Every now and again it is asserted that our literature is being destroyed by the periodicals. Some hold that, under their baneful influence, we are losing all concision and polish of style, as well as all capacity for serious thought. Others, admitting that there may be as much intellectual wealth current now as there was forty or a hundred years ago, contend that, as the intellectual wealth of the former time was represented by a thousand gold coins, whilst that of the present day by a million copper ones, the unprecedented distribution of pieces—the sordid material of which they are composed, the excess of bulk and weight—form serious deductions from the value actually in possession. The assertion that magazines and reviews are at present hurting literature, is one which, in virtue of being half truth and half falsehood, is likely to enjoy a long life. You cannot trample it quite out, on account of the truth resident in it: you have an uneasy suspicion of its falsehood even while asserting it most loudly. Every household in the country has its periodical. Henry of Navarre longed for the time when every Frenchman should have a hen in his pot. That, he conceived a better sign of the prosperity of a country than certain big feasts in certain big castles. The magazines bring literature into every home, just as aqueduct and pipe bring the water of Loch Katrine into the homes of the Glasgow citizens. It is quite true, that the water occasionally tastes of iron, and wears a rusty stain; quite true that a perfectly pure draught may always be had at the legendary lake in the shadow of the hills; but the water is flowing in every house, and that, after all, is the important matter.
And, to carry out the illustration, the water is often as pure in the basin of the citizen as beneath the trembling sedges that the wild duck loves. The fact that so many of our books—and so many of our best books, too—are reprints from periodicals, proves that not only are periodicals extensively read, but that they absorb much of our best thinking and writing. The best-written magazine naturally attracts the largest number of readers; and this number of readers enables it to maintain its level of excellence, and to draw to its service the best men who may from time to time arise. When we say that our best periodicals are extensively read, we are simply saying that our best periodicals are attractive. No man who wishes to be amused will pay his money for dulness. No man who appreciates style will habitually peruse what cannot minister to his literary delight. The people who purchase the Cornhill may be presumed to be tolerably contented with the literature of the Cornhill. Their ordinary thinking is not quite up to the level of the thinking of the writers in that serial; the articles it contains occasionally present them with a new fact, or with a new view of a fact already known; and their ordinary conversation or correspondence does not exhibit the play of fancy and aptness of illustration which distinguish the writings of Mr Thackeray and Mr Lewes. So long as periodicals are read, we assume that they serve a very important purpose—that they amuse, instruct, and refine. Whenever they cease to do so, they will die, as the “Annuals” did. Nor does this same literature affect writers in any very disastrous way. It is frequently said that periodical writing fritters away a man’s intellectual energy; that, instead of concentrating himself on some congenial task, devoting a whole lifetime to it, and leaving it as a permanent possession of the race, a man is tempted to write hastily, and without sufficient meditation; that, in fact, we have articles now, more or less brilliant, whereas, under different circumstances, we might have had books. All this kind of conjecture is exceedingly unprofitable. Doubtless, under different circumstances, the results of a man’s working would have been different more or less; but it does not of necessity follow that the results would have been more valuable. A man’s power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by his accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin. The man who can beat his fellows in a ten-mile race, is likely to maintain his superiority in a race for a shorter distance. It is a mistake to suppose that a man’s largest work, or the work on which he has expended the greatest labour, is on that account his best. Literary history is full of instances to the contrary. When mental powers are equal, that is surest of immortality which occupies the least space; scattered forces are then concentrated, like garden roses gathered into one bouquet, or English beauty in the boxes at the opera. Leisure and life-long devotion to a task have often resulted in tediousness. Large works are often too heavy for posterity to carry. We have too many “Canterbury Tales.” The “Faery Queen” would be more frequently read if it consisted of only one book, and Spenser’s fame would stand quite as high as it does. Milton’s poetical genius is as apparent in “Comus” and “Lycidas” as in his great Epic, which most people have thought too long. Addison’s “Essay in Westminster Abbey” is more valuable than his tragedy. Macaulay’s Essays on Clive and Warren Hastings are as brilliant, powerful, and instructive as any single chapter of his “History”—with the additional advantage that they can be read at a sitting. Certain readers have been found to admire Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” more than the “Excursion.” Coleridge talked of spending fifteen years on the construction of a great poem; had he done so, it is doubtful whether his reader would have preferred it to the “Ancient Mariner.” From all this, it may be inferred that, if writers, instead of “frittering themselves away” in periodicals, had devoted themselves to the production of important works, the world would not have been much the wiser, and their reputations not one whit higher. Besides, there are many men more brilliant than profound—who have more élan than persistence—who gain their victories, like the Zouaves, by a rapid dash;—and these do their best in periodicals. These the immediate presence of the reader excites, as the audience the orator, the crowded pit the actor. Jerrold sparkles like a fire-fly through the tropic night; Hood, in that tragic subject which his serious fancy loved, emits, like the glow-worm a melancholy ray. But they could not shine for any continuous period, and had the wisdom not to attempt it. Are they to blame that they did not write long books to prove themselves dull fellows? It is of no use to cry out against the present state of things in literature. The magazines are here, and they have been produced by a great variety of causes. They demand certain kinds of literary ware; but whether the wares are valuable or the reverse, depends entirely upon the various workmen. It is to be hoped, if magazine writers possess a specialty, that they will stick to their specialty, and work it out faithfully—that no one will go out of his way, like Mr Dickens, when he wrote “The Child’s History of England,” or Mr Ruskin, when he addressed himself to the discussion of questions in political economy.
To the young writer, the magazine or review has distinct advantages. In many instances he can serve in the house of a literary noble, as the squire in the fourteenth century served in the house and under the eye of the territorial noble. He may model himself on an excellent pattern, and receive knighthood from his master as the reward of good conduct. If otherwise circumstanced,—if, following no special banner, he writes under the cover of the anonymous, and is unsuccessful,—he may retire without being put to public shame. In the arena of the magazines he can try his strength, pit himself against his fellows, find out his intellectual weight and power, gradually acquire confidence in himself, or arrive at the knowledge of his weakness—a result not less valuable if more rarely attained. If he is overthrown in the lists, no one but himself is the worse; if he distinguishes himself, it is a little unreasonable to expect him to keep his visor down when roses are showering upon him from applauding balconies. A man eminently successful in the magazines may fairly be forgiven for rushing to a reprint. Actors who make a hit at Drury Lane, almost immediately make a tour of the provinces. A reprint is to the author what a provincial tour is to the actor. If he is an amusing writer, people welcome him in his new shape with the gratitude which people always entertain for those who have amused them; if he is a great writer, people desire to shake hands with him, as the elector is proud to shake hands with the candidate whom he has elected as his representative. And, indeed, the magazinists may fairly be compared to the House of Commons—a mixed audience, representing every class—stormy, tumultuous, where great questions are being continually discussed; an assembly wherein men rise to be leaders of parties; out of which men are selected to rule distant provinces; out of which, also, every now and again, a member is translated to the Upper House, where he takes his seat among his peers, in a serener atmosphere, and among loftier traditions.
During the last year or two, there has been a large number of reprints from the magazines, consisting chiefly of essays and novels. With the latter at present, we have no concern. The essay has always been a favourite literary form with magazine writers; and in the volumes before us we have specimens of various kinds. Of the most delightful kind of essay-writing, that of personal delineation, which chronicles moods, which pursues vagrant lines of thought, Montaigne is the earliest, and as yet the greatest example. Montaigne is as egotistical in his essays as a poet is in his lyrics. His subject is himself, his thinkings, his surroundings of every kind. He did not write to inform us about the events of his own time, though it was stirring enough; about his contemporaries, although he mingled much in society, and knew the best men of his day; about the questions which stirred the hearts and perplexed the intellects of the sixteenth century Frenchmen, although he was familiar with them all, and had formed his own opinions on them; these he puts aside, to discourse of his chateau, his page, his perfumed gloves;—to discuss love, friendship, experience, and the like, in his own way, half in banter, half in earnest. Consequently we have the fullest information regarding himself, if we have but little regarding anything else. Of course Essays written after this fashion cannot, from the very nature of them, be expected to shape themselves on any established literary form. They do not require to have a middle, beginning, or end. They are a law unto themselves. They are shaped by impulse and whim, as emotion shapes the lyric. Montaigne wanders about at his own will, and has as many jerks and turnings as a swallow on the wing. He seems to have the strangest notions of continuity, and sometimes his titles have no relation to his subject-matter, and look as oddly at the top of his page as the sign-board of the Bible-merchant over the door of a lottery office. He assails miracles in his “Essay on Criples,” and he wanders into the strangest regions in his Essay “Upon some Verses of Virgil.” In his most serious moods he brings illustrations from the oddest quarters, and tells such stories as we might suppose Squire Western to have delighted in, sitting with a neighbouring squire over the wine, after his sister and Sophia had withdrawn. These Essays, full of the keenest insight, the profoundest melancholy, continually playing with death as Hamlet plays with Yorick’s skull, whimsical, humorous, full of the flavour of a special character—philosopher and eccentric Gascon gentleman in one—are, in the best sense of the term, artistic. There is a meaning in the trifling, wisdom in the seeming folly, a charm in the swallow-like gyrations. All the incongruous elements—the whimsicality and the worldly wisdom, the melancholy, the humour and sense of enjoyment, the trifling over articles of attire and details of personal habit, the scepticism which questioned everything, the piety and the coarseness—mix and mingle somehow, and become reconciled in the alembic of personal character. Oppositions, incongruities, contradictions, taken separately, are mere lines and scratches; when brought together, by some mysterious attraction, they unite to produce a grave and thoughtful countenance—that of Montaigne. He explains the Essays—the Essays explain him. Of course the writer’s remoteness from the great French world, his freedom from the modern conditions of publication and criticism, his sense of distance from his reader—if ever he should possess one—contributed, to a large extent, to make himself his own audience. He wrote as freely in his chateau at Montaigne, as Alexander Selkirk could have done in his solitary island. Had there been upon him the sense of a reading public and of critical eyes, he could not have delivered himself up so completely into the guidance of whim. As it is, the Essays remain among the masterpieces of the world. He is the first of egotists, because, while continually writing about himself, he was writing about what was noble and peculiar. No other literary egotist had ever so good a subject, and then his style is peculiar as himself. In his Essays he continually piques the reader; every now and then more is meant than meets the eye; every now and then a great deal less. He plays at hide-and-seek with his reader round his images and illustrations. In reading Montaigne, we always think we are finding him out.
When the Essay became a popular literary form in England, the conditions of things had altogether changed since Montaigne’s day. The Frenchman was a solitary man, with but few books except the classics, given to self-communion, constantly writing to please himself, constantly mastered by whim, constantly, as it were, throwing the reins upon the neck of impulse. He had no public, and consequently he did not stand in awe of one. The country was convulsed, martyrs were consumed at the stake, country houses were sacked, the blood of St. Bartholomew had been spilt, the white plume of Navarre was shining in the front of battle. Amid all this strife and turmoil, the melancholy and middle-aged gentleman sat in his chateau at Montaigne, alone with his dreams. No one disturbed him; he disturbed no one. He lived for himself and for thought. When Steele and Addison appeared as English Essayists, they appeared under totally different circumstances. The four great English poets had lived and died. The Elizabethan drama, which had arisen in Marlow, had set in Shirley. The comedy of Wicherley and Congreve, in which pruriency had become phosphorescent, was in possession of the stage. Dryden had taken immortal vengeance on his foes. Fragments of Butler’s wit sparkled like grains of salt in the conversation of men of fashion. English literature was already rich; there was a whole world of books and of accumulated ideas to work upon. Then a public had arisen; there was the “town,” idle, rich, eagerly inquiring after every new thing, must anxious to be amused. Montaigne was an egotist, because he had little but himself to write about; certainly he had nothing nearly so interesting. He pursued his speculations as he liked, because he had no one to interfere with him. He was actor and audience in one. The English Essayists, on the other hand, had the English world to act upon. They had its leisure to amuse, its follies to satirise; its books, music, and pictures, its public amusements, its whole social arrangements, to comment upon, to laugh at, to praise. As a consequence their Essays are not nearly so instructive as Montaigne’s, although they are equally sparkling and amusing. We are introduced into a fashionable world, to beaux with rapiers and lace ruffles, and belles with patches on their cheeks; there are drums and card-tables, and sedan chairs and links. The satire in the “Spectator” is conventional; it concerns itself with the circumference of a lady’s hoops, or the air with which a coxcomb carries his cocked hat beneath his arm. The Essayists of the eighteenth century were satirists of society, and of that portion of society alone which sneered in the coffee-houses and buzzed round the card-tables of the Metropolis. They did not deal with crimes, but with social foibles; they did not recognize passions in that fashionable world; they did not reverence women, they took off their hats and uttered sparkling compliments to the “fair.” Theirs was a well-dressed world, and they liked it best when seen by candle-light. They were fine gentlemen, and they carried into literature the fine-gentleman airs. They dressed carefully, and they were as careful of the dress of their thoughts as of their persons. Their epigrams were sharp and polished as their rapiers; they said the bitterest things in the most smiling way; their badinage was gentlemanly. Satire went about with a coloured plume of fancy in his cap. They brought style to perfection. But even then one could see that a change was setting in. A poor gentleman down at Olney, under the strong power of the world to come, was feeding his hares, and writing poems of a religious cast, yet with a wonderful fascination, as of some long-forgotten melody, haunting their theological peculiarities, which drew many to listen. Up from Ayrshire to Edinburgh came Burns, with black piercing eyes, with all his songs about him, as if he had reft a county of the music of its groves; in due time a whole wild Paris was yelling round the guillotine where noble heads were falling. Europe became a battle-field; a new name rose into the catalogue of kings; and when the Essayists of our own century began to write, the world had changed, and they had changed with it.
The essayists who wrote in the early portion of the present century—Lamb, Hazlitt, and Hunt—are not only different from their predecessors, as regards mental character; they differ from them also in the variety of the subjects that engaged their attention. And this difference arises not only from the greater number of subjects attracting public interest in their day, but also from the immensely larger audience they had to address. They were not called upon to write for the town, but for town and country both. Society was reading in all its ranks, and each rank had its special interests. The Essayists’ subject-matter had been vastly enlarged; great actors had trod the boards; great painters had painted; the older poets had come into fashion; outside nature had again reappeared in literature. The Essayist could weave an allegory, or criticise, or describe, or break a social enormity on the wheel, or explode an ancient prejudice, with the certainty of always finding a reader. Lamb, the most peculiarly gifted of the three—who thought Fleet Street worth all Arcadia—confined himself for the most part to the Metropolis, its peculiar sights, its beggars, its chimney-sweeps, its theatres, its old actors, its book-stalls; and on these subjects he discourses with pathos and humour curiously blended. For him the past had an irresistible attraction; he loved old books, old houses, old pictures, old wine, old friends. His mind was like a Tudor mansion, full of low-roofed, wainscoted rooms, with pictures on the walls of men and women in antique garb; full of tortuous passages and grim crannies in which ghosts might lurk; with a garden with plots of shaven grass, and processions of clipped yews, and a stone dial in the corner, with a Latin motto anent the flight of time carved upon it, and a drowsy sound of rooks heard sometimes from afar. He sat at the India House with the heart of Sir Thomas Browne beating beneath his sables. He sputtered out puns among his friends from the saddest heart. He laughed that he might not weep. Misery, which could not make him a cynic nor a misanthrope, made him a humorist. And knowing, as now we all know from Serjeant Talfourd, the tragic shadow which darkened his home for years, one looks upon the portrait of Elia with pity tempered with awe. Lamb extended the sphere of the Essay, not so much because he dealt with subjects which till his day had been untouched, but because he imported into that literary form a fancy humour and tenderness which resembled the fancy humour and tenderness of no other writer. The manifestations of these qualities were as personal and peculiar as his expression of countenance, the stutter in his speech, his habit of punning, his love of black-letter and whiskey-punch. His essays are additions to English literature, just as Potosi silver was an addition to the wealth of Europe. Whatever his subject, it becomes interpenetrated by his pathetic and fanciful humour, and is thereby etherealized, made poetic. Some of his essays have all the softness and remoteness of dreams. They are not of the earth earthy. They are floating islands asleep on serene shadows in a sea of humour. The “Essay on Roast Pig” breathes a divine aroma. The sentences hush themselves around the youthful chimney-sweep—“the innocent blackness,” asleep in the nobleman’s sheets—as they might around the couch of the sleeping princess. Gone are all his troubles,—the harsh call of his master, sooty knuckle rubbed into tearful eyes, his brush, his call from the chimney-top. Let the poor wretch sleep! And then, Lamb’s method of setting forth his fancies is as peculiar as the fancies themselves. He was a modern man only by the accident of birth; and his style is only modern by the same accident. It is full of the quaintest convolutions and doublings back upon itself; and ever and again a paragraph is closed by a sentence of unexpected rhetorical richness, like heavy golden fringe depending from the velvet of the altar cover—a trick which he learned from the “Religio Medici,” and the “Urn Burial.” As a critic, too, Lamb takes a high place. His “Essay on the Genius of Hogarth” is a triumphant vindication of that master’s claim to the highest place of honour in British art; and in it he sets forth the doctrine, that a picture must not be judged by externals of colour, nor by manipulative dexterity—valuable as these unquestionably are—but by the number and value of the thoughts it contains; a doctrine which Mr Ruskin has borrowed, and has used with results.
Leigh Hunt was a poet as well as an Essayist, and he carried his poetic fancy with him into prose, where it shone like some splendid bird of the tropics among the sober-coated denizens of the farm-yard. He loved the country; but one almost suspects that his love for the country might be resolved into likings for cream, butter, strawberries, sunshine, and hayswathes to tumble in. If he did not, like Wordsworth, carry in his heart the silence of wood and fell, he at all events carried a gilly-flower jauntily in his button-hole. He was neither a town poet and essayist, nor a country poet and essayist; he was a mixture of both,—a suburban poet and essayist. Above all places in the world, he loved Hampstead. His Essays are gay and cheerful as suburban villas,—the piano is touched within, there are trees and flowers outside, but the city is not far distant, prosaic interests are ever intruding, visitors are constantly dropping in. His Essays are not poetically conceived; they deal—with the exception of that lovely one on the “Death of Little Children,” where the fancy becomes serious as an angel, and wipes the tears of mothers as tenderly away as an angel could—with distinctly mundane and commonplace matters; but his charm is in this, that be the subject what it may, immediately troops of fancies search land and sea and the range of the poets for its adornment—just as, in the old English villages on May morning, shoals of rustics went forth to the woods and brought home hawthorns for the dressing of door and window. Hunt is always cheerful and chatty. He defends himself against the evils of life with pretty thoughts. He believes that the world is good, and that men and women are good too. He would, with a smiling face, have offered a flower to a bailiff in the execution of his duty, and been both hurt and astonished if that functionary had proved dead to its touching suggestions. His Essays arc much less valuable than Lamb’s, because they are neither so peculiar, nor do they touch the reader so deeply; but they are full of colour and wit. They resemble the arbours we see in gardens—not at all the kind of place one would like to spend a lifetime in, but exceedingly pleasant to withdraw to for an hour when the sun is hot and no duty is pressing. He called one of his books, “A Book for the Parlour Window;” all his books are for the parlour window.
Hazlitt, if he lacked Lamb’s quaintness and ethereal humour, and Hunt’s fancifulness, possessed a robust and passionate faculty which gave him a distinct place in the literature of his time. His feelings were keen and deep. The French Revolution seemed to him—in common with Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge—in its early stages an authentic angel rising with a new morning for the race upon its forehead; and when disappointment came, and when his friends sought refuge in the old order of things, he, loyal to his youthful hope, stood aloof, hating them almost as renegades, and never ceasing to give utterance to his despair. “I started in life with the French Revolution,” he tells us; “and I have lived, alas! to see the end of it. My sun arose with the first dawn of liberty, and I did not think how soon both must set. We were strong to run a race together, and I little dreamed that, long before mine was set, the sun of liberty would turn to blood, or sink once more in the night of despotism. Since then, I confess, I have no longer felt myself young, for with that my hopes fell.” This was the central bitterness in Hazlitt’s life; but around it were grouped lesser and more personal bitternesses. His early ambition was to be a painter, and in that he failed. Coleridge was the man whom he admired most in all the world, in whose genius he stood, like an Arcadian shepherd in an Arcadian sunrise, full of admiration—every sense absorbed in that of sight; and that genius he was fated to see coming to nothing. Then he was headstrong, violent, made many enemies, was the object of cruel criticism; his financial affairs were never prosperous, and in domestic matters he is not understood to have been happy. He was a troubled and exasperated man, and this exasperation is continually breaking out in his writings. Deeply wounded in early life, he carried the smart with him to his death-bed. And in his Essays and other writings it is almost pathetic to notice how he clings to the peaceful images which the poets love; how he reposes in their restful lines; how he listens to the bleating of the lamb in the fields of imagination. He is continually quoting Sidney’s Arcadian image of the shepherd-boy under the shade, piping as he would never grow old,—as if the recurrence of the image to his memory brought with it silence, sunshine, and waving trees. Hazlitt had a strong metaphysical turn; he was an acute critic in poetry and art, but he wrote too much, and he wrote too hurriedly. When at his best, his style is excellent, concise, sinewy—laying open the stubborn thought as the sharp ploughshare the glebe; while, at other times, it wants edge and sharpness, and the sentences resemble the impressions of a seal which has been blunted with too frequent use. His best Essays are, in a sense, autobiographical, because in them he recalls his enthusiasms and the passionate hopes on which he fed his spirit. The Essay entitled, “My First Acquaintance with Poets” is full of memorable passages. To Hazlitt, Coleridge was a divinity. They walked from Wem to Shrewsbury on a winter day, Coleridge talking all the while; and Hazlitt recalls it after the lapse of years: “A sound was in my ears as of a syren’s song: I was stunned, startled with it as from deep sleep; but I had no notion then that I should ever be able to express my admiration to others in motley imagery and quaint allusion, till the light of his genius shone into my soul like the sun’s rays glittering in the puddles of the road. . . . My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage—dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge.” This testimony, from a man like Hazlitt, to the worth of Coleridge’s talk is interesting, and contrasts strangely with Carlyle’s description of it, when, in later years, the silvery-haired sage looked down on the smoky London from Highgate. Nor is it without its moral. Talk, which in his early day came like a dawn upon another mind, illuminating dark recesses, kindling intellectual life, revealing itself to itself—became, through personal indulgence and the will’s infirmity, mere glittering mists in which men were lost. Hazlitt’s other Essay, on the “Pleasures of Painting,” is quite as personal as the one to which we have referred, and is perhaps the finest thing he has written. It is full of the love and the despair of art. He tells how he was engaged for blissful days in painting a portrait of his father; how he imitated as best he could the rough texture of the skin, and the blood circulating beneath; how, when it was finished, he sat on a chair opposite, and with wild thoughts enough in his head, looked at it through the long evenings; how with a throbbing heart, he sent it to the Exhibition, and saw it hung up there by the side of a portrait “of the Honourable Mr Skeffington (now Sir George).” Then he characteristically tells us that he finished the portrait on the same day that brought the news of the battle of Austerlitz: “I walked out in the afternoon, and as I returned, saw the evening star set over a poor man’s cottage, with other thoughts and feelings than I shall ever have again. O for the revolution of the great Platonic year, that these times might come over again! I could sleep out the three hundred and sixty-five thousand intervening years very contentedly.” He was a passionate, melancholy, keen-feeling, and disappointed man; and those portions of his Essays are the least valuable where his passion and his disappointment break out into spleen or irritability, just as those portions are the most valuable where bitter feelings are transfused into poetry by memory and imagination. With perhaps more intellectual, certainly with more passionate force, than either Lamb or Hunt, Hazlitt’s Essays are, as a whole, inferior to theirs; but nearly all of them contain passages, which not only they, but any man, might be proud to have written.
These men wrote in a period of unexampled literary activity, and in the thick of stupendous events: Scott, Moore, and Byron were writing their poems; Napoleon was shaking the thrones of the Continent. Looked back upon from our days, the conquests of the poets seem nearly as astonishing as the conquests of the Emperor. He passed from victory to victory, and so did they. When quieter days came, and when the great men of the former generation had either passed away, or were reposing on the laurels they had earned so worthily, other writers arose to sustain the glory of the English Essay. The most distinguished were Lord Macaulay and Mr Carlyle. They began to write about the same time,—Lord Macaulay’s Essay on Milton appearing in the Edinburgh Review in 1825, and Mr Carlyle’s first Essay on Jean Paul Richter in the same Review in 1827. The writings of these men were different from their predecessors. Mr Carlyle’s primary object was to acquaint his countrymen with the great men whom Germany had produced, and to interest them in the productions of German genius. His plans widened, however, as his way cleared; and the eye which looked into the heart of Goethe, Schiller, and Richter, was in course of time turned on the Scottish Burns, the English Johnson, and the French Voltaire. It is not too much to say that he has produced the best critical and biographical Essays of which the English language can boast. And it is in the curious mixture of criticism and biography in these papers—for the criticism becomes biography, and the biography criticism—that their chief charm and value consist. Mr Carlyle is an artist, and he knows exactly what and how much to put into his picture. He has a wonderful eye for what is characteristic. He searches after the secret of a man’s nature, and he finds it frequently in some trivial anecdote or careless saying, which another writer would have passed unnoticed, or tossed contemptuously aside. He hunts up every scrap of information, and he frequently finds what he wants in a corner. He judges a man by his poem, and the poem by the man. To his eye they are not separate things, but one and indivisible. A man’s work is the lamp by which be reads his features. And then he so apportions praise and blame, so sets off the jocose and familiar with a moral solemnity, makes anecdote and detail of dress and allusion to personal grace or deformity, subserve, by intricate suggestion, his ultimate purpose, and so presents to us life with eternity for back-ground, that we not only feel that the picture is the actual presentment of the man as he lived—a veritable portrait—we feel also that the writer has worked in no light or careless mood, that the poorest life is serious enough when seen against eternity, and that we ourselves, however seldom we may remember it, are but momentary shadows projected upon it. Mr Carlyle does not write “scoundrel” on one man’s forehead, and “angel” on another’s: he knows that pure scoundrel and pure angel have their dwellings in other places than earth; he is too cunning an artist to use these mercilessly definite lines. He works by allusion, suggestion, light touches of fancy, spurts of humour, grotesque imaginative exaggerations; and these things so reduce one another, so tone one another down, that the final result is perfectly natural and homogeneous. It is only by some such combination of intellectual forces that you can shadow forth the complexity of life and character. In humanity there is no such thing as a straight line or an unmixed colour. You see the flesh colour on the cheek of a portrait: the artist will tell you that the consummately-natural result was not attained by one wash of paint, but by the mixture and reduplication of a hundred tints, the play of a myriad lights and shadows, no one of which is natural in itself, although the blending of the whole is. These Essays are the completest, the most characteristic portraits in our literature. Mr Carlyle is always at home when his subject is man in the concrete.
Lord Macaulay also wrote Essays critical and biographical, and has been perhaps more widely popular than his great contemporary; but he is a different kind of thinker and writer altogether. He did not brood over the abysses of being as Mr Carlyle continually does. The sense of time and death did not haunt him as they haunt the other. The world, as it figured itself to Lord Macaulay, was a comparatively commonplace world. He cared for man, but he cared for party quite as much. He recognized man as Whigs and Tories. His idea of the universe was a Parliamentary one. His insight into man was not deep. He painted in positive colours; he is never so antithetical as when describing a character; and character, if properly conceived, sets the measured antitheses of the rhetorician at defiance. It is constantly eluding them. His criticism is good enough so far as it goes, but it does not go far; it deals more with the accidents than the realities of things. Lord Macaulay, as we have said, lived quite as much for party as for man; and the men who interested him were the men who were historical centres, around whom men and events revolved. He did not, as Mr Carlyle often does, take hold of an individual—he does not care sufficiently for man for that—and view him against immensity; he takes a man and looks at him in connection with contemporary events. When he writes of Johnson, he is thinking all the while of Goldsmith, and Garrick, and Boswell, and Reynolds; when he writes of Clive and Warren Hastings, he is more anxious to tell the story of their Indian conquests than to enter into the secrets of their spirits. And for this, posterity is not likely to blame Lord Macaulay. He knew his strength. His pictorial faculty is astonishing; neither pomp nor circumstance cumbers it; it moves along like a triumphal procession, which no weight of insignia and banner can oppress. Out of the past he selects some special drama, which is vivified and held together by the life of a single individual, and that he paints with his most brilliant colours. He is the creator of the Historical Essay, and in that department is not likely soon to have a successor. His unfinished History is only a series of historical pictures pieced together into one imposing panorama, but throughout there is wonderful splendour and pomp of colour. Every figure, too, is finished, down to the buttons and the finger nails.
A generation has passed since Mr Carlyle and Lord Macaulay wrote their Essays, and during the interval new men have come into the field and won deserved laurels. “Notes from Life,” by the author of “Philip Van Artevelde,” is a volume every way remarkable. Mr Taylor is a fine and thoughtful poet, and he has brought with him into the essay the poet’s style and the poet’s wisdom. In his Essays you find no cheap and flashy sentiment, no running after the popular manias of the day; the eye is never offended by a glare of colour: on the contrary, there is a certain ripeness about the thought, as of autumn tints; a certain stillness and meditative repose, as of an autumn evening; a certain remoteness and retiredness from modern strife and bustle, as of autumn woodlands. These essays are born of wisdom and experience; and of a wisdom and experience that has ripened in solitude and self-communion. No sound reaches you from the market-place—you cannot catch the tang of any literary coterie. The style, too, is peculiar in these days, from its leisurely movement and old-fashioned elaborateness. It has an Elizabethan air about it. It is far from being unornamented: the ornaments are worn proudly as heir-looms are worn; and these never glare,—they are far too precious for that, in price of gold and gem and sacredness of memory,—and are but seldom manufactured at Birmingham. the style has not been formed on the fluent and hasty moderns, but on Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, and such old men, and is about the best that has ever been written by poet.
Mr Helps has the credit—apart from what may fairly attach to his exquisitely pellucid English, and the intrinsic value of his thinking—of introducing a novelty into essay writing. Naturally subtle-minded and tolerant, most courteous to everything that comes to him in the name of truth, conscientious, disposed to listen to every witness, to hesitate and weigh, he does not take up an opinion suddenly; and when he does take up one, he does not cling to it as a shipwrecked sailor to his raft—said raft being his only chance of escape from drowning. Superficially, at least, an unimpassioned man, fond of limitations and of suggesting “buts,” knowing that a good deal may not only be said on two sides, but on a dozen sides of a thing, Mr Helps, when he began to write, found himself beset with an artistic difficulty. He had, of course, on subjects in which he was interested, and which he wished to write about, certain definite opinions; but as he was big enough and clear-eyed enough to see all round the matter in hand, he was conscious that each of the opinions, which he accepted as a whole, was subject to limitations, that each of them was intersected and eaten into by its opposite, like the map of Scotland by branching sea-lochs, and that, if he gave expression to all his doubts and hesitations in the work of essay-writing, he would make no sort of direct progress. He would only be painting above his picture. His one foot-print would obliterate the other. And yet, to be faithful to himself and to the work in hand, these limitations of broad statements must be indicated in some way. It is from this particular difficulty felt by Mr Helps that we are indebted for the machinery of the “Friends in Council.” From the necessity which lay on him of setting forth in fulness his views of things, he was forced to the artistic device of creating around the central essay a little drama—of one character reading the essay which contains the broad view, whilst other characters listen and criticise, suggest the subtle difficulty, point out the hazardous spot, define the inevitable limitation. By this device the writer’s subtlety has a field to display itself in, for the objections brought forward by the listeners are not men of straw, raised up for the purpose of being knocked down again—they are other views of the central truth or opinion under discussion. The listeners do not argue, they converse amicably and thoughtfully. And more is gained than this: the author has an opportunity of introducing some admirably dramatic by-play—for Ellesmere, Dunsford, and Lucy really live—and although the subject under discussion may be as old as evil or ignorance itself, by letting in outside nature and English life upon it, the thinking is not only charmingly relieved, but it takes an essentially modern air. The subject may be old, but English gentlemen talk over it, and set forth their ideas of it from their peculiar points of view. By this method Mr Helps is enabled to discuss his subject thoroughly, and to utter all that occurs to him of value. The Essay which Milverton reads is a crystal; but by means of the other characters the crystal is held up towards the sun and turned slowly round, so that every facet catches the ray and flashes it back.
Considered as a literary form, the Essay is comparatively of late growth. The first literary efforts of a people consist of song and narrative. First comes the poet or minstrel, who sings heroic exploits, the strength and courage of heroes. These songs pass from individual to individual, and are valuable, not on account of the amount of historic truth, but of the amount of passion and imagery, they contain. Explode to-morrow into mere myth and dream the incidents of the Iliad, and you do not affect in the slightest degree the literary merit of the poem. Still for all men Achilles shouts in the trenches, Helen is beautiful, the towers of Ilium flame to heaven. Prove that Chevy Chase cannot in any one particular be considered a truthful relation of events, and you do it no special harm. It stirs the blood like a trumpet all the same. After the poet comes the prose narrator of events, who presents his facts peering obscurely through the mists of legends, but who has striven, as far as his ability extends, to tell us the truth. When he appears, the history of a nation has become extensive enough and important enough to awaken curiosity; men are anxious to know how events did actually occur, and what relation one event bears to another. When he appears, the national temper has cooled down—men no longer stand blinded by the splendours of sunrise. The sunrise has melted into the light of common day. The air has become emptied of wonder. The gods have deserted earth, and men only remain. Long after the poet and the historian comes the Essayist. Before the stage is prepared for him, thought must have accumulated to a certain point; a literature less or more must be in existence, and must be preserved in printed books. Songs have been sung, histories and biographies have been written; and to these songs, histories, and biographies he must have access. Then, before he can write, society must have formed itself, for in its complexity and contrasts he finds his food. Before the Essayist can have free play, society must have existed long enough to have become self-conscious, introspective; to have brooded over itself and its perplexities; to have discovered its blots and weak points; to have become critical, and consequently, appreciative of criticism. And as the Essay does not, like the poem, or the early history or narration of events, appeal to the primitive feelings, before it can be read and enjoyed, there must exist a class who have attained wealth and leisure, and a certain acquaintance with the accumulated stores of thought on which the Essayist works, else his allusions are lost, his criticism a dead letter, his satire pointless. All this takes a long time to accomplish, and it is generally late in the literary history of a country before its Essayists appear. Then, the Essay itself has its peculiar literary conditions. It bears the same relation to the general body of prose that the lyric bears to the general body of poetry. Like the lyric, it is brief; and like the lyric, it demands a certain literary finish and perfection. In a long epic, the poet may now and then be allowed to nod; in a history, it is not essential that every sentence should sparkle. But the Essayist, from the very nature of his task, is not permitted to be dull or slovenly. He must be alert, full of intellectual life, concise, polished. He must think clearly, and express himself clearly. His style is as much an element of his success as his thought. The narrow limit in which he works demands this. In a ten- mile race it is not expected that the runners shall go all the way at the top of their speed; in a race of three hundred yards it is not unreasonably expected that they shall do so. Then, besides all this, the Essay must, as a basis or preliminary, be artistically conceived. It is neither a dissertation nor a thesis; properly speaking, it is a work of art, and must conform to artistic rules. It requires not only the intellectual qualities which we have indicated, but unity, wholeness, self-completion. In this it resembles a poem. It must hang together. It must round itself off into a separate literary entity. When finished, it must be able to sustain itself and live. The Essayists of whom we have spoken fulfil these conditions more or less; and the measure of their fulfilment is the measure of success. These writers indicate in what directions the Essay has manifested itself, and they may be roughly arranged in groups and clusters. There are the Egotists—the most delightful of all—who choose for subject themselves, their surroundings, their moods and phantasies, whose charm consists not so much in the value or brilliancy of thought as in revelation of personal character: these are represented by Montaigne and Lamb; the satirists of society, manners, and social phenomena, by Addison and Steele; the fanciful and ornamental Essayists—they who wreath the human porch with the honeysuckles of poetry—by Hunt and by Hazlitt to some extent; the critical and biographical Essay by Mr Carlyle; the historical Essay—the brilliant and many-coloured picture of which some single man’s life is the frame—by Lord Macaulay; the moral and didactic Essay, by Bacon in old time, and recently by Mr Henry Taylor and, Mr Helps. Of course this is but an arrangement in the rough, and will not stand a too critical examination, for several of the writers mentioned belong now to one cluster and now to another; but it is sufficiently strict for our present purpose. Essay writing is a craft vigorously prosecuted in England at present; and generally the writers will be found to belong to one or other of the groups which we have indicated. It is our duty now to see of what stuff these men are made, and how as Essayists they have acquitted themselves.
Mr Hannay, whose “Essays from the Quarterly” appeared some eighteen months ago, has been before the world as a writer for twelve or fourteen years. Born among Galwegian moors and moss bogs, where the shells of old fortresses yet stand, their red walls clothed with ivies, their crannies inhabited by starlings and jackdaws—a native of the district to which Lord Maxwell bade “good-night” in the famous ballad, and which adjoins the Ayrshire which Burns has consecrated from pastoral hill-top to valley daisy—his first spiritual food was naturally song, ballad, tradition. For in that region—quite as much as, in the regions north of the Grampians—
The ancient spirit is not dead.
Sent into the navy at an early age, he spent several years in the Mediterranean, visited the Grecian Isles and the Syrian coast, alternating his native Scottish traditions with older classical and sacred associations. The Acropolis succeeded to Drumlanrig fair; the far-seen snowy Lebanon to blue Criffel and the Solway; Horace and the Old Testament displaced the ballad-monger. On leaving the navy, and while yet a very young man, he flung himself into London literary life, while London literary life was more brilliant, socially and conversationally, than it is at present. For a literary man, Mr Hannay may be said to have started with a fair variety of experience as a preliminary basis. It is not every man that, into the first twenty years or so of his life, has crushed grey Scotland and the glowing East, the Mediterranean and the Solway, the classical poets and the Scottish ballads, the discipline and routine of duty on board a man-of-war; nay, something of the splendour and terror of war itself. His first literary efforts consisted of sketches of naval life, which met with considerable success. In 1851 he published his first novel, “Singleton Fontenoy;” and in 1854 his first volume of Essays, entitled “Satire and Satirists,” appeared. These Essays, in all probability suggested by Mr Thackeray’s “English Humorists,” were originally delivered in the form of lectures. Whether as lectures they were successful, we cannot say; but in that form their merits were discovered, and they made their appearance in a volume shortly after. In the six Essays which the book contains, Mr Hannay gives an account of European satire from Horace to Jerrold; and although somewhat slight, as was inevitable from its narrow limits, the work is thoroughly well done. From the polish of the suave old Roman to the wit of the Englishman, whose epigrams are yet ringing in our ears, is a journey which, if accomplished in a little book of two hundred pages, can allow but little loitering on the way. But for his task Mr Hannay possessed abundant knowledge, and his special liking for his subject is everywhere evident. He lingers over the good things of his heroes; he relates their immortal revenges with the same pride with which the member of a regiment become historical recalls the battle-fields on which it gathered its renown. He speaks of Erasmus, Dryden, Pope, and Byron, as the art student copying in the galleries speaks of Michael Angelo and De Vinci—appreciating their excellences, and hoping one day to emulate them. Mr Hannay was not only qualified to write on the Satirists from taste, enthusiasm, and loving study, but from the possession of a power somewhat akin to their own. He writes clearly, criticises soundly when occasion arises; yet one can see at a glance that the sovereign faculty of his own mind is wit. His thought is continually condensing itself into epigram. And then his wit has a certain something of poetry about it, which makes it all the more delightful; it is continually going about with a flower of fancy in its hand. In “Satire and Satirists,” Mr Hannay, like all very clever young men, is somewhat spendthrift of his means. He is always giving sovereign “tips.” so to speak. Some of his pages are as brilliant and dangerous with squib and serpent as a London pavement on Coronation night. He cracks his satirical whip for the mere pleasure he has in hearing it. If the occasion requires it, he fires off his rockets, and he fires them off frequently when there is no occasion whatever; there is a large stock on hand, and, after all, rockets are a very pretty sight. The following passage on the “Simious Satirists” will illustrate what we mean :—
The Simious Satirist is distinguished by a deficiency of natural reverence mainly. His heart is hard, rather; his feelings blunt and dull. He is blind to everything else but the satirical aspect of things; and if he is brilliant, it is as a cat’s back is when rubbed in the dark! He has generally no sentiment of respect for form, and will spare nothing. He is born suspicious; and if he hears the world admiring anything, forthwith he concludes that it must be “humbug.” He has no regard to the heaps of honour gathered round this object by time and the affection of wise men. He cries, “Down with it!” As his kinsman, when looking at some vase, or curious massive specimen of gold, sees only his own image in it, our satirist sees the ridiculous only in every object, and forgets that the more clearly he sees it, the more he testifies to its brightness. Or, as his kinsman breaks a cocoa-nut only to get at the milk, he would destroy everything only to nourish his mean nature. He prides himself on his commonest qualities, as the negroes who rebelled called themselves Marquises of Lemonade. He would tear the blossoms off a rose branch to make it a stick to beat his betters with. He employs his gifts in ignoble objects, as you see in sweetmeat shops sugar shaped into dogs and pigs. He taints his mind with egotism, as if a man should spoil the sight of a telescope by clouding it with his breath. He overrates the value of his quickness and activity, and forgets that, like his kinsman, he owes his triumphant power of swinging in high places to the fact of his prehensile tail.
Mr Hannay, we have said, is fond of epigram; and it seems to us that in “Satire and Satirists” epigram is used at times somewhat vaingloriously. The epigram does not always arise naturally from the matter in hand; it is rather stuck upon it, like a bit of tinsel; and this is, perhaps, the chief blot on the book. It is too clever, and it is too clever wilfully. This literary ornament, like all others, should be used sparingly. A gentleman gains nothing by covering his fingers with rings; and at any time one sole diamond is worth a dozen inferior stones. Yet it must be said that the writer is often exceedingly happy in his epigram. Take the following, for instance, on Theodore Hook: “They”—his noble patrons—
set him down to the piano, even before he had had his dinner sometimes, according to one biographer. This was too bad. He was proud, however, of the equivocal distinction he attained, and was inclined to swagger, I understand, among his equals. The plush had eaten into his very soul. Ultimately he ruined his heart, his circumstances, and (what was a still greater loss) his stomach, and so died. The biographer above mentioned observes, that his funeral was ill attended by his great friends. But we need not wonder at that—a funeral is a well-known “bore,” and, besides, the most brilliant wag cannot be amusing on the occasion of his own interment.
The closing sentence of this extract is perfect, and quite equal to the best thing of any epigrammatist. On the face of it, it is amusing. But it is more than that. It is a biography and a moral judgment in a single sentence. It reveals the relation which the wit bore to his patrons far more clearly than whole pages of writing or any amount of moral declamation. And in the book there are many sentences equally memorable.
“Essays from the Quarterly” is, in every way a better and riper book than its predecessor: the writing is always excellent; and if there is less epigram, there is more matter. The subjects of several of these Essays lie in a region somewhat remote, not frequently visited by the modern man of letters; and on these subjects Mr Hannay has written, not on account of their novelty, but because he was already acquainted with them, and had a special affection for them. In these Essays there is little trace of “reading up;” he writes from the fulness of knowledge. Certain of the Essays contained in the volume—as those on “Table Talk,” on “English Political Satires,” on “Electioneering,” and on “Horace and the Translators”— are, in the very nature of them, akin to “Satire and Satirists,” and may be considered as supplementary to that work. These he has treated everywhere with the old lightness, grace, and knowledge, but—having more space and leisure at command—with greater fulness and elaboration. It would be difficult to find pleasanter reading than these. The town is well worth seeing, and the cicerone knows every turn and winding, and is familiar with the best standpoints. It is a discourse on “good things,” by a writer who not only can appreciate them, but who can say them. It is a wit talking about wits. In these Essays there is abundance of knowledge and sound sense, but the knowledge and the sense go about in sparkle and epigram.
There are two things which Mr Hannay specially admires,—genius, wit, scholarship—literary distinction, in fact—and good blood. If you are a wit or a poet, he will take you to his heart; if you are neither wit nor poet, he will take you to his heart equally enthusiastically if you can prove to him that your great-great-great-grand-father was ruined in the wars of the Roses. His admiration for wit, scholarship, and song he has set forth in “Satire and Satirists,” and in certain of his “Essays from the Quarterly;” his admiration for ancient and historical names airs itself in the papers on “British Family Histories” and “The Historic Peerage of England.” These Essays are quite peculiar in their way. It is not often that the reflected colours of or and gules lie on the popular page. But seldom have genealogical trees greened with the spring, and put forth blossoms of fancy. Genealogy itself has been the favourite pursuit of Dr. Dryasdust. But poetic association can do almost anything. An old china cup may be uninteresting enough in itself; but when one remembers the fair lips that once touched it, the dead scandals that were talked over it, it becomes at once an object of interest. An old Roman coin may be quite useless for the purchase of modem beef or bread; but when you gaze imaginatively on the half-obliterated effigy of the Roman Emperor, the intervening centuries collapse; England becomes green waste and forest; up springs the triumphal arch, the conqueror passes through it with all his captives, you hear the shouts of the populace. And so, to Mr Hannay, a great name recalls a thousand memories; he sees the chivalric and the wise faces of the men, and the beautiful eyes of the women, that bore it of old. An old castle is sacred in his eyes, for noble memories grow upon it as thickly as its shrouding ivies. He sees the modern earl standing, but Agincourt is in the background, and there is always “a pomp of fancied trumpets on the wind.” He traces the stems of ancient families, and lingers over the flowers of valour, wit, genius, personal beauty, which generation after generation they put forth, and which brighten yet the air of history. He values a sprig of ivy or a wild flower from a castle wall over which a banner once flapped, more than the wealth of Rothschild. To be embalmed in a ballad is the fame which he covets most. He is fond of crests, and coats of armour, and all the insignia of the herald; but he cares nothing for these in themselves—his affection goes out towards what these symbols represent. He reverences the Bloody Heart, and cares not on what material it may be worked—the standard’s silken folds, or the gaberdine of the beggar. He laughs openly at the chivalric device and motto blazing on the coach panels of the successful coal merchant. The past moves him mightily—he is attracted by the deeds, the wit, the splendour of long ago; and on the past he continually feels that the present is based, and is its natural outcome and result. Instinctively he feels that in history there is sequence and progression; in the face of the son he seeks to discern something of the high features of the father. And it is his belief that the ancient feudal hardihood did not die out on feudal battle-fields, that wit did not expire forever in the poem or the epigram in which it made itself visible, that beauty did not cease finally in wrinkles and gray hairs. He thinks that the virtues of race are the truest heirlooms, descending from father to son, and from mother to daughter, far more certainly than broad lands and castles. He holds that the courage which kept the trenches in the Crimea, and which subdued the Indian mutiny, is directly transmitted from the men who fought at Bosworth and Marston Moor, and that the beauty which charms us to-day is a reminiscence of the beauty which charmed the cavaliers. Thus, by perpetuation of valour and beauty, he knits century with century, and generation with generation; thus to his mind does epoch flow out of epoch. And this theory—which doubtless many will be inclined to dispute—Mr Hannay supports by numerous instances:—
Few writers in our day have a word of decent civility for the family of Stewart. It would be curious to trace its hereditary character in the chief line; our present purpose is only to remark on the greatness attained by some men who descended maternally from it. We need scarcely say that the mother of William of Orange was a Stewart princess. The mother of Cromwell was, as we believe, of one branch of the family. So was the mother of the Admirable Crichton; and of the famous soldier Alexander Leslie, first Earl of Leven. Chatham was nearly and directly from the royal stem, through his grandmother—a descendant of the Regent Murray. Fox’s mother, Lady Lennox, was immediately descended from Charles II. Byron had the blood in his veins. How interesting to see eminent families sharing in this kind of way in a great man’s renown! The gifted Shaftesbury’s mother was a Manners; Algernon Sidney’s a Percy; and his famous kinsman, Philip’s, a Dudley; the poet Beaumont’s a Pierrepont. The mother of Marshall Stair was a Dundas; and the brilliant Peterborough was the son of one of the brilliant Carys. The Ruthvens and Carnegies gave mothers to Montrose and Dundee. The Villierses gave a mother to Chatham; the Granvilles to Pitt; the Douglases of Strathhenry to Adam Smith. Nelson inherited the blood of the Sucklings and Walpoles; Collingwood that of the Greys and Plantagenets. From the Hampdens came the mother of Waller, and also Mary Arden (of that ancient Warwickshire family), the mother of Shakespeare. The literary talent runs through female lines like other qualities : Swift’s mother was a Herrick, and his grandmother a Dryden. Donne, derived through his mother, from Sir Thomas Moore; and Cowper in the same way from the Donnes. Thomson had the Hume blood in his veins. A daughter of Becaria produced Manzoni. The late Bishop Coplestone evidently got his playfulness from the Gays, as Chesterfield his wit from Lord Halifax. The relationship between Fielding and ‘Lady Mary’ is well known. Sometimes, when a notable man comes from a family never before heard of, it happens that he just comes after a marriage with a better one: Thus, the mother of Seldon was of the Knightly Bakers of Kent; Camdens, of the ancient Curwins of Workington, and Watts of the old stock of Muirhead. . . . Philosophers, like Bacon, Hume, and Berkeley; poets, like Spenser, Cowper, Shelby, and Scott; novelists, like Fielding and Smollett; historians, like Gibbon; seamen, like Collingwood, Howe, Jervis; Vanes, St. Johns, Raleighs, George Herberts, and many other men of the ancient gentry, amply vindicate the pretensions of old families to the honour of producing the best men that England has ever seen.
Holding the theory that families can only rise to distinction through superiority of some kind—that, having arisen, they intermarry with families on their own social level, who have also arisen through superiority of some kind—consequently that the offspring of such marriages have a double chance of possessing an unusual share of brain or of general power, and that the virtue of race thus built up is perpetuated in the descendants, and is continually making itself visible in them—Mr Hannay is in politics inevitably a Conservative. A nation must be ruled by its best men, and the best men must be sought in the old houses. If a man wishes to enter into public affairs, the best letter of introduction he can bring with him is his ancient descent. We know what his family has been in the past; and as he inherits the virtues and the traditions of his race, we can form some idea of how he will turn out. His good conduct is guaranteed by a hundred ancestors. Holding these doctrines, Mr Hannay naturally detests democracy, looks upon universal suffrage with no favourable eye, is quite the reverse of an adherent of Mr Bright’s, and does not think that America has solved the problem of how a nation can be best governed. He does not consider that a cheap government is necessarily the best, and he expects nothing but disorder from an extension of the franchise. He thus expresses himself in the Essay on “The Historic Peerage:”—
This—“the great difference between the vulgar and the noble seed”—was an article of faith among the gentlemen of the kingdom. They held the old Greek doctrine, that “nobility is virtue of race,” and believed that those who possessed it were naturally superior to other men. Their portraits—calm, stately, brave, and wise faces—justify their creed to the eye; and the men they produced—the Sidneys, Raleighs, Bacons—justify it to the understanding. By and by there will be a hearing again for this side of affairs in Europe, after the total failure of the revolutionary party to produce governing intellects has had a still wider scope to show itself in.
So, argues Mr Hannay—the old houses possessed calmness, dignity, bravery, wisdom; they were leaders, they were statesmen; and when we wish these qualities to bear on the work of government, we cannot do better than seek them in the persons of their descendants. There is at least one chance more that the governing intellect will be found there than in other regions. The quarter of the wood in which you gathered strawberries six summers ago, is the likeliest place to find strawberries when they are again wanted.
This view of the virtue of race, and its transmission in the blood from father to son, is rather indicated than formally argued out in these Essays. Of course many objections will be taken to it; and as a theory, it cannot be accepted in toto. Its truth ends when its chapter of instances ends. Grant that a family rises above the level of mankind through superiority of one kind or another, that superiority is not transmitted perpetually. Even when a family which has been potent does not actually die out, the superiority which it once possessed, and by virtue of which it arose, seems at times to die out. There were historical families which have disappeared entirely from history, just as there were stars known to the ancient astronomers which are not now visible in our heavens; certain families, too, seem to lose, after a generation or so, their ancient pith and force, and to lose themselves as a stream loses itself in a morass. Mr Hannay hints that, as Cromwell had a dash of the Stewart blood in his veins, the Stewart blood should have the credit of his greatness; but Cromwell’s son, Richard, had the Stewart blood also, and he let the reins of government slip from his grasp through weakness and ineptitude. Then, admitting the theory of general force in a race, you never can tell what shape that general force will take in a descendant. Every now and again, in a historical line, an alien character seems to blossom out, as the spiritual, saintly face of Edward VI gleams among the strong-willed and masterful Tudors. Mr Hannay tells us that many men of the “ancient gentry” amply vindicate the pretensions of old families to the honour of “producing the best men that England has ever seen.” The phrase “ancient gentry” is a misleading one. How ancient? Mr Hannay does not limit the ancient gentry to the descendants of the men who came over with the Conqueror. In every generation certain families rise out of the people into the position of gentry; and if the theory is correct, that a family only rises into eminent station through general superiority, and that that superiority is to some extent perpetuated, the governing intellect is as likely to be found in the descendant of the gentleman of one century’s standing as in the descendant of the gentleman of ten. And, in point of fact, it is as readily found. Within the last seventy years the Buonapartes have become occupants of thrones, the Peel family rose into eminence quite lately, the Gladstone family yet more recently. But, putting cavil aside, Mr Hannay’s view of blood contains much truth, and is essentially poetic besides. He looks back with reverence and affection on the generations of dead Englishmen and Englishwomen. The eyes of the Countess of Salisbury haunt him. He cannot forget Sidney’s chivalric face; he enjoys the wit of Charles II quite as much as did any of his courtiers. He walks back into history, and he is greeted by wit and song, and beautiful women, and fine manners, and splendid furniture and array. The old time, with its colour and high spirits, lives again for him; again the feast is spread in the feudal castle; again the feudal banners unroll themselves on the breeze; again, on the battle-field, old war-cries are shouted. And, in a country like England, so full of the past, not only in its political constitution and in its unparalleled literature, but in objects which appeal directly to the eye—in mighty castle ruins, where nobles lived who mated once with kings; cathedrals in which the sound of chanting is heard no more; Westminster Abbey with its dead; the world’s first sailor and soldier beneath the dome of St. Paul’s; dwellings of nobles, sequestered in oak woods, which for two hundred autumns now have shed their acorns; princely colleges, endowed by liberal and pious men of old; guns and banners captured in every quarter of the globe—this reverence and affection for the remarkable families who have headed its efforts in every direction is most natural and befitting. English history was not built up by knaves and scoundrels, and men hungry for wealth and advancement, but mainly by good and noble men and women. The virtues had more to do with it than the vices. Mr Hannay loves his land, but it is with a love
From out the storied past.
And although his readers may not go all the way with him in his theories of descent, yet it may be said that even in these theories there is a great proportion of truth, and a side of the truth which has perhaps not been sufficiently dwelt upon of late. We need to be reminded at times that worth is older than the steam engine, that the present is moored upon the past, and that a great deal of what we arc proudest of is drawn directly from our ancestors. Mr Hannay has lived in close intellectual companionship with great Englishmen—the nobles, the wits, the cavaliers who could turn a stanza on the pleasures of the wine cup and the beauty of woman, as well as, on battle mornings, fling themselves bravely on the foemen’s pikes; and from his intercourse with these worthies he has gained much, for into his own writings he has imported the grace, the polish, and the wit for which they are so remarkable.
Readers of Fraser’s Magazine have, for the last six or seven years, been familiar with critical and descriptive papers to which the signature of “Shirley” [ed. note: Sir John Skelton] was appended—papers which, considered as literature, rose considerably above the average contents of a periodical which has always been distinguished for literary excellence. Having read these papers with singular pleasure as they appeared month by month, we are glad to see them collected in a volume, which, if it gets its deserts, will find a place in many a private as well as in many a circulating library. Shirley is a pleasantly vagrant writer; his thought gads and wanders around his subject like the wild convolvulus, taking colour and fragrance with it wherever it goes. If, for the most part, he avoids profound subjects, never attempts exhaustive treatment, he is always eminently readable, charming his reader with an unusual grace of presentment and the light of pleasant fancies. He has a laudable horror of dulness; he is a bookish man, well read in the poets and prose writers—a little too indolently inclined, perhaps, to quote the poets;—tasteful, acute, picturesque; and the Essays now republished are the mere play and recreation of his mind. He takes up his pen from the same motive, and with the same enjoyment, that he puts his foot in the stirrup and rides into the country—down the quiet lane scented with white and red dog-roses, out to the headland which gazes upon the azure world of the Atlantic, up to the red ruin of the hill patched with ivies. In these papers there is no plodding, no burden or heat of the day; he infects the reader with his own freshness of feeling; everything is light, airy, graceful. He yachts over the shining seas of criticism and speculation. He is fond of out-door life, of bare and level sands through which the slow stream stagnates to the main, of worn and fantastic northern rocks around which sea-birds wheel and clamour, and on which the big billow smites itself into a column of foam. The sea-side he is never tired of painting; yet we feel that at the sea-side he does not spend his days. We almost fancy that Shirley writes only in vacation. His Essays do not seem to have been produced in a study littered with books; rather they seem to have been composed in Tweeds and “wide-awake” in a clover field; for the shadows of the tall grasses are constantly chequering his pages, and the summer breeze and the lark’s song seem to get entangled and mingled with his sentences somehow. He is fond of framing his criticisms with a border of landscape or incidents of country life; and it not unfrequently happens that the frame is more valuable than the picture it contains. And this constant intrusion of the outside world into the critical and more serious papers, which is at best a pretty irrelevance, symptomatic perhaps of volatility of mind and purpose, suggests the main defect of these Essays, which consists in a certain lack of body and thoroughness. They have but little specific gravity. There is too much holiday and too little work in them. They are brilliant enough, but their brilliance is rather that of nebulous vapour than of the condensed and solid star. They lack personality, and the definite edge of intellectual character. They are of the stuff that dreams are made of. If a writer professes to give us a critical estimate of a book or an author, we naturally expect that he shall at once proceed to do so; if he begins with a description of a trouting stream, tells us how a girl fords it with kilted petticoats, then relates how he captured a fish, and the exclamation of a certain “Bob Morris” from the opposite bank on witnessing the feat, then diverges on a yellow bee which comes humming along seeking honey on the heathery bent, we begin to suspect either that he is conscious that he has nothing critically important to say, or that he is terribly afraid of the trouble of saying it. To write critically may not be so easy as to write descriptively; but it must be done nevertheless, and especially should it be done by a writer who professes to do it. Why should not criticism be criticism and nothing else? When you have a book to review, what necessity is there for running into Arcadia with it to accomplish the task? Arcadians do not compose the modern reading world. Shirley spars prettily enough, but it is all sparring, with no close and wrestle. Before he arrives at his subject, he has to walk into the country for a couple of miles, and has his fish to catch. In the “Sphinx,” certainly one of the best of his Essays, and which, as dealing with the impotence of history, might be supposed to demand a uniform seriousness of treatment, he starts off in the following manner :
We sat on the Devil’s Bridge, and swung; our legs over the parapet, Reginald de Moreville and I.
The De Morevilles were a fine Norman family in the reign of David I, “that sair sanct for the crown.” The present representative inherits the feudal tastes of his house, without the burden of its acres.
The arch of a royal dome that hangs above the blue sea! Down the storm-stained sides of the precipice we can see the marrots standing like sentries along the slippery ledges, crowding around their fantastically-coloured eggs, indulging in expressions of uncouth fun and uncouth endearment. Farther off, the skua gulls, “white as ocean foam in the moon,” “white as the consecrated snow that lies on Dian’s lap” [choose between Shakespeare and Tennyson], float along the face of the cliffs, or hover above their nests on noiseless wings. Yet, lower, the blue and shining deep beats against the iron bases of the hills, and moans among the caverned fissures where the seal and the otter lodge.
Now, considered merely as writing, the sentences we have quoted have distinct and substantial merits; they possess music and colour, and a firm consistent movement. But it seems to us that a man properly possessed with his subject, and with an instinct for the heart of it, would not have chosen to begin, after this fashion. Especially would he have avoided the poetical extracts and the sentence contained in brackets, for that kind of by-play—that irrelevant thinking within thinking—does not occur to one whose loins are sufficiently girt for his work. When a man is in haste, or is impelled onward by a strong motive, he does not gather the flowers that grow by the wayside, and compare their beauties. All this kind of thing is a literary iniquity, and a face of flint should be set against it. It has become far too common of late. It increases the bulk of books without increasing their value. It obstructs the literary thoroughfare as crinoline obstructs the material one. Shirley is too frequently a sinner in this way; and it is no palliation of his fault that he sins gracefully, fancifully, eloquently, because lesser men, who have neither his grace nor his fancy, may be tempted to follow his example.
Having indicated what seems to us the defect of the book, we are prepared now to give “Nugæ Criticæ” our warmest welcome. It is thoroughly fresh, genial, and pleasant; and that portion of it which directly relates to out-door life—happily no inconsiderable portion—is uniformly excellent. Shirley is a sportsman; he is fond of the aquatic tribes of birds; he is familiar with the scenery of our eastern and northern coasts; and his opening paper, “At the Seaside,” is written with humour, vividness, spirit, and a quite unusual power of picturesque presentment. It is a true vacation paper. As we read, the hum of the city dies away, and we are transported to the chalky cliffs, on whose scalps are cornfields with scarlet poppies intermixed, and beyond a whole horizonful of ocean, sleek and blue in the lazy summer day. Although everything is silent, the silence does not arise from absence of life. A gun, and the rocks are clamorous with startled sea-fowls. Shirley has affectionately watched the habits of gulls, ducks, divers, loons, herons, and cormorants, and the swan that comes out of the northern twilight; and since Christopher North dropped his pen, we have had no better ornithological writing. Take this photograph of the cormorant, or scrath, as he is locally called:—
The scrath is not by any means a lively bird; he entertains serious, not to say gloomy, views on most of the questions of the day. I have seen the cormorants who frequent this rock sit together for hours without uttering a syllable to each other—in a kind of dyspeptic dejection. Apart from his sentiments upon serious subjects, this is probably the result of a system of over-feeding; for, even with the most perfect digestion, such excessive eating must tell upon the spirits. They are, moreover, somewhat speculative birds, and employ their leisure in various impracticable experiments. They seem, in particular, to entertain a theory that they are intended by Providence to live upon invisible pinnacles, where a titmouse could not find footing. The consequences may be easily foreseen. No sooner is the unwieldy monster seated than he loses his balance, and a fierce and violent flapping of his sable pinions is required to prevent him from falling to the bottom. Nothing can convince him of the fallacy of the notion; and it would be difficult to determine what satisfaction or enjoyment he can derive from an insane proceeding like this, which so ill consorts, moreover, with the sepulchral gravity of his appearance.
Nothing can well be better in its light way than this; and the affectionately-humorous exaggeration brings out, far more vividly than any cold and exact description could do, the characteristics of the grave funereal fowl. Shirley enters into the heart of his cormorant as Mr Carlyle enters into the heart of his hero, and works out from that. And this peculiar kind of humorous and picturesque presentment is not confined to the passage we have quoted. It pervades more or less every page of the opening paper, which, as we have said, is the pleasantest and ablest of his Essays.
The most important papers in the book, so far at least as actual substance and gravity of treatment are concerned, are the three entitled, “People who are not Respectable;” “A Lay Sermon on Nonconformity, a plea for Liberty;” and “William the Silent, the earliest Teacher of Toleration.” The first deals with Lola Montez, Heine, and the Abbé Domenech, and reveals an audacious generosity of sentiment; the beauty and the poet are tenderly dealt with, and when rebuked there is a sneaking kindness in the rebuke. The second is a reply to two questions,—“In the first place, How is the State, and in the second place, How is the Church, to treat Nonconformity?” while the third relates in a rapid way—somewhat after Lord Macaulay’s fashion—the career of Orange the taciturn, and rises into panegyric towards the close on that prince’s tolerant and unpersecuting spirit in the midst of an intolerant and persecuting time. These Essays depend one upon the other; and, however diverse in subject, they form one argument. This age, it appears, is not tolerant enough; the persecuting spirit is as virulent as ever, the methods of martyrdom are only changed. Hear Shirley on the matter:
In many circles you would incur more odium if you told its members that you read “Maurice” and “Jowett,” and believed them to be good and honest men, than if you picked their pockets. Holy hands are lifted in pious horror; an inquisition is held upon the condition-of-your-soul question; your opinions, which you have always supposed to be at least harmless, charitable, and good-natured, if nothing better, are pronounced “unsound” and “unsafe” (words of evil import) by the assembled saints; end you are then solemnly tied to the stake and burned—fortunately in effigy only.
The victim may indeed retreat from the family and the sect, sever local ties which daily become more oppressive and unmanageable, and calmly appeal to a wider tribunal. But the rent is very trying to mortal nerves; the heartstrings sometimes crack in the venture.
So much for social martyrdom. Now for the question between Nonconformity and the Church.
A national Church, in the largest sense, is the development of the devotional side of the national mind. . . . If this definition be accurate—and we are convinced that it is—then it follows that such an institution, maintained it may be out of the public purse, should be devoted to the service of the public; and that any limitations of caste, or of doctrine, when not absolutely indispensable, are inconsistent with its design and with the purpose for which it exists. Any condition which prevents any religious citizen from becoming a minister (and thereby partaking of the emoluments to which he would otherwise be entitled), or a member (and thereby partaking of the privileges which communion confers), is, prima facie, imperious and indefensible. A clear necessity alone can justify its retention. Is there, then, to be no limitation? Are men of all opinions and of no opinions to find shelter within the sanctuary? To such a question the reply is obvious. The national Church cannot be permitted to lose its representative character. The national Church of a Christian people must remain distinctively Christian, just as the national Church of a Mahometan people must remain distinctively Mahometan.
Elsewhere, we find that
the clergyman, when he has once “taken” the Articles, undergoes a species of petrifaction; he becomes a fossil thenceforth to the day of his death. The rich and invaluable lessons which experience teaches must not be learned by him; he must close his eyes upon the growing light; his moral and intellectual nature, like Joshua’s sun at Ajalon, “must come to a full stop.”
In a paper like the present, it is not advisable to enter into these deep matters of controversy, and all the less advisable that they have already been discussed at length elsewhere. It may be permitted to be said, however, “that a national Church, in the largest sense, is the development of the devotional side of the national mind,” just as a standing army is the development of the fighting side of the national character; and that Church and army, to be effective, must possess identity of purpose and uniformity of discipline. To have persons of peculiar doctrinal views within the national Church, and who give expression to these peculiar doctrines, would be quite as hurtful, and would lead to a like confusion, as to have persons in the ranks who hare peculiar notions as to how marching is to be conducted, and who assert their individuality in the method of discharging their firelocks. If persons of peculiar notions on certain doctrinal points are to be admitted into the Church, you turn the Church itself into a bear garden; it immediately begins to fight with itself, instead of fighting against the evil which is in the world. Shirley very properly says, “that the national Church of a Christian people must be distinctively Christian;” but who is to be the judge of what is distinctively Christian? The disbeliever in the Divinity of Christ calls himself a Christian; the person enjoying the gift of the unknown tongues calls himself a Christian; the believer in purgatory and transubstantiation calls himself a Christian; and as all these accept the Scriptures, to some extent at least, as an authority, and are certainly neither Mahometans, Pagans, nor Jews, it would be difficult to rob them of the appellation. But could a Church exist with these discordant and inflammable elements in its bosom? What is “distinctively Christian” must, like every other dispute in the world, be decided practically by the majorities. And if men holding peculiar notions of doctrine or discipline shall have entered the Church, or if, after entering, they find that, from whatever reason, they cannot conscientiously give intellectual adherence to the standards of the Church, and if, in consequence of this discordance between themselves and their brethren, they are uncomfortable, ill at ease, what is the course they should adopt? They have placed themselves, or they find themselves, in a false position, and their duty is to get out of that false position with as little delay as possible. Honesty, comfort, reverence for their own consciences and for the consciences of others, alike counsel resignation of their positions in the Church.
With respect to the social martyrdom to which Shirley refers, it may be said that, from the very constitution of things, such martyrdoms have always been and ever will be. The man who acts in the teeth of public opinion—and it matters nothing whether that opinion is local or general—must, as a matter of necessity, meet opposition; he is like a ship sailing against a head wind. A certain conformity with the existing order of things is required of all men, under penalties of discomfort. A man cannot even take mustard to his mutton, or eat peas with his knife, with impunity. This is very intolerant, it is true; but tolerance to the man who chooses to eat peas with his knife is intolerance to twenty people who may be sitting at dinner with him. Shirley tells us that there are certain circles in which a man incurs odium by reading “Maurice” and “Jowett.” It is unquestionably true. And if a man chooses to attire himself in the jacket of a harlequin, he will incur odium in every circle he enters. If a man acts in opposition to the opinions, the prejudices, the traditions of the people with whom he mixes, he is just as certain to incur opposition and pain as he is to hurt himself if ho runs his head against a wall. The nonconformist never did tread on roses; and till the constitution of human nature changes, on roses he will never tread. And this fate awaits not only the nonconformist in religion, but all nonconformists alike. The nonconformist in hats is liable to be stared at in the street, and it is possible that he may overhear the remarks of irreverent urchins as he passes by. The nonconformist in politics has his own annoyances: Peel had hard words and ungenerous insinuations to bear when he split with his party. The nonconformist, if he has any knowledge of men, will expect some little trouble and misrepresentation to fall to his lot, and he will not care to make noise about it. If the path of the nonconformist were perfectly smooth, what merit would there he in his nonconformity?
Several Essays in Shirley’s book, other than those we have mentioned, are of great merit, especially “The Last Word on Lord Macaulay,” which indicates with clearness the limitations and defects of the great writer—altogether the best piece of critical writing which he has produced. “Terra Santa; a Peep into Italy,” contains reading of the pleasantest kind; and the allusions it contains to Mr Hawthorne and Mrs. Browning are characteristic—for, after all, this writer sees the world clearest through the window of books. On whatever subject he writes, you are sure to come into contact with the writers he most admires. In “Nugæ Criticæ” Shirley touches on many subjects, and always with grace and true literary skill; but we confess that we like him best “at the sea-side:” his vagrant, desultory, yet always pleasant and picturesque vein, flows freest when he has the eastern coast to deal with—the sea and the sea-fowl. He is always at his best when out of doors.
A. K. H. B. gathered his reputation in Fraser; is, we understand, exceedingly popular in England, and prodigiously so across the Atlantic. That this popularity arises from a certain merit discoverable in his Essays, there can, of course, be no matter of question; he is an exceedingly clever writer, he has a happy knack of putting things, he is always readable. Yet it would be difficult to explain by what charm he leads us along his pages. One only feels that the charm exists. A. K. H. B. is as egotistical as Montaigne, but in no other particular does he resemble him. There is great sameness in his papers: reading them is like walking on an American prairie; green undulation follows on green undulation, beginning nowhere, ending nowhere without prospect, without outlook. He starts on his subject without a pocket-compass, and after a long circuit he arrives at the place from which he set out; and the worst is, he arrives as empty-handed as when he started. He could perform the feat of voyaging round the world, and bringing home nothing. A great element of success in a writer is peculiarity, and A. K. H. B. has his peculiarities. Once possessed of an idea, he can make it go farther than any of his contemporaries. Give him a bit of gold, and no man living will beat it out into a broader and thinner leaf. Mount him on a platitude, and he will make it carry him across a county. In his Essays he laughs occasionally at Mr Martin Farquhar Tupper; but he is related to the body of contemporary prose very much as Mr Tupper is related to the body of contemporary verse, and the popularity of each arises from similar causes. For the mass of readers it is a pleasant thing to feel that they are as wise as the author they are reading, and the mass of A. K. H. B.’s readers are made happy in this way.
A. K. H. B. is an egotist; he is continually writing about his Essays, his sermons, his methods of composition, his garden, his children, his man-servant—if that functionary dips furtively into Fraser’s Magazine when his master is done with it, e must be gratified by the manifold recognition of his existence—his own horses, or the horses of his friends. Now, to egotism in itself no man will object, provided the egotist is great or peculiar. We never weary of Montaigne or of Charles Lamb when they are speaking about themselves. Unhappily, however, A. K. H. B. is neither great nor peculiar; he is simply a clever, fluent man, well read up in current literature, conversant with its “slang,” in the dexterous use of which one-half of his smartness consists, perfectly ready to kick a man when it is the fashion to kick him—witness his frequent sneers at Mr Tupper and Mr Wordy—and who can prattle in a pleasant way enough “Concerning Hurry and Leisure,” “Tidiness,” and certain “Blisters of Humanity.” Egotism of the light, trifling kind, which A. K. H. B. indulges in, is apt to weary one after a little. In a very little while, one gets irritated at his familiar, hail-fellow-well-met, dawdling, sauntering ways, disgusted rather with his man-servant and horses, and a little inclined to request him, in a somewhat peremptory manner, to say his say “concerning” whatever subject he may have in hand, in a direct, straightforward fashion, had have done. He cannot, without protest, be permitted to take the airs of a Montaigne. If he writes “Concerning the Pairing of Nails,” let him discuss the general subject with what light may be given him, and cease to linger so lovingly over his own.
And yet, after all, there is a certain charm in A. K. H. B.’s Essays. He writes for the most part with grace and purity; he possesses fancy, liveliness, and his papers have now and again touches of shrewdness, insight, and common sense. If some savage critic would be lay hold of him, and whip the pestilent coxcombry out of him, he would do the world some service, and confer on A. K. H. B. himself the greatest benefit he will ever receive from a fellow-mortal. For in him the elements of an excellent writer do incontestably exist. He possesses “faculties” which, hitherto, “he hath no used,” or only in a perfunctory way and at long intervals. He can be direct, suggestive, pathetic even, when he chooses, but the misfortune is he so seldom chooses. The best thing which he has written is a little paper entitled “Gone,” absolutely without grimace or wilful irrelevance, and into the pathetic undertone of which neither himself, nor his garden, nor his next Sunday’s sermon, nor even his manservant, does for one moment intrude. In the following passage A. K. H. B. is at his best, perhaps:—
Every one knows what Dr Johnson wrote about “The Last.” It is, of course, a question of individual associations, and how it may strike different minds; but I stand up for the unrivalled reach and pathos of the short word “Gone.”
It is curious, that the saddest and most touching of human thoughts, when we run it up to its simplest form, is of so homely a thing as a material object existing in a certain space, and then removing from that space to another. That is the essential idea of “Gone.”
Yet, in the commonest way, there is something touching in that: something touching in the sight of vacant space, once filled by almost anything. You feel a blankness in the landscape where a tree is gone that you have known all your life. You are conscious of a vague sense of something lacking where even a post is pulled up that you remember always in the centre of a certain field. You feel this yet more when some familiar piece of furniture is taken away from a room which you know well. Here that clumsy easy-chair used to stand: and it is gone. You feel yourself an interloper, standing in the space where it stood so long. It touches you still more to look at the empty chair which you remember so often filled by one who will never fill it more. You stand in a large railway station: you have come to see a train depart. There is a great bustle on the platform, and there is a great quantity of human life, and of the interests and cares of human life, in those twelve or fourteen carriages, and filling that little space between the rails. You stand by and watch the warm interiors of the carriages, looking so large and so full, and as if they had so much in them. There are people of every kind of aspect, children and old folk, multitudes of railway rugs, of carpet bags, of portmanteaus, of parcels, of newspapers, of books, of magazines. At length you hear the last bell; then comes that silent steady pull, which is always striking, though seen ever so often. The train glides away: it is gone. You stand and look vacantly at the place where it was. How little the space looks—how blank the air! There are the two rails, just four feet eight and a half inches apart; how close together they look! You can hardly think that there was so much of life, and of the interests of life, in so little room. You feel the power upon the average human being of the simple, commonplace fact, that something has been here, and is gone.
There is not very much in this, perhaps, but it is nicely felt; and the illustration, if familiar to all, cannot fail to be felt by all. Most of us have seen a railway train depart, and when nothing remains but bare rails and empty space, have been conscious, in an obscure way, of the subtly mingled strangeness and regret which A. K. H. B. so tenderly indicates.
Mr Patterson’s “Essays in History and Art” contain less of the personal element than the writings of Shirley or A. K. H. B., and are on that account perhaps less interesting. We hear nothing of his peculiar moods, of the house he lives in, or the places he visits. He does not begin a paper on the banks of a trouting stream, or seated on the parapet of the Devil’s Bridge, with his legs dangling over, like Shirley; nor does he haunt stables, and make a writing-desk of a horse’s face, like A. K. H. B. He has nothing of the lightness, jauntiness, and holiday feeling of these gentlemen. He means work; he desires to inform rather than to amuse. The more important papers in the volume—on the “Ethnology of Europe,” “Our Indian Empire,” “The National Life of China,” “India, its Castes and Creeds”—are laboriously and solidly done. Into these Essays he has gathered the pith and essence of many books; and to people wishing to be informed on these matters, we do not know a volume more entirely to be recommended than Mr Patterson’s. The style is always clear, if at times a little ornate; and evidences of conscientiousness and care are everywhere manifest. Mr Patterson, when he has a solid, useful information subject on hand, is at his best. Certain of the lighter papers—as, for instance, “Youth and Summer,” “Genius and Liberty”—are spoiled by an Asiatic floridity of taste. A passage like the following rather provokes a smile in the judicious:—
But the genius of Greece is rising in beauty everywhere on land and sea—the blue Ægean, gemmed with the “sparkling Cyclades,” bearing, like floating flower-baskets, the isles of Greece on its calm surface. On the lovely bay-indented shores of lona, where the vines are trailing in festoons from tree to tree, lighting the emerald woods with their purple clusters, sits merry Anacreon, singing of love and wine in undying strains. Light-hearted old man, sing on!—until, in luckless hour, the choking grapestone end at once thy lays, thy loves, and thy life. The lofty strains of Alcæus and Simonides make the Ægean shores to re-echo their undying hatred of a tyrannic power; while on her; Lesbian isle, hapless Sappho, weary of a fame that cannot bring her love, leaps from the cliffs of Leucus into the sea, but lives for ever in her country’s memory as the Tenth Muse.
This is a kind of eloquence which convulses the debating societies of young men in their teens, and the frequency of its appearance in these Essays proves that Mr Patterson retains in middle life all the juvenility and freshness of his youthful spirit.
It is with a certain proud sorrow that we regard “Essays, Historical and Critical,” by Hugh Miller. Six years have passed since the writer was borne to his grave, and his place in literature is as well defined now as it was on the day in which he was laid in “The Grange;” and future years, with a sense of the sacredness of their task, will keep clear from all intrusion Miller’s place in the literature of his country. The British Valhalla I will be crowded indeed when room cannot be found for him. Miller was not only an accomplished journalist and able geologist, a writer singularly acute and picturesque, but he was something beyond all these—Ð° great man. He possessed, in some degree, that largeness of limb and majesty of mental lineament, which distinguished Burns and Scott, Chalmers and John Wilson. He came up from the red sandstone quarries of Cromarty into his fame, as Burns came into his from the Ayrshire harvest fields. Scotland is proud to think that she is peculiarly the mother of such men; and if Burns was her first-born and greatest, Hugh Miller was her second, and only in stature a little lower than the first. The present volume of Essays is entirely selected from the file of the Witness newspaper; consequently it does not sÐ¾ much represent Miller at his best, as in his usual working attire. These papers were not written by him with a view to separate publication; they were composed in his usual course of duty as a journalist; and as newspaper articles, their concision, their wit, their fancy, their richness of sentence, are quite wonderful. The opening Essay on “The New Year,” is an exquisite poem. The visit of her Majesty to Edinburgh in 1842 was an interesting event, but it is doubly so when we see it through the medium of Mr Miller’s graphic and picturesque prose. In the opening sentences—so exquisite in their natural analogies—of the article entitled “The Echoes of the World,” an article which concerns itself with the death of Dr Chalmers, we have the truest poetry as well as the most impressive statement of fact :—
Has the reader ever heard a piece of heavy ordnance fired amid the mountains of our country? First, there is the ear-stunning report of the piece itself,—the prime mover of those airy undulations that travel outwards, circle beyond circle, towards the far horizon; then some hoary precipice, that rises tall and solemn in the immediate neighbourhood, takes up the sound, and it comes rolling back from its rough front in thunder, like a giant wave flung far seaward from the rock against which it has broken; then some more distant hill becomes vocal, and then another, and another, and anon another; and then there is a slight pause, as if all were over—the undulations are travelling unbroken along some flat moor or across some expansive lake, or over some deep valley, filled, haply, by some long, wide, and roaring arm of the sea; and then the more remote mountains lift up their voices in mysterious mutterings, now lower, now louder, now more abrupt, anon more prolonged, each as it recedes taking up the tale in closer succession to the one that had previously spoken, till at length their distinct utterances are lost in one low continuous sound, that at last dies out amid the shattered peaks of the desert wilderness, and unbroken stillness settles over the scene as at first. Through a scarcely voluntary exertion of that faculty of analogy and comparison, so natural to the human mind that it converts all the existences of the physical world into forms and expressions of the world intellectual, we have oftener than once thought of the phenomenon and its attendant results as strikingly representative of effects produced by the death of Chalmers. It is an event which has, we find, rendered vocal the echoes of the world, and they are still returning upon us, after measured intervals, according to the distances.
This is wonderful writing; and when Miller proceeds to complete his analogy by describing how, from every quarter of the world, there came back here, in a murmur of grief and admiration, the report of the death of Chalmers, the effect of the whole is singularly grand and complete. It is contemplated, we notice from the preface, that, should the present collection of Essays meet with success, other and similar volumes may be gathered from the file of the Witness. Of the success of the book there can be no manner of doubt; so that we presume we may soon look for a second volume, and, perhaps, a third.
Smith, Alexander. “Essayists, old and new.” 1862. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 23 Nov 2007. 11 Dec 2013 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/essayists_old_and_new/>.
Quotidiana site founder Patrick Madden has just published a book of his own personal essays, including pieces formerly published in the Best American Spiritual Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies. If you enjoy the classical essays on this site, you'll enjoy these contemporary ruminations as well. Soon there'll be a web page here with further information, but for now, you can find out more (and perhaps purchase a copy) at Amazon.com.
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Friend of Quotidiana Kim Dana Kupperman's Welcome Table Press is hosting a one-day symposium at Fordham University on Saturday, October 15th, 2011. In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form will feature talks and discussions by Phillip Lopate, Robin Hemley, Barbara Hurd, and more.
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Systems and opinions change, but nature is always true.
For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand.
The beauty of this unlimited power of suggestion in writing is, that you may take up the driest and most commonplace of all possible subjects, and strike a light out of it to warm your intellect and your heart by.
It is extremely easy to be as egotistical as Montaigne, and as conceited as Rousseau; but it is extremely difficult to be as entertaining as the one, or as eloquent as the other.
I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value.