ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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OTHER ESSAYS (2)

 

1. Bridal Poetry

2. Wylie’s Life of Thomas Carlyle

3. A Talk With George Eliot

4. The Landlord-Shooters

 

From The St. James’s Magazine - December, 1863 - Vol. 9, pp. 55-69.

 

BRIDAL POETRY.

——“Hominum divumque voluptas
Alma Venus!

                         LUCRETIUS, “DE RERUM NATURA.”

 

SCARCELY had Mrs. Blank and I annihilated, to our own satisfaction, the cynical and sophisticated Haggatt, and demonstrated beyond contradiction that Baby was an institution worthy to be upheld and sung about, * when our pretty Danish Princess alighted in flowers at Gravesend, and was greeted by blood royal with a smack which resounded all over the United Kingdom. Of course I went out into London streets, determined, if possible, to catch a glimpse of the pretty bride. Of course Mrs. Blank was detained at home by tiddlepops, and of course I returned home indescribably crushed and stupefied. Then ensued a conversation, part of which may be entertaining to unmarried readers.
     “Well! well! well!” Three exclamations, accompanied by three eager looks of flushed inquiry, and repeated at short intervals. “Is she pretty? Is she as pretty as they say she is?”
     “You allude to the Princess?”
     “Of course,” replied Curiosity, with a pout.
     “In that case, my dear,” I replied, “I cannot do better than tell you what I saw, interlarding my narration by a running comment on what I felt. On pushing my way Cityward I found myself in the midst of a crowd, which gradually increased in density, until, in the Strand, I was struggling in the midst of a tempestuous ocean of human beings of all grades, from the snob down to the unsnobisticated costermonger. It was a scramble, a squeeze, a squash! With a tall gentleman’s elbow in my neck, a short gentleman’s elbow in my ribs, a hob-nailed party’s boot on my tenderest toe, I was beaten eastward slowly, painfully, but progressively. Gradually, Emily, I lost consciousness of time, of space, of self-identity. I resembled the most infinitesimal claw of an enormous centipede. See? hear? I could not; I could only feel. This seemed to last for ages. Then I suddenly became conscious that the great crowd was shouting vociferously, and that I was shouting with the rest. The crowd eddied to and fro; horsemen and carriages swept past; I heard loud expressions of applause and admiration; I saw the tip of the Prince of Wales’s nose; and I felt tortures akin to that of being crunched by the monster Ugulino jaws described in Dante.”
     “Then you did not see the Princess at all?” cried Emily, with a disappointed look.

_____

* “Poems about Babies,” vol. viii., p. 441.
_____

56   I laughed derisively, pointed out the damaged state of my apparel, and threw myself back with a shrug of intense fatigue.
     “By the way,” I observed, presently, “whom do you think I saw battling like myself in the crowd?—whom but the cynic Haggatt. His hat was crushed, his shirt-front was disordered, his whole appearance was lamentable; but I distinctly heard him laying down the law to a companion. ‘What did I say?’ gasped the tyrant. ‘Was I right or wrong? Why, O why did you tempt me hither? In low life and in high life a wedding is a nuisance to everybody but the chief parties concerned. ’Tis the beginning of a long term of sorrow. The minor actors feel miserable, the chief actors look     ridiculous.’”
     It is needless to say that Emily disdained to comment verbally on such language as this; but had Haggatt been present, her Medusa look would have petrified him to stone. For my own part, my sufferings during the day had almost converted me to Haggattism; but I was much too wise a man to avow the imminent heresy. By-and-bye, when my inner man was refreshed, and the cherub simplex munditiis was fast asleep, we again approached the topic of the day.
     “After all,” I observed, in my dictatorial mood—“after all, matrimony is, under any circumstances, a very solemn, serious affair; and this marriage is especially solemn, because not only the happiness of two individuals, but that of a whole people, is involved in the result. How much do we all owe to that union which was so bitterly rent asunder when Albert the Good breathed his last!”
     “Not wholly rent asunder,” observed Faith, with serious eyes, “if, as we all believe, there is something beyond the clouds of this tempestuous life of ours. But I was going to ask you, What have your friends the poets had to say on this subject of the marriage? Have you seen Mr. Tennyson’s ‘Welcome’?”
     “I have seen the ‘Welcome.’ Like all the Laureate’s recent productions, it is cautious, short, and timid. It is, however, to the point. Luckily, Mr. Tennyson has not attempted to write an epithalamium. The spirit of business enters nowadays into so poetical a ceremony as a bridal, and it would require a bold man to scatter upon the path of a newly-married couple such flowers as the old minstrels liberally plucked and distributed. Tempora mutantur, my dear. I should be sorry to think, however, that the marriage ceremony is unworthy to be sung about, or that those concerned in it do not develop a state of emotion poetical in a high degree. I won’t ask you how you felt on a certain interesting occasion; I know you cried a good deal!”
     Emily blushed, and requested me to abstain from personalities.
     “Marriage, my dear Emily, is a sacred ceremony. I will not go so far as to say that all marriages are made in heaven; but I will boldly assert that marriage, theoretically speaking, is a noble ordination. The wedding day is the dawn of a new, a second being. The bridegroom 57 looks eagerly forward with a flushed, hopeful face; the bride, more timid, clings to the stronger arm, and looks backward on the peace she has resigned. Joy rises golden in the distance, but it sparkles upon tears. Bride and bridegroom stand hesitating on the brink of a path leading into tangled woods; but so far as the eye can see, the path is one of flowers. They tremble, they delay. To encourage them the glad bells ring out, the people shout, the path sparkles in the sun. ‘Come,’ whispers the bridegroom, and they step in. The sun shines, the birds sing, the flowers sprinkle perfumes. Onward wander bride and bridegroom, followed by friendly eyes, until they pass round a flowery curve, and are hidden from sight. The path seems to darken behind them; eyes strain in vain to catch a glimpse of them. What path have they turned into? Whither are they wandering? We can only conjecture. Perhaps they are lost among the mazes; perhaps they have stumbled into the pitfalls. Perhaps, on the other hand, they have found, far in the secret depths of the wood, a cherub sleeping silently. They have approached breathlessly, clinging to one another, and have peeped into the sleeper’s face; and they have learned, to their joy, that, for their sakes, to bind them the more closely to one another, Jesus has once more made Himself into the image of a little child!”
     Emily sighed.
     “I am afraid,” she said, “that your wedding picture is too high-coloured to hit the general truth. How many unhappy weddings do we see! how many marriages of convenience! There was Nelly Mansel, who, poor silly thing, married the middle-aged broker from Mincing Lane. She walked to the altar as pale as a lily; and when Tomlins put the ring on her finger, she looked into his eyes with a shudder!”
     “Perish the picture!” I exclaimed. “Theirs was not a wedding, but a sale by auction. If marriage be not sacred, if it be not the union of pure minds, it is not marriage at all. It is a mockery, a bubble! Ideally speaking—and the ideal is the true measure of the divine plan,—there is no such empty falsehood as you describe. Marriage, to be marriage, must be pure, lofty, hopeful, noble. Even Mrs. Grundy takes this point of view; for she pretends, with her glitter, her parade, to believe that her ceremonies, however basely bargained for, are the beginning of a long career of happiness. Modern satirists have delighted to paint your picture in all the artist’s elaborate colours; but satire, to say the best of it, is a very oblique development of the perceptive faculty. It perceives truth—pure truth, but lacks the power of idealizing it. The old poets, however, caught the right point of vantage. All their glorious tints, those elaborate compliments, those joyful ejaculations, are true to the ideal aspect of the bridal ceremony; and I hold that the ideal aspect is the only true one, simply because it is the highest,—the one which harmonizes best with God’s conception. One of the noblest bridal poems in any language opens thus:—

‘Collis O Heliconei                                                        58
Cultor, Uraniæ genus,
Qui rapis teneram ad virum
Virginem, O Hymenæe Hymen,
Hymen, O Hymenæe!

‘Cinge tempora floribus
Suaveolentis amarici.
Flammeum cape: lætus huc,
Huc veni, niveo gerens
Luteum pede soccum:

‘Excitusque hilari die,
Nuptialia concinens
Voce carmina tinnulâ,
Pelle humum pedibus, manu
Pineam quate tædam!’ *

     “In an English caput mortuum;—

‘O thou, Urania’s heaven-born son,
Whose loved abode is Helicon,
Whose power bestows the virgin’s charms
To bless the youthful bridegroom’s arms,
O Hymen! friend to faithful pairs,
O Hymen! hear our fervent prayers!

‘Around thy brow the chaplet bind,
Of fragrant marjoram entwined;
And bring the veil with crimson dyed,
The refuge of the blushing bride.
Come, joyous, while thy feet of snow
With yellow sandals brightly glow.

‘Arouse thee on this happy day,
Carol the hymeneal lay,
Raise in the strain thy silver voice,
And in the festal dance rejoice;
And brandish high the blissful sign,
The guiding torch of flaming pine.’

     “The above rendering, my dear, is by Mr. Lamb—the Honourable—not the Lamb who was so fond of roast pig. It  is, as I have said, a caput mortuum; but as I have not yet invested in Mr. Theodore Martin’s ‘Catullus,’ I know no other. The nuptials of Manlius and Julia is a gem in a gorgeous setting, and would have well rewarded the labours of such excellent jewellers as Shelley or Leigh Hunt. The translation of Redi’s ‘Bacchus in Tuscany,’ by the latter, is one of the best things in our language. In this poem of ‘Catullus,’ the whole atmosphere is one of joy, the measure having a ring about it which places it far above all other Latin efforts of the same kind. The ‘Stella and Violantella’ of Statius

_____

* Catullus, “In Nnptias Juliæ et Manlii.”
_____

59 has many fine qualities; and there is power in the epithalamium of Jason and Creusa, sung in Seneca’s tragedy of ‘Medea.’ Neither of these efforts, however, surpasses another nuptial song by Catullus,—a chant of youths and maidens, on the occasion, some suppose, of the same marriage.—But there, I am tiring you, and will descend to poets with whom you are more familiar. What do you think of our Spenser’s epithalamium on his own marriage?”
     “It is so long since I read it,” replied Emily, “that I hardly like to venture upon an opinion.”
     “Being tolerably familiar with my estimate of Spenser’s rank among poets, you will not be surprised to hear me say that I think it one of the noblest compositions I have ever read. In melody and in luxuriance of appropriate imagery it surpasses even the ‘Carmen’ of Catullus. Nothing more specially beautiful has been penned on any given theme. Here, too, all is joyful, though the hymn opens in an address of graceful solemnity:—

‘Ye learned Sisters! which have oftentimes
Been to me aiding, others to adorn,
Whom ye thought worthy of your graceful rimes,
That ev’n the greatest did not greatly scorn
To hear their names sung in your simple layes,
But joyèd in their praise; . . . .
Having all your heads with garlands crown’d,
Help me mine own love’s praises to resound,
Ne let the fame of any be envide:
So Orpheus did for his own bride;
So I unto myself alone will sing,
The words shall to me answer, and my eccho ring!’

     “But the glad day has dawned, and the bridegroom bids the learned sisters, with all the nymphtry of land and sea, go to the bower of his ‘beloved love,’ and ‘bid her awake, for Hymen is awake.’ Immediately we hear in the music the gay gatherings of the nymphs, carrying fresh garlands, and the bachelors that wait on Hymen. The sun rises golden, and the glad tumult increases. Louder and louder the woods answer, and the echoes ring; the sunshine flashes, the birds sing. ‘Awake,’ cries the bridegroom, ‘and hearken to the birds’ love-learned song the dewy leaves among.’ The bride wakes. Come now, ye damsels, and ‘ye three handmaids of the Cyprian queen, help her to attire herself.’ At last she is ready to come forth. The tumult grows louder and merrier; the pipe and tabor strike up; the damsels smite their timbrels, dancing the while; boys run up and down the street, crying, ‘Hymen io Hymen!’ Then follows a long and exquisitely beautiful description of the bride. The vein is one of wild hyperbole, but the occasion is hyperbolical. The lover, distracted with his joy, heaps flower upon flower, pearl upon pearl. So the glad procession 60 moves on to the altar. All is an odour of happiness. The roaring organs loudly play the praises of the Lord, and the hollow-throated choristers sing anthems. The very hands of the clergyman are blest!

‘Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
     Hearing the holy priest that to her speaks,
And blesses her with his too happy hands,
     How the red roses flush up in her cheeks.’

The music seems to pause gently while the service proceeds. The eyes of the bride are fixed in modest sadness on the ground, till ‘all is done.’ Then the shouting and pealing ring out again, and the reckless bridegroom becomes prodigally liberal:—

——‘Bring home the bride again,
Bring home the triumph of our victory:
Bring home with you the glory of her gain,
With joyance bring her, and with jollity.
Never had man more joyful day than this,
Whom Heaven would heap with bliss!
Make feast, therefore, now all this livelong day;
This day for ever to me holy is;
Pour out the wine without restraint or stay,
Pour not by cups, but by the belly-full.
Pour out to all that will,
And sprinkle all the posts and walls with wine,
That they may sweat and drunken be withal:
Crown ye god Bacchus with a coronal,
And Hymen also crown with wreaths of vine,
And let the Graces dance unto the rest,
For they can do it best;
The whiles the maidens do their carols sing,
To which the woods shall answer, and their eccho ring!’

Bonfires are lit, the young men of the town ring the bells; meanwhile the happy pair haste homeward, while the bright evening star comes out in the east. Then night comes down, and all is silence. Witches, hobgoblins, screech-owls, night- ravens, and damned ghosts disturb not the calm. Silence keeps night-watches, Peace in assurance reigns, and Sleep, ‘when it is time to sleep,’ pours out his dainty limbs. But the bridegroom looks forth from the dark chamber, and    behold!—

‘Whose is the light that at my window peeps?
     Or whose is that fair face which shines so bright?
Is it not Cynthia,—she that never sleeps,
     But walks about high heaven all the night?’

Yes; it is Cynthia, whose horn is full of fair promise. The poem ends with this noble invocation:—

‘And ye, high heavens! the temple of the gods,                             61
In which a thousand torches, flaming bright,
Do burn, that to us wretched earthly clods,
In dreadful darkness, lend desirèd light;
And all ye powers which in the same remain,
More than we men can feign,
Pour out your blessing on us plenteonsly,
And happy influence upon us rain,
That we may raise a large posterity,
Which from the earth, which they may long possess
With lasting happiness,
Up to your haughty palaces may mount,
And for the guerdon of their glorious merit
May heavenly tabernacles there inherit,
Of blessed saints for to increase the count:
So let us rest, sweet Love! in hope of this,
And cease till then our timely joys to sing,
The woods no more us answer, nor our eccho ring!’

     “There! I think you will agree with me, my dear, that this song, made ‘in lieu of ornaments’ to bedeck a genuine bride, was a very splendid bridal present?”
     “Very splendid indeed,” observed Emily, with a sigh. “Perhaps a little too splendid. I have seen a great many weddings, but never such a one as Spenser describes. Perhaps they managed these matters differently when he lived?”
     “They did; but the epithalamium would be just as appropriate if applied to the marriage of a modern Tennyson. In reading it, you must not for a moment lose sight of the fact that it is written from the point of view of the bridegroom himself. In that consists its poetical excellence. Spenser’s ‘Prothalamium,’ or Spousal Verse, is also very fine.”
     “Shakspere, I suppose, has attempted nothing of the sort?”
     “No; nor could he, if he had done so, have excelled Spenser. I question, indeed, whether his union with Miss Hathaway threw him into the necessary delirium. But I will show you a composition very different of its kind, written by one of the younger generation of wits, the friend of Ben Jonson, Carew, and Davenant. It opens thus:—

‘I tell thee, Dick, where I have been,
Where I the rarest things have seen,
     Oh, things beyond compare!
Such sights again cannot be found
In any place on English ground,
     Be it at wake or fair.

‘At Charing Cross, hard by the way,
Where we (thou know’st) do sell our hay,
     There is a house with stairs;
And there did I see coming down
Such folks as are not in our town,
     Vorty at least, in pairs.’

62 It is, you see, a countryman’s description of a City wedding. The finery dazzles him; he is lost in admiration. First he describes the bridegroom, whose finical, effeminate air and fine clothes are rather contemptuously regarded by brawny Mr. Countryman. But the bride! passion o’ me! a paragon:—

‘Her finger was so small, the ring
Would not stay on which they did bring,
     It was too wide a peck:
And to say truth, for out it must,
It look’d like the great collar [just]
     About our young colt’s neck.

‘Her feet beneath her petticoat,
Like little mice, stole in and out,
     As if they fear’d the light:
But oh! she dances such a way!
No sun upon an Easter day
     Is half so fine a sight.

‘Her cheeks so rare a white was on,
No daisy makes comparison
     (Who sees them is undone);
But streaks of red were mingled there,
Such as are on a Catherine-pear,
     The side that’s next the sun.

‘Her lips were red, and one was thin
Compared to that was next her chin,
     Some bee had stung it newly.
But (Dick) her eyes so guard her face,
I dare not more upon them gaze
     Than on the sun in July.

‘Her mouth so small when she does speak
Thou’dst swear her teeth her words did break,
     That they might passage get;
But she so handled still the matter,
They came as good as ours, or better,
     And are not spent a whit.

‘If wishing should be any sin,
The parson himself had guilty been,
     She look’d that day so purely!’

A charming little Miss, you will confess; but something else has to be described,—the wedding feast; a grand set out:—

‘Just in the nick the cook knock’d thrice,
And all the waiters in a trice
     His summons did obey.
Each serving-man, with dish in hand,
March’d boldly up, like our train’d band,
     Presented, and away.

‘When all the meat was on the table,                                       63
What man of knife or teeth was able
     To stay to be entreated. . . .

‘Now hats fly off, and youths carouse;
Healths first go round, and then the house;
     The bride’s fell fast and thick.
And when ’twas named another’s health,
Perhaps he made it hers by stealth,—
     And who could help it, Dick?’

Such is the famous ‘Ballad on a Wedding’ of Sir John Suckling, whom Winstanley calls ‘the Delight of the Court, and the Darling of the Muses.’ Sir John was a gay, gentlemanly fellow, cut off prematurely in his twenty-eighth year. It is to be regretted that, in his other poems, he sought the Court vein of poetry. His ‘Session of the Poets,’ however, though rather rugged as a whole, contains some admirable lines. His masterpiece is the ‘Ballad.’ It is infinitely better than his friend Ben Jonson’s epithalamiums, one of which appears in Underwoods, the other is chanted in a masque on Lord Haddington’s marriage. In both cases Ben wrote as an humble client, and his panegyrics, at the best, are stiff and formal. In the midst of his high-flown description of the bride he breaks out thus absurdly:—

‘See how she paceth forth in virgin white,
Like what she is, the daughter of a duke,
And sister!

which reminds one of Waller’s famous couplet:—

‘And thou, Dallhousy, the great god of war,
Lieutenant-Colonel to the Earl of Mar!

     “Ben had seven children, but we know nothing about his wife, whom he did not take the trouble to celebrate as a divinity. In the days of the Apollo chamber in the ‘Devil Tavern,’ poets were beginning to grow mercenary in their praises of great people; and those who composed epithalamiums for titled people generally became stilted. Parson Herrick, however, was, perhaps, pretty sincere when he wrote his ‘Epithalamie to Sir Robert Southwell and his Ladie,’ *—a poem very unworthy of the writer of the ‘Night Song to Julia.’ Herrick was much too good-natured and jolly to feel at home upon stilts; besides, he was a bachelor. Like the merry Archdeacon Walter de Mapes,—

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     * The reader who takes the trouble to compare this epithalamium with the song, “In Nuptias Juliæ et Manlii,” will find that Herrick followed Catullus very closely,—even to the description of the flammeum, or flame-coloured veil, and the nuces.

_____

‘Mysterious and prophetic truths,                                            64
     He never could unfold ’em
Without a flagon of good wine,
     And a slice of cold ham!’

     “Honest John Donne, immortalized by Izaak Walton, wrote several epithalamiums, which belong to the metaphysical, not the classical school. You, my dear, might make something out of them; I am sure I cannot. Besides being very involved and laboured, they are full of coarse allusions; and they all mention that ill-used bird, the phœnix. The best is the one beginning with an invocation to Bishop Valentine.—But I’m boring you.”
     “Oh no; I always like to hear your opinions about poetry, and the—the subject—is interesting. But tell me, don’t you think it a pity that Milton has not attempted anything of the sort? The author of ‘Comus’ would have surpassed even your pet Spenser on such a theme. He would have been more dignified.”
     “Question, question! Milton, my dear, was unhappy in his domestic relations, and——But what am I talking about? Milton has written a bridal poem, nobler than that of Spenser, because the subject is nobler.”
     “Indeed?”
     “Ah, Emily! Must I include you among those good people who talk of Milton, yet, in strict truth, know next to nothing of his grandest effort?”
     “The ‘Paradise Lost’?” murmured Emily; “I am sure I have read it through two or three times.”
     “I have read it through twenty times, and hope to read it through twenty times more. I have learned more from it than from all the ‘lofty brow flourishers, vainglory-osophers philosophers.’ But what bridal was ever more divine than that of our first father and mother? and what can be nobler than Milton’s description thereof? Do you remember?—

                     ‘To the nuptial bower
I led her blushing like the morn: all heaven
And happy constellations on that hour
Shed their selectest influence; the earth
Gave sign of gratulation, and each hill;
Joyous the birds; fresh gales and gentle airs
Whisper’d it to the woods, and from their wings
Flung rose, flung odours from the spicy shrub,
Disporting till the amorous bird of night
Sung spousal, and bid haste the evening star
On his hill-top, to light the bridal lamp.’

     “But I am wronging my original by quoting a single passage. Up till the entrance of the serpent, the description of Adam and Eve in the garden is a continued hymn of spousal. I cannot refrain, however, from repeating 65 the passage in which Adam describes his emotions in the society of his bride:—

‘Well I understand in the prime end
Of nature her th’ inferior, in the mind
And inward faculties which most excel;
In outward also her resembling less
His image who made both, and less expressing
The character of that dominion given
O’er other creatures; yet when I approach
Iler loveliness, so absolute she seems,
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say
Seems wisest, virtuest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded. Wisdom, in discourse with her,
Rises discountenanced, and like Folly shows.
Authority and Reason on her wait,
As one intended first, not after made
Occasionally; and to consummate all,
Greatness of mind and nobleness their seat
Bnild in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic placed!’

You’ll grant that this is very beautiful?”
     “Yes,” answered Emily,—rather doubtfully, however.
     “You rather demur to Adam’s premises? You would be still less pleased with the answer of Raphael the archangel, who rebukes Adam for forgetting that, as the old song says, ‘man is the tap o’ the tree.’ Milton, you know, was an avowed believer in the inferiority of your sex; and I must say that he advocates his theory sometimes—as in the pamphlet on ‘Divorce’—with very considerable force. Ah, my dear, you live in the time when unmarried ladies write metaphysical poetry and pamphlets, and are actually permitted to print them! If you were a widow, now, you would set up a printing establishment!”
     “I understand your vile allusion,” retorted Emily, with indignation; “but I bless the stars that women have begun to protect themselves, and are no longer wholly dependent on the caprice of wicked men. The—the—”
     “Pray be calm,” I said, soothingly. “I was only joking; and ‘a plague upon’t,’ as Catullus has it, ‘that you will not permit me to be careless.’ Have you read ‘Hudibras’?”
     “What has ‘Hudibras’ to do with the matter?” asked my better and smaller half, tartly.
     “Well, not much. Only worthy Samuel Butler, the writer thereof, has written a little satire, which may amuse you, and which will serve as a nice contrast to the passages I have quoted from Milton. Here are a few tit-bits:—

‘Sure marriages were never so well fitted                              66
As when to matrimony men were committed,
Like thieves by justices, and to a wife
Bound, like to good behaviour, during life!
For then ’twas but a civil contract made
Between two partners that set up a trade;
And if both fail’d, there was no conscience,
Nor faith invaded, in the strictest sense.
No canon of the church, nor vow, was broke
When men did free their gall’d necks from the yoke;
But when they tried, like other hornèd beasts,
Might have it taken off, and take their rests,
Without being bound in duty to show cause,
Or reckon with divine or human laws!’”

     Patient as Emily was, she found this blasphemy unendurable. With kindling eye, quivering lip, she inveighed bitterly against the writer thereof. I rather repented having been wicked enough to make the quotation.
     “It was only a joke,” I suggested.
     Emily’s reply was to the effect that the subject was much too serious a one to be joked about; that to talk of sacred things in a flippant tone was to commit unpardonable sacrilege; and that I would be averring next—horribile dictu—that Baby was a joke. You see, Emily is a great admirer of Miss Martineau, and of other ladies who assert a masculine prerogative. At last she was calm; finally she laughed good-humouredly.
     “In order to complete your good humour,” I observed, “let me try and recollect any other really good epithalaminm. No, I cannot—at least, no English one. Honest Mat Prior, to whom you have been introduced by the ‘Nut-brown Mayde,’ composed, when at college, a set of Latin verses, which are extraordinarily good, as emanating from a mere freshman. The subject was ‘The Marriage of George, Prince of Denmark, and the Lady Anne.’ As these verses would have applied admirably to the recent marriage of the Prince of Wales, I may quote to you a pretty literal rendering which I once made for my amusement:—

‘Now, while the learned crew in lofty numbers
Of Mars with Venus join’d in bridal slumbers,
     And Denmark wedded unto England, sing;
In lieu of learned song I breathe a blessing,
And weave a simple song, less wit possessing
     Than heartfelt love, an humble offering.

‘Long may the happy couple cling together,
Long may they live in pleasant sunny weather,
     Still cherish’d each by each in passion bright!
Oh, bind them, Hymen, in the chain years break not!
Keep them, O Juno, till they sleep to wake not!
     And, gentle Venus, guard them in the night!

‘May children like themselves, in joy caressing them,                        67
Spring,—to give leaders to the world now blessing them!
     And when, grown old, they would together die,
May death not even then asunder tear them,
But such immortal angel hands upbear them
     As charioted Elijah to the sky!’ *

     “Altogether, on casting a bird’s-eye view over my previous reading, I can call to mind no bridal poem written in that vein of genuine feeling which distinguishes the epithalamium of Spenser. It is ever so, Emily. To get our Hippocrene undefiled, it is necessary to go near to the fountainhead. I, at least, like Hazzlitt, cannot write of modern poets with the same respect as I write of early poets, because I do not feel it. Poetry is the earliest born of society, and—unlike her younger sister, Science—she springs at once into blooming maturity. We can never have an epic nobler than the ‘Iliad,’ never have idylls better than those of Theocritus, never have lyric fragments sweeter than those of Sappho. In England here, it seems that possible perfection culminated in Milton. The realms of enchantment are for ever usurped by the ‘Fairy Queen;’ Shakspere, the dramatist, towers pre-eminently over all possible successors; and in Milton, lyric harmony and epic power reach development as perfect as consists with human faculties of creation or conception. After Milton, who climbed to that mountain-top where he saw the archangels, the poets seem gradually to have been going down-hill. Even John Dryden, in spite of his mighty lines, was a comparative underling; and ‘tuneful Alexis,’ as Aaron Hill † calls Pope, compared to either of his great predecessors, was as an elegantly attired satyr to unclad Hyperion.”

_____

     * The original appeared in the “Hymenæus Cantabrigiensis” (Cambridge, 1683), and the name subscribed to it was printed, by mistake, A. Prior. Some lines arc particularly good, and the whole may interest some readers, if quoted here:—

Conjunctum Veneri Martem, Danosque Britannis
     Dum canit altisonis docta caterva modis,
Affero sincerum, culto pro carmine votum,
     Quod minus ingenii, plus pietatis habet.
Vivant Ambo diu, vivant felicitur, opto;
     Diligat hic Sponsam, diligat illa Virum.
Junctos perpetua teneas, Hymenæe, catenâ;
     Junctos, Juno, die protege; nocte, Venus!
Exultent simili felices prole Parentes,
     Ut petat hinc multos natio bina duces!
Cumque senes pariter cupiant valedicerc terris,
     Nè mors augustum dividat atra jugum!
Sed qualis raptum transvexit curris Elijam,
     Transvehat ad superas talis utrumque domos.”

     It will be seen that my rendering is somewhat free, and misses the antithesis of “die” and “nocte” " in the eighth line.

     † “The Progress of Wit,” a Caveat.

_____

68   “They say,” observed Emily, shily, “that only disappointed men rail against the times!”
     “I am not railing against the times; far from it. I have reason to thank my stars that I live under a modern planet. I am simply stating a truth which most readers feel in their hearts, but which many of them do not care to avow. Who, that has read Milton, can tolerate Pollok or Tupper? Who, that is acquainted with Anacreon, can tolerate Longfellow or  Mackay? No, my dear! Depend upon it, the light of the old luminaries can never be rivalled.”
     “You forget your favourite, Wordsworth?”
     “So I do; and I forget Coleridge! Wordsworth and Coleridge made a grand effort to reach the old immortal stature; and the former, partly through the grandeur of his quiet life, succeeded.—But we are running away from the topic of conversation. I was commenting upon the solitary glory of Spenser’s song. Now for a contrast! The last man in the world who ought to have said anything about marriage was the Dean of St. Patrick’s. Jonathan, however, makes use of the theme for a dirty revel. In a poem called ‘Strephon and Chloe’—which I hope no woman will ever read—he ridicules in the most wanton manner the very point of view which was taken by Spenser the bridegroom. There is some wisdom in what he says; but it is the wisdom of Diogenes, preaching amid the stench of his tub. I will find an extract or two, which will amuse you:—

Imprimis, at the temple porch
Stood Hymen with a flaming torch;
The smiling Cyprian goddess brings
Her wanton doves with purple wings.
The Muses next in order follow,
Conducted by their squire, Apollo;
Then Mercury, with silver tongue,
And Hebe, goddess ever young.
Behold, the bridegroom and his bride
Walk hand in hand, and side by side;
She by the tender Graces drest,
And he by Mars in scarlet vest.
The nymph was cover’d with her flammeum,
And Phœbus sung th’ epithalamium.
And last, to make the matter sure,
Dame Juno brought a priest demure.
Luna was absent, on pretence;
Her time was not till nine months hence.’

     “This, you will perceive, is very humorous mock-heroic. I repeat that what follows is not at all quotable; it should have been written in the language of the Yahoos. The wind-up, however, is judicious:—

‘A prudent builder should forecast
How long the stuff is like to last;
And carefully observe the ground,
To build on some foundation sound.
What house, when its materials crumble,                          69
Must not inevitably tumble?
What edifice can long endure,
Raised on a basis insecure?
Rash mortals, ere you take a wife,
Contrive your pile to last for life,
Since beauty scarce endures a day,
And youth so swiftly flies away.
Why will you make yourself a bubble,
To build on sand with hay and stubble ?
On sense and wit your passion found,
By decency cemented round:
Let prudence with good nature strive
To keep esteem and love alive.
Then come old age whene’er it will,
Your friendship shall continue still;
And thus a gentle, mutual fire
Shall never but with life expire.’

     “Shades of Varina, Stella, and Vanessa! Don’t you think it a pity, Emily, that the Dean, instead of indulging in learned flirtation, and breaking at least two gentle hearts, did not proceed to carry out the above philosophy by marrying Miss Johnson? Had he done so, much bitterness would have been spared; and perhaps even that terrible last scene must have been softened by the light of gentle, unrebuking eyes.”
     Emily did not answer, but seemed plunged in reverie. A moment afterwards she betrayed herself by the very tiniest yawn; and almost at the same time we hear a voice from the neighbouring chamber:

’Tis the voice of the cherub, we hear him complain;
There’s a deuce of a noise till he slumbers again!

Yet that same cry, which broke up our conversation, might have sweetened the later days of the misanthrope Jonathan Swift!

                                                                                                                                   R. W. BUCHANAN.

Back to Essays

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From The Contemporary Review - May, 1881 - Vol. 39, pp. 792-803

 

WYLIE’S LIFE OF THOMAS CARLYLE.

Thomas Carlyle: The Man and his Books. Illustrated by personal Reminiscences, Table-Talk, and Anecdotes of Himself and his Friends. By W. HOWIE WYLIE. Marshall Japp & Co.

 

IT is not yet the time, when a distinguished man has only just been carried to his grave, and when the first thrill communicated to society by the loss of him, has scarcely passed away, to speak the whole truth concerning his career, or to dwell with undue emphasis on those points in his character which are least agreeable. Criticism is hushed in the shadow of death; censure is forgotten, in the contemplation of those tender humanities which are hung like flowery garlands on every famous grave. But in the case of Thomas Carlyle, who has so recently departed in the full twilight of his long life, the circumstances have been especially deplorable. The hasty and ill-advised publication of the “Reminiscences,” abounding in unfortunate matter, given to the world with feminine zeal but without even the pretence of clear-headed editorial supervision, has certainly let loose the full tongue of detraction.

“And o’er him, ere he scarce be cold,
Begins the scandal and the cry!”

     Nor is this greatly to be wondered at, when we call to mind the circulation of those bitter and miserable personalities which were deplored by a very sympathetic writer in the last number of this REVIEW.* For my own part, I cannot be accused or suspected of blindly idolizing the famous Scotchman who has passed away. In this REVIEW and in others I have endeavoured to point out, at one period and another, those very limitations of his sagacity which critics are now unduly emphasizing for the first time, and to utter a protest against that portion of his transcendental teaching which is most repugnant to modern culture. To one living a literary life during the present decade, and feeling his thoughts shaped more or less by the breath of new-born science, it is difficult

     * “A Study of Carlyle:” CONTEMPORARY REVIEW for April, 1881.

 

793 even to comprehend the charm which Carlyle once had for a stormier generation. But that is neither here nor there. Although in common with many others, I believe that the literary pretensions of Carlyle have been vastly overstated, and that as a thinker and philosopher he possessed no such spiritual method as is likely to make his influence either precious or permanent, I would gladly, at this juncture, think of nothing less pleasant than his rugged yet charming personality. How sadly that personality has been obscured by the “Reminiscences,” we all know. Fortunately, however, while the very bane is before us, the antidote is at hand. With a celerity that is perfectly extraordinary, considering the difficulty and importance of the task to be performed, a brother Scotchman, Mr. W. H. Wylie, has put out one of the most masterly little biographies it has ever been my lot to read; a picture deftly painted and pleasant, yet far above the mere art of the portrait-painter; appreciative to the verge of hero-worship, but stopping short at that point where hero-worship becomes idolatry:—a bit of work, indeed, which it would be hard to surpass for sympathy, delicacy, liberality of view, and wealth of friendly insight. Read, as it must and should be read, just after the “Reminiscenccs,” it simply purifies, with the honest oxygen of kindly humanity, the fetid memory of certain ignoble moods, and its representation of the man in his habit as he lived, tenacious, pugnacious, truthful, and not too generous, yet full of personal affection and genuine if somewhat provincial humour, is as good in its way as Carlyle’s own presentation of those saturnine historical heroes with which he had most sympathy.
     Mr. Wylie begins, as a good biographer should, at the beginning, his first chapter being devoted to a review—under the title of “The Carlyles and their Country”—of Carlyle’s ancestry. In nine cases out of ten, such a retrospect would be tedious and superfluous; but in the case of a prophetic swashbuckler like the author of “Frederick,” it is important to know from what sources he drew his strength, his veracity, and what one may call, without seeming irreverent, his superabundant stock of bile. Specially interesting is it to learn that, from time immemorial, the Carlyles were sturdy king’s men and king-lovers. Under the Scottish Bruces they held land in Annandale, and the head of the house afterwards became brother-in-law to King Robert Bruce himself. Thenceforward, under one vicissitude and another, the family seems to have been generally on the winning side. In 1455, at the Battle of Langholm, Sir John Carlyle of Torthorwald was one of the leaders of the victorious royal army; and fifteen years later he was ennobled as Lord Carlyle of Torthorwald. There is one solitary record, however, of a Carlyle siding with a forlorn cause, and sympathizing with a minority. In 1570, when the Dumfriesshire friends of Mary Stuart were assailed by an English force under Lord Scrope, Lord Carlyle led his followers against the enemy, was beaten, and taken prisoner. From that time forth, the genealogical tree seems to have drooped and degenerated. 794 At all events, nothing is heard of the Carlyles during the great struggle of the seventeenth century, when the Irvings made themselves so conspicuous on the Royalist side. In 1580, the peerage passed to a woman, who carried over the estates to a Douglas. The eldest this union, Sir James Douglas, was in 1609 created Lord Carlyle Torthorwald, and by his son the title was resigned in 1638 to the Earl of Queensferry, who had acquired the estate. A certain George Carlyle, from Wales, claimed and got the estate, by a decree of the House of Lords, in 1770; but after dissipating his substance for some little period, he disappeared. From that time forth, the Dumfriesshirc Carlyles appear to have dwindled lower and lower, until they reached the level of almost complete obscurity. But in the month of December, 1795, there was born at Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, the Carlyle who was destined, by turning the stream of family genius into another channel, to revive the fame of the Carlyles as king’s-men and king-lovers—as sturdy and consistent adherents, in fact, of the Verities, or “powers that be.” Certainly, if Thomas Carlyle the author, was born with any special mission to edify his generation, the “Might is right” theory was at the heart of that mission. He was a king’s man by inheritance, by heredity, by natural temperament and disposition. Revolt, simply as revolt, was constitutionally distasteful to him, and he had no sympathy whatever with really forlorn causes. It is, indeed, curious to note, in going through his voluminous writings, how little speculative and forward-looking insight he possesses, and how the most part of his human argument takes the shape of authoritative references to the standing armies of morality and religion. Feebleness in any form, even the feebleness of innocence, was beyond the sphere of his affection; and his very sympathy with kings flagged when kings belied their birthright and ceased to be strong.
     There was, therefore, no inconsistency whatever in the fact that from his pen came the first literary apotheosis of Oliver Cromwell. The great Protector, in his vindication of the Verities, of the Eternal Order, was essentially a monarch, and almost uniformly successful. Besides, he stood in Carlyle’s mind, as Knox stood, for the earthly representative of that greater King who is reverenced (chiefly, we fear, on the score of supreme success) by orthodox and unorthodox alike. The hopeless limitation of the king-loving intellect is not perceived, till that intellect comes into collision with those other agencies which represent, not merely authorities, but principles. All its savage humour serves it little, when it encounters the serene logic of a Mill, or ruffles beneath the poignant wit of a Voltaire.
     It may be remarked here, by the way, that Carlyle’s want of sympathy with weakness was manifested very early by a strong intolerance of physical feebleness and flabbiness. We may see this intolerance in the allusions to Coleridge, to Shelley, to Keats, to Charles Lamb, and to Voltaire, quite as clearly as in the diatribe 795 against both the black slave and the white. And yet, when all was said and done, Carlyle was pre-eminently a kindly man—only the Scotchman, the Annandale man in him, with its hard and almost aggressive identity, was generally pushed to the front in his literary criticisms. Nothing could better illustrate his critical temperament than his remarks, in private conversation with Mr. Wylie, on the subject of Lamb. Mr. Wylie, during some discursive chat, took occasion to ask him if he had much personal acquaintance with “Elia?” What followed must be quoted in full:—

     “‘What makes you ask?—what interest have you in Lamb?’  ‘I like his humour.’ ‘Humour—he had no humour.’ We mildly submitted our belief that he had. ‘You are mistaken—it was only a thin streak of Cockney wit;’ this phrase uttered with a shrill shout expressive of ineffable contempt; and then the speaker added, ‘I dare say you must have known some—I have known scores of Scotch moorland farmers, who for humour could have blown Lamb into the zenith!’ The pictorial effect of this figure, delivered in a high Annandale key, especially when the speaker came to the last clause of the sentence, it is impossible for print to convey—the listener saw poor Lamb spinning off into space, propelled thither by the contemptuous kick of a lusty Dandie Dinmont, in hodden grey, from the moors of Galloway or Ayrshire.
     “‘The only thing really humorous about Lamb,’ he continued, ‘was his personal appearance. His suit of rusty black, his spindle-shanks, his knee-breeches, the bit ribbons fleein’ at the knees o’ him: indeed he was humour personified!’ this last clause again in the high key, making the figure effective and mirth-compelling to a degree. And then he told us how the first occasion on which he met ‘the puir drucken body’ was at Enfield, in 1829, at the house of a most respectable lady. It was the forenoon; but Lamb, who had been ‘tasting’ before he came, immediately demanded gin, and because he could not get it ‘kicked up a terrible row.’ Moral disgust at poor ‘Elia’s’ misconduct was evidently at the root of the feeling of antipathy evinced by Carlyle in speaking of his humour. Lamb was not a humourist because he got drunk, and because he demanded gin in the forenoon at a lady’s house.
     “Then we were told, as an example of Lamb’s Cockney wit, how at Enfield, on the same occasion, he had expressed his regret that the Royalists had not taken Milton’s head off at the Restoration. That was one of the bright remarks which he invariably fired off whenever he met anybody for the first time; Carlyle had often afterwards heard him repeat it. At Enfield he gave it for Carlyle’s benefit, to astonish the stranger from Scotland. ‘But Lamb was a Liberal,’ we remarked; ‘he could not have wished such a fate for Milton?’ ‘Ah, you don’t see his point; he wished the Royalists had taken Milton’s head off in order that they might have damned themselves to all eternity!’ Then, sotte voce, Carlyle added, ‘Puir silly cratur!’

It will, perhaps, be admitted that there must have been something radically defective in the man to whom Lamb was only “a puir drucken body” and a “puir silly cratur.” On the other hand, he had, as we all know, the fullest and most cordial appreciation of the essentially robust and manly genius of Burns. The stalwart Ayrshire ploughman, who shared with him the fatal power of personal caricature, attracted him as no other Scotchman could do, except, perhaps, John Knox. It is more difficult, though not quite impossible, to understand his huge liking for Leigh Hunt; but Hunt was by habit and repute a 796 hero-worshipper, and took no pains to conceal his admiration for Carlyle and all his domestic circle.
     The early chapters of Mr. Wylie’s biography, dealing with Carlyle’s home training, his schools and schoolmasters, and his university, are very interesting; particularly so is the account of Carlyle’s father, a man who, to quote his son’s words, “could not tolerate anything fictitious in books, and walked as a man in the full presence of Heaven, and Hell, and the Judgment”—of the two latter, we may add, more particularly. Carlyle thought his father, all things considered, the best man he had known, though it will be remembered that he applied the same description, on one occasion, to Edward Irving. “He was a far cleverer man than I am, or ever will be.” One particular form of his cleverness—a power of using nicknames—was transmitted in full strength to his son. “What a root of a bodie he was!” cried an old Scottish lady who had known him well; “ay, a curious bodie; he beat this world. A speerited bodie; he would sit on nae man’s coat tails. And sic stories he could tell. Sic sayings, too! Sic names he would gie to things and folk! But he was always a very strict old bodie, and could bide nae contradiction.”
     Much also, of a more amiable kind, did Carlyle inherit from his worthy mother, who was his father’s second wife. She had been a domestic servant, and only when advanced in life, and the mother of a family, did she teach herself to read and write. “The quality of her mind, both as to its strength and independence,” says Mr. Wylie, “is sufficiently attested by the fact that it was she who first suggested to her son that new theory as to the character of Cromwell which he was the first to lay before the world.” I don’t know on what authority Mr. Wylie makes this extraordinary statement; but if, as is very probable, it is based upon the conversations of Carlyle himself, it is doubtless a somewhat exaggerated impression, having its origin in deep filial reverence and affection. For the rest, we have preserved for us, in “Sartor Resartus,” the living lineaments of both father and mother, and of the obscure village where they lived. Father Andrews and Gretchen are, as Mr. Wylie points out, simply Germanized pictures of James Carlyle and his wife, and Entepfuhl is, translated into plain Scotch, Ecclefechan. The chapter in which Mr. Wylie traces these resemblances is one of the most interesting in the book.
     The literary life of Carlyle can scarcely be said to have begun in earnest until, in 1827, he became a full-blown Edinburgh Reviewer, contributing to the “Blue and Yellow” articles on Jean Paul, German Literature, Burns, and Characteristics. “I fear Carlyle will not do,” wrote Jeffrey to Macvey Napier in 1832, “that is, if you do not take the liberties and pains that I did with him, by striking out freely and writing in occasionally. The misfortune is that he is very obstinate, and I fear very conceited.” Despite this disparaging judgment of the true and cock-sure oracle of Craigcrook,—despite the liberties and pains 797 taken with him, Carlyle had begun to discover his strength, and to find that his literary efforts would do. At the very moment when the Edinburgh Review gave him notice to quit, he was ready with “Sartor Resartus,” a work which, with all its affectations, obscurities (I do not hesitate to add, insincerities), has taken a strong hold on the imaginations of that large section of the public which does not go to the poets for its edification, but prefers the fashioners of “mystical” prose.
     The essays on German literature and “Sartor Resartus” were the fruit, individually and collectively, of a six years’ isolation in the wilds of Craigenputtock. Of his life here, Carlyle gave a memorable description in a letter to Goethe, dated 25th December, 1828.

     “You inquire with such warm interest respecting our present abode and occupations, that I am obliged to say a few words about both, while there is still room left. Dumfries is a pleasant town, containing about fifteen thousand inhabitants, and to be considered the centre of the trade and judicial system of a district which possesses some importance in the sphere of Scottish activity. Our residence is not in the town itself, but fifteen miles to the north-west of it, among the granite hills and the black morasses, which stretch westward through Galloway, almost to the Irish Sea. In this wilderness of heath and rock, our estate stands forth a green oasis, a tract of ploughed, partly enclosed and planted ground, where corn ripens and trees afford a shade, although surrounded by sea-mews and rough-woolled sheep. Here, with no small effort, have we built and furnished a neat, substantial dwelling; here, in the absence of a professional or other office, we live to cultivate literature according to our strength, and in our own peculiar way. We wish a joyful growth to the roses and flowers of our garden; we hope for health and peaceful thoughts to further our aims. The roses, indeed, are still in part to be planted, but they blossom already in anticipation. Two ponies which carry us everywhere, and the mountain air, are the best medicines for weak nerves. This daily exercise, to which I am much devoted, is my only recreation; for this nook of ours is the loneliest in Britain, six miles removed from any one likely to visit me. Here Rousseau would have been as happy as on his island of St. Pierre. My town friends, indeed, ascribe my sojourn here to a similar disposition, and forebode me no good result. But I came hither solely with the design to simplify my way of life, and to secure the independence through which I could be enabled to remain true to myself. This bit of earth is our own: here we can live, write, and think, as best pleases ourselves, even though Zoilus himself were to be crowned the monarch of literature. Nor is the solitude of such great importance; for a stage-coach takes us speedily to Edinburgh, which we look upon as our British Weimar. And have I not, too, at this moment, piled upon the table of my little library a whole cartload of French, German, American, and English journals and periodicals—whatever may be their worth? Of antiquarian studies, too, there is no lack. From some of our heights can descry, about a day’s journey to the west, the hill where Agricola and his Romans left a camp behind them. At the foot of it I was born, and there both father and mother still live to love me. And so one must let time work.”

     These six years were, perhaps, the happiest of his life. He had his “Jeanie” to sit by his side, his quiet home, his piles of books, and now and then a visitor, who did not stop too long. Nevertheless, his contentment was so far superficial that it did not prevent him from plotting hard to make some considerable stir in the world. “I have some thoughts,” he wrote to Professor Wilson, “of beginning to prophesy 798 next year, if I prosper; that seems the best style, could one strike into it rightly.” Odd enough is the notion that prophecy may be possible if prosperity comes; quite reversing the popular notion that prophets are unprosperous persons—that, in other words—

                                   Most men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song,—

or in prophecy. Still, there can be doubt that Carlyle, in a not uncomfortable state of mind, being cosy, confident, and bent on securing the contemporary ear, deliberately put on the prophet’s robes and began to prepare impeachments against his generation. So ere long the public became aware of a voice crying in the wilderness that “the god-like had vanished from the world,” that Byron was “cursing his day,” and Shelley “wailing inarticulately” like an infant; that men wandered without faith from doubt to doubt, finally returning, like Frederick Schlegel, back to orthodoxy, “as a child, who has roamed all day over a silenced battlefield, goes back at night to the heart of its dead mother.” No wonder that prophecy of this kind put poor Jeffrey into a flutter! It was not at all the sort of stuff to which the “Blue and Yellow” was accustomed. I can almost picture to myself the trouble in the prophet’s eye, as he read over the proof-sheets of these deliberate pieces of prophetic impromptu, and shrewdly calculated their effect on a decorous Whig editor and a highly respectable public.
     In “Sartor Resartus,” the traces of literary conventionalism were kicked over altogether. The work might be called a wild hotch-potch of German mysticism, Lowland Scotch, broad caricature, and literal autobiography. In its long-windedness, in the zeal with which the one solitary idea, or “Clothes” theory, was worked to death, it was certainly very German. But with all its defects,—or rather, perhaps, inconsequence of its defects,—it was a work of genius. Nevertheless, it is a fact that “Sartor Resartus,” completed in 1831, could not find a publisher, at least in this country, till 1838. Carlyle himself tells us that the publishers “to a man, with that total contempt of grammar which Jedidiah Cleisbotham also complained of, declined the article.” Elsewhere he writes, in a letter to Macvey Napier,—“All manner of perplexities have occurred in the publication of my poor book, which perplexities I could only cut asunder, not unloose; so the MS., like an unhappy ghost, still lingers on the wrong side of Styx; the Charon of —— Street durst not risk it in his sutilis symba, so it leapt ashore again.” But, as Mr. Wylie happily expresses it, “the daughter’s loving appreciation rebuked the mother’s cold neglect,” and America accorded to this book the entrée denied to it by England.
     It was published at Boston in 1836, with a preface by a young man of the name of Emerson, and soon became popular. Not until two years later appeared the first English edition, before which devout consummation, the young man of the name of Emerson had actually made a 799 pilgrimage to Europe, and met the young man of the name of Carlyle on the classic soil of Craigenputtock.
     Emerson has described the meeting in one of the most charming chapters that ever came even from his “silver pen.”

     “No public coach passed near it, so I took a private carriage from the inn. I found the house amid desolate heathery hills, where the lonely scholar nourished his mighty heart. Carlyle was a man from his youth, an author who did not need to hide from his readers, and an absolute man of the world, unknown and exiled on that hill-farm, as if holding on his own terms what is best in London. He was tall and gaunt, with a cliff-Iike brow, self-possessed, and holding his extraordinary powers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northern accent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote, and with a streaming humour, which floated everything he looked upon. His talk playfully exalting the familiar objects, put the companion at once into an acquaintance with his Lars and Lemurs, and it was very pleasant to learn what was predestined to be a pretty mythology. Few were the objects and lonely the man, ‘not a person to speak to within sixteen miles except the minister of Dunscore;’ so that books inevitably made his topics.
     “He had names of his own for all the matters familiar to his discourse. Blackwood’s was the ‘sand magazine;’ Fraser’s nearer approach to possibility of life was the ‘mud magazine;’ a piece of road near by that marked some failed enterprise was the ‘grave of the last sixpence.’ When too much praise of any genius annoyed him, he professed hugely to admire the talent shown by his pig. He had spent much time and contrivance in confining the poor beast to one enclosure in his pen, but pig, by great strokes of judgment, had found out how to let a board down, and had foiled him. For all that, he still thought man the most plastic little fellow in the planet, and he liked Nero’s death, ‘Qualis artifex pereo!’ better than most history. He worships a man that will manifest any truth to him. At one time he had inquired and read a good deal about America. Landor’s principle was mere rebellion, and that he feared was the American principle. The best thing he knew of that country was that in it a man can have meat for his labour. He had read in Stuart’s book, that when he inquired in a New York hotel for the Boots, he had been shown across the street, and had found Mungo in his own house dining on roast turkey.
     “We talked of books. Plato he does not read, and he disparaged Socrates; and, when pressed, persisted in making Mirabeau a hero. Gibbon he called the splendid bridge from the old world to the new. His own reading had been multifarious. ‘Tristram Shandy’ was one of his first books after ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and Robertson’s ‘America’ an early favourite. Rousseau’s ‘Confessions’ had discovered to him that he was not a dunce; and it was now ten years since he had learned German by the advice of a man who told him he would find in that language what he wanted.
     “He took despairing or satirical views of literature at this moment; recounted the incredible sums paid in one year by the great booksellers for puffing. Hence it comes that no newspaper is trusted now, no books are bought, and the booksellers are on the eve of bankruptcy.”

     Well might the lonely scholar grumble at the booksellers, and assert that they were on the verge of bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic member of the tribe who published “Sartor” a few years later failed to realize a fortune. The English public were slow to appreciate the book. Even the author’s personal friends, and among them John Stuart Mill, took a long time to understand it. “It came at last to be regarded,” says Mr. Wylie, “as the greatest work of its author, 800 perhaps the greatest of our century;” and he adds that “as a picture of the human soul battling with the haggard spirits of Doubt and Fear, it has certainly never been equalled.”
     If this be really the case, then the spiritual literature of our century is barren indeed. The work, in reality, is one of reiterated negation; and very poor is the part played in it by the “Everlasting Yea,” as contrasted with the extraordinary performances of the “Everlasting Nay.” The substance of its teaching seems to be that, although Life is a sham and Eternity a dream, man can always get out of his difficulties by knuckling down to hard work; in fact, the very condition of his being is that he must work, as the only means of forgetting a problem which would otherwise turn him crazy. This is all very well as far as it goes; but surely modern speculation craves for a little more. Again, it is not always easy to understand what Carlyle means by Work, any more than it is to understand what he means by the Verities. Mr. Gradgrind, in the novel, had his conception of Work, or Fact, and other teachers have defined Work “as doing one’s duty in that sphere of life in which God has placed us.” If Work means simply labouring hard in some useful vocation, from carrying bricks to making books, scorning to beg, being truthful and upright, respecting the proprietors, and reverencing the terrestrial and celestial authorities, how does human Work—any more than the pertinacity of the ant, or the zeal of the bee—assist us to a solution of the problem of the Universe? Simply by ignoring the problem altogether, with a reservation in favour of the religion sanctioned by majorities. This, at least, was what Carlyle’s “Everlasting Yea” came to—to a detestation of revolt and revolters; to a glorification of what is self-assertive and self-conscious, as opposed to what is vicarious and altruistic, in human nature; to a polemic which derided all humanitarian teachers, from Shelley downwards, as sentimental “wailers;” to a philosophy which garlanded the gallows, and characterized the negro as “a servant” to all eternity; and to the sheer impotence of a political creed which glorified Deutschthumm, and treated as irrelevant all the divine services of Frenchmen and of France.
     After all is said and done, then, the question emerges, what was Carlyle’s religious creed—his explanation, in other words, of the problem of the Universe? Work, as I have said, explains nothing; it may be righteous, it may be salutary, but it is an expedient, not a solution. Now, singularly enough, Carlyle, who could be explicit enough when he chose, nowhere tells us what he personally believes. To a friend of Mr. Wylie’s, who happened to say that he had the same religious views as himself, Carlyle retorted irritably, “My religious views! And who told you what my religious views are?” Apropos of this point, a writer in the St. James’s Gazette has said:—“The reason why Carlyle did not state his views plainly and simply are obvious enough. In the first place, if he had done so years ago, he would not only have lost all influence, but would have starved. In the next place, he would have 801 taken up the position which, of all others, was most unwelcome to him—namely, that of a rebel and a revolutionist.” I quite agree with Mr. Wylie that this amounts to a charge of positive disingenuousness, from which Carlyle must at once be acquitted. The real fact of the matter possibly was, that Carlyle, like many men of genius, was content to exist in the centre of nebulous religious emotions, without definite form and without real tangibility. Even in this, perhaps, there was a certain want of veracity, but it was unconscious. When sorely driven by stress of adverse argument, he invariably uttered the old phrase, laborare est orare; and turned to the practical business of his life. His feeling towards modern Science, which he never took the most trifling pains to understand, was infantine; he looked upon it with positive detestation. He thought Mr. Darwin a very “good sort of man, and well meaning, but with very little intellect;” and he exclaimed, “And this is what we have got to! All things from frog-spawn; the Gospel of Dirt the order of the day. The older I grow—and now I stand on the brink of eternity—the more comes back to me the sentence in the Catechism which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper it becomes: ‘What is the chief end of Man? To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.’ No gospel of dirt, teaching that men have descended from frogs, through monkeys, can ever set that aside.” How strange it seems that such a man, with so much poetry in his soul, should have failed to see the sublime vistas of poetic possibility which modern science has revealed; or should have found anything in modern philosophical speculation, at its best and highest, antagonistic to the religious aspirations of humanity. Surely, on such a theme, the Apostle of Veracity might have had something better to say.
     After the publication of “Sartor Rcsartus,” Carlyle removed to London, occupying the house, No. 5, Cheyne Row, Chelsea, which he continued to occupy until his death. From that time forward, he became a man of letters by profession—indeed, perhaps the most noticeable man of letters, as distinguished from dilettante followers of literature, of his generation. Very interesting is the account Mr. Wylie gives of his early lectures,—during the delivery of which he felt, as he expressed it, as if he were “going to be hanged.” Of these lectures, only those on “Heroes and Hero-worship” are preserved; the others, which were delivered extempore, are not even preserved in the newspaper files of the period.
     For nearly half a century, Carlyle continued to “make books” as remarkable for their industry as for their genius; but despite the long catalogue of his writings, “Sartor Resartus” remains the most characteristic of his achievements. As a monument of what human pertinacity can compass, the “History of Frederick” remains phenomenal; but Carlyle himself came to the conclusion that it was labour wasted, and I quite agree with Mr. Wylie that it did its author’s reputation far more harm than good, and greatly weakened his spiritual influence. 802 As age came stealing on, honours crowded upon him. By a large section of the public, he was reverenced as a Seer; in all literary circles he was respected as a great leader of literature. His life was solitary and uneventful, but on the whole very happy. To the last, he retained his homely countryfied appearance and his broad Scotch accent, preserving at seventy-five years of age (says Mr. Wylie) “such a face and form as we had come across hundreds of times in the glens and moorlands of Western Scotland—mending a feal dyke, seeing to the shecp, or hoeing potatoes in a cottage kailyard by the roadside.”
     Not the least charming part of Mr. Wylie’s book is the account of conversations with him at this period of his life; but the gem of the whole biography is the picture, given by a Scottish schoolboy, of the old Prophet, just before the final summons came, and Thomas Carlyle and the Eternal Verities were face to face for ever. This schoolboy, who was one of the sons of the late Alexander Munro, the sculptor, who died young in 1871, went with a brother to see his father’s old friend in the May of 1880, and was led up the stairs into a well-lighted cheerful room, with the little old picture of Cromwell on the wall and Mrs. Carlyle’s sketch of her Haddington home on the mantelpiece. In this room Carlyle had spent nearly all his time, since he had given up working fourteen years before. The rest must be told in the schoolboy’s own simple words:—

     “The maid went forward and said something to Carlyle, and left the room. He was sitting before a fire in an arm-chair, propped up with pillows, with his feet on a stool, and looked much older than I had expected. The lower part of his face was covered with a rather shaggy beard, almost quite white. His eyes were bright blue, but looked filmy from age. He had on a sort of coloured night-cap, and a long gown reaching to his ankles, and slippers on his feet A rest attached to the arm of his chair supported a book before him. I could not quite see the name, but I think it was Channing’s works. Leaning against the fireplace was a long clay pipe, and there was a slight smell of tobacco in the room. We advanced and shook hands, and he invited us to sit down, and began, I think, by asking where we were living. He talked of our father affectionately, speaking in a low tone as if to himself, and stopping now and then for a moment and sighing. He mentioned the last time they met, and said one took a long walk to see the other (I could not catch which), and ‘then he went away to Cannes and died,’ and he paused and sighed. ‘And your grandfather, he is dead too.’ He said he had done much good work, and written several books of reference, mentioning particularly his having explained who the people mentioned in Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ were. All this was in a low tone, and rather confused and broken, so I cannot put it clearly down. He said he liked my grandfather very much. I said I thought every one did. He agreed, and spoke very highly of him as a ‘most amiable man.’ He asked what I was going to be. I said I was not sure, but I thought of going to college for the present. He asked something of which I only caught the words ‘good scholars.’ I said I hoped we should turn out so. He said there could be no doubt about it, if we only kept fast to what is right and true, and we certainly ought to, as the sons of such a respectable man. He strongly exhorted us to be always perfectly true and open, not deceiving ourselves or others, adding something about the common habits of deceit. He went on, ‘I am near the end of my course, and the sooner the better is my own feeling.’ He said he still reads 803 a little, but has not many books he cares to read now, and is ‘continually disturbed by foolish interruptions from people who do not know the value of an old man’s leisure.’ His hands were very thin and wasted; he showed us how they shook and trembled unless he rested them on something, and said they were failing him from weakness. He asked, ‘Where did you say you were staying, and what are you doing there?’ I told him we were at Bromley for our holidays, which ended on Thursday, when we returned to school. He asked if we were at school at Bromley. I told him we were at Charterhouse. ‘Well, I’ll just bid you good-bye.’ We shook hands. He asked our names. He could not quite hear Henry’s at first. ‘I am a little deaf, but I can hear well enough talking,’ or words to that effect. ‘I wish you God’s blessing, good-bye.’ We shook hands once more and went away. I was not at all shy. He seemed such a venerable old man, and so worn and old-looking that I was very much affected. Our visit was on Tuesday, May 18, 1880, at about 2 P.M.”

     A few months later, the arm-chair was empty, and the old widower had gone to join his darling “Jeanie,” for whom his love had ever been stronger than death.
     In the space of this perfunctory sketch, I have merely sought to draw attention to some of the leading features of a biography which should be in the hands of every admirer of Carlyle; it has been quite impossible to do full justice to the industry, the cleverness, and the reverence with which the work is executed. Mr. Wylie is, in fact, a biographer after Carlyle’s own heart, sparing no pains to verify the most trifling details, and executing the whole as a labour of zealous love; yet not the least of his merits is the fact that he joins issue with Carlyle, again and again, on some of the main points of his teaching, and is at no time a blind partisan. Appearing at the present moment, the book has a special grace and charm. Other and fuller biographies of Carlyle may possibly be forthcoming; but the present work has too much intellectual breadth and literary finish to be easily superseded.

                                                                                                                                 ROBERT BUCHANAN.

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From the New-York Daily Tribune - 18 January, 1885 - p.9.

(Reprinted in A Look Round Literature (London: Ward and Downey, 1887).)

 

A TALK WITH GEORGE ELIOT
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ON AGE AND IMMORTALITY.
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ROBERT BUCHANAN TELLS THE STORY OF AN AFTERNOON—
A DESCRIPTION OF HUSBAND AND WIFE—GEORGE ELIOT’S PET.
 

     The Priory, North Bank, Regent’s Park, London, is a largish, not uncommodious, house enclosed in its own grounds of about an acre and a half, with trees and shrubs all round, a high front wall facing the street, to which it communicates through a massive doorway. The neighborhood is quiet, abounding in the cots of those soiled doves who haunt what have been christened (for North Bank is a portion of St. John’s Wood) the shady groves of the Evangelist. An actor, Mr. Wilson Barrett, now inhabits the Priory; he has enlarged and altered it to suit his needs, and made it æsthetically resplendent with dados, peacock-papers, and stained glass windows. But in the old days when I haunted it, it was the unpretentious abode of the most famous woman and the cleverest man in England. “George Eliot” dwelt there with her husband, George Henry Lewes; she, known far and wide as the bright genius whose fine creations in fiction began with “Adam Bede;” he, distinguished in many ways as a litterateur, a man of science, and a dilettante.
     An afternoon at the Priory, beginning with a modest lunch in the eastern chamber, half study, half drawing-room, and ending with a long chat and tea in the pretty drawing-room, was surely a thing to be remembered. As I look backward, I recall many such afternoons; but one particularly I remember, when the full sunshine of success and happiness dwelt in that little household, and when, to ears eager to listen to me, and hearts full of sympathy, I first told the story of the life and death of David Gray—the young Scottish poet who came with me to seek his fortune in the great world of London, and on the very threshold of his career was smitten down to die a lingering death.
     Conceive a little narrow-shouldered man of between forty and fifty, with long, straight hair, a magnificent forehead, dark yet brilliant eyes, and a manner full of alertness and intellectual grace. This was George Lewes, whom Douglas Jerrold had once stigmatised as “the ugliest man in London,” averring at the same time that he had caused the chimpanzee in the Zoological Gardens to die “out of jealousy, because there existed close by a creature more hideous than itself!” But George Lewes, though not an Adonis, was certainly not ugly. The great defects of his face were the coarse, almost sensual mouth, with its protruding teeth partly covered by a bristly moustache, and the small retreating chin; but when the face lighted up, and the eyes sparkled, and the mouth began its eloquent discourse, every imperfection was forgotten. Conceive, next, the tenth Muse, or Sibyl, lounging in an arm-chair and shading her face idly with a hand-screen; a powerful-looking, middle-aged woman, with a noticeable nose and chin, a low forehead, a fresh complexion, and full and very mobile mouth. Dress, on this occasion, a plainly cut, tight-fitting dress of blue cashmere, fastened at the throat with a cameo brooch. This was “Mawrian Evans,” as Carlyle called her, the George Eliot of the novels. She realized in face and form the description I afterward gave to her in the “Session of the Poets”

George Eliot gazed on the company boldly
With the limbs of a sylph and the head of John Locke!

     I had been particularly struck by her resemblance to Locke’s well-known portrait, engraved as a frontispiece to the famous “Essay.” At that time her figure was graceful to elegance. When I last saw her, shortly before her husband’s death, she stooped painfully as she walked, and wore an old-fashioned crinoline.
     “Tell that story to the public, too,” cried Lewes, when I had finished my tale. “Poor fellow! What a pity he ever came to London.”
     “Lord Houghton says that your friend was very like the busts of Shelley,” said George Eliot, in her deep contralto voice.
     “Very like,” I answered; “he was curiously feminine in form, and had the most wonderful eyes in the world. Even Tito yonder was not more beautiful,” I added, pointing to one of the proof engravings of Du Maurier’s illustrations to “Romola,” which hung framed over the mantelpiece.
     “I don’t think, by the way,” observed Lewes, “that David Gray can be classed among the true victims of the Babylonian monster, London; at any rate, he was not exactly a literary struggler, at the mercy of what his countryman Alexander Smith called

The terrible city whose neglect is death,
Whose smile is fame!

He was struck down before he began the struggle at all; indeed, I have no doubt whatever, from your description of him, that the strumous taint, or predisposition, was in him from birth, and that, under any circumstances, his fate would have been the same.”
     George Eliot— Quem Di diligunt, etc. After all, is not Ganymede to be envied? Better to be snatched up suddenly into the heaven of heavens, in all the prime of youth and happiness, than to grow old in a world which is full of sorrow, and in which old age is the least beautiful of human phenomena.
     Lewes—You are quite right there. It is the exaggeration of sentiment which makes the poets give old age a sort of moral halo. There is nothing so pitiful, so horrible, as the slow and certain decay of the human faculties.
     Myself—But is not that decay beautiful too?
     Lewes—Apart from the pathetic fallacy, as Ruskin calls it, not at all. Your favorite Catullus describes it perfectly:

Cana tempus anilitas
Omnia omnes annuit!

     In other words and Scotch ones, “a’ nodding, nid-nid-nodding”; a condition, in short, of ever-increasing imbecility, or vacuity.
     George Eliot (smiling)—We are wandering toward deep waters. But it is quite true, I think, that the gradual obliteration of the human faculties and senses, one by one, is the strongest argument against the popular conception of a personal immortality.
     Lewes—Certainly.
     George Eliot—Not only do men, under circumstances of physical decay, become feeble and imbecile; when a moral sense remains, it frequently becomes perverted. I have seen an old gentleman, hitherto known as an immaculate and honest merchant, gradually acquire habits of kleptomania, and another, well known for his benevolence, become spiteful, almost homicidal. We are absolutely the creatures of our secretions. So true is this, that the slightest disturbance of the cerebral circulation, say a temporary congestion, will pervert the entire stream of moral sentiments.
     Myself—All that is doubtless very correct. I hold, nevertheless, that the soul, the Ego, is invulnerable, despite all temporary aberrations—clouds obscuring the moon’s disc, so to speak.
     George Eliot—Say rather, disintegrations within the very substance of the moon itself. Where the very substance of the luminary is decaying, what hope is there for the permanence of your—moonlight?
     Myself—The analogy is imperfect; but to pursue it, the lunar elements remain indestructible, and after transformations, may cohere again into some splendid identity.
     George Eliot—Moonlight is sunlight reflected on a material mirror; thought, consciousness, life itself, are conditions dependent on the physical medium, and on the brightness of the external environment. Cogito, ergo sum should be transposed and altered. Sum materies, ergo cogito.
     Lewes—And yet, after all, there are psychic phenomena which seem to evade the material definition!
     George Eliot—Not one. And science has established clearly that, while functional disturbance may be evanescent, structural destruction is absolute and irremediable. An organism, once destroyed, is incapable of resurrection.
     Myself—Then life is merely mechanism, after all.
     George Eliot—Undoubtedly. It is very pitiful, but absolutely true.
     Lewes—But what mechanism! How wonderful, how perfect in its adaptation of means to ends! Even if we hold thought to be a secretion, does that lessen the beauty of its manifestations?
     Myself—Or the mystery of its origin?
     Lewes—Humph!
     George Eliot—The mystery, doubtless, consists only in our ignorance. There was a time, not very long ago, when men knew nothing of that marvellous truth, the circulation of the blood. In time, no doubt, we shall discover the precise process by which we think.
     So speaking, the Sibyl glanced, not without admiration, at her husband, who was engaged at that very period, as I knew, in experiments concerning the mechanism of thought. He had long before abandoned the metaphysicians, as bewildering and misleading guides, and had completed, in the last edition of his “History of Philosophy,” his survey of the progress of thought from its past stage of credulity to its last stage of verification. Now, my sympathies were strongly in the other direction, though I had little or no enthusiasm for what may be termed the “ich and the nicht ich schools of metaphysics.” So I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders, saying something to this effect; that if thought was simply mechanism, as they suggested, man was no better than the “beasts that perish.”
     At this moment there appeared upon the scene another individual, entering quietly through the drawing-room door, which was partly open. The newcomer was a dog, a splendid bull-terrier, who belonged to George Eliot, and generally accompanied Lewes in his walks about the neighborhood. He came in with a languid wag of the tail, and a general air of importance, glanced patronizingly at me, yawned lazily, and stretched himself on the hearthrug at the feet of his mistress.
     George Eliot—“The beasts that perish.” Here is somebody who, if he could speak, would express a strong opinion upon that subject; for he is wise in his generation, and magnanimous almost beyond human conception. Do you know what he did once, before he was given to us? The friend to whom he belonged had a little boy, who inherited in full measure the predilections of the archetypal ape.
     Lewes (parenthetically)—The true and only substitute for Plato’s archetypal Man!
     George Eliot—One day, our friend had some acquaintances to luncheon. As they sat together they were startled by a sharp cry of pain from underneath the table; and lifting the edge of the table-cloth, they saw the small human monkey squatted on the carpet, in the act of slitting the dog’s ear with a large pair of scissors! Out crept the dog, panting and bleeding, followed by his little tormentor. Papa, of course, was very indignant, and seizing the child, who began to sob with terror, announced his intention of administering condign punishment, which he would have done instantly had not the victim interfered. Wagging his tail (just as he is doing now, for he knows I’m telling about him!) the noble fellow rose up, put his paws on the child’s shoulders, and affectionately licked his face; then looking at his master, said plainly, in the canine deaf and dumb alphabet, “Don’t beat him! please don’t! He’s only an undeveloped human being; he knows no better, and—I love him!” Could human kindness and magnanimity go further? Yet I don’t suppose you will contend that the poor dog’s loving instinct was enough to distinguish him from the other “beasts that perish.”
     Myself—I’m not sure! Why should not even a dog have a soul like any other respectable Christian?
     Lewes—Why not, indeed! I have known many so-called Christians who have neither the amiability nor the discrimination of this dog.
     George Eliot—Then here we halt on the horns of a dilemma. Every one with a large acquaintance among decent and “gentleman-like” dogs (as Launce would put it) must admit their share in the highest humanities; and what is true of them is true, to a greater or less extent, of animals generally. Yet shall we, because we walk on our hind feet, assume to ourselves only the privilege of imperishability? Shall we, who are even as they, though we wag our tongues and not our tails, demand a special Providence and a selfish salvation?
     Lewes (laughing)— Buchanan, like all young men, is an optimist! His spiritual scheme embraces every form of existence, as well as the whole human race.
     George Eliot—And why, even, the whole human race? Go into the slums and dens of the city, visit our prisons and inspect our criminals, not to speak of the inmates of our lunatic asylums; and what do you find? Beasts in human likeness, monsters with appetites and instincts, often even the cleverness, of men and women. Are these immortal souls too, independent of physical limitations, and journeying to an eternal Home?
     Myself—Certainly. There is no form of humanity, however degraded, which is beyond the possibility of moral regeneration.
     Lewes—Optimism with a vengeance! Optimism which leaves out of sight all the great physical factors of moral conduct—hereditary disease, cerebral malformations, thought-perverting congestions, all the endless ills that flesh is heir to. I’m afraid, after all, that the dream of a personal immortality is a selfish one. It would come, in the long run, merely to the survival of the fittest, who would build their heavenly mansion on a hecatomb of human failure. . . . But there, we’ve talked enough of things at present inscrutable. Come out into the garden, and soothe your mechanism with a cigar.
     We left the Sibyl to her meditations, and walked out into the open air. As we strolled smoking along the garden walks, we heard faintly, as from a distance, the murmur of the great city.
     “Do you really believe,” I said presently, “that the divine thought of Shakespeare was a mere secretion, and that the last word of Science will be one of sheer negation and despair?”
     He looked at me thoughtfully, then watched the wreaths of smoke as they curled from his mouth up into the air.
     “Man is predoomed to aspiration, as the smoke flies upward. The last word of Science will not be spoken for many a century yet. Who can guess what it will be?”

                                                                                                                                 ROBERT BUCHANAN.

Back to Essays

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From the New-York Daily Tribune - 1 February, 1885 - p.4.

 

THE LANDLORD-SHOOTERS.
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ROBERT BUCHANAN’S PERSONAL EXPERIENCES.
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     In the autumn of 1880, I rented a small furnished lodge, with a large stretch of somewhat barren “grouse-shooting” at Mulrany, County Mayo, a wild and lonely place flanked by gloomy mountains and looking southward on the island-studded waters of Clew Bay. It was by no means my first visit to Ireland, for I had resided during the greater part of several winters in the still more desolate region of Erris, on those lonely shores which look out on the stags of Broadhaven, but thitherto I had found everything peaceful enough and had learned to love and sympathize with a kindly and much-enduring tenantry. At Mulrany, however, it was different. Though the great outrages which startled the world had not yet begun, trouble was in the air; men came and went with a threatening look of pre-occupation; and the very day of our arrival was signalized by one of those wild deeds which had already earned for the district an unenviable notoriety.
     For weeks past, Mr. Smith, Lord Sligo’s agent, had been warned that he would be “shot,” whenever he ventured upon the gloomy road which winds between the mountains, from Ballycroy to Mulrany. What his precise offence was I was never able to learn, but for one reason or another, he was a “marked” man. With a characteristic refinement of politeness, his secret enemies had notified him of his doom, had indicated the place, and conditionally the time of his assassination. Nothing, it will be confessed, could have been more considerate. Mr. Smith seems to have understood his danger perfectly, though he frequently made light of it; and for some time he was careful not to venture on the scene fixed for the murder. At last, however, he found it absolutely necessary to travel along that very road.
     On the afternoon in question Mr. Smith dined with the Rev. Mr. Ramsay, minister of Ballycroy. He lingered for some time over his wine, but finally, when the evening shades were falling, ordered his horse and car to be made ready and prepared to go.
     “Why hurry away so early?” asked the hospitable minister, who knew nothing of the state of affairs. “It is going to be a fine night.”
     “Just so,” replied the agent, smiling rather nervously; “but the fact is, I have an appointment on the highway beyond Ballycroy.”
     “Indeed!—rather a lonely place for an appointment!”
     “The lonelier the better, since it is an appointment to be murdered!” returned Mr. Smith, producing from his pocket the last threatening letter, in which the place was so ingenuously specified. “On the whole, you will agree that I had better be going before the night has entirely fallen.”
     Rejecting all entreaties to remain till morning, and pass through the dangerous neighborhood in the full light of day, the courageous agent mounted his Irish car, and drove away. His only companion (with the exception of the driver, a grim plucky fellow, famous for his narrow escapes when conducting “marked” passengers from place to place) was his own son, a youth between eighteen and nineteen years of age. Mr. Smith carried loaded pistols, young Smith was armed, curiously enough, with a small rifle, such as is used for shooting rooks.
     They passed along rapidly in the shadow of the hills, through such a scene of desolation as is to be found only in Ireland, between gloomy reaches of bog and moorland, and often along the very edge of a great estuary of the sea. Here and there was a mud cabin, with troglodytes clustering at the door; but upon the lonely road itself, they scarcely met a soul. Nothing happened till they passed Ballyveeny, a desolate and deserted lodge about midway between Ballycroy and Mulrany. Here the road winds right under the mountains. The scene was forbidding in the extreme, and it was already almost dark.
     Nevertheless, they were congratulating themselves on their safety, and smiling at the danger which they now thought they had exaggerated, when suddenly, as they passed over a small bridge, spanning a tiny runlet, wild figures rose on the roadside, and the ambuscade was revealed!
     Bang! bang! bang! went several guns; slugs and bullets whistled in the air. The horse started off at full gallop, with shots raining round its head. Strange to say, not a soul was a penny the worse! But young Smith, before the car had flown many yards, jumped from his seat, and with rifle in hand, stood, ready to face the enemy, in the road-side.
     By this time they were in full flight; all save one had disappeared; but that one, running up a small hillock twenty yards away, and gripping a two-barrelled gun, was preparing to turn and fire a parting shot. In a moment the boy covered him, and fired. The ruffian fell forward on his face, stone-dead—shot through the heart!
     Meantime the driver had reined up his horse, some hundreds of yards away. Young Smith ran on, joined his father, and explained what had occurred. Then they drove on rapidly to Mulrany, gave information to the police, and hastened on to Westport, twenty miles away.
     The news soon spread far and wide. Before the police reached the spot some of us galloped over, headed by young Dr. Croly, from the Island of Achill. We found the dead man lying where he had fallen, with his gun under him, and his right forefinger crooked in the act to reach the trigger. One barrel was loaded with heavy slugs.
     “Sure he’s as dead as a door-nail,” said Doctor Tom, turning the ghastly face up to the light. “It was a clean shot anyhow, bad luck to him!”
     The dead man was a powerful, thick-set fellow, about forty years old, with a good forehead, long thick-set jaw, and small deep-sunken eyes. His dress was coarse but not ragged, and on his great feet were heavy laced-up boots.
     Presently a party of Irish constabulary arrived with a stretcher, and while they were placing the dead man upon it, we made a cursory examination of the spot where the would-have-been assassins had lain in ambush. It was a heathery nook, or hollow, close to the road, and lying in it, they must have been totally hidden from any passers-by. But from the marks and signs about, it appeared that they had been there for some time, perhaps for several nights. The grass and heather were beaten down where they had lain, fragments of loose paper were scattered here and there, and lying perdu among the grass was an empty whiskey bottle.
     “Sure, now,” cried Doctor Tom, “isn’t it a miracle how they missed the car? A sober man might have hit it with a stone, for they weren’t a dozen yards away. But I’ll go bail for it, the spalpeens were roaring drunk. Devil a one of them could have hit a barn door!”
     And, indeed, that seemed the only possible explanation of the agent’s miraculous escape. The men, tired with waiting for their victim, had taken liberally to the bottle, and had possibly been startled, by the car’s approach, from a semi-drunken sleep. They were obviously amateurs, exhibiting in their want of finish and awkwardness of method an inexperience unusual among accomplished landlord shooters.
     That night, the first we spent in Mulrany lodge, was memorable to the ladies of our party. All night the population thronged upon the roads, “keening” and uttering threats of vengeance. Our door was barricaded, and our guns stood loaded, ready in case of emergencies. I fear the fair ones got little sleep.
     Fortunately, the dead man was a stranger in the district, whom no one knew; otherwise, the result might have been serious. After-inquiry revealed that he was a sort of ’ostler, hailing from a distant part of Mayo, and that he had received a good round sum to do the “job” which had ended so unfortunately for himself.
     Next day, I strolled round to the police barrack. The body was lying in the stone-paven back yard, the face turned up to the open sky and smeared with dark gore. All around, the place was like a slaughter-house. A post-mortem had been made by the local doctor (not our lively friend from Achill) who, for lack of proper instruments, had simply used a chisel! The blood, which, after the mortal wound, had extravased into the internal cavities, had spouted forth in a thick fountain when those cavities were opened. It was a hideous sight. Curious it was to note again the forefinger of the right hand still crooked in the act to touch the trigger, and now fixed as hard as stone by rigor mortis.
     At the inquest, which took place a little later at Ballycroy, a verdict was returned acquitting young Smith of intentional murder. He and his father were brought over under strong escorts of police, amid the execrations of the populace. It rained threatening letters. Besides the two Smiths every one of the jurymen received them. Some endeavor was made to trace the accomplices of the dead man, but without avail. One of the jurymen, a gentleman popular in the district, deposed at the first meeting that he recognized the gun found in the dead man’s possession, as a gun belonging to an innkeeper in Ballycroy. Questioned and cross-questioned, he swore that he could not be mistaken. “I know the marks of it,” he said, “and I’ve often had it in my hand.” But at the second meeting, a few days later, his memory entirely failed him. When the gun was placed before him he looked at it vacantly, and when asked if he recognized it, sadly shook his head. Taxed with his former statement, he refused in any way to corroborate it; “Sure I must have been dreaming, or in drink,” he said. Of course the explanation of the change was very simple. The gentleman had been informed that short work would certainly be made of him, if he persisted in having so good a memory.
     Nothing more was ever known of the planners of this outrage. The excitement of the people gradually died away. Young Smith quietly left the country, for a time at least, and was careful not to leave his address; and Mr. Smith, senior, betook himself to Dublin.
     Meantime, we had become quite at home in Mulrany, and we soon realized that life and property, apart from agrarian outrages, were quite as safe there as in any part of the world. Yet it was a “warm” district. A Scotch farmer had been shot dead there at broad noon, one Sunday, when seated on his car, with his wife by his side. His wife remained on the farm, a formidable “widdy” woman. If trespassers or cattle came upon her land she drove them off savagely, and, when the peasants remonstrated, she cried, “You killed my husband, you cowards! Kill me, too, if you have the courage!” Curiously enough, they were very gentle with her, and respected her grief.
     In my own fishing and shooting expeditions I became very familiar with the landlord shooters. One of them, whom I frequently employed as gillie, fisherman or boatman, was notorious in the district as the man who had been chosen to polish off Mr. Granite (as I shall call him), a rich Englishman who owned most of the land about Mulrany. O’Connor, my factotum, was a little, pale, pertinacious fellow of about thirty, good tempered, with a deal of native wit and drollery.
     I questioned him more than once as to the truth of the rumors about himself; I pointed out the wickedness and the folly of assassination. He answered me with a smile that was childlike and bland.
     “Sure, now, your honor, I put it to yourself. What harm would there be to kill a tyrant?”
     But when I went further and questioned him of the reasons which made him hate his own landlord, and mine, so much, he became transformed. With moist eyes and quivering lips, he told me such a tale of his own experiences as almost converted me, for the moment, to his own avenging creed.
     All this time the said Mr. Granite was going about under police protection. He himself went armed to the teeth, and a cockney servant of his, also primed like a mitrailleuse, generally attended him. O’Connor himself delighted in perceiving the especial terror with which the landlord regarded him whenever they happened to meet. On one occasion, when I was out seal-shooting, with O’Connor and a stalwart Connaught man in attendance, we saw, passing along the shore some hundreds of yards away, a strange procession. First crawled a car with several armed policemen. Next came a high dog-cart with Mr. Granite driving, and the cockney servant, a pistol in each hand, seated at his side and craning his neck to search every corner of the road. Last came a couple more policemen with rifles, on foot.
     At sight of the procession my two boatmen exploded with laughter.
     “It’s a mighty fine funeral,” said O’Connor, “and Sam the footman looks in mourning for his master already. Sure now, your honor, you’d never like to be drawn about like that!”
     “Try a shot at him, sor!” cried the other, grinning savagely and pointing to the rifle at my side.
     “Excuse me,” I replied, “I am shooting seals, not landlords!”
     Here O’Connor, fairly trembling, but forcing a sickly smile, bent toward me eagerly. His face was quite white and bloodless, and his whole manner had undergone a transformation.
     “Lend me the gun, your honor!” he exclaimed.
     “Certainly not. What on earth do you want to do?”
     “Just to fire one shot at him, for fun to myself! I wouldn’t harm the omadhaun this turn but whistle a bullet clane over his head. Mona mondiaul, how that would scare him!”
     Seeing that I would be no party to such a joke (if he really meant it as a joke, which I very much doubt), O’Connor, still pale and trembling, with quivering nostrils, watched the procession till it faded out of sight. Then he began rowing wildly and crooning to himself some wild song in the Irish brogue, with a refrain in which his companion joined from time to time.
     “What’s that you’re singing, O’Connor?” I asked presently.
     He leant upon his oar and looked at me with an ominous smile.
     “Sure it’s a song of old times, your honor, about a battle between an O’Connor and one that he had sworn to kill.”
     “You rascal,” I cried, half laughing, “you’re as bloodthirsty as a carrion crow.”
     “Bad luck to him that made me what I am!” he answered. “It’s neither God nor man would save him if I had my fingers at his throat. But the dark nights are coming, thank the Lord!”
     I knew both the phrase and the formula, and on the whole I was rather thankful, at that moment, not to be wearing Mr. Granite’s shoes.

                                                                                                                   ROBERT BUCHANAN.
Copyright, 1885.

 

[Note:
Harriett Jay mentions this incident in Chapter XXI of her biography of Buchanan, but places it immediately after the failure of Light (which would have been October 1878). Buchanan also gets the year wrong. The attack on Mr. Smith occurred on 30th September, 1879. Press reports of the shooting are available here:

The Freeman’s Journal (2 October, 1879 - p.5)

Reynolds’s Newspaper (5 October, 1879 - p.5).]

 

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