OTHER ESSAYS (1)
1. Robert Herrick, Poet and Divine
2. Donne the Metaphysician
3. Society’s Looking-glass
From Temple Bar - January, 1861 - Vol. 1, pp. 166-174.
Robert Herrick, Poet and Divine.
IF ever two books were composed for the express use of idle men, whose life is leisure, and whose sole business it seems is to eat, drink, puff the weed, and bask at full length on sunny lawns, those books undoubtedly are, The Complete Angler of that highly respectable old gossip Izaak Walton, and the Hesperides of that Bacchus of versifying clergymen Robert Herrick. Wide apart as are the subjects treated of by each severally, and different as are the modes of treatment between these two books, there is a moral sympathy and a general unity of characteristics. Both are possessed of the same quaint amenity, the same straightforward egotism; both carry us far back into the heart of a little English Arcadia, where sheep-tending Strephon sits idly by the banks of a murmuring stream, whistling dulcet ditties on his cracked pipe, and ogling Pastorella as she combs out her hair in “infinitesimal golden Cupids.” Both believe in every thing save scepticism: the one believes in eels thirty feet long, the other in Oberon and his fairy court of Nymphidia. Both are innocent, credulous, golden books, breathing of a sweeter Venusia than Lydia’s lover ever dreamed of. Their pages are full of a happy careless element, where flowers are blooming, birds singing, oaten pipes playing, shepherds twiddling their thumbs, Puck and Robin Goodfellow gamboling, and jovial old gentlemen fraternising or trout-fishing, for ever and ever. Behind the literary curtain of each whistles an enthusiastic moral idler, whose cares sit lightly on strong shoulders, who chants of his own felicity as he jogs along the sunny side of life’s highway, but who is not without a soul to apprehend the beautiful God-made things beneath, around, and above him. They are books for the easy-chair at home, demanding no great mental exertion; but such books are good and valuable in their place, and in our occasional idle reading of idle books we often learn lessons which they forgot to teach us at College. They have no practical value. No angler dreams for a moment of lashing the Trent or Ribble with honest old Izaak as his mentor; but those who can’t fish love to finger the well-known pages of The Complete Angler, when things look well with them, and their hearts are open to the charms of a luxuriant ease. I defy any educated man to open the book randomly, and read a dozen of its pages, without feeling larger-hearted and (not in the stubborn dogged sense) more healthily English. It was never written to teach us any thing important about trouts and graylings; it was written to reveal to us the hearty old Englishman who wrote it, clad in all his quaint proportions, and solving the problem of life by the very earnestness with which he lived and breathed. In a similar manner, the Hesperides can never put wiser thoughts into our heads, or season our talk with the salt of an acuter logic, as books of less genius may; yet, visiting us in our leisure moments, it can lap us in the happiest of dreams, make our hearts 167 beat cheerily, and render us at peace with all the world. Would we quit Fleet Street to while away an hour in Fairyland, among Titania and her maids of honour?—we have only to take up the Hesperides. It is merely a piece of sweet and careless dissipation—the poetical epitome of a fanciful brain and a tender happy heart. Its author squandered all his born genius in flower-painting, music-making, and sporting in the shade with Amaryllis; he is now, what Lycidas is, formidable in the sense of mysterious distance. But his book exists, full of the author and his peccadilloes; a book to be cherished in the long vacation; a pretty souvenir of a jovial verse-writer who lived and made innocent love in a cassock, who tippled “Simon the King’s” canary with Ben the laureate and Selden the antiquary, and who lived a hot-headed poet’s life, not the life of a philosopher in the quiet woodland ways. It teems with that luscious physical life which abounded in the man who wrote it; it is full of his idle fancies, his naughty sayings, and his wooings of woman in the abstract. A more exceptionable book than its companion in prose, its shortcomings spring, like the other’s racy morality, from a nature which means happiness and candour. The charms, or characteristics, of the Hesperides are its hazy self-dignity and uncompromising honesty; whether these qualities are exhibited in singing pure ballads in praise of the country life, or in prying into dangerous mysteries, with a twinkling eye and gestures not strictly orthodox. Herrick could not cloak his conviviality (I use that word in its widest sense) under Puritanical jargon. His whole nature was as open and unadorned as some specimens of early Italian art. Sympathies so exuberant as his were sure to break out somehow or other; and perhaps it is as well that they broke out healthily in his verses, in a genuine love of song-singing, and a little harmless admiration for the sex.
The Hesperides is, perhaps, the most musical collection of occasional verses in the language. Some of the best of these verses, though not by any means all the best, have been often quoted; but there are others which have never, to my knowledge, been quoted at all. From these last, if led into quotation, I shall make my extracts. Nor shall I have to search long for fine music and pretty thoughts, where both are so numerous. The gossamer-like Ariels of thought and sound, controlled and regulated by principles of most magical harmony, issue from the quaint old book in clouds, singing and dancing, smiling and shining, perpetuating the memory of Herrick, the kindly clerical Prospero who created them. Glad verses, sad verses, mad verses, and (in a strait-laced moral sense) bad verses, fill these pages, melting and sighing and dying in a thousand flats and sharps of melody. Here I have a book of all moods and measures, an al fresco, or Twelfth-Night mummery, a rainbow blended of a thousand different colours; a thing both of sable and of tinsel, of beautiful shreds and patches. It is redolent of ambrosia, nectar, and all the tipple of the gods. An idle, dreamy, thoughtless treasure of a book: Aphrodite without her veil, Thalia without her mask, Diana cutting capers as mysterious as the necromancy of Cornelius Agrippa! In short, it is an 168 after-dinner book, just as old Izaak’s Complete Angler and Cotton’s Montaigne are after-dinner books; it is to be opened at random, at any place, and dreamed over. Jump on the back of this wild Pegasus, let the reins loose, and it will carry you to a realm as sweet as that of the dead Adonais; but attempt to curb its wild course by drawing the reins too tightly, and, depend upon it, it will throw you. It is a Pegasus untamed, but under its swift hoofs springs up unadulterated Hippocrene. The cool flow of the syllables, the jingle and glitter of the fancies, the little hidden love-sentiments bubbling cheerily at the ends of the stanzas, make Herrick’s Hippocrene very refreshing to the parched literary Arab, the overworn philosopher, and the lover, if not to the ambitious and metaphysical modern Alastor.
In the appreciative spirit of a child I have taken up the Hesperides, wishing to point out its merits, such as they are. Much has been written about Herrick; little about his poems, which have been lost sight of in the tempting idiosyncrasies of the poet. I wish to do justice to this little cabinet of sweet fancies and crusted gems of diction; I want to talk about it in its own kindly spirit. I would like the reader of this paper to finish it with a warm pleasant feeling, such as he or she would experience in the perusal of the book under consideration.
Many familiar faces—smiling up, as it were, through green leaves, daffodils, and daisies—peep out on me as I dip into the book, now before me for the hundredth time at least. Like most enthusiastic lovers of the poetic, I have my pets and favourites; I like them, and permit them to ensconce themselves in snug little corners of my memory. One of these is the well-known “Night-piece,” addressed to Mistresse Julia, his inspiration—a poem which every modern cavalier ought to have by heart. Another, also pretty generally known, is the sweet little song about “Daffodils.” The following lines, seldom, if ever, quoted, also hit my fancy:
“DELIGHT IN DISORDER.
A sweet disorder in the dresse
Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls a crimson stomacher;
A cuffe neglectfull, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning waves, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tye
I see a wilde civility;
Doe more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.”
The above is a fair specimen of Herrick’s usual manner. It is short, pithy, and unique, characterised, like most of his verses, by quaintness of subject as well as of treatment. Tested by a severe critical standard, it seems nearly worthless; yet it cannot fail to please with its peculiarity. Few of the poems in the Hesperides are of much length, and the 169 shortest are much the best. Some of the prettiest do not occupy more than half a dozen lines; but they prove the force of the hackneyed aphorism about brevity. Here is an idea which has been worse expressed by subsequent minstrels:
“By Love’s religion, I must here confesse it,
The most I love, when I the least expresse it.
Small griefs find tongues; full casques are ever found
To give, if any, yet but little sound.
Deep waters noyseless are; and this we know,
The chiding streams betray small depth below.
So when Love speechlesse is, she doth expresse
A depth in love, and that depth bottomlesse.
Now since my love is tongue-lesse, know me such,
Who speak but little, ’cause I love so much.”
These lines are addressed to Mistresse Julia. Who could have inspired them but a Julia or a Sacharissa? Who could have composed them but a poet and a lover, unpretending though they are? Truly, Herrick drew his inspiration direct from Venus, pooh-poohing spare-made Melpomene and the stiff Court Muses. Whenever he sings Julia’s praises, we who listen recognise a genuine singer. No matter how slender the theme, let it but be connected with his lady, and the poet’s fine frenzy is sure to issue forth in thoughts that breathe and words that burn,—that burn even too brightly now and then. Julia, in his eyes, is something to be worshipped and adored; she is akin to cherubim; her form makes music of the poet’s breath, like an Æolian harp set in the summer wind. She is the much-belauded heroine of the Hesperides. She is to Herrick what the Church was to Solomon—the maker of a sweet minstrel.
“Goddess, I do love a girl
Ruby-lipped and tooth’d with pearl,”
he cries, with eyes that twinkle merrily underneath his grey hairs. Her breath is likened to “all the spices of the East,” to the balm, the myrrh, and the nard; her skin is like a “lawnie firmament;” her cheek like “cream and claret commingled,” or “roses blowing.” He sings with tender rapture of her voice, “melting melodious words to lutes of amber.” But Julia, although his favourite, was not his only lady-love. If we are to believe his own assertion, he was favourably disposed towards the whole sex—at any rate, by no means prejudiced in favour of one individual. He has scores of unpitying yet flawless “mistresses,” real and ideal, whom he has transmitted to posterity under such euphonious names as Silvia, Corinna, Electra, Perinna, Perilla, and Dianeme. As a rule, he sings their praises sweetly and modestly. His sentimental morality was by no means of the dull heavy kind; on the contrary, it was brisk and easy, like the religious morality of Herbert and Wither. It was when making merry at the feet of Venus that he felt most at home—when he had nothing to do but fashion fanciful nosegays, and throw them, with a laugh, into the lap of his lady. His songs suggest the picture of a respectable British Bacchus, stout and middle-aged, lipping soft lyrics to the blushing Ariadne at his side; while in the background 170 of flowers and green leaves we catch a glimpse of Oberon and Titania, walking through a stately minuet on a close-shaven lawn, to the frolicking admiration of assembled fairy-land.
Not an unpleasant picture by any means, when Bacchus, not Silenus, is in the foreground, and when Ariadne is modestly clothed, sans powder, sans periwig. Herrick had one laudable virtue,—he extenuated nothing. When he sinned, he told his readers both of the sin and the repentance that followed. There was vigour in all this, just as there was vigour in his evident consciousness that by setting down his merits and demerits in white and black, he was securing for himself a distinct literary personality. I contrast this sort of honesty with Dr. Young’s false morality and Alexander Pope’s spiteful namby-pambyism; and the result is favourable to men like Herrick. The result is the same when I contrast it with Dr. Swift’s so-called candour; for while the candour of Swift was that of a bully conscious of power, that of Herrick was the candour of an honest kindly heart. We are taught by Scripture that he who confesses his sins shall be forgiven; but the confession, to be valid, must be made in the right spirit. The poems addressed to Ben Jonson—the “Farewell to Sack,” and the “Welcome” to the same beverage—prove that Herrick’s morals were not always in the most perfect order. He was not always sober, either physically or morally; on the contrary, he once or twice took too much wine. Yet I cannot help thinking that his chance glasses in the “Tun” and the “Mermaid” improved both his heart and his verses, lending the latter much of that warmth and delicacy of colouring which renders them enchanting. I am not seeking to commend Herrick’s shortcomings. On the contrary, I differ from some gentlemen who have written about the life of this poet, and I see little to admire in his follies as a man. But it has been too often inferred that Herrick was a roué and a drunkard; a wire-drawn inference, which cannot at least be supported by the fact that he made one in the genial “Noctes” over which the author of the “Sad Shepherd” presided. The individuals who met at the London taverns raved a good deal about the vine in their verses, but they were neither rakes nor sots. There were sad exceptions, doubtless; but the society was no more a society of tipplers than any modern club of parliamentary reporters, whose members meet to puzzle each other and slaughter Mr. Disraeli. Herrick and the rest believed with old Walton that “good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue;” and, seated at the burly laureate’s side, they were pretty sure to enjoy both. Neither must it be inferred that, because the Hesperides contains one or two immoral sentiments, the author was necessarily an immoral man. If we take the time when it was composed into consideration, there is nothing so very shocking in the book after all. Two hundred and odd years ago men used plainer speech than that in vogue at the present day; and the reader who, on tracing our English Hippocrene back to its source, shudders and breaks into anathemas because he finds the stream brackish here and there, will 171 never do the purer parts justice. I do not commend or admire the indiscreet language of early poets, nor do I think that the free expressions used in those days in social intercourse are expressions to be commended. There are things which, while essentially moral in themselves, become very immoral as interpreted by human speech. But in order to do thorough justice to a man and his works, we must see them in all their lights and shades, moral and immoral, spiritual and human; and for this reason I simply mention that there are passages in the Hesperides which might do some harm to weak-minded, but not to sensible, people. That Herrick lived the life of a tolerably virtuous man, we may rest certain, if we are inclined to accept his own statement as conveyed in the two last lines of this book. Thus:
“To this book’s end this last line he’d have placed,
Jocund his Muse was, but his life was chaste.”
That he repented a little of the naughty things, the “unbaptised rhymes, writ in my wild unhallowed times,” is proved by the poem which stands second in his Noble Numbers, or Pious Pieces, to wit, “His Prayer for Absolution:”
“Forgive me, God, and blot each line
Out of my book that is not thine.
But if, ’mongst all, thou findst here one
Worthy thy benediction;
That one of all the rest shall be
The glory of my work and me.”
His repentance, if not of the most ascetic description, was neither painless nor insincere.
Herrick’s best things are his poems in praise of the country life, and his worst things are his epigrams. Whenever he sings naturally, as in the former, he sings well and sweetly; whenever he sings unnaturally, as in the latter, he sings falsely and harshly. His gladsome mercurial temper had a great deal to do with the composition of his best lyrics; for the parson of Dean Prior was no philosopher, and his lightest, airiest verses are his best. What Marmontel calls “amiable ingenuity, undisguised openness,” was a part of his mental as well as of his moral life; shackled by conventionalism of any sort, he lost all that happy naïveté which is the principal, perhaps the only, charm of his written works. His was a happy careless nature, throwing off verses out of the fullness of a joyous heart, rioting in a pleasant sunny element. Out of his own merry and magical circle he is stiff, stupid, and sophisticated. There was no ill-nature in him; his epigrams had no sting. The same impulse which made him err a little induced him to confess his errors honestly. Without these errors, and the few poems in which he alludes to them, neither his works nor himself can be properly understood. The epigrams I allude to are interspersed with the other poems, and are after the manner of Ben Jonson. The book would have been cleaner and better without them.
One or two of his fairy poems appear to me the very perfection of musical excellence. He is coarse enough here and there, without a 172 doubt, and now and then his elfin court entertains indiscreet notions of social propriety. But his fairies can be very engaging, very natural little people, when their creator chooses to be strict with them on the point of moral decorum; in other words, when they avoid all imitation of the fairies at St. James’s, and remain the genuine little pixies of music, mischief, and moonlight. Oberon has his temple, whither he retires for devotional purposes, cleansing himself with the holy water contained in a nutshell, and bowing to the altar “in a cloud of frankincense.” He has also his feasts, when mushroom tables groan with steaming dainties, when dew-wine is sweetened in goblets of “violets blew,” and when the gnat, the cricket, and the grasshopper are court musicians.
The “pretty, flowery, and pastoral gale of fancy,” which Phillips, in his Theatrum Poetarum, gives Herrick credit for, was never better employed than when bruiting abroad the pleasures of a country life. The honest fellows at Dean Prior (the Devonshire parish of which he was vicar) loved their old ceremonies and customs, and kept them up right heartily; and no doubt the poet entered fully into the spirit of the local enthusiasm. He would range the woods on May morning with the maidens; sit at wakes with the old women; drink the Whitsun ale, and drain the wassail bowl on Twelfth-Nights, with the men. Of all these pleasures he sang often and enthusiastically. His book is full of pictures taken from that little Devonshire vicarage. His is not merely the old inane story of “a shepherd piping on a hill, sad with his own sweet thoughts,” and enjoying an uninterrupted prospect of black sheep and white, all washed very clean indeed, and each adorned with a pink ribbon by the white hands of Myra or Amaryllis. Herrick knew that such shepherds were created to bring both themselves and their sheep to grief. His are no second-hand pictures, taken in London, from His Majesty’s Bedchamber. He had seen Strephon munching huge wedges of bread on a country stile, or moaning with a broken head after the feast of cudgels; he had seen Corydon talking low language and drinking beer at the village alehouse. He had seen Myrtis with a dirty face and a vulgar gait; he had seen Mrs. Myrtillo slapping the little Myrtillos in most unpoetical fashion. He knew that these shepherds and shepherdesses preferred dead mutton to living sheep; yet he preferred these vulgar realities to the refined idealities of the fine gentlemen in the metropolis. He found beauty in their old customs, however riotously conducted, however plain and homely. He tells us of the Maypole, the Morris-dance, the shearing feast, and the chase; singing cheerily of the “nut-browne mirth and russet wit” of such and sundry pastoral mummeries. He pictures to us, with sweet music, the merry-makings at the Wake, with its creams and custards, its pageantries of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, its cudgel-plays, its rustic quarrels “drown’d in ale or drenched in beere.” He sings of St. Distaff’s Day, when the flax and tow of girls who “go a spinning” is set on fire, when plackets are scorched, and when the maidens souse the men with pails of new-drawn water. He celebrates 173 the coming-in of the Hock-Cart, crowned with ears of corn, surrounded by men and women with garlands on their heads, and drawn by horses “clad in linen white as lilies.” He describes both the pastoral May-day, when boys and girls pluck the white-thorn boughs, when “green gowns are given,” when troths are plighted; and the Christmas festivities, when the log blazes on the hearth, when “psalteries” are played, when strong beer is quaffed and mince-pies eaten. When he discourses of such homely ceremonies, in his own soft inimitable way, I know no writer of lyrics who equals him in loveliness of music, sweetness of fancy, and luscious warmth of colouring.
The greater part of the Hesperides was written in Devonshire, when the poet was vicar of the little parish of Dean Prior. He was preferred to the living by Charles I., in the year 1629, having been recommended by the Bishop of Exeter, to whom he more than once makes affectionate allusion. Herrick, then in his thirty-eighth year, had already tasted the sweets of literary society, and he did not fall in love with this same dull little Dean Prior as readily as might be anticipated. Like Crabbe in Suffolk, and Sydney Smith on Salisbury Plain many years afterwards, he grumbled and fretted in his solitude, describing his parishioners as a “rocky generation,” “rude almost as rudest savages,” and “churlish as the seas.” Probably these words were written when the pulpit was new to him, when the cassock on his shoulders felt uncomfortable, when the boisterous young squires in the pews below him were taking his mental and moral measure. He might have found some of the country louts suspicious and surly; for a country congregation is not always bonnet-in-hand to the new pastor; he might have been received coldly enough at first by the “wealthy nobodies.” By and by, no doubt, when the awkward feeling wore off on both sides, priest and congregation fraternised. The verses addressed to Larr prove that he felt the parting, when John Lym the Puritan was sent to take his place, and he was turned out of house and home to live on his fifths in London. At any rate, his best verses were written in that little west-country vicarage:
“More discontents I never had,
Since I was born, than here;
Where I have been, and still am sad,
In this dull Devonshire.
Yet, justly too, I must confesse,
I ne’r invented such
Ennobled numbers for the presse,
Than where I loath’d so much.”
It seems reasonable to suppose that this bilious feeling wore off, and was absent when he wrote his sweet lyrics about rural felicity. Another fact may account for his reconciliation to the solitary vicarage. Hard by Dean Prior lived a certain Sir Edward Giles, M.P. for Totness, an old English gentleman, who “gave to Cæsar the things which were Cæsar’s, and to the country the things which were the country’s.” With this old knight, who was both a jolly and a liberal knight, and who kept open 174 house to his acquaintances, Herrick appears to have been on the best of terms. His friendship, I believe, was convivial enough to remind the poet of the days when he gaped at “Jonson’s learned sock” in the London taverns.
In reading his poems one obtains many a stray peep at the domestic life of the poet; plain allusions are thrown out, which, when patched together, may form a decently consistent picture. Although a universal lover, he never married. His little household consisted of Mistress Prudence Baldwin his housekeeper, himself, Trasy his pet spaniel, Phill his tame sparrow, a few chickens, a goose, a cat, and a pet lamb. Tradition adds to these a clever but reprobate pig, who was given to draining the dregs of the ale-jug. Poor old Mistress Prew, once pretty Miss Prudence, was Robert Herrick’s good angel; and many are the affectionate allusions he makes to her. Through want and sickness, through sorrow and heartache, she stood by the helpless old bachelor, taking good care of his morals, and rendering his rural home cheery and comfortable:
“These summer birds did with their master stay
The times of warmth, but then they fled away,
Leaving their poet, being now grown old,
Exposed to all the comming winter’s cold.
But thou, kind Prew, didst with my fates abide
As well the winter’s as the summer’s tide.
For which thy love, live with thy master here,
Not one, but all the seasons of the yeare.”
Herrick is fully as sincere in other matters. He is very poor, he admits the fact; but he has his cates and beer, he thanks Heaven, and his life is easy. He is not good-looking; he is mope-eyed and ungainly. He has lost a finger. He thinks London a very nice place for a man to be jolly in. He hates Oliver Cromwell. Sooner than take the Covenant against his convictions, he will be thrust out of his living. He is of opinion that a king can do no wrong; that Charles I. was a martyr, and Charles ll; is the very incarnation of virtue.
Herrick was beloved by the simple men and women to whom he preached Christ, and scraps of his hymns and songs still linger on the tongues of their children’s children. He was a good, albeit not a sour-visaged, pastor, and they liked him infinitely better than his Puritan substitute. He played in the great drama of life on the little flower-strewn stage of Dean Prior; or say, rather, he played in a sweet vaudeville of life: a pretty little piece of artistic coquetry, with a love-song in every scene, a jingling of glasses and a singing of convivial songs in one or two, and a chorus of uncovered villagers singing to tender music at the falling of the curtain. “Robert Herrick, Vickar,” says the register, “was buried on the 15th day of October 1674.” The poet’s living descendant, William Herrick, Esq., of Leicestershire, has erected a fine monument over his grave; but his verses supply a prettier and chaster monument than any made by hands. They are neither ambitious nor poetically great; but they are works to be enjoyed.
[Note: Buchanan included an edited version of this essay in David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on poetry (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1868). He had previously written about Robert Herrick for The Glasgow Sentinel and The West of Scotland Magazine and Review - details available here.]
From Temple Bar - August, 1861 - Vol. 3, pp. 78-91.
Donne the Metaphysician.
FOR the sake of the gushing young Minerva who has written to me on the subject of my Temple Bar articles, I almost regret that I am united in tender bonds of wedlock to Daphne. The little odoriferous pink rose-blossom, delicately embroidered with elfin caligraphy, which flutters before me as I write, can only have emanated from the taper fingers of youthful loveliness; and (as Dryden said, when the exercise of constantly turning his coat had made him corpulent)—
“Old as I am, for ladies’ love unfit,
The power of beauty I remember yet.”
Of course I am ineligible; but I hope, for the sake of the youngest contributor to these pages, that Minerva is a spinster; and that, moreover, she has not yet taken to blue stockings, which ruin the ancles, or to spectacles, which distort the vision. Tasso, Spenser, and Herrick have all told us, and in identical language, to gather the rosebuds early in life, because Time flies; and I hope that my fair correspondent will look elsewhere for a congenial partner. Nulla retro via. At the same time, I thank Minerva for writing to me, because she has kindly suggested an introduction to my paper on Dr. Donne the Poet. She finds fault with me, she says, because I sound the praises of Bishop Corbet, who was a “tippler,” in much the same way as I sound the praises of Mr. Herbert, who was almost a saint. She considers me in error for recording Richard Norwich’s drinking-bouts; and she emphatically affirms that the Bishop had better have been left in oblivion.
You see, I feel the greatest possible relish for literary antiquities of all kinds; while for poetical antiquities I feel an absolute enthusiasm. As a boy, I ate Parnassian fruit with Erato, just as Buonaparte ate Corsican cherries with Madame Colombier. I like to scramble over those dry lingual moats which environ the old castle of Antiquarianism; and I am happier than Mr. Gigadibs when I gain the pleasant sober-coloured chambers within. It is the rarest treat in the world to rummage in those strange corners and dusty crannies; to study the venerable portraits, and to listen to the low Memnonian music which stirs so mysteriously about the shadowy rooms; and ultimately, to make my way to the still older watch-towers above, where the Spirit of the Past stands always, like the watchman in the Agamemnon, and casts her long moveless shadow over the wide plantains of literature lying underneath. In the course of my peregrinations, I have stumbled over such relics as John Ford’s melancholy hat, the goblet in which Thomas the Rhymer pledged convivial Dunbar, and the golden scroll with Withers’ “nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo” blazoned on it. Do you mean to tell me, Miss Minerva, that these little relics do not help me to comprehend the men who wore them, and the times in which those men lived and breathed? Is it nothing to know 79 how certain things were viewed once upon a time, and what members of the literary clergy have cut their cloth after the prettiest pattern? Do not the monuments of man, which survive the hands that reared them, lead men to ruminate on the strength or weakness of those hands, and to ascertain, from the amount of heroism put into the life and work, what sort of stuff the old heroes were made of? Am I not walking on glorious ground?—campos ubi Troja fuit,—and may I not by chance stumble on some weapon, which may explain the method of warfare which was used on this battlefield, or on some old suit of armour, whereby I may guess at the height and girth of the literary soldiers who fought here long ago?
And to my fancy, Minerva, my puss, modern criticism is a little too bilious. There was Gifford, now, the brave, courageous, but bitter gentleman, who was whipped by Dr. Wolcot, and who endeavoured to kill off John Keats by one critique. There was Jeffrey, who was juster than the tarterly Quarterly; he wrote a sound healthy criticism on Keats, but look what a savage attack he made on the virtuous Christabel. There was Hazlitt, a generous fellow in some respects, but too opinionated. There is our friend the critic in the ——, who fills foolscap pages with attempts to prove (what we all know already) that a spondee is not a dactyl. We fail to recognise the personal qualifications of our poets; and our poets in private life go to church, pay the tax-gatherer, rock the cradle, and desiderate respectability. Confess, my dear Minerva, that you would have these shopkeepers, who write verses, a little more poetical in real life, and that you cannot help going back to the past to search for your heroes? And, by the way, don’t you think that the young rhymesters might become a little more chivalrous if the fair sex would try to be a little more romantic? We should have more heroes if we had a little more hero-worship; and we should have more poets if the ladies were a little more romantic, if the critics were a little more appreciative.
Be that as it may, I like a lay figure to work upon; and it is my delight to clothe it with graceful drapery. Here is Dr. Donne, some time Dean of St. Paul’s. I am glad to be able to say that John Donne was, like Sterne’s poor Yorick, “as heteroclite a creature in all his declensions, with as much life and whim and gaîté de cœur about him, as the kindest climate could have engendered and put together.” He was born in London, as early as the year 1573. His father was an eminent merchant, descended from a distinguished Welsh family; his mother was descended from Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, and from the eminent lawyer Judge Rastrall. His grandfather on the mother’s side was (as I learn from Jonson, in his Conversation with Drummond) no less a person than witty John Heywood, the epigrammist, who wrote that funny interlude called the Four P.’s, and whose merry conversation was the delight of the old age of Henry VIII. In his eleventh year, Donne was sent to Hart Hall, Oxford, where he soon distinguished himself as “another Picus Mirandula,” being “rather born than made wise by study.” He was prevented from taking his first degree by his relations, who, being of the 80 Roman-Catholic persuasion, objected to the usual oath. When fourteen years old, he went to Cambridge, where he greatly distinguished himself; and before he was eighteen, he was admitted into Lincoln’s Inn, where he began studying law. His father, however, died shortly after his son’s initiation into the mysteries of law, and left him three thousand pounds as a marriage portion. Left to the pious care of a good mother, the boy found himself diligently beset by the theological arguments of Roman-Catholic tutors. It was partly to avoid these gentry, I think, that he went with the Earl of Essex to Cales, passed the island voyages, spent some years in Italy, sauntered for a time in sunny Spain, and finally returned to England, well stocked with that wisdom which sharp-sighted travellers find waiting for them in every corner of the globe. On his return to fatherland, he was made chief secretary to the Chancellor of England, Lord Ellesmere, by whom he was regarded with deep esteem, and who went so far as to say that Donne “was fitter to serve a king than a subject.” In this capacity, he spent five long and industrious years, stocking his fertile mind with political and legal knowledge. His employer was the same “Lord Elsmere” to whom Ben Jonson addressed two highly complimentary epigrams.
Early in life, Donne’s metaphysical mind began to busy itself in religious speculations, and to weigh the Protestant faith against the faith in which he had been brought up. It was, of course, some time before he arrived at any definite conclusion; but he studied the question with a sagacity and a vigour which would make a lad’s fortune in this conventional age, when people go to church because their neighbours do so likewise, and say their prayers, as they insure their lives, in the event of an accident. In the midst of his difficulty, however, he met Cupid at a time when, as Drayton saith,
“Cupid’s wings were not then cut,
His bow broken, or his arrows
Given to boys to shoot at sparrows.”
Cupid solved the problem for the time being, by making him the devout and orthodox worshiper of a young gentlewoman, daughter of Sir George Moore, Chancellor of the Garter, and Lieutenant of the Tower. Pretty Mistress Anne encouraged the advances of the young lawyer.
“No grape that’s kindly ripe could be
So round, so plump, so soft as she,
Nor half so full of juice;”
and finding John good-looking and clever, for his sake she was tempted to be naughty. “He was of stature moderately tall, of a straight and equally proportioned body, to which all his words and actions gave an unexpressible addition of comeliness.” They were in a hurry to kiss lips lawfully; but festinatio tarda est. Ah, Daphne, dear, how much more domesticity there would be if the old people would let the young people alone! “Good shepherd, tell this youth what ’tis to love?” asks pert country Phœbe in the play, and “’Tis to be all made up of sighs and 81 tears,” groans the lost Silvius, while his big brown hand presses down his overflowing heart. Fathers have flinty hearts. Sir George Moore had. He heard of his daughter’s love-making, and, threatening the poet with vengeance if he continued his attentions, bore Anne away to his country house at Lothesley, in Surrey. Cupid has been sick since Venus, his own mother, began fingering in the counting-house the guineas of her fat Adonis of fifty. But when Venus has read a few of my articles, and puts away her crinoline, we shall have more poor poetical John Donne’s running away to some new Gretna Green with the daughters of irate Chancellors of the Garter. Yes, that was the course poor Donne adopted. Instead of strangling Cupid with Sir George’s garter, he invocated despair in several copies of metaphysical verses. Then, finding no consolation in metaphysics, he bought a little golden ring, which he put on Lady Anne’s white finger; and away they went one fine morning to be married on the sly. This was very wicked and disobedient; but I confess that I sympathise with the young people.
The newly-married couple did not long enjoy their golden dream. Love, in the opinion of Papa, was “a scribbled form drawn with a pen upon a parchment.” Sir George, on hearing of the marriage, never rested until he had procured his son- in-law’s dismissal from the office of Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. Donne wrote a letter on the subject to his wife, who was still at Lothesley, subscribing it with the anagram, “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” But Sir George was not yet pacified. He set to work vigorously further to punish the poor poet. So successful were his endeavours, that Donne, Samuel Brooke (the clergyman who performed the marriage ceremony), and Christopher Brooke (who gave the bride away and witnessed the marriage) were thrown into three several prisons. Why won’t proud people read Chaucer’s prose treatise, De Septem Peccatis Mortalibus? “Certes the herte of man,” says Geoffrey, De Ira, “by enchausing and meving of his blood waxeth so troubled that it is out of all maner jugement of reson;” and he goes on to prove, very beautifully, that malice is an offence against God and man. (By the way, who reads Chaucer’s prose now? It contains gorgeous writing;—witness the defence of women, put into the mouth of the wife of Melibœus. To return.) Donne was no sooner set at liberty (and the authorities could not detain him long), than he procured the liberation of his two friends, and involved himself in a laborious lawsuit, whereby he sought to regain possession of his wife, who was still detained as a prisoner in her father’s house. “There was never yet philosopher,” observes Shakespeare’s Leonato, “that could endure the toothache patiently;” but Donne was more tolerant under his grievances than might have been anticipated. The greater part of his portion had been spent in travel, and he was out of all employment. When at last Fortune, the “bountiful blind woman,” made his father-in-law relent, the poet’s position was not much bettered. Sir George endeavoured in vain to procure Donne’s readmission to the lost secretaryship, but steadily refused to 82 assist the young couple with money. Travel and the lawsuit had reduced their means to a very low ebb. They were thrown upon the wide waters of life to sink or swim, as fate might will it.
But Donne had already distinguished himself as a wit who wrote excellent verses, and his genius found a liberal patron in Sir Francis Wooley, a distant kinsman. I am afraid that Master Donne toadied at this time about the crowded ante- chambers of the rich, in the common but vain expectation of Court preferment. Literature was a hired jester, not a lady, in those days. She jingled a cap and bells, and received chance halfpence. Patronage, and the instinctive recognition on the other side of the position of moneyed men, was fast degenerating into pot-house patronage. Once, the literary man could receive honourable favours at the hands of the rich man. Thomas the Rhymer tippled strong wine with the wine- loving lords of Dunbar; Spenser wrote sincerely when he sang the praises of Burleigh and Northumberland; Caxton had tasted the fleshpots of Margaret of Burgundy; Chaucer had been well treated at the hands of John of Gaunt; Buchanan had been assisted by Lord Cassilis; and Shakespeare had been helped on by Southampton. But Ben Johnson's merry begging-letters to the King of England and his nobles were to furnish a bad precedent; and things came to such a pass at last, that Ben—was denied a buck! “I asked a lord a buck, and he denied me.” So soon as the poets became beggars, the noble lords ceased to open their purses; but it was not until Dryden was born that beggary was elevated by genius to the rank of a poetical religion. Donne, therefore, was lucky in his friend Sir Francis, who for several years entertained him and his family at Pilford, in Surrey. During this time, having finally gone over to the Reformed Church, he was again and again advised to enter into holy orders; and Morton, Bishop of Durham, went so far as to offer him a benefice. “Sir,” he said, in refusing Morton’s offer, “some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with Him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of His grace banished them my affections; yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to men as to free me from their censures, and, it may be, that sacred calling from a dishonour.” Soon after this Sir Francis Wooley died, and with him died Donne’s means of subsistence. But at last he was fortunate enough to complete the reconciliation with his father-in-law, who promised to give him 800l. as his wife’s portion, and to let him have 20l. quarterly until the whole amount was paid. He thereupon hired a house for his wife and children at Mitcham, in Surrey, and took apartments for himself in the neighbourhood of Whitehall. To the lodging at Whitehall came the nobility and gentry, and even the foreign ambassadors, to hear the excellent discourse of Mr. John Donne, who knew about half a dozen languages, besides Latin and Greek. He was courted and flattered; for his wonderful attainments dazzled even Ben Jonson, who prided himself on his scholarship. Ben, not then laureate,— for well-languaged Daniel still survived,—waddled 83 down from the Devil Tavern to pay his respects to him, and present him with a copy of verses. “Who shall doubt,” said Ben,
“Who shall doubt, Donne, whe’r I a poet be,
When I dare send my epigrams to thee?”
Ben was still keeping his grand Symposia, in the Apollo Chamber, in the tavern near Temple Bar, while Inigo Jones was adorning his dramas with fine scenery and appointments. “He would many times excel in drink,” says old Aubrey. “Canary was his beloved liquor. Then he would tumble home to bed, and when he had thoroughly perspired, then to study.” I fear that Donne once or twice made one in those convivial gatherings at which Jonson presided, and at which Camden and Selden drank moderately, with old Simon Wadloe to wait upon them.
“Welcome, all that lead or follow,
To the oracle of Apollo—
Here he speaks of his pottle,
Or his tripos, his tower-bottle:
All his answers are divine,
Truth itself doth flow in wine.”
Jonson, who had been but scurvily treated by Cambridge, his Alma Mater, was desirous of propitiating all Oxford men, having some anticipations of the honour which was afterwards conferred upon him, when he was invited to Oxford by Corbet, and made, in full convocation, a Master of Arts of the University. So pleasant did London society become to Donne, that he removed with his family to the house of Sir Robert Drury, in Drury Lane. In 1610 he became a Master of Arts of Oxford, having previously taken the same degree at Cambridge.
The great secret of the merits and demerits of Donne’s poetry is partly to be found in the insatiable desire for book- knowledge which at this period distinguished his genius, in common with that of Cowley and the other metaphysical poets. Almost unconsciously, he became pedantic. Pedantry, coming into contact with a metaphysical habit of thought, soon made his language a puzzle to vulgar comprehensions. “He dealeth so profoundly,” said Harrison of John Heywood’s Spider and Fly, “and beyond all measure of skill, that neither he himself that made it, neither any one that readeth it, can reach unto the meaning thereof.” And much the same criticism might be applied to Donne’s writings. He had always a meaning, sometimes a beautiful one, but it was too subtle to be easily detected. So with the rest of the metaphysicians,
“Wha ding their brains in college classes,
And syne expect to climb Parnassus,
By dint o’ Greek.”
Donne himself, in one of his letters, regrets for another reason his immoderate desire of learning. I embraced, he says, “the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptique immoderate desire of human learning and languages: beautiful ornaments indeed to men of great fortunes, but mine was grown so low as to need an occupation.” Add to all this, that he 84 was a wild dreamer, and saw apparitions. He had imaginary conflicts with Satan, during which he fortified himself with quotations from Scripture. Satius est supervacua discere quam nihil. A superfluity of knowledge is better than noodledom. The intense thirst for knowledge which distinguished Donne and the other metaphysical poets served at least one purpose, if it did not improve their verses. It elevated them above the follies and meannesses of the idle Court butterflies, it kept their blood cool and sober, and it taught one or two of them to meditate divinely on themes beyond the sunset. They busied their brains with book-lore, they lived exemplary lives, and they left poems which are often unintelligible.
Donne was at this time a great favourite with King James, who knew him personally. It was the custom of his Majesty to gather around him at dinner a goodly assemblage of courtiers, wits, and churchmen, and to enter with spirit into the discussion of the various topics broached by the company. To these social meetings Donne was often invited, and he made a most favourable impression by the unpretending cleverness of his conversation. The king had several conversations with Donne relative to the quæstio vexata of the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, and so pleased was he with Donne’s observations, that he requested him to answer in a book the reasons urged against those oaths. The result appeared in 1610, in the shape of the Pseudo-Martyr, a vigorous treatise against Popery. James was delighted. Donne had previously sought secular employment; but nothing would satisfy Majesty but his entrance into the Church. “I know Mr. Donne is a learned man, has the abilities of a learned divine, and will prove a powerful preacher; and my desire is to prefer him that way, and in that way I will deny you nothing for him.” Thus King James. Donne resisted the proposal for three years, during which he studied deeply in divinity, and in the dead languages. At length he was ordained by his friend King, Bishop of London. “He was now gladder to be a door-keeper in the house of God,” he said, “than he could be to enjoy the noblest of all temporal employments.” But he was modest and diffident withal. It is amusing to be told that he preached his earliest sermons privately, a few miles out of London; his first being preached at Paddington, then a village. Then his Majesty bade him preach before him at Whitehall, and he did so with extraordinary success, speeching it “like an angel from a cloud, but in none.” Honours showered thick upon him, like Oppien’s tigers, born from the breath of the wind. James made him his chaplain in ordinary. Accompanying James to Cambridge, in the usual royal “progress,” he was, on the recommendation of his royal patron, made Doctor of Divinity in that University. Shortly after his return from Cambridge, Anne, his beloved wife, died, leaving him a widower with seven children. The shock was almost too much for his intellect. It seemed hard to lose so easily one so dearly bought; and he shut himself up in his room for some days and nights, struggling with his grief, and calling on heaven for mercy. “Now his very soul was elemented 85 of nothing but sadness. Now grief took so full a possession of his heart, as to leave no place for joy.” Anne was buried in the churchyard of St. Clement’s, near Temple Bar. The first sermon he preached after her death was in St. Clement’s Church, and his text was, “Lo, I am the man that has seen affliction.” Walton went to hear this sermon; most of the congregation were moved to tears, and I am sure that the eyes of the honest old angler were not dry. From this time, Donne was an altered man. Death, “which skips none, and surprises many” (as Wollaston has it), came upon him with a suddenness which decomposed his little system of stoical philosophy. The rest of his days were distinguished by an utter abnegation of worldly cares and vanities.
He was now chosen preacher of the Society of Lincoln’s Inn. Two years afterwards, he was commanded by the king to attend the Earl of Doncaster in his embassy to Germany. This appointment was regarded with great pleasure by his near friends, who hoped that travel might dissipate the clouds with which sorrow for his wife’s death and immoderate study had enveloped his heart and mind. Fourteen months afterwards he returned, much improved in bodily health, and laboriously devoted himself to his duties as a preacher. In 1621, King James presented him with the Deanery of St. Paul’s. Shortly after he became Dean, the Earl of Kent gave him a benefice, and the Earl of Dorset presented him with the Vicarage of St. Dunstan in the West. He was totally and finally freed from pressing pecuniary cares. Several other appointments followed; and he fulfilled them all with an industry and a piety which won for him the love and admiration of the great body of the English clergy.
So Donne’s preaching, from a worldly point of view, was better than Jonson’s play-writing. Ben was always in difficulties, always in want of funds to purchase Canary. He had become laureate, with a salary of one hundred marks per annum; but his petition, requesting that the marks should be changed into pounds, was not yet granted. Nor had King Charles added to the one hundred pounds the yearly gift of a tierce of Spanish Canary out of the cellars at Whitehall. Once or twice the laureate and Donne shook hands; but Donne never believed, with the owner of the “mountain belly” and “rocky face,” that “wine it is the milk of Venus.” It seems to me, that King James had a sharp eye to recognise personal merit. His shrewd Scotch head could hardly fail to censure the follies of a man who had pinked a companion in a duel, libelled the Scots in Eastward Hoe, and who, if the story be true, said to his Majesty’s successor, when Charles sent him ten guineas: “His Majesty has sent me ten guineas, because I am poor and live in an alley; go and tell his Majesty that his soul lives in an alley.” James, however, was not only capable of perceiving Donne’s merits, but he was also shrewd enough to perceive that Donne might prove a powerful prop to him in his fight for popularity. It was now and then maliciously whispered in some of the pulpits that James still leant in secret to the Romish faith, and that he was desirous of favouring the political prospects of the Roman 86 Catholic party. On one occasion, some busy-body told the king that even honest John Donne had been circulating these whispers, and from the influential pulpit of St. Paul’s. The king was in an agony of mingled doubt and rage. He sent for the Dean, and told him of the rumour. The answer, dignified as it was, was more than satisfactory, and the king confessed, that “he was right glad he rested no longer under the suspicion.” The Dean knelt down: “I desire that I may not rise,” he said, “until, as in like cases I always have from God, I may have from your Majesty some assurance that I stand clear and fair in your opinion.” Whereupon the king raised the subject to his feet. “I believe you!” cried James with fervour; “I know that you are an honest man, and doubt not but that you love me truly.” I tell this story on the authority of worthy Mr. Isaak Walton, who adored orthodoxy, loved gossip, and had a sharp eye for the shallows in a clear stream.
In his fifty-fourth year he fell dangerously ill, and it was feared that he would die of a decline. The illness, which lasted some time, did not long interfere with his clerical duties. In his brave pursuit of holiness, nothing daunted him. In a few days he was again at work. He rose at four in the morning, and retired to rest at eleven in the evening. When he was not preaching, he was studying or performing offices of charity. He invariably committed his sermons to memory; and Saturday, I am told, was his only day of relaxation. He was not a rich man, far from it; but “Charity, that milky-bosom’d woman,” taught him how to make the most of his means. He gave liberally to poor scholars whom Fortune prevented from prosecuting their studies completely. He walked the prisons, looking after the wants of the prisoners; and he constantly freed poor debtors, by paying their debts out of his private pocket. He became the chief stay and comfort of his father-in-law, Sir George Moore, and he maintained his own mother, who died in his house only six months before him. The old lady still clung to the bosom of the Romish Church; but he was much too good a son and too liberal a clergyman to attempt her conversion. In the August of 1630, while residing in the house of Mrs. Harvey, his eldest daughter, at Abury-Hatch, in Essex, he caught a fever, from the effects of which he never wholly recovered. He was almost bedridden for several months. Being appointed to preach, according to his custom, on the first Friday in Lent, he hurried up to London some days before the appointed time. Against the advice of all his friends, who perceived his dangerous condition, he resolved to preach the Lent sermon, “professing an holy ambition to perform that sacred work.” “When, to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself, not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body and a dying face.” His text was, “To God the Lord belong the issues from death.” And “many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint and hollow voice, professed they thought the text prophetically chosen, and that Dr. Donne had preached his own funeral sermon.” The exertion was far 87 too much for his wasted strength. The next day he was unable to move about.
I for one cannot censure the pardonable pride which made Donne, some days before his dissolution, agree to the proposal of Dr. Fox, his physician, that he should have a monument made for him. He was ever humble and magnanimous, and his assent was given in no spirit of petty vanity. Be that as it may, Donne ordered a carver to cut for him the figure of an urn, rather higher than his body, and a board of about his own height. He then called in the aid of a painter, who was to paint his effigy on the board. Charcoal fires being lit in his study, he was carried thither. He then put off his clothes, had his winding-sheet put on him, “and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin or grave.” Thus attired, he stood against the urn, simulating death, with his eyes shut, and the sheet turned aside to reveal his worn and fleshless face. In this position he was drawn by the painter. When the picture was finished it was set by his bedside, where he kept it till death, to remind him of mortality. It was afterwards carved in one entire piece of white marble, which (Dugdale says) is still to be seen in St. Paul’s Church. He lay for fifteen days, hourly expecting death. He died on the 31st of March 1631, and was buried in St. Paul’s Church. A large assemblage of eminent persons met at his grave on that day. All that remains of his mortal features now is the statue on the monument. “It seems to breathe faintly,” said his good friend Sir Henry Wotton; “and posterity shall look upon it as a kind of artificial miracle.”
“The metaphysical poets were men of learning,” says Johnson in one of his just fits; “and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily, resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.” This is as true as any criticism Johnson ever penned; still, like all his criticisms, it is only half true. The metaphysical poets were for the most part men of genius as well as learning; and their whole endeavour was not so much to show their learning, as to gratify their love for quaint fancies. The form was in their eyes so subservient to the substance, that they neglected the form of their poems altogether; yet they now and then touch a key-note of melody which has a deeper and more lingering effect than the music of the more finished verse- writers. They were addicted to what Dryden calls “the fairy kind of writing.” They lost sight of nature while racking their learned heads for queer images. Their pictures, though essentially poetical, were proportionally false; yet they limned them with an honest desire to benefit their fellow mortals. They paint at second-hand, taking as models those vague hypothetical memories which, through a long sojourn in the domains of the fancy, have been distorted into a picturesqueness not their own. They are lavish of 88 metaphor, generally far fetched, but seldom more than pretty. All these faults were most prominent in their love-verses,—a kind of composition which ought to be peculiarly free from such affectations. But, you see, ever since Queen Elizabeth (whom Mr. Froude has, on the no-evidence of a Spanish prelate, just turned traitor to) taught her maids of honour to study Greek, in which language she herself was a proficient, —ever since Queen Elizabeth had studied Plato, and grown jealous of Amy Robsart,—the fine ladies had become very learned and clever. The poets, therefore, saddled their Pegasi, placed their mistresses on the crupper, and, to the astonishment of worthy burghers, who could not read Marino, galloped away into the cloudland of metaphysics. It is rather amusing to see these clever scholars cutting Cupid’s bowstring into infinitesimal conceits, and hashing the whole up into philosophical mince-meat. If a fly flew into your sweetheart’s eye, reader, what could you say on the subject? Nothing, I suppose; yet the metaphysicians were at no loss. They would tell you that the fly, after winging about in the sun for some time, was attracted by a still brighter luminary,—an eye so bright that it made the sun appear a shadow; that, flying about cheek and lip, it sucked thence such sweets as converted it into a bird of paradise; that, phaeton-like, it flew into her eye at last, was scorched in flames; and that, when it fell, a tear fell with it, which tear straightway changed into a pearl in which the poor fly was embalmed! If your sweetheart sang to you, would you swear that, listening to her voice, the wind ceased, the panther became tame, the rugged rocks were dissolved to tears; and further, that, because she frowned while singing, the melted rocks were frozen to stone again by her disdain? This was rather conceit than metaphysics; but it is impossible to illustrate the more characteristic writing, save by quotation. Only let me state here, that under all this affectation, all this false ornament, and all this absurdity, there lay in the verses of these poets a vein of deeper and profounder meaning than many give them credit for. Once make yourself master of their involved diction, once crack the kernel of their quaint inverted style, and you will arrive at a clearer perception of their real merits. One has to grope about some time before he finds the silken clue which leads the true lover to their Rosamond’s bower; but when he has caught the clue, and followed it boldly, ten to one he will be brought face to face with a blushing beauty, powerful to soften the heart of the sternest critical Eleanor that ever raised dagger and poisoned bowl. The best of the poets I speak of erred almost unconsciously. You must approach them with no timorous and mincing tread, if you desire to touch their depths. Don’t stand shivering on the brink of beauty. There is Hippocrene; no shallow and noisy stream in which you can see the pebbles glistening, but a deep quiet pool,—so deep as to be almost without music,—so deep that you cannot catch a glimpse of the bottom. What then?—what then? Off with your straight laces, and plunge in head foremost. You will not only find the good old English bath refreshing, but if you are an expert diver in such waters, you may bring up 89 some of the jewels good men left there for your benefit two or three hundred years ago. To pursue the metaphor, you may, if you please, place the jewels in your own setting, sell them as your own at modern value, and very few (with the exception of such ancient jewellers as myself) will be able to detect you in the theft.
You must not confound Donne and his imitators with that other metaphysical school of which Sir John Davies was the author. Davies was an eminent lawyer in the time of King James, who admired him much; besides being successively solicitor and attorney-general, he sat for some years in the House of Commons as the representative of Corse Castle, in Dorsetshire. He not only wrote twenty-six acrostics on the name of Elizabeth, which were published under the title of Hymns to Astrea, and which, according to Ellis, “are probably the best acrostics ever written,” but he was also the author of Orchestra, a poem on dancing. His great work, however, was the Nosce Teipsum, a philosophical poem in ten-syllable verses, disposed in quatrains, similar in form to Sir Thomas Overbury’s Wife and Will Davenant’s Gondifert. Nosce Teipsum is the earliest poem of the kind in the language. It treats of human knowledge, of the soul of man, and the immortality thereof. The quatrains resemble the Maxims of Rochefoucault. Davies expressed nice simple philosophy in melodious and elegant language. He is never deep, but he is always readable, and his style is wonderfully well sustained. His great poem is rather superior to that portion of the Mirror for Magistrates which the vigorous pen of Thomas Sackville did not endeavour to immortalise.
Dryden, who went deep into the Elizabethan gold-mines, styles Donne “the greatest wit, but not the greatest poet, in our language,”—praise which would hold truer in Dryden’s time than it possibly can in the present day. At all events, Donne is the first of his class in point of merit, as well as in point of time. He is deeper, profounder, and more original than any of his imitators. He is never shallow, as Cowley often is; and he has more common sense than Cowley. Besides his poems, he wrote the Pseudo Martyr, to which I have already alluded, a folio volume of sermons, and a quaint performance entitled Biathanatos, which is a refutation of the common notion that suicide is necessarily sinful.
Donne’s prose is fully as involved and metaphysical as his poetry. There is some powerful argumentative writing in his book against Popery; and in his sermons, amid much that is finical and pedantic, we come upon ideas and expressions which have the brilliance of the genuine gold. We have it on excellent authority, that Donne was a successful preacher; but such a preacher would be unintelligible nowadays. In those times, the best intellects not only flocked into the Church, but they almost invariably did so; and such a galaxy of gifted divines as ornamented the reigns of Elizabeth and James, has not been seen since Laud promulgated his great system of Thorough. To the bosom 90 of the orthodox English Church, clung clusters of gifted poets and philosophers. So the Church prospered, and the gifted gentleman got fat capons, in the shape of livings, spiced with tasty little benefices.
Donne was the second man to write English satire proper. Bishop Hall made the first attempt in his Virgilemiarum, or bundle of rods, which was published in 1597:
“I first adventure, follow me who list,
And be the second English satirist.”
The French had already given birth to Regnier, the Italians to Ariosto; but Hall’s chief models were the Roman satirists, Juvenal and Persius in particular. Donne followed with verses less musical, but far more vigorous and fuller of good character-painting. He lashed the vices of society and the Court, and literary charlatans. It is difficult to select from the satires passages which are both good and unobjectionable; for Donne fell into the common vice of his time, and sometimes wrote indecently. Here is part of the summing-up of the third satire, in which he has satirised the Roman Catholic, the Genevese, the non-believer, and even the English churchman, in their search for true religion; and it will presently be seen what meaning he had in so doing.
“Though Truth and Falsehood be
Near twins, yet Truth a little older is:
Be busie to seeke her; believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
T’ adore or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad. Doubt wisely. In strange way
To stand enquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep or run wrong is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands.”
I am very glad indeed that Donne wrote satires, and am sorry that he did not abstain from writing epigrams. The epigram should have the flash of the sunstroke, and strike its subject down at a blow. His mind had not sufficient velocity for this species of composition. But his best things are his shorter poems. In them, I find genuine poetry, real inspiration. The following conceit is better (to my thinking) than all the epigrams that were ever penned, save those of Theocritus, which I like because, instead of being adders with stings, they are cabinets of pastoral sweets:
For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love,
Or chide my palsy or my gout,
My five gray hairs or ruined fortunes flout;
With wealth your state, your minds with art improve.
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour or his Grace,
Or the King's real or his stamped face
Contemplate. What you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
We can die by it, if not live by Love.
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms. 91
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes as half-acre tombs;
And by those hymns all shall approve
Us canonized for love.”
As for the epigrams, they are as bad as one might have expected them to be. Here is one of the best of them, “On a Lame Beggar:”
“‘I am unable,’ yonder beggar cries,
‘To stand or move;’ if he says true, he lies.”
And now, Minerva, my critic, I must wish you good-by; and when you next write to me, I know you will be in a better temper. I forgot to notice your sly hint that the ends of poetry were frivolous. Ah, you will grow wiser! Does not the example of these good men, of whom I love to discourse to you, prove that poesy is a holy of holies in which sage men may delight, and that it may make sages and heroes of us? As for you, hero-worshiping and appreciative reader, you must excuse me if I myself come often before my literary curtain. Well, I am the Prologue, the Epilogue, and the Choragus of Choragi. I do not talk to you in propriâ persone without an object. Lecteur, je suis moy mesme la matière de mon livre. That is to say, I am part of it; and I hope, by the introduction of my poor modern personality, to make you understand my lay figures better. I think the present Paper ought to send you to the works of Dr. Donne. You will find them much better than any extracts I have given; for the whole mental habits of the poet must be mastered before the beauty of the poems can be perceived or comprehended.
R. W. B.
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From Temple Bar - August, 1862 - Vol. 6, pp. 129-137.
IN the programme put out by the Commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1862, there was a clause which caused considerable annoyance to a number of well-meaning but ungraceful gentlemen, and which elicited some rather savage skirmishing among the members of the newspaper press. The objectionable clause alluded to stipulated, on behalf of the Commissioners, that no civilian should be permitted to take part in the opening procession unless clad in court-attire. No wonder that Society grumbled; no wonder that the poet-laureate chose to shroud himself from the gaze of the giggling crowd. The result of the arrangement was the one anticipated by most Englishmen with any sense of humour: it made a great number of husbands and fathers look ridiculous. Her Majesty’s Ministers were not privileged to escape the requirements of the clause; and it is notable that almost every official commoner in the procession, with the exception of Mr. Disraeli, looked exceedingly awkward about the lower limbs. Apart from the question of comfort or common sense, the whole affair was objectionable in a social sense, and exhibited a rancid bad taste, very unfitting so national an occasion. It was an attempt on the part of the Commissioners to individualise a class, and to give a conservative bearing to the part they themselves took in the ceremony. The Commissioners conquered; but, in conquering, they were compelled to submit to the contemptuous jeers of the general public. Further, many practical men, who had previously been active in the great movement, refused to put in an appearance at the opening. Their absence was a tacit condemnation of the absurdity, and an expression of their opinion that the Commissioners had mistaken the liberal spirit in which the Exhibition had been first suggested and conceived.
Tyranny such as this is not at all displeasing to Mrs. Grundy. Society of late years has grown impersonal to a degree which Coleridge and Wordsworth, when they beheld the first throes of the Revolution, never contemplated; and the standard of all excellence nowadays appears to be, not individuality, but mediocrity. This is a hard truth; recognised in England by Mr. Mill, and in Germany by the late Chevalier Bunsen. Originality, in the eyes of the modern Minerva, is a rather offensive form of vagabondism; but to be mediocre is to be highly respectable. This mediocrity may consist in marrying and giving in marriage, child-bearing, tax-paying; in short, in an eminently practical view of life, seasoned with a wholesome respect for the law. With all this, Society still remains a Tory at heart. She has, it is true, in the words of Volney, “dignified with the name of virtue the observation of certain postures;” but she has still the old personal or class pride,—the sort of pride which Jonson terms a “schism,” that of “incivility.” Again and again does she make spasmodic dying efforts to establish the old régime. Liberal to an excess, she nevertheless cultivates the morbid mania for spirit- rapping. Commercial to the backbone, she goes into ecstasies, for five minutes, at the vagaries of a brood of subjective poetasters—“that come like shadows, so depart.” Prim and proper in the highest degree, she thinks fit to recognise the vagabond gipsy spirit in the exploits of a Du Chaillu. All this time the mob goes on buying and selling, marrying and intermarrying, tax-paying. We are all equal; provided we respect the law, we may look upon ourselves as our own lawgivers. But the great equal brotherhood of nations meet to inaugurate an Exhibition, and Society complacently approves that her votaries should make themselves exclusively ridiculous in court-dresses.
One of the recent successful efforts of Society was to establish a republic of letters. The decree went forth that individuality, even in authorship, was scarcely tolerable; and forthwith there burst upon the world the compact sun of periodical literature. The literary man, as a type, died a lingering death in the persons of such “ancient living memories” as Leigh Hunt; but the real power, the active literary principle as operating upon politics and manners, lay in the fourth estate. The revolution has been going on ever since Johnson wrote the “Letter to Chesterfield”—that noble protest of the individual, as the representative of a class, against the tyranny of a convention rooted in money and pedigree. Slowly and surely since then has the revolution been operating. Finally, in our own day, the profession of literature has itself become impersonal—subject to all the laws, big and little, that convention chooses to place upon its shoulders.
A practical turn of thinking being the order of the time, men no longer write for posterity. The community in which we dwell being in reality a commercial one, men estimate their work at trade-value and sell it to the bookseller. This is respectable, and, so far as a superficial independence goes, independent. The case is contained in a nutshell. Society demands that the man-of-letters should put on a common black coat, and appear respectable. After the buying and selling fashion of the time, he sells his book; and the money so procured enables him to dress, think, act, like a highly respectable member of an impersonal society. He thus compromises between the shop and the parlour; as a commercial character he is impersonal, and, being impersonal, he is of necessity respectable.
To individualise himself at all, he would have to break some law—criminal, social, or religious. He prefers the compromise.
Now and then, the wild erratic spirit breaks out wildly, morbidly, unhealthily. Among artists, indeed,—I mean “persons who paint,”—a vagabond gipsy exclusiveness still prevails to a considerable extent; but Mr. Ruskin preaches pre-Raphaelitism, and they are fast losing their distinctive features. Society chose to turn up her nose at professional painters—as, indeed, she had done ever since Balsac’s time; but she accepted a fair compromise in the respectable pettifogging commercial spirit of a Turner.
As literature had so compromised with Society, it became an act of courtesy on Society’s part to be civil to men-of- letters. At a certain stage, when idealism was distasteful to her, she invented the modern novel; a form of writing in which convention has of late years chosen to express itself. The literature of fiction is the literature of Society; and there were not wanting many clever people able to regale us with inoffensive and agreeable social pictures. At this stage, literary men adopted another compromise with conscience. Instead of holding the mirror up to nature, they consulted their pockets, and held the LOOKING-GLASS up to Society.
On taking a very brief survey of the literature of fiction, one ascertains that its tone is transient, and that it has very little passion or purity in it. It is permeated by the atmosphere of the counting-house, and it bears about the same relation to true ethics as the squabbles of a vestry do to the struggles of a nation. Indeed, the literature of fiction is transient, because it is the literature of Society, which is transient in most of its phases. It is, as has been said, Society’s Looking- glass.
It is only the broad outlines of character which survive for all time. Tom Jones is a very ordinary scamp, one to be found in every city in every age; just as Romeo, apart from his attire and his blank verse, is the fair type of a young lover. But the social life which enabled Tom to play his pranks with some impunity had nearly passed away by the time when Fielding became a judge. Vanity Fair has its significance for all time,—although, in its narrow integrity, it is simply a photograph, from a cynical point of view, of the Vanity Fair of the nineteenth century. Ivanhoe is still radically true to the internals of life; and, in some branches of modern Society, Front-de-Bœuf might be found in the Horse Guards, Cedric the Saxon in the grocer’s shop, and Isaac, the Hebrew gentleman, among the old-clothes shops in Holywell Street. It is, after all, unquestionable that true pictures of extinct social life have their historical value; and in the close attention to detail which renders them commonplace to the Society they image, should be their meaning and beauty as seen by the inquiring intellects of after generations. It would appear, therefore, that Society’s Looking-glass must mirror innumerable commonplaces. The images pass and change: what is convention to-day, becomes precedent to-morrow, and tradition the day after. Society, or Mrs. Grundy, is a very changeable crotchety lady; sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous; often delicate, oftener in bad taste; variable as the pageant of the clouds. Her costume changes like her temper; her manners alter like her opinions.
Scott, great in all things, is unquestionably the greatest modern author who ever held up the looking-glass of fiction. He is true both to human types and to Society. His imagination, although healthy, was not lofty enough to induce self- absorption, and he was able to clothe the bare outline of history with a sympathy which had its root in a soil compound of common sense and poetry. Writing at a time when individualism was at its height in England, ere Whig and Tory had merged into one vacuous nonentity entitled Liberal-Conservatism, he could not fail to shadow forth those higher aspirations which are the exclusive property of individual men of genius. Yet no man ever laboured to detail trifles with a more lofty devotion to general truth. There was no finicism in the Author of Waverley. He depicted the manners and customs of ordinary or extraordinary men and women; he was a faithful aesthetic photographer. But over all his creations lies the brilliant dazzling radiance of the poetic sympathies, giving to what might have been simply a colourless photograph the marvellous beauty of a grand literary painting. His was no common looking-glass; but a magical mirror which, if it flattered sometimes, was capable of giving distinctive features to human faces—of suggesting the soul at work within, triumphant over all the vagaries of convention, and aspiring to a heaven infinitely higher than that seen by respectable people through the roof of Exeter Hall.
When Scott wrote, Society was not averse to discriminate flattery, and the magical rose-coloured mirror pleased her. Nowadays, however, she is determined to have the looking-glass of fiction simply a looking-glass, in which she can secretly examine her own follies, flaws, beauties. She is content, therefore, with the reflection of her superficial features— the externals and “realities” of daily life. Consequently few, if any, of our novelists see farther than the domestic parlour and the drawing-room window. The cant about being practical eats into authorship like a cancer, and no Hippocrates or black doctor can lance it out. The novelists simply follow the system of Society, who sleekens the boy into a machine well-oiled, and superfinishes the girl—for sale. Theirs being an eminently respectable creed, one of the first principles of which is to make money, they sacrifice originality, and write to please the whim of Society. In the natural course of things, they find that the ideal and metaphysical element is unmarketable, and they consequently hold the looking-glass in such a manner as to catch the most trivial domestic pictures. Society does not want to see a reflection of her internal organism— in which, of course, an active ideal principle is secretly working. She chooses to interest herself in trifles light as air,—not in great social problems. She prefers millinery to metaphysics, photography to poetry, crochet to astronomy. She believes romantic affections, grand passions, to be out of date; but she will go into ecstasies in following the details of a little love-affair. She is bored by abstract doctrine, but she can appreciate the sweet lisping sermon of a pet pastor. Thus encouraged, the novelists set to work to study the minutiæ of character and incident; and the outcry they make in order to please the publisher has been characterised, falsely however, as Realism.
The novel-consuming public has, however unconsciously, proceeded on the gratuitous assumption that whatever is poetical, or ideal in a high degree, must be false, and that whatever is mediocre must be true. Perfect heroes and heroines, idealised in an element where Cupid grows sickly and writes maudlin verses, have been very properly done away with. To so great an extent has the thing been carried, that handsome people, in books, are barely interesting. Not only is it suggested that Strephon piping as if he would never grow old, and Amaryllis singing among her flock of snowy sheep, are barely endurable; but it has been ascertained that Strephon is often an idle ill-conditioned lout, who lounges at the ale-house, and Amaryllis a broadspoken redhanded young woman with soiled stockings. On the same assumption, we must separate mind from millinery,—well-dressed women who read Greek and quote Aristotle being exceptions to ordinary experience. Muscular Christianity having been promulgated from a pulpit at Eversley, we must disbelieve in consumptive curates. To continue the catalogue of illustrations were superfluous. The fact in brief is, that Society has come to a conclusion that it is possible to depict real life agreeably and truly without idealising it; that to idealise the facts and personages of real life is to produce false social pictures, to seriously misinterpret the functions of art in general; and that, to be capable of the finest interpretation at the hands of Society, Art should be rather photographic than pictorial. While Realism, in literature, has produced a whole generation of earnest novelists, it has, in technical art, produced pre- Raphaelitism. Whatever else may be said of Realism, pro or contra, it must be acknowledged that it has recently been the guiding star of many admirable writers, and that it has encouraged many respectable people to print experiences which have proved useful to the great mass of the public.
The novelist of a recent generation was complained of justly. Wielding a delicate and fragile quill, and attempting to be intensely pure and feminine, he succeeded in writing like an insipid spinster of fifty. There was no flesh and blood in his men and women. They were simply colourless puppets shivering on the brink of moral evangelism. Scott, and Scott only, succeeded in sounding depths which no common talent can reach; and this, as I have said, not by means of the photographic apparatus now in vogue, but by means of the poetic intuition. But the realists have put commonplace experience into language intelligible to a large portion of the general community; and, studious of that minute detail which characterises the pre-Raphaelites in Art, and which has enabled those gentlemen to become a power in the Academy, they have effected a revolution in modern literature. Society being impersonal, the novel contains no longer a hero and a heroine, but a cluster of heroes and heroines, painted from nature with attention even to the slightest peculiarity in an eyebrow.
A careful eye to the elaboration of trifles is absolutely essential to perfection in a work of Art. The mispainting of a few leaves may mar the effect of a whole tree. It would be as well, however, if pre-Raphaelitism in literature did not affect our broader first conceptions, and if we did not illustrate Butler’s doggrel about the mouse in the telescope. Constant star-gazing is a grand mistake, but it is much more commendable than constant earth-gazing.
It was years ago, when Society possessed a sense of the ludicrous, that a young author first essayed to hold up the looking-glass to his mistress. What magic spell was there in his method? Society came to the glass in a jocund mood, her face radiant with fun and humour; and, behold, the glass gleamed back her smiles—lending delicacy and brightness to every dimple in the happy face. This is a figurative way of saying that Charles Dickens was a master of his craft. Our most original, and by far our greatest, living novelist is not a realist in the ordinary acceptation of the term. He exhibits quaint faces, which are so unlike any made by respectable people save when at the looking-glass, that they must live for all time in strange mosaic. So admirable and lovable are these faces, that they will survive to remote generations. But of late years Dickens has suffered more or less in the estimation of a public which was accustomed to make him its idol. The realists won’t or can’t believe in him, and they have made a great outcry against him. Notwithstanding all this, he is a man of genius, a humorist of the heart—twin brother to Rabelais and Cervantes. The impersonal nature of the time has given him a host of imitators. Feeble copies of Dickens have been as common as poor imitations of Tennyson; little men have been encouraged by Society, who tolerates no individuality, to borrow or copy the quaint robe in which our Prospero of fiction weaves his spells. The result has been a tendency among critics, the applauders of mediocrity, to undervalue the sort of art in which Dickens excels. Our author has borne these slights good-humouredly, in the certainty that posterity will approve the extinct faith. A slight reaction in his favour took place on the publication of Great Expectations. In this case it was not the surpassing genius of the book which set the critical puppets dallying, and made even the obtuse Saturday Reviewer bow gracefully to the potent wand. Society was sick for a moment of realism, surfeited with the trash of some realists, and for a moment it wavered back to humour—an idealistic element in its loftier phases. Still, however, she continues to quarrel with the great master because he does not manœuvre with respectable automata. Is it nothing that Dickens is always consistent as an artist; that he lives in a world of his own, in which the atmosphere and landscape are in perfect keeping with the beings who live and breathe there, who eat, drink, live, and die there? A humorist and a poet perceives character where Goodman Dull sees only a face of skin and bone. If Dickens is true to the affections and the sympathies, let him clothe his figures in whatever quaint drapery he chooses. We can pardon him much; for he is master of that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin.
Realism has served at least one admirable purpose—that of bringing women prominently before the public as bookwriters. The lady-novelists are the most truthful of all æsthetic photographers. Narrow as their range necessarily is, they have been encouraged to describe thoughts and emotions with which men are of necessity unfamiliar; and their style is free from the incongruities of previous authors. Disciplined in a school of sorrow, closely observant of detail, and painfully dependent on the caprice of the male sex, they essay to paint in works of art the every-day emotions of commonplace or imaginative women, and the domestic experience of sensible daughters, wives, and mothers. Greatest by far of all female novelists, and greatest by virtue of the poetic inspiration, is George Sand; after her, Miss Austin. The author of Pride and Prejudice was an artist; she depicted concisely, albeit narrowly, and her pictures were artistically true to a narrow circle. But George Sand is a woman of genius; while Miss Austin was without imagination, and full of the spirit of English parochialism. In the novels of Miss Muloch, one meets with many of those emotional views of life in which girls delight; but the record here is untrue to the male sex, because the author’s experience of men is necessarily imperfect. The author of Adam Bede was, in her last work, true to the best interests of Art. The great secret of Miss Evans’s success is her power of localisation, her capacity of presenting great social truths in a manner concisely intelligible to the narrowest experience. In Silas Marner she improved upon her previous efforts. The book, considered as a complete work of art, totus teres atque rotundus, was more fragmentary than were either Adam Bede or the Mill on the Floss; but it contained deep poetical truths, and was full of ideal character-painting. The plot was in itself sufficiently old and simple; turning on the gradual softening, by means of a little child, of a heart made morbid and bitter by an early misconception. Silas, the miserly weaver, the victim of an unjust implication and an early passion, seeks consolation in the slow accumulation of money, and is ultimately reclaimed by means of a high and holy affection. It is impossible to furnish any idea of the skill with which such comparatively slight materials were wrought into a form which, in its integrity, touches the tenderest chords of our human nature. The local atmosphere was perfect. All was in keeping with the homeliest knowledge, but the whole was tinged by a tender meaning which was almost poetry. The book belonged to a class of novels which are intensely realistic in form, expressing, however, the ideal aspect of human nature. The spirit which pervades these novels, and which gives them value, is that of the healthy feminine mind depending for its relaxation on reminiscences synonymous with a narrow and painful domestic life. The genius of the author of Silas Marner seems to have been chastened by trial, and hallowed afterwards by the pitying hand of Patience. It is noble and useful genius; but its aspirations are not lofty, and it is only ideal when dealing with commonplace emotions.
It is seldom that a really talented woman puts forth a book with the sole view of attaining literary position; and perhaps the author of Silas Marner could explain what women in bookwriting seek besides the bubble reputation. The birth of the novel has given speech to many ladies who must otherwise have been silent. At least two-thirds of all the novels published nowadays—of all the good, bad, or indifferent stories vended to the circulating-libraries—are by feminine hands. There have been Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Jewsbury, Mrs. Henry Wood, Mrs. Marsh, Mrs. Trollope, Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Gaskell, Miss Muloch, Mrs. Stowe, Miss Sinclair, Miss Young, and a host of others; all whose works are in the highest degree feminine, and good of their kind. All these ladies had to relate experiences which would have remained unuttered had not fiction, and realism in fiction, been clamoured for at the libraries. At first, this innovation was looked upon as an encroachment, but Society soon ascertained that it would not infringe her laws of impersonality. The tone of the lady-novelists was at first Della Cruscan, and morbidly coloured by an affected sentimentality. Nowadays, however, it is quite harmless. But there are still some men who grudge to their wives and daughters a voice in literature; deluded men these, so unfortunate as to have had to deal only with strong-minded women given to spectacles. Few will deny that the lady-novelists have caught certain novel lights and shades in Society’s Looking-glass. They have revealed to us hidden chords of the female heart, together with strange suggestions relative to woman’s influence on modern society and manners; and they have given practical men some idea of the point of view from which women regard the ethics of the sterner sex. What grumbler will deny that there was sound knowledge in Miss Austin, and dangerous wisdom in Mrs. Gore? Let it be noted, also, that the lady-novelists have taught the gentlemen-novelists to look more accurately into the position of women; to pay them the high respect of perceiving the correlation of their social and intellectual positions. It having been determined, luckily for ladies who are much confined indoors, that the soft sex shall have a voice in art as well as in the household, it is hoped that no husband will be brute enough to grudge his wife permission to prove herself as competent to hold up the Looking-glass as her neighbours.
One must observe that Realism, improperly so-called, appears under other and varied phases; but Society is continually reacting against the cant. The latest reaction against realism—one now actively exhausting itself, however—has been called “sensation.” For examples of the “sensation” novel, we have only to refer to Mr. Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White and Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer’s Strange Story. The tone of the first is morbid and realistic; the tone of the second is morbid and idealistic. It is noticeable, however, that the interpretation of the plot of the latter as given by the author himself, is that of practical philosophy. On the stage, “sensation” asserts itself in dramas like the Colleen Bawn and the Peep o’ Day. In private life, it is to be found under the guise of mesmerism and spirit-rapping. “Sensation,” it is obvious, is intensely impersonal. It merges the individual in the incident, as in the sensation novel; or it gains its object by the effective grouping of a mass, as in the sensation drama. Its object is an intensely commercial one. It appeals not to the sympathies of the educated few, but to those of the general public; and the definite purpose of its followers is to make money: quite a practical purpose this, sufficiently agreeable, and from all points of view respectable. It entails no originality. It is influential also in Art; and it has been appropriately observed, by a contributor to the Athenæum, that “we hear constantly that such-and-such a picture cost so many thousands of pounds,—a clap-trap invention, which appeals to the same order of taste that appraises the Koh-i-noor, not for its rarity and purity, but for the mere gold it cost, or is said to have cost.” Mr. Frith’s paintings are, it seems to me, at once realistic and sensational; a curious enough mixture of opposite qualities. They are true to the outward types of life; they are full of excellent photography and grouping. But they are painted on a sensational scale, and depend for their effect on the judicious arrangement of a mass of figures.
Society’s Looking-glass is the comparatively truthful reflection of Society herself, and its present flaws and imperfections lie less in itself than in the character of the thing imaged. Let it be hoped, however, that Love, Sympathy, and Poetry still lurk in some secret corner of the great fair of vanities. Realism, properly so called, is truth, and truth is always beautiful; and Art is a copy of nature, drawn by the human hand, and coloured with the aspirations of that human soul without whose light the great face of the world would be devoid of expression. Without the lofty ideal life, the external life would be meaningless and unintelligible; they are woven together by the fine threads of poetry and religion, and each is so inextricably linked with each, that only the scythe of death can cut them asunder. What a miserable world would this be, were there no spiritual interpretation to its darkest problems!
This is not carping at Society. Generally, her literature resolves itself into false fun, cynicism, and psychology. The philosopher is a respectable cynic, with an eye to social evils. The poet is a psychologist, navigating the storm in a tea- cup. Among novelists, particularly, there is a finicism which paralyses bold conception. Let us hope that a few bold individuals will arise, in the very teeth of convention, and assert the more than superficial power of reflection possessed, in literature, by Society’s Looking- glass.
R. W. B.
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