ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
Essays - ‘Mr John Morley’s Essays’
From The Contemporary Review - June 1871 - Vol. XVII, pp. 319-337.
(Reprinted as ‘A Young English Positivist’ in Master-Spirits (London: Henry S. King and Company, 1873).)
MR. JOHN MORLEY’S ESSAYS.
Critical Miscellanies. By JOHN MORLEY. London: Chapman and Hall.
THE world is wrong on most subjects, and Mr. John Morley, with the encyclopædic pretensions of his school, is going to set it as right as may be; but it is chiefly wrong in the department of Sociology, and to that, in the meantime, Mr. Morley endeavours to confine his attention. In a series of finely-wrought and thoroughly stimulating essays—which we have heard called “hard” in style, possibly just because they exhibit no love of mere rhetorical ornament, and are, indeed, only rhetorical here and there because they become the necessary vehicle of intense and passionate denunciation—the last disciple of Auguste Comte takes occasion to classify the failures of the old theology and its advocates, to estimate anew the intellectual and moral significance of the great Revolutions, to demolish the intuitionalism of Carlyle, to apotheosize Byron from the point of view of revolt, to examine and criticize the Platonic and Aristotelian ideas of Sociology, and to strengthen many delicate lines of reflection awakened by the greater or less progress of morals. In all this work, undertaken as a veritable labour of love, he exhibits diligence, patience, and temperance towards opponents, coupled with a literary finesse almost bordering on self-consciousness, and broken only here and there by outbursts of honest hatred against social 320 organization as at present understood. With theology, of course, he has no patience, though he can be generous (as in the case of De Maistre) to theologians. He is scarcely less tolerant to metaphysics, having, so far at least as we can perceive, little faculty for metaphysical distinctions, and actually seeming to imagine that such men as De Maistre represent the highest forms of metaphysical inquiry. Like every leading thinker of the school to which he belongs, like Mr. Mill, like Mr. Buckle, like Mr. Lewes, he is very painstaking, very veritable, very honest, very explicit; like every one of that school, he astonishes us by his fertility of illustration and general power of classifying arguments; and like the very best of them, starting with the great Positivist distinction between absolute and relative truth, he ends by leaving the impression on the reader’s mind that the relativity of the truth under examination has been forgotten in the mere triumph of verification. But Mr. Morley must not be blamed because, like most really powerful writers, he is a bigot—like many Positivists, over-positive—like all very earnest men, armed only against one kind of intellectual attack. With any thinker of his own school he is certainly able to hold his own; for, having the choice of weapons, he chooses the rapier and affects the straight assertive thrust at the heart of his opponent; but his rapier would be nowhere before the flail of a Scotch Calvinistic parson, and would be equally unavailing against the swift sweep of Mr. Martineau’s logic. In all this thoughtful volume, where he seldom loses an opportunity of assailing popular forms of Christian belief, he never once condescends to absolute verification of his formula that Christianity is a creed intellectually effete and fundamentally fallacious. No one of the Scottish worthies could handle “grace” and “damnation” with a stronger sense of absolute truth than Mr. Morley has of this formula; and thus it happens that the pupil of a philosophy which specially insists on clear intellectual atmosphere and perfectly verifiable results, starts his science of Sociology on the loose assumption that Positivism has successfully demolished the whole framework of theosophy and metaphysics, that “the doctrine of personal salvation is founded on fundamental selfishness,” and that the whole spiritual investigation has a merely emotional sweep which, while it agitates and stimulates the brain like all other emotional currents, neither explains phenomena nor tends to make thought veracious. Of course, Mr. Morley altogether rejects as impossible any science of the Absolute, and holds with Comte that the proper study of man is phenomena, and social phenomena properest of all. A scientific reorganization of society, in which the wisest would reign supreme, the wicked be punished and the vicious exterminated, women get their proper 321 place in the human scheme—a sort of social Academy, composed of Mr. Morley and the rest of the prophets, and “constituting a real Providence in all departments”*—this, and this alone, is perhaps what is wanted. So Mr. Morley, after a comprehensive survey of what other systems have done for humanity, decides, or seems to decide, on a system which he has not definitely explained, but which we take to be the Comtist method, short of many of those later eccentricities, such as the great social and political scheme, which are very generally understood to verge upon hypothesis.
* “In the name of the past and the future, the servants of humanity, both its philosophical and practical servants, come forward to claim as their due the general direction of this world. Their object is to constitute at length a real Providence in all departments—moral, intellectual, and material; consequently they exclude once and for all from political supremacy all ‘the different’ servants of God—Catholic, Protestant, or Deist—as being at once behindhand and a cause of disturbance!”—See Comte’s “Preface to the Catechism.” We have always held that Comte wanted to be a Pope.
322 understood, then, that Mr. Morley in the present volume is avowedly and always a critic, never willingly a theorist, and if it be conceded, as all must concede, that he criticises with singular judgment and strange fairness, readers have no right to find fault because in demolishing their Temples he does not come forward actually prepared with a substitute. Probably enough he would refer all grumblers to the Positive system itself as supplying some sort of compensation for the loss of Christian and metaphysical ethics. But that is neither here nor there. If truth is what we seek, truth absolute, and verifiable any moment by human experience, we must begin by throwing all ideas of compensation aside. Doubtless it is a comfortable thing to believe in salvation and the eternal life, a blissful thing to muse on and cling to the notion of a beneficent and omnipresent Deity working everywhere for good; and it is therefore no uncommon circumstance for the theologic mind, when threatened, to retort with a savage “Very good; but if you prove your case and demolish my belief, what have you to give me in exchange?”—surely a form of retort only worthy in dealing with the heathen and the savage. Yet it is here precisely that Comtism fails as a political construction; for Comte himself, as much as the most orthodox of divines, places perpetual stress on the human necessity for a faith, though what he at last supplied in the place of God is universally felt to be the very washiest of sentiments, only worthy of the metaphysical school he hated most thoroughly. The dynamic ball rolled along all very well up to this generation. If Protestantism overthrew the Pope and the saints, it left heaven and hell open to all the world and the Georges. If Calvin triumphantly demonstrated “predestination,” he substituted “grace” as a comforting possibility. Unitarianism lets God be, beneficent, all-wise, all-giving. The higher Pantheism admits at the very least that the period of mortal dissolution is only the moment of transition—in many cases from a lower state to a higher. In exchange for any of these creeds, what has that religion to give which tells man that he must cease to believe himself the last of the angels, and be contented to recognise himself as the first of the animals? Expressly declaring, as Mr. Morley declares after Comte,* that the longing for individual salvation is basely selfish (this, by the way, is a fallacy of the most superficial kind), the new faith offers us absorption and identification† with the “mighty and eternal Being, Humanity,” a
* Thus Comte: “The old objective immortality, which could never clear itself of the egotistic or selfish character.” And Morley: “The fundamental egotism of the doctrine of personal salvation.”
323 secondary or subjective existence in the heart and intellect of others, unconscious of course, but for that very reason the more blissful and supreme. Without pausing to smile at the metaphysical difficulty at once obtruded by the apostle of identification, it may well be asked how a creed is to thrive which offers such a very slender inducement to the neophyte. It doubtless sounds very grand at once and for ever to dispense with these inducements and to appeal to the grandest ideal of human unselfishness, but nevertheless the bonus has been the secret of all religious successes from the beginning, and the system which leaves that out will never hold the world very long together. That, however, is not the question. The test of a creed is not “Will it prosper?” but, “Is it true?” It would be far beyond the limits of an article to apply that test here, even if we felt competent to apply it at all. The present question is a less difficult one. Does Mr. Morley, while applying the Positive criterion in certain cases to other faiths, conclusively establish his hypothesis that these faiths are effete or false? They have prospered, they have been comfortable; but—“are they true?” They are true only historically, is the reply of Mr. Morley; they are now inert and dead; and because nothing better has yet been got to take their place, the world, socially speaking, is in a very bad way. A new system must be inaugurated at once. Mr. Morley will perhaps tell us by-and-by what that system is to be. Meantime he is content to hint that the first step toward improvement will be the resolution to suppress mere vagrant emotions, and to use the intelligence with more scientific precision in the act of examining even the most sacred beliefs of every-day existence.
* Zymotic diseases, it must be remembered, are due to some supposed poison introduced into the system.
327 Zymotic diseases sometimes kill, and always injure more or less; and the history of thought as a series of such diseases would naturally leave us where the ingenious American Professor Draper found us, at the stage of moral decrepitude, instead of where (we rejoice to say) Mr. Morley finds us, at some stage preliminary to health and robust manhood. Elsewhere in his book Mr. Morley has this unguarded exclamation—“As if,” he cries, “the highest moods of every age necessarily clothed themselves in religious forms!” Does the writer mean to assert, again in the face of the historical classification as laid down by Comte, that they do not? or has he merely made the mistake of writing the word “religious” in place of the word “theologic?” Really, Mr. Morley seems to have imbibed so much of Condorcet’s hatred for priests and the priesthood, that the very words “Christian,” “religious,” “theologic,” put him quite out of his boasted science. So far as it is positively excited, his destructive criticisms on religions destroy nothing, except a little of the confidence we usually feel in the writer. That confidence never flags long. We could forgive Mr. Morley for being infinitely more unjust to what he hates, when we remember his tender justice to what he honours. Nothing to our thinking is more beautiful in this volume than the recurring anxiety to vindicate the memory of Voltaire. Here is one terse passage on the tender-hearted Iconoclast; it forms
“Voltaire, during his life, enjoyed to the full not only the admiration that belongs to the poet, but something of the veneration that is paid to the thinker, and even something of the glory usually reserved for captains and conquerors of renown. No other man before or since ever hit so exactly the mark of his time on every side, so precisely met the conditions of fame for the moment, nor so thoroughly dazzled and reigned over the foremost men and women who were his contemporaries. Wherever else intellectual fame has approached the fame of Voltaire, it has been posthumous. With him it was immediate and splendid. Into the secret of this extraordinary circumstance we need not here particularly inquire. He was an unsurpassed master of the art of literary expression in a country where that art is more highly prized than anywhere else; he was the most brilliant of wits among a people whose relish for wit is a supreme passion; he won the admiration of the lighter souls by his plays, of the learned by his interest in science, of the men of letters by his never-ceasing flow of essays, criticisms, and articles, not one of which lacks vigour, and freshness, and sparkle; he was the most active, bitter, and telling foe of what was then the most justly abhorred of all institutions—the Church. Add to these remarkable titles to honour and popularity that he was no mere declaimer against oppression and injustice in the abstract, but the strenuous, persevering, and absolutely indefatigable champion of every victim of oppression or injustice whose case was once brought under his eye” (p. 44).
We owe Mr. Morley thanks for his vindication of the eighteenth 328 century as a great Spiritual Revolution,—in excess of course, like all such revolutions, but incalculably beneficial to the cause of humanity. The movement which began with the Encyclopædia and culminated in Robespierre, has been only half described by Carlyle’s phrase, that it was an universal destructive movement against Shams;—it was an eminently constructive movement as well, and though it failed historically, it did not fail ultimately, for the wave of thought and action to which it gave birth has not yet subsided, and is not likely to subside till the world gets some sort of a glimpse of a true social polity. A leading cause of the public misconception as regards the eighteenth century has been Mr. Carlyle. It is chiefly for this reason, we fancy, that Mr. Morley devotes to Carlyle one of the longest, and in some respects the very best, paper in the series. We think, indeed, that his anxiety to find here another prophet, however cloaked and veiled, of the new gospel, leads him to be far too lenient to Carlyle’s shortcomings—we had almost said his crimes. From the first hour of his career to the last, Carlyle has been perniciously preaching the Scotch identity—a type of moral force familiar to every Scotchman, a type which is separatist without being spiritual, and spacious without being benevolent—to a generation sadly in need of quite another sort of preacher. With a phrase perpetually in his mouth, which might just as well have been the Verbosities as the Eternities or the Verities, with a mind so self-conscious as to grant apotheosis to other minds only on the score of their affinity with itself, and with a heart so obtuse as never, in the long course of sixty years, to have felt one single pang for the distresses of man as a family and social being, with every vice of the typical Scotch character exaggerated into monstrosity by diligent culture and literary success, Mr. Carlyle can claim regard from this generation only on one score, that of his services as a duct to convey into our national life the best fruits of Teutonic genius and wisdom. His criticisms are as vicious and false as they are powerful. Had he been writing for a cultured people, who knew anything at all of the subjects under discussion, they would never have been listened to for a moment. He has, for example, mercilessly brutalized Burns in a pitiable attempt to apotheosize him from the separatist point of view; and he has popularized pictures of Richter and Novalis which fail to represent the subtle psychological truths these men lived to illustrate. For Voltaire as the master of persiflage he has perfect perception and savage condemnation, but of Voltaire as the apostle of humanity he has no knowledge whatever, simply because he has no heart whatever for humanity itself. He has written his own calendar of heroes, and has set therein the names of the monsters of the earth, from Fritz downwards,—always, be it remembered, aggrandizing these men on 329 the monstrous side, and generally wronging them as successfully by this process as if his method were wilfully destructive. Blind to the past, deaf to the present, dead to the future, he has cried aloud to a perverse generation till his very name has become the synonym for moral heartlessness and political obtusity. He has glorified the gallows and he has garlanded the rack. Heedless of the poor, unconscious of the suffering, diabolic to the erring, he has taught to functionaries the righteousness of a legal thirst for revenge, and has suggested to the fashioners of a new criminal code the eligibility of the old German system of destroying criminals by torture. He has never been on the side of the truth. He was for the lie in Jamaica, the lie in the South, the lie in Alsace and Lorraine. He could neither as a moralist see the sin of slavery, nor predict as a prophet the triumph of the abolitionists. He has been all heat and no light, a portentous and amazing futility. If he has done any good to any soul on the earth it has been by hardening that soul, and it is doubtful if Englishmen wanted any more hardening—by separating that soul’s destiny from that of the race, as if the English character were not almost fatally separated already. He is not only, as Mr. Morley expresses it, “ostentatiously illogical and defiantly inconsistent;”—he pushes bad logic to the verge of conscious untruth, and in his inconsistency is wilfully criminal. He begins “with introspections and Eternities, and ends with blood and iron.” He has impulses of generosity, but no abiding tenderness. He has a certain reverence of individual worth, especially if it be strong and assertive, but he has no pity for aggregate suffering, as if pain became any less when multiplied by twenty thousand. He is, in a word, the living illustration of the doom pronounced on him who, holding to God the mirror of a flawed nature, blasphemously bids all men be guided by the reflection dimly shadowed therein. Why should this man, like a sort of counsel for the prosecution, represent Providence? God versus Man, Mr. Carlyle prosecuting, and, alas! not one living soul competent or willing to say a word for the defence! It is “you ought to do this,” and “you must, by the Verities!” So the savage pessimist inveighs; but the world gets weary in time of the eternal “ought,” and turns round on the teacher with a quiet “very good; but why?”* If Positivism only teaches the world to distrust men
* A Scotchman of much the same type of mind, though of course infinitely weaker in degree, once reminded me, in answer to such charges, that they were made by people who were blind to the prophet’s “exquisite sense of humour.” Of course humour is at the heart of it,—but humour is character, and nothing so indicates a man’s quality as what he considers laughable. Carlylean humour, often exquisite in quality, may be found in a book called “Life Studies,” by J. K. Hunter, just published at Glasgow. Note especially the chapter called “Combe on the Constitution of Woman.” Mr. Hunter is a parochial Carlyle, with some of the genius and none of the culture.
330 who come forward to try the great cause of humanity by the wretched test of the individual consciousness, and who, because they can control their own heart-beats, fancy they have discovered the secret of the universe, it will have done enough to secure from posterity fervent and lasting gratitude.
“There are two sets of relations which have still to be regulated in some degree by the primitive and pathological principle of repression and main force. The first of these concern that unfortunate body of criminal and vicious persons whose unsocial propensities are constantly straining and endangering the bonds of the social union. They exist in the midst of the most highly civilized communities, with all the predatory or violent habits of barbarous tribes. They are the active and unconquered remnant of the natural state, and it is as unscientific as the experience of some unwise philanthropy has shown it to be ineffective, to deal with them exactly as if they occupied the same moral and social level as the best of their generation. We are amply justified in employing towards them, wherever their offences endanger order, the same methods of coercion which originally made society possible. No tenable theory about free will or necessity, no theory of praise and blame that will bear positive tests, lay us under any obligation to spare either the comfort or the life of a man who indulges in certain anti-social kinds of conduct. Mr. Carlyle has done much to wear this just and austere view into the minds of his generation, and in so far he has performed an excellent service” (p. 225).
Here Mr. Morley is at one with the “hard school” of political economists; but what is defensible from their point of view becomes unpardonable from his. Is the “hard and austere” view of crime, then, the scientific view? Is it scientific to deal with the criminal as if they stood (by nature) on a lower moral level than the rest of mankind? and is it effective? To all these questions we venture to interpose an emphatic negative. If there is any truth which this generation does not recognise, it is the divine law of human relationship: the fact—which we should fancy it the glory of Positivism to disseminate—that crime and sin are abnormal and accidental conditions, to an enormous extent remediable, and never—even in the most awful instances—quite eclipsing the divine possibilities of the spiritual nature. To treat criminals as mere nomads, to pursue them as Tristran l’Hermite pursued the “Egyptians,” to offer them no alternative but instant conformity or the gibbet, is merely to give us another version of Mr. Carlyle’s eternal “Ought.” There are points of view, indeed—strictly scientific points of view—from which the existence of these very classes in the heart of the community may be regarded as a distinct social blessing; and it is 331 doubtful if, with all their errors and with all their sins, they contaminate society to any fatal degree. But whatever may be the nature of their influence, it is certain that no good has ever come from dealing with them on the principle of extermination. More has been wrought among them by reverence than by hate or oppression—by approaching them, we mean, in a reverent spirit, conscious of the sacredness of life, however deeply in revolt against organization. It is one of the dangers of Positivism that it may lead its disciples to set too light a value on mere life, as distinguished from life intellectual; and we therefore find many leading Positivists writing as if the life intellectual, being the life spiritual, was necessarily the only life sacred. We do not, however, accuse Mr. Morley of being unconditionally in favour of the gallows. Further on, indeed, he protests against the kind of thinking which “stops short” at the gibbet and the soldier as against a very bad form of hopelessness. He would probably agree with us that Punishment and War are entirely defensible up to the point where they are confounded with righteous vengeance and human retribution. If they are necessary, no more is to be said; the defence is perfect when their necessity is shown. But vengeance and retribution are terms unworthy of science, and so is the point of view which views the criminal classes as mere nomads*—a superficial classification not more characteristic of the Positivist love for symmetrical arrangement than the haunting determination to regard every fact and event as links in a long chain of evolution, or the constant willingness to admit hypotheses in any number so long as they develop naturally from the great cardinal hypothesis, never yet verified, that the basis of life is physiological.
* In point of fact, the most hopeless forms of crime in this country occur strictly within the body of society as a consequence of its present organization. Conformity to the social law, not revolt outside its circle, created the crimes of Tawell, and numberless others. Was Madeline Smith a nomad?
332 interest than to discuss them in detail; for, indeed, each question involved could only be treated adequately at great length. The essays on “Joseph de Maistre” and on “Byron” are quite as good in their way as the rest. The great Ultramontanist is chiefly interesting to Mr. Morley—and to us—because his scheme for the reorganization of European society was the skeleton of Comte’s own social scheme. After a brilliant survey of De Maistre’s life and works, Mr. Morley utters his own “epode” on Catholicism:—
“De Maistre has been surpassed by no thinker that we know of as a defender of the old order. If anybody could rationalize the idea of supernatural intervention in human affairs, the idea of a Papal supremacy, the idea of a spiritual unity, De Maistre’s acuteness and intellectual vigour, and, above all, his keen sense of the urgent social need of such a thing being done, would assuredly have enabled him to do it. In 1817, when he wrote the work in which this task is attempted, the hopelessness of such an achievement was less obvious than it is now. The Bourbons had been restored. The Revolution lay in a deep slumber that many persons excusably took for the quiescence of extinction. Legitimacy and the spiritual system that was its ally in the face of the Revolution, though mostly its rival or foe when they were left alone together, seemed to be restored to the fulness of their power. Fifty years have elapsed since then, and each year has seen a progressive decay in the principles which then were triumphant. It was not, therefore, without reason that De Maistre warned people against believing ‘que la colonne est replacée, parcequ’elle est relevée.’ The solution which he so elaborately recommended to Europe has shown itself desperate and impossible. Catholicism may long remain a vital creed to millions of men, a deep source of spiritual consolation and refreshment, and a bright lamp in perplexities of conduct and morals; but resting on dogmas which cannot by any amount of compromise be incorporated with the daily increasing mass of knowledge, assuming, as the condition of its existence, forms of the theological hypothesis which all the preponderating influences of contemporary thought concur directly or indirectly in discrediting, upheld by an organization which its history for the last five centuries has exposed to the distrust and hatred of men as the sworn enemy of mental freedom and growth, the pretensions of Catholicism to renovate society are among the most pitiable and impotent that ever devout, high-minded, and benevolent persons deluded themselves into maintaining or accepting. Over the modern invader it is as powerless as paganism was over the invaders of old. The barbarians of industrialism, grasping chiefs and mutinous men, give no ear to priest or pontiff, who speak only dead words, who confront modern issues with blind eyes, and who stretch out but a palsied hand to help. ‘Christianity,’ according to a well-known saying, has been tried and failed; the religion of Christ remains to be tried. One would prefer to qualify the first clause, by admitting how much Christianity has done for Europe even with its old organization, and to restrict the charge of failure within the limits of the modern time. To-day its failure is too patent. Whether, in changed forms and with new supplements, the teaching of its founder is destined to be the chief inspirer of that social and human sentiment which seems to be the only spiritual bond capable of uniting men together again in a common and effective faith, is a question which it is unnecessary to discuss here. ‘They talk about the first centuries of Christianity,’ said De Maistre; ‘I 333 would not be sure that they are over yet.’ Perhaps not; only if the first centuries are not yet over, it is certain that the Christianity of the future will have to be so different from the Christianity of the past, as almost to demand or deserve another name” (pp. 189—191).
This is, however, strongly felt, and put as strongly. Mr. Morley is hardly prepared for a scientific judgment on Protestantism. He approaches it too much in the spirit of the doctor of lunacy, who believes all the world to be mad but himself. One turns with relief to the article on Byron, perhaps the best that was ever written on the subject, but unfortunately flawed, because the writer, who has just recommended a severe handling of the criminal classes, seems unconscious that he is dealing with a great criminal’s life and character. Scientific criticism, so sharp to the anti-social Outcasts, might be less merciful to the Outcast whose hand was lifted against every man’s life and reputation, and who was consciously unjust, tyrannous, selfish, false, and anti-social. We do not agree with Mr. Morley that the public has nothing to do with Byron’s private life. The man invited confidence for the sake of blasting the fair fame of others; and the lie of his teaching is only to be counteracted by the living lie of his identity. If revolters and criminals are to be gibbeted, then we claim in the name of Justice the highest gibbet for Byron. The following passage is too important not to be quoted entire:—
“More attention is now paid to the mysteries of Byron’s life than to the merits of his work, and criticism and morality are equally injured by the confusion between the worth of the verse he wrote, and the virtue or wickedness of the life he lived. The admirers of his poetry appear sensible of some obligation to be the champions of his conduct, while those who have diligently gathered together the details of an accurate knowledge of the unseemliness of his conduct, cannot bear to think that from this bramble men have been able to gather figs. The result of the confusion has been that grave men and women have applied themselves to investigate and judge Byron’s private life, as if the exact manner of it, the more or less of his outrages upon decorum, the degree of the deadness of his sense of moral responsibility, were matter of minute and profound interest to all ages. As if all this had anything to do with criticism proper. It is right that we should know the life and manners of one whom we choose for a friend, or of one who asks us to entrust him with the control of public interests. In either of these two cases we need a guarantee for present and future. Art knows nothing of guarantees. The work is before us, its own warranty. What is it to us whether Turner had coarse orgies with the trulls of Wapping? We can judge his art without knowing or thinking of the artist. And in the same way, what are the stories of Byron’s libertinism to us? They may have biographical interest, but of critical interest hardly the least. If the name of the author of ‘Manfred,’ ‘Cain,’ ‘Childe Harold,’ were already lost, as it may be in remote times, the work abides, and its mark on European opinion” (p. 254).
Coming from a man of Mr. Morley’s calibre, these words are at the very least remarkable. They are worthy of the critic of the 334 Second Empire, M. Taine, in his most anti-didactic mood. Byron is, according to Mr. Morley, the poet of the Revolution, the English expression of vast social revolt all over Europe. In cases of such revolt, involving ethical distinctions, is it not of the very highest consequence, from a scientific point of view, to examine the personal reasons of the revolter? An inquiry into Byron’s life verifies the hypothesis awakened at every page of his works, that this man was in arms, not against society, but against his own vile passions; that he was a worldly man full of the affectation of unworldliness, and a selfish man only capable of the lowest sort of sacrifice—that for an egoistic idea; and that at least half of what he wrote was written with supreme and triumphant insincerity. Mr. Morley is very wroth at the piggish virtues fostered by the Georges, and with reason; but he sometimes forgets that Byron did not rebel so much against these as against the domestic instinct itself. His fight being throughout with his own conscience, it is of supreme importance to learn what he had done and what he had been. Pure practical art, like that of Turner, offers no analogy in this case; it would not even do so in the case of Shelley; for even Shelley has hopelessly interwoven his literature with his own life and the life of men. The confusion in Mr. Morley’s mind is M. Taine’s confusion, and gives birth to half the meretricious and silly literature of the day. Byron was a poet, an intellectual and emotional force, finding expression in written words. He was not distinctively a singer, nor a musician, nor a painter, nor a philosopher, nor a politician; but he was something of all these, as every great poet must be. Music and art do not arbitrarily imply ethics, but ethics is included in literature, and is within the distinct scope of the poetic intellect.* Byron was not merely an artist—in point of fact, he was very little an artist; and he never did write a line, or paint a picture, which tells its own tale apart from himself. He rose in revolt to try the question of himself against society, and his life is therefore the property of society’s cross-examiners. The question remaining is—can they show that he had no fair cause for revolt at all?
* Observe, says the æsthetic critic, that the end of all art is to give pleasure. Yes; and so is the ultimate end of all virtue.
335 deeply mixed with intellectual impurities, fatally tinged with the morbid hues of a hysteric and somewhat peevish mind. It is the fashion now to call him “divine,” nor do we for a moment dispute the apotheosis; but we doubt exceedingly if the “Cenci” could bear the truly critical test and retain its limpid and divine transparency, or if the choice of so essentially shallow and false a myth as that of Prometheus, coupled with numberless similar predilections, was not the sign of a second-class intellect. One way of noting the radical difference between Byron and Shelley is very simple. Let the reader carefully peruse, first, “Prometheus,” and then look at the reflection in his own mind twenty-four hours afterwards. Let him next read, say even “Manfred”—bad though that is as a piece of writing—and go through the same process. He will find that he experienced, during the actual perusal of the first poem, a sense of exquisite fascination at every line; that, twenty-four hours afterwards, the impression was dim and doubtful; and that, sooner or later, it is expedient to go again through the process of perusal. In the other instance the result will be inverse. The reader’s feeling during perusal will be one almost of impatience; but twenty-four hours afterwards the impression will be very vivid, not as to particular passages, but as to the drama as a whole. In point of fact, there is more real creative force and shaping power, infinitely less of the aroma and essence of beauty, in “Manfred” even, than in the “Prometheus.” Pursuing this analogy further, let the reader who has carefully studied and enjoyed both Byron and Shelley look at the reflections in his own mind at the present moment. A wild and beautiful rainbow-coloured mist, peopled by indefinite shapes innumerable, and by two or three shapes definite only as they are morbid and terrible: such, perhaps, is the reflection of the poetry of Shelley. A clear mountain atmosphere with a breezy sense of the sea, a succession of romantic faces singularly human and vivid in spite of their strange resemblance to each other, a ripple of healthy female laughter, a life, a light, an animal sense of exhilaration —surely all these things, and many other things as human, take possession of us at once when we think of the poetry of Byron. Shelley possessed supremely and separately a small portion of those qualities which Byron possessed collectively. Shelley had some gifts in excess, and he lacked all the others. It may be suggested, in answer to this, that one supreme gift is better than all the gifts in dilution. Undoubtedly. But Byron, at his very best, exhibits all the gifts supremely, and even in the direction of spirituality penetrates very high indeed in his noblest flights. He wrote too often for scribbling’s sake; but when he wrote from true impulse he often produced the highest sort of poetry—perfect vision in perfect language. Let it be remembered also, to his glory, that 336 he shared with the greatest creators of the world— with Shakspere, with Boccaccio, with Cervantes, with Chaucer, with Goethe, with Walter Scott—something of that rare faculty of humour which is as necessary a qualification for testing most forms of life as certain acids for testing metals, and without which a first-class intellect generally yields over-much to the other rare and besetting faculty of introspection to produce literature of the first rank. All human truth is misapprehended till it is conceived as relative, and there is nothing like humour for betraying, as by magic, Truth’s relativity.
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