Though some may regard this as traditional nonsense, it was nevertheless the most characteristic quality of the woman with whom we are dealing.
Mary Ann Evans, or Marian as she was called, was born (1819) and spent her childhood in Shakespeare’s county of Warwickshire. Her father (whose portrait she has faintly drawn in the characters of Adam Bede and Caleb Garth) was a strong, quiet man, a farmer and land agent, who made a companion of his daughter rather than of his son, the two being described more or less faithfully in the characters of Maggie and Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss. At twelve years of age she was sent to a boarding school; at fifteen her mother died, and she was brought home to manage her father’s house. The rest of her education—which included music and a reading knowledge of German, Italian and Greek—was obtained by solitary study at intervals of rest from domestic work. That the intervals were neither long nor frequent may be inferred from the fact that her work included not only her father’s accounts and the thousand duties of housekeeping but also the managing of a poultry yard, the making of butter, and other farm or dairy matters which at that time were left wholly to women.
The first marked change in her life came at the age of twenty-two, when the household removed to Coventry, and Miss Evans was there brought in contact with the family of a wealthy ribbon-maker named Bray. He was a man of some culture, and the atmosphere of his house, with its numerous guests, was decidedly skeptical. To Miss Evans, brought up in a home ruled by early Methodist ideals of piety, the change was a little startling. Soon she was listening to glib evolutionary theories that settled everything from an earthworm to a cosmos; next she was eagerly reading such unbaked works as Bray’s Philosophy of Necessity and the essays of certain young scientists who, without knowledge of either philosophy or religion, were cocksure of their ability to provide “modern” substitutes for both at an hour’s notice.
Miss Evans went over rather impulsively to the crude skepticism of her friends; then, finding no soul or comfort in their theories, she invented for herself a creed of duty and morality, without however tracing either to its origin. She was naturally a religious woman, and there is no evidence that she found her new creed very satisfactory. Indeed, her melancholy and the gloom of her novels are both traceable to the loss of her early religious ideals.
A trip abroad (1849) was followed by some editorial work on The Westminster Review, then the organ of the freethinkers. This in turn led to her association with Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill and other liberals, and to her union with George Henry Lewes in 1854. Of that union little need be said except this: though it lacked the law and the sacrament, it seems to have been in other respects a fair covenant which was honestly kept by both parties. [Footnote: Lewes was separated from his first wife, from whom he was unable to obtain a legal divorce. This was the only obstacle to a regular marriage, and after facing the obstacle for a time the couple decided to ignore it. The moral element in George Eliot’s works is due largely, no doubt, to her own moral sense; but it was greatly influenced by the fact that, in her union with Lewes, she had placed herself in a false position and was morally on the defensive against society.]
Encouraged by Lewes she began to write fiction. Her first attempt, “Amos Barton,” was an excellent short story, and in 1859 she produced her first novel, Adam Bede, being then about forty years old. The great success of this work had the unusual effect of discouraging the author. She despaired of her ability, and began to agonize, as she said, over her work; but her material was not yet exhausted, and in The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner she repeated her triumph.
The rest of her life seems a matter of growth or of atrophy, according to your point of view. She grew more scientific, as she fancied, but she lost the freshness and inspiration of her earlier novels. The reason seems to be that her head was turned by her fame as a moralist and exponent of culture; so she forgot that she “was born to please,” and attempted something else for which she had no particular ability: an historical novel in Romola, a drama in The Spanish Gypsy, a theory of social reform in Felix Holt, a study of the Hebrew race in Daniel Deronda, a book of elephantine gambols in The Opinions of Theophrastus Such. More and more she “agonized” over these works, and though each of them contained some scene or passage of rare power, it was evident even to her admirers that the pleasing novelist of the earlier days had been sacrificed to the moral philosopher.
The death of Lewes (1878) made an end, as she believed, of all earthly happiness. For twenty-four years he had been husband, friend and literary adviser, encouraging her talent, shielding her from every hostile criticism. Left suddenly alone in the world, she felt like an abandoned child; her writing stopped, and her letters echoed the old gleeman’s song, “All is gone, both life and light.” Then she surprised everybody by marrying an American banker, many years her junior, who had been an intimate friend of the Lewes household. Once more she found the world “intensely interesting,” for at sixty she was the same clinging vine, the same hero-worshiper, as at sixteen. The marriage occurred in 1880, and her death the same year. An elaborate biography, interesting but too fulsome, was written by her husband, John Walter Cross.
WORKS. George Eliot’s first works in fiction were the magazine stories which she published later as Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). These were produced comparatively late in life, and they indicate both originality and maturity, as if the author had a message of her own, and had pondered it well before writing it. That message, as reflected in “Amos Barton” and “Janet’s Repentance,” may be summarized in four cardinal principles: that duty is the supreme law of life; that the humblest life is as interesting as the most exalted, since both are subject to the same law; that our daily choices have deep moral significance, since they all react on character and their total result is either happiness or misery; and that there is no possible escape from the reward or punishment that is due to one’s individual action.
Such is the message of the author’s first work. In its stern insistence on the moral quality of life and of every human action, it distinguishes George Eliot from all other fiction writers of the period.
In her first three novels she repeats the same message with more detail, and with a gleam of humor here and there to light up the gloomy places. Adam Bede (1859) has been called a story of early Methodism, but in reality it is a story of moral principles which work their inevitable ends among simple country people. The same may be said of The Mill on the Floss (1860) and of Silas Marner (1861). The former is as interesting to readers of George Eliot as Copperfield is to readers of Dickens, because much of it is a reflection of a personal experience; but the latter work, having more unity, more story interest and more cheerfulness, is a better novel with which to begin our acquaintance with the author.
The scene of all these novels is laid in the country; the characters are true to life, and move naturally in an almost perfect setting. One secret of their success is that they deal with people whom the author knew well, and with scenes in which she was as much at home as Dickens was in the London streets. Each of the novels, notwithstanding its faulty or melancholy conclusion, leaves an impression so powerful that we gladly, and perhaps uncritically, place it among the great literary works of the Victorian era.
Of the later novels one cannot speak so confidently. They move some critics to enthusiasm, and put others to sleep. Thus, Daniel Deronda has some excellent passages, and Gwendolen is perhaps the best-drawn of all George Eliot’s characters; but for many readers the novel is spoiled by scientific jargon, by essay writing on the Jews and other matters of which the author knew little or nothing at first hand. In Middlemarch she returned to the scenes with which she was familiar and produced a novel which some critics rank very high, while others point to its superfluous essays and its proneness to moralizing instead of telling a story.
Romola is another labored novel, a study of Italy during the Renaissance, and a profound ethical lesson. If you can read this work without criticizing its Italian views, you may find in the characters of Tito and Romola, one selfish and the other generous, the best example of George Eliot’s moral method, which is to show the cumulative effect on character of everyday choices or actions. You will find also a good story, one of the best that the author told. But if you read Romola as an historical novel, with some knowledge of Italy and the Renaissance, you may decide that George Eliot—though she slaved at this novel until, as she said, it made an old woman of her—did not understand the people or the country which she tried to describe. She portrayed life not as she had seen and known and loved it, but as she found it reflected at second hand in the works of other writers.
THE QUALITY OF GEORGE ELIOT. Of the moral quality of George Eliot we have already said enough. To our summary of her method this should be added, that she tried to make each of her characters not individual but typical. In other words, if Tito came finally to grief, and Adam arrived at a state of gloomy satisfaction (there is no real happiness in George Eliot’s world), it was not because Tito and Adam lived in different times or circumstances, but because both were subject to the same eternal laws. Each must have gone to his own place whether he lived in wealth or poverty, in Florence or England, in the fifteenth or the nineteenth century. The moral law is universal and unchanging; it has no favorites, and makes no exceptions. It is more like the old Greek conception of Nemesis, or the Anglo-Saxon conception of Wyrd, or Fate, than anything else you will find in modern fiction.
In this last respect George Eliot again differs radically from her contemporaries. In her gloomy view of life as an unanswerable puzzle she is like Thackeray; but where Thackeray offers a cultured resignation, a gentlemanly making the best of a bad case, George Eliot advocates self-sacrifice for the good of others. In her portrayal of weak or sinful characters she is quite as compassionate as Dickens, and more thoughtfully charitable; for where Dickens sometimes makes light of misery, and relieves it by the easy expedient of good dinners and all-around comfort for saints and sinners, George Eliot remembers the broken moral law and the suffering of the innocent for the guilty. Behind every one of her characters that does wrong follows an avenging fate, waiting the moment to exact the full penalty; and before every character that does right hovers a vision of sacrifice and redemption.
Her real philosophy, therefore, was quite different from that which her scientific friends formulated for her, and was not modern but ancient as the hills. On the one hand, she never quite freed herself from the old pagan conception of Nemesis, or Fate; on the other, her early Methodist training entered deep into her soul and made her mindful of the Cross that forever towers above humanity.
* * * * *
We have followed literary custom rather than individual judgment in studying Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot as the typical Victorian novelists. On Dickens, as the most original genius of the age, most people are agreed; but the rank of the other two is open to question. There are critics besides Swinburne who regard Charlotte Brontë as a greater genius than George Eliot; and many uncritical readers find more pleasure or profit in the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope than in anything written by Thackeray. It may even be that the three or four leading novels of the age were none of them written by the novelists in question; but it is still essential to know their works if only for these reasons: that they greatly influenced other story-tellers of the period, and that they furnish us a standard by which to judge all modern fiction.
To treat the many Victorian novelists adequately would in itself require a volume. We shall note here only a few leading figures, naming in each case a novel or two which may serve as an invitation to a better acquaintance with their authors.
The Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, made a tremendous sensation in England when, from their retirement, they sent out certain works of such passionate intensity that readers who had long been familiar with novels were startled into renewed attention. Reading these works now we recognize the genius of the writers, but we recognize also a morbid, unwholesome quality, which is a reflection not of English life but of the personal and unhappy temperament of two girls who looked on life first as a gorgeous romance and then as a gloomy tragedy.
Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) was perhaps the more gifted of the two sisters, and her best-known works are Jane Eyre and Villette. The date of the latter novel (1853) was made noteworthy by the masterpiece of another woman novelist, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), who was the exact opposite of the Brontë sisters,--serene, well-balanced, and with a fund of delicious humor. All these qualities and more appeared in Cranford (1853), a series of sketches of country life (first contributed to Dickens’s Household Words) which together form one of the most charming stories produced during the Victorian era. The same author wrote a few other novels and an admirable Life of Charlotte Brontë.
Charles Reade (1814-1884) was a follower of Dickens in his earlier novels, such as Peg Woffington; but he made one notable departure when he wrote The Cloister and the Hearth (1861). This is a story of student life and vagabond life in Europe, in the stirring times that followed the invention of printing. The action moves rapidly; many different characters appear; the scene shifts from Holland across Europe to Italy, and back again; adventures of a startling kind meet the hero at every stage of his foot journey. It is a stirring tale, remarkably well told; so much will every uncritical reader gladly acknowledge. Moreover, there are critics who, after studying The Cloister and the Hearth, rank it with the best historical novels in all literature.
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) began as a follower of Thackeray, but in the immense range of his characters and incidents he soon outstripped his master. Perhaps his best work is Barchester Towers (1857), one of a series of novels which picture with marvelous fidelity the life of a cathedral town in England.
Another novelist who followed Thackeray, and then changed his allegiance to Dickens, was Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873). He was essentially an imitator, a follower of the market, and before Thackeray and Dickens were famous he had followed almost every important English novelist from Mrs. Radcliffe to Walter Scott. Two of his historical novels, Rienzi and The Last Days of Pompeii, may be mildly recommended. The rest are of the popular and somewhat trashy kind; critics jeer at them, and the public buys them in large numbers.
One of the most charming books of the Victorian age was produced by Richard Blackmore (1825-1900). He wrote several novels, some of them of excellent quality, but they were all overshadowed by his beautiful old romance of Lorna Doone (1869). It is hard to overpraise such a story, wholesome and sweet as a breath from the moors, and the critic’s praise will be unnecessary if the reader only opens the book. It should be read, with Cranford, if one reads nothing else of Victorian fiction.
Two other notable romances of a vanished age came from the hand of Charles Kingsley (1819-1875). He produced many works in poetry and prose, but his fame now rests upon Hypatia, Westward Ho! and a few stories for children. Hypatia (1853) is an interesting novel dealing with the conflict of pagan and Christian ideals in the early centuries. Westward Ho! (1855) is a stirring narrative of seafaring and adventure in the days of Elizabeth. It has been described as a “stunning” boys’ book, and it would prove an absorbing story for any reader who likes adventure were it not marred by one serious fault. The author’s personal beliefs and his desire to glorify certain Elizabethan adventurers lead him to pronounce judgment of a somewhat wholesale kind. He treats one religious party of the period to a golden halo, and the other to a lash of scorpions; and this is apt to alienate many readers who else would gladly follow Sir Amyas Leigh on his gallant ventures in the New World or on the Spanish Main. Kingsley had a rare talent for writing for children (his heart never grew old), and his Heroes and Water Babies are still widely read as bedtime stories.
Of the later Victorian novelists, chief among them being Meredith, Hardy and Stevenson, little may be said here, as they are much too near us to judge of their true place in the long perspective of English literature. Meredith, with the analytical temper and the disconnected style of Browning, is for mature readers, not for young people. Hardy has decided power, but is too hopelessly pessimistic for anybody’s comfort,--except in his earlier works, which have a romantic charm that brightens the obscurity of his later philosophy.
In Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) we have the spirit of romance personified. His novels, such as Kidnapped and David Balfour, are stories of adventure written in a very attractive style; but he is more widely known, among young people at least, by his charming Child’s Garden of Verses and his Treasure Island (1883). This last is a kind of dime-novel of pirates and buried treasure. If one is to read stories of that kind, there is no better place to begin than with this masterpiece of Stevenson. Other works by the same versatile author are the novels, Master of Ballantrae, Weir of Hermiston and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; various collections of essays, such as Virginibus Puerisque and Familiar Studies of Men and Books; and some rather thin sketches of journeying called An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey.
The cheery spirit of Stevenson, who bravely fought a losing battle with disease, is evident in everything he wrote; and it was the author’s spirit, quite as much as his romantic tales or fine prose style, that won for him a large and enthusiastic following. Of all the later Victorians he seems, at the present time, to have the widest circle of cultivated readers and to exercise the strongest influence on our writers of fiction.
* * * * *
There is rich reading in Victorian essays, which reflect not only the practical affairs of the age but also the ideals that inspire every great movement whether in history or literature. For example, the intense religious interests of the period, the growth of the Nonconformists or Independents, the Oxford movement, which aimed to define the historic position of the English Church, the chill of doubt and the glow of renewed faith in face of the apparent conflict between the old religion and the new science,--all these were brilliantly reflected by excellent writers, among whom Martineau, Newman and Maurice stand out prominently. The deep thought, the serene spirit and the fine style of these men are unsurpassed in Victorian prose.
Somewhat apart from their age stood a remarkable group of historians—Hallam, Freeman, Green, Gardiner, Symonds and others no less praiseworthy—who changed the whole conception of history from a record of political or military events to a profound study of human society in all its activities. In another typical group were the critics, Pater, Bagehot, Hutton, Leslie Stephen, who have given deeper meaning and enlarged pleasure to the study of literature. In a fourth group were the scientists—Darwin, Wallace, Lyell, Mivart, Tyndall, Mill, Spencer, Huxley, and their followers—some of whom aimed not simply to increase our knowledge but to use the essay, as others used the novel, to portray some new scene in the old comedy of human life. Darwin was a great and, therefore, a modest man; but some of his disciples were sadly lacking in humor. Spencer and Mill especially wrote with colossal self-confidence, as if the world no longer wore its veil of mystery. They remind us, curiously, that while poetry endures forever, nothing on earth is more subject to change and error than so-called scientific truth.
It is impossible in a small volume to do justice to so many writers, reflecting nature or humanity from various angles, and sometimes insisting that a particular angle was the only one from which a true view could be obtained. Some rigorous selection is necessary; and we name here for special study Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, who are commonly regarded as the typical Victorian essayists. This selection does not mean, however, that some other group might not be quite as representative of their age and nation. Our chosen authors stand not for Victorian thought but only for certain interesting phases thereof. Macaulay, the busy man of affairs, voiced the pride of his generation in British traditions. Carlyle lived aloof, grumbling at democracy, denouncing its shams, calling it to repentance. Ruskin, a child of fortune, was absorbed in art till the burden of the world oppressed him; whereupon he gave his money to the cause of social reform and went himself among the poor to share with them whatever wealth of spirit he possessed. These three men, utterly unlike in character, were as one in their endeavor to make modern literature a power wherewith to uplift humanity. They illustrate, better even than poets or novelists, the characteristic moral earnestness of the Victorian era.
* * * * *
To many readers the life of Macaulay is more interesting than any of his books. For the details of that brilliantly successful life, which fairly won and richly deserved its success, the student is referred to Trevelyan’s fine biography. We record here only such personal matters as may help to explain the exuberant spirit of Macaulay’s literary work.
LIFE. One notes first of all the man’s inheritance. The Norse element predominated in him, for the name Macaulay (son of Aulay) is a late form of the Scandinavian Olafson. His mother was a brilliant woman of Quaker descent; his father, at one time governor of the Sierra Leone Colony in Africa, was a business man who gained a fortune in trade, and who spent the whole of it in helping to free the slaves. In consequence, when Macaulay left college he faced the immediate problem of supporting himself and his family, a hard matter, which he handled not only with his customary success but also with characteristic enthusiasm.
Next we note Macaulay’s personal endowment, his gift of rapid reading, his marvelous memory which suggests Coleridge and Cotton Mather. He read everything from Plato to the trashiest novel, and after reading a book could recall practically the whole of it after a lapse of twenty years. To this photographic memory we are indebted for the wealth of quotation, allusion and anecdote which brightens almost every page of his writings.
After a brilliant career at college Macaulay began the study of law. At twenty-five he jumped into prominence by a magazine essay on Milton, and after that his progress was uninterrupted. He was repeatedly elected to Parliament; he was appointed legal adviser to the Supreme Council of India, in which position he acquired the knowledge that appears in his essays on Clive and Hastings; he became Secretary for War, and was elevated to the peerage as Baron Macaulay of Rothley. It was said of him at that time that he was “the only man whom England ever made a lord for the power of his pen.”
The last thing we note, because it was to Macaulay of least moment, is his literary work. With the exception of the History of England his writing was done at spare moments, as a relaxation from what he considered more important labors. In this respect, of writing for pleasure in the midst of practical affairs, he resembles the Elizabethan rather than the Victorian authors.
While at work on his masterpiece Macaulay suddenly faltered, worn out by too much work. He died on Christmas Day (1859) and was buried in the place which he liked best to visit, the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. From the day on which he attracted notice by his Milton essay he had never once lost his hold on the attention of England. Gladstone summed up the matter in oratorical fashion when he said, “Full-orbed Macaulay was seen above the horizon; and full-orbed, after thirty-five years of constantly emitted splendor, he sank below it.” But Macaulay’s final comment, “Well, I have had a happy life,” is more suggestive of the man and his work.
WORKS OF MACAULAY. Macaulay’s poems, which he regarded as of no consequence, are practically all in the ballad style. Among them are various narratives from French or English history, such as “The Battle of Ivry” and “The Armada,” and a few others which made a popular little book when they were published as Lays of Ancient Rome (1842). The prime favorite not only of the Lays but of all Macaulay’s works is “Horatius Cocles,” or “Horatius at the Bridge.” Those who read its stirring lines should know that Macaulay intended it not as a modern ballad but as an example of ancient methods of teaching history. According to Niebuhr the early history of Rome was written in the form of popular ballads; and Macaulay attempted to reproduce a few of these historical documents in the heroic style that roused a Roman audience of long ago to pride and love of country.
The essays of Macaulay appeared in the magazines of that day; but though official England acclaimed their brilliancy and flooded their author with invitations to dine, nobody seemed to think of them as food for ordinary readers till a Philadelphia publisher collected a few of them into a book, which sold in America like a good novel. That was in 1841, and not till two years had passed did a London publisher gain courage to issue the Critical and Historical Essays, a book which vindicated the taste of readers of that day by becoming immensely popular.
The charm of such a book is evident in the very first essay, on Milton. Here is no critic, airing his rules or making his dry talk palatable by a few quotations; here is a live man pleading for another man whom he considers one of the greatest figures in history. Macaulay may be mistaken, possibly, but he is going to make you doff your hat to a hero before he is done; so he speaks eloquently not only of Milton but of the classics on which Milton fed, of the ideals and struggles of his age, of the Commonwealth and the Restoration,--of everything which may catch your attention and then focus it on one Titanic figure battling like Samson among the Philistines. It may be that your sympathies are with the Philistines rather than with Samson; but presently you stop objecting and are carried along by the author’s eloquence as by a torrent. His style is the combined style of novelist and public speaker, the one striving to make his characters real, the other bound to make his subject interesting.
That is Macaulay’s way in all his essays. They are seldom wholly right in their judgments; they are so often one-sided that the author declared in later life he would burn them all if he could; but they are all splendid, all worth reading, not simply for their matter but for their style and for the wealth of allusion with which Macaulay makes his subject vital and interesting. Among the best of the literary essays are those on Bunyan, Addison, Bacon, Johnson, Goldsmith and Byron; among the historical essays one may sample Macaulay’s variety in Lord Clive, Frederick the Great, Machiavelli and Mirabeau.
Careful readers may note a difference between these literary and historical essays. Those on Bunyan, Johnson and Goldsmith, for example (written originally for the Encyclopaedia Britannica), are more finished and more careful of statement than others in which the author talks freely, sharing without measure or restraint “the heaped-up treasures of his memory.”
Macaulay began to write his History of England with the declaration that he would cover the century and a half following the accession of James II (1685), and that he would make his story as interesting as any novel. Only the latter promise was fulfilled. His five volumes, the labor of more than a decade, cover only sixteen years of English history; but these are pictured with such minuteness and such splendor that we can hardly imagine anyone brave enough to attempt to finish the record in a single lifetime.
Of this masterpiece of Macaulay we may confidently say three things: that for many years it was the most popular historical work in our language; that by its brilliant style and absorbing interest it deserved its popularity, as literature if not as history; and that, though it contains its share of error and more than its share of Whig partisanship, it has probably as few serious faults as any other history which attempts to cover the immense field of the political, social and intellectual life of a nation. Read, for example, one of the introductory chapters (the third is excellent) which draws such a picture of England in the days of the Stuarts as no other historian has ever attempted. When you have finished that chapter, with its wealth of picturesque detail, you may be content to read Macaulay simply for the pleasure he gives you, and go to some other historian for accurate information.
* * * * *
There is little harmony of opinion concerning Carlyle, criticism of the man being divided between praise and disparagement. If you are to read only one of his works, it is perhaps advisable to avoid all biographies at first and to let the Essay on Burns or Heroes and Hero Worship make its own impression. But if you intend to read more widely, some knowledge of Carlyle’s personal history is essential in order to furnish the grain of salt with which most of his opinions must be taken.
LIFE. In the village of Ecclefechan Carlyle was born in 1795, the year before Burns’s death. His father was a stone-mason, an honest man of caustic tongue; his mother, judged by her son’s account, was one of nature’s noblewomen. The love of his mother and a proud respect for his father were the two sentiments in Carlyle that went with him unchanged through a troubled and oft-complaining life.
Of his tearful school days in Annandale and of his wretched years at Edinburgh University we have glimpses in Sartor Resartus. In the chapters of the same book entitled “The Everlasting Nay” and “The Everlasting Yea” is a picture of the conflict between doubt and faith in the stormy years when Carlyle was finding himself. He taught school, and hated it; he abandoned the ministry, for which his parents had intended him; he resolved on a literary life, and did hack work to earn his bread. All the while he wrestled with his gloomy temper or with the petty demons of dyspepsia, which he was wont to magnify into giant doubts and despairs.
In 1826 he married Jane Welsh, and went to live in a house she had inherited at Craigenputtock, or Hill of the Hawks. There on a lonely moorland farm he spent six or seven years, writing books which few cared to read; and there Emerson appeared one day (“He came and went like an angel,” said the Carlyles) with the heartening news that the neglected writings were winning a great audience in America. The letters of Carlyle and Emerson, as edited by Charles Eliot Norton, are among the pleasantest results of Carlyle’s whole career.
Carlyle’s wife was a brilliant but nervous woman with literary gifts of her own. She had always received attention; she expected and probably deserved admiration; but so did Carlyle, who expected also to be made the center of all solicitude when he called heaven and earth to witness against democracy, crowing roosters, weak tea and other grievous afflictions. After her death (in London, 1866) he was plunged into deepest grief. In his Reminiscences and Letters he fairly deifies his wife, calling her his queen, his star, his light and joy of life, and portrays a companionship as of two mortals in a Paradise without a serpent. All that is doubtless as it should be, in a romance; but the unfortunate publication of Mrs. Carlyle’s letters and journals introduced a jarring note of reality. A jungle of controversial writings has since grown up around the domestic relations of the Carlyles,--impertinent, deplorable writings, which serve no purpose but to make us cry, “Enough, let them rest in peace!” Both had sharp tongues, and probably both were often sorry.
From the moors the Carlyles went to London and settled for the remainder of their lives in a house in Cheyne Row, in the suburb of Chelsea. There Carlyle slowly won recognition, his success being founded on his French Revolution. Invitations began to pour in upon him; great men visited and praised him, and his fame spread as “the sage of Chelsea.” Then followed his Cromwell and Frederick the Great, the latter completed after years of complaining labor which made wreck of home happiness. And then came a period of unusual irritation, to which we owe, in part at least, Carlyle’s railings against progress and his deplorable criticism of England’s great men and women,--poor little Browning, animalcular De Quincey, rabbit-brained Newman, sawdustish Mill, chattering George Eliot, ghastly-shrieky Shelley, once-enough Lamb, stinted-scanty Wordsworth, poor thin fool Darwin and his book (The Origin of Species, of which Carlyle confessed he never read a page) which was wonderful as an example of the stupidity of mankind.
Such criticisms were reserved for Carlyle’s private memoirs. The world knew him only by his books, and revered him as a great and good man. He died in 1881, and of the thousand notices which appeared in English or American periodicals of that year there is hardly one that does not overflow with praise.
In the home at Chelsea were numerous letters and journals which Carlyle committed to his friend Froude the historian. The publication of these private papers raised a storm of protest. Admirers of Carlyle, shocked at the revelation of another side to their hero, denounced Froude for his disloyalty and malice; whereupon the literary world divided into two camps, the Jane Carlyleists and the Thomas Carlyleists, as they are still called. That Froude showed poor taste is evident; but we must acquit him of all malice. Private papers had been given him with the charge to publish them if he saw fit; and from them he attempted to draw not a flattering but a truthful portrait of Carlyle, who had always preached the doctrine that a man must speak truth as he sees it. Nor will Carlyle suffer in the long run from being deprived of a halo which he never deserved. Already the crustiness of the man begins to grow dim in the distance; it is his rugged earnestness that will be longest remembered.
WORKS OF CARLYLE. The beginner will do well to make acquaintance with Carlyle in some of the minor essays, which are less original but more pleasing than his labored works. Among the best essays are those on Goethe (who was Carlyle’s first master), Signs of the Times, Novalis, and especially Scott and Burns. With Scott he was not in sympathy, and though he tried as a Scotsman to be “loyal to kith and clan,” a strong touch of prejudice mars his work. With Burns he succeeded better, and his picture of the plowboy genius in misfortune is one of the best we have on the subject. This Essay on Burns is also notable as the best example of Carlyle’s early style, before he compounded the strange mixture which appeared in his later books.
The most readable of Carlyle’s longer works is Heroes and Hero Worship (1840), which deals with certain leaders in the fields of religion, poetry, war and politics. It is an interesting study to compare this work with the Representative Men of Emerson. The latter looks upon the world as governed by ideals, which belong not to individuals but to humanity. When some man appears in whom the common ideal is written large, other men follow him because they see in him a truth which they revere in their own souls. So the leader is always in the highest sense a representative of his race. But Carlyle will have nothing of such democracy; to him common men are stupid or helpless and must be governed from without. Occasionally, when humanity is in the Slough of Despond, appears a hero, a superman, and proceeds by his own force to drag or drive his subjects to a higher level. When the hero dies, humanity must halt and pray heaven to send another master.
It is evident before one has read much of Heroes that Carlyle is at heart a force-worshiper. To him history means the biography of a few heroes, and heroism is a matter of power, not of physical or moral courage. The hero may have the rugged courage of a Cromwell, or he may be an easy-living poet like Shakespeare, or a ruthless despot like Napoleon, or an epitome of all meanness like Rousseau; but if he shows superior force of any kind, that is the hallmark of his heroism, and before such an one humanity should bow down. Of real history, therefore, you will learn nothing from Heroes; neither will you get any trustworthy information concerning Odin, Mahomet and the rest of Carlyle’s oddly consorted characters. One does not read the book for facts but for a new view of old matters. With hero-worshipers especially it ranks very high among the thought-provoking books of the past century.
Of the historical works of Carlyle the most famous is The French Revolution (1837). On this work Carlyle spent much heart-breaking labor, and the story of the first volume shows that the author, who made himself miserable over petty matters, could be patient in face of a real misfortune. Moreover, it furnishes a striking example of Carlyle’s method, which was not historical in the modern sense, but essentially pictorial or dramatic. He selected a few dramatic scenes, such as the storming of the Bastille, and painted them in flaming colors. Also he was strong in drawing portraits, and his portrayal of Robespierre, Danton and other actors in the terrible drama is astonishingly vigorous, though seldom accurate. His chief purpose in drawing all these pictures and portraits was to prove that order can never come out of chaos save by the iron grip of a governing hand. Hence, if you want to learn the real history of the French Revolution, you must seek elsewhere; but if you want an impression of it, an impression that burns its way into the mind, you will hardly find the equal of Carlyle’s book in any language.
Of Carlyle’s miscellaneous works one must speak with some hesitation. As an expression of what some call his prophetic mood, and others his ranting, one who has patience might try Shooting Niagara or the Latter Day Pamphlets. A reflection of his doctrine of honest work as the cure for social ills is found in Past and Present; and for a summary of his philosophy there is nothing quite so good as his early Sartor Resartus (1834).
The last-named work is called philosophy only by courtesy. The title means “the tailor retailored,” or “the patcher repatched,” and the book professed to be “a complete Resartus philosophy of clothes.” Since everything wears clothes of some kind (the soul wears a body, and the body garments; earth puts forth grass, and the firmament stars; ideas clothe themselves in words; society puts on fashions and habits), it can be seen that Carlyle felt free to bring in any subject he pleased; and so he did. Moreover, in order to have liberty of style, he represented himself to be the editor not the author of Sartor. The alleged author was a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdroeckh, an odd stick, half genius, half madman, whose chaotic notes Carlyle professed to arrange with a running commentary of his own.
In consequence of this overlabored plan Sartor has no plan at all. It is a jumble of thoughts, notions, attacks on shams, scraps of German philosophy,--everything that Carlyle wrote about during his seven-years sojourn on his moorland farm. The only valuable things in Sartor are a few autobiographical chapters, such as “The Everlasting Yea,” and certain passages dealing with night, the stars, the yearnings of humanity, the splendors of earth and heaven. Note this picture of Teufelsdroeckh standing alone at the North Cape, “looking like a little belfry”:
“Silence as of death, for Midnight, even in the Arctic latitudes, has its character: nothing but the granite cliffs ruddy-tinged, the peaceable gurgle of that slow-heaving Polar Ocean, over which in the utmost North the great Sun hangs low and lazy, as if he too were slumbering. Yet is his cloud-couch wrought of crimson and cloth-of-gold; yet does his light stream over the mirror of waters, like a tremulous fire-pillar shooting downwards to the abyss, and hide itself under my feet. In such moments Solitude also is invaluable; for who would speak, or be looked on, when behind him lies all Europe and Africa, fast asleep, except the watchmen; and before him the silent Immensity and Palace of the Eternal, whereof our Sun is but a porch-lamp?”
The book has several such passages, written in a psalmodic style, appealing to elemental feeling, to our sense of wonder or reverence before the mystery of life and death. It is a pity that we have no edition of Sartor which does justice to its golden nuggets by the simple expedient of sifting out the mass of rubbish in which the gold is hidden. The central doctrines of the book are the suppression of self, or selfishness, and the value of honest work in contrast with the evil of mammon-worship.
A CRITICISM OF CARLYLE. Except in his literary essays Carlyle’s “rumfustianish growlery of style,” as he called it, is so uneven that no description will apply to it. In moments of emotion he uses a chanting prose that is like primitive poetry. Sometimes he forgets Thomas Carlyle, keeps his eye on his subject, and describes it in vivid, picturesque words; then, when he has nothing to say, he thinks of himself and tries to hold you by his manner, by his ranting or dogmatism. In one mood he is a poet, in another a painter, in a third a stump speaker. In all moods he must have your ear, but he succeeds better in getting than in holding it. It has been said that his prose is on a level with Browning’s verse, but a better comparison may be drawn between Carlyle and Walt Whitman. Of each of these writers the best that can be said is that his style was his own, that it served his purpose, and that it is not to be imitated.
In formulating any summary of Carlyle the critic must remember that he is dealing with a man of two sides, one prejudiced, dogmatic, jealous of rivals, the other roughly sincere. On either side Carlyle is a man of contradictions. For an odious dead despot like Frederick, who happens to please him, he turns criticism into eulogy; and for a living poet like Wordsworth he tempers praise by spiteful criticism. [Footnote: Carlyle’s praise of Wordsworth’s “fine, wholesome rusticity” is often quoted, but only in part. If you read the whole passage (in Reminiscences) you will find the effect of Carlyle’s praise wholly spoiled by a heartless dissection of a poet, with whom, as Carlyle confessed, he had very slight acquaintance.] He writes a score of letters to show that his grief is too deep for words. He is voluble on “the infinite virtue of silence.” He proclaims to-day that he “will write no word on any subject till he has studied it to the bottom,” and to-morrow will pronounce judgment on America or science or some other matter of which he knows nothing. In all this Carlyle sees no inconsistency; he is sincere in either role, of prophet or stump speaker, and even thinks that humor is one of his prime qualities.
Another matter to remember is Carlyle’s constant motive rather than his constant mistakes. He had the gloomy conviction that he was ordained to cry out against the shams of society; and as most modern things appeared to him as shams, he had to be very busy. Moreover, he had an eye like a hawk for the small failings of men, especially of living men, but was almost blind to their large virtues. This hawklike vision, which ignores all large matters in a swoop on some petty object, accounts for two things: for the marvelous detail of Carlyle’s portraits, and for his merciless criticism of the faults of society in general, and of the Victorian age in particular.
Such a writer invites both applause and opposition, and in Carlyle’s case the one is as hearty as the other. The only point on which critics are fairly well agreed is that his rugged independence of mind and his picturesque style appealed powerfully to a small circle of readers in England and to a large circle in America. It is doubtful whether any other essayist, with the possible exception of the serene and hopeful Emerson, had a more stimulating influence on the thought of the latter half of the nineteenth century.
* * * * *
The prose of Ruskin is a treasure house. Nature portrayed as everyman’s Holy Land; descriptions of mountain or landscape, and more beautiful descriptions of leaf or lichen or the glint of light on a breaking wave; appreciations of literature, and finer appreciations of life itself; startling views of art, and more revolutionary views of that frightful waste of human life and labor which we call political economy,--all these and many more impressions of nature, art and human society are eloquently recorded in the ten thousand pages which are the work of Ruskin’s hand.
If you would know the secret that binds all his work together, it may be expressed in two words, sensitiveness and sincerity. From childhood Ruskin was extremely sensitive to both beauty and ugliness. The beauty of the world and of all noble things that ever were accomplished in the world affected him like music; but he shrank, as if from a blow, from all sordidness and evil, from the mammon-worship of trade, from the cloud of smoke that hung over a factory district as if trying to shield from the eye of heaven so much needless poverty and aimless toil below. So Ruskin was a man halting between two opinions: the artist in him was forever troubled by the reformer seeking to make the crooked places of life straight and its rough places plain. He made as many mistakes as another man; in his pages you may light upon error or vagary; but you will find nothing to make you doubt his entire sincerity, his desire to speak truth, his passion for helping his fellow men.
LIFE. The early training of Ruskin may explain both the strength and the weakness of his work. His father was a wealthy wine merchant, his mother a devout woman with puritanic ideas of duty. Both parents were of Scottish and, as Ruskin boasted, of plebeian descent. They had but one child, and in training him they used a strange mixture of severity and coddling, of wisdom and nonsense.
The young Ruskin was kept apart from other boys and from the sports which breed a modesty of one’s own opinion; his time, work and lonely play were minutely regulated; the slightest infringement of rules brought the stern discipline of rod or reproof. On the other hand he was given the best pictures and the best books; he was taken on luxurious journeys through England and the Continent; he was furnished with tutors for any study to which he turned his mind. When he went up to Oxford, at seventeen, he knew many things which are Greek to the ordinary boy, but was ignorant of almost everything that a boy knows, and that a man finds useful in dealing with the world.
There were several results of this early discipline. One was Ruskin’s devotion to art, which came from his familiarity with pictures and galleries; another was his minute study of natural objects, which were to him in place of toys; a third was his habit of “speaking his mind” on every subject; a fourth was his rhythmic prose style, which came largely from his daily habit of memorizing the Bible. Still another result of his lonely magnificence, in which he was deprived of boys’ society, was that his affection went out on a flood tide of romance to the first attractive girl he met. So he loved, and was laughed at, and was desperately unhappy. Then he married, not the woman of his choice, but one whom his parents picked out for him. The tastes of the couple were hopelessly different; the end was estrangement, with humiliation and sorrow for Ruskin.
At twenty-four he produced his first important work, Modern Painters (1843), which he began as a defense of the neglected artist Turner. This controversial book led Ruskin to a deeper study of his subject, which resulted in four more volumes on modern painting. Before these were completed he had “fairly created a new literature of art” by his Seven Lamps of Architecture and Stones of Venice. He was appointed professor of fine arts at Oxford; he gave several series of lectures which appeared later as Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Michael Angelo and Tintoret, Val d’Arno and The Art of England.
By this time he was renowned as an art critic; but his theories were strongly opposed and he was continually in hot water. In his zeal to defend Turner or Millais or Burne-Jones he was rather slashing in his criticism of other artists. The libel suit brought against him by Whistler, whom he described as a coxcomb who flung a pot of paint in the face of the public, is still talked about in England. The jury (fancy a jury wrestling with a question of art!) found Ruskin guilty, and decided that he should pay for the artist’s damaged reputation the sum of one farthing. Whistler ever afterwards wore the coin on his watch chain.
It was about the year 1860 that Ruskin came under the influence of Carlyle, and then began the effort at social reform which made wreck of fame and hope and peace of mind. Carlyle had merely preached of manual work; but Ruskin, wholehearted in whatever he did, went out to mend roads and do other useful tasks to show his belief in the doctrine. Carlyle railed against the industrial system of England; but Ruskin devoted his fortune to remedying its evils. He established model tenements; he founded libraries and centers of recreation for workingmen; he took women and children out of factories and set them to spinning or weaving in their own homes; he founded St. George’s Guild, a well-housed community which combined work with education, and which shared profits fairly among the workers.
England at first rubbed its eyes at these reforms, then shrugged its shoulders as at a harmless kind of madman. But Ruskin had the temper of a crusader; his sword was out against what was even then called “vested interests,” and presently his theories aroused a tempest of opposition. Thackeray, who as editor of the Cornhill Magazine had gladly published Ruskin’s first economic essays, was forced by the clamor of readers to discontinue the series. [Footnote: While these essays were appearing, there was published (1864) a textbook of English literature. It spoke well of Ruskin’s books of art, but added, “Of late he has lost his way and has written things—papers in the Cornhill chiefly—which are not likely to add to his fame as a writer or to his character as a man of common sense” (Collier, History of English Literature, p. 512).] To this reform period belong Unto This Last and other books dealing with political economy, and also Sesame and Lilies, Crown of Wild Olive and Ethics of the Dust, which were written chiefly for young people.
For twenty years this crusade continued; then, worn out and misunderstood by both capitalists and workingmen, Ruskin retired (1879) to a small estate called “Brantwood” in the Lake District, His fortune had been spent in his attempt to improve labor conditions, and he lived now upon the modest income from his books. Before he died, in 1900, his friend Charles Eliot Norton persuaded him to write the story of his early life in Præterita. The title is strange, but the book itself is, with one exception, the most interesting of Ruskin’s works.
WORKS OF RUSKIN. The works of Ruskin fall naturally into three classes, which are called criticisms of art, industry and life, but which are, in fact, profound studies of the origin and meaning of art on the one hand, and of the infinite value of human life on the other.
The most popular of his art criticisms are St. Mark’s Rest and Mornings in Florence, which are widely used as guidebooks, and which may be postponed until the happy time when, in Venice or Florence, one may read them to best advantage. Meanwhile, in Seven Lamps of Architecture or Stones of Venice or the first two volumes of Modern Painters, one may grow acquainted with Ruskin’s theory of art.
His fundamental principle was summarized by Pope in the line, “All nature is but art unknown to thee.” That nature is the artist’s source of inspiration, that art at its best can but copy some natural beauty, and that the copy should be preceded by careful and loving study of the original,--this was the sum of his early teaching. Next, Ruskin looked within the soul of the artist and announced that true art has a spiritual motive, that it springs from the noblest ideals of life, that the moral value of any people may be read in the pictures or buildings which they produced. A third principle was that the best works of art, reflecting as they do the ideals of a community, should belong to the people, not to a few collectors; and a fourth exalted the usefulness of art in increasing not only the pleasure but the power of life. So Ruskin urged that art be taught in all schools and workshops, and that every man be encouraged to put the stamp of beauty as well as of utility upon the work of his hands; so also he formulated a plan to abolish factories, and by a system of hand labor to give every worker the chance and the joy of self-expression.
In his theory of economics Ruskin was even more revolutionary. He wrote several works on the subject, but the sum of his teaching may be found in Unto This Last; and the sum is that political economy is merely commercial economy; that it aims to increase trade and wealth at the expense of men and morals. “There is no wealth but life,” announced Ruskin, “life including all its power of love, of joy and of admiration.” And with minute exactness he outlined a plan for making the nation wealthy, not by more factories and ships, but by increasing the health and happiness of human beings.
Three quarters of a century earlier Thomas Jefferson, in America, had pleaded for the same ideal of national wealth, and had characterized the race of the nations for commercial supremacy as a contagion of insanity. Jefferson was called a demagogue, Ruskin a madman; but both men were profoundly right in estimating the wealth of a nation by its store of happiness for home consumption rather than by its store of goods for export. They were misunderstood because they were too far in advance of their age to speak its trade language. They belong not to the past or present, but to the future.
If but one work of Ruskin is to be read, let it be Sesame and Lilies (1865), which is one of the books that no intelligent reader can afford to neglect. The first chapter, “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” is a noble essay on the subject of reading. The second, “Of Queens’ Gardens,” is a study of woman’s life and education, a study which may appear old-fashioned now, but which has so much of truth and beauty that it must again, like Colonial furniture, become our best fashion. These two essays [Footnote: A third essay, “The Mystery of Life,” was added to Sesame and Lilies. It is a sad, despairing monologue, and the book might be better off without it.] contain Ruskin’s best thought on books and womanly character, and also an outline of his teaching on nature, art and society. If we read Sesame and Lilies in connection with two other little books, Crown of Wild Olive, which treats of work, trade and war, and Ethics of the Dust, which deals with housekeeping, we shall have the best that Ruskin produced for his younger disciples.
THE QUALITY OF RUSKIN. To the sensitiveness and sincerity of Ruskin we have already called attention. There is a third quality which appears frequently, and which we call pedagogical insistence, because the author seems to labor under the impression that he must drive something into one’s head.
This insistent note is apt to offend readers until they learn of Ruskin’s motive and experience. He lived in a commercial age, an age that seemed to him blind to the beauty of the world; and the purpose of his whole life was, as he said, to help those who, having eyes, see not. His aim was high, his effort heroic; but for all his pains he was called a visionary, a man with a dream book. Yet he was always exact and specific. He would say, “Go to a certain spot at a certain hour, look in a certain direction, and such and such beauties shall ye see.” And people would go, and wag their heads, and declare that no such prospect as Ruskin described was visible to mortal eyes. [Footnote: For example, Ruskin gave in Fors Clavigera a description of a beautiful view from a bridge over the Ettrick, in Scotland. Some people have sought that view in vain, and a recent critic insists that it is invisible (Andrew Lang, History of English Literature, p. 592). In Venice or Florence you may still meet travelers with one of Ruskin’s books in hand, peering about for the beauty which he says is apparent from such and such a spot and which every traveler ought to see.]
Naturally Ruskin, with his dogmatic temper, grew impatient of such blindness; hence the increasing note of insistence, of scolding even, to which critics have called attention. But we can forgive much in a writer who, with marvelously clear vision, sought only to point out the beauty of nature and the moral dignity of humanity.
The beauty of Ruskin’s style, its musical rhythm or cadence, its wealth of figure and allusion, its brilliant coloring, like a landscape of his favorite artist Turner,--all this is a source of pleasure to the reader, entirely aside from the subject matter. Read, for example, the description of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Stones of Venice, or the reflected glories of nature in Præterita, or the contrast between Salisbury towers and Giotto’s campanile in Seven Lamps of Architecture, and see there descriptive eloquence at its best. That this superb eloquence was devoted not to personal or party ends, but to winning men to the love of beauty and truth and right living, is the secret of Ruskin’s high place in English letters and of his enduring influence on English life.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The age of Victoria (1837-1901) approaches our own so closely that it is still difficult to form an accurate judgment of its history or literature. In a review of the history of the age we noted three factors, democracy, science, imperialism, which have profoundly influenced English letters from 1850 to the present time.
Our study of Victorian literature includes (1) The life and works of the two greater poets of the age, Tennyson and Browning. (2) The work of Elizabeth Barrett, Matthew Arnold, Rossetti, Morris and Swinburne, who were selected from the two hundred representive poets of the period. (3) The life and the chief works of the major novelists, Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot. (4) A review of some other novelists of the age, the Brontë Sisters, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Blackmore, Kingsley, Meredith, Hardy and Stevenson. (5) The typical essayists and historians, Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, with a review of other typical groups of writers in the fields of religion, history and science.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Typical selections from all authors named in the text are found in Manly, English Poetry, English Prose; Pancoast, Standard English Poems, Standard English Prose; and several other collections, which are especially useful in a study of the minor writers. The works of the major authors may be read to much better advantage in various inexpensive editions prepared for school use. Only a few such editions are named below for each author, but a fairly complete list is given under Texts in the General Bibliography.
Tennyson’s selected minor poems, Idylls of the King, The Princess and In Memoriam, in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature, Pocket Classics, Silver Classics. A good volume containing the best of Tennyson’s poems in Athenæum Press Series.
Browning and Mrs. Browning, selected poems in Standard English Classics, Lake Classics, English Readings, Belles Lettres Series.
Matthew Arnold, selected poems in Golden Treasury Series, Maynard’s English Classics; Sohrab and Rustum in Standard English Classics; prose selections in English Readings, Academy Classics.
Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Christmas Carol in Standard English Classics, Lake Classics; other novels in Everyman’s Library.
Thackeray, Henry Esmond in Standard English Classics, Pocket Classics; English Humorists in Lake Classics, English Readings; other works in Everyman’s Library.
George Eliot, Silas Marner, in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature; Mill on the Floss and other novels in Everyman’s Library.
Blackmore’s Lorna Doone and Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford in Standard English Classics. Reade’s Cloister and the Hearth, Kingsley’s Westward Ho and Hypatia in Everyman’s Library.
Macaulay, selected essays in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature, Lake Classics.
Carlyle, Essay on Burns in Standard English Classics, Academy Classics; Heroes and Hero Worship in Athenæum Press, Pocket Classics; French Revolution in Everyman’s Library.
Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies and selected essays and letters in Standard English Classics; selections from Ruskin’s art books in Riverside Literature; other works in Everyman’s Library.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. The works named below are selected from a large list dealing with the Victorian age chiefly. For more extended works see the General Bibliography.
HISTORY. McCarthy, History of Our Own Times and The Epoch of Reform. Oman, England in the Nineteenth Century; Lee, Queen Victoria; Bryce, Studies in Contemporary Biography.
LITERATURE. Saintsbury, History of Nineteenth Century Literature; Harrison, Studies in Early Victorian Literature; Mrs. Oliphant, Literary History of England in the Nineteenth Century;
Walker, The Age of Tennyson; Morley, Literature of the Age of Victoria; Stedman, Victorian Poets; Brownell, Victorian Prose Masters.
Tennyson. Life, by Lyall (English Men of Letters Series), by Horton; Alfred Lord Tennyson, a Memoir by his Son. Napier, Homes and Haunts of Tennyson; Andrew Lang, Alfred Tennyson; Dixon, A Tennyson Primer; Sneath, The Mind of Tennyson; Van Dyke, The Poetry of Tennyson. Essays by Harrison, in Tennyson, Ruskin, Mill and Other Literary Estimates; by Stedman, in Victorian Poets; by Hutton, in Literary Essays; by Dowden, in Studies in Literature; by Forster, in Great Teachers; by Gates, in Studies and Appreciations. Biographical sketch of Tennyson.
Browning. Life, by Sharp (Great Writers Series), by Chesterton (E. M. of L.). Alexander, Introduction to Browning (Ginn and Company); Corson, Introduction to the Study of Browning; Phelps, Browning: How to Know Him; Symonds, Introduction to the Study of Browning; Brooke, Poetry of Robert Browning; Harrington, Browning Studies. Essays by Stedman, Dowden, Hutton, Forster. Biographical sketch of Robert Browning.
Dickens. Life, by Forster, by Ward (E. M. of L.), by Marzials. Gissing, Charles Dickens; Chesterton, Charles Dickens; Kitton, Novels of Dickens. Essays by Harrison, Bagehot; A. Lang, in Gadshill edition of Dickens’s works. Biographical sketch of Dickens.
Thackeray. Life, by Merivale and Marzials, by Trollope (E. M. of L.). Crowe, Homes and Haunts of Thackeray. Essays, by Brownell, in English Prose Masters; by Lilly, in Four English Humorists; by Harrison, in Studies in Early Victorian Literature; by Scudder, in Social Ideals in English Letters. Biographical sketch of Thackeray.
George Eliot. Life, by L. Stephen (E. M. of L.), by O. Browning, by Cross. Cooke, George Eliot: a Critical Study of her Life and Writings. Essays by Brownell, Harrison, Dowden, Hutton. Biographical sketch of George Eliot.
Macaulay. Life, by Trevelyan, by Morrison (E. M. of L.). Essays by L. Stephen, Bagehot, Saintsbury, Harrison, M. Arnold. Biographical sketch of Macaulay.
Carlyle. Life, by Garnett, by Nichol (E. M. of L.), by Froude. Carlyle’s Letters and Reminiscences, edited by Norton. Craig, The Making of Carlyle. Essays by Lowell, Brownell, Hutton, Harrison. Biographical sketch of Carlyle.
Ruskin. Life, by Harrison (E. M. of L.), by Collingwood.
Ruskin’s Præterita (autobiography). Mather, Ruskin, his Life and
Teaching; Cooke, Studies in Ruskin; Waldstein, The Work of John Ruskin;
W. M. Rossetti, Ruskin, Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelitism. Essays by
Brownell, Saintsbury, Forster, Harrison. Biographical sketch of Ruskin.
Copyright © D. J.McAdam· All Rights Reserved